He has a sometimes shy, almost self-effacing manner. A strong man. Muscular arms, with tattoos running the length of them. His raw power comes partly from the associations he has had over the years and partly from an enthusiasm for a life reclaimed.
His name is Michael Page. A San Diegan by birth and by preference, he grew up in the 1950s, an era of black bands and of singers like Little Richard, Chubby Checker, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1964, along with most of America, he watched the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show and he wanted to go there. The British Invasion transformed American music. The New York Dolls were an early proponent of glitter/glam rock, along with David Bowie and Alice Cooper. The Velvet Underground was sponsored by Andy Warhol. Iggy Pop and the Stooges became the forerunners of punk rock in the late ’60s. And soon, the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie were playing in New York City at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB.
Michael Page formed his own bands in San Diego — the Diplomats, and Ruby and the Snakes— and was a member of the Fly People and the King Biscuit Blues Band He went to New York City and entered the underground music scene; he toured with Iggy Pop and Chubby Checker.
About Michael Page, Iggy Pop made the following comments in the June 1980 issue of Creem magazine: “I met Michael when he was mowing lawns in La Jolla, California, seven years ago, and he said, ‘Jim, I’m going to be in the music business,’ and I said,‘Ahhhhhhh.’ But he was a workaholic and I just hired him. Unbeknownst to me, the other guys do these things for me, I’m not much of a musician. They hired him, and you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. Michael’s just done an African tour with Chubby Checker. Michael’s one of the most unusual men I’ve ever met.... Michael, as you can see, is just.. .show him your shoes! [pointed, pony-skin shoes] Michael is a love figure. I mean, we had sex symbols in the 70s. In the ’80s, if there is to be a love figure in my life, it’s Michael Page.”
Michael Page played a part in rock and roll history and lived to tell about it. Here is his story.
I was born on September 8, 1950, near 42nd Street in San Diego. The place I was born was called Hillside Hospital. I like to say that I was born on 42nd Street, because that fooled them all in New York. They asked me where I came from, and I’d tell them 42nd Street.
I grew up in the area around 42nd Street, near Highland and Landis. It was near the Kensington area of San Diego, but farther south. I went to Hamilton Elementary, and then when I was in second grade, we moved to Keamy Mesa. Then I went to Beall Elementary, Montgomery Junior High School, Kearny High, and Mesa College. I went to Mesa College to get out of Vietnam.
My dad worked at Juvenile Hall, and it wasn’t real easy to have a dad who worked there. He was a very structured person, a foster child who had walked in and found his real father dead from alcohol poisoning at a time when there was bathtub gin. It killed him because it was poisonous alcohol. My dad then went to different foster homes around San Diego. He showed me a big estate where he had lived in Point Loma. He was whisked off to a lot of places. I don’t know if he was a real well mannered kid. Whatever. He didn’t tell us why, but he went from foster home to foster home. I don’t know where he was born, because he was pretty secretive and didn’t tell us very much about his childhood. I was interested many times, too, and wanted to know. My father passed away about five years ago. His name was Howard Leroy Page. My middle name is Guy. I have two brothers. One brother is Mark Jeffrey Page, and for my youngest brother, my parents took both of our middle names and named him Guy Jeffrey Page.
My mother, whose first name was Bernice, passed away of natural causes before my father did. She was a secretary for a bunch of San Diego firms. One was Piggly Wiggly. She worked over at El Cajon Boulevard and Park, where the Piggly Wiggly store was. It’s where Buddha Head is now. Uncle Russ had a cartoon show in San Diego and broadcasted at that location. We’d watch him on cartoons and think, wow, he’s a movie star. We knew that when we picked my mom up from work that Uncle Russ’s place was right there. And we just ! admired it, thinking that, wow, that’s where Uncle Russ is. Being a kid, the big guys to me were Uncle Russ and Johnny Downs.
I come from a middle-class, conventional family, on the borderline of strict. My dad was surrounded by juvenile delinquents all day, so he’s watching me, and I couldn’t get away with anything. A big thing he stressed was not to lie. He’d say that he was with kids who were professional liars all day long. He had us tricked into thinking that he could hold us at a certain particular place and feel our pulse, and he’d always be able to tell if we were lying. So it was, like... well, he worked with kids, and this is what he did, so we didn’t question it.
We would socialize mainly with my father’s friends, who were either cops or sheriffs. Those were the people who brought in the Juvenile delinquents, and my dad would lock them up. He once worked at a place that was located in Mission Valley, at a time when there were still farms there. The place was called Anthony Home, and it was located down where 163 and I-8 intersect. I remember when I could still see the building standing. It was just a building with a cyclone-fenced yard, and that’s where they brought juvenile delinquents in those days. I think there was a hospital near there, or some facility. It was real interesting. The place had a heritage but also had a negative connotation, which I couldn’t put my finger on.
After Piggly Wiggly, my mom worked at some place downtown, but downtown was just somewhere we went to pick her up. Other than that, we never went downtown. I don’t recall going to the beach very much. But I do remember going to Mission Valley, which was a big deal with the pony rides and cattle ranches. We had heard that Indians lived there, and my whole thing as a kid was all about cowboys and Indians. Later on, the Hazard ranch had buffalo and ostrich. This is when Westgate Park, the Padre ballpark, was down there. That was my idea of heavy development.
The pony rides in Mission Valley were really pretty funny because they’d strap a pony to an exercise machine, and you could pretend to be a cowboy. I also remember going to Highland and Landis Park. I don’t know if it’s still there today, but if it is, I imagine it’s a drug deal now. The whole neighborhood that I first lived in is now kind of a bad neighborhood, with a lot of drug interaction, but when I was a kid there, it was Tom Sawyer land.
My mom was a super, supergood mom. And my dad was a dad, and he did the heavy work. My mother was Polish and German, and my dad claimed to be German. He had dark skin and black hair and did almost up to the day he passed away. My father looked like he could have been Charles Bronson’s identical twin.
My mother came from the country around Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She visited here on vacation, met my dad, and they got married. I’ve heard a million stories from people my age where that’s exactly what happened in their families. The dad was in the military. The mom came venturing through. They met down at the beach, and the next thing, they were married. My dad was in the Navy. San Diego is a Navy town. When you look back on it, it all makes sense regarding how it all happened, you know.
San Diego is so pasteurized and homogenized that it’s unique. I recently visited the area where I first lived, and it’s exactly the same as it was when I was a kid. The houses have weathered pretty well, and they all have an individual look about them. There was no tract housing at the time that I lived in the first house. We moved to the very first tract housing that I’m aware of in San Diego, at Kearny Mesa. This was before Clairemont.
