Chapter 3 - World of SLO
Riding with My Father to San Luis Obispo
My Dad had volunteered to drive me to school. Looking back on it, it was kind of rite of passage. Our relationship had mellowed from the trauma of school report cards and I am sure he was pleased I was going to college anywhere. He also liked that I was still playing music and so the drive was interesting one on one time that I liked. Felt sort of grown up.
The city fell away as we headed south. In those days there was not much south of San Jose except farms and small towns. The plan was to drive to Paso Robles about thirty miles north of San Luis Obispo and stay the night. As we were about 20 miles out he changed the topic of our conversation. For most of my teens he had run his own travel agency in the Claremont District in Berkeley. First at the Claremont hotel and then on Domingo Avenue in the old bank building. He enjoyed the travel business, booking tours etc.
So he began… He was going to open a new office in Southern California. Now, it wasn’t that I was unaware that he and my mother had issues. Many of them felt they were about what to do with me. I remember waking up in the morning as a teenager and hearing them argue in the kitchen below me. There was lots more to it than just me, but at the time it felt that way.
So, I am listening to his story still not registering what he was really saying. I asked him who was going to run the office and he said he was. I asked did that mean the family was moving to So Cal and he said no. Then the bomb shell hit. My mother and he were separating. I remember feeling a bit stunned and not knowing what to say next. He tried to comfort me, but there it was. I was about to jump into a whole new chapter in my life and my past life in Berkeley was shifting. I had always assumed I could come home to those comfortable environs, (and I would later) but this was like the boats were being burned behind me and the only choice was to move forward into the new land.
I don’t remember if we talked about it in any more detail at dinner, but the next day we drove to Poly. I remember thinking as we got off the freeway and drove into what was then a small central coast town, “is this all there is” Berkeley had been a busy hive of urban activity and the arts and SLO just seemed sleepy.
We found my dorm for the summer, we off loaded my stuff into a room that was the size of my closet.
We said our goodbyes and I watched from the window as he drove away thinking… tonight I can do anything I want... without permission. What exactly would that be? I then immediately got on the pay phone and called my mother. It’s strange; I don’t remember much about the conversation. She tried to say it would be all right and that she was making a plan etc. but something had majorly shifted just as my new adventure was about to begin.
It turned out going to college early was a god send.
The campus was mostly empty and I found my way around easily. It did not feel overwhelming. I was hyper focused on doing well in my classes. I remember going early to find the classroom in this big building. Not like me. One class was in psychology and the other history. Both subjects I liked. The professors were interesting, the class size small and I was determined to do well.
At the same time I went exploring. The campus was middle sized with one exception. It had a big farm unit on one side and an old airplane hangar above it where I would study aeronautical engineering. The farm unit had animals of all types including some giant pigs. I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. Cowboy life was a theme at Poly. Rodeos, BBQ and toxic farm smells. When the wind was blowing in from the farm, it was overwhelming at times, but in a sense it was a welcome change from Berkeley.
The beach was also close by at Avila. Me and some new friends spent quality time that summer feeling very grown up.
I got B’s in both my classes and settled in as the kids arrived for the start of school in the fall. Suddenly everything was buzzing, but by this time I had it wired and didn’t go through the adjustment that some did. The dorm filled, my roommate showed up and off we went. First thought was to get out of the dorm as soon as possible. I just wasn't into the dorm hijinks and you couldn’t bring girls there. Something I set out to remedy.
Things at home were unsettled. I heard more about this period from Bruce and Jane that lived it. I was in my new world and I knew it would take some time for my mother to re-focus, so I just pushed forward hoping for the best for all of us.
One thing said about college that you don’t appreciate at the time is that it can be a time of re-invention. All the baggage from your childhood is gone in a sense. You still feel it, but no one else knows. In a way it is a clean slate. The last two years of high school I had come out of my shell and took all kinds of risks. At Poly I hit the ground running. I didn’t know where it would lead, but I did things like joining the football rally committee and planned wild stunts at halftimes. Not like me at all, but who knew where this was headed. The other fortunate thing about SLO and Poly is that it was small and slower than the Bay Area had been. This turned out to be a good thing for me. I could dream up my next life without any pressure or feeling overwhelmed. Eventually being a semi-big fish in a small pond served this re-inventing process. The road coming out of high school had led me to where I needed to be.
