Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s
University of Toronto Press, 2011
394 pages, Paperback and ebook $29.95, Cloth $70.00
Stuart Henderson’s Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s is an adventure back in time to Yorkville at what many would consider the pinnacle of its cultural history. Fifty years ago, the Yorkville Coffee Mill opened, among the first of many to become a hub for youth exploring counterculture through music and mysticism. Henderson’s book, which stemmed from his doctoral dissertation at Queen’s University, is rich with oral histories and underground press coverage of the day.
Personal experience drew me to Henderson’s work. I grew up in London (Ontario) in the 1990s. My father worked in Toronto for a time and stayed in an apartment on Bay Street near Bloor. Visiting on weekends, my mother and I would wander the “Mink Mile”. By then, Yorkville was a hub of elite consumerism, with couture boutiques and flagship stories. It was cultured, rather than counterculture.
Making the Scene tells the stories of the Toronto neighbourhood of Yorkville and the hip culture that pervaded the district in the 1960s. Henderson argues that, for roughly a decade, Yorkville served as the site in Canada for youth seeking an alternative to the dominant Canadian culture. He asserts that being part of a counterculture – defined as a subculture with values and practices that deviate from mainstream culture – involves the performance of identity. “A hippie,” he notes in the introduction, “does not, never can, exist wholly outside his or her cultural process” (5). In short, counterculture is a negotiation of identity, with cultural hegemony in play.
The book is organized chronologically in sections. Within each section is two chapters, one providing a political and cultural history of the period and the other assessing how the cultural identities in Yorkville were performed at the time. The book’s chronological organization makes Henderson’s argument easy to follow. However, there exists a strong historiography on counterculture-as-performance. Henderson does not especially take advantage of this material, and unfortunately relies on his readers to be familiar with the literature. For example, the performativity of “making the scene” requires the crossing of a threshold. Henderson even states that “as a geographic location, Yorkville was … metaphorically cut off,” and that Toronto was a divided cityscape, with Yorkville a zone of local “foreignness” (17)– both a cultural attraction and a destination. As a historian caught up in the meaning of place, this excited me until I realized that Henderson was not going to explore from where these people were being attracted, and how Yorkville was situated in the context of a rapidly expanding Toronto. In particular, it struck me that there were opportunities for the use of historical maps to tell these types of stories and to better illustrate the growth of the Yorkville coffee houses, followed by their retreat.
While Henderson situates Yorkville very well within its chronological context, the book seemed geographically isolated. The relationship between countercultures, identity, and place has been widely explored, so why not make better use of New York’s Greenwich Village or San Fransisco’s Haight-Ashbury to show what made Yorkville unique? Here, again, I think that the general reader may be disappointed that Henderson expects a high level of familiarity with the themes. Early in the work, I found myself asking questions about other countercultures in other cities and about the history of the 1960s counterculture phenomenon more broadly.
Similarly, the act of performing an identity that Henderson claims is part of “making the scene” requires the crossing of a boundary. Henderson states that “as a geographic location, Yorkville was metaphorically cut off” (268). I interpreted this to mean either that it was fully autonomous or that it had to be filled with people coming from elsewhere—by those who needed to cross the threshold from the dominant culture to the counterculture. Bloor Street between Yonge Street and Avenue Road remains, to this day, a cultural border best crossed under the right economic or social circumstances. I had hoped that Henderson would explore this idea further. Where were the people coming from? How was Yorkville situated in and affected by its geographic context of a rapidly changing and growing Toronto? Most of the images in the book are taken from underground press. There is one map, at the beginning, which shows the streets of Yorkville and their coffeehouses. Indeed, Henderson refers to Yorkville as “tied to a map of meaning which treated it as a circumscribed island of difference within the wider cityscape” (268), but we aren’t shown what exists around the island.
Henderson relies on dialogue from the film The Big Lebowski (1998) to describe the legacy of hip Yorkville:
‘Your revolution is over,’ counsels the conservative figure, as the bemused [Jeff] Bridges turns away. ‘My condolences. The bums lost. My advice is do what your parents did: get a job, sir. The bums will always lose. Do you hear me?’ But he doesn’t. Do we? (273)
The end of a rebellion is nothing new. The 19th century French statesman Francois Guizot has been attributed with the following: “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” What makes Yorkville and the 1960s counterculture unique, according to Henderson’s conclusion, is that it influenced the mainstream culture that we see today. That may be the case. He also suggests that the struggle for physical space was ultimately insignificant. This statement ignores the post-1970 gentrification of Yorkville that occurred, in part, because of the displacement of youth from this space.
It felt at times like Henderson was writing for those who were there, or who wished they could have been there. There were moments throughout when I felt like I had to have been there to understand why the event or place being described was important. The writing, much of which is done in first-person narration, is at times valourising in its tone. The book’s strength lies in its archival research and oral histories, and from reading it came some interesting debates about the nature of culture and place in the city of Toronto. I would recommend it for readers interested in the history of the Yorkville neighbourhood, Canadian culture in the 1960s, or youth culture in Canada. I will no doubt return to it for projects that reference these subjects. It would be a good supplemental work for those interested in counterculture, the history of Toronto, oral history, and underground media.
Kaitlin Wainwright is a graduate of Carleton University’s Public History program. She’s currently the Plaques and Markers Program Coordinator at Heritage Toronto.
Mapping Our Music: The 1960s
The venues, schools, record labels, stores, and other landmarks that have created the sound of our city and shaped its music history.
The 1960s was the decade in which Toronto’s music scene took shape. With twin focal points in Yorkville and along the Yonge Street strip, the city produced highly regarded folk, rock, and R&B-influenced sounds. Though many of the venues from the decade are long gone, acts that developed their reputations in them, such as the Band and Gordon Lightfoot, became known around the globe.
1 Village Corner (174 Avenue Road, north of Davenport)
Another early folk venue, one where music duo Ian & Sylvia launched their career. As a member of the duo the Two Tones, Gordon Lightfoot recorded his first album here in January 1962.
2 Rockpile (northwest corner of Yonge and Davenport)
For a time in the late 1960s, the main space of the Masonic Temple (now home to MTV Canada) was a Fillmore-style concert hall. It is usually associated with Led Zeppelin, who played there twice in 1969. Before their August 18 gig, manager Peter Grant noticed the extensive lineup outside and threatened to cancel the show if the band didn’t get more money. The burly former bouncer got his way, but the amount handed over played a role in the venue’s closing soon after.
3 Penny Farthing (112 Yorkville Avenue)
Far more respectable than its next door neighbour, this spot specialized in blues and jazz. Veteran bluesman Lonnie Johnson played for several weeks in 1965, resulting in an album with one the venue’s regular acts, Stompin’ at the Penny with Jim McHarg’s Metro Stompers, featuring Lonnie Johnson. Johnson enjoyed playing in Toronto and spent the last five years of his life in the city.
4 Riverboat (134 Yorkville Avenue)
Opened in October 1964 and run by Bernie Fielder for 14 years, the Riverboat was usually considered the top venue in Yorkville thanks to a steady stream of high-level blues and folk acts. Sometimes timing worked in the Riverboat’s favour: in order to book bluesmen Sorry Terry and Brownie McGhee, Fielder was pressured by their agent to also slot in a rising folk duo named Simon & Garfunkel. By the time the pair was to perform in early 1966, their songs were rising up the charts. The duo wanted out of their commitment, but a compromise was reached, and Torontonians had what proved to be a rare opportunity to catch the pair in an intimate setting.
