- Great Yeah to Life
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I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco in the ’50s and ’60s, and attended college at the University of San Francisco from 1969–73, so the counterculture felt like it was happening just down the block. The six blocks of Telegraph Avenue leading to U. C. Berkeley and Sproul Plaza was a place of awakening for me in ’67 and ’68. My high school pals and I would pile in a ’52 Chevrolet and drive up the Nimitz and then the stately Warren freeways, the Doors’s “Light My Fire” as loud as possible on the radio (long version, of course). We’d get off at the Berkeley exit, drive past the bone-white sobriety of the old Claremont Hotel, and suddenly arrive in the Land of Otherwise, Berkeley. The colors seemed more intense in Berkeley, mostly an iridescent green aura of cedars and eucalyptus. My spiritual antennae seemed to say, “Okay, pay attention. You might actually be alive now.”
Comically, we ourselves were not really much like the place. We wore our suburban boys uniform of the day: short-sleeve madras shirts, sleeveless wool sweater-vests, Levi’s, and brown suede saddle shoes. We called this look “college” (pronounced co-leege), although I doubt we could have said why. Into Vaughn’s at Sather Gate we’d go, that venerable (and now long defunct) clothier of frat boys. The hippies on the street would laugh at us as we walked by, lined up like goslings lacking their mother. But their laughter was gentle and indulgent. I understood what they meant. I sort of wished I could laugh at us, too.
But after Vaughn’s, we had other purposes: Odyssey Records (in a storefront later to be the home of famous Rasputin’s Records). That was our real destination. I bought John Mayall’s A Hard Road (1967) with the heart-stopping guitar of Peter Green, Blue Cheer’s over the top Vincebus Eruptum (1968) with its primordial cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” Paul Butterfield’s East/West (1966), Steve Miller’s Children of the Future (1968) with Boz Skaggs, as well as records by local bands like the Loading Zone and the Sons of Champlin. I’d play those records at night on my Sears record player and listen in that interstellar remove that headphones provide. That was where I wanted to live, with those bass notes blossoming in my skull, that sympathetic bone.
From 1971–1973 I lived with roommates in a first floor flat at 1837 Oak Street #3, right across from the Golden Gate Park panhandle, and just a block away from Haight and Ashbury. By ’71 the Haight was no longer the origin of Waves of Galactic Love, and no longer a place a self-respecting Beatle would visit (as George famously did in 1967). What I most remember was the dog shit on the sidewalk, the drug-addled runaway girls, and the line of people outside the free medical clinic waiting to be tested for syphilis.
In spite of this sad decline, you could still stop at Ho Chi Minh’s (sorry) liquor store on a Friday night, buy a bottle of Ripple Pagan Pink, and catch the 5 McAllister down to Geary and the Fillmore Auditorium. There you could see Albert King or Santana or, the best show I saw there, Rod Stewart and the Small Faces with Ronnie Wood. Rock my plimsoul, honey.
I assumed from the first that postmodernism was the literature of the counterculture, and I took to it as readily as I had taken to Quicksilver Messenger Service. I couldn’t have put it this way at the time, but what attracted me was that both psychedelia and postmodernism were forms of “defamiliarization.” The real had been disenchanted by liars, and war mongers, and imperialists, and “plastic people” (as Zappa put it), and so we turned to the weird. Brautigan was weird. Vonnegut was weird. Barthelme’s Snow White (1967) was weird. And then of course there was Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). Anyone who...