SPECIAL MID-MONTH EDITION
COLUMN SEVENTY-NINE, NOVEMBER 15, 2002
(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)
'A LONG, STRANGE TRIP'
on the edge of the Western world, the Golden Gate channel cuts through the
coastal range to link the Pacific Ocean and a bay, creating a haven called San
Francisco. In 1492, the greater
region was the fertile home to the most populous place in what would become the
United States. When it was
colonized and named for St. Francis of Assisi in 1776, some ineffable but
authentic connection linked the name source to the spirit of the land and kept
it a place that wasn't quite like the rest of the continent.
The gold rush that began in 1848 filled it with marginalized seekers from
the rest of the United States and the world, and ever after, it was a sanctuary
for the odd and eccentric. As
Robinson Jeffers put it, "For our country here at the west of things / Is
pregnant of dreams."
Near the end of World War 1, it welcomed Manuel Garcia, an
electrician from La Corufia, Spain, who bought a home in the outer Mission
District and settled there with his wife and four children.
In 1935 his second son---baptized Jose, but commonly called Joe a
swing-band leader and reedman, married for the second time, to Ruth Marie
"Bobbie" Clifford, a nurse. Their first child, Clifford ("Tiff"), was born in
1937, and their second and last child was born on August 1, 1942, at
It was a miserable irony that the Garcia family was
irremediably shattered while on vacation. In
the summer of 1947, they were enjoying themselves near Arcata, in Northern
California. Joe went fishing, and
drowned. Jerry later claimed to
have witnessed his father's death, though it seems more likely that this was a
memory formed from repeated tellings. A
bit paradoxically, he also recalled being unable to listen to stories about his
father until he was ten or eleven. In
any event, their wounds were grievous.
In the absence of his father, Jerry naturally depended
on his mother for support. But
Bobbie had never been a particularly domestic woman. Artistic and a student of opera, she was also a follower of
Velikovsky, astrology, and palm reading. More
pressingly, she had a living to earn, and as she came to spend the bulk of her
time down at Joe Garcia's at 1st and Harrison, the care of her children fell
more and more to her parents, Tillie and Bill Clifford, "Nan" and
"Pop." Jerry in particular felt deprived and deserted, especially when
he and Tiff moved in with Nan and Pop at 87 Harrington Street, in the Excelsior
neighborhood of the outer Mission District, while Bobbie lived in a cottage
across the street. In later years he would relate a specific traumatic memory of
being left behind on the street one day by his mother, of frantically searching
for her until he was finally found by his grandmother.
He was bereft, and he would always carry a feeling that he was not loved
or cared for, that he was not worthy. These scars would never fade.
Jerry's relationship with his mother would sour
further when Bobbie, as Tiff put it, "started getting married a lot."
There was a brief marriage to one Ben Brown in 1949, seemingly because Ben was a
construction foreman whose labors Bobbie employed to improve her cottage.
The extended Garcia family did not approve of the marriage, and any
support they might have given the boys fell away.
Years later, as a teenager, Jerry even made nasty remarks about his
mother's morals. Fair or not, the
damage was done. His self-esteem
and capacity for trust in women had been permanently damaged.
A few months before his father's death, Jerry suffered
another loss. He and Tiff were at
Nan and Pop's country house in the Santa Cruz mountains south of San Francisco.
Tiff was chopping wood, and Jerry was being his little helper when his
right hand got in the way of the descending ax.
His enduring memory was of a buzzing sound he would come to associate
with shock, then jumping around not looking at his wound, then a long drive to
the doctor's, the world vibrating in his ears.
It was only when the last bandage fell off in the bathtub one night that
he discovered to his surprise that he had lost the top two joints of his middle
Harrington Street was only a block long, connecting
Mission Street at one end and a major thoroughfare, Alemany Boulevard, at the
other. In the 1940s, the center of
the block was not yet developed, and there was a small open field, with a barn,
trees, and an informal playground. Mission
Street was lined with stores, including a hobby and model train shop.
It was an Italian and Irish working-class neighborhood, with the Jewish
Home for the Aged just a block or two down Mission.
Despite their Latin last name and Tillie's own Swedish heritage, the
Garcia boys thought of their ethnicity as deriving largely from Pop and saw
themselves as Mission (District) Irish, a standard San Francisco ethnic
classification. Around the corner
on Alemany was Corpus Christi Church, which they attended regularly.