The houses in my first neighborhood were really cool. I try to think back to where people got the money to do it and how they built the houses. The houses all had personality, and each one of them was completely, totally different. Back then, I thought they all had ten bedrooms, but as I look at them now, most of them were just a couple of bedrooms. Some of them were built with stone boulders. Basically, if you look around the area of Kensington now, that’s what our neighborhood houses looked like then. In our particular area, however, the houses weren’t kept up as well as the houses in Kensington. But in those days, they were. They were nice houses.
In that first neighborhood, we had a canyon in our back yard, so my whole life was spent in the canyon. I was real lucky to have a neighbor kid named Clarence, who had a great deal in common with my great friend Tom Waits, the singer. Clarence was Huck Finn, a kid that never wore shoes. He never had a shirt on, and he lived in the canyon. Clarence had two older brothers that taught him all the tricks of rascal living, and I really looked up to him.
The canyon was just a dream for a little boy. We had trails, paths, and forts. There was a lot of bamboo growing in the canyon, which isn’t indigenous to this area, as far as I know. But it took over the canyon. Perfect. We’d cut little trails and then build our fort on the other side, and nobody could see us. Clarence’s brothers taught us how to make booby traps. We’d dig a hole and lay bamboo across it and paper and stuff, not thinking about whether anybody would step into it or whatever. And that kid was just the coolest kid.
But Clarence represented Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to me. When I look back on it now, he was the one that didn’t have any restrictions or deadlines. When I was with him, we didn’t think about anything except fashioning bows and arrows out of bamboo, digging traps, and being hunters. Typical boy stuff. Just young boys with huge imaginations. And he was really, really good. Clarence wasn’t a reader, but he’d show me how to do stuff the way the Indians used to do it, like how Indians healed cuts and so on. How’d he learn that? He didn’t know shit, really.
I assumed that his older brothers taught him that stuff.
I remember once being down in the canyon, and I’d I just been reading about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, where they’d encountered a drunken Indian. Well, we ran into our first drunk, and, of course, our imagination went right back to the book and stuff. The guy was drunk and I staggering around. And I saw a big bowie knife in his hand and everything. And it was just, like, wow! But with all the bamboo and everything, we were safe.
There were inoculations at school, and Clarence taught me how to make it so that it won’t hurt. He said that if you could look right at the needle, it didn’t matter, as long as you said the words “Eeeska, buska, booska...eeeska, buska, booska...eeeska, buska, booska.” As long as you said those words, it would be all right. That was an old Indian trick. And it was, like, holy shit. I believed him and tried it. It didn’t work, but I didn’t tell him that. So that’s the kind of guy he was.
He was really a trip. He’d step on glass, tumbleweeds, thorns, and just pick them out of his feet. He didn’t feel pain, or didn’t let on that he did. He was just an all-guys dude. We had the whole canyon, and there was no parental supervision there. But I had to be back at three o’clock, and if I wasn’t back, all hell would break loose.
One thing that I remember about the old neighborhood was that I had my own little area and was not to go past certain boundaries. I think that’s because both of my parents worked. Usually there was always somebody home, or we had baby-sitters. But it was also, I think, for us to have the security as children of knowing that we had boundaries. That was one thing about Clarence. He respected the fact that I could only go so far. He could go as far as he wanted, anywhere. But I always kept track of the boundaries. Not that I had a watch or anything, but I never got totally free. And probably thank God I didn’t, because we did a lot of things that were not the smartest things that kids could do.
We were influenced a lot by movies, and in the old neighborhood, we went to the movies on weekends at the North Park Theater, I think it was called. We’d usually go with Clarence’s older brother, walk all the way there, and stand in line for the Saturday matinees. The biggest movie that influenced me was a movie about Jim Thorpe, the American Indian who was an Olympic medal winner. Because he was an Indian, he had long hair, and a lot of people hit on him because he was supposed to be illiterate. And yet, he represented America and was the finest athlete we had.
The things Jim Thorpe used to teach himself were about endurance and stuff. So we’d make ourselves be Jim Thorpe, and we’d run all the way home from school because Jim Thorpe would run long distances from home to school and back. We weren’t disciplining ourselves very well, though, because we usually didn’t make it. But Jim Thorpe was our inspiration, and the movies were a big deal. Of course, we also saw cowboys and Westerns as well.
I don’t know what my reputation was growing up, because your reputation is something that is perceived by others. But I was probably a pretty well liked kid. I was just a little blond, blue-eyed kid, and a pretty good-looking kid at that.
It was just before second grade that I was running in the canyon. Formative years. I had two younger brothers, and that’s why we moved away from there, because there were too many people in this little house that we were living in. It was really funny, because when I went back to the house recently, I was remembering this giant house with a staircase that went up the back that was really huge. But when I went back and looked at the staircase, there were only four steps. Four steps. I couldn’t believe it.
I read about these things now, and I’m fascinated with what happened during that time in San Diego. See, it was right after the war. San Diego was a boom town. I guess everybody came here, life was pretty easy, and you could get a job. When my parents bought our house in Kearny Mesa, it was a model house, so they got it at a super discount. I think they paid something like $16,000 for it. But when I went back and looked at the original house we lived in, it was a little house with a Murphy bed. I wonder how we all lived in it.
My life in Kearny Mesa was almost the same as my earlier life at 42nd Street, except that now I didn’t have Clarence. So I became Clarence to my younger brothers and to the kids in the neighborhood. I didn’t really say good-bye to Clarence, but we just kind of moved. Of course, the parents promised that we’d come back to visit, and we did on occasion. But Clarence was always out doing forts and not around when I was visiting, although I’d go and look for him. I saw Clarence years later, and he was a Harley-riding biker guy that had gotten some pretty serious damage in Vietnam, both physical and emotional. I believe he’s still alive and lives somewhere in San Diego.
So I became Clarence in Kearny Mesa. Our house was built way before Mesa College was built, and there was nothing else there. The way they built communities in those days was to build the houses, the supermarkets, and the gas stations, and eventually an entrepreneur would figure out where to put in entertainment. So everything was right there. They were creating self-contained communities, and that’s what they did in Kearny Mesa. I’d never seen tract homes before, where all the houses were the same. Most of the streets were straight, but some were winding because they had to build around preexisting buildings.
Now my play zone was enlarging, because we were the first ones there. We lived on Beagle Street in Kearny Mesa, in the second or third to last house before the street ended. Our turf was our back yard. We didn’t have fences, and our back yard went right into a huge canyon. The developers decided to build tract housing and see if buyers would come. And of course, they did.