As class began I reported to the airplane hangar for aeronautical engineering instruction. Remember, this had come about because of that strange conversation with the councilor. It had gotten me to college, but as I walked through the airplane hangar and discovered the class schedule it was mostly MATH. And I hated math. Not even hesitating I thought… I’m changing this. I looked at the departments and was attracted to the small liberal arts program that had a Sociology major. I met with the department head, a wild woman that I really liked. She would become a sort of mentor to me going forward. For some reason because I was from Berkeley she thought I might be a fit so I literally overnight changed everything academic. Side note: Cal Poly was 2/3 men because of all the engineering and business majors, but in sociology the women outnumbered the men. That seemed better to me for obvious reasons.
The other order of business as a freshman was joining the ROTC program. The college officers training program run by the Army on campus. At the time, we were headed into the Vietnam war and there was an active draft. My grandfather, being the career Army officer he was, (full Bird Colonel) gave me some advice. If you are serving anyway, you want to be an officer not an enlisted man. I still had a college deferment from the draft, but I thought it made some sense. I reported to the depot on campus and got my uniform and shiny shoes.
No joke, ROTC would change my mind quickly about any romance about war I had. The program was run by some tough master sergeants and upper classmen commanders. First drill I knew this was not for me. If you remember the movie “Animal House”, the students that became commanders were true believers/assholes like the uptight guys in that film. Some of these guys would later be shot by their own men in Vietnam. It would take a few months, but a change was coming that I couldn’t imagine at the time. And this freshman year experiment in soldiering would later come back to haunt me.
The other thing I did was go out for basketball. I always loved playing the game, but in high school swimming and water polo had taken my time and I never went out at BHS. This was a time of stretching so I tried out and made the team. For some reason my Dad really liked that.
And the music. It was weird not having Mark to play with. I brought my beautiful 12 string Gibson to school, but it stayed in the case until I saw an announcement for a freshman talent show. I signed up. I remember waiting backstage and looking at the big crowd and wondered what was I doing. But when my time came I walked out and played one song, and the audience really liked it. I thought, could I do something with music on my own? Little did I know that a letter was coming soon that would answer that question in spades.
So, there I was a first quarter Poly freshman. Friends, basketball, ROTC and some music. It seemed like a nice start, but the Universe had something more in mind.
In high school I had two semi-steady girlfriends. Sharon for most of it, Nancy in senior year. Nancy had gone off to UC Santa Barbara so I spent some weekends that first fall driving back and forth from SLO until we decided to move on. I left everything behind including old relationships as you do when everything is changing.
And then I got a letter from Sharon. In the letter she told me about going to this place in San Francisco where there was loud music, and lights on the wall and snakes in peoples hair. Reading this I thought she had lost her mind. (that fact she was on acid became clear later) What she was talking about was the Fillmore Auditorium.
The mecca of the new music. I had no relation point to it other than I was reading that many of the folk artists that I had played with in Berkeley had now gone electric and made up the first generation San Francisco bands. After Sharon’s letter sunk in, my first thought was road trip. I had not seen my family minus Father since coming to school and I had to go find out what this was about. I don’t remember a lot of the details. Friends must have come with me, but all I strongly recall was walking into what for me amounted to a religious experience. The energy in the hall was amazing and all though I wasn’t on drugs at the time, my first contact high took me out there. The power of it took my breath away and I thought… I have to do this!
Music Electric Emerges
I came back to SLO on fire. There was a small group of musicians that I had met and I told them all we had to form a band. At the time what that meant in terms of equipment, songs, gigs etc. was not clear, but my intention was. SLO at that time was still pretty conservative but in the outlying country, the first hippies had taken up residence and I slowly navigated into this new world.
A core group formed that first band. Jeff on bass, me on guitar, David Plummer lead singer and Dennis on lead guitar. For some reason David’s mother agreed to buy us our first electric amps and guitars. There was a small theater on campus we could rent to practice and we set out to learn other artists songs. We had no one that would hire us, but we were undaunted. Our play list was mostly simple rock and roll songs. We were okay (we thought we were ready) when a local frat house hired us to play a party. Four or five hours of drunken orgy. We didn’t have enough songs for that duration so we just jammed and kept repeating songs. No one noticed. The place went wild and I remember thinking, wow maybe I could do this.