The Church's theater of hell served as usual to tinge Jerry's later
sexuality with guilt, but even more important, he realized later, it gave him a
sense of the mysterious spiritual world beyond the material one.
Life with Nan and Pop had its rewards.
For Tiff, who at ten was supposed to be the man of the family (at least
as this applied to his mother and brother), there was a good role model in Pop,
a taciturn man who liked his beer, the fights, and puttering with a wide array
of hobbies. His independent laundry
delivery business brought him home early, in time to keep an eye on the boys.
Jerry, by contrast, thought of Pop as a "bump on a log," and
instead turned to Nan, whom he resembled in charm and gregariousness.
Tillie Clifford was a fascinating and formidable woman.
A founder and the secretary/treasurer of the local Laundry Workers'
Union, she was an expert politician who always dressed well and seemingly knew
everyone in San Francisco. She was
not to be trifled with. In 1916,
she had filed charges against her husband for assault.
He was contrite, and the judge had taken his side.
"You will run for office again," she warned the court.
"I shall see to it that you don't get some votes." Her threat
did not seem to have any effect, but she remained unabashed.
Jerry would recall her as a beautiful woman with a spiritual quality, an
authentic socialist who was either "a fabulous liar or she just genuinely
loved everybody." She was also a second-generation San Franciscan,
independent of conventional mores as she openly attended out-of-town union
meetings with her extramarital boyfriend.
Periodically bedridden by asthma attacks as a young
boy, Jerry passed his time reading and watching television.
Their nearly first-on-the-block set---the people with the first one had a
child with polio, so no one could visit and watch it---confirmed him as a child
of the fifties. He also loved drawing, for which he showed an early talent.
Perhaps it was true, as his palm-reading mother had told him, that he had
"the hands to be an artist." In the third grade he had the good
fortune to have a young bohemian teacher, Miss Simon, who encouraged him to be
involved in every possible art project. Soon
he felt not only a blossoming identity as an artist, but also a general sense of
being different from most other people. His
favorite reading became the comics that Tiff swiped on Mission Street,
especially E.C. ("Entertaining Comics") comic books, like the classic Tales
From the Crypt. Though the gory
Old Testament tales of retribution revolted parents across the nation, their
German expressionistic silent-movie graphic style introduced young Jerry
unconsciously to fundamental lessons in art and form.
Whatever needs the horror genre satisfied for Jerry,
and it would appeal to him all his life, he soon found a new medium in which to
explore them. He went to the
Granada Theater at Ocean and Mission to see Abbott and Costello Meet
Frankenstein, and both horror movies and film in general permanently
captured his attention. On his
first visit, he was so frightened that he couldn't look at the screen, and
instead found the pattern of the fabric on the back of the seats engraved in his
memory. Striving to master his fear
with knowledge, he began to study the classic film monsters---Frankenstein's,
Dracula, and the Wolf Man. When his
reading graduated to novels, his first selection was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Horror also influenced his artwork, and his favorite subject for
years was Boris Karloff in the Jack Pearce Frankenstein's monster makeup.
It was his first taste of the weird, and he loved it.
In 1953 Bobbie remarried, the boys moved back in with her, and for Jerry, life went straight to hell. Wally Matusiewicz was a stocky blond sailor, a hardworking man who expected his
painfully confused about himself and women for all his days'
stepsons to work
alongside him on home projects; but physical labor was never going to be Jerry's
idea of a good time. His
relationship with Wally went swiftly downhill, for a variety of deeply emotional
reasons. In a confused,
never-understood way, Jerry had never entirely forgiven his mother for the death
of his father, nor for remarrying. Now
hormones swept over him in the usual tidal wave, crashing into the retaining
wall of his Roman Catholicism and creating a jumbled mess.
As an adult he would concede that sex and women were never his primary
concern, "except for when it really runs you around crazy, when you're
around fourteen or so." Add to puberty his alienation from his mother and
you had a recipe for torment. Twenty
years later he would read an underground comic book called Binky Brown Meets
the Holy Virgin Mary and grasp profoundly that it described exactly the hell
of his early teens, as captured in the rays of light, lust, guilt, that emanated
from Binky's crotch, up toward the Virgin, down to hell, and out toward the
entire world. Coping with sexuality
is tough; dealing with the guilt of the Roman Catholic Church regarding sex is
tougher; doing both when confused by an absent father and a mother perceived as
disloyal---this for Jerry was impossible. He
would love and be loved, but he would stay painfully confused about himself and
women for all his days.
year Union Oil bought the property on which Joe Garcia's was located, and while
Bobbie waited for the company to build her a new bar on the opposite corner, she
decided to move her family twenty-five miles south of the city to Menlo Park.
