RIP TORN BOMBS OUT AT THE BERMUDA PALMS
The upper level of the Charles Van Damme was occupied by Chris Roberts, an artist with a vision so grand that he was considered insane even by much of the waterfront population. He wanted to turn the drydocks into not only a haven for artists, but the world’s largest sculpture. His design for the project was way beyond mere architecture, lotus-shaped and more like a futuristic alien city you’d see on the cover of a science fiction novel.
Roberts never came close to getting the necessary funding for the drydocks, but he did manage to nearly complete a three-story sculpture on a barge in Gate Five. The “Madonna” was a gracefully curved, abstract tower that became a tourist attraction and one of the most photographed objects in Sausalito. It burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1976.
A self-described “magnet for degenerates,” Chris Roberts welcomed depraved and outrageous characters into his home, day and night. He considered himself in the waterfront but not of it, and it sometimes seemed as if he was letting the people he referred to as “sub-human comic strip characters” hang around to help maintain his illusion of his own superiority. He hated all rock and roll music, especially the Redlegs, preferring Broadway show music like “Oklahoma” and gentle bossa nova tunes. But he had no beef with us as individuals.
His wife was an actress named Laura Ash, who not only tolerated Chris’s hangers-on, but fed them when she wasn’t in Los Angeles working in “B” movies. She and Chris had a vision of the Ark as a theater rather than a rock and roll dance hall, and stirred up some interest for the idea with their friends in Hollywood.
Two of these were Rip Torn and his wife, Geraldine Page. They arrived at Gate Six with their twin sons, set up camp in the Ark with Chris and Laura, and for a while settled into the waterfront life. Like Laura Ash, Page was fond of feeding people, and huge dinners in the Ark became regular events. Rip, meanwhile, became an instant Redlegs fan and regularly drank and took drugs with the band and the Truly Rank Motherfuckers. His willingness to inhale various powders earned him the nickname “Rip Snort,” and he seemed pleased when I Redlegged him.
Torn was a Nixon freak. He had been obsessed with Tricky Dicky since the early fifties, when as a young actor he had been blackballed as a result of the McCarthy era communist purges in Hollywood. At a private showing, we saw a movie he produced in which he plays Shakespeare’s “Richard the Third” as Nixon. Between footage of Vietnam atrocities and nuclear explosions, Torn-as-Nixon slowly turns into a hideous werewolf-like monster.
When the Redlegs set up a gig at Whitey Litchfield’s Bermuda Palms in San Rafael. Torn asked to be on the show.
“Yeah, sure,” we said, “What will you do?”
“Just leave that to me,” he said.
He didn’t want his name used, so we listed him on the poster as “Elmore Star,” since “Elmore” is his real first name. The day of the dance, we heard rumors that Torn had been up all night working on his act, fashioning rubber prosthetic devices and practicing his Nixon voice. He’d also been to the Gate Three junkyards looking for props.
The Bermuda Palms was packed, and Flying Circus did the first set. Then it was time for the Mystery Guest. Rip Torn walked on stage in full Nixon costume, complete with rubber nose and jowls, pushing a shopping cart with a World War II bomb in it. He was met with equal amounts of cheers and boos. After muttering a few remarks about growing up in Whittier, Nixon-Torn looked intently into the audience and asked, “Do you like Dick?”
A roar of approval went through the crowd and the floor in front of the stage was suddenly filled with clean-cut all-American looking young men.
Torn looked straight at them and repeated the question.
“Do you like Dick?”
“YEAH!” shouted the young Republicans.
“Do you REALLY like Dick?”
“Well SAY it, then.”
“WE LIKE DICK!”
Torn raised his arms, but instead of the Nixon V-for-victory sign, he extended the middle finger of each hand, holding them out in a double “fuck you” salute and shouted: “Well, then SUCK DICK, DICKSUCKERS!”
