Posts Tagged ‘the Sixties’

Brautigan at the library in San Francisco, cover of The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966

Most mornings I begin the day before dawn with the Writer’s Almanac in my inbox. The email contains a poem, along with some biographical sketches of writers, familiar or obscure. The other morning the name Richard Brautigan appeared, with a few lines about his life and a link to a website with more information. When I followed the link, I felt like I was tumbling though the looking glass into a different dimension, a world where forest creatures wander through a cybernetic forest watched over by kindly machines, as he recounted in one of his more memorable poems. In fact, I had tumbled backward in time.

I first saw the San Francisco Bay sometime in the early 1970s on a bus crossing the Bay Bridge from Oakland into the city. Far off there was the Golden Gate and the white city on hills, the water turning dark in the twilight. A year later I was living in an apartment on 12th Avenue and Lake Street, and not far away the reclusive author was sitting at a table in his Geary Street apartment writing about a mythic place where everything is made out of watermelon sugar.

I only knew Richard Brautigan from his photographs on the covers of the thin paperback books with names like Revenge of the Lawn and Rommel Drives on Deep into Africa, and of course, his one great success, Trout Fishing in America, which a blurb on the back cover pointed out was not actually about trout fishing. If you have seen those photographs, then you will remember that he looked like something out of the Old West, long straggly blond mustache and a beat up slouch hat, tall with round glasses, looking almost vague, uncomfortably leaning next to a dark-haired woman who was likely the subject of his poems or stories.

His was the voice of the counterculture as I remember it – gentle, naïve, hopeful. His poems are so unassuming as to almost fade into the paper of his books. They might have been written on napkins and left on a table in North Beach as a tip for the waitress. But the America of the sixties and early seventies was not anything like the way he wrote. Outside, in the world, bombers were dropping napalm on the jungles of a small Asian country, the cities of America burned, and assassins struck down our best hopes. In Brautigan’s world, a library stays open late at night to check in the books written by shy people in lonely rooms who write about, for instance, growing flowers by candlelight.

America changed very quickly with the end of the war, and the counterculture faded into the caricature that is all we remember. Brautigan lost his audience, the portal to his alternate universe closed, we moved on to a decade of polyester and disco, trying to forget the decade of rage and flowers. In 1984, I heard the news he had shot himself with a borrowed pistol in a house north of San Francisco. I hope he is somewhere now in that alternate universe, in a cybernetic forest watched over by machines of loving grace.

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Patrons arrive in costume

I went to my first Renaissance Faire with my wife-to-be in San Rafael, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, sometime in the late 1980s. So much of those days are forgotten now, but I remember the jugglers in the forest, the games of strength, and the pleasure of being much younger and in love. There were sword fights and axes tossed recklessly, and the forest was more primeval than today. Or is that the forest of memory?

Twenty-something years later we went to our second faire, this time on the grounds of the Mt. Hope Winery in Manheim, Pa., in rural Lancaster County. Our daughters made the selection for our two-day road trip, a final summer weekend before the older child returned to college, a last hurrah before school and work left us all wound up in the day-to-day world.

Taking my daughters to the Renaissance Faire was a bit like taking them back to the sixties, the long hair and beards, the beads and costumes, a whiff of danger and more bare skin than you usually see, except maybe on Friday nights in a college town. The young husband and wife team juggling flaming sticks called themselves the Tribal Circus and in the band Circa Paleo, a young woman danced as she played Led Zeppelin on the violin. It was the Summer of Love set in the 16thcentury.

juggling fire at the Tribal Circus (click to enlarge)

That was in the early evening, after a long afternoon in the sun and shade, moving from stage to stage watching swordfights and Shakespeare, a human chess match reigned over by Queen Elizabeth, drinking an ale and listening to bawdy jokes in plumy English accents and Scottish brogues. The girls wandered in and out of shoppes with an extra p and e, while I took photographs of the man on stilts and the strolling players.

The man on stilts never seemed to stop travelling

The tradition at these faires is for the guests to dress up in costume and become part of the elaborate charade. Maybe half of the crowd was in costume, and you could see that they were enjoying the play and acting their parts. A woman who must have been a great grandmother sat on a bench in front of us dressed in an elaborate gown with a head dress, like some lady in waiting in the court of the queen.

The Lady in Waiting

That’s the fun of it, I guess, the hand-made part, the do-it-yourself ethos. When life gets too easy, we want to make it hard again. It’s a large part of what the sixties were about, back-to-the-land, drop out, live simply. It’s right to admire the hard-earned skill of the stilt walker and the juggler, the sword maker, and the dancing violinist. In a throwaway society, we cling to an ideal of the hand made. In a time of dizzying technological change, we like to walk around in a pretechnological age, but one still recognizably our own – the great age of Shakespeare and Marlowe and Good Queen Bess. The faire runs through early October, and maybe we will be back, this time with beads and feathers, dressed in motley garb, strolling through the forests of memory.

daughter and mannikin (mannequin) with masks

Video of Circa Paleo and Jenny O’Connell playing Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir


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I was listening to the Folk Show on the radio the other morning on the way into town.  The songs sounded good, one tune after another telling stories about our life and times – stories about working down in the coal mine or walking the picket line; sad tales and heroic tales; the bitterness of class and poverty; standing up and standing together. I guess you could dance to a few of the tunes if you wanted, but for the most part you just listen and nod your head.

