Long Walk at Dawn

Excerpt from Chapter 14 of Winterland Nights

Those first few months in Bollinger Canyon I lived in a buffer zone, passing from one chapter to another. I trusted the experience. Any apprehension that I felt was not because of that greater spiritual picture. It was because I had to make a living, pay the rent, take care of myself, learn how to be alone, and accept the solitude that bounded me in the canyon.

One morning just before my 23rd birthday in July I awakened early before the sun was up. I had slept deeply—but I was restless. I put on my jacket and went outside. The air was cool, but comfortable. Georgia, the petite black cat who lived in the corral came up to me and mewed. I started walking and said, “Do you want to come with me, girl?” She followed me. 

As I crossed the pasture, I smelled the horses and the dry grass. I began walking up the trail behind the house and yard and sensed the incense sweetness of summer-toasted bay trees and the arid aroma of parched grass. It was a scorching summer, with more heat coming. Aside from the sound of my footsteps everything was silent. The night had not yet broken through to twilight, but there was ambient light and my eyes had adjusted so that I could see my way. As I walked the sky started to brighten. Black turned to violet. There was no fog and a few remaining stars flickered and gave way to the sun that was beginning to stir below the horizon.

The path climbed slightly and turned south as the landscape emerged in the growing light. Everything was shimmering, a trick of my eyes striving for the light. As I ambled, I felt as if there was another entity with me in addition to the petite feline familiar that shadowed me. Georgia dashed about, but always returned to the path on which I walked, checking up on me to be sure I was still on the trail.

I had no idea as to what to do that morning other than to keep mobile. I had made my way to a time when I had yet to be at peace with the concealed self that made me restless. I was scarcely aware that there were greater energies stirring within me that I would not have understood even had I been more spiritually perspicacious. I knew I was a mystic that did not fit into the mold that I had been given as a child. I had to make my own way. I was reluctant to do so.

The path led to a grove of poplar trees near the crest of the trail. I could see them ahead of me in the rapidly expanding light, their multitude of leaves shivering in the morning wind streaming in from San Francisco Bay. I loved that spot amidst those trees. There was a stump that I could sit on—a meditation chair provided by nature. It was another setting like the vortex in the redwood grove that had altered me a few years before. That summer morning, I remained the same human I was that turbulent night, still sensitive to the wildness that had compelled me when my mind was almost undone. I waited patiently as the sun ascended. Georgia jumped into my lap. The experience of immanence was calm.

Was Georgia trying to tell me something? She was a barn animal, and she lived on the edge of the wild. If everything fell apart, she could return there and make her way by foraging and hunting. She was gentle but potentially savage. As I sat on the stump, she remained on my lap, her eyes wide open, watching the light flood into the canyon as the sun inexorably climbed higher above the hills. 

Color spilled from the shadows. Dull black and grey turned to iridescent green and fulsome ochre. The hills were ornamented with groves of oaks and buckeye trees. I looked up and saw the first hawk of the day darting about looking for a rising current of air that had yet to develop. Birds were awakening. I could hear them launching songs. Somewhere in the arousing geography a mockingbird began to call. At that moment it was the loudest sound in the canyon.

I heard the far-off rumble of civilization beginning its hasty rush through the spirit of the times, as I sat on the stump while my heart opened to the spirit of the depths. Like Georgia I was on the edge of my own animal nature. My own wildness and restlessness were there within me like a portion of myself that I had not yet recognized as a friend who loved me.

I do not recall how long I sat there quietly thinking that there would come a time when I also would arise each morning and go somewhere to earn my lucre—so I could make my own path through the outlandish world that humans had established. I knew also that there was something more important that needed doing. I had thought long and hard about what that might be as my time in college wound down. I had returned to the Bay Area to become a writer, but it was not my time then. The calling had called me, but I was afraid to follow. Later, when I had the mettle, I did not have the time.

As Georgia purred in my lap, a voice inside me whispered—an intimate articulation that I had heard many times before. I could not place it within the context of personhood. It had no physical face, no obvious visage. It was the voice that endowed me with images and metaphors that were replete with compelling mysteries that I could not understand. I listened while slipping in and out of its vocabulary in the same way as sensing dreams or reveries. It was the part of me that was not me. I could not tag it with a specific proper noun without it scattering into puddles of mercury. When I attempted to understand it with my small mind it obscured itself yet remained in full view at the same time.

What I heard as I waited in the poplar grove still speaks as I play the tape that presents the succession of my life on the river where the Yellow Princess navigates. I still can’t label that music, but it no longer just whispers like a tranquil ghost. I cannot see it, but it rests all about me. It wants everyone in the world to know that it loves us, even if we do not listen or are unaware of its existence. It does not hide, but it cannot be measured or seen except in its outer forms: poplars, animals, wind through trembling leaves, birds singing.

