Dead Airplane Kerouac Caen
by Todd Walton, February 10, 2011
“The past is never dead, it is not even past.” — William Faulkner
When my wife and I joined forces four years ago, she came equipped with the nicely aged Toyota pickup I’d always wanted and I came with a Toyota station wagon ideal for toting cellos, so we swapped. The station wagon was subsequently crushed by a falling pine and replaced by a more commodious sedan, but the pickup lives on and I love the old thing.
Marcia bought the truck from the person who bought the truck new, Jim Young, our superlative chiropractor and friend and coach of the Mendocino High School (boys) basketball team. Now and then when I am under Jim’s thumbs, as it were, he will inquire about his former truck and I am happy to report the old thing is humming right along and still getting admirable mileage in this age of fast-rising fuel costs.
The pickup is faded white, eighteen years old, with the requisite rust spots and windows that must be manually cranked up and down. Otherwise non-descript, the truck sports a subtle ornament that Jim affixed to the rear window, an insignia identifying the vehicle as a chariot of the Dead, the Grateful Dead, the band, not my ancestors. I had no idea these five nearly identical dancing bears — blue green yellow orange pink — had anything to do with the Grateful Dead until shortly after I took the helm and picked up a hitchhiker on my way to Fort Bragg, his first words to me, “Love those bears, man. Long live Jerry Garcia.”
Over these ensuing four years, I have been treated to salutes, knowing smiles, waves, words of comradery, and a Pass The Joint victory signal on the order of once a month as a result of Jim affixing those dancing bears to the truck’s window. There seems to be some debate among Deadheads as to whether the bears are dancing in the manner of a famed fan named Owsley tripping on LSD or whether the bears are marching. One Grateful Dead web site claims that a flipbook rendition of the bears proves conclusively that they are marching. In any case, a Gypsy woman winked at me yesterday as a consequence of those bears, and her wink sent me hurtling back to the bygone years of my youth when I and a few of my friends had the Grateful Dead, live, all to ourselves for hours on end.
I feel compelled to admit that I am not a Grateful Dead fan. Indeed, the only Dead tune I ever liked was Barefootin’ from their very first album, and the only words I think I remember from that song are See that girl, barefootin' along, whistlin' and singin', she's a carryin' on. When I lived in Santa Cruz in the early 1970’s, I had a friend who was a drummer in a Grateful Dead cover band, if you can imagine such a thing, and after attending their third concert of astonishingly accurate, and, to me, horrifying imitations of their heroes, I have avoided listening to the Grateful Dead for lo these forty years. Yet I do love the Grateful Dead, for they were of the utmost importance to me in my teenage years and provided the soundtrack for a great awakening.
“Stories, like whiskey, must be allowed to mature in the cask.” — Sean O’Faolain
Ladera is a housing development a few miles from Stanford University that sprang up in the 1950’s and was home to professors and doctors and stock brokers and dentists and school teachers, mostly white people with a sprinkle of Chinese and Japanese families, and a few serious artists who liked living close to San Francisco in a rural setting not far from beaches with such beautiful names as San Gregorio, Pomponio, and Pescadero.
Ladera had an elementary school that sent its graduates to junior high at La Entrada in Menlo Park, and from there to Woodside High, famous for being the first public high school in America to have a major pot bust in the early 1960’s, many of those busted being children of the first families of Ladera. And it was there in Ladera that the Grateful Dead, yes, Jerry’s band when the keyboard player was a gravel-voiced guy called Pig Pen, used to rehearse on weekends in the multi-purpose room at the elementary school; and I and a handful of my friends were admitted to that sanctum to dance to the music on a vast expanse of highly polished linoleum.
What I remember most vividly about those amazing afternoons are two superb conga players, each with multiple drums, and several men with long hair and mustaches playing guitars in front of stacks of amplifiers, Pig Pen hunched over his keyboard, the music all of a piece — a vast electric raga made of pulsing chords and hypnotic rhythms over which fantabulous guitar solos cried like phantasmagoric muezzins to which I danced and twirled and danced, my too too solid flesh melting and resolving into sweat and ecstasy, my body free of pain at last, and those persistent inner voices of doubt and shame drowned in the sonic deluge, my entire being steeped in glorious visions of life beyond the choking confines of suburbia and parental neuroses.
And I remember my anguish when I arrived at the multi-purpose room one sunny Saturday afternoon and found the entrance barred by a huge man who said the rehearsals were now closed to the likes of me, only invited guests allowed, my magical mystery tour at end. I waited around for my friends to show up, and watched indignantly as the bouncer admitted my most beautiful friends Mona and Cassie, and rebuffed all the boys and the less beautiful girls. But that big goon couldn’t take away the visions I’d had while dancing to those awesome ragas of the Dead; and I vowed to start my own band one day and blow the roof off the jail, so to speak, and set everybody free.
“Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.” — Denis Diderot
My father had a 1963 Karmann Ghia, red bottom, white top. Cute little long-nosed Italian body, a two-seater with a Volkswagen engine. Remember those? In 1966, gasoline was 25¢ a gallon, the Karmann Ghia got about 30 miles to the gallon, and it was 27 miles from Redwood City to San Francisco. Four teenagers could squeeze into that little car, one in the cramped back compartment, one sitting on the lap of the one sitting in the passenger seat, and one (me) driving. And that’s how we got to the Fillmore, that vast windowless rotting warehouse in a dangerous part of San Francisco on many a Saturday night to hear Quicksilver Messenger Service (with or without Dino Valenti) open for the Grateful Dead who then set the stage for the Jefferson Airplane, pre-Grace Slick.
I have had several musical heroes in my life, most of them jazz people, but I have only adored one band and that was the original Jefferson Airplane. I saw the Airplane perform with their first female vocalist Signe Anderson four times, and each time I saw them they were brilliant and fabulously musical. Then Signe split and I was devastated, the devastation of a jilted teen. And then Grace Slick came aboard and my misery deepened, for to my ears the magical synergy of my favorite band was gone, so I kissed the folk rock scene goodbye.
“One need not be a chamber to be haunted; One need not be a house; The brain has corridors surpassing Material place." — Emily Dickinson
So here we are 45 years later living in the wilds of Mendocino where through the auspices of unseen patrons the San Francisco Chronicle arrives on our driveway every Sunday morning. The Chronicle of today is largely unreadable junk and wire service propaganda, but I dutifully solve the Sunday Jumble words, skim the Sports section for news of the Giants, and thank those unseen ones for providing us with a week’s worth of fire starter.
And this morning, while I was getting the fire going, a headline in last week’s pink section caught my eye: Jefferson Airplane Mansion for sale. Upon closer examination, I found this headline to be the lead item of a section entitled Wayback Machine, the headline referring to something that happened 25 years ago.
“February 4, 1986. The ‘Airplane House,’ a piece of San Francisco rock n’ roll history, is up for sale. The mansion overlooking Golden Gate Park that was once the home of the Jefferson Airplane, one of the pioneer psychedelic bands of the ‘60s, is on the market for $795,000. The three-story, Colonial Revival-style mansion on Fulton Street, with its distinctive Doric columns in front, has 17 rooms, stained-glass windows, silk wallpaper, rich mahogany woodwork, fireplaces on every level and lots of memories. ‘If the walls could talk,’ said Nadine Condon, publicist for Starship, the band that evolved from the original group. ‘We’ve had some great parties here,’ she said, climbing to the uppermost floor. ‘The joke used to be that the higher you got, the higher you got.’ In 1968, still flush from the Summer of Love a year earlier, band mates Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady and their manager Bill Thompson, bought the mansion for $70,000. When the mansion was built in 1904 by R.A. Vance, a lumber baron, the Golden Gate Park did not exist and sand dunes rolled uninterrupted to the ocean. The mansion survived the earthquake and fire of 1906. According to legend, the great tenor Enrico Caruso, a friend of Vance, fled from the Palace Hotel on the day of the quake and found refuge in the house. Most of the house is as it always was, but the second-floor kitchen is trimmed in orange and purple Day-Glo paint. ‘The last vestiges of hippiedom,’ Condon said.”
The dog writes on the window
With his nose
— Philip Whalen
So what should I find on the flip side of that pink page with the story of the Jefferson Airplane mansion but a Chronicle Classic reprint of Herb Caen’s column from October 22, 1969, entitled One thing after another, which includes the following:
“Poor, embittered Jack Kerouac, dead at 47, almost forgotten in the North Beach byways he frequented — and helped make famous — more than a decade ago. In his last years, he turned on the young people, sometimes viciously, and they in turn turned their backs on him. Yet a small literary niche will forever be his. ‘On the Road’ remains the finest chronicle of the Beatnik era.”
And in the same Caen column: “Steve Frye, a hippie-hating L.A. policeman, now has mixed emotions. Last Wed. night, driving through the rain in Big Sur, he had a flat tire, and the only people who stopped to help him were — two hippies. This so unraveled him that after he drove on he was suddenly seized with an uncontrollable urge to pick up a hippie hitchhiker. Which he did. There is hope for us all.”
See that girl, barefootin' along,
Whistlin' and singin', she's a carryin' on.
There's laughing in her eyes, dancing in her feet,
She's a neon-light diamond and she can live on the street
(Todd’s blog at Underthetablebooks.com features his AVA articles and stories.)