Speed Willy

by John Wester, October 21, 2009

Speed Willy had the goods and works

To send you to the moon.

He smoothly mainlined past the quirks

Of slippery veins to sip the spoon

And plunge you in a world of thought

That a plastic dime-bag brought.

* * *

I met Speed Willy at a commune that I lived in. He was a good guy, but he was a late-comer to our commune and wasn’t into the more spiritual side of the commune. There were 120 of us at Harbin Hot Springs in 1969, and Willy was a realist, not spiritual at all.

The commune, called Harbinger, was centered around a man named Don Hamrick, a charismatic fellow who wore business suits and combined science with spiritualism in his lectures/sermons. He knew his science, a genius, I think, and he knew how to charm.

We were renting an abandoned 1100 acre hot springs resort in Lake County, near Middletown which was built in the 1920s. We were renting it for an unbelievable $600/mo. The owner of the property was the Sandia Corporation which had bought the property for its thermal energy potential. The resort had enough living quarters for 120 people and more, everyone with their own bathroom.

Speed Willy was the crank connection to the few speed freaks that lived there. We had a rule at Har­binger that no drugs could be consumed on the prop­erty. I followed it for a long time until I got in a rollo­ver car wreck in a VW bug with a guy named Jim Carter. We were driving off the property to smoke a joint a half mile down a gravel road.

Jim was driving. No one called him Jimmy, Jimmy Carter was just getting out of the Navy and no one heard of Jimmy Carter until 10 years later. Jim Carter was big and friendly with a great smile who later dealt gems he brought from the Far East. He’d travel to buy them and carried weapons to keep himself from being robbed.

Driving down the gravel road to smoke that joint, a young woman was with us sitting in the back seat. Jim likes to drive fast. There was a full moon. We hit a curve and a patch of gravel and the VW Bug slid and rolled over down an embankment. Nobody had seat­belts — there weren’t any. My left hand was across my belly griping the door handle. I didn’t let go and the roll-over spun my body around and I punched out the front window with the back of my head.

As we were rolling and landing upside down, all I was aware of was the sound of tink, tink, tink. I barely remember blowing out the front window with the back of my head. No one got hurt and we climbed out the broken front window.

As we were walking back to the commune, Jim pulled the joint out of the lozenge tin where he had it stashed. In the tin box was also a metal roach clip, which was the source of the tink, tink, tink that I heard when we were rolling.

We smoked the joint on the half mile walk back to the commune but the high was nothing compared to the adrenalin rush we were on. Back in my room, a woman named Carla picked the glass out of the back of my head after I tried to go to sleep and realized there was windshield glass stuck in my scalp.

Sometime later at the commune, near the end of its short existence, we organized a celebration called the Celestial Synapse. It was a week-long event with seminars — featuring Hamrick; a concert featuring the Grateful Dead at Bill Graham’s Carousel Ballroom on Market Street in San Francisco; and an overnight party the following Friday at Harbinger, nee, Harbin Springs. We’d organized it to raise money to buy the property. A fool’s fantasy.

We had invited 100 people to come up for the sleep over and 1000 people to the Grateful Dead con­cert. The commune’s leader, Don Hamrick had been introduced to Bill Graham and the Dead by one of the Harbinger communards named Peter Zimmel. He had written a few songs for the Dead.

Somebody from the Grateful Dead had invited the San Francisco chapter of the Hell’s Angels to the con­cert. The Dead were tight with the Angels, the Angels were their security force. But the Angels had ripped up Bill Graham’s Carousel a few weeks before. When Graham found out, he was pissed and I was sent from Harbinger to Graham’s office at the Carousel to explain. I was one of the organizers of the concert and the designated flak-catcher, as well as ticket-taker at the door, if the concert were to come off.

Graham said if the Angels were coming, he’d can­cel the event. This event was supposed to help us raise money to keep Harbinger going. I told Graham that the Angels had been invited and they’d be showing up at the door. Graham knew I was the one to the invita­tions we’d sent out and would be at the door in the downstairs foyer. He told me, don’t let them in.

We both had a chuckle after I said, yeah, right.