What Comes Around
That fall as everything was germinating, something else happened. My dad changed his mind and decided that he wanted my mother and his kids back and made moves to reconcile. My mother would tell me later she was wary, still feeling rejected and my father wanted them to move to Southern California.
Knowing what I know now about how he felt about the Pinger clan it was probably the right move. They were not big fans of Dad and he wanted his own space. My mother met him a few times and later said that as much as she had concerns she was not done with him. She wanted to see what might happen if she gave it another chance. I have certainly been there,done that. Now that was big for Bruce and Jane. Bruce was entering his senior year at BHS. He had lots of friends and Jane as well was settled. This meant them moving to this little town outside of LA called Thousand Oaks. I didn’t even know where that was. I will let Bruce tell his own story about this because he lived it, but he reflected later that it worked for him. He never made the Berkeley High basketball first team, but in Thousand Oaks he became a starter. And Jane, well you will have to ask her, but the move happened so when Christmas break came around I was headed south and not to Berkeley.
A bunch of us piled into my little car and we headed south trying to find Thousand Oaks on the map. Today it is really built up, but then it had only two off ramps from the freeway. I walked into a new/old scene. Familiar, yet different. First of all I had been living on my own for 4 months and had developed my own habits so it was a bit weird to feel the old push pulls of our family dynamics again.
I told them I was starting an electric band and my father was puzzled. He had really liked the folk music and this seemed different, long hair and all. I got through it counting the days and then Jeff my bass player arrived in his car with these big speakers he had picked up to be our new PA system. Crammed in between the speakers was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.
I thought she was older. Turned out she was a freshman and Jeff asked if she could ride with me. Not hesitating for a moment I said yes. On that drive Anita (my first real love) and I talked up a storm. She was beautiful, adventurous, smart and laughed at my jokes. What more could you ask for. By the time we got to Poly, we were connected at the hip and started a love relationship off and on for six years and to this day as friends. For those that don’t know, she was the “Green Eyed Lady” that would pop up in my life four years later.
The SLO Beat Continues
When we got back, we hit it hard. The band, we aptly named “The Habit." We starting playing more frat gigs and some sets at the local hippie clubs that were starting to pop up on the central coast. Also, living in the dorms was intolerable so the band decided to get our own place. In the fall we had already cashed in our food cards. Our parents were furious, but the food was awful. I worked a part time job in the kitchen and I saw too much to ever eat that stuff again.
Across the train tracks from Poly a new student housing development was going up called Mustang Village.
It wasn’t finished in the fall, but we gave them a down payment and expected to move in after Christmas break. What we found when we got back was a half-finished apartment. No paint on the walls, no carpets, but they offered to let us move in for free. Anything to save money. We found some big beer posters to put on the walls and that apartment became ground zero for The Habit.
We eventually moved to a finished apartment and one of the convenient things was that it was right across the street from where Anita lived in women’s housing. We spent many a night racing towards her front door to get her in before curfew. I don’t know why they thought a curfew would protect young women because by the time we made the last minute dash we had already done everything we desired.
Getting used to roommates is hard enough, but a band living together in this case amplified the issues. As we played the band got better, except for the lead singer David. He really didn’t have a great voice and the rest of us wanted to move on. Not knowing how to do that, we did it badly. Lots of bad blood, his mother threatened to take the equipment back etc. It was the first of many band dramas for me. Many more were to come. We finished out the year, but that summer David left and we added Rich, who was a stellar guitar player and singer and changed the name of the group to the Cirkus. (with a K)
Here was my first experience with synchronicity, I had this idea that we should all dress up in Circus band uniforms. 1967 it was. Not two weeks later, the Beatles released the classic, Sgt. Peppers Heart Club Band. There they were in circus uniforms.
I learned then that creativity can work that way. An idea enters the collective field and lands on a bunch of people. We used to say later in the film business that if we were thinking about making a pirate movie, you knew 5 others were as well. It just seems to work that way. Mysterious as it is.
In that first year, two other things happened. I had let my hair grow a bit longer. I mean only a bit. I look at pictures now and it is barely over my ears. My ROTC pals said I had a choice, cut my hair or get kicked out. Seemed liked a no brainer to me. Bye! This decision would affect something that I would later call my “draft story.”