Apparently the clean-cut crowd neither appreciated the Nixon impression nor did they like being called “dicksuckers.” They stormed the stage and attacked the costumed actor. In a second, mike stands were flying, amps and drums were falling over as Marin County’s nice young men pummeled and thrashed at the grotesque figure of Richard Milhous Nixon. The usual waterfront “security force,” led by Don Bradley, Dean Puchalski and Sam Anderson, went into action and cleared the stage while Geraldine Page sat calmly on the floor in front of the stage drinking white wine and eating Sonoma jack cheese and French bread.
A PLUG FOR FENDER AMPLIFIERS
During Rip Torn’s stay on the waterfront, he acted in a movie that Larry Moyer was making, called “Harry’s Movie.” There was a scene filmed in Gate 5 that was supposed to be a typical waterfront party, outside on a barge with the Redlegs playing. In the scene, Torn, as Harry the moviemaker, does some wild dancing with Margo St. James, the former prostitute and founder of the San Francisco hookers’ union called C.O.Y.O.T.E. (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics -- the name was John Stephens’ idea). Margo was wearing a nun’s habit and a large rubber dildo. This was not actually “typical” of waterfront parties but hey, it was a movie, right? As far as I know, the film was never finished, perhaps due to a self-fulfilling prophecy written into the script at the end, where the “Harry” character is asked, “What about the movie?” And Harry says, “Fuck the movie.”
The band played on, the cameras rolled until dark. Naturally, the party “scene” had become a real party and it took a while to wind down. While we were packing up the equipment, Gate 5 resident John Murphy volunteered to bring it back to the Oakland for us in his rowboat. There was nothing unusual about this, we moved electrical gear by water all the time. Murphy had a large and very stable river skiff which could easily carry the stuff. We would meet him at Gate 6.
Back at the Oakland, we waited for Murphy. When he came into sight rounding the Gate 5 pier everything seemed all right, but when he was halfway from there to the pier where we stood, I could hear Murphy saying something.
“I can’t believe this, I can’t believe this is happening...” As he came into the range of light from the Oakland, I could see that something wasn’t right. Murphy’s skiff was sitting lower in the water than it should. “I can’t believe this,” he said again. His boat was sinking. By the time he was almost to the pier, the skiff was completely sunk, Murphy was standing waist-deep in the water, and drum cases and speaker cabinets were floating all around him. He threw his arms up in the air and repeated, “I can’t believe this.” We got another boat and retrieved the equipment.
We were using Fender amplifiers, two Concert models for the guitars and a Dual Showman for the bass. Joe Tate, the techno-expert of the group, suggested we get the amps into a hot shower right away to get rid of the salt. This we did in the Oakland shop shower, then borrowed a hair dryer somewhere and blew the electronic innards dry. We gave them all a healthy squirt of WD-40 and let them sit overnight. The next day, all the amps worked as if nothing had happened.
THE Redlegs VS. THE MUSIC BUSINESS
(THE BUILT-IN FAILURE FACTOR AT WORK)
Rip Torn on fame and fortune: “Every offer is a sandwich. It’s a big, juicy, delicious-looking sandwich, but hidden in the middle, there's a tiny dab of shit. It’s so small you don't even taste it. So you eat the sandwich, and it’s good, but the next sandwich has just a little more shit in it, and so on, until you're eating nothing but pure shit.”
When Judy Stone reviewed “The Last Free Ride” in the San Francisco Chronicle, she wrote, “The film stars Joe Tate...as a prototype of the free-wheeling young people who live in the idiosyncratic hulks and barges along the waterfront...playing with his insanely self-destructive band...” That perspective was not arrived at solely from seeing the movie. Word was out in the business that we were crazy, and definitely dangerous.
Lee Houskeeper was a booking agent, or something like that, from Los Angeles, who showed up with Bob Seal at the Oakland one night. Seal was a Georgia guitar player with a degree in English and a near-perfect singing voice. He was the vocalist I had hired for the demo back in the City, as well as a friend of Joe Tate. Houskeeper listened to the band for awhile, told us he was impressed, and said he could get us a record deal if we signed a contract with him as personal manager.
The figure mentioned was $50,000, as an advance on royalties. Houskeeper produced a contract. We read it carefully and saw in the fine print that if we signed, we would technically be in debt to Lee Houskeeper for $50,000.