That morning, like that hawk looking for a lift, I sat and opened my heart to that voice, knowing that eventually, if I was patient, it would carry me across the sky while my feet remained firmly planted on the earth.

Winterland Nights is available in paperback and Kindle at this link.

Photos of Bollinger Canyon circa early 1980’s by Richard Gylgayton.

The Last Gasp of Something Grasping

A Winterland Nights Bonus Track

September 16, 2019, 9:21 am—Last Homely House. Monday morning. Much work to do today in the studio. Each morning when I wake up I am astonished by where I am and what I’m doing. Retired—what an inexplicable word.

At this moment I’m sitting in the reading room. I come in here first thing when I awaken and open the curtains that cover the bay window. A cloudy morning. More rain coming. Another front arriving tomorrow. A wind warning up on Accuweather. Possible thunderstorm this afternoon. The weather is always metaphorical as well as physical. I might be able to get out for a walk this morning after I finish my coffee. 

Anyway, yeah, retired. I never expected it and certainly not in the way that it transpired. When I attended the Hot Tuna concert the night before last I looked around, and everyone, and I do mean everyone, was my age, most of them grey-haired. Men with big stomachs, even bigger than mine (gonna do something about that). Wizened ladies dancing and whirling. Tie dyed T-shirts. Good crowd. An exuberant Dionysian mood in Revolution Hall. (Yes, that’s the actual name of the venue.)

I thought about my generation and how we were transformed by psychedelics. We woke up. Some of us anyway. You can read that history now in a book called Acid Dreams—also Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. All that happened long ago, but it lingers. We thought we were going to make vast changes. We did make a few. We ended an unconscionable ultra-violent war in Southeast Asia. We began thinking about the ecosystem. We raised our children to think planetarily. We failed in other ways. The power structure is resilient, and there are always new people willing to hypnotize themselves into having a piece of it. 

What we are going through now is the last gasp of something. Business as usual is not sustainable. Literal religion doesn’t work. We have made a mess of the planet. The hounds of war are still at it, ravaging and tearing the natural equity of the world, migrating it into cash so that affluent folks can have more golden toilets to crap in. I think this is temporary. It’s all unraveling. It can’t last.

I am light years apart from those who love their guns and knives, those who have no doubts about their righteousness whether they are religious or not. That’s a trap—being so into your self-imposed relief from fear and discomfort that you cannot even consider that your solace is a warped fantasy. On occasion I’m as guilty of that as anyone.

But not now I think—not as I sit here listening to Bach’s Art of the Fugue on a Monday morning in the Pacific Northwest, gazing at threatening skies, while commuters rush past my home to their glorious day in the American economy.

What do I believe in? Books. Art. Music. Kindness. Love. The goodness of people despite their confusion over race and religion. I suppose you can believe in love and still carry a gun or a knife, but would you use it? Do you need it?

Music is at our roots, as humans, and as Americans. Examples: The Carter family and Jimmie Rogers. People from uneducated backgrounds who had no money but knew how to sing and play three chords on the guitar, or who could pick on the banjo or saw away at the fiddle. They got connected with recording technology and there it was—The Spirit of the Depths. Popular culture that arose from the bottom up rather than filtering from the top down. Simple and sincere. No music degrees. Only passion and play.

Same thing last Saturday night. Two guys, Jorma and Jack, who have been playing together for more than fifty years. Rock is here to stay. It’s part of that American music—the roots are blue and black with a bit of Europe thrown in as well. 

It was all coopted by white people way back when. I laughed when I once saw a poster for a Carter Family concert that claimed the music was “morally right.” Everyone was concerned about appearances. God was a judge—a sky king. Understandable in those times. But these are new times. I wonder if what we know as popular music now is a desire to hold onto values rather than celebrate with song. Much of what I hear these days is sentimental and sugary. Or devoid of the human touch—wiped away by Autotune.  

If maudlinism is the core of your cosmic foundation then you will be easily fooled and confused. Sentiment is a barrier to clear thought. Life is harsh. No point in trying to alleviate suffering with saccharine. Humans are temporary. Everything is. Even the universe will end—someday. In the short time we have as “spiritual beings having a human experience,” should we be anything but realistic?

I’m at that age where I can look back and see it all. I remember what life was like in Pennsylvania when I was a little kid. We were middle class, but those memories are all fading to grey sixty years later. Maybe that’s just recollection working in a mysterious way. I am as fallible as anyone else. My father and mother moved us to California in 1966. I came of age at a time when that celebratory Spirit Power was the air. We learned that what we considered as normal was anything but—the Establishment was the same horrible power structure that had always existed, fueled by hate, fear, and greed.