The other thing was basketball. The season had started and I was relegated to second string which meant I wasn’t playing a lot. I also had not adjusted to being the big man in big boy basketball. All the physicalness of pushing and shoving and elbowing was just something I didn’t enjoy. At the same time the band was taking most of my time. In addition to playing for other people, we figured out how to hold our own events where we made most of the money. It was like running a little business that I liked and helped pay for school. It finely came to a head and I told the coach I was quitting. The music was everything to me and I had begun to dream of making a record. I just couldn’t do both.
I remember my father calling me when he found out, really angry. He had been uneasy about the band, but quitting basketball was something else. To his credit he adjusted and as a surprise offered to help us record a demo and take publicity pictures. You might ask yourself “what song”. That was the other thing that was happening. I had begun writing songs. I was really mimicking others work in the beginning, but there was one in particular “This is Love” which was a soupy ballad about Anita that stuck out. Sometime that year we headed to Thousand Oaks and my father took “Beatles ” type publicity photos, AND my Dad arranged to for us to record a demo in the back of an electronics store.
The guy had a four track studio of sorts and we made it work. It was hard to overdub voices, but we built this giant, liquid vocal sound anyway and walked out of there with a decent demo for the time. We may have been dreaming of using it to get a record deal, but it really just served in helping us get gigs.
Here's a cool story that all songwriters and musicians will relate to. It happened as we crossed the central valley that year to play in Bakersfield as the Cirkus. We were driving at night in our equipment van with a couple of cars behind us when all of a sudden one of them came along side. Our friends were screaming and yelling for us to turn on the radio. In those days there was one rock and roll station in Bakersfield so it wasn’t hard to find. Coming out the radio was our song “This is Love”. The local station was playing it to promote the club we were appearing at. Over the years I would hear tons of my songs on the radio, but there is something special about the first time you never forget. We thought we were on our way. However, it would be two years later and a completely different band that made that dream come true.
I mentioned that it didn’t take us long to figure out we could make more money as a band if we organized our own events. In addition to that we figured out that if we got on the Poly concert committee we could have a say in booking acts for the school. When we arrived at Cal Poly there were still having concerts with 50’s rehashes. The music scene in San Francisco was exploding and they would travel by bus to Los Angeles. San Luis was half way in between. We booked everyone… The Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin etc. The first time the school officials objected but this music was on the way and it couldn’t be stopped. The additional thing we did was book ourselves as the opening act. That way we got to be around some of these pioneers and learned a lot of what it took to really go professional. The local gigs we organized were all ours. Eventually we would create our own light show and made decent money as one of the top bands on the central coast. The business of running the band fell to me and this would be a pattern that would get repeated over and over again going forward. I loved creating the space for me to create in.
Signs of the Times
Cal Poly was also going through changes. It had been a fairly traditional place built around cowboy logic and even though those guys would get crazy, you can imagine what they thought of hippies showing up. For a while there were some altercations around Vietnam protests etc. but eventually they found marijuana and chilled out. We all were going through changes. My hair got longer, the music got louder and that was an issue Anita and I had to deal with.
She was my biggest fan and suffered through coming with us to gigs, but she was more traditional. She was not into drugs at all and made her way instead into the frat scene. This caused us some trouble, but it was the times and people were growing differently. Anita and I managed to always make up and as long as we shared the adventure path we were alright. We had fun together in the middle of all the changes.
She also was very helpful in challenging my attitudes towards women. Being somewhat of a local semi-celebrity there was no shortage of women at our gigs. Kind of classic groupie thing. Maybe it was all those years of not feeling particularly popular, but now with this new persona I wanted it all and many times handled it very badly. Men have to grow up sometime and manage their desires, but for me that was years off. Anita helped me grow up as much as I could at the time and for that I am most appreciative. Many more chapters were up ahead for us as friends over the years.
Pickups, Gun Racks and Dogs.
San Luis Obispo definitely had a red neck vibe . It’s changed now, but in the late sixties it was still rural. We called the culture “pickups, gun racks and dogs.” It seemed to us this was the mantra of the cowboys around town. When you say it with a rural southern accent you get the point. We, on the other hand, were into VW buses, happenings and dogs. I chose to live after my sophomore year out in the country at the edge of town.