Sixteen thousand dollars. I can’t believe that was the price of our house. Of course, the houses filled up rapidly, because everybody was employed. And as far as I can recall, this was Americana. Not that life was easy. But everybody had a job, and everyone was making decent money. It seemed like families stayed together. We’d never hear of divorce or alcoholism. Like I said, Americana.
I remember when they built Mesa College. They filled in the canyon behind our house and leveled areas where we had our traps and where we caught snakes, lizards, and homed toads.
So now I have a new territory, and I’m older, about ten. And with my parents taking off for work, I’m basically the one in charge. We’d have a neighbor check on us, but we’d pack lunches and go exploring. To this day, whenever I pass Miramar, I think of how far it was for kids to walk, but we did We walked to Miramar and spent the entire day there. A lot of that stuff we wouldn’t tell our parents, because we went long distances. Of course, by that time, I’d picked up a reptile guy who was an expert, because there were so many snakes in the canyons, including rattlers. One of the neighbor kids was an expert snake-catcher, so he’d come with us. And that would put some of the fear away.
We had a place that we called White Cliffs, which was near Mesa College. You can still see it from a little road. It was just sandstone with a sheer drop-off, a place where we’d heard that Mexican families lived, along with real Indians. White Cliffs was solid sandstone, and there were natural slides, which were extremely dangerous. Kids were breaking their arms and stuff, because it wasn’t like a playground slide. On some of the slides, you could slide a long way, and then there was a sheer drop. So it was all day in the canyons again.
We saw a lot of rattlesnakes and king snakes. My buddy, Tim, got bit by a five-foot snake. He had the snake in his hands with its mouth open, and he asked me to clean the blood off his hand. I’m looking I at this huge snake, and that’s I probably where I started to develop a snake phobia. I I’d never really thought about it much until then, but we’d catch a lot of pretty aggressive snakes. He got into trouble because he caught a rattlesnake and brought it home. His dad told him that if he ever brought another rattlesnake home, he’d whip him with it.
About this time, I thought that I would live in San Diego for the rest of my life. Every single day was exactly the same. We don’t have winter but just a hint of winter and a hint of summer. For a kid with nothing on his mind except playing, it was paradise. Very rarely did it rain, where you had to stay indoors.
We weren’t really bad kids. We didn’t set fires or anything. I look back on the little booby traps that we set, and that was pretty bad stuff. I don’t really know what we were booby-trapping for, because we never caught anything, and there was no one else in the canyon. I don’t know whether the booby traps were for protection, or what they were for. I think we were probably just burning energy, just being creative kids, thinking that we were doing something that the Indians did. I really wanted to be an Indian as a kid, and Clarence did too. We even became blood brothers.
I met Paul Cowie at Beall Elementary School, in Kearny Mesa, where I went to second grade, and he took Clarence’s place. Paul Cowie eventually helped to form and was the lead guitar player in the King Biscuit Blues Band, which is a San Diego institution. You know someone is local if they’ve heard about the King Biscuit Blues Band. The funny thing is that a lot of people know the King Biscuit Blues Band from different eras, but they dated way, way back. The King Biscuit Blues Band was later to become one of the biggest influences in my life.
From second grade on, Paul and I had the same classes, the same teachers, and so on. He was another guy whose parents didn’t seem to care whether he screwed up, and he could talk his way out of anything. I think that his parents were just too busy doing what they were doing. But he was my best friend early on.
I met also Bill Rocca, whose name is really Vito Rocca. His parents came from Sicily and built a pizza parlor in Detroit. Then they moved to San Diego and opened up a pizza place in Ocean Beach. Bill Rocca's mother didn’t speak a word of English, and his dad barely did, but they were beautiful Sicilians. Now, I didn’t know anything about Italians or anything, or that Bill’s name is really Vito. He’d show up in a leather jacket at school, and what the hell’s a leather jacket? That’s like a kid looking for trouble, or whatever. But Paul and I didn’t care. We thought we ruled the school, and we had our own little deal that we did.
By the time we graduated from Beall, I was accustomed to having Paul around, and we hung out with Bill Rocca a little. Then we all went our separate ways. Paul lived a matter of blocks away from my house, but I was transferred to Montgomery Junior High, which was in a black and Chicano/Mexican neighborhood, while Paul and Bill both went to another school. In fact, almost all my friends went to the other school, and I went to Montgomery.
Now, Montgomery was a problem for me, because when I went to Beall, I think we had one black kid and one Mexican kid, and that was it I’d never even heard of Jewish people. We had one Jewish girl that I later learned couldn’t be involved with the Christmas play because of her religion. I was raised as a pasteurized, white-bread Catholic. I went to church and, for a while, when I was younger, to Catholic day care at Sacred Heart, where the nuns rapped you with rulers and stuff. You know, I look back and wonder why I turned out like I did, and a lot of it makes sense. I didn’t like school because I wanted to be playing in the canyons. And I didn’t do real well with other kids. I’d usually pick out one kid who was like me, with the same things in common, and that’d be it. And we’d be off.
I went to Montgomery alone and went there hearing horror stories about what they did to young kids the first time they came there. It was far away from my home too, so I had to be driven to Montgomery. There was no way that I could walk. Montgomery was in Linda Vista and I’m in Kearny Mesa, way on the other side, so I was dropped off at school. There was another kid that lived up the street named Andy Sabatini, and our parents did car pools. Andy and I were the oldest kids in our neighborhood.
See, people moving into our neighborhood in Kearny Mesa probably had the average 2.3 kids, and hopefully you’d get kids that were in your age group, but that didn’t happen in our neighborhood. My next-door neighbor, who was my age, went to military school. Surfing was just starting, and I was taking an interest in it. And that’s when I started getting interested in music. At Montgomery, I was surrounded by a black and Chicano environment, and everything was different.
I came to Montgomery dressed like how I thought a surfer should look, but my dress code was really strict, having the dad that I did. So I ended up wearing jeans from Juvenile Hall, sneakers from Juvenile Hall, and white T-shirts from Juvenile Hall. This is, like, very cool now, but it wasn’t back then. I was never really allowed to wear any of the things that I wanted to wear and was never allowed to express myself very much. So I didn’t.
Was my creative energy below the surface? Yeah. My parents didn’t come from a creative environment. My dad was basically structured with Juvenile Hall. It was like being a cop, basically. Any creative stuff I got came from my mom. I remember that my mom loved to sing, and she was also a bit of an artist. We had a big picture window, and depending on the season, she’d paint it with poster paints of whatever — Santa Claus, Thanksgiving turkeys, and all that.
The blacks and Chicanos at Montgomery were interested in music, but they weren’t interested in having a surf guy come there, and I was really, really in the minority. So I went from a school where I was comfortable to a school where I was totally uncomfortable. I was at Montgomery three years.
