“I was born in a cross-fire hurricane.
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain.
But it’s all right now, in fact, it’s a gas!”
– ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, Rolling Stones
§ § §
I: By The Time We Got To Woodstock
Danniel (with two ‘N’s) wandered over to me beer in hand, a common sight. Barely audible over the din of the party, he yelled, “Road trip! You in…?” Here we go again, I thought, and rolled my eyes. “Hey, c’mon, man. Hear me out!” And so I did.
Danniel liked the Stones, but loved the Airplane. He knew I was a Stones fan, too, and that I loved Santana. So that night he tried to twist my arm into traveling with him to a concert to see all three. “That would be great, right?” he’d yelled. “Hard to argue,” I’d yelled in response.
But there were obstacles. It was November, and there was snow on the ground, lots of snow. And this concert was in San Francisco. “That’s California,” I’d said. “Are you nuts? That’s… that’s a thousand miles away!” More, he’d said. Fine. But then there was the issue of transportation – how would we get there?
Obstacles for sure, but there were mitigating circumstances as well. Could I be swayed…?
Danniel had recently gotten his much older girlfriend pregnant. They were getting married in June as soon as school let out, and the baby was due not much later. Everyone involved seemed okay with it, especially his father. He was so thrilled he bought Danniel a car as an engagement present. And not just any car – a used 1963 two-tone, shit-brindle-brown Lincoln Continental with suicide doors and automatic-electric everything. The beast could sleep six without popping the trunk. But Danniel was antsy. He desperately needed to get outta Dodge before his life changed forever, he’d said, and a free rock ‘n roll concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (where it was much warmer for starters) seemed like the perfect ticket. Danniel was 16-years-old.
I was 15, and I’d already been burned once that year by a ‘road not taken’. At the time that happened I was only pissed that I’d missed hanging with Keith and Butchy for a few days south of the border. A couple of months later, when the impact of what I’d missed went global, I lost my shit.
It began like this…
On a hot Saturday afternoon, I was stuffed into a lurching school bus along with three-dozen other teenagers – all male, all about my age, all heading home. The bus was on loan to the Canadian Army from some rural Catholic parish – Our Lady of Something or Other printed in big black Helvetica on the side. The bus was transporting us from Camp Ipperwash on the shores of Georgian Bay back to the thriving metropolis of London from whence we came. I had marched, bivouacked, fought, bitched, complained, and marched for the past six weeks. To make matters worse, this was the summer of 1969, and I had the shortest hair of anyone I knew. I couldn’t wait to kick the Army-issue attitude to the curb, drop the khaki fatigues, and slip back into t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. And a hat. I was glad to be going home, but I had to wonder… how had Keith and Butchy’s roadtrip worked out…?
They had come to visit me at the camp a week earlier in Butchy’s pride and joy: a turquoise Chevy Nova. It had more bark than bite, the curse of a small block engine, but it had Mickey Thompsons, hood pins, and a giant STP sticker on a hood that we’d all painted flat black with spray cans back at the first sign of spring. Even when it was parked it looked like it was going fast. At least that’s what we told ourselves.
Cruising the drag that day in Grand Bend with the windows down and the music up, Keith and Butchy were trying to persuade me to go on a road trip they had planned for the following weekend. We’d done a handful of minor trips in the past year, mostly to The Pinery to camp out, look for girls, and get drunk. I’m pretty sure we were all still virgins at this point. Well, maybe not Butchy. The Pinery was always a great place to test those waters – the girls were just as adventurous as we were – but nothing much ever happened, so the order of priorities frequently changed.
Between Army camp and Labour Day I had only two weeks of summer left before Grade 10 commenced, and I began work on the school play. So I was all ears. I wanted to know what the master plan was. “Where ya goin’, anyways? What’s the deal…?”
“Rock and roll, baby!” Keith said, “Rock and fucking roll!” Butchy wasn’t giving this intervention his full attention. He was concentrating on a well-developed bikini on the back of a Kawasaki that had just pulled up next to us. “Ya gotta come, man,” Keith continued. “Fuck theatre arts – this is life. Besides, school doesn’t start till after Labour Day. We’ll be back long before then.”
“We’re leaving on Thursday morning,” Butchy finally said. “Cross the border into Buffalo, be at ground zero by late afternoon. Tent pitched and scopin’ chicks by dinnah tahm.”
“Pass me anuthah beah, tarbender!” Keith added. We all laughed, but Keith and I shared a knowing glance. We both knew from experience that we’d be the ones pitching the tent, while Butchy pitched himself to the ladies. “Three days of peace and music, if you catch my drift. Pure bliss, pal.” Butchy’s favourite saying. Keith just kept laughing and shook his head.
That capped it – I couldn’t go. I was at camp until Saturday afternoon. I may only have been a cadet, but the army still had fairly strict rules about going AWOL.
So that’s what I was thinking all the way home in that crowded, sweltering school bus. What was this rock and roll weekend going to be like? What was I missing?