In America we were the center of the modern world—at least that was how it was advertised after the maelstrom that we had helped create after World War II. Now we are trying to get that illusion back, and it’s impossible. White people are vainly grasping at their privilege at all costs in a culture that has become so lightweight, shallow, and ingenuous that there seems no way out. Except to let it all collapse and build from what we have learned in the last fifty years.

That’s why I write as the world unravels. Not only is it a way to “getting the world right” (Wallace Stevens) but it’s a way to leave something behind me. There are far too many people on the planet. I’m one more slob trying to stay healthy and happy. There’s not a day that goes by when my monkey mind wakes up expecting some kind of ghastly news to arrive in my life. I imagine all sorts of personal horror. There is no point to that sort of thinking. I dismiss it and do the best I can.

Time for a walk before it rains. Then back to the studio. Words. That’s all I’ve got. Bach just ran out. Literally. Art of the Fugue, as I recall, was what he was composing when he died.

Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.

Wallace Stevens

Notes on the text:

  • Hot Tuna History
  • Acid Dreams, Martin A. Lee, Bruce Shlain, Grove Press, ISBN 9780802130624
  • How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science Of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, And Transcendence, Michael Pollan, Penguin Press, ISBN 9781594204227
  • Art of the Fugue, Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Zhu Xiao-Mei, Accentus Music CD, ACC 30308)
  • “But I did not consider that the spirit of the depths from time immemorial and for all the future possesses a greater power than the spirit of this time, who changes with the generations. Carl Jung, The Red Book.
  • Modern Music’s Death by Autotune (Rick Beato video)

Where I Lived: 4

I Am My Own Stalker

Night. The Wolf Hour. I wake from a nightmare—stabbed in the heart from behind by an invisible assailant. Is it me? Am I murdering myself? Is it my shadow—my own bag of darkness?

I sit up straight in bed. Sweating. Breathing hard. I don’t think I screamed when the knife entered my heart. Wailing and shrieking can halt abruptly in dreamland. Now wide awake, I begin the return passage from my nocturnal descent into Hades.

I resume self-analysis each time this katabasis occurs. I’m being stalked by archetypes—nothing personal— simply more communications from the subterranean places in my psyche. My own myths are mashed up with the ancient stories. I can’t tell the difference, not when I’m asleep. The similarity is ambiguous, outlandish, unnerving. I’m not meant to be Odysseus every goddamned night. No one is waiting for me to come home from endless war. No minor goddess has turned my friends into pigs—my friends are better behaved than Odysseus’s minions. Perhaps somewhere, someone is weaving my funeral shroud, but I doubt it.

The balcony door is open. The light from the quadrangle below my second-floor room of De LaSalle Hall illumes the slender, sheer curtains hanging over the threshold. The only sound is my roommate breathing as he sleeps in his own bed. I remain as quiet as I can. He is a premed student. He has a biology exam scheduled tomorrow morning. I don’t want to disturb him. He was kind enough to snooze elsewhere a couple of nights ago when a friend slept with me. I owe him the favor of silence.

You could be my cavalier servente, Donna whispers during the hushed hours of that recent evening. My Italian studies from my freshman year have worn off, yet I knew what she meant—lover, suitor. The remembrance lingers. Light from the quadrangle also passes gently through the drapes that night. I know in my heart that she will never be my Penelope, but my mind gives credence to the prospect from time to time.

My brain wants to believe in a lot of things that never come true—that are not factual—legends, fables, and fairytales. Even objective events are comprised of fantasy elements, so it seems, and I think—is there really any difference?

I realize I’m talking to myself again, the thoughts bursting artlessly from the volatile neurons in my cerebral cortex. Random words tumble in my head like sinister mantras as I discard my nightmare and leave it behind. The alarm clock face glowers: 3 AM. I remain awake. I pull the covers over my head and read by flashlight. Maybe there will be a rosy fingered dawn, but I really don’t give a shit.

The last days of my senior year are floating around my face like gnats. There are not many hours left to me at my nurturing mother of studies, my alma mater—St. Mary’s College. Four years gone by. I have no idea what to do next. At this moment what I know is this: Donna, my friends, and my beloved mentors and teachers, will be far removed for many months, perhaps years, maybe forever, and like that fucking Ithacan I’ll be trying to find my way home. He was delayed because of his own hubris. I’m not sure where home is anymore. He also had assistance, but Athena isn’t my type, nor the other way round, so I’m on my own.