The Garcias were part of a social tidal wave.
In the aftermath of World War 11, millions of veterans had used the G.I.
Bill to move from working-class to middle-class lives, and from rent?ing city
apartments to owning suburban homes. Their
prosperity was one consequence of the permanent war economy that the Cold War
demanded. Another result was
suburban conformity. Jerry would
first become conscious of racism and anti-Semitism in Menlo Park, and he
didn't like them. His new friends
were determinedly diverse, ranging from a classmate and early sweetheart, Mary
Brydges, to Will Oda, the son of a Nisei gardener at Stanford, to his best
friend, Laird Grant, a working-class borderline hoodlum.
One of the other ways that he countered the suburban blabs was with
music. As the predominant culture
of the fifties grew ever more bland, the discerning ear could find escape in the
riches of African American music.
In the Bay Area, that meant the rhythm and blues
station KWBR, to which Tiff introduced him.
An obscure street-corner tune by the Crows called Gee set him to
listening to the cream of American popular music, and Ray Charles, John Lee
Hooker, Jimmy Reed, B. B. King, and Muddy Waters kept him company all day and
half the night long. Initially a
solo acoustic form from the Mississippi Delta, the blues evolved through
boogie-woogie piano and Kansas City big-band vocal shouting to Chicago, where
Muddy Waters found acoustic guitar inaudible in forties clubs.
His transition to electric guitar defined a new urban blues, which
evolved yet again into the R&B of the late forties and the fifties.
Each mode contained a high realism that knew life as a solitary
confinement sometimes comforted by sexuality or even love but inevitably
succeeded by a death sentence. In
all of American popular music, only the blues spoke truthfully of love and
death. Enthralled, Jerry absorbed
not only chords and rhythms but a certain vision.
It was not the psychopathology of Norman Mailer's White Negro that
he acquired, but hipness, the authentic wisdom eternally found at the edges and
bottom of the social pyramid.
1955, rock and roll---rhythm and blues with a backbeat---emerged to enliven a
torpid America. First came Bill
Haley and the Comets' Rock Around the Clock, a No. 1 hit a year after its
release when it served as the theme song of a classic film of youthful
rebellion, Blackboard Jungle. The
producers of the film displayed their understanding of the music's importance
and violated film custom by mixing the song at high volume.
The audience grasped that decision perfectly.
The resistance to adult authority depicted in the film and in the
contemporary career of James Dean attracted Jerry, though not the song itself
Most of the early rock tunes were the product of small regional labels, like
Little Richard Penniman's bizarre, manic Tutti Frutti on Specialty.
Inevitably, the larger companies moved to co-opt the rock and roll fad,
releasing Pat Boone's acceptably bland cover version of Tutti Frutti
among many other covers to even greater commercial success.
It was a critical moment for Jerry, who swiftly came to understand that
there was frequently an authentic black version, and then "there's the lame
white version." Two unquestionably genuine tunes from Chicago's small Chess
Records caught his ear. Bo
Diddley's self-named tune established the fundamental shave-and-a-haircut beat,
and Chuck Berry's Maybellene melded country guitar riffs with the
backbeat and melody of rhythm and blues and defined rock's fundamental
structure and attitude. To Jerry it
seemed like a cowboy song, "only nastier," and to a thirteen-year-old
with surging hormones, nasty was very, very good.
For the first time in history, large masses of young white Americans were
listening and dancing to black musicians.
Another aspect of black American life stirred at this
time, the precise connections to the music uncertain but impossible to dismiss.
In December 1955, a young Birmingham, Alabama, minister named Martin
Luther King Jr. united his passionate nonviolent moral leadership with the
organizational genius of the city's local civil rights leader and the
communications system of television to sustain an anti-segregation bus boycott.
It would trigger the greatest American social movement since the
organization of labor. Not least of
the civil rights movement's effects would be to give the future politics of
American protest a spiritual rather than an ideological base.
And the spirit was in the songs.