Joe and I left the shop to write up a contract of our own as an alternative. It stated that “Lee Householder shall give the Redlegs one million dollars in cash and expect nothing in return.”
“His name is Houskeeper, Joe,” I said.
“I know,” he replied.
We showed it to Houskeeper and he acted very hurt, but said nothing when we pointed out his fine print. “But I had such a beautiful deal for you guys,” he whimpered, “You could make it big and I could be your manager...”
“The only thing big about this is your assumption that we're naive enough to go for this bullshit,” I said.
“FUCK a buncha bullshit,” muttered Joe, turning on the bandsaw. He started cutting scrap lumber into stove-sized chunks, ramming the pieces hard into the blade so the machine screamed and smoked. Houskeeper looked around, hoping for sympathy or reassurance. Seal was struggling not to laugh, but managed a neutral-looking shrug. Houskeeper gathered his papers and left. On the way out he was still saying, “But it was such a beautiful deal...”
A VISIT WITH COUNTRY JOE
Back in the Haight-Ashbury I had run into a musician friend from New York who was recording with Country Joe McDonald. He’d invited me to the session at Pacific High Recording, where I got hired by haranguing McDonald’s wife, and then McDonald himself, about my ability to “play the right thing” on any particular track. It paid off. I wound up playing three dates for them, on the payroll of Vanguard records.
Re-entering the musical mainstream even for short periods was a strange experience, an almost violent reality shift. Despite McDonald’s reputation as an anti-war activist and all-around Berkeley radical, in the studio he was polite, mild-mannered, and almost ploddingly professional in his approach to recording. Only two years earlier, I would have found this scene interesting, even exciting. Now, even this “radical” and the musicians he worked with seemed ordinary.
However, at that point I still believed there was a place for me and the Redlegs in the music business, and getting calls from McDonald’s management reinforced this notion. Maybe he could help get the band a recording deal...
I called him at home and asked if he’d listen to a tape of my band. He said he would. He greeted me cordially at his house in Berkeley, and offered me lunch, which I refused. When I started talking about the Redlegs, he seemed suddenly distracted, and countered with the information that he was already producing a record for some band or other. He never listened to the tape.
George Daly, A & R head of Columbia Records for San Francisco, invited us to their studios in the City to do some taping and discuss making an album. He was tall and thin with long dark curly hair, and dressed in a green velvet suit. The first thing he said when we arrived was, “I bet you didn’t think I looked like this,” as if we had spent half the day wondering about his appearance. As we set up the equipment, Daly walked around the studio dropping famous names. “Bob Dylan” this, “Taj Mahal” that, looking at us, trying to measure our reactions.
When everything was ready, he sat in the control room and spoke through the earphones we wore.
“Okay, let’s try one.”
We were eight or nine bars into “Sailor's Love Song” when Daly’s voice cut through the earphones,
“Okay, do it again just like you did the first time.”
“Hold it, hold it. Let’s do it again.”
And again, and again.
“Whoa, wait a minute, stop,” he said. “I know what’s wrong now. The bass is out of tune.” Kim tuned the bass, and we finally got all the way through the song.
Later on in the control room, Daly cornered me. He suggested that our bass player wasn't up to snuff and added, “I’m a bass player, you know.”
“This is the band you asked for, this is the band you get,” I replied.
Joey overheard this, walked over to Daly and looked him in the eye, saying, “We like our bass player.”
“Oh, he's a brilliant bass player,” said Daly. He was getting nervous.
After another futile attempt to work under Daly’s direction, we quit playing and drank beer in the control room while the tape rolled. Maggie fell asleep on the floor. Joe and I started talking about bands that sign big recording contracts and become nothing but products, disposable “acts,” washed out and eviscerated by people just like George Daly, who was now clearly shaken and pretending to make “important phone calls.”
We packed up and left, secure in the knowledge that Columbia Records would not be calling us again.
THE TWO MANAGERS
There was always someone or other wanting to promote, exploit, or otherwise get their hooks into, that is to say, make money off the Redlegs band. Some were serious professional vultures, while others were relatively inept dilettantes. Or in 90’s terms, wannabes.