It was August 16th, and at that precise moment I was missing Santana take the stage at Woodstock. So, yeah – you might say I had my own mitigating circumstance.
It took a couple of more conversations – quiet ones, no more yelling – and a few more beers before Danniel and I decided to piss on the pitfalls and embrace the adventure of possibility. Danniel’s parents…? His mom had passed away, and his dad had given him the Beast, so yeah – he got it. My parents…? Fuck it! We were going on a road trip!
§ § §
II: Born To Be Wild
This was the plan…
Monday after school we’d pack the car, drive to Sarnia and cross the water into Michigan, and then head south. Continuing south, we’d drive until the snow disappeared, and then hang a right and drive straight to the coast. We gave ourselves four days – plenty of time. Seemed simple enough.
Monday blew past like a Denny McLain fastball. Before we knew it the Beast’s trunk was loaded and we were ready to depart. My idea of packing was somewhat less bohemian than Danniel’s.
Me: 2 changes of clothes, 1 toilet kit, 1 blanket.
Danniel: 1 blanket, 2 two-fours of Labatt’s Blue.
Packing didn’t take long. By dinnertime we were off.
The snow persisted for more than ten hours. As the sun was coming up around breakfast time the next day, we were just within sight of the Louisville city limits. The skies opened, the sun came out, and the roads were clear as far as the eye could see. We made our pre-destined right-hand turn.
The half dozen music mix tapes that Keith had made especially for us (labeled Stuff 1 through Stuff 6) were getting heavy airplay courtesy of the Craig 8-track sound system Danniel had installed in the Beast. Marvin Gaye, Steppenwolf, Cream, Hendrix, CCR, Bowie, Sly, Zep, and of course Santana and the Stones. Music up. Cruise control on. California here we come!
Cruise control off. The break in the snowfall had been just that – a break. Approaching St. Louis we made the decision to slide on down toward Oklahoma where we serpentined our way through more snow. The white out conditions rendered any serious attempt at keeping the car on the road a 50/50 proposition at best. Black ice leading to blind ditches was a combination barely avoided on several occasions. My nerves were on edge. And I wasn’t driving.
Somewhere in Oklahoma (God knows where!) we detoured again and headed south, then west driving through the Texas panhandle, and skimming the tops of New Mexico and Arizona. We made for Las Vegas, thankful for the desert and warmer climes.
There was nothing but blackness on the highway for hours, then – BOOM! Vegas reached out of the darkness with throbbing neon fingers as we approached. Was it beckoning us to come closer, welcoming us into its grip, or warning us, waving us away? We were too tired to entertain any activities The Strip may have offered, and we were way behind schedule. We crashed at a cheap motel in Henderson. They were the first real beds since leaving Southern Ontario four days earlier.
At the first hint of light we were back on the road, blasting through Death Valley, finally on our way to San Francisco. It was Saturday December 6th. Concert day. We made the city limits around lunchtime.
§ § §
III: Go Ask Alice
A couple of days earlier, at a gasbar in Texas (maybe New Mexico, who knows) we heard a rumour that the concert at Golden Gate Park had been cancelled. Parking issues with an expected 100,000 plus fans apparently the cause. Someone else said they’d heard on the radio that Sears Point Raceway was the new venue. Regardless, it didn’t matter to us – we didn’t know where these places were anyway. We needed answers and directions and soon. And food, sooner.
We pulled off the 101 into the Mission District, and stopped into a family restaurant for much-needed sustenance, and some much-needed information. After quickly gorging on a cheeseburger and fries (his), and a Chicken Clubhouse (mine), we settled on a plan. I was still in Cadets, and I still had the shortest hair, so it made sense that the these people would be more likely to talk to me, and not Danniel, whose hair was long past dusting his shoulders. I was now the designated requester of directions.
Had I given the mostly middle-aged clientele of this eatery even a cursory look before I started grazing the tables, I would have known without asking that they were the last people in Frisco to have known or cared where the Rolling Stones were staging their free concert.
Stymied, I hit on what I hoped was a brilliant solution: The Fillmore. Fillmore West was one of those rock palace meccas that became positively iconic in the 1960s. Everyone who was anyone, especially if they were SFO-based, played the Fillmore.
On the way there, amidst a plethora of fantastic FM radio stations in the Bay area, we’d settled on KSAN (I still have the t-shirt). We were rewarded with the news that the ‘free’ concert was now underway at Altamont. Shit! Ten minutes later Danniel and I were introducing ourselves to Tulip in a messy suite of offices on the top floor of Fillmore West, and asking what and where Altamont was.
Tulip was short and cute, with long red hair in pigtails. She wore a bustier, a purple mini skirt, purple ‘Roger McGuinn’ glasses that were perched on the end of her nose, and purple go-go boots. Tulip corrected me – the go-go boots were ‘fuschia’, not purple. “Oh, most definitely,” she said.