5 Mynah Bird (114 Yorkville Avenue, at Hazelton)
Named in honour of owner Colin Kerr’s pet, who could be found at this coffeehouse’s entrance, the Mynah Bird loved drawing attention to itself. For a period, it trotted out the latest innovations in topless entertainment, including Wyche, “the world’s first topless folksinger” (though her long hair covered her bosoms). Kerr also managed a rock group named after the venue, fronted by Rick James—after they separated from Kerr, Neil Young was among the musicians who passed through the group’s ranks.
6 Varsity Stadium (Bloor Street and Bedford Road)
Two major music festivals were held here in 1969. The bill for June’s Toronto Pop Festival ranged from southern soulsters (Carla Thomas) to Quebeçois chansonniers (Robert Charlebois). Local favourite Ronnie Hawkins managed to get a teenager named Jeanne Beker to jump onto the stage. September’s Toronto Rock and Roll Revival went down in history for being the live debut of the Plastic Ono Band featuring John Lennon and the Alice Cooper “chicken incident.”
7 Bohemian Embassy (7 St. Nicholas Street)
Situated at various places around the city over its history, and not to be confused with the condo bearing the same name, the venue founded by Don Cullen called the Yonge-Wellesley area home from 1960 to 1966. One of the city’s first major coffeehouses, it offered up a mix of folk, jazz, comedy, and literary readings—among those whose careers were boosted by appearances at the Bohemian Embassy were Margaret Atwood and Sylvia Tyson.
8 RCA Studios (225 Mutual Street)
Once home to CHUM radio, 225 Mutual Street became one of the city’s busiest recording studios. Operated by RCA during the 1960s and 1970s, then McClear Place, the studios saw acts ranging from Rosemary Clooney to Rush use its facilities over half a century of sound recording. The building was demolished in 2010.
9 Club Blue Note (372A Yonge Street)
A key venue for developing the mix of rock and R&B that came to be known as the “Toronto Sound.” As George Olliver, who sang with the house band The Five Rogues (later Mandala) told the National Post last year, “so many of the hit artists who used to work at the Maple Leaf Gardens came here after hours—people like Stevie Wonder, The Righteous Brothers.”
10 Hawk’s Nest (above Le Coq D’Or, 333 Yonge Street)
Having proven a popular attraction at Le Coq D’Or, Ronnie Hawkins made a deal with its owners: in exchange for free use of the building’s third floor (which ended up housing an office, gym, and after hours parties), he would run an all-ages club on the second floor. The Hawk’s Nest proved a blessing for music fans too young to go into the other venues along the Yonge Street strip.
11 Friar’s Tavern (283 Yonge Street)
Now the Hard Rock Café, the Friar’s Tavern was another stop for bands gigging along the Yonge Street strip. A plaque inside commemorates the morning of September 15, 1965, when Bob Dylan caught a performance by Levon and the Hawks, Ronnie Hawkins’ former backing band. For the next two nights, Dylan and the group that became the Band rehearsed at the Friar’s before going out on Dylan’s first electrified tour.
12 Colonial Tavern (203 Yonge Street)
Situated between two historic banks across from the present-day Eaton Centre, the Colonial Tavern attracted a steady stream of blues, jazz and rock acts during its existence. A parkette currently graces the site.
13 Electric Circus (99 Queen Street East)
Opened in December 1968, the Electric Circus was intended by its backers to bring a New York–style trendy nightclub to Toronto. Partner Jerry Brandt told the Globe and Mail that “we think a person should be free to do what he wants. He can dance, he can watch, he can disappear for a while into an environment room…We have set up the facilities for you to have an experience. It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” After its run as a club/music venue, the site was used as the original studio for Citytv, who later resurrected the name for its dance show.
14 King Edward Hotel (37 King Street East)
Between their afternoon and evening performances at Maple Leaf Gardens on August 17, 1966, the Beatles attended a press conference at the venerable King Eddy. John Lennon refused to apologize for his recent statements that the band was more popular than Jesus. They also admitted that the scariest fans they encountered so far on what proved to be their final tour were found in Cleveland.
15 O’Keefe Centre (Yonge and Front)
This all-purpose concert hall, now known as the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, was one of the most versatile venues of the decade in terms of performers. The pre-Broadway tryout of the musical Camelot, starring Julie Andrews and Richard Burton, opened the O’Keefe in October 1960. Acts that trod its stage during the 1960s ranged from grand opera to the Grateful Dead.
Additional material from Before the Gold Rush by Nicholas Jennings (Toronto: Penguin, 1997) and the December 21, 1968 edition of the Globe and Mail.
Further evidence of the importance of coffee bars in the radical culture of the 1960s. (From the New York Times.)
In the summer of 1967, Fred Gardner arrived in San Francisco with the Vietnam War weighing heavily on his mind. Gardner was 25 years old, a Harvard graduate and a freelance journalist for a number of major publications. He was attracted to Northern California’s mix of counterculture and radical politics, and hoped to become more actively involved in the movement to end the war. He was particularly interested in the revolutionary potential of American servicemen and couldn’t understand why antiwar activists and organisers weren’t paying more attention to such a powerful group of potential allies.
Ever since completing a two-year stint in the Army Reserves in 1965, Gardner had been closely watching the increasing instances of military insubordination, resistance and outright refusal that were accompanying the war’s escalation. From the case of the Fort Hood Three — G.I.s arrested in 1966 for publicly declaring their opposition to the war and refusal to deploy — to the case of Howard Levy, an Army dermatologist who refused his assignment to provide medical training for Special Forces troops headed to Vietnam, it was clear that the Army was fast becoming the central site of an unprecedented uprising. By 1967, the “G.I. movement” was capturing national headlines.
And it wasn’t just the war that was aggravating American servicemen. The military’s pervasive racial discrimination — unequal opportunities for promotion, unfair housing practices, persistent harassment and abuse — fueled increasing outrage among black G.I.s as the war progressed. Influenced by the civil rights and black liberation movements, black soldiers participated in widespread and diverse acts of resistance throughout the Vietnam era. Racial tensions were particularly high in the Army, where a vast majority of draftees were being sent, and where evasion, desertion and insubordination rates among black G.I.s exploded in the war’s later years. An antiwar movement in the military was beginning to take shape, with black soldiers often its vanguard.
As Gardner sat in the radical coffeehouses of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood that summer, he thought about the explosive power of servicemen turning against the war and wondered how that power could be supported and nurtured by the civilian antiwar movement. Most of all, he wanted to find a way to reach out to disaffected young G.I.s, to show them that there was a whole community of antiwar activists and organizers who were on their side. He finally settled on an idea: opening a network of youth-culture-oriented coffeehouses, just like the ones in North Beach, in towns outside military bases around the country.
In January 1968 he did just that, travelling with a fellow activist, Donna Mickleson, to Columbia, S.C., home of Fort Jackson, one of the Army’s largest training bases and the crown jewel of the state’s many military installations. The UFO coffeehouse, decorated with rock ’n’ roll posters donated from the San Francisco promoter Bill Graham, quickly became a popular hangout for G.I.s — and a target of significant hostility from military officials, city authorities and outraged local citizens (“It’s a sore spot in our craw,” a Columbia official said.) The coffeehouse was located just off base, out of the military’s reach but close enough for soldiers to visit during their free time — places where active-duty servicemen, veterans and civilian activists could meet to plan demonstrations, publish underground newspapers and work to build the nascent peace movement within the military.
By the summer of 1968, major antiwar organizations took notice of the controversy the UFO was stirring up in Columbia and initiated a “Summer of Support” to organize funds for more coffeehouse projects around the country. In ensuing years, more than 25 “G.I. coffeehouses” opened up near military bases in the United States and at a number of bases overseas.