Two such young men showed up at the Oakland one day. Their names were Bruce and Todd, or something like that. They were collegiate in appearance, relatively clean-cut. The Redlegs band had “impressed” them, they said, and with the two of them as our management team, “we could all make a lot of money.” We agreed to meet at their office/residence in The City and discuss a possible “arrangement.”
The office/residence was an apartment in the Sunset district. It contained no evidence of previous dealings in the music business. Bruce and Todd served drinks and told us their ideas about booking and promoting the band. There was nothing new or interesting about any of it.
All of us, particularly Joe Tate, often became restless and claustrophobic when “trapped” in small, sterile, box-like spaces such as city apartments. Even though we lived on small boats, they were not box-shaped or symmetrical, and being on them was more like “camping” than staying indoors.
Joe was getting bored and I sensed that he was about to go into one of his gross-out routines. (He once got rid of a homosexual promoter-type by reading heterosexual pornography out loud while the agent tried to sign us to a contract.)
As Joe fidgeted, Maggie, Joey and Kim sat there with the two managers, drinking up their booze, and I snooped around the apartment. I found nothing of interest until I opened the door to the hall closet. There, neatly wrapped and stacked, were about a hundred “bricks,” or kilos of marijuana. So this was their game. The motivation of the two managers was now clear. If they could get “in” with a rock & roll band by signing on as management, the group’s following would be a ready-made market for their weed.
Joe’s voice was getting louder and more offensive, and I knew we would be leaving soon. I grabbed one of the bricks and went back to the living room, where Joe was now urinating out of Bruce and Todd’s third story window.
“You guys won’t be minding if I take one of these, will you?” I asked, holding the kilo up for all to see. The two managers, already shocked by Joe’s behavior, were quick to grasp my suggestion of blackmail and likely glad I was taking only one brick.
“Let’s say you’re fronting this stuff to us, okay?” I said. They nodded.
Bruce and Todd were as glad to see us go. Needless to say, no contract was signed, but all the pot smokers at Gate 6 got free bags of dope the next day.
Keystone Korner was a jazz club, booking the big names like Monk and Mingus until 1971, when the format was changed to rock. The name was derived from the club’s location right across the street from a police station.
If they wanted rock and roll, they got it with the Redlegs. The place filled up with waterfront regulars, including Michael Woodstock and his retinue of pot-smoking hippie followers.
We actually got the band set up right on time at nine o’clock, and the instruments were in tune. For once it seemed like nothing was going wrong. Everyone was up and dancing; we were playing really well. I’d bet there wasn’t a recording device of any sort within a three block radius.
Near the end of the first song, the bar manager walked up to me, beckoning with his forefinger. Here it comes, I thought.
“There’s NO DANCING allowed here,” he shouted in my ear, “You’ve got to TELL THEM TO STOP DANCING.”
With a reasonably straight face and a decent attempt at a sincere tone of voice, I made the announcement. “The word from the management is NO DANCING IN THIS CLUB.”
The crowd, still on their feet waiting for the next number, groaned and hissed as they sat down.
“Who ever heard of a rock and roll club with no dancing?” yelled Michael Woodstock. He had opened one of his bags and started rolling joints.
“Well, it looks like we’ve got one here,” I said back into the mike. Joe was getting a cloudy look in his eye. He didn't like this kind of distraction. “Now don’t get excited,” he said to the audience, “You heard the rules.” He signalled to Joey and tore into “Reelin’ and "Rockin’”, his favorite Chuck Berry song, emphasizing the words: “I looked at my watch and it was nine twenty-one, we’re at a ROCK AND ROLL DANCE havin’ nothin’ but fun...” Instantly, the whole crowd was back up and at it. Even the waitresses were dancing.
This time the manager waited until the song was over. By now he had recognized Joe as bandleader and spoke to him.
“Okay, everybody. No dancing allowed,” Joe announced.
“BULLSHIT! FUCKABUNCHA BULLSHIT!” shouted Penny Woodstock. “We came here to DANCE!”