She was surprised to see us, because no one was around. Everyone was at the Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway, she said. She was even more surprised that we’d come so far. “Wow! Canada! That’s a long way. You must be disciples or something. Groovy!” We asked about directions to Altamont. She proceeded to tell us all about the free concert issues and the seemingly constant shifts in finding a location. Then she added: “Everyone in town is trying to come to terms with the issues of the day. The persecution of young people by the ‘Man’, you know? And the oppression we feel over our entitlement to free expression and free thought.”
I could dig it, but we needed directions, not an SDS tract.
Danniel had had enough. Remembering the middle-aged restaurant clientele, he said, “Everyone? Not everyone in town can feel that way…” he chided her. “Oh, most definitely,” Tulip said.
Our window was rapidly closing. “Directions…?” I asked again. “How do we get to this race track? Where is it, exactly?”
“It’s not a race track, it’s a speedway,” Tulip said. “Cars, not horses.”
Danniel saw a stack of napkins on a sideboard, grabbed one and handed it to our flower child. “A map! Could you draw us a map?” he said, barely containing his frustration.
“Oh, sure. Just jump on the highway and head outta town. It’s about an hour east.” She took a pencil and began drawing lines on the napkin. Danniel and I looked at each other, and then he looked at his watch.
The lines, as it turned out, were practically meaningless – tic-tac-toe without the symbols. Next to those lines she wrote, “Go this way,” with an arrow pointing to the right side of the napkin. I assumed this meant ‘east’. Underneath she wrote, “Good luck. Have fun. Love always. Toolip.” The two Os were little hearts.
“Well, THAT was a fuckin’ waste of time! Jesus!” Danniel said as we jumped back into the Lincoln. He gunned the V8 and wheeled out into traffic without looking, squealing the tires and blowing smoke. I reminded him that this was the city where they shot ‘Bullitt’ and that he should be careful. “A Charger could come FLYING OUT OF A BLIND ALLEY at any moment,” I said, trying to put a smile on the deteriorating situation. Danniel wasn’t biting. He was serious, and he was seriously pissed off. I kept forgetting that he’d been doing all the driving, and the fatigue he was feeling must have been overwhelming. His crankiness had been earned.
About two minutes into our ‘getaway’, I consulted Toolip’s ‘map’. I knew from San Francisco’s orientation on the coast that we were paralleling the ocean on our right, so that meant we were headed south (I took my role as navigator seriously). I started to say to Danniel, “We’re headed south, so we should –”
“Fuck that stupid MAP!” he said. He grabbed the napkin out of my hand and tossed it into the back seat. “The first opportunity we’re turning left and heading east. Yell when you see a freeway.”
As we drove through an intersection, I attempted to retrieve the crumpled napkin. I noticed the sign of the cross street: Haight Street. My mind raced. “Danniel, um… that was Haight we just crossed.”
“What?!” he said. “Haight. Haight Street? Haight-Ashbury…?” Danniel looked at me with recognition. Then resignation. “FUUUUCK!” he yelled. Steve McQueen took the next right at speed, on an amber, drifting to the left. As we hurtled around the corner, I held on and secretly hoped we’d lose a hubcap, just for effect.
§ § §
IV: Do You Believe In Magic
We did NOT have time for this. But, hey… we were there, and when would we be again?
Haight-Ashbury is to San Francisco, what the Left Bank is to Paris. What Greenwich Village is to New York City. What gin is to vermouth. People who have never been to the Bay Area acknowledge the significance of the neighbourhood. Since the Summer of Love, more than two years earlier, this was pretty much ‘hippie central’. Or so we thought. As we were about to find out, by 1969 the area was barely a shadow of its former self.
Danniel and I wandered in concentric circles. We made our way to a park trying in vain to find 1967. And then, there it was, or at least the last vestiges of it. Or maybe a group of actors trying to recreate it. We wandered into the park and mingled. The whole corner of that park looked, felt and smelled like an acid-induced renaissance fair. I walked into the crowd of maybe a hundred people and immediately was swallowed by it. It was intoxicating. What a trip! I turned around with a big stupid grin on my face to see where Danniel was. Where was Danniel? I’d lost Danniel.
I turned around again and found myself face-to-face with a very pretty girl. She had long blond hair, a freshly painted flower on each cheek, and eyes as big as moons. She handed me a roach clip clinging to the tiniest of burning hash embers. A feather wisp of sweet smoke curled around her face. “Here… go ahead,” she said. I complied and inhaled. She smiled and tried her best to run her fingers through my hair. “You look funny,” she said, continuing to smile. Maybe it was the moment. Maybe it was the location. Maybe it was the ‘medicine’. I leaned forward and kissed her. She tasted like a girl. She giggled and began to move away from me, slowly fading into the crowd, disappearing into the colour of the corner. It was only then that I noticed she was naked. And pregnant.
I finally spotted Danniel on the other side of the street carrying a paper bag. He waved, and then pointed to a large sign. I looked. Golden Gate Park. How funny was that?!