Over the course of six years, the coffeehouse network would play a central role in some of the G.I. movement’s most significant actions. At the Oleo Strut coffeehouse in Killeen, Tex., local staff and G.I.s mobilized to support the Fort Hood 43 — a large group of black soldiers who were arrested at a meeting to discuss their refusal to deploy for riot control duty at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A black veteran present at the meeting described its mood: “A lot of black G.I.s knew what the thing was going to be about and they weren’t going to go and fight their own people.” Army authorities were caught off guard by the publicity the coffeehouse brought to the case, and began to examine their strategies for dealing with political expression among the ranks.
When eight black G.I.s, each of them leaders of the group G.I.s United Against the War in Vietnam, were arrested in 1969 for holding an illegal demonstration at Fort Jackson, the UFO coffeehouse served as a local operations center, drumming up funds for lawyers and promoting the “Fort Jackson Eight” story to the national media. After G.I. and civilian activists created intense public pressure, officials quietly dropped all charges, signaling a shift in how the military would respond to soldiers expressing dissent.
During its brief lifetime, the G.I. coffeehouse network was subjected to attacks from all sides — investigated by the F.B.I. and congressional committees, infiltrated by law enforcement, harassed by military authorities and, in a number of startling cases, terrorized by local vigilantes. In 1970, at the Fort Dix coffeehouse project in Wrightstown, N.J., G.I.s and civilians were celebrating Valentine’s Day when a live grenade flew in through an open door; it exploded, seriously injuring two Fort Dix soldiers and a civilian. Another popular coffeehouse, the Covered Wagon in Mountain Home, Idaho (near a major Air Force base), was a frequent target of harassment by outraged locals, who finally burned it to the ground.
Though their numbers dwindled as the war drew to a close in the mid-1970s, G.I. coffeehouses left an indelible mark on the Vietnam era. While popular mythology often places the antiwar movement at odds with American troops, the history of G.I. coffeehouses, and the G.I. movement of which they were a part, paints a very different picture. Over the course of the war, thousands of military service members from every branch — active-duty G.I.s, veterans, nurses and even officers — expressed their opposition to American policy in Vietnam. They joined forces with civilian antiwar organizations that, particularly after 1968, focused significant energy and resources on developing social and political bonds with American service members. Hoping to build the resistance that was already taking shape in the Army, activists at G.I. coffeehouses worked directly with service members on hundreds of political projects and demonstrations, despite relentless government surveillance, infiltration and harassment.
The unprecedented eruption of resistance and activism by American troops is critical to understanding the history of the Vietnam War. The G.I. movement and related phenomenon created a significant crisis for the American military, which feared exactly the kind of alliance between civilians and soldiers that Fred Gardner had in mind when he opened the first G.I. coffeehouse in 1968. Despite the extraordinary political and cultural impact that dissenting soldiers made throughout the Vietnam era, their voices have been nearly erased from history, replaced by a stereotypical image of loyal, patriotic soldiers antagonized and spat upon by ungrateful antiwar activists. In the decades since the war’s end, countless Hollywood movies, books, political speeches and celebrated documentaries have repeated this image, obscuring the war’s deep unpopularity among the ranks and the countless ways that American troops expressed their opposition.
This historical erasure serves a distinct purpose, casting dissent — from wearing an antiwar T-shirt to kneeling during the national anthem — as inherently disrespectful, even abusive, to American soldiers. A fuller reckoning with the era’s history would begin by acknowledging the countless G.I.s and civilians who stood together against the war. G.I. coffeehouses are a vital window onto this history, showing us places where men and women came together to share their common revulsion at the war in Vietnam, and to begin organizing a collective effort to make it stop.
Bill Graham, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia—half a century on, these names still evoke the sound of San Francisco in the late 1960s. To be sure, the city’s greatest concert promoter, singer, and guitarist all deserve their status as cultural icons, but it was another guy whose name you might notimmediately recognize, Marty Balin, who drew the world’s attention to San Francisco in the first place. That’s because in 1965, Balin undertook two inextricably linked projects that together changed rock-music history—he helped open a small but highly influential club called the Matrix, and he founded a new band, Jefferson Airplane, which played its first gig on his club’s opening night.
“You could predict how a show would go according to the drugs lined up on the back of the amps.”
Those two acts would have been enough to secure Balin’s place in music history, but the singer was just getting started. That fall, Balin encouraged an ambitious impresario named Bill Graham to host a benefit concert for a theater group Graham was managing, offering up Jefferson Airplane for the occasion. A second benefit at the Fillmore Auditorium, also featuring the Airplane, followed that December. By February of 1966, Jefferson Airplane was headlining the first non-benefit concert at the Fillmore for Graham—during that year, Balin’s band would play more than 30 dates at the hall.
The following year, 1967, the Airplane performed more than 100 times, including an electrifying appearance at Monterey Pop. In the winter of 1968, Balin and company briefly partnered with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead to produce their own shows at the Carousel Ballroom. And then, in 1969, after performing at Woodstock that summer, the Airplane ended the decade as one of the openers for a free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, where Balin was knocked unconscious by a Hells Angel when Balin came to the aid of a fan who was being beaten with pool cues by multiple members of the notorious motorcycle gang.
For Balin and the Airplane, the trajectory to that fateful day had been fast and steep. But like most musicians, Balin’s “overnight” success was years in the making. His first record deal, inked in 1962 when he was just 20, was with Challenge Records of Los Angeles, whose claim to fame had been a catchy single by The Champs called “Tequila.” For Challenge, Balin recorded four songs (only one of which he co-wrote), which were pressed onto a pair of 45s.
Like a lot of Johnny Mathis and Paul Anka wannabes cutting records in those days, Balin was given a stage name—he was born Martyn Jerel Buchwald. In the studio, Balin sang with the L.A. music industry’s go-to backup band, the Wrecking Crew. “The lead guitar player at the session was Glen Campbell,” Balin remembers. “He was the hot guy in town at the time.” Also at the session—which his father, Joe Buchwald, paid for—was guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Red Callender, Jack Nitzsche on piano, and Hal Blaine on drums, with the Blossoms providing the backing vocals and Ricky Nelson’s arranger, Jimmie Haskell, conducting the strings. “They put me in a little room with a window and said ‘sing.’” Balin recalls.
Balin sang, although his debut went unnoticed by radio stations and, hence, the public. Still, Balin had his first taste of the music business, and he wanted more. He got it in the summer of 1963, while hanging out one evening in a San Francisco folk-music spot on Union Street called the Drinking Gourd. There, Balin met three other musicians who were looking to form a group. From that chance encounter, the Town Criers were formed. Before long, they were playing the Drinking Gourd and clubs like the hungry i and the Purple Onion, on one occasion opening for the great comedian Dick Gregory—within few years, Gregory would be sharing bills with the Airplane.
The year 1964 was a transitional one for American pop music. By then, the folk revival of the 1950s and early ’60s was feeling the competition from the British Invasion. The Beatles had arrived in February with Little Richard and Chuck Berry numbers in their repertoire. The Rolling Stones followed in June, introducing white American kids to black American blues. And in November, the Animals had an unlikely hit with a traditional American folk song called “The House of the Rising Son.”
By 1965, folk-rock hybrids were popping up all over the place. That spring, The Byrds had a hit with Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which was recorded in an L.A. studio with many of the same musicians who had backed Balin for Challenge Records. During the summer, Bob Dylan famously “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival, a new San Francisco group called the Charlatansperformed for six weeks straight—but not “straight”—at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, and the Lovin’ Spoonful burst on the scene with the release of its first single, “Do You Believe in Magic?”
What San Francisco lacked in 1965 was a reliable performance space for this new genre, which is partly what had sent the Charlatans to Virginia City. “When I was in the Town Criers,” Balin says, “I wanted to use electric guitars and drums, but places like the Drinking Gourd didn’t want that because it was too loud.” Still, Balin performed frequently at the Drinking Gourd, often on “hootenanny” night, accompanying his beseeching tenor with a nylon-string Martin guitar.