Montgomery was in Linda Vista, where there was a lot of crime. I figured that the only thing I could do was hang out with a couple of surfers who were there. I was still scared I just remember wanting to get through with school and get out without getting beaten up. There would be a lot of fights, and I’d watch the fights happen. They had dudes at school who would kick anybody’s ass. The whole Chicano thing, with the greasy hair, buttoned-up thing — pointed boots, sharkskin. It was all the stuff that I would later highly admire as an adult!
Back then, the Beach Boys were cutting records, and surfing is just starting to happen, so I gravitated toward the surfers. But while surfing was happening, I was in the wrong neighborhood for it. So I decided to hang with the athletes, because at Montgomery, you were either a gang guy or you were an athlete. I played tennis, and I don’t know where that came from. I guess it came from my dad, who had a couple of different aspirations for us growing up. He had a little bit of insight and thought for some reason that we could become professional tennis players. That idea came at the absolute wrong time, because I didn’t want anybody to know that I played tennis.
My dad actually spent a lot of time with us kids, and we ended up turning into a professional tennis family. It’s not a direction that I wanted to go in, but I really didn’t have much choice. So I started playing tennis and started being pretty good at it. I think my dad saw it as a good, healthy activity for kids, to be out on the court and not in the canyons goofing around. Because now we’re getting older, and we’re discovering other things, the vices out there, and whatever. I was in my early teens, and that’s a rough time for anybody.
I was the oldest, and I was the guy that my dad kind of experimented with. I was ranked nationally at 108th, or something like that, but it wasn’t good enough to do anything with. Then my younger brother Mark excelled. Mark ended up getting a scholarship to State College and was ranked at the national level. He had acquired a bad tennis elbow, which no one had heard of back then. He had a rising, promising career in tennis.
Guy was my youngest brother, and forget about it. When Guy was around 8 years old, he was ranked number one in the 10- and 12-year-old division here in San Diego. He started playing tennis when he was 4 years old and was worked on the tennis courts just like my other brother and I were.
And that’s what we did. When the sun came up in the morning, we practiced tennis before school started. As soon as school let out, we practiced tennis until it got dark. When Mesa College was built, they had tennis courts with night lights. Bingo!
We filtered into the La Jolla scene and were offered memberships in the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club because all three of us played. Later, when we went to Kearny High, we were the hot guys on the team, and tennis was the very last period at school. Our coach made an agreement with us that if we just showed up for the matches, we didn’t have to practice and could just go home. So we did. We’d show up at the matches dressed goofy and finally put Kearny on the map for being a tennis school.
What happened was that Guy had gotten spoiled. He could beat every kid anywhere close to his age division, and he’d gotten used to that. And I think my dad finally saw what he’d created. He saw a kid that wasn’t having fun with the sport. He pulled Guy out for a year or so and gave him an opportunity to be a kid. But when Guy came back, there was competition. Some kid challenged Guy, and he didn’t win. My dad saw that playing to win was more important than anything for my brother. So all that tennis stuff was down the hoops after that happened. It was just, like, forget about it.
When did the music start for me? One way it started was at Crystal Pier. For me, going to the beach became a big deal. I learned how to surf at Crystal Pier. And when I started listening to music, man, everything just clicked. Looking back, though, I think it really clicked when my parents went to the movies and my brother and I started going through my parents’ records. They had Sarah Vaughan, the Kingston Trio, Frank Sinatra.
They also had an album that was the craziest, and I used to play it a lot. It was when someone first invented some form of synthesizer, and it was like space music. The only way that they could sell the album was to market it as background music for little cartoon Martians, and they called it something like Dave Andrew and His Space Monkeys. They played primitive rock and roll stuff, but it had this little wooooooo sound in it every once in a while. And that was my introduction to synthesizers. I was in eighth grade at the time.
The big deal about knowing Andy Sabatini, the guy from my neighborhood, was that he had an older sister, Sandra. She was a cheerleader at school and real popular because she was good-looking. I didn’t even think about it until later that she was Italian. None of that stuff meant anything at the time, you know. But Sandra had records and an old record player, and when she went out, we used to listen to her records, and that’s when music started to happen too. Especially Andy’s interest. He’d get excited and say, “Hey, I’ve got this new song that you’ve got to hear,” and I’d go, “Well, what is it?”
This was when all the songs were dance songs. The dances were the limbo, the twist, the pony, and the fly, with singers like Chubby Checker, and so on. My parents had a Chubby Checker record, but they didn’t ordinarily listen to music and were clueless. It wasn’t their fault. They were just homogenized, pasteurized, white examples of San Diego. I’d heard of Elvis Presley, but he didn’t make much sense to me at the time.
I was breaking out of the cartoon stage and starting to notice girls. Puberty. I recall watching American Bandstand and probably saw the pre-twist. When the twist came out, it was something to watch, anyway. Up until then, it was more the jitterbug. See, music hadn’t happened for me fully, yet. It happened with the Beatles.
But at that time in my life, songs started to mean something. The songs started to stand for some of the things that I was going through, with emotions and growing up and stuff. There was a song called “The Loco-Motion,” by Little Eva, which is still my all-time favorite. The songs were so dramatic, and it was probably because they were being written for teens with raging hormones. Dramatic! Ahhhhhhhhh. Oh, my God, I’m back into that stuff now. Every song was a monument, a torch thing, to Love and Broken Hearts. The singers at the time were the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Coasters, the Temptations, James Brown, the Marvelettes, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
I’m right at that stage when I’m starting to explore all that stuff. I’m starting to pay attention to girls, and pretty soon, I’d hear a song that I could identify with. And even if it’s just “Tan shoes with pink shoe laces...and a big Panama with a purple hat band.” Or “Itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polkadot bikini.” Those are the songs that I remember. And all of a sudden it was, like, hey, this is stuff that we weren’t being forced to listen to at school. What did we have to listen to in school? “The farmer in the dell,” or we’d listen to Oedipus Third or something. Whatever. Force-fed music. That music was just lame.
Paul Cowie taught me that that kind of music was really lame. And when we had singing and the whole class would sing, he taught me that singing was really lame. So we would lip-synch. The teacher would come by and hear that we weren’t singing, and she’d crack us in the back of the head with her middle finger. She’d crack it like a whip. I wish that Paul had never told me that singing was lame, because I’ve seen so many people really enjoy singing. Singing was always something that I wished I could do, yet I had it imbedded in me from Paul Cowie that it was a sissy thing. So I didn’t sing back then. And when I didn’t have Paul around, I thought, well, I’m not going to sing by myself, because it’s a sissy thing to do. It was almost like being programmed.