Jerry had been a bright but fairly indifferent student
to this point, excelling in art and the occasional subject that took his
interest, but an underachieving "wise guy' the rest of the time.
He seemed to his friend Mary Brydges to be pretty much "in his own
world," doodling skulls and crossbones and monsters, always funny and fun,
sarcastic but not cruel, somehow "more worldly, faster" than the
rest of the kids, but also a little lonelier. Then
in the fall of 1955 he entered the Fast Learner Program in the eighth grade at
Menlo Oaks school. His new teacher,
Dwight John'son, an iconoclastic bohemian who was regularly in trouble with the
school administration, was the perfect inspiration for students like Jerry.
When Mr. Johnson roared up to school on his Vincent Black Shadow
motorcycle or MG TC, he instantly drew his students' attention, and when he
threw open the class to discussion and introduced them to D. H. Lawrence and
George Orwell, Jerry delightedly followed him into the intellectual world.
Johnson noticed Jerry's facility as an artist, and soon the boy was
absorbed in murals, the sets for school plays, and the school newspaper.
He did not exactly become a well-behaved Good Student, however, and
continued with one of his favorite games, mock switchblade duels in the school
corridor with his buddy Laird Grant. When
he dug in his heels over retaking certain tests toward the end of the year, he
was re?quired to repeat the eighth grade.
Finally, in June 1957 he graduated from Menlo Oaks and moved back to San
Francisco, where he lived some of the time with Nan and Pop and some of the time
with his mother and stepfather at their new apartment above the new bar at lst
Bobbie's fifteenth-birthday present to him that summer
would turn out to be quite special, although at first it was a giant
disappointment. She'd purchased a
lovely Neapolitan accordion for him from one of the sailors at the bar, but
after plenty of adolescent moans and whines, she agreed to swap it for the
Danelectro guitar he'd spotted in a pawnshop window at the corner of 3rd and
Folsom, a few blocks from the bar. He'd
had years of piano lessons before the move to Menlo Park, but his personality
resisted formal teaching, and he'd lost interest. Now music consumed him.
Whatever his other deficiencies were, Jerry's stepfather happened to have
mandolins and other stringed instruments around the house, even electrical
instruments, amplifiers, and a rare (for that time) tape recorder.
Mr. Matusiewicz tuned the Danelectro to some odd open tuning, or perhaps
it merely became that in Jerry's hands. Working
only with his ear and the Chuck Berry tunes on the bar jukebox, Garcia began the
practice that would turn out to be the focus of his life.
His cousin Danny saw him with the guitar and followed
suit, going to the same pawnshop for his own.
Though Danny, Joe's brother Manuel's son, had been part of Jerry and
Tiffs life from their earliest days, music proved an especially unifying common
bond in their mid-teens. Jerry's
father had not been the only musical Garcia.
Their grandfather "Papuella? (Joe's father) had insisted that his
sons and grandsons learn to play an instrument and sing, and though, as Danny
recalled it, "it wasn't an option," the boys liked music anyway.
Jerry, Tiff, and Danny would spend a good part of their teens singing on
street corners, learning how to harmonize.
Now Danny, who knew some music theory, taught Jerry the conventional
tunings for rock, and he found them "a revelation ... the key to
heaven." He began to gobble up the styles of Eddie Cochran, Jimmy Reed,
Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, and, as always, Chuck Berry.
The summer of 1957 was a memorable one.
In addition to the guitar, Jerry discovered cigarettes, a lifelong habit,
and marijuana, two joints shared with a friend that sent them laughing and
skipping down the street. Tiff had graduated from high school in 1956 and enlisted in
the Marine Corps, so Jerry was more on his own now, and his world began to
expand. He and Danny would take the
14 Mission bus downtown to see movies, go shopping at the Emporium, sometimes
with a "five-finger discount" (shoplifting), or out to the Cliff House, a
restaurant and sight'seeing complex that overlooked the ocean, and the Playland
amusement park down the hill. Jerry
spent the ninth grade at Denman Junior High School in the outer Mission, and
then in the fall of 1958 began tenth grade across the street at Balboa High
School. Balboa was frequently a
tough place, filled with Barts ("Black Bart" Italians with
'greaser" haircuts) and shoes (Pat Boone white-shoe-wearing prep types).