We would find these little farm houses that were cheap and quiet. The dog part was just something that just came up. My friends started getting dogs. Puppies were so cute, and our girlfriends liked them. Not that I would be out done, I got a dark black Labrador mix and I called him Rumples.
The summer between my sophmore and junior year the band broke up and once again I had to find a job. The previous summer I had worked in an aluminum anodizing plant on the night shift. This summer something else was in store. Relatives on my Dad's side operated the giant concession plaza at Mount Rushmore, the shrine of democracy. My brother had worked their the pervious summer as a waiter in the infamous dining room.
Bruce and I were both offered jobs. That meant "road trip" in his blue Plymouth we dubbed the "crystal ship" after the Jim Morrison lyric.
Mount Rushmore was a huge operation with a formal dining room, a big food automat and a giant gift store built a half mile away from the famous presidential heads. However, this was the 1967 summer of love when all hell broke loose on the coasts and here I was wearing a tie and jacket as hippies cruised up in their vans.
In spite of that we had a great many adventures that summer. We jumped the fence and hiked to the top of Mount Rushmore. From the top of George Washington’s head you could see five states. What was also revealed is what the sculptor intended to do before he died that was never completed. There were halls carved into the rock behind the heads in a small valley that had the beginnings of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution on the walls. All the old tools were there. The park service had just fenced it off.
When you see it in the movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”
or the more recent “National Treasure” series, all kinds of stuff gets made up about the area in back of the heads.
In Hitchcock’s movie there was a big house that was home to the bad guys. We were asked by tourists all the time if it was really there. Sometimes we lied and said yes just for fun.
In the National Treasure movie there was an ancient native city of gold buried in the rocks. There is something about the Black Hills that has its own mystery going all the way back to tribal times that people pick up on.
Back to Anita. The job was miserable. I felt I was missing out on everything going on back home. In addition, the man that ran the place was a drunk. He would get liquored up at 10am in the morning and come to where I was managing a crew and get all over the native kids that worked for me. Racist taunts, the whole nine yards. Eventually I stood up to him and it was one reason that got Bruce and I were invited to leave three weeks early. We were thrilled. Before that though I made friends with some of the native kids and we visited their homes on reservations that were scattered around the Black Hills. After all, the Sioux had killed General Custer and all his men here. On these visits I saw the beautiful bead work the women created. I bought a couple of necklaces, yes hippie beads, a cool leather fringe coat and a black hat with a native band on it. Closest I would get to a hippy garb.
Bruce and I made our way back to the Bay Area and Anita decided to come up on the train and meet me in SF. I was really excited. I had missed her and looked forward to being with her again. I am standing in the station in my new hippie garb and she gets off the train dressed in a formal women’s suit and pill box hat made famous by Jackie Kennedy. We both looked at each other and went opps. It didn’t stop us from re-connecting, but it began a tension in our relationship that would last through out the rest of college. Anita was a good sport. When I think of what it must have been like to be around my bigger self then I don’t blame her for moving off. I headed back to school with no band. I was also tired of messing around and getting rejection form letters from music producers. I was going to put together an all-star group and we were going to go after fame and fortune.
Pacific Grass and Electric/Yankee Dollar
I knew a lot of musicians on the central coast, but I wanted to start with a blank slate. First piece was Lisa Gonzales. I heard her sing at a folk club (at the time she was a checker at a grocery store) She had this amazingly powerful voice. I also was enamored with female singers like Grace Slick and Janis Joplin. Lisa and I got together and our voices blended well and she was up for the adventure. We pieced the band together with really good musicians, started practicing and called ourselves, Pacific Grass and Electric. (A word play on the local power company PGE.)
This band took off fast. Soon we were the brightest thing on the central coast. We opened for all kinds of bigger groups when they came to Central California and the Central Valley and started playing closer and closer to LA.
For three years I had been sending demos to a music producer in LA named Frank Slay. He was a friend of Jeff’s dad, my original bass player. Frank had been a big deal in the fifties and early sixties and like many was trying to make the transition to the new music. He had politely turned all the demos down, but said keep trying.
One night I invited him to come hear us play at a beach town just north of LA.