I looked at Joe. The cloudy look was gone, his eyes were very clear. “This is already past the point of being just plain ridiculous,” he said, as Michael Woodstock passed a lit joint to the stage.
“There's been a request,” I reminded him. “Fuckabunchabullshit” was a reference to our most raucous dance number; to many it was our signature song.
“Oh yeah, so there has.” He turned on the Vox distortion booster built into his Fender telecaster and played an open A chord, setting off the roaring buzz-saw sound that always drove the Redleg crowd into a frenzy, and screamed into the microphone, “I GOT THE FUCKABUNCHABULLSHIT REDLEG BOOGIE BLUES...!”
Everyone danced wildly now, hooting and howling and knocking over chairs. “I wake up in the mornin’ get my breakfast in bed, C’mere, honey, I want you to GIMME SOME HEAD, I GOT THE FUCKABUNCHABULLSHIT REDLEG BOOGIE BLUES...”
The manager pushed his way to the stage and grabbed a mike, yelling into it, “There is NO DANCING allowed here! You MUST STOP DANCING. It’s AGAINST the LAW to DANCE here. I can smell MARIJUANA and the POLICE STATION IS RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET!”
Joe shoved him off the stage with his foot, sending him sprawling face first on the dance floor. The place HAD a dance floor. “I can’t stand it when anybody messes with my equipment,” he explained.
We packed up in record time and did not ask to get paid. On the way out, I was greeted by George Daly from Columbia Records, who had been standing by the door the whole time (twenty minutes). With a huge, uncharacteristic grin, he said, “You guys are the best rock and roll band I ever heard, but you’re absolutely unrecordable.”
“YOU’RE JUST A NASTY LITTLE BOY”
The Redlegs may have been the only band ever to get the bum’s rush, physically ejected, from the Winterland Ballroom. A converted ice show and hockey arena, it was the big rock & roll venue in San Francisco, Bill Graham’s logical progression from the Fillmore.
We got the gig by a fluke. The Sun King had given us a Sansui stereo amplifier, which we promptly put up for sale in the Classified Gazette for money to buy Roy Cano’s ‘47 Chevy panel truck. The guy who answered the ad asked why we were selling it. When Joe told him we wanted to buy a truck for our band, the guy asked what band it was. He turned out to be Jerry Pompili, the manager of Winterland. Apparently he had heard of the Redlegs, and offered us a date there.
He bought the stereo, too. We used the money to buy the truck and named it the Znarghmobile, after a Gahan Wilson cartoon in which a slimy green outer space monster lands on Earth and says, as humans flee in panic, “One small step for a Znargh, a giant stride for Znarghkind.”
The Redlegs would be the suicide squad (warm-up band) for Commander Cody, Buddy Miles, and the J. Geils Band, and be paid $100. We arrived at Winterland in the Znarghmobile and took our equipment in through the backstage freight door. Thirty or forty waterfront regulars were along for the trip, giving the appearance of a big road crew. They did help carry the equipment--after all they got in free that way--but none of them knew or cared about the technical end of things, and they all headed for the backstage complimentary beer, kept in garbage cans everywhere.
We barely had time to tune up, let alone have a sound check. There’d been no such offer anyway, since we were only a local group with no record deal. This was during the time when rock and roll was becoming big business. Bill Graham was becoming as big a media star as the headliners he booked, and his stagehands had no concern for some local band. The stage manager, who had given Joe some grief about tuning his guitar (it was time to start...), introduced us by saying, less than enthusiastically, “Let’s hear it for... Redlegs,” not The Redlegs. It was the age of singular rather than plural names for bands, and few of them used “The”-- Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, even our friends’ bands had names like Flying Circus and Contraband -- and the guy might have thought he was doing us a favor, as if we didn’t know who we were, by making us sound sophisticated and up-to-date. Of course he’d never have said, “...Rolling Stones” without “The.”