Later, Garcia "would tell more than a few tall tales about his
career as a street fighter, but his family and friends of the era didn't
recall it that way.
His more natural environment was at Joe Garcia's, where he worked "pearl diving" (washing) dishes and "decorating" (stocking) the joint with beer. Music remained his passion, and he often worked with a transistor radio earplug wedged firmly in his ear. Just as often he'd take a break and play along to the jukebox with his guitar. Although the old-fashioned original Joe Garcia's had been replaced by a modern fifties circular bar with mirrored columns for glasses, slick naugahyde booths, and chrome fixtures, it remained a lively place, its clientele a mixture of longshoremen and sailors from the Sailors Union of the Pacific on one corner, and Union Oil executives from the other corner. It was a verbal ambience, one that welcomed Joe Garcia's son as an equal. He was gregarious by nature, but this aspect of his personality was greatly encouraged by example. "I've always wanted to be able to turn on people," he said later, "and also I've always taken it for granted that if I like something, that other people Will like it, too ... the bar world established that kind of feeling; it engulfed me like a little community." He joined the
Jerry picked up his 'basic beatnik chops' listening to Lawrence Ferlinghetti read in North Beach
conversational mix with pleasure, listening to tales of the 1934 general strike,
Harry Bridges, and other local legends. The founder of the Longshoremen's Union, Bridges was an
Australian and former Communist Party member who was a hero in San Francisco,
but only there, and only in San Francisco were the latest rebels, the members of
the Beat Generation, a source of civic pride.
In fact, San Francisco had an institution that served
as a direct channel into this alternative world, the California School of Fine
Arts (later the San Francisco Art Institute).
It was the only school Garcia would ever be proud of attending.
On Saturdays the school had an extension program, Pre-College Art, taught
by its regular faculty. Garcia's teacher was the well-known funk (assemblage) artist
Wally Hedrick, who would serve Jerry as a model not only as a painter but as an
expositor of a way of life. He
taught the boy, remembered Garcia, that "art is not only something you do,
but something you are as well." A working-class military veteran who'd
once, on the strength of his beard, gotten a job sitting in the front window of
the Beat North Beach bar Vesuvio's, Hedrick had found his first conventional job
as a teacher at the School of Fine Arts. It
was he who had asked poet Michael McClure to organize the 1955 Six Gallery
reading that introduced Allen Ginsberg's Howl to the world.
Struck by Garcia's native intelligence and sense of hipness, Hedrick told
Jerry that he and his friends were the real Beat Generation, and sent them down
the hill to North Beach and its coffeehouses to, as Garcia said later, "pick
up my basic beatnik chops," listening to Lawrence Ferlinghetti read at the
Coexistence Bagel Shop, along with other poets at other clubs.
And on the way, Hedrick sent Garcia over to City
Lights Bookstore to pick up Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a book that
changed his life forever. Kerouac's
hymn to the world as an explorational odyssey, an adventure outside conventional
boundaries, would serve as a blueprint for the rest of Garcia's life.
And it plugged him consciously into a continuous line of alternative
American culture going back to Thoreau and Walt Whitman and up through the
current eminence of Bay Area bohemian Kenneth Rexroth, the master of ceremonies
of that seminal Six Gallery reading. As
McClure, one of the other Six readers, put it, Rexroth promoted 'serious
Buddhism, Eskimo poetry, radical social movements, physics, and even esoteric
Christianity. He was a mountain climber, a hiker, and he knew how to fix
his own car." It was a very different vision of life and culture than one
might find in the heavily intellectualized New York City of the same period.
As one of Garcia's classmates in Pre-College Art, Ann
Besig, would later recognize, he was more mature and "comfortable" in
the bohemian environment than most of the other students.
Hedrick described Garcia's work as "figurative but with freewheeling
brushwork ... strongly painted, heavily textured ... not talented, but [he had]
understanding." To Laird Grant, Jerry's best painting was of a man sitting
destitute in the gutter, a jug in his hand.
Aside from introducing the exalted mysteries of art, the school was a
direct connection to fun, like the costume party they attended, Jerry as a
vampire and Laird as a monster. They
arrived in time to see a young woman, nude under a fur coat, step out of a limo
to enter the gathering. The raisin
in her navel identified her as a cookie.