It was a meager act, but Balin played those hootenanny nights for all he was worth, and that passion was enough to earn him a small following. “These nurses would come in and see me,” Balin remembers. “I guess they kind of liked what I did. One night, they brought their boyfriends, and after my set, I joined them at their table. The boyfriends, who were engineers, were talking about how they each had $3,000 to invest and didn’t know what to do with the money. I immediately jumped in and said, ‘Hey, give it to me.’ They said, ‘What would you do with it?’ And I said, “I’d open a nightclub and put a band in it. You can have the nightclub, I’ll keep the band.’”
That may have seemed like a bold proposal coming from a nobody who was still covering Rod McKuen tunes, but Balin was one of those people who had a natural knack for making things happen. “I’m an Energizer Bunny,” he says, “a stimulator. I have ideas and then I get other people to show off their talents and abilities, too.”
Indeed, on that night at the Drinking Gourd, Balin already had some of the pieces for his still-unnamed band in place. In March of 1965, Balin had found his first recruit, Paul Kantner, at one of the Drinking Gourd’s open-mic nights, as Balin told Got a Revolution author Jeff Tamarkin for a 1993 interview published in “Relix Magazine.” “I remember I was standing at the door and he came in and the guy said, ‘No more room, we’re filled up.’ I said, ‘Give him my spot,’ because he looked interesting; he had two guitars, one in each hand, which was rare. Kind of a weird-looking dude. So he came in and he had a 12-string and a six and he came out onstage and tuned up, like he still does, and started to play this song and then stopped. He was embarrassed or something. And he walked off.”
According to Kantner in Got a Revolution, embarrassment had nothing to do with it. “It was a noisy, drinking kind of crowd. So I said, ‘This sucks. I’ve had enough, good-bye.’” For some reason, Balin was smitten. “As I was leaving Marty said, “Hey, you want to start a band?’” Kantner did.
The Drinking Gourd was also where Balin and Kantner met Bob Harvey, the Airplane’s first bassist, who briefly played an upright before Jack Casady gave the band its signature, and very electric, bottom end. Signe Anderson, the band’s first female vocalist, was also a Drinking Gourd regular, and she sang with the Airplane for more than a year before leaving the group to raise her child, her memory as an original member of Jefferson Airplane all but obliterated by the arrival of Grace Slick, who had been fronting a competing group called the Great Society. The band’s first drummer, Jerry Peloquin, was an acquaintance of Balin’s, although he was quickly replaced by Skip Spence, who was fired less than a year later for disappearing one day to Mexico—Skippy, as friends called him, eventually resurfaced to help form Moby Grape. The last puzzle piece, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, arrived via Kantner, although it was Balin who chased him down. In addition to a blues-infused guitar, Kaukonen also contributed the band’s absurdist name, a shortened version of a nickname Kaukonen had been given by a friend (as a proper name, the words “Jefferson Airplane” are never preceded by “the”).
While all this was going on, the nurses’ three boyfriends—Elliot Sazer, Ted Saunders, and Paul Sedlewicz—were scouting locations, finally settling on a 40-by-80-foot pizza joint called the Syndicate, which was located on Fillmore Street a handful of blocks away from the Drinking Gourd. Renamed the Matrix by Sazer, the club was literally designed for the group Balin was assembling. “I built the stage to fit the band,” Balin says. “It was a little bigger than most stages.” It would have to be to support two guitarists, a pair of singers, and a rhythm section—six pieces in an era when four Beatles or five Stones were the rule.
And then, finally, it was opening night: Friday August 13, 1965. “The Matrix was a going thing from the day it opened,” Balin says. “That first night, representatives from every record company in the world were sitting in the audience. They all gave me their business cards, and I pinned them up in the dressing room. Everybody was going, ‘Oh man, let’s sign, let’s get a record deal!’ We knew about six songs,”—Balin described them to San Francisco Chroniclewriter John L. Wasserman as “social blues”—“and we extended those songs as instrumentals. So even though we didn’t have that many tunes, everybody wanted us.”
Balin tried to put the brakes on his bandmates’ enthusiasm. “I said, ‘No, no, guys, we’re not going to sign anything until we hear from Phil Spector. And then the second night we played, Phil’s sister, Shirley, was in the audience, and she came up and said, ‘Phil Spector wants you to come to L.A.’ Things happened very fast.”
Although not with Phil Spector. “We didn’t get along with him at all,” Balin says. “He was too crazy for us.” No matter—by November, the band would sign with RCA Records, securing a then-staggering $25,000 advance in the deal.
Throughout the summer and into the fall, the band’s personnel solidified and its sound tightened as its members got in lots of practice at the Matrix, often backing whoever Balin had booked. “Mainly I hired the old blues guys I had played with,” Balin says, “like Lightnin’ Hopkins, J.C Burris, cats like that who would play for 300 or 400 bucks a night. Whoever was in the Airplane at the time would back them. We knew how to play the blues,” he adds, “but some of these guys would play like 15- and 15-and-a-half-bar blues, instead of the standard 12 or 16, and you’d be, like, ‘What the hell, man?’ It was a great education.”
In September and October of 1965, Jefferson Airplane backed both Hopkins and Burris at the Matrix, as well as performing there under its own name. That October, the band also played the first of three Family Dog produced concerts at Longshoremen’s Hall—almost immediately, the San Francisco music scene had outgrown the cozy confines of the Matrix. The Bill Graham benefits followed in November and December, which is also when Jefferson Airplane went to L.A. to record its first album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” for RCA.
By January of 1966, the Airplane, Charlatans, and Family Dog had teamed up for a packed show at California Hall, and while Balin was ready to do more, George Hunter of the Charlatans wasn’t. “The Charlatans were very popular,” Balin remembers. “They were one of my favorite bands, and George and I were good friends.” But Balin didn’t have time to be disappointed. On February 4, Jefferson Airplane was headlining the official opening of the Fillmore Auditorium. Now it was the Fillmore’s turn to be packed. The Airplane was also the top-billed act when Chet Helms and the Family Dog produced their first Fillmore show on February 19. Within six months, Jefferson Airplane had gone from being the house band in a former pizza joint to being the supergroup of San Francisco.
By April, Helms had moved the Family Dog from the Fillmore to the Avalon Ballroom—sharing the Fillmore with a competitor had proved too much for Graham. Although the Airplane had opened the Fillmore for both promoters, the band would only play one subsequent weekend at the Avalon, in no small part because Balin was so comfortable with the way Bill Graham ran the Fillmore.
“Bill was the best promoter ever,” Balin says. “He just took care of every little detail. When you walked out onto his stage, it was ready for you. Everybody was calm, everybody was quiet. There was no rushing around. And Bill would be there, and he’d say, ‘The stage is yours.’ And you’d go out and there and everything would be perfect. It was just the best stage you could ever play.”
During most of 1967, Graham and the Airplane had more than a promoter-performer relationship because Graham was now managing the band. Given this close association, it’s perhaps not too surprising that in May of 1967, when Graham’s regular poster printer went out of business, Graham gave the work to Neal, Stratford & Kerr, where Balin’s dad, Joe Buchwald, worked as a pressman. Ironically, this was just a few months before Neal, Stratford & Kerr went bankrupt. Fortunately, its lead pressman, Levon Mosgofian, acquired the company’s presses and other printing hardware to form what would become Tea Lautrec Litho, and just as fortuitously, Buchwald stayed on with Mosgofian.