Actually, we knew only too well who we were, and even though Joey and I still sometimes entertained notions of commercial “success,” it had been obvious since the beginning that the Redlegs’ destiny (and success) was far from the mainstream music business that Winterland represented. As I mulled over these thoughts, Joe, as usual without counting off, started playing “Do The Crunch.” We were in tune, but the Built-In Failure Factor was taking effect.
As was always the case when playing someplace “important,” we lacked the spark, the crazed energy that caused such excitement when we felt comfortable with our environment. The kids in the audience didn’t know what to make of the band, mostly because they hadn’t heard of us.
Near the end of the half-hour set, with Adam singing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” Joe made a stab at getting something going. He tore a piece of railing off the stage and jumped into the audience, and started dancing crazily among some surprised teenage girls. This did not please the stage manager, who saw not a symbolic breaking down of barriers, but vandalism. Adam jumped up and stood on the Steinway grand piano, stomping up and down on the keyboard, waving his arm in the air. Maggie, nine months pregnant, danced wildly. The audience was coming to life, too. Joe’s move had gotten things started, but it was too late. Stagehands were running around in back of us, pointing and making the “cut” sign with fingers across their throats, and when the song came to an end they had our amps unplugged, in case we tried to keep going.
As Joe stood arguing with the stage manager, Joey and I packed the equipment, figuring a quick exit would be best. As we carried the first pieces to the Znarghmobile, I remembered the forty or so people who had come with us. What had they been doing during our set? Drinking all the free beer, painting “The Redlegs” on the walls, and stealing hardware, that’s what. The Winterland personnel were going nuts. Joey, Maggie and I got the Znarghmobile loaded up, and tried to find Joe and Kim but couldn’t. It was getting ugly in there, and there was no point in staying any longer.
As it turned out, Joe had been given the old barroom heave-ho, picked up and thrown out by two bouncers while the stage manager yelled, “You’re just a nasty little boy!”
We never heard from anyone connected with Bill Graham again.
THE FINAL STRAW
It really seemed like our big break might have come when we got the call from Ralph J. Gleason. Gleason was one of the most respected jazz critics in the world, and his write-ups on the San Francisco bands had been instrumental in “legitimizing” rock music. He was also an executive at Fantasy/Prestige, the Berkeley record company which had been almost exclusively a jazz label until it launched the career of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Apparently, they were looking for new and interesting rock groups, and had already signed Clover, the country-rock band who played at occasional Redlegs gigs. Even after our unpleasant encounters with Columbia Records and Bill Graham, I thought Gleason might understand the Redlegs.
At Gleason’s request, Joe gathered up photographs, posters and all the published articles on the band he could find, including items from the Sunday Chronicle and other newspapers, and Pete Retondo’s story in San Francisco magazine. Our “press kit” packed in Joe’s briefcase, we drove over to Berkeley for the meeting.
Gleason, gray-haired, dressed in a tweed jacket and smoking a pipe, resembled a college professor. A secretary ushered us all into a conference room and we seated ourselves at a long oak table. Joe, who knew Ralph from earlier days (the critic had written about Joe’s sixties band, Salvation) made introductions. After the obligatory small talk, Gleason pored over the publicity material.
Without expression he said, “Well, Joe, I had no idea you were out there destroying the foundations of society.”
At that statement, I felt a chill run down my back. The memory was so strong I had to fight back the sensation of being removed in time and place to the Arizona desert a few years before, to the car I’d been riding in while reading “How To Talk Dirty and Influence People” by Lenny Bruce. The book contains a transcript of Bruce’s San Francisco obscenity trial, with testimony by Ralph J. Gleason.