Despite the stimulation of art school, Garcia
continued to get into trouble. Many
of his friends from before Menlo Park were now hoodlums, and though he probably
wasn't all that involved in violence or crime, he was certainly diverging from
the straight and narrow. More often
than not, his journey to Balboa High School concluded instead downtown at the
movie theaters on Market Street, where he stoked his lifelong fascination with
film. Formal education became
increasingly irrelevant, and his rare appearances at Balboa were chiefly
punctuated by getting caught?--for smoking in the boys' room, minor fights, or
cutting classes, all the usual dreary detritus of high school life.
In the summer of 1959, Bobbie Garcia made a last-ditch effort to restore
her son to conventional behavior and moved the family to Cazadero, a tiny town
in the redwoods eighty, miles north of San Francisco.
It was futile, of course. Garcia's
problems were centered on his boredom with regimented life, and adding a lengthy
commute to his day at Sebastopol's Analy High School did not help.
However, Analy did have a band called the Chords, and
Jerry soon joined it. Their
business card read "featuring the Golden Saxes," and their material
was largely 1940s big-band tunes, including Misty and songs by Billy
Vaughn. It was, Garcia would say,
"kind of easy-listening stuff Businessman's bounce, high school
version." They played at youth canteens, high school dances, and once at a
Sea Scouts graduation ceremony. With
only limited experience at playing with others, Garcia was an extremely
primitive musician, so crude that his bandleader had to shift the capo on his
guitar so that he could transpose keys. Jerry's
attitude didn't always help, either. He played a great deal with his cousin Danny at this time,
and Danny was a sober, steadying influence who wanted to rehearse regularly and
learn chords and structure. But
Jerry's invariable response was "Let's just play, man." Years later
Garcia would, inevitably, regret his lack of formal knowledge and discipline.
But even in 1959 he showed an ability to play convincing rock and roll on
the Chords'occasional contemporary tunes. The
band even won a contest and got to record a song, Bill Doggett's Raunchy.
Garcia's facility with rock was ironic, because the
form was at a low ebb, with each of its creators distracted by circumstances:
Elvis Presley was in the army, Chuck Berry was on his way to jail for a Mann Act
violation, and Little Richard had entered the ministry.
The predominant institution in pop music at the time was Don Kirshner and
Al Nevins's Aldon Music, which focused on the songwriting of Barry Mann and
Cynthia Weill, Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
Highly professional New York City production-oriented pop had replaced
the original performer-created rock.
Early in 1960, Jerry got into his final bit of
trouble, as he would recall it, by stealing his mother's car.
In the tradition of the era, his options were simple---jail or the army.
Though Tiff begged Jerry to delay his enlistment until he could get home
from the marines and talk his younger brother out of it, Jerry was in no mood to
wait; he decided to join the army and see the world.
He got about 150 miles away from San Francisco, to Fort Ord, near
Monterey, where he endured basic training.
Somehow, it was not terribly surprising that his squad leader turned out
to be a jail veteran who happened to be able to fingerpick acoustic guitar.
Jerry had first heard acoustic music from Jimmy Reed on the radio, and
then again when Wally Hedrick played Big Bill Broonzy during class, and now he
started to listen to Joan Baez's incredibly beautiful voice, which sent him
into old-time southern white music. It
was a move in line with hip taste.
Folk music had entered the American mainstream a year
before in San Francisco, at a club called the Purple Onion, with a group of good?looking
college boys in striped shirts called the Kingston Trio.
With five No. 1 albums and hits like Tom Dooley and Scotch
and Soda, they knocked off traditional tunes with smooth harmonies and
good humor, and started a rage. Rock had been professionalized and made boring, whereas folk
was direct and authentic, seemingly the genuine product of a community rather
than a manufactured commodity. It
was part of a continuum that included the New Deal, Woody Guthrie, and the
ongoing civil rights movement, and it swept the country.
It was easy for Garcia to observe the San Francisco folk scene, since it had moved to North Beach's hungry i, the hippest club in America, and after basic training at Fort Ord he'd landed in the choicest duty in the entire United States Army, the Presidio of San Francisco. He might just as well have been back hustling on Mission Street, because the army was just a party. In between working at menial tasks, he would sit up all night with the armorer filing the serial
As Jerry's life slid further and further out of control, music became his only stabilizing force
numbers off .45 automatics in order to sell them.