That almost sounds like Graham decided to hire Balin’s father’s firm for sentimental reasons, but Balin cautions against this kind of thinking. “Bill never did anything out of romance, unless it was for a woman,” he says. “He had a big sign behind his desk that read, ‘Though I walk in the Valley of Death, I am the meanest son of a bitch in that valley.’” So why did Graham go with Tea Lautrec if not because of his father? “Graham probably got a good deal,” Balin says.
In fact, Buchwald had been a part of his son’s professional life since he coughed up the dough for that first Challenge Records session in 1962. Buchwald also helped make the Matrix a reality, putting Balin in the unique position—for those times, anyway—of constantly bumping into one of his parents. “He was in the scene real tight,” Balin says of his dad. “I’d go to these dark, acid parties, and there would be my pops. I remember one time I was really stoned on LSD and found myself at this new thing called a light show. All these blobs of color and music were forming out of the darkness; man, was that crazy. I was coming on to the acid pretty strong when I noticed my dad sitting about two rows in front of me. I said, ‘Hey, Pop, get me out of here. I’m so stoned I can’t even walk!’ And he just said, ‘Relax! Let’s see the rest of the show, then I’ll take you home.’”
Naturally, Buchwald’s participation in the scene expanded when he and Levon Mosgofian began printing Fillmore posters for Bill Graham. As a pressman for San Francisco’s premier printer of psychedelic concert posters, Buchwald worked closely with the best rock-poster artists of the 20th century. These artists held Buchwald’s ability to coax their visions out of Tea Lautrec’s Miehle 29 offset printing presses in high esteem. Consequently, Buchwald was invited to countless concerts, parties, you name it. To hear Balin tell it, his pops rarely declined, which sometimes proved awkward—not for him, but for his pops.
“He was always backstage when the Airplane played the Fillmore and Winterland,” Balin remembers. “I’d also run into him on the road, be it somewhere in the Midwest or Europe, even. I’d look over to the side of the stage, and there’d be my father with some chickie of his. I’d say, ‘Hey, Pop, how are you doing?’ After the show, though, he’d be gone. He wouldn’t even stick around to say ‘hi.’ He was embarrassed, I guess, because although he was still married to my mom, he had all these girlfriends. But I didn’t get uptight. I told him, ‘I’m not going to judge you. I understand Mom doesn’t want to go out and doesn’t stay up late. You’re a late-night go-getter. I dig it.’ After that, we became closer and friendlier.”
Graham managed Jefferson Airplane until early 1968, when Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden, who were a couple at this point, delivered an ‘either he goes or we go’ ultimatum. Among other reasons for the rupture, Slick and Dryden were tired of Graham’s argumentative style, and Slick in particular felt like Graham was working the band too hard.
Balin was more sanguine. He understood where Graham was coming from, and he liked the fringe benefits the band enjoyed thanks to its privileged relationship with the volatile promoter, even after Graham was no longer their manager. These benefits extended beyond regular bookings at Graham’s venues, including the fabled Fillmore East in New York City.
“After we’d played our gig,” Balin says, “we’d go back to his apartment in New York. Bill used to have his security guards take pot away from the audience because it was against the law at the time. So, he had this huge stash of confiscated weed in his apartment, which we’d all smoke after the show. It was great.”
Which is not to say that Balin was unfailingly loyal to Graham. Around the same time Jefferson Airplane decided to drop Bill Graham as their manager, replacing him with an old friend of Balin’s named Bill Thompson, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead agreed to be partners in a venerable San Francisco dance hall called the Carousel Ballroom. There, they would produce their own shows without the help of Bill Graham, Chet Helms, or anyone else.
“That was great,” Balin says. “We finally had our own ballroom!” Unfortunately, the rent was too high and tons of people got in free. To make ends meet, the bands behind the Carousel were obliged to play it regularly, usually for little or no money, just to keep the enterprise afloat—between January and June of 1968, the Dead or its various members played the Carousel Ballroom almost 20 times, while the Airplane or its personnel put in eight appearances.
Coincidentally, as Graham recalled in Robert Greenfield’s Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out, Graham decided he had to get out of the predominantly African-American neighborhood for which the Fillmore Auditorium was named because the area had gotten too dangerous for his mainly white audience in the aftermath of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4. Graham had heard that the Carousel had turned into a money pit for the Dead and Airplane, so to secure the lease on the ballroom, Graham flew to Ireland to personally make his case to the building’s owner. After numerous rounds of bourbon, Graham had the Carousel’s lease, which was probably just as well for the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.
“We were too scattered, too hippie to run the Carousel,” Balin says. “I don’t know anybody who was as good a businessman as Bill was. Bill was primo, top of the line, a former New Yorker, so he had the hustle.”
Of course, the transfer of the Carousel Ballroom’s lease from two rock bands to Bill Graham was hardly the most important event of 1968, a year when the American public was becoming increasingly impatient with the war in Vietnam. That disenchantment led indirectly to the assassination of yet another major political leader, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who only got into the 1968 presidential race when the incumbent, Lyndon B. Johnson, pulled out.
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, hard drugs like heroin and speed had flooded former hippie havens such as the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, with predictably corrosive results. In addition, the bands themselves were starting to come apart, seen most dramatically in the exit by year’s end of Janis Joplin from Big Brother and the Holding Company. Not surprisingly, Balin played a part in that story, too.
“We were playing a concert down the coast,” Balin begins, referring to the Northern California Folk-Rock Festival held on May 18, 1968, at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. “I was sitting out in the audience, watching Jim Morrison and The Doors. And Janis, who was also performing, came up to me and said, ‘I want to talk to you. Come on.’ So we’re walking along, and we pass Jerry Garcia, and she said, ‘Jerry, come on, I want to talk to you.’ So we got in this old pickup truck and started driving, with Jerry behind the wheel, Janis in the center, and me riding shotgun.”
Joplin was distraught because her new manager, Albert Grossman, who also managed Bob Dylan, wanted her to leave Big Brother. “He wanted her to have a better band,” Balin says, “but there was something so raw and funky about Big Brother. They just fit her so perfectly, with Jim Gurley on that crazy heroin guitar of his. But that’s what the record companies did to everybody—they always wanted to break the girl away from the band. I’m sure they tried to do that with Grace and the Airplane, saying, ‘Oh, you’re better than they are. We can make you a superstar. You don’t need these people.’ I don’t know, but I’m sure she got the same hassle.
“Anyway, Janis was upset because these were her friends. Big Brother was who she had started out with, so she wanted our advice about whether she should leave her old buddies, or not. We told her to follow her heart, and to follow the path that would be best for her music. In the end,” Balin says, “I don’t know if she made the best decision, but it was tough for her because Grossman was telling her that he was going to make her a big, big star. She didn’t realize,” he adds, “that she was already a big, big star.”
Nor was Joplin the only one struggling with success. In 1966, Balin had given Jefferson Airplane its first single, “It’s No Secret,” a rockin’ love song on its debut LP, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.” But when Grace Slick entered the picture in the fall of 1967, she brought “Somebody to Love” with her from the Great Society (her former Great Society bandmate and brother-in-law, Darby Slick, had written it as “Someone to Love”), as well as a song of her own called “White Rabbit.” Both would make it onto the Airplane’s next album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” along with three tracks written by Balin (“Comin’ Back to Me,” “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds,” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”) plus two more Balin co-wrote, including “Today,” one of several tracks on the album featuring Jerry Garcia on lead guitar.