Danniel was waving again. He pointed to his watch. I nodded. As I started to leave, I looked over my shoulder. Through the wrong end of the binoculars I could see what it was, what it had been, for real. People laughing, singing, dancing. Frisbees floating on air, competing for attention with soap bubbles being blown by… who knows how many people. People of all shapes and sizes… A guy with dreads sitting on the grass playing a lute. Bongos, and a recorder somewhere. And flowers… lots of flowers. Man, what was it like actually living here, I thought. As I stood on the corner waiting for the light to change I saw her. An elderly gray haired woman in a paisley pattern kaftan was sitting in a wheelchair and sucking on a makeshift hookah, her German Shepherd keeping watch beside her on the sidewalk. Haight-Ashbury, circa late 1969.
We jumped in the car and headed east.
§ § §
V: When The Truth Is Found To Be Lies
We knew the concert was already underway. That knowledge was a bitter pill. The thought of how much we had missed – how much we were still going to miss – burned. I wanted to turn the radio on, so we could at least get a play-by-play analysis of what was happening. Danniel didn’t even look at me when he said, “Don’t.”
We had lost all our enthusiasm. The whole trip had become an exercise in blending – one day into the next, one experience into the next, one distraction into the next. We were on the cusp of seriously losing it altogether, when our whereabouts suddenly was in question.
“We’re now 75 miles east of San Franscisco,” Danniel said, acknowledging what the odometer had been predicting for about ten minutes. “Where the fuck are we?!” He looked over at me.
We had driven through Livermore and were definitely headed for Tracy, but… we should have been there by then. I hastily consulted Toolip’s map again, hoping it would magically all make sense now. It didn’t. We were missing it, we were losing it, and we were fucking lost! Most definitely.
I was about to suggest we turn around when two low-flying helicopters buzzed overhead. One had large radio or maybe TV call letters emblazoned on its side. “They have to be going to the concert,” I said. “Which means Altamont is back there,” Danniel said pointing over his left shoulder, “and over thataway.”
A few minutes later we made the first left turn available, and then we saw it – traffic from hell, all six lanes of it. We made a slow curve down onto the highway becoming part of a parade of vehicles heading west. Ironically, missing the original route turned out to be a big plus. It meant we were approaching the speedway from the southeast, the opposite direction as most of the traffic. Then we heard it… a bass-reflex thumping that sounded familiar. Someone’s radio, perhaps. Maybe the stage….
We were getting close. Cars that weren’t slowing down were parked along both sides of the highway, now – nothing appeared to be getting through. A motorhome suddenly lurched out in front of us. With a loud sustained honk, and a few well-chosen expletives, Danniel quickly reversed into the spot, not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth. He threw the Lincoln into park, and shut off the engine. We looked at each other. “We’re here!” we said almost simultaneously.
Packing the blankets and leftover beer into a canvas bag, along with two orders of street souvlaki Danniel had scored in The Haight, I slammed the trunk shut. We crossed the highway in a slow motion dodge between motorcycles, mini buses and other vehicles that were now moving at funeral speed. Jumping a fence, we trudged through a dry field toward the speedway. Our internal compass led us to join a few thousand other stragglers on the same mission. This is what we’d come so far to be a part of. We were young refugees marching to the sound of a distant drummer that held the promise of peace and music, just like Woodstock. All of us drawn to a beacon of Daliesque rock and roll light a mile or so away, just over a hill.
The weather had cooperated all day, but the temperatures were beginning to dip. The mercury had dropped to near freezing in the Bay Area the night before, and KSAN said that there were portable heaters at the ready near the stage just in case. Some of the massive crowd that had arrived earlier – many the day before when the second change of venue had finally been widely reported – were still jockeying for position, possibly for heat, a frenetic dance of humanity against the music that had long since started. Twilight was already upon us, bringing with it friction and bad vibes mixed with the chilly air. We were dog-tired, so we gave up trying to get closer. Instead, we settled on a flat spot on a hill with a handful of hippies from Oregon about a half-mile from ground zero.
The full velocity of the music that we anticipated wasn’t there. We’d missed Santana AND Jefferson Airplane, and although the recognizable sounds of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were now apparent, their songs and harmonies were reduced to muffled acoustics. The sound was awful. Still, we were there. The great Rolling Stones ‘free’ concert. End of the tour, theirs and ours. Altamont.
§ § §
VI: Freedom’s Just Another Word
The gap between CSN&Y’s set and the arrival of the Rolling Stones on stage was long. Danniel and I drank and smoked, and did our best to enjoy the festivities, to soak it all up, to catch the party atmosphere. But it wasn’t there. It was all pretty hazy.
Later, the souvlaki was history, the warm Labatt’s Blue had been reduced to seven empty stubby bottles, the Stones’ erratic set was over, and our hippy friends appeared to be asleep. All except two of them – they were fucking.