Surrounded by old army characters now safely ensconced in the heavenly
confines of the Presidio, he correctly saw his military career as a joke best
expressed by the old saw "the incompetent leading the unwilling to do the
unnecessary in an unbelievable amount of time." His inglorious military
career revealed an utter lack of talent for either mindless obedience or artful
dodging, and it was bound not to last. His
friend the squad leader had taken up with the sister of one of Garcia's former
girlfriends, and late in 1960 he was holed up in a Palo Alto hotel threatening
suicide as well as trying to sell Garcia a Fender Jazzmaster guitar he'd stolen
somewhere. Garcia spent more time
sitting up with his friend than making it back to the Presidio in time for roll
call, and he began to collect multiple counts of AWOL (absent without official
As his life slid further and further out of control,
music became the only stabilizing force available to him.
The one thing that he could hold on to was the guitar, which he played
constantly. But his music was
handicapped, and not by the missing portion of the middle finger on his right
hand; almost from the first, he'd chosen to use a pick (although he did
acknowledge later that with a full hand he'd have played piano or classical
guitar). No, his limit as a
musician at that time was his lack of a partner.
Very early on, he intuitively realized that he needed someone else to
play with, a companion, a musical cohort. Over
the years he would have many collaborators, but in terms of playing music, as
apart from composing it, there would be one supreme pal, and he hadn't met him
Lesh found his future one Sunday in 1944 at the age of four, when his
grandmother discovered him intently listening from the next room to the New York
Philharmonic's broadcast. Having
already taught him to read, she was happy to expose her grandson to more.
The next week she inquired, "Philip, would you like to come and
listen to the nice music on the radio?" Bruno Walter conducted Brahms's
First Symphony, and from then on, Lesh's life had focus.
His father, Frank, was an office equipment repairman, and their lives
were generally comfortably middle-class, except for a rather rarefied taste in
music. From the third grade on,
Phil took violin lessons, and when his braces were removed at fourteen, he took
up the trumpet. Except for a fascination with racing cars, music occupied
most of his life. He was not
athletic, and his intelligence had set him apart from his peers.
In the second grade, word had gotten out at a PTA meet?ing that Phil
Lesh had the highest I.Q. in school, and more than a few of his classmates were
asked why they couldn't be as smart as he was.
He would never hear the end of it, and it made for an extremely difficult
adolescence. The incident turned
him inward, and the combination of brilliance and isolation made him focus
powerfully on his own values, in the tradition of an elite artist.
His parents, Frank and Barbara, supported the musical
ambitions of their only child, and in the middle of his junior year in high
school the family moved so that he could transfer from El Cerrito High School to
Berkeley High School, where the music program was infinitely better.
He seized the opportunity, joining the band, the orchestra, the dance
band, and the Pro Musica. He also acquired an affectionate surrogate musical father in
Bob Hanson, the conductor of the distinguished Golden Gate Park Bandshell unit.
Eventually, Lesh would play second trumpet for Hanson in the Oakland
Symphony and earn the first chair in Hanson's Young People's Symphony Orchestra.
Hanson would remember a thin, restless boy with a marvelous ear who
lacked wind, but not persistence. By
graduation in June 1957, Lesh's ability to transpose keys on sight would earn
him the first chair at a high-quality college-sponsored music camp and send him
that fall to San Francisco State University.
Less developed as a personality than as a musician, he soon dropped out
of State and returned home.
demanding and critical of the world as he was of himself, Phil was troubled by
what he perceived as the raw deal that life had given his father, who had worked
brutally hard and had little to show for it. At this juncture Lesh was certain that whatever he did with
his future, he didn't want to be stuck in his father's trap.
Commitment to anything conventional was to be avoided, and he fully
identified with the artistic tradition.