The well known critic, jazz and rock authority, and champion of all that is hip, had in effect told a judge, a representative of the establishment if there ever was one, that Lenny Bruce was out to destroy the very system that he, the judge in his black robe, symbolized. It may never be certain what Gleason’s intentions were, but there can be little doubt that his testimony didn’t do much good for Lenny Bruce, and now he was saying the exact same thing about the Redlegs. Some of his pet groups, like Jefferson Airplane, sang about things like revolution and breaking down walls, but Gleason now had the distinct impression that the Redlegs were doing them. The irony of this was that we never even used the word “revolution,” or phrases like “power to the people.” This was the language of humorless fist-raisers who liked violent confrontations with police and made long droning speeches at demonstrations in Berkeley. When the Redlegs said “fuckabunchabullshit,” it applied to the revolutionaries as much as the cops. They were all playing the same game, and we wanted no part of it. If we were a threat to society, it wasn’t because we challenged authority, but because we ignored it. One instance in which the waterfront was unable to ignore the establishment was the “houseboat battle” of 1971. It had turned into a violent confrontation, but what is one expected to do when the police come to (illegally) attach a chain your house and tow it away to be wrecked?
So the Redlegs were now famous for fighting the cops and the county government, and even Ralph J. Gleason, the famous music critic and record company bigwig was forgetting about the music and seeing us as dangerous radicals. But I had a different idea of what was dangerous. Inadvertently or not, Gleason’s testimony -- destroying the foundations upon which our society is built -- had helped convict Lenny Bruce of an obscenity charge and was part of a chain of events leading to Bruce’s death. This thought was in my mind when Gleason started his little lecture about how compromise was a necessity of success in life. I began to wonder exactly what kinds of behavioral and philosophical compromises it would take for the Redlegs to become acceptable to the music business, and how much of whatever it was that attracted them to us in the first place would be left.
The conversation had turned irretrievably away from music or recording, and the Built-In Failure Factor was hovering like a dark cloud over the conference table. Clearly there would be no contracts signed here. The room was taking on a surreal air, as if either we or Gleason and the rest of the Fantasy staff were from some alien world and no real communication would be possible.
Gleason continued his talk, and I heard the word “life” come out of his mouth again. A bomb needed to be dropped to end this potential Big Recording Deal that was turning into an indictment, and as Gleason looked at me and uttered “...life,” all I could think of was Lenny Bruce... Gleason’s testimony... Lenny in jail... Lenny dead. I spoke.
“Well, Ralph, one thing we all know about life is that it leads to death.”
The dark cloud above the table rumbled, drizzled a momentary cold silent discomfort, and the conversation was over. Gleason died a few months after the meeting. No one will ever know his real intention in the Lenny Bruce testimony. He might even have thought he was doing Lenny a service, and maybe he was doing the Redlegs a favor by unintentionally driving us away from the Music Business for the last time. We never went back.
Bob McFee, in those days the lead guitar player for Flying Circus, told me recently that Ralph Gleason once wrote about me in his column. The column, said Bob, compared him, McFee, to me and was a favorable writeup for both of us. I had never known that Gleason ever heard the Redlegs play or that he had written anything about me or anyone else in the band.
MUSIC BUSINESS POSTSCRIPT
Every once in a while, a face from the past appeared at the waterfront. One of these was Willy Kavanna, former agent and manager of two bands I had been in back east. He was slick, and I was constantly impressed by his ability to keep the bookings coming. He weaseled us into big “showcase” clubs by overwhelming the owners and promoters with impressive lies and outrageous claims. It was business as usual to him.
When he showed up at Gate Six, I figured Willy might recognize what the band was about and be able to translate that into some big money bookings. I was wrong. He booked us into a gay bar on Haight St. and it was a disaster. After that, Willy cornered me. At first, he went on and on about how cute and beautiful my daughter Annie was. But what he really wanted was to ask what went wrong.
“What the hell’s happened to you?” he asked. “You used to be one of the best. You had a great future in the music business. Important people discussed your guitar playing. This Redlegs band is nothing special. What is it with you and them?”
I recalled for Willy a conversation I had had back in Boston. A bunch of musicians and hippies had been sitting around at a party, stoned and talking, in typical sixties fashion, about the meaning of everything. A drummer for one of the bands had said something that really stuck with me: “We’re all in the process of finding our people.” And, by no particular effort of my own, I told him, I had found mine.
“The Redlegs can’t be measured by music-business standards. If I had heard this group a few years ago, I probably would have thought they weren’t any good, just like you do now, Willy. But I was listening from a very narrow perspective then, and things have changed. Now, I see and hear bands like we had back then and they seem two-dimensional. I don’t give a shit about their hit records, it’s their lives that are nowhere.”