The blankets and beers had come in handy, although we were now too stoned to mind the cold that had descended on the retreating, post-concert horde. We were also too tired to move. The weight of driving 2500 miles back to Southern Ontario after four days on the road and an anticlimactic day of seeking our own Woodstock hung heavily. We were road weary. The mechanical humping going on just to our right was at least entertaining.
Wanting to or not, I did think of the drive home. I wanted to go home. I was ready to go home. I had school – I liked school – and I had a lot to catch up on. I was going to stage-manage another play, this one a musical, and rehearsals would start a week before the Christmas break. I had a short story due in English class, and a history project worth 40% of my year was in jeopardy. What the fuck was I doing here?! Was I completely irresponsible? Was I a keener? Would a keener fuck off for more than a week without telling anybody…?
I was an “A” student with a “C” attitude, which meant I got a lot of “B”s. Life has a way of averaging out that way if you’re lucky. I still had the shortest hair of anyone in the world, but at least one girl thought I looked funny and let me kiss her anyway. See – averaging out. But what would my teachers think…? My internal conversation was filled with conflicting arguments. I was counting on the law of averages.
I thought of the drive home – the desert, the plains, and the snow. The snow that was lying in wait, waiting to rise up to fuck with us. I didn’t think of the bands we didn’t or couldn’t see, or the music we could barely decipher – I thought of the drive home.
Then I thought of my mother, my stepfather. What were they thinking? What – were – they – thinking…? What would they say? I hadn’t thought of them once during the trip, not even a flicker. I realized at that moment… I didn’t care. What would the negative results of this impromptu road trip amount to? Would there be any? I didn’t care. I sat forward on that hill, suddenly feeling very lucid, very aware… very alive. I. Didn’t. Care! Huh. Funny how some events, that may seem trivial in the moment, are recognized only much later as having left life-altering consequences in their wake. Mine did. But it would be years later before I made the connection.
I looked over at Danniel. He was watching the stream of people trudge back to the highway and the cars that would carry them home, wherever home was. He looked more than tired, he looked beaten. All the exhilaration of the past four days that had once been so present on his face had fallen away, revealing huge disappointment and failure. He looked lost. I wish I’d had some empathy at that moment, but instead all I felt was excitement. The clarity of my own feelings was crystal – command and control. Command and control of my own life. I thought of my mother and my stepfather again, just to check. Nope. I still didn’t care. I didn’t care what they would say or do. It was what I was going to say to them when I got home that I cared about.
Then, as if to signal the official end of the festivities, to our right there was an orgasm. And that, as they say, was that.
§ § §
VII: Waitin’ On The Judgment Day
It was decided that I would drive. Well, not decided in any democratic sense, so much as through the process of elimination. Danniel had thrown me the keys and said he was going to sleep for a while. He said the cops would be too busy directing the death march of traffic out of the area between Livermore and Tracy to bother checking for valid drivers’ licenses, or even existing ones in my case. Seemed plausible.
Eight hours and two fill-ups later I pulled the Beast into a gas station outside Lake Havasu City, and Danniel took over. He drove the rest of the way home.
Two and a half days later, we pulled up at the end of my snow-covered cul-de-sac in London. I grabbed my shit out of the trunk, and told Danniel I’d see him at school. “Yup,” was all he said.
As Danniel drove away, fishtailing on the icy road, I began the slog home in the almost knee-deep snow.
At a distance I could see the curtains were open slightly, and a glow from the two floor lamps we had at opposite ends of the living room spilled out onto the drifts. It was dark and near dinnertime. “Good timing,” I said to myself, more than a little facetiously.
As I took the two shallow steps to the front door, I caught a glimpse of my stepfather lying on the couch watching television. I’d last seen him in the same position eight days earlier. I took a deep breath and entered. As I shook the snow off and began to remove my shoes, he neither stirred nor acknowledged my presence. My mother appeared in the alcove adjacent to the kitchen, spatula in hand.
“So… there you are,” she said. I smiled and gave a half-hearted wave awaiting the barrage. “Dinner’s in twenty minutes,” she said, and returned to the kitchen.
That was it. Not another word. I had been gone for more than a week, but it was good to know dinner would be ready in less than half an hour. What had she said, what had she done about dinner every night at this time over the past week?!
I had been putting up with this from my ‘family unit’ for far too long. If they didn’t want to be parents when I pulled shit like this, then they had lost the right to weigh-in anywhere or anytime else. As far as that history was concerned I was fifteen-years-old, but I could have been twelve, or eight – same shit, different day. Once someone decides to become a parent, they’re a fucking parent. They can be anything else they want as well, but parenting is 24/7, not an episodic avocation. You can’t look after your children Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, with weekends and holidays off. If that’s what they’d wanted, they should have installed a fuckin’ time clock with punch cards at the front door. Buy in, or get out. I’d made my decision.
I looked over at the still-life on the couch. My younger brother made an appearance at the top of the stairs with a wide-eyed ‘what-the-fuck’ look on his face. There was a hint of recognition from Friskie, our pet cat.