My four years of undergraduate lotus eating start and end with Pink Floyd. Bookend performances bordering either side of that chapter in my book of days.

October 1971, Winterland Ballroom, Post and Steiner, San Francisco

The music changes again—we slip deeper into the submarine sea. While the keyboards create a backdrop of soft whispers and moans, the guitar mimics the sound of crying seagulls gliding on a canvas of air. The cries cease, and for a few moments we are suspended, as if we are in a roller coaster that has climbed to the top of a peak, anticipating the proper moment to race down the other side. The music keeps us in suspense at that moment of hesitation as a chromatic chord pattern begins a repetitive loop, not resolving, holding the ride in stasis. Then the guitar rings out with a flourish, and we slide down the steep side of where we had been poised. At the bottom we rest and a solemn guitar solo guides the music to a lingering, slow fade.

The audience is silent. We are unable to immediately break the enchantment that has been cast upon us. Within moments loud cheers and applause break out. “That was ‘Echoes’ which is on our new album, Meddle. Thank you and goodnight.” The house lights come on and I blink in the incandescence of what seems like unexpected daylight. The audience cheers and demands an encore—I amble closer to the center of the stage.

A few minutes pass. Pink Floyd comes out on stage again and the house lights dim. Vibrant noises erupt—an opening section of wild, senseless sounds. No melody, no rhythm, no harmony, only extravagant squeals, squawks and thumps. I hear voices yelling within all the commotion. The effect is frightening and uncomfortable. It grows to a climax. There is no music to hang onto and I am lost until a drum pattern emerges and begins to loop. It’s a rational sequence of rhythm that I can grasp, but the noises continue over the insistent percussion.

Roger Waters stands on the edge of the stage directly in front of me and beats on a pair of cymbals mounted on stands, one on either side of him, his face filled with fury as if he is losing his mind. I close my eyes. I can’t stand looking at him. Someone is beating the huge orchestral gong next to the drum kit. My mind is urging me to head out of the crowd, but instead I keep my eyes closed and concentrate on the drum loop.

Before the end of that final semester, Donna and I travel to Daly City for another Pink Floyd show. We drive over the Bay Bridge in her yellow Triumph TR4. I fill the gas tank after she picks me up at the campus, paying for the fuel with Dad’s credit card, which I have never used. “Only for difficulties,” he had said. I consider last minute tickets and an opportunity to see Pink Floyd as a necessity resembling an emergency, so I use the card. I check the oil in Donna’s wheezing beater of an English sportscar. I add a quart. The engine stops clattering like a sewing machine.

This is my third experience of a Pink Floyd live show—The Wish You Were Here Tour. The album won’t be released until the following September 1975, four months after I graduate, when I’m living at home making desperate plans to return to the Bay Area. Thus, on April 12, as we walk through the livestock-fragranced halls of the Cow Palace to our nosebleed seats, far from the stage, I don’t appreciate the synchronicity of the LP’s title, or the magnificence of the universally treasured song it becomes. There’s also another irony—the first two songs in the set, “Raving and Drooling” and “You Gotta be Crazy,” are later retitled “Sheep” and “Dogs.” The absurdity cycle is completed when those two songs are released in 1977 on an underwhelming album—Animals. Tonight, the audience is teeming with human beasts, and I don’t need those elongated, strident tracks to alert me to that circumstance.

The experience is totally unlike the Winterland presentation. Back then only a few hundred people sat on the floor of an aging ice-skating venue. Tonight, it’s a sold-out show for 16,500 space cadets, presented in a cement hulk designed for rodeos and auctions. The gentle glow of hashish and mystical entheogenic hallucinogens dispersed through a rapt throng of attentive listeners in 1971 has been replaced by a raucous mob of alcohol fueled nitwits tossing fireworks into the air haphazardly during the music. The band of serious English musicians, then virtually unknown in America before the release of Dark Side of the Moon, has evolved into a harried group of famous infighting individuals fronting an enormous stage and special effects spectacle. This is the third concert in a tour that consists of 29 shows, and I sense they are already exhausted and weary of their unexpected success—as well as making gobs of money for cocaine-addled record executives.  

That show at Winterland is my first rock concert. I know nothing about the band. After Pink Floyd play “A Saucerful of Secrets” I think that there is nothing but possibilities of enlightenment for me during the next four years, despite Roger Water’s menacing face hanging above me like a demon as I belly up to the stage. There’s no doubt that I was forever altered during “Echoes.”