To my surprise he came. The house was packed, lots of energy and we played a good set. As we came off stage he approached me and said something I will never forget. “You know, I just can’t decide what record label I want to put you on.” I was dumbstruck. This was a discovery moment like in the movies and as much as the new music was breaking all those norms, developing a group like us for stardom was still something that happened. And here he was offering.
I am not sure I heard much else that night but one thing. At the time we had a black drummer named Leon. He had been a blues drummer and the driving force behind our sound. Frank pulled me aside that night and said you will have to change drummers. It was early yet in 1968 and multi-racial groups were frowned upon by AM radio. This was changing fast, but at that moment Frank made his first move. We were all unsure of what to do. Here was this offer, but get rid of Leon, where was that at? It turned out Leon came to me a couple days later and said he really appreciated the record offer, but we were not his dream group. All things do have a way of working out sometimes. Leon left and crazy Nick, double bass drums, hair flying in all directions became our new drummer.
We went into the studio, a real studio, and began to record the singles and our first album. They also took us shopping for clothes, new guitars and equipment. The age of developing groups like this was waning, but we felt like royalty at the professional photo shoots for the album cover etc. One thing though was troubling to us in this re-make. We had to change our name. Our name Pacific Grass and Electric had a drug reference in it. AM radio would not play our records as a result. This was hard. We so identified with PGE. We had even been mentioned in Herb Caen’s famous column in the SF Chronicle. We were those guys. I don’t remember how it happened, but we couldn’t agree on a new name so Frank named us The Yankee Dollar. Not our favorite, but what’s in a name we thought. If the music is good it doesn’t matter, but we never got comfortable with it. I learned a valuable lesson. If you don’t meet a challenge head on, someone else will do it for you.
I invited my Dad and Mother to come up to the sessions. After all he had been a part of this getting started. He came, but I could sense he was uncomfortable. He stayed for a while and then said he had to go. My mother sort of gave me a look. It was somewhat later that he told me it was not me, but this life I was living. He had a fairly traditional upbringing and truth be told never felt great about his work until later in his life. Here I was living the dream and for some reason he appreciated it, but found himself strangely jealous. Music, particularly as I co-wrote a number one record “Green Eyed Lady” two years later, was the thing that healed us. I felt appreciated by him and loved for my dreaming big. This was a huge beginning for me coming to grips with my childhood trauma. All that was yet to come.
We returned to the Central Coast celebrities of sorts. Our records were on the radio, we had moved up at concerts to the act before the headliners. Our first single “Sanctuary” was released on Dot/Paramount Records and starting climbing the charts.
Here was the other thing. Bands with female singers always have trouble with love lives. When Lisa and I had met we’d had a brief dalliance, but broke it off because we had to work together. That didn’t stop her from then developing a heavy relationship with Greg our lead guitar player. The politics of bands, like any group, are interesting. Many times if things are going well, there is more friction not less. Suddenly everyone starts thinking they are the reason for the bands success and starts to undermine the group. Lisa was a very powerful singer and she already had people pulling at her to become a solo artist. It turned out Greg was for it and two camps formed. It was them against me with the rest of the band in the middle. It didn’t affect anything right away, but it was always there.
Meanwhile Sanctuary got up to around number 50 on the charts. It’s at that point that a record makes or breaks. You can hype it that far, but then it has to proceed on its own merits. The record stalled. No one said anything, but years later I heard the story about what happened from John Carter when I was at Capital.
At the time, there were these music tip sheets. They controlled what was played on AM radio. One of them was run by a man that it turned out had history with Frank, John and Tim. John and Tim had recorded a record of their own called “Acapulco Gold”. Now we know it’s a reference to a popular strain of Marijuana, but at the time the big time tipster did not. He recommended it to move up the charts. Someone tipped him to what it meant and he was furious. Drugs and AM radio in 1968 did not mix. He couldn’t do anything about their song, but he swore if he ever was asked to recommend anything that Frank produced or John and Tim wrote, it didn’t matter how good it was, he would kill it. Sanctuary involved both Frank and John/Tim and he killed it. Who knows what might of have happened, but suddenly our momentum flattened and that coupled with Lisa and Greg getting cold feet signaled eventually the end of this run. We continued to make more singles, but our hearts really weren’t in it. I don’t think any of us realized how rare this opportunity was. Lisa would never record another record although she was a backup singer for some big artists and Greg became an aero-engineer working on stealth projects for NASA.