Dinner passed without comment. You guys just made this way too fuckin’ easy, was all I could think.
§ § §
VIII: Groovin’ On A Sunday Afternoon
Christmas came and went, likewise, New Years. Three weeks later I turned sixteen – the magic number. A few days after that, I met with three government social workers at City Hall. One of my teachers, Martin, had arranged for me to see them so I could detail my situation, and lay out my plan. I needed their written assessment and eventual approval to move forward. The meeting was scheduled for an hour, the usual amount of time it took for the panel to hear evidence pertaining to a petition for underage emancipation.
Two hours later we finished up. I answered all their questions, and asked plenty of my own. My presence was supported by Martin, who attended for the sole purpose of supplying confirmation about my academic standing, but he went above and beyond, and was one of the reasons this initial meeting went long.
A week later I was summoned to City Hall and presented with a paper form. I was told that my request had passed first reading, and that what was now required was signatures from both parents and a witness acknowledging my petition. There were check boxes that required ticking and initialing for each parent or guardian. One check box said ‘yes’, the other said ‘no’. The question: Do you agree to the terms of this petition? There was space to add further comments if necessary.
After dinner that night I sat both my parents down on the sofa. I handed my stepfather the form. I said, “Read it, initial it, sign it.” He read it, and then looked at me. He initialed it, signed it, and then handed it to my mother. She read it. “Are you sure this is what you want?” she eventually said. I just looked back at her. She initialed it and signed it. I took the paper back to check it – both tick boxes, ‘yes’. A neighbor who I occasionally housesat for witnessed it. Done, and done. All that remained now was the official interview the panel would have with my parents to confirm all the details, and give them one last chance to challenge the petition. They didn’t.
Two weeks later, two large manila envelopes with identical return addresses were delivered to our townhouse. I opened mine. Inside was a three-page official-looking document – Copy 1 of 3, was stamped in the lower right corner. It began,
“As of the execution date of this document, petitioner is granted…”
Blah, blah, blah. I had successfully divorced my parents.
In less than forty-eight hours it was Sunday. I piled the remainder of my belongings into the back seat of Butchy’s Nova. I waved to my mom standing in the living room window. “You got everything?” Butchy asked. “Nah. One more thing…” I said, settling into the bucket seat. “Peel out and squeal the tires!” Butchy laughed. The engine raced, the Mickey Thompsons spun, and we lost our grip fishtailing about twenty feet. Half a donut later we came to an embarrassing stop, sideways. Butchy slammed the steering wheel. “Fuckin’ ice!” Oh well, it’s the thought that counts.
That day, I moved into a five-bedroom brown brick bungalow owned by Vinod and Popi, an East Indian couple. Four of the bedrooms had been turned into housekeeping suites for university students. When I interviewed with them, and said I was a student, they assumed I attended Western, and was not just merely half way through Grade 10.
Butchy helped me move my stuff into the front bedroom. We talked about all the cool parties we’d have in this great place, a place for just hanging out. And a place for girls – like I hadn’t thought of that! I wanted to unpack and settle in. I walked with Butchy back to his car. We both stood out front, looking at the house. Snowflakes falling, Christmas lights still up. The place practically screamed ‘Happy Holidays’. Home sweet home, I thought. “Pure bliss, pal,” said Butchy. It was February 22, 1970.
§ § §
IX: The Kids Are Alright
I suddenly became the most popular guy in Grade 10 – I had my own place!
Weekdays were taken up with school, of course – projects, theatre, and creative writing. But weekends were party times. Friends and I would hang out, listen to music, drink, and get small. Occasionally, there was a girl.
As the weather turned and it got warmer, I also spent a lot of time on weekends with Vinny and Popi and their friends and family (many of whom didn’t speak English), cooking and learning about East Indian food and culture. The smells escaping from the newly installed homemade tandoor in the backyard created a huge issue for the neighbours, to say nothing of the Bollywood music blasting out the windows. On those occasions, Popi’s uncle would wander outside with his ceremonial talwar and start to sing and dance. And then the police would show up. Fun times.
That summer Danniel got married and became the father of a baby girl. I didn’t see him much after that. He dropped by Casa Waldo a few times to have a beer and shoot the shit, but we never did talk about the trip to California or Altamont again. I’d heard he’d sold the Beast and bought something more ‘family friendly’. “Yup,” was all he said.
The academic standing that Martin, my teacher friend, had been so convincing about on my behalf in front of the emancipation panel, paid off again. It allowed me to alter my own curriculum so long as I continued through Grade 13, in those days considered ‘college prep’. One day at the beginning of July Martin dropped by with a six-pack of Lowenbrau. He talked to me about a new course being offered by a friend of his at a different high school – Communication Arts. You needed decent marks through Grade 10, along with a letter of recommendation to even apply for one spot in a class that was limited to about twenty students. The school was getting applications from all across Ontario. It was a two-year course (Grades 11 and 12), and at the end, provided you graduated in good standing, you received a special course certificate along with your high school diploma. He thought I should apply.