Despite Balin’s prodigious output, Slick’s “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” became the songs people remembered most from “Surrealistic Pillow,” which reached No. 3 on the “Billboard” charts. Those two songs and the hype around their singer may be why D. A. Pennebaker, the director of the film version of Monterey Pop, kept his cameras on Grace Slick, even while Marty Balin was singing. Those two songs could also be why the editors of “LIFE” magazine decided to put Jefferson Airplane on the cover of its June 28, 1968, issue, with Grace Slick sitting in the top cube of a plexiglass pyramid. In fact, in the opinion of lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, those two songs are probably why Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
By his own admission, Balin struggled at times with Slick’s fame from the 1967 release of “Surrealistic Pillow” until he left the group in 1971—the Airplane lumbered on for another year or so without him. Even after Balin rejoined Kantner and Slick in 1975 for one of the many incarnations of Jefferson Starship, and several of that band’s biggest early hits—“Caroline,” “Miracles”— it was always Slick who got the spotlight. “For a while, the radio stations were playing ‘Miracles’ every hour on the hour,” Balin says, “and every time they played it, they’d say, ‘That was Grace Slick and Jefferson Starship.’ They never said ‘Marty Balin and Jefferson Starship,’ but I got my check, thank God.”
To hear Balin tell it today, Jefferson Starship was your classic rock ’n’ roll nightmare, whose creative sparks were extinguished by egos, drugs, and alcohol. Even before he left the band in 1978, he was so burned out that he turned down the chance to front an up-and-coming group called Journey, leaving the door open for Steve Perry, whose voice was very much in the Balin mold. For its part, the Starship replaced Balin with Mickey Thomas, who, in 1985, would share lead vocals with Grace Slick on “We Built This City,” which “Rolling Stone” readers voted the worst song of the decade and “GQ” magazine labeled “the most detested song in human history.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but Balin had nothing to do with that tune.
Balin’s Starship experience may have been exhausting, but the unraveling of Jefferson Airplane broke his heart. It wasn’t even that Slick had stolen his spotlight. Rather, Balin hated the way the Airplane had balkanized into discrete units—Kantner and Slick, Kaukonen and Casady—each of which was carving out its own musical niche, and neither of which seemed to want to have much to do with him.
“I’d go to these dark, acid parties, and there would be my pops.”
“When the Airplane became famous, everybody was pretty much into their own little ego. ‘I want to do my thing.’ Well, I always thought it was our thing, or the band thing. Pretty soon, Jorma didn’t want to play with me because the songs I was writing were too square. Grace was off in her own little world, and Paul was doing his massive military-march songs. We used to write together, but after a while, Paul didn’t want to write with me, either. I felt kind of left out because everyone was just separating off into their own little worlds. We came together and did the same old show on stage, but making records and working together became harder and harder.”
Jorma Kaukonen sees the band’s struggles with success a bit differently, as he explained in Got a Revolution. “Marty really had this thing about ‘my band,’ and maybe it started that way. But it really wasn’t anybody’s band. I don’t think Marty’s ever gotten over the fact that we didn’t just back him up and do what he said. We did drive him nuts, but when he left, the Airplane was pretty much without direction.”
On the other hand, Kaukonen completely cops to being seduced by success, as he explained to Nick Hasted in a 2016 interview published in Uncut. “We became rock stars,” he says of the period in 1967, when Jefferson Airplane was in the studio working on its third album, the very psychedelic “After Bathing at Baxter’s.” “The Beatles had rented this house when they came to L.A., so of course we had to rent it, and it had all kinds of absurd amenities. A pistol range, and a window into the pool underwater. I think we enjoyed being famous and enjoyed having money, and I’m sure some abuses went along with it. It was a nonstop carnival.”
In the same Hasted interview, Jack Casady puts it this way: “Was Marty on the outside by then? It sounds so neat and tidy, [but] at the time I’m not so sure. Marty was dealing with the fact that there was another hugely strong personality in Grace Slick, and you’ve gotta understand, at the time, hardly anyone had seen a woman in a rock band really strong like that. But Marty was opening up his singing style, too, to match the improvisatory style of the way Jorma and I were driving the band. Jorma and I were starting to faction off together as a musical entity, and Marty was left on his own a little bit. ‘Crown Of Creation’ [the band’s fourth album] displayed some of those different directions on the record.”
And then there were the drugs. “There was a period after acid when cocaine, methedrine, and all this crap heroin came in,” Balin says. “I wasn’t into that, but it changed everything. It for sure changed my band. When I used to walk out onto the stage, I’d look at the back of the amps and see a pile of cocaine, methedrine, and I don’t even know what. And I’d say to myself, ‘Oh, so this is how we’re going to play tonight,’ and sure enough you could predict how a show would go according to the drugs lined up on the back of the amps. That stuff made everybody crazy.”
By 1969, the bloom was long since off the rose, even before the decade ended in violence at Altamont. But Balin had one more Airplane album in him, “Volunteers,” for which he wrote the lyrics and sang the lead vocal on the title track. After Altamont, in 1970, the band toured only sporadically, kept off the road by drummer Spencer Dryden’s departure, Grace Slick’s pregnancy, and Kaukonen and Casady’s increasing interest in their offshoot project, Hot Tuna, which continues to perform to this day. But it was an event unrelated to the palace intrigue surrounding members of Jefferson Airplane that really caused Marty Balin, in April of 1971, to leave the band he’d founded—the death of his friend Janis Joplin, from an overdose of heroin, on October 4, 1970.
“I remember one night I was at RCA Victor,” Balin says of an evening a few days before Joplin died. “It was late and nobody was there but me. I was listening to some tapes, and in comes Janis, and she says, ‘Marty, I’ve just made the greatest record ever! You’ve got to hear it! ’ So we got a couple bottles, went over to Sunset Sound, got drunk, and enjoyed her record, ‘Pearl,’ over and over and over.
“She would be sitting up there on the mixing board, and I would be sitting in a chair,” Balin recalls, “and after every track, she would go, ‘Listen to that. Am I greatest singer in the world or what?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, Janis, you’re the greatest singer who ever lived. You’re it. You’re the main man.’ And the truth is,” he adds, “she was the greatest singer in the world at the time.” The night of Joplin’s death, Jefferson Airplane would be on stage at Winterland, co-headlining the first of two nights with the Grateful Dead and each band’s offshoot, Hot Tuna and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Balin was too distraught to attend.
According to the poet Philip Larkin
“Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.” (Philip Larkin)
It may have been a bit late for Larkin but it was rather early for me. In 1963 I was 12 years old which meant I was very aware of what was going on out in the World but I was still basically a child. I had a lot of freedom (and a bike) and I was just finishing my first year at secondary school. The obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was all over the news and, as has been often said, was a nail in the coffin of the old established order, who appeared so out of touch with the modern age. The Beatles were obviously a totally new phenomenon that epitomised modern times and I, like most of my contemporaries, were totally won over by both their sound and their energy.
At the age of twelve I was not a rebellious child, in fact I was quite the opposite. I enjoyed going to school and I volunteered for virtually all the activities offered. I joined the school band, I was a member of the Rugby and Cricket teams, on sports days I volunteered for nearly all the events (it took me about a week to recover) and I swam several events in the swimming galas. On top of that I acted in the school play (oh, and recited a poem by heart at an external competition. The teacher said I sounded like I was reading a laundry list! It was Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin, which is a lot to remember!). I was also a keen member of the scouts and loved hiking and camping. Like Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, I also eventually became a patrol leader.
So what could possibly go wrong?
Well, not a lot actually. I carried on doing all of those things but there is something that changed, and that was that I became a TEENAGER. It seems strange now that such a small thing could create such a change in attitude and outlook, but this was the 1960s and Teenagers were all the rage. A whole industry had arisen to cater for their needs and, of course, as usual, the media had created a monster. For me 1964 was the beginning of a New Age and I discovered it’s dark side. The Rolling Stones and The Who became my favourite groups and 1965 became the year I experimented with Crime and Delinquency. 1965 was also the year that Like a Rolling Stone was released by Bob Dylan, a song that still resounds like liquid mercury in my brain!