Lisa and Greg circa 1968.
The crazy thing about their story was that they separated soon after Lisa went out on her own, but met up years later and got married. I got wind of this about two years ago (Greg emailed out of nowhere because he had seen me mentioned in the press somewhere) I met up with them 45 years later in Las Vegas where they lived. We had a wonderful time that night reminiscing over what might have been. They gave me much appreciation for putting it all together which was nice.
For my money, even if Sanctuary had been a big hit and we became a thing for a while, we would have killed each other. I learned much later that it was really important to like the people you collaborate with. At this point I was still a kid finding my way. You can listen to three of the singles we recorded in my body of work music section.
When people ask me what it was like being in rock and roll when it was birthing in the late sixties and early seventies, one of the differences compared to now was radio. In those days there were AM stations playing the top 40 hits in almost every town. FM radio was coming on, but what I remember is sitting in these AM radio stations talking with the disc jockeys late into the night when we were in town playing. Yes, including Wolf Man Jack below.
There was always something mysterious about radio for me, particularly at night. It was like having an intimate relationship with thousands of people you didn’t know that were all sharing the music we loved.
I found many of the disc jockeys to be really interesting artists in their own right. The AM stations were fairly independent in those days populated by people that for the most part were knowledgeable about music. I had a good friend in San Luis Obispo that was the night guy on KSLY, the local AM station. I used to go down at night and just sit with him. At one point he asked me if I ever wanted to be a radio jock and I thought about it between bands. Enough that I actually took the government test and got my third class license, (above) but I never did anything with it.
Bruce became the radio guy in our family and a good one for a number of years. One of the things that changed in the mid-seventies as I got out of the music biz was regional radio as I had known it. The stations were more and more organized into big networks with a master playlist. It destroyed the eccentric radio I loved, although FM kept it going to awhile. Those music lovers that surprised and educated us about the wide variety of music was something I was thankful to experience before it disappeared.
The whole Yankee Dollar adventure happened in my third year of college. It’s amazing I even went to school. My grades were okay and I liked my major, and some of my professors covered for me, but my real love was music and the bands. That’s what I learned to do in college. Run a small business and develop my songwriting chops.
By the time school started again I was exhausted from the whole YD drama. A couple friends of mine and I decided to not take music so seriously and do something fun. We came up with this concept for a show band called the “Super Heros” based on Marvel comic book characters.
Each of us dressed as a character (I was Captain America) and we played crazy dance music. People loved it. We offended everyone of moral standing. High school girls particularly liked some of those in the band, but that is a story best left alone. Super Hero’s were a Central Coast thing and no further, but when I run into folks from those days at Poly they usually remember the “crazy” band as much as the Yankee Dollar.
As San Luis embraced the tie die era of the late 1960’s, we started having what we called “happenings.” They were copycat events that we saw going on in the big cities. They featured music and lights, lot of pharmaceuticals and smokes. These were unique cultural happenings that were much like the current day raves. High powered, loud, crazy parties that would go into the night in some strange places like a field or a barn or a warehouse. They were never advertised, but somehow people found out and came. As I was in a band playing most of the time, I didn’t go to many, but occasionally I would organize the music track for some events we did in giant inflatables. Little did I know that experience would serve me later, but at the time it was just fun to concoct the experience.
Here’s one where I did technically get busted. My grandfather had died and I was headed to Berkeley to help my mother and her brother deal with his house. Papa had an old 49 Buick special with 16 inch tires that we all swore he never drove over 40 miles an hour. I could have it for a dollar if I helped them pack his house. In my senior year it became our valued road trip vehicle. The night before I was supposed to travel, I ended up at one of these happenings that was staged in an old chicken coup. I don’t know why I went, but there I was. People were stoned and dancing as usual when all of a sudden cops came out of nowhere and busted the place. It turned out it was an election year and some guy running for country Sherriff decided to make a name for himself.