“Right up your alley,” he said. It was bootcamp for radio, television, and filmmaking. Right up my alley, indeed. “You’re running the show, now. Time to move some of those chess pieces around on the board. But don’t wait too long to make up your mind. Let me know this week, okay? I’ll write the letter.”
Before he left, Martin handed me a present wrapped in butcher paper, and tied with a string. “Gird your loins,” was all he said, and then burst out laughing.
Popping another beer, I unwrapped the package. It was an old, used hardcover book. Its faded paper sleeve was tattered and could barely hang on. “Quiet Days In Clichy” by Henry Miller. My turn to burst out laughing. Yup, I thought, that’s Martin! Inside he’d written an inscription:
“Your life’s under new management now. Don’t fuck it up! – Martin, The Year Dot.”
I don’t know that I’ve ever been as moved by a gift as I was in that moment. Martin had some great books on his shelf at school, and also at his home where I’d been many times with groups of friends and students, drinking, eating, falling down. His wife, Candy, had bought him this book at Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris during their honeymoon in 1966. Her inscription to him was adjacent to mine:
“A cautionary tale… not a how-to! Ha, Ha, Ha! – Candy”
I blushed because I understood the reference.
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X: It’s A Gas, Gas, Gas
I got in to the ComArts course, and emerged with the certificate and the diploma. I then arranged my last year in high school, Grade 13, with five English courses, including CanLit, Classics, and Journalism; two theatre courses including theory and stage direction; and two creative writing courses that included play writing. I was set.
That summer I got a job with a cinema rep house playing second-run films in 16mm. It was one of the most consistently popular movie theatres in London. Patrons could see a double-bill for less than the price of a single first-run feature at any of the other cinemas. I became their new projectionist. And concession stand server. And janitor. However, I also managed to put together some killer double bills that increased the theater’s attendance.
The movie house played to a mostly university and college crowd – Western and Fanshawe students accounted for more than half of our clientele. However, because it was summer, most of the students had gone home and our box office receipts had fallen off. It was thought by the theatre owner that younger talent (i.e. me) would attract, and hopefully increase the younger audience with some targeted double bills.
My double bills became the talk of the town. Marx Brothers one week, War themed movies the next, then Swedish softcore, followed by a John Waters special week featuring “Pink Flamingos”. Most of the racier films I programmed weren’t available in what was called ‘theatrical 35’. In Conservative ‘Big Blue Machine’ Ontario at the time those films would have been heavily censored, or simply banned outright. My distributors in Toronto and Montreal, however, taught me a valuable secret – most theatrical films also had 16mm copies. They weren’t categorized as ‘theatrical’, but as ‘educational’, the only other designation available. I’m sure John Waters would have pissed himself over“Pink Flamingos” being categorized as having educational merit!
On Tuesday, the first night of its run, we had a smaller than normal house. However, two plainclothes vice squad officers made their presence known about half way through the film. After interviewing the owner, his wife and me, they issued a written ‘shut down and property seizure’ notice if the scheduled six performances were ‘held over’ due to popular demand. They were aware of the loophole, but were sure to close it soon, they said. They never did.
I sprang into action. I wrote a press release and sent it to both campus newspapers. I detailed the police presence and quoted liberally from the ‘asset seizure’ notice. I then offered fifty cents off the ticket price upon presentation of a copy of the published release, good for any screening.
On the Friday night during that run I went out with some friends to celebrate, because we’d sold out three nights straight and even turned people away. More free press! But, I got drunk. Really drunk. I forgot to change the marquee for the Saturday matinee (also my job). It was a FAMILY matinee. A photograph that ran in the Saturday evening edition of the local newspaper showing moms and baby carriages lining up to see “Pink Flamingos” instead of Disney’s “Fantasia” was… awkward. More free press!
I used to receive flyers from distributors detailing new releases to the educational market. One of these flyers was devoted to documentaries. I hit upon what I thought was a terrific idea for a double bill: D.A. Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop” (produced by John Phillips and Lou Adler), backed with the Maysles Brothers’, “Gimme Shelter”, the documentary about the Rolling Stones ‘free’ concert at Altamont. Easily promotable, especially to our target audience. A couple of weeks later, the shipping canisters arrived. Obviously, I had ulterior motives for booking “Gimme Shelter”, and I looked forward to my own private screening.
It was a ritual I had followed many, many times. I took the three reels of 16mm film out of its shipping case and spliced them together onto a single one-meter aluminum feed reel. Then I spliced exactly one and a half minutes of white leader onto the head, and looped the film through the massive, clunky Hortson projector. Dimming the house lights and activating the automatic act curtain, I switched the projector on, bolted out the booth door, and ran down two flights of stairs. Rounding the corner on the main floor I had enough time to grab a bag of popcorn and a medium size Hires Root Beer. In the dark I settled into the center seat in the center aisle of this converted Salvation Army Chapel. As I popped the first kernel of butterless corn into my mouth, Mick Jagger announced to the Altamont crowd: “Welcome to the breakfast show”. Then the biggest rock band in the world launched into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.