A year later, in September 1958, he resumed his
studies, this time at the College of San Mateo (CSM), on the peninsula twenty
miles south of San Francisco. An
eccentric, intellectual loner, Lesh found his first good friend in a local young
man named Mike Lamb, the son of a Stanford administration staff member who had
become acquainted with the local cognoscenti. Lamb groomed him a bit socially, and then a succession of
intellectual encounters further opened Lesh's life. First, Morse Peckham's Beyond the Tragic Vision defined
the philosophical underpinnings to his inner certainty that only the arts could
be free of the fraud that was society: "Absorbed in the work of art, we can
for a moment experience life as pure value ... Aesthetic contemplation is our
only innocence." Then Peckham made these words visible by introducing him
to the pre-impressionist English painter J. M. W Turner, whose hellish,
prophetic Rain Steam and Speed depicted light as a shining thing in
itself, the music of the spheres put down on canvas. When Lesh's student job turned out to be evaluating new
records at the library, his intellectual menu was complete. He discovered the experimental Music Quarterly, and
learned that music could be created, stored on tape, and fully controlled by the
author. Beethoven and Charles Ives
were his heroes. He wanted to be a
Meantime, he was caught up in the highly competitive
world of the CSM music department. The
school's contest-winning jazz band, a powerhouse group that played the cool West
Coast jazz exemplified by Stan Kenton's arranger, Bill Holman, featured five
trumpets, saxophones, and trombones each, plus four rhythm instruments.
In his pursuit of the first trumpet chair, Lesh generally found himself
behind William "Buddy" Powers, who would take eight years to graduate
from CSM due to his habit of dropping out to work with groups like the Woody
Herman and Benny Goodman bands. Still
thin and lacking the blasting lung power the genre demanded, Lesh increasingly
experimented with composition. Fortunately,
the band's rehearsals were wildly open. He
would create ten-bar exercises for bizarre orchestrations like the "mother
chord," a dissonant blast that included all twelve chromatic tones, or his
first chart, in which the bass player had to tune down his instrument for the
first line and then retune it for the remainder, while the brass players began
in the highest register, and each section of the band was in a different key.
He would recall the piece as resembling "blocks of granite sliding
together ... pretty weird for a junior college."
His best exercise title, at least, came from James
Joyce's Finnegans Wake: 'the Sound of a Man Being Habitacularly
Fondseed" (i.e., being tapped upon the third eye).
Lesh had gone down the coast to Partington Ridge in Big Sur to look for
Henry Miller, but the master proved not at home.
In a ritualistic way, Phil decided to pay homage to the act Miller
described in Big Sur and the Origins of Hieronymus Bosch, and pissed off
the ridge. Standing in Miller's
metaphorical shoes, he experienced an epiphany, one that he was able to
replicate aurally in a four-bar exercise for the largest orchestra he'd ever get
to write for. After writing out the
parts on tiny exercise pages, he brought it to the band, which, after
protesting, "Fuck you, Lesh, we need a magnifying glass on this
stuff," fought through it, produced an obscene chord, and received his
thanks. He'd been able to hear what
he'd written, and that was a singularly fulfilling experience.
His jazz composing career peaked in May 1959, when the
annual CSM jazz band "Expressions in Jazz? concert at San Mateo High
School featured his lead on the Bill Holman chart of I Remember April and
Jeff's Jam, and the band's performance of his own tune Wail Frail.
Shortly before this time he'd encountered a diminutive ex-convict blues poet
named Bobby Petersen, who turned him toward poetry and Allen Ginsberg-style
illuminated (spiritual) politics, essentially inducting him into the Beat
Generation. Petersen was an
experienced hipster who wrote poems about Billie Holiday and the "high sad
song of spade queens / in pershing square / hipsters of melrose fade / into
wallpaper." They became roommates, and their first sharing came when Bobby
stole a volume of Henry Miller from City Lights Bookstore, and they went home
and read it aloud to each other. Petersen
introduced Phil to pot, and to the broad sweep of avant-garde and Beat
literature. Allen Ginsberg's Howl
so consumed Lesh that he began to set it to music. They also studied James Joyce, which gave Phil the title for
his last tune at CSM.
In spring 1960, Lesh at least mentally completed his
stay at CSM when the band performed his tune Finnegan's Awake. He had
moved up to the first chair by then, but would later admit with his typically
bru'tal self-honesty that he never played as well as Powers, and consequently
quit playing the trumpet after his graduation in June.
He celebrated his graduation in the tradition of another of those City
Lights authors, taking a Kerouacian journey to Calgary in search of work in the
oil fields. Though he made it only as far as Spokane before riding the
rails back to Seattle and then taking a bus home, the experience confirmed for
him his place outside the conventional American life. He was a part of the Beat Generation, too.
at the Presidio in December of that year, Garcia's multiple absences caught up
with him. An army psychiatrist
decided that his priorities were neurotic, and a superior officer asked him if
he'd like to leave the army with a general discharge. "I'd like that just fine, sir." It marked his last
attempt to fit in. ##
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