Like many before I was drawn to what the bad kids were doing and thought there was a world of immense joy and pleasure out there. The first real youth subculture in Britain were the Teddy Boys and they provoked fear, or at least tried to, in all they came across. There were a terrifying group that met up on a street corner near where I lived. I walked an extra mile just to avoid them on my way back from the scouts. But 1964 saw a media storm involving a new subculture: The Mods. The first that most people knew about the Mods was when the press and TV sensationally reported battles between them and the Rockers (another new subculture based around motorcycles) at British seaside resorts mainly in the south. Well, of course, this was enough to create the self-fulfilling prophecy of violent gangs stalking the streets of England. It has been described in a study by Stanley Cohen in 1972 called Folk Devils and Moral Panics.
Before 1965 I had never considered the possibility of entering a life of crime and violence but it seemed to occur by it’s own volition. My best friend at school was very impressed with the Mods and, indeed, he was quite knowledgeable about them. His mother’s hair-dressing shop had an apprentice who was a fully fledged Mod who had a scooter and was old enough to travel to some of the clubs that were opening up. He was a source of information for both of us. Mod was about fashion and had a real self-confidence about it. When pop group The Who released My Generation it’s sheer arrogance was quite shocking. By contrast The Rockers were fairly conservative, trying to look like Marlon Brando in The Wild One and listening to 1950s Rock and Roll. At the time I was open to anything that looked good. For example, the Rockers decorated their belts and leather jackets with studs in quite intricate designs, and this appealed to me, but the Mods choice of music was far more interesting and innovative. The Rockers dress sense was very macho and they could look pretty good, especially when the trend for skintight, ice blue jeans came into style. They also had a reputation for being far more violent than the Mods, arming themselves with bicycle chains and studied belts. Many of the ‘battles’ between the Mods and Rockers through the streets of Leicester involved Mods haranguing Rockers and then running off with the Rockers giving chase. As far as I can remember, there was a lot of running and squaring up to each other, and not a lot of fighting. There was a sickening atmosphere of violence over the whole affair though. It accompanied the growth of fighting and hooliganism at football matches, which had it’s roots during this period, although there is evidence that this probably started much earlier. I can remember being a part of ‘battles’ in town where we sang the Dave Clark Five song Catch Us if you Can (1965) as we ran:
“Here they come again, mmmm-mm-mm
Catch us if you can, mmmm-mm-mm
Time to get a move on, mmmm-mm-mm
We will yell with all of our might! [drums kick in]
Catch us if you can …” (Dave Clark Five 1965)
My third year at school lasted from September 1964 to August 1965. During this time I befriended perhaps one of the most unusual people I have ever met. He wasn’t in the same class as me but we became inseparable for nearly a year. That was until we got arrested for stealing two footballs (in case you are wondering, they were deflated!) from Lewis’s Department Store in Leicester. We ended up before the Juvenile Court and I was given a £3 fine and he was sent away to what the Americans call Juvie (Approved School in England, although there were other types of juvenile detention). He actually had quite a few previous offences so the court considered I had been led astray and that is why his punishment was more severe. To the chagrin of my parents I had become a fully fledged Juvenile Delinquent, a phrase that was banded about quite a lot in those days.
However, my friend wasn’t really a delinquent at all. He didn’t really tick any of the boxes, except that he was a truly obsessive kleptomaniac. He took massive risks and actually got away with it most of the time. He was addicted to the adrenaline rush and I really picked up on that and became an adrenaline junkie myself. He wasn’t really a criminal even. He wasn’t trying to profit from it, he really was just living for kicks, a phrase that was used a lot in those days. Apart from that, he was a nice, kind person from a quite respectable background. After 1965, to my regret, I never saw him again until I was doing a gig at The Crows Nest, Leicester in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, by then, apart from our shared school experience, we no longer had much in common.
During my fourth year at school from 1965 to 1966 I decided to give up my criminal ways and pursue more artistic and cultural interests. I started going to the Phoenix Theatre that had recently opened, and I also attended all sorts of concerts at the De Montfort Hall some of which I paid for and others I just hung about outside, this included Bob Dylan’s famous electric gig and also the American Folk Blues tours where I actually got to meet Son House and Willie Dixon.
It was during this time that I first got involved with the local Leicester live music scene. With my new best friend I started going to the Green Bowler Cafe on Churchgate. This was quite a small place that became a major meeting place for the Mods. There were always rows of scooters outside and there were often encounters from the Rockers who were based at the Roman Cafe. This worked both ways and in the end there was a ‘summit’ between the owners of the respective cafes to create a ‘Pax Romana/Bowler’ which actually worked.
You could own and ride a scooter or small motorbike at the age of 15 and I would have joined the ranks of scooter owners if it wasn’t for the fact that I had another run-in with the law for riding a moped without a licence, insurance or tax. To make matters worse I foolishly gave a wrong address and when the police finally caught up with me I was given another fine and banned from driving for two years. Even with my decision to ‘go straight’ I now had two criminal offences to my name and I hadn’t even reached the age of 16. My future was not looking good!
The Green Bowler had a few tables at the front and side and at the back was the bar selling ‘frothy coffee’, two American pinball machines and a superb jukebox containing all the latest hits. For me, the pinball machines were the big draw. After a certain amount of points you’d get a replay, and you could get even more replays as the game continued. The essence of the game was to stay on as long as possible and there were many people keen to displace you. It is a real game of skill and quick reactions and I became a bit of a ‘Pinball Wizard’ (not like the Who’s ‘Tommy’ though. I couldn’t do it with my eyes closed!)
There were girls at the Green Bowler and it was a great social scene. I met my first proper girlfriend there. The girls had their own style that was quite androgynous. When Andy Warhol encountered British Mod Fashion in New York at the time of the British Invasion he was impressed by how the boys looked like girls and the girls looked like boys. The rest of America weren’t quite as sure though, especially in the Deep South! Warhol Superstar Edie Sedgwick became the first American Mod Girl and the style went International!
As time went on the owners opened up a club upstairs called The Antiquity Club. This was tiny but there was a small stage where local groups played and there were alcoves, and a jukebox that was even louder than the one downstairs. Without a doubt, you have never really heard classic 60s hits like the Stones, Who or the Beatles until you hear them on a loud classic jukebox (45 rpm singles, not digital rubbish!).
A friend of mine has said that there was the intention of opening another club in the basement of the Green Bowler but I never experienced this. There is a large interesting building next door that became the Freewheeler Club in the 1970s. This was quite a happening place for a few years.
By 1967 the Mod scene was splitting. Many of the Faces (trend setting figures) were moving towards the Hippie Counterculture, which was far more fashion-conscious than the American equivalent, whilst others stuck to the somewhat grim, violent, right-wing morality of what eventually became the Skinheads. The Green Bowler lasted for a few more years and became meeting spot for people and musicians but the real scene for me moved to other places like the Chameleon, the Art Centre Cafe, The Fuddyduddy (Kenco Coffee House on Granby Street) and the Art College Chaplaincy Centre (on Newarke Street).
I love to find a good Paris photo story that I haven’t seen before, and this one that I found buried in Life magazine’s archives is a quite a treat. Veteran photographer for the magazine Loomis Dean followed a group of young students in 1961, getting an intimate peek into their lives as they pursued the bohemian dream in mid-century Paris.
And you know what? It doesn’t seem like much has changed. Clicking through, I noticed the routines didn’t seem so different from the Paris I’ve come to know today. Whether you start out in a tiny attic room or student dorms, throw yourself into the café culture or lose yourself in art museums, Paris is more recogniseable than ever in this photo story from decades past…
Monday nights at the local…
The mid-week hangovers…
Actual photo caption: “Student with a hangover”.