In the moments before we were all lined up, lots of drugs got hidden or disposed of. I remember thinking it was so unlike me to be in a place like this but I was probably going to end up in jail. That would be an interesting call to my Mother. The cops herded everyone into a line and starting to ask for ID’s, but when all they found was one joint, they seemed really embarrassed. They huffed and puffed about jail and then told us to just leave. It made the papers the next day. The sheriff was quoted in a big newspaper headline calling us “Doozies.” The Super Hero band wrote and recorded a novelty song about that night that we called “Doozie.” It got some airplay on the local FM station. You just couldn’t write this stuff. It was like some cheesy movie.
One of the infamous tales of the year of the Super Hero’s involved the police. We all lived in one big Victorian house and kept all our equipment stored in a backroom. One night as I came in by myself I noticed the equipment room was empty. I figured the rest of the guys were off jamming somewhere. When they arrived home and didn’t have the equipment, it was one of those what the f…ck moments. We called the police who arrived and asked a thousand questions. Our band house had a reputation for parties so their questions were as much about us as the missing equipment. They left promising to look into it.
We put the word out on the street. All the bands on the central coast knew each other so it wasn’t long before someone told us about seeing a van in our driveway that night. From the description of the van, we knew it belonged to a rival band from the next town down the coast. In fact we had played the big dance hall that was owned by the band’s father.
We went stealth in the middle of the night and ended up looking in the back windows of the club. Much to our surprise, right before our eyes some guys were taking our equipment apart to sell the speakers. It was 3am in the morning, but we called the detective and they told us not to engage. It was going to take him a ½ hour to get there so, we went in anyway and busted them. There was a tense moment, but the police showed up and as they say the jig was up.
One of the band members was the son of the town’s mayor so it was a big story for a couple of days. We figured we get our equipment back and they would go to jail on felony theft. First lesson in the legal system. If you’re connected deals are made. The defense told us they were impounding our equipment as evidence for the trial unless we allowed them to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor. We really had no choice. We had to make a living, so basically the kid got his hand slapped and got away with it. First lesson of power.
Final Act of Chaos
We made it through the year and I was getting ready to graduate when I was informed that the requirements had changed and I needed to take three additional classes. That was another semester. I was livid, but truth be told I was not paying that much attention to actually going to school so it could be I missed it. Anyway, I had already set things up in Hollywood and mentally and emotionally I was done with school.
As we all comprehended the end, we decided to do one last performance. We chose of all places the airplane hangar were it all started for me at Poly. Seemed like poetic justice and I didn’t care at that point what the school officials thought. Secretly we checked out all the audio visual equipment at the school and got their big out door speakers as well that we used to build a wall of sound. Our Super Hero light show decided to put small sky rockets in the cans at the front of the stage that we used in the big finale. We also got two very large airplane strobes and set them up pointed towards the audience. Word got around that we were going to do one last crazy thing and the hangar was backed. (1,500 people)
Now the hangar had a very high roof so our light show reasoned there was room to set the small sky rockets off and they would burst high in the air. We powered through the evening. I remember there were about three rows of people standing at the front of the stage starring. Probably some mind altering chemical was involved. When the last song approached the end, the light show turned off all the lights except for the strobes. It was hard to look at. I can only imagine what it was like on acid.
The song concluded with our lead singer Mike (always wanted to be Jim Morrison) pointing at each of the cans very dramatically at the front of the stage. Flames roared out of the cans, almost setting Mikes hair on fire. The sky rockets went off, climbed to the ceiling and then rebounded back into the audience. Combined with the strobe lights it was chaos. Some people fell to the ground, others ran for the exits. To this day I don’t know where the fire department was. We had all the lights and our amps hooked up to one plug. The song came to a conclusion and suddenly we pulled the plug. The room went from complete chaos to completely quiet. Not a sound was heard until some started screaming. Somehow no one was hurt, and it was written up in the papers the next day. We never got called in. It was like it didn’t happen. That is the performance that most Poly students remember from that year. A fitting end to a year where we just wanted to have fun.
End of School
College for me quietly came to an end. Later I would regret not finishing, but in that moment, fame and fortune called from Hollywood. No contest. We all said our good byes and I headed off to La La land. Ahead was the Universal mail room, a number one song and the climax of my music career. SLO had been just what I needed. Some close friends stayed in town after school and I loved visiting them in the 80’s and the 90’s. It’s a hugely popular area now, but I still see the remnants of the small town that sheltered me through an important phase of coming into myself.