Graham liked Hamrick, our commune leader, whom he’d met a month before through Peter Zim­mel, and have given Hamrick $1000 to keep the commune going. Graham told me he had cameras in the foyer downstairs and he’d know when the Angels arrived. He told me to tell the Angels to wait until he came down to talk to them. I thought I could handle that, and the concert was on.

I was checking the invitations. 1000 of them had been mailed out. They were written and designed by the Dead lyricist, Peter Zimmel who was living at Harbinger and had introduced Hamrick to the Dead and Bill Graham.

The Angels arrived at the same time my roommate from college and his wife — as god as my witness. I had as much respect for the Angels as the Dead had before Altamont, and asked the first one through the door who their president was. He pointed him out and I introduced myself and told them that Bill Gra­ham wanted to talk to them before they went up to the concert.

The president’s name was Bob Jones I think. He wasn’t big and scary — he was short and respectful. Beside him was an Angel called Chocolate George, a 210 lb linebacker-type, who didn’t drink alcohol and drank chocolate milk which gave him his nickname. I thought he looked American Indian. And Chocolate George was big and scary.

I explained to Bob Jones that Graham wanted to talk to him before they went up. Some of the people arriving at the same time saw the Angels in the foyer and decided to skip the free Dead concert and went back to where they were parked. My college room­mate hung in there and went upstairs with his wife.

Bill Graham came downstairs a minute later with his heavy, a tough the size of Chocolate George. Gra­ham and Jones got into a shouting match. They were exchanging accusations a foot from one another’s faces. When Jones exploded and said that if Graham didn’t let them in to watch their unprotected broth­ers, the Grateful Dead, they were going up anyway and tear the place apart.

At that point I said something to the effect like, gentlemen, why don’t you take this discussion upstairs to your office, Mr. Graham, and work this out? I didn’t say that, but I said something as lame as that, respectful as I could be.

They ignored me and yelled at one another for another 20 seconds before Graham invited Jones and Chocolate George up to his office. The rest of the Angels waited with me down in the foyer while I took tickets from those invited who weren’t afraid to pass the Angel gauntlet and join the party upstairs.

Bob Jones, the Angels’ president, came back down 10 minutes later and said negotiations went their way. The Angels, maybe 15 of them, went upstairs and joined the party. They behaved. A few of them lit cherry bombs and threw them in the air, but nobody heard them because the Dead were so loud. But they saw the puffs of smoke.

The Dead played for six hours, taking a break when the Golden Toad played. During the intermis­sion, a guy named Don McCoy,who was the head of the Olampali commune in Sonoma County, got up on stage naked to pay tribute to the Aquarian Age. He was a Sagittarius and was pulling a make-believe bow back as Bill Graham’s security team were about to drag him down. Graham intervened and told his security to relax.

Timothy Leary was there. I’d been introduced to him by another Harbingerite named Gabe Katz at the Berkeley Barb office. At the concert, somebody had handed me a bag of peyote that I didn’t want and I asked Leary if he wanted it. He demurred, the cops were watching him. This was February 19, 1969.

A man named Lou Mobley (you can check him on the Net) was there. He was an early figure at the Har­binger commune. Weeks after the commune started at Harbin Springs, I walked into Hamrick’s office just as he was telling Mobley that he didn’t want to see things turn out like last time.

Mobley was vice-president of personnel at IBM and I assumed he was Hamrick’s fatherly handler. I never asked, I was a fly on the wall. At the Celestial Synapse concert, I introduced Mobley to Bob Jones, the SF Angel’s president. They exchanged business cards.

The party at Harbinger the following Friday after the Celestial Synapse was wild because we’d invited 100 straight people including Gavin Arthur, an astrologer who was grandson to president Chester Arthur; Lou Mobley, the IBM vice-president; and among others, a doctor who had organized a Haight Street clinic named David Smith.

Back to Speed Willie. He had speed the night of the sleepover hat Harbinger, and he had the works. In my room he shot me up — it’ll give you strength, he said. I’d been up for 24 hours helping getting the event ready.