Back then, there were so many songs. The Top 40 happened every month, and the songs were different each week. We were just bombarded with all these songs. The songs were about what did he wear or what did she wear. “She wore a yellow ribbon in her hair.” Or whatever it was. Thai’s when things started to be insatiable for a whole generation. People would ask if you had heard this new song, and pretty soon, you’d hear a song repeated. I remember the Tokens singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” And that’s when all the talking started to happen, because Andy told me that it was some guy singing all the falsetto parts. And I thought, no, that ain’t no guy. That’s a girl. That’s when all that shit started to happen. That guy/girl falsetto stuff.
So I’m at Montgomery, with the pointy shoes and all that; then I went to Kearny, and things finally started lightening up a little bit. Kearny was a little bit more mixed up. At Kearny, kids from Serra Mesa were shipped in, and now it wasn’t just Linda Vista and Kearny Mesa, but I was still scared a little.
All the brokenhearted songs didn’t make sense until you experienced it. You didn’t even want to know about that stuff until you started noticing girls. As soon as you started noticing girls, you would say to yourself, wow, that’s a whole different thing, and pretty soon you’d hear a song, and you’re just in a different world. When I you’re at that age and you start doing that stuff, that’s when you change all the old things that you used to do, and pretty soon, it’s like, well, those scruffy shoes, you know. I may see her. I can’t wear those old scruffy shoes anymore.
Shoes were a big deal for me. My dad would bring home those Juvenile Hall clothes. We had high-topped black sneakers, right? Fashion started to become a big deal, and junior high was when it started. Pretty soon, madras happened. You were supposed to be able to wash a shirt and the shirt would bleed. My mom wouldn’t have any part of having clothes bleed.
I had major problems with that stuff, because I was trying to do what the other kids were doing. It was one of those typical things that you hear about. I My father would say, “So, if I told you to jump off a bridge and all the kids were doing it,” or whatever. You know, that lame thing that parents do. “You’re telling me that everybody in your school is now wearing this and that if I went to your school, I’d see every single person there wearing it?” And so on.
You know, this is not logical thinking to a kid, and that’s where my parents kind of lost it. Up until then, they’d done a great job with us. But until then, they’d been parents to little kids. We didn’t realize that they’d never been parents to adolescents. And when you’re being a parent to somebody that’s starting to have a mind of his own and getting hormones, then it was, like.. .wait a minute, they’re dictating what you’re doing. And it’s like, they’d done a great job so far, and they were just going to keep doing it. And I thought, well, you don’t understand. I wouldn’t mind having a little bit of choice in what I do.
Cuffs. For the surf thing, it was cool to have your pants way up high and wear Converse shoes with white socks. That was the dress code, and that’s what kids did then. I would come with cuffs that were rolled over three times, and kids would jump into my cuffs at school and ask for a ride. So I’d come to school, slip around the corner, flip my shoes over, take a staple gun out of my lunch bag, fold my pants underneath, and staple them so that I could be like other kids. My parents would never see this because later on in the day, I’d undo all that stuff.
Then something happened. The Beatles. I remember when the Beatles came on The Ed Sullivan Show, and it changed my life and everybody else’s. When the Beatles came on The Ed Sullivan Show, forget it! It was all over! It was, like, That's what I want to do. I want to do just what they're doing. Up until then, I’d never actually thought about whether I was going to be an astronaut or whatever. But as soon as the Beatles came on, it was like, Pow! There it is. I wanted to be a Beatle. Everybody wanted to be a Beade. It just changed the world. The Beatles were different from everything that came before. Everything was so insanely different. Up until then, we basically had the racial stuff. Chubby Checker kind of crossed the line with his songs, and it started with the twist. When the Kennedys appeared on the cover of Life magazine doing the twist, that was a sign to America that it is now okay to listen to black music, if the president and his wife could dance to black music. Elvis kind of opened it up a little bit too, obviously, because Elvis was huge. For some reason, I wasn’t aware of Elvis that much back then. Elvis was a white kid, doing watered-down black music I wasn’t allowed to have a record collection or anything like that, because then I’d have to play the records on my parents’ record player. So I’d go to Andy’s place and listen to his stuff. I listened to Paul Anka. The Four Seasons were huge and sang words like “Walk like a man,” which made sense. “Walk like a man, my son / No woman’s worth crawlin’ on the earth / So walk like a man, my son.” Woooooooooo! I remember hearing that stuff, and it’s, like, wow, that’s worth talking about! And the girls’ names, you know. There’d be a song called “Donna,” a song that was all C-cycle. Boom-de-boom-de-boom boom... da da da da da.. .dumdedumdedum.... C major, A minor, F, G. It just seemed like every song was totally different.
When the Beatles happened, my whole life changed so radically. Nobody had a clue that anything like that was going to happen. My parents didn’t have a clue. It was Beatlemania. I was 13 at the time. Boy. That’s when you’re just packing in the hormones, and the whole thing was just happening. I’d hate to think of what it was like to be a 13-year-old girl at that time. I mean, the girls just went apeshit, but that wasn’t the main thing. When the Beatles did their number, the mass hysteria, the screaming, and the talking about it began, and it was just something so incredibly different. And I love things that are incredibly different.
At that time, there were bands. But up until then, all I can remember were the Kingston Trio and Dave Brubeck. There was jazz, and there were groups like the Platters and the Ink Spots. And the girl groups. The Chiffons. The Shirelles. And Brenda Lee. But the Beatles were something completely and totally original, and they wiped away everything. America had nothing, and we couldn’t even come close to what was happening. We had our surf music and the Beach Boys and all that stuff. Jan and Dean. But, see, everything all came in one huge avalanche. And from then on, there was only one thing that really mattered to me. Music.
Why was there such an explosion of creativity around that time? Sociologists would probably look at it and say that people had found a sense of comfort. People had a little spare time. They don’t have to worry about putting bread on the table as much as they used to. The family could get together in the evening. Dinner’s over with, and you’re not doing farm chores until the sun goes down anymore. Probably the family thing is starting to happen.
But, of course, the adolescent doesn’t want to be with the family very much. And you probably have population spurts that are happening, and there are a whole bunch of teenagers now. We probably didn’t notice it way back then, but it was finally noticed with the baby boomers. All of a sudden, there’s a whole big group of people acting in a particular way. They’re consumers who may have been powerful, but they didn’t know it yet. Up until then, we were basically being repressed, and I come from that repressive environment.
When the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show—and this is the truth — my dad, being the redneck cop that he was, used to have these big poker parties, and he was sitting there with his poker-party buddies, and he said, “I’ll pay you $10 if you can prove to me that those aren’t girls.” I look back at that now, and the Beatles had just the tip of their hair coming over their ears and little tiny bangs and stuff. But that was his attitude. He was a redneck cop.