In 1975 the Cow Palace performance is a vacuous spectacle. At the end of “On the Run” a fake airplane suspended from a wire directly above us, discharges pyrotechnics from its tail, flies rapidly above the audience, over the stage, and vanishes in an explosion of light and madness backstage behind the band. It’s symbolic of the grief I am feeling about finishing my four-year trip through higher education, and the end of the transitory installment of erotic ecstasy that transpired in my life that final Spring. The crowd roars its approval of the special effect, but I’m not sure they would understand my metaphor.

Forty-six years later my brain still has faith in all that happened to me then, awake or asleep, even though the encounters of that young man have become personal folklore—the rootstocks and rhizomes of a seasoned amateur mystic, or at least a youngish-looking retired geezer. I remember so many elements of those days: that dream, one of many metaphorical stabs of the knife—Donna’s supple voice speaking to me in my own bed as we held one another—the fresh journal I began after graduation, written in green ink bewailing my loneliness—my father excoriating me for putting a tank of non-emergency gas on his credit card—and the eerie absence of my cherished friends.

“Oh, how I wish you were here.” When I finally comprehend the song it practically kills me.

In 2018 while I prepare to depart California in an attempt to control the continual spontaneous appearances of the reverse-memory telescope and the unexpected recall of recollections, I drive to a financial appointment near College Avenue in Berkeley. On Tunnel Road the timeline demands my attention—and I remember: that night on the way to Winterland, near the Claremont Hotel, the friend who sells me the ticket and gives me a lift, picks up a date at an apartment building not far from where I’m going now. I recollect shopping in the Elmwood district at Sweet Dreams with my wife, buying stocking stuffers for the kids just before Christmas—and further back—arguing with her vehemently about the merit of Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers after viewing it at the Elmwood Theatre. (He’s a hack! she says, just to piss me off. Yes, she knew how to pull my chain.)

On and on—the telescope reveals everything in the underworld deep-time passageway while sneaking up behind me—murdering me with the power of remembrance. It demands that I live in my past. I don’t want to stay there.

I left the college utopia in 1975. I left the Oxnard home in 1976. I leave my Bay Area home, and California, in 2018 for the Pacific Northwest.

Now I exist in a cerebral river slowly drifting downstream. A lazy river like the Ohio in Pittsburgh, formed by the Monongahela and Allegheny. Rivers of gentle power like the Columbia, not far from this house where I write. My memories are like those rivers—my childhood and adulthood have merged into one moving stream. There is no tension of memory anymore. No more sudden dream-death. I move from shore to shore and crest to crest and tide to tide, sampling my life from pools of water, and examining the specimens with poetic license. Through the impulsive ascendence of gratitude and the willing descent of grace, bonds are reforged with the living and the deceased.

Grief for the good times as well as the bad—that’s the price I pay for my travels on this waterway, my coin to Charon. It’s an equitable fee, all things considered, though I still sleep warily, and like the Ithacan, I return safe and sound each morning. One day I will hand over the last change that remains in my pocket. In the meantime—River. Water. Spirit. Written words, then and now, are my testimony.

Allow the art you make of your life to beguile the Moon to wander to your bedside and start to talk.

Martin Shaw, A Branch from the Lightning Tree

Notes on the text:

Winterland Nights – Update and New Website

Winterland Nights is available for sale in paperback and Kindle editions at this link.
If you would like to sample the book there are excerpts posted at Winterlandnights.com.
Thanks to the folks who assisted me in the project:
·     Jeff Dennis, whose memories are as good (or bad!) as mine. His help in Chapters 11 and 12 was invaluable. Thank you, Jeff!
·    Charles Brewer, my old radio partner at KSMC, has been there for me through the entire project. I owe Charles a lot (the book will go into that ancient debt in the yet to be written chapters). His enthusiasm, memories, and suggestions are scattered throughout the story. Thank you, Charles!
·     Caryl Adams has been my biggest supporter throughout the project, helping keep me on task and providing me with encouragement and insight from the very beginning. Thank you, Caryl!
·     Nic Taylor, the owner of Up the Creek Records, has been a big supporter allowing me to read aloud from the book on the stage in the shop. Reading it live has allowed me to gauge the enthusiasm of my readers, as well as practice my skills as a reader. In addition, Nic has made me realize the Coolness Factor of Vinyl Record Shops and rekindled my love of that format. That has contributed to the metaphorical content of Winterland Nights. Thanks, Nic!
And of course, I owe thanks to all the folks who checked in during the project. Knowing that people want to read the book kept me on track. Writing is a lonely job. I know that sounds like a cliché, but when I sit in the silence of my studio staring at the blank page on my computer monitor remembering that there was an audience for this project is what made the words pop out of my inner voice. Thanks, everyone!