To the Café! (and make it a double)…
Close living quarters (the dorm room years)…
A college dormitory at number 57 Rue Lacépède in the 5th arrondissement (Latin Quarter).
There is still a café under this building called La Contrescarpe (see it here on Google earth).
A student looking through his music.
A Classroom in Paris
Students studying in a park.
Art students visiting a gallery.
Every hour is Apéro Hour!
Getting to know the locals…
(over Pastis-fuelled philosophical debates)
Beatnik shindigs in old wine cellars…
Ending up at a house parties, having no idea who the apartment belongs to.
Saturday nights in.
Strolling down the Seine…
Art students “picnicking” with their models…
Not forgetting Springtime loves…
And of course, too many damn cigarettes.
All photos (c) LIFE
This is a brilliant blog post about the Heaven and Hell Coffee Bar in Soho written by it’s founder Eric Lindsay (link at end). Sadly not with us anymore. Check it out!!
Ray Jackson and I opened Heaven and Hell in late 1955. I had the idea from when I had been working in Paris, where there was a type of cheap cabaret called “Ciel at l’Enfer” “Heaven and Hell” in Pigalle. The name and the place intrigued me, so later when I was in Paris again with Ray, I took him along to see the place and he also thought it was tacky but great.
The name stayed in my memory for a later date.
Here are some old photographs that I have just come across to show you how much the original impressed me. “Ciel et l’Enfer” was an intriguing name.
We had already sold the Regency Coffee Bar in East Sheen, which we opened with £200, £100 each, sometime in 1953. The Regency look was in, so we bought chairs from an antique shop in Putney for 5/- each and the owner of the shop taught me how to give them the antique look. We bought cheap floor covering, Ray’s uncle hung the wallpaper and my mother made the tablecloths and curtains. I used the same red Regency striped material to upholster the chairs, it was all a bit make do and mend, but the final result looked great. The major expense was the Gaggia Coffee Machine, which we paid off for. So espresso coffee came to East Sheen!
We thought we would do business, well forget it! I thought we would be stuck there for the rest of our lives. East Sheen was half way on the bus route between Hammersmith and Richmond, and really one should never get off the bus. I was convinced it was a place that people just stopped off to die. There was literally no business. Although everybody who lived there had the airs and graces of society toffs, they had no cash flow to buy a cup of coffee. In fact they hadn’t got a pot to piss in! But they lived in East Sheen so they had a little status. (They thought!)
Fortunately both Ray and I continued working in Theatre and TV, and Ray in films because we needed something extra to survive.
We were ‘so busy’ at the Regency that one person could run the whole place – serve coffee, do the cooking, the lot. So Ray and I worked alternate days. When I was on duty I would take an order and call out to the kitchen and then rush round talking to myself (the invisible chef). At least it was a good way to pass the time and it gave the customers the idea that we had staff. I thought I was going to be stuck there forever. We earned £10 a week each. My bus fares cost me £5, so you can see I was really in pocket! Finally we managed to sell the place to a guy who had retired from Claridges Hotel with a pension who wanted something easy to do in his retirement years. Well I could have told him that he wouldn’t be rushed off his feet here, but I didn’t and we sold the Regency for the princely sum of £1000, which was a profit, and we both breathed a sigh of relief!
We then started searching around for empty premises in Soho because I certainly wasn’t going out of town again. It had to be a shop and basement so that Heaven could be on the ground floor and Hell downstairs. We finally came across a little shop with a basement at 57 Old Compton Street. The ground floor had a small jewelry shop sharing the premises called of all things “Going Gay”. Do you think it was an omen? The gentleman who owned the freehold was called Harry Shanson, and he owned all the freeholds of 55, 57 and 59 Old Compton Street W.1.
Shaws the estate agents who were handling the property arranged for Ray and myself to see Mr. Shanson in his office in the City. Well, somehow it must have been our lucky day, because we talked to him and told him we were actors and what we wanted to do with the premises and the name we were going to call the coffee bar and the whole theme. He was interested in everything we had to say. Finally the question of rent came up and Ray and I nearly fell of the chairs when he told us what he wanted. It was far too much for us to afford. We got up to leave and explained that we just couldn’t afford to pay that sort of rent. He asked us how much we could afford. I told him half of what he was asking, to which he replied, “O.K.” With that, we both nearly passed out. Ray and I left his office floating on air.
We started work at 57 Old Compton Street. From the St. Martins School of Art we found a designer to make the plaster casts for the lights in Heaven and also Hell. Beforehand, Ray and I decided that Heaven should have an ethereal theme with sun flowers for lights with cherub faces. The staircase leading to Hell was a giant Devil’s mouth, which you walked down into. Hell was totally black with red flames climbing up the walls.
Out of the walls for lights we had these arms holding lighted Devil masks. The emergency exit, which we had to have, was a ladder in the middle of the room closed on 3 sides with a red curtain on which was a full length painting of the Devil with horns, tail and pitch fork. It was all very atmospheric and the customers adored it. On the street wall we had a light box with a colour transparency of Heaven and below it Hell. From the moment we opened, the place was full, at lunchtimes and evenings. I used to have to stand on the door letting customers in as a seat became vacant whilst they were queuing out in the street. Not many people wanted to stay in Heaven, they all wanted to go to Hell. No pun intended. As you may gather, business was fabulous, especially when the Soho Fair was on.
Over the years Harry Shanson and his wife became firm friends. He was one of the kindest people in the world. One day when we had been running quite a few years, Harry’s son, who was a bit of a monster when he was young, came in and said to me, “My daddy owns this place! It’s ours.” So I politely said to him “Fuck off!”
There was never a dull moment in Old Compton Street. The 2 I’s was next door. The customers would go from coffee bar to coffee bar. The 2 I’s used to have their windows smashed in regularly. We fortunately were left alone. Everyone seemed to making money and at 9 pence a coffee it was some hard going.
Prostitutes were on every street corner. The flat above Heaven and Hell was occupied by Suzy, an elegant French lady of the night who really would have been more at home in Mayfair, but I suppose she wanted a quick turn over! She wore the stair carpet out all the time. Next door at No. 57, Jackie, another French beauty, much younger than Suzy, could turn 100 customers a day. My mother, who used to come up to town regularly, used to sit in the window in Heaven and keep score. She was so intrigued by it all.
Well, the time came when Ray and I decided that we would like to get a flat together, so I spoke to Harry Shanson. The lovely Suzy got her marching orders and Ray and I moved into Flat 1, 57 Old Compton Street at a rent that he asked us what we would like to pay, so that also was very reasonable. It was a known fact that he could always get at least double from the tarts. I did think she might send the ‘heavies’ in after being thrown out and when she found out that we had taken the flat, but no, she was always pleased to see me and talk when I saw her on her new beat at the corner of Greek St. and Old Compton St. Working ‘flats’ were not that difficult for the ‘girls’ to come by.
Suzy had kept the place spotless, after all she had he own French maid who was on duty full time during the working hours. The bedroom looked as though it had seen plenty of action. But after we had redecorated the whole place even Suzy wouldn’t have recognized it as her own little bordello.
We never had live music in Heaven and Hell, just two jukeboxes one in Heaven and one in Hell, with the same records in each. It was easier than all the hassle with live music because the customers never left. With us, they stayed about an hour and left, rather than sitting there all night. Also it was much more profitable as we would get loads of double plays from the 2 machines.
So the money rolled in and we were ready to roll out onto our next venture which was:
“THE CASINO de PARIS STRIPTEASE THEATRE CLUB”
P.S. If any of you ‘older readers’ happen to come across a picture of yourselves taken inside “Heaven and Hell,” I would be very happy to include it into my blog.