When I was a senior in high school and for a couple of years afterward, there was a café  downtown, in Norfolk, Va., that we would go to on weekends to listen to live music. The Folk Ghetto was down an alleyway, a smoky, crowded room with a couple of dozen round tables and a small stage.  You could see the light spilling out of the open door and hear the music pouring out as you walked up the street and turned down the alley. It was like Bob Dylan sang in “Tangled Up in Blue” – “There was music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air.”

And there was revolution in the air: The free speech movement out at Berkeley; Mark Rudd and company occupying the administration building at Columbia; sit-ins and be-ins; Martin Luther King and the March on Washington. It had not yet all turned ugly, though the tide of optimism was beginning to falter. Within two or three years the revolution would beach itself like a broken whale on the low tide.

But we were still in that state of innocence where we could go to a place like the Folk Ghetto, drink coffee for hours, and get lost in an acoustic guitar and a pure voice.  One of the singers who made the rounds of East Cost folk clubs was Emmylou Harris, the singer/songwriter whose career is still going strong. But most of the other singers who never went on to fame were just as talented. They were a few years older than my friends and I, and seemed infinitely cooler and smarter. But we were really not that far apart. Folk singers remain close to the realities that they write and sing about. There are more lonesome whistles than limousines in the folk world.

It was the times, but it was also our time. Being seventeen made everything seem sharp-edged and flooded with meaning.  Every lyric was a tool to pry into the problems of our teenage being and the chaos of events around us. We were chiseling ourselves out of rough stone until the figure could emerge that would carry us into the future. It hurt to be seventeen, but music transmuted the pain into something like ecstasy.

So we would go on a Friday or a Saturday night to listen to Gove Scrivener or Paul Decker play guitar and try out the new songs they had written or picked up from somebody’s obscure album. We fell in love with the female singers with their long dark hair, and envied the musicians in blue jeans and denim shirts who could chat them up so easily.

Everything was new and music made it richer, more unforgettable. We remember where we were when some tragic event took place, but we also know where we were when we heard that great tune for the first time. We were in our car or at the beach when that crashing chord came down. Or at a table in a smoky club when revolution was in the air.

It’s a never ending project, chipping away at that rough stone of our lives to make the person we ought to be. Songs drift out of the radio or the IPod in our pocket, telling stories of other lives, other times. We take the lyrics that cut us deepest and, young or old, chip away the stone.

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It took me a long time to learn to like pizza, but I remember exactly when it happened. It was at a little place out by Chic’s Beach with red and white plastic tablecloths and a jukebox off in a corner. They served 3.2 beer by the pitcher, which it was legal to drink if you were eighteen in Virginia in those days, and that’s about all we were, eighteen. Richard may have been nineteen.

I was in my first year of college and he was working for the telephone company as a lineman and living in a trailer in Virginia Beach with a roommate with an extra 28 feet of intestines. This fact caused all sorts of complications for the roommate, none of them worth going into, but it provided us many hours of humorous, sophomoric fun at the roommate’s expense.


This was the year following the Tet offensive, when everyone in America woke up one morning to find that the Vietnam War had arrived overnight in their living room. For a long time we had lived with the fiction that our troops over there were what had been called “military advisers,” non- combatants who were there to train and advise our military friends, the South Vietnamese. But after the giant bloodbath of Tet everything changed, the drums began to beat along the Potomac, the draft swung into high gear, and people we knew were being plucked away from our midst in a kind of Rapture in reverse, sent to hell instead of to heaven.

My own father had just returned from a year spent piloting an Army LST supply boat along the waterways of the Mekong Delta. Like everyone else I ever met who was there, he didn’t talk about his experiences. But it was obvious to me that he was shaken by his time “in country.” For a boy who had never seen his father, veteran of two previous wars, troubled by anything, it was a sign of serious disturbances in the continuum. He had aged ten years in the year of his absence.

On the night in question, Richard and I were arguing the pros and cons of Mexico and Canada as places to spend the rest of our lives rather than face the prospect of dying in a far country where even the “friendlies” hated us, when the pizza arrived.


What is this?” I asked with deep suspicion, as though General Hersey, quasi-mythical head of the draft board, had placed a microphone on the table in front of us.

It’s a hamburger pizza,” Richard said. “I ordered it on the way to the rest room.”

A hamburger pizza is the most innocuous form a pizza can take. It is probably not even on the menu in most places anymore, now that we have become accustomed to – even dependent on – pizzas to fill our inner voids. I pretended it wasn’t there.


The argument was not theoretical, it was urgent, with Richard’s draft notice on the table between us. Would I go with him? Canada or Mexico? When would we go? Tonight?

I had the lovely “2-S” student deferment in my wallet. I was a college boy, our hope for the future. America was only sending the soda jerks and gas pump jockeys, and the inner city head boppers. We were sending the kids who couldn’t afford college, the black kids from poor families, and a lot more often than I would have thought, the noble and patriotic kids from small towns who went because it seemed like the right thing to do. Within another year the lottery changed all that, took away the student deferment, and made us all equally bless or curse the day of the year we were born.


But for that night I was safe and Richard was not. Richard remembers that I said no, I would not go to Canada or Mexico. I remember that I said yes, I would go, and that it should be Mexico, the warm southland rather than the cold north country of Canada.

Whichever of us remembers rightly, I know it was that night, filled with a hunger for life, that my hand reached out for the pizza, and I ate it, and it was good.


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