“...DISAPPEARED INTO NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, NEVER TO BE HEARD FROM AGAIN”
That prophetic line had been spoken by Bruce Hauser, a home-town friend of mine, in Los Angeles when Joey the drummer and I were there trying to get a band together. Bruce had been the bass player in one of my teenage bands, and quit to pursue the Big Time on the West Coast. He thoroughly believed in L.A. as the center of the musical world, and paid little attention to anything happening outside of it except to say that he knew of musicians who had “disappeared into northern California, never to be heard from again.” If it wasn’t being talked about in Los Angeles, it didn’t exist.
VISITORS FROM ANOTHER WORLD
When I quit high school, there was only a month to go until graduation. The 1964 yearbook had already been processed, so my picture was in there even though I’d dropped out. I was one of those kids who didn’t get involved in school activities, so the only thing it said under the yearbook picture was “good guitar player, will be the leader of his own band someday.” “Someday” was only a couple of months away, and I was out of town and working as a guitar player by the start of the next school year.
A rock & roll musician was not a good thing to be in a small New England town. There’d been trouble with the police and I was happy to escape. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone and there was no apparent interest in my budding career. However, someone back there must have been keeping track because people from my high school began showing up at the oddest times and places. Two of them even showed up on the Sausalito waterfront.
The first was a guy named John, who I didn’t really know at all. In high school he looked like the Ray Bolger character in the black and white part of “The Wizard of Oz,” but now he was a hippie. There he was in the Gate 6 parking lot, smiling and chattering as though we’d always been close buddies, stoned out his of mind on weed, and all excited about it as if he’d just started. I can’t say if marijuana “leads” to hard drugs or not, because pot was not the first drug I used. When I did, it became tedious very quickly and I lost interest in it. Brand new hippies having their first pot revelations bored the hell out of me. I wasn’t crazy about being reminded of my home town or high school, either, and here was home-town high-school John at Gate 6, all goofy on weed. He was carrying a “bong,” a device that resembled an oversized water pipe. And he said, “I have this bong.” That’s all I can remember him saying, and he was still saying it when I walked away: “I have this bong...”
The other one was Bill Shortell, who had been my friend in grade school. Our fathers drank together and told dirty jokes. By high school, we rarely saw each other and never hung out together. I had become part of the wrong crowd, thoroughly disreputable, and he was earnestly involved in his studies and athletics.
I didn’t recognize him. He came onto the Oakland with a full beard, calling me by name. I had to ask him who he was. Maybe it was the beard. He was rigged out like some kind of woodsman and the only thing missing was an axe over his shoulder.
Shortell was one of eleven children. This may explain the ease with which he made himself at home in the Hot Molecule, a domicile which boasted nearly 700 cubic feet of interior space, the rough equivalent of twelve refrigerators. We talked. He was now some kind of social worker in Chicago, probably ministered to people like me... When the subject of music came up, he grabbed Maggie’s guitar and sang “Say There Mr. Railroad Man.” And with that, the subject was closed. He didn’t want to hear about a rock and roll group that called itself “the worst band in the world.” Which we did, as a play on words, a honky way of saying “baddest.” He announced that he was going hiking in the hills above Sausalito.
But he wasn’t a total ascetic, in fact he developed a fascination with Marcia Exotica, who was living in the wheelhouse of the Oakland. He called her “the widow,” for reasons known only to him, but my guess was that some sort of 19th-century cultural values were coming to the surface, and it gave me the creeps.
“Maybe I’ll marry the widow,” he mused, as if all he had to do was pop the question and she’d fall swooning into his arms... He went hiking alone.
When he came down from the mountain, he said he was leaving. “Don’t you want to stick around and hear the worst band in the world?” I asked. “We’re playing tomorrow night.” He said no, and I thought I’d better let him know the awful truth about the late nights and strange characters around here, and give him something to report back home: “Your old friend is seriously involved in hard drugs.” He said nothing and walked away, his knapsack on his back.