Over the coming week I watched “Gimme Shelter” six more times along with almost sold-out audiences, primarily students as I’d anticipated.
What I saw blew my mind.
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“Well, the Rolling Stones tour of the United States is over.
It wound up with a free concert at the Altamont Speedway…
There were four births, four deaths, and an awful lot of scuffles reported.
We received word that someone was stabbed to death in front of the stage by a member of the Hell’s Angels.
Nothing’s confirmed on that. We were there – we didn’t see it.”– Stefan Ponek, KSAN Radio, San Francisco – December 7, 1969§ § §
Over 300,000 people attended Altamont. No one left unaffected, not even the bands.
Hours, days, weeks, months, years later, as its cultural impact grew and grew (in diametrical opposition to its Woodstock counterpart), the attendees would be forced to formulate a response to the question others would often pose when they discovered you had been to that infamous ‘free’ concert; the one where the black man in the lime green suit and fedora was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel. “What was it really like?” they would ask. There would be 300,000 answers, 300,000 stories to tell.
“Gimme Shelter” was NOT the Altamont I’d been a part of. Perhaps it was a matter of proximity – we’d been about a half-mile from the epicenter, and so the violence that was so raw and visceral in the movie was someone else’s violence, someone else’s experience.
The ‘adventure of possibility’ that Danniel and I had wished to embrace was far different than the one we found. But perhaps we’d found something more. I know I did. The epiphany I had on that small hill on a cold night in December 1969 in the middle of fucking nowhere was a direct result of everything that had occurred on that road trip. In the end, the possibility of leaving home and starting my life anew at such a young age became the adventure I sought. I was about to step out on my own, and for good. Would I, could I have arrived at that decision without the road trip, without Altamont?
If Altamont was my ‘beginning’, it also symbolized an ending. Some came to believe that Altamont signaled the ignominious end to the idealistic 1960s – the media still does. No news story, no documentary on the life and times of any segment of the Swinging Sixties is complete without a statement that includes the words, “…and then Altamont happened.” Altamont became the ‘fade to black’ for an entire era.
That decade affected everything.
The 1960s gave an entire generation its own music – rock and roll as a genre, a cultural phenomenon, and ultimately an art form, matured. Old, white, male politicians and lawmakers, whom, with few exceptions, adhered to old school ways and means, and perpetuated post-war ideals and policies, were put on notice. The voting age was lowered, and ultimately the bar was raised. Of course we were disaffected. The youth that asked for change, then pursued it, then protested it, and then demanded it, got it.
Every generation has its own signature event, its touchstone moment that resonates so loudly, that its cultural and personal impact becomes part of its DNA: JFK, Vietnam, Moonshot, Beatlemania, Trudeaumania, King, Bobby, Woodstock, Altamont. All 1960s.
So, maybe Altamont in December of 1969 was the smoking gun. That year – 1969 – still sticks out in my mind because it was the year, for me, that everything changed. It was a hell of a year. President Nixon began peace talks in Paris to end the war in Vietnam, while at the same time authorizing the secret bombing campaign of Cambodia; Frankenstein died of a heart attack, Brian Jones and Mary-Jo Kopechne drowned, both under suspicious circumstances, and following separate roads Dorothy finally went over her rainbow and ODed, and Jack Kerouac reached the end of his; Zodiac hunted humans in Northern California, while Charlie and his family went all ‘helter skelter’ in the City of Angels; James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King, and Sirhan Bishara Sirhan pleaded guilty to assassinating Bobby Kennedy – both would eventually recant their confessions; John and Yoko made it official, so did Monty Python; ‘Oh! Calcutta!’ got naked, Stonewall got raided, ‘Abbey Road’ got crossed, and we all learned how to get to ‘Sesame Street’; Slaughterhouse Five was read, Hee Haw was watched, and In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida was heard; David Bowie and Major Tom took us to space, Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 took us to the moon, and according to Arlo Guthrie we could get anything we wanted (except Alice); and on August the fifteenth, I did not go to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York with my friends for three days of peace and music.
But there were other events that pivotal year, too. One warm September evening I became ‘acquainted’ with an older woman named Candy. And that, as they say, was that.
In a bankers box at the bottom of a closet there sits an aging letter-size manila envelope. Inside, there is a set of emancipation papers with a bunch of signatures and a government seal on it; a crumpled yellowed napkin with black squiggles on it; a pristine, never been unfolded road map of the State of Oklahoma, courtesy of Texaco; and a small plastic baggie containing one (1) alligator clip. Printed in black Sharpie across the front are the words, Welcome To The Breakfast Show.
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Note: Copyright In The Photographs Remains With The Original Owners