Some things happened in my life that will always stick out. When the Beatles came on, I realized, there’s a fence between my dad and what I’d like to think of now as “us.” My dad stood for the establishment, and he was telling us on this other side — the antiestablishment — that we are wrong in not having the same views that he had.
Another thing that happened many years later was when the New York Dolls played on Don Kirshner’s TV show, Rock Concert. The same thing happened then. I had stopped by the house, and my dad was having yet another poker party. The Dolls came on, and my dad said, “Now that is, like, stupid! Hey, look, Charlie.” And all the guys came over and they looked and laughed, saying, “They look like goddamn gorillas.” But hey, you know what? The New York Dolls were getting a reaction out of these old farts. They actually stopped playing poker long enough to come over and mock what the Dolls were doing. The Dolls got their attention. It was like bringing electricity to Oklahoma. You know, in my wildest dreams, I never would have believed that I’d be hooked up with the New York Dolls later on.
When I was about ten, I started playing musical instruments. My buddy Andy had a little house organ, and he was the first one to show me that a kid could listen to a song, imitate it, and play a few things. Right about then, my parents decided that it was time for me to take piano lessons, so they got me hooked up with a piano teacher. I had to do piano lessons whether I liked it or not. I tried to get out of them because it was a sissy thing to do, and I didn’t want to do it.
This was a lady who gave piano lessons at her house. She was single and was picking up extra income that way. Her husband probably died during the war or whatever.
So she gave these lessons. She had a little sign saying “Piano Teacher” and stuff. And we kids would go by her house and hear the scales being played, da da da da da da da da da, and think. Oh, no, there’s some sucker in there doing this stuff. Let’s go play ball! And the next thing was that I was the sucker in there. And I didn’t like it.
I think it was a big deal for my parents to afford to give me piano lessons and a sacrifice on their part. They weren’t musical, and so it didn’t come natural for them to do this. It was probably part of them being really cool parents. As parents, they were showing us kids other things that were happening. See, we had band in elementary school, but I never joined it. I think it was because it cost money for an instrument. You had to rent an instrument, and so on.
At this time, music became mathematics to me. To read music, you had to apply mathematics. First of all, there was a symbol for a note. You had to decipher what it was called, which made no sense to me. It was all very abstract. How was this note a B all of a sudden. Then you had a B-flat and a B-sharp and a 16th. Forget about it! What does that have to do with anything? If you’re a kid, you want to be able to jump on an instrument and play it immediately. And that’s the way a piano is. You can do something on it. Even if you’re just banging on it and people tell you to knock it off, you’re still making noise right away, which you can’t do on a trumpet or a saxophone.
I didn’t play by ear on the piano, but my buddy Andy did, and I found out that he could play some songs. I remember him playing a song to me one time, and it was, like, oh, my God, you know, he’s playing along with the music! All of a sudden it clicked. I’d never seen anything like that before. And then pretty soon he knew a couple of songs, and it would be, like, wow! Then we’d run outside and play football.
So the piano lessons were a drag. My time was divided up into school, playtime, dinner, homework, TV, and bed. And the piano lessons were going to cut into my baseball time. My parents got a piano and put it in the garage because it was too loud for the house. My mom would tinker around with the piano once in a while, and I think she actually taught herself how to read a little bit of music. She’d pick up a popular song and sing it, and we’d go, wow, that’s funny. Look at mom.
Anyway, I hated the piano lessons because I had to learn something that taxed my brain. Somebody was telling me to make my brain work their way to get results that they wanted but I didn’t want, and it was, like, this isn’t cutting it for me. So I wouldn’t go to the piano lessons. "
My parents didn’t notice that I wasn’t going to them. One day my mother got a call from my piano teacher, who said that there was good news and bad news. The bad news was that I hadn’t been coming to lessons. They were paying for the lessons, but I’m not showing up for them. What’s worse was that she could see me across the street playing baseball.
The good news was that when I did show up, I played the songs. She said, “He’s playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ but its not in the same key as on the sheet music. Somehow he’s picking up the melody and the left- and right-handed parts, and he’s putting it all together.” And she said,“I’ve got to admit that it’s really cute to watch this little kid, because he’s got the melody right. But he’s going through all this effort to make it look like he’s reading the music. I’m a music teacher, and your son is trying to trick me. But he’s doing a really good job of it, and it’s working.”
When you’re in high school, the hormones are raging all the time, and music, by then, was one of the most important things in my life. I finally realized that I could start playing, and I started picking up stuff. I graduated from Kearny High in ’68, and right at the end of high school, I remember going to my first dance. We still had a pretty big black and Chicano thing, but now, for some reason, everybody was a little bit more mature. And the dances that we had were something else, with the music that was starting to happen about then. Martha and the Vandellas, and so on. When I went to the dances at Kearny, there was a band called the lmpalas that would play that stuff. They had sparkle jackets, big horn sections, and drummers that were just crazy. And they could play songs just as well as those being played on the radio. The band played Martha and the Vandellas, and that kind of stuff. Whatever was happening at the time.
Now, the same guy, Paul Cowie, who taught me it was stupid to sing, also taught me that it was really stupid to dance. That was a big deal too, being a white guy, with my feet too big and my ears too big, and the whole thing. I would sit and watch the black and Chicano kids who were just, like, dancing up a storm, and they looked like pros. There were guys that could do the splits. They could do the James Brown stuff, and it was, like, why try to go out there and do something, but you had to do it. You had to ask girls to dance if you wanted to make any headway with them. I always picked the prettiest and most popular girl and would go after her, and, of course, that was never going to work, because those girls were after guys that were a year or two older who played football, and that just made sense.
It was in high school that I started rebelling against my dad, basically. I kind of had it out with him and told him, “You know what, man, I think I’m going to just start wearing what I want to wear.” And at that time, I think my dad started realizing that his kid was growing up, and he finally got tired of trying to control me. And I think he probably didn’t care quite as much anymore too. Up until then, it was his job to have a stranglehold on me, and then all of a sudden, when that happened, I started getting crazy.
And I remember when the sitar came out, I started jumping into fad things like that. I went to a store and found a sitar hanging on the wall and asked them if it was for sale. They said that it wasn’t worth anything, that it was just an ornament that had been shipped from India that had been damaged. There was no saddle on it So they sold it to me for next to nothing. I took it home and got books and stuff to see what a saddle looked like and made my own saddle out of bone or deer antler, or whatever. I started bringing the sitar to high school. During lunchtime, I’d take the sitar and incense and go way out to the football field by myself. I had my sandals, my bell-bottoms, my medallion, and my Nehru thing, and I’d go play the sitar. I was 15 to 16 at the time, and I was finding that expressionist thing with music.