It was the second time I’d shot up speed. The first time was in ’67, two years before, when I was living in a collective in Mendocino. A guy named Richard was living in a trailer with his girlfriend on the property of Walter Wells who had a collective. Richard “found” a doctor’s bag with syringes and pharmaceutical speed, and wanted to introduce me to the pleasures of speed. In his trailer he missed my vein, but 20 minutes later I was high as a kite and on top of his girlfriend back at my place. It was a disaster all around. I couldn’t get it up and 4 hours later there was a group of patients from Mendocino State Hospital who were recovering meth and heroin addicts who were on a field trip to check out the good life that our cooperative commu­nal life style represented.

I was high as a kite when I joined their encounter group to listen in and tell them what a great life it was to live off the land. We had goats and chickens and rabbits and gardens and all that shit.

I was digging what the heroin addicts had against the meth addicts, sitting on the floor with the rest of them, rocking back and forth like a catatonic with a big smile on my face. A woman, one of the meth freaks, shrieked pointing at me — he’s high. I couldn’t deny it, but I wouldn’t admit it. Mendocino State Hospital didn’t ask Walter Wells to come visit the collective again. I wonder if they paid him for that visit.

But back to the Harbinger party. We had invited 100 straight people and nearly 500 came. Well, those 500 saved our ass because the DEA and State and Local Police were only prepared/funded to bust 100.

It was raining and crazy. Someone had sprinkled LSD powder on the carrot salad ala Ken Kesey/Grateful Dead/Tom Wolfe Electric Kool-Ade Acid Test and 20 straight people, maybe more, were high like they’d never been before. One of them was the president’s grandson, Gavin Arthur.

The cops, maybe 20 of them, were only expecting 100 gentle passive hippies. The cops ended up busting six people. One was Jay Thelan who started the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street in ’66. With 500 people virtually behind him he was yelling “kill the pigs”. They handcuffed him and threw him in a squad car.

Two other people who were busted were in a trailer parked at the gate down the road and were supposed to be taking tickets. They were eating peyote and when the cops peeked in, they offered them oatmeal cookies, which were actually peyote buttons. A few others got busted for pot, and a few scoundrels made off with a huge stash of baggies full of marijuana by picking up what was thrown out the back windows of the resort living quarters.

Harbinger was an Alexander Shulgin test-bed if there ever was one.

Hamrick’s wife, nine months pregnant, was one of the first in line for the buffet that night. She got a good dose of acid. She thought she was going into labor. She was rushed to the hospital past the nine cop cars waiting to go in. Mobley, the vice president of IBM, Hamrick, his wife and a woman named Hila, and I were in that leased Cadillac. I was driving. The bust hadn’t come down, yet.

When I saw the cop cars in the midnight rain, I freaked. I asked Hamrick if he knew this was coming down. He said, “I told Curly Jim.” I didn’t know exactly what he told Curly Jim, who happened to be the one who put the acid in the carrot salad, but I said I’m going back. We were nearly a half-mile away on the road to Harbinger and Hamrick said drive back. I got the Cadillac stuck trying to turn around.

I said I’d send help and walked back in the rain, leaving Hamrick, Johnna, his wife and Mobley and Hila and one of Hamrick’s kids. When a car came by as I was walking in the rain back to the commune, I thought they’d stop and help.

In that car, which I learned later, was a reporter from the SF Chronicle named Jeff Berner and his friend named Bob Brown, who had helped organize the bust. Brown was the ex of one of the communards named Tara. They had a few kids together and he didn’t think she should have custody of their two kids. Tara had been a Hollywood starlet and an early friend of Timothy Leary’s.

Hamrick’s wife lost the baby. It was a front page story in the SF Chronicle. No story followed after that but there were a few letters to the editor from doctors who claimed that the LSD in the salad could not have caused the stillbirth.

Speed Willy shot me up one more time shortly after that event. I forget where we were, somewhere in the Bay Area, and I wanted to get high. I didn’t see him prepare the spike. He said he wasn’t going to put it in my vein because the crank wasn’t that good. I trusted him like I did everybody back then. He stuck the needle in a muscle of my left arm.

He took a long time to get it in. I asked him, what’s going on? Don’t worry, he said. But I didn’t get high on what he gave me. It was 20 years before I shot speed again. But I was diabetic and had my own syringes and did it in the privacy of my own escapes — with clean needles. I haven’t done it in over a decade. Not through any program — it was about staying alive. You can’t trust the purity of that shit. If I could I would, depending on set and setting.

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