Fearless, Fighting, Foul-Mouthed or When Universes Converge
This is Berkeley, California, the summer of '64, and the ruckus at Mel's Drive-In
had simmered down but the Free Speech Movement
was simmering and waiting to be born. The magazine stands near the campus carried cigarettes from Yugoslavia, England, and France many in small tin boxes, and even Balkan Sobranies for the true effetes, and the wood strips on the rack held down newspapers from more countries than those. There were also small independent offerings that had made their way from states far, far away, and of course "The Realist" made its regular trip in from New York.
Me, I was much closer to home. In fact, as I recall I was walking back to where I was staying from the Co-op with a little sack of grub and as a fellow walking next to me began matching my strides, we fell into step for half a block or so and amicably chatted a bit the way young people did then. And probably about the weather. I said I might catch up with him later.
So I went to hear a young folk singer up there at the Jabberwock, a little hole in the wall coffee house type place on Telegraph Avenue, and the guy was named Joe MacDonald.
That’s where I first met a guy who was a dj for his own blues program. Joe had a local following then, having been raised in the area, and the other fellow was a volunteer dj running a blues program on the local version of KPFK.
Those were stations with fairly low frequency modulation and broadcast capability, but there were two subsidiaries in the Bay Area. At that time, they were designated by different calls letters, KPFA and KPFB. One originated in Berkeley (that was “KPF-B for Berkeley”), another originated in San Francisco and they across the water had different programming with more classical and jazz orientation and a different style of hosting deejays.
Two, that's right, TWO public radio stations for those lucky and close enough to be within broadcast range. Certainly seemed there was sufficient interest in this “alternative” to commercial radio programming, at least in the Bay Area, to warrant such a large volunteer effort on the part of the people bringing the programming to the public. A fellow named Chris Strachwitz was beginning to get better distribution for his Arhoolie label that up to then he had been selling out of his house thanks in part to the good music he was putting out that attracted the honest attention of people volunteering as dj’s on those non-commercial radio stations.
The guitar world of Berkeley at the time consisted of such notable people as Robbie Basho, John Fahey, and Sandy Bull. Joe went on to become “Country Joe,” his mom was a schoolteacher when I met her and was into local politics in Berkeley, and the dj went into action in the newly-forming FSM before he went on to manage what became Country Joe and the Fish.
Oh, the important thing, I met the dj’s wife. Years later I learned she had spent some childhood years in Manzanar, the Japanese internment center in California (and later even than that I learned she was once pen pals with Jade Snow Wong), but at that time I only knew she had been raised in Berkeley. She was funny.
We were talking in the coffee house, there was a candle on the table for atmosphere, and though it was night, I was wearing my sun glasses.
So she opened her purse and put on hers in the dark, so we could relate better and have a more meaningful conversation or something.
She put on her shades. I asked her if anyone famous, other than herself, had been raised in Berkeley.
She told me Johnny Otis
was raised in Berkeley, too.
Wow, I said, genuinely impressed because Johnny Otis was a famous character where I had come from.
Wow, I meant, I didn’t know or could even suspect that, that’s quite cool.
Wow, I thought, that seemed like one of those cosmic connections everybody was beginning to talk about.
And how people used to talk in coffee houses when the musicians left the stage.
Somehow “Johnny Otis” would come up in conversation.
Ed would say, “Johnny Otis.” (meaning he really liked listening to his records)
His wife would bubble a laugh and say, “Johnny Otis.” (meaning she knew of him as a person, maybe knew him at grammar school)
I would say, “Johnny Otis.” (meaning, “you mean you know him, I mean met him as a person?!”)
Then “Frank Zappa” would come up in conversation.
Ed would say, “Frank Zappa ...” (meaning he had likely never heard of him)
Gloria would say, “Frank Zappa ...” (meaning she was open to listening about him)
I would say, “Frank Zappa.” (meaning they were going to hear more about him)
There's something about to happen in the coming year: Another record by Ry Cooder
That's right ... here's the cover art
(keep digging under new releases ... you'll find it)
and here's the backstory
about how the album came about.
That article sketches a small mystery involving the album that indicates strange forces are at work. I can't begin to explain it, but it seems the mysterious influence is spreading to anyone touching the project in any way. A recent showing
of the cover artist Vincent Valdez' work was at DePauw University. DePauw, I sounded the word out loud as I read it again. Surely that's a coincidence.