When you get to a certain age, you start exploring the spiritual stuff, and, of course, with the Beatles came transcendental meditation. They introduced us to all that. The Beatles did so much. And the Stones did too.
After the Beatles came out, I started a band of my own, with my brother Mark and a neighbor. I remember, and it is probably still true to this day, that the most important thing was to come up with a band name, and we had a band name before we had instruments. After the Beatles came out, we started going out into the garage. We took a vacuum cleaner and put a tennis ball on top of it, and that became a microphone. We’d use tennis rackets and lip-synch to Beatles records. My brother would take boxes and use sticks, and he’d be Ringo.
In the beginning, we had a meeting to get the band name and stuff. I think we probably drew up records of the meeting and who was in attendance at the time. We had this discussion about choosing a name, and right off the bat, we thought of “the Anacondas.” We broke out the dictionary, and a being the first letter, we didn’t have too far to go for that name. But we later decided to call ourselves the Diplomats.
We’d fight about who’d be Paul and who’d be George. We never fought over who was going to be Mick or Keith though, because basically all we could do was what my parents would allow. They weren’t going to allow any Rolling Stones crap. Those guys, you know, their whole publicity thing was “Would you want your daughter to date a Stone?” Hey, the Beatles were bad enough, but not the Stones. You know, they don’t bathe.
Eventually, we got some instruments. In fact, a neighbor kid had a guitar, and we used to go over and play it. He was one of those highly protected kids who had braces, and his parents were worried about him after ten minutes of play. We were neighbor kids, but they didn’t want us touching his guitar, and we had to wash our hands when we did. He was a jerk, and we didn’t dig the guy at all, but he had an electric guitar that we could go and look at. Eventually I talked to my parents. My dad had a guitar that somebody had given him that was in a closet, and we’d been told not to touch it. My dad always wanted to play, but he’d just never gotten around to it
At times, my parents had a friend who would come over to dinner parties, and he’d bring a guitar and sing. He’d do all these folk songs, and it was entertainment We’d never seen anybody play live in our own home before, someone who could pick up a guitar and actually sing a repertoire. He had a good 10 to 15 songs that he’d sing. It was something that everybody does today, but it was a big deal back then.
About that time, something happened that was a really big deal. The Ventures came out with an album called Play Guitar, and my mom bought it for me. I’ll never forget it. It was, like, a couple of double albums in a set, or whatever. It had finger diagrams that showed you how to play the lead patterns that were happening and how to play the guitar and the bass. You’d put the record on, and the record would tell the guitar player how the guitar part was played. Then the record would play the song without the guitar part, and you’d play the part The bass part had fingering diagrams and the whole thing. The album also had a picture of a guy with a pompadour. And it would be, like, whoa, you could have a pompadour, and if you learned these diagrams, you could be like that guy. The album also had a rhythm-guitar section.
Another critical thing happened right about then. Paul Cowie came back on the scene. I hadn’t seen him since once or twice in junior high. My dad had actually told me to stay away from him because he was wearing sunglasses, and we'd heard that he’d been seen smoking a cigarette somewhere. But Paul Cowie came over one time when I was pulling weeds, which was a thing we had to do. We had wanted to go to the beach that day, and Paul showed up. And it was, like, oh my God! He had his hair over the tips of his ears. He's wearing a shirt buttoned up. He had a vest on, and he looked like one of the Hullaballoos, or Paul Revere and the Raiders. He’s wearing Beatle boots. Where did he get Beatle boots? From Flagg Brothers? I was just blown away. And it was, like, my God, look at that.
It was something that I was attracted to, and something that I could identify with, because Paul Cowie was being an individual. And even if it was an individual look that was not the norm, that was still fine. It was okay, because now I’ve got my own little group of people, and that’s what we do. We’ve got a little cult status going on. And it was okay as long as you didn’t venture back into the norm, because then you were going to be picked on. But seeing him, it was like, holy shit! And he was smoking a cigarette. And it’s, like, “Jesus, dude! Man! If my dad sees you out here...!” And Paul said, “Well, he's your dad. He ain’t my dad. What’s he going to do? Kick my ass?” I said, “Well, I’m going to get into trouble.” And he said, “Trouble. What are you worried about?”
All of a sudden, I realized that this dude is a rebel. He’s a rebel, man. And then he said, “Hey, do you listen to music?” And I said, “Of course. I listen to Jan and Dean. Have you heard about those Beatle guys?” He said, “The Beatles. The Beatles are square. It’s the Stones. The Stones are where it’s at.” I said, “Yeah, the Stones, you know. But those guys probably smoke cigarettes!” He said,“Yeah, you know, well, that’s what we do.” And so I noticed a difference there.
Americans had heard about the Beatles and had heard about the Stones, but the Beatles were brought into our living rooms. I guess the Stones did play Ed Sullivan at a later time. It’s interesting, because when you look back on it now, they were so harmless. They were just Liverpool lads, you know. This is when I started to notice how far away San Diego was from the international scene. Up until then, I’d never noticed it.
You know, San Diego’s got everything that you want. Whatever you want is right here. But San Diego is not the world. I realized that there was a whole big world out there. And, you know what? I think there is a lot of incredible talent and art and music and just good creative thinking, so much really, really good stuff that is lost in San Diego because San Diegans suffer from the manana syndrome. And I’ve seen it happen all my life. “Hey, you know what, the surf’s up. We can do it tomorrow.” And it’s, like, tomorrow never comes.
I think our parents came here to get that. It was like they didn’t have to stress anymore. We can come to the land of milk and honey, and everything is all here. The weather is here. The climate is here. And it’s beautiful. But San Diego isn’t enough. Maybe it was perfect for the pioneers, and it was perfect for the Indians that lived here. And it’s actually perfect for me now, because I’m an old guy and I’m seeing it for what it is. But that’s because I had to leave here and see what was going on out there.
I still have friends that have never gone anywhere. I just saw something on the Discovery Channel the other night that was really fascinating. The program talked about the pioneer days, when people never ventured more than 20 miles from where they were born in an entire lifetime. And something hopefully that I can try to pass on to my daughter, and something that I will pass on to my daughter, is the value of travel. Because we get locked into this little thing called San Diego. It’s like being a prisoner in paradise, basically. But I’ve seen it. And your goals and aspirations never get met. Maybe mañana.
Maybe some people don’t have all the aspirations that I did. Maybe not everybody wants to do and see all the stuff that you can do and see. I guess I didn't do it either until I wanted to do it badly enough. And it was then that I realized that San Diego just wasn’t going to cut it. But seeing Paul was a huge, huge deal. I knew where he lived, and I started to sneak over there on occasion.
At the time Paul Cowie showed up, the world was just topsy-turvy. And when Paul came by, he got me into his league. See, I didn’t know that he was playing in a band and that he was doing any of his stuff yet, because we'd been separated for so long. And then I picked up on it. At this time. I'm also learning songs like “Walk, Don’t Run," “Wipe Out,” and “Pipeline." I remember a guy came over and showed me that you could take a rubber band and tie it around the strings. You could then play the strings with a pick and make a certain noise. And it would be, like, holy wow, that is just the coolest. We didn't know that you could just muffle it with the heel of your hand, and so on. At that time, we didn’t know anything about technique.
Pretty soon, we were off and running. If this is what you can learn, you can also learn that You learned that a bass guitar has only four strings. You find out what the Beatles did, and the Ventures did. They had a bass guitar, a rhythm guitar, a lead guitar, and drums. And that's it. So we saw what the format was, and we set up a band with a guy down the street, called the Diplomats. We’d gotten the Ventures' albums and learned the songs, and pretty soon, we had a list of songs that we could play.
About that time, the battle of the bands was starting in San Diego, and we would go downtown to see local bands play. That’s when I realized that this thing was expanding and that there were other neighborhoods who also had bands. We’d go to Finder Music, Thearle Music, and Apex Music in downtown San Diego. They’d have this battle-of-the-bands thing, and you could win. It didn't matter what you won. The important thing was that you could see a couple of bands play in a couple of different venues. I remember one venue was the Spreckels Theatre stage. And we knew who the winners were going to be. The winners would be the Nomads, or the big bands that were happening at the time. It wasn’t that it was rigged, but the winning bands were just better than the other bands.
With the English invasion, the next thing was like, wow, look at that kid’s haircut, man. He's got bangs. He looks just like one of the Byrds. Paisley shirts. Vests. Pants. Beatle boots. Look at that. That guy’s got real hip-huggers. And all of a sudden, everything's catching on fire. And then it was, like, you know, there were so many different choices that you had. Up until then, there was only a certain kind of music. There was black music and white music. On the radio at the time, there were black stations and white stations. And it was really difficult to intermingle the two. I remember that at one time it was called “race music.” But then all of this other stuff developed.
But when I saw Paul Cowie, everything snapped at the same time. I’d finally gotten my little band together, and we were doing some surf songs. My brother played drums, I played guitar. And my other buddy also played guitar. We eventually added a bass player who had a little bit longer hair on one side, over the tip of his ears.
Paul Cowie told me that he had a band too, and it was, like, “Wait a minute, this is weird. How could you have a band?” I never even thought of him as a player. We hadn’t seen each other for years, and the next thing, pow, he’s in a band too! Paul told me that his band was called the King Biscuit Blues Band, and at that time, I wasn’t even aware of the blues.
Then the whole counterculture thing started happening — messing around with pot and broads and everything. I was attracted to the Beatles because it was my first attraction to something without supervision, so it was a natural attraction to them. Paul was attracted to the Stones. But if you looked a little bit further at the Stones, you discovered that they were just copying American black music. They’d do Jimmy Reed. Whatever. The Stones were covering blues while the Beatles were doing the Beatles and were strictly original. Apart from some of their hits like “Satisfaction” and stuff, the majority of the Stones’ stuff wasn’t their own material. It was all black rhythm and blues.
Paul asked me if I wanted to come see his band practice, and I’m thinking, yeah, I guess. I remember being intimidated by these guys big-time, and I didn’t even go in. I saw one of them pull up in a car, and it was, like, holy shit. These guys had long hair, Beatle boots, and so on. You know, their parents must not care about them. Either that, or they don’t live with their parents. They were all smoking cigarettes. And I listened to them from outside.
I’d heard some of the songs they played before, but they had gone to the root of the original song. That band will never know how much they pointed me in the right direction. After I started hanging out with them, I couldn’t get enough of it. They had what I wanted. And not only that, they could play it.
They went to the root They went to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and guys that I’d never heard of. I didn’t know that the song “Little by Little” by the Rolling Stones was written by Jimmy Reed. They played me the Jimmy Reed song, and I thought, oh, I get it. What they taught me was absolutely invaluable. Skip the white interpretation of the black version. Just do the original black version.
To me, that band was like a flashy lure that’s thrown in the water. You’re a fish, and you’re attracted to that flashy thing. It was something so new to me. But these guys were exploring it a step further. They didn’t want to be like the Stones but instead dug to where the Stones’ influence was coming from, something that I had never thought about very much. See, at that time, I was primarily just a consumer, not a connoisseur.
In the little time that I would get to hang with them, Paul would ask me whether I’d heard about this record or that record. So I heard stuff that I never dreamed was on the planet. The first time I heard Howlin’ Wolf, it was like, oh, my God, what was that! It just blew me away! These guys were so into the hardcore blues school. Eventually, they let me play with them, mainly because I had some good amplifiers — or better amps than they had. I think I played bass.
In the very first gig that we had, I brought all the gear to the old Palace on Pacific Highway. I don’t even know what’s there now. But bands were happening back then in San Diego, including the Brain Police and Jerry Raney and the guys in Glory, who ended up being the Beat Farmers later on. There was just a whole group of kids who put bands together at that time in San Diego.
If anybody wants to have a tip about music, it’s this: go to the root, and do your interpretation of what the root is all about Why would you want to copy Eric Clapton’s lick when Eric Clapton copied it from Albert King? Albert King was the guy for me. When I first heard Albert King, it was like, wow. Now I can say it all in a couple of little bends like he does. Albert King was very limited in his playing, but he could paint so many pictures and colors in just a couple of little bends that he was doing. Guys like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray. You name it. There’s not a guitar player on the planet who doesn’t owe a huge, huge debt to Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King, etcetera.
I don’t understand why anybody would want to try to copy Stevie Ray, who’s copying Jimi Hendrix and Albert King, although Stevie Ray’s doing his own thing also. I’ll probably get people mad at me for this, but there’s nothing that Stevie Ray does that he’s really invented. Every lick that he plays is somebody else’s lick. But, you know what, the quality of the lick is the best that it can be because it comes from the root. And Jimi Hendrix... No one but Albert King sounds like him. And that’s where Jimi Hendrix got it.
The blues, in a pasteurized, homogenized description, is basically a three-chord structure, with the root that diversifies into two different changes and comes back. And the blues are either played slow or fast. Boy, a lot of people will get mad at that, because that’s not really a description. I don’t know. The blues is almost a way of life, at the same time. It’s really hard to put a description on it. The blues can be a mood. The blues can be really cool and happy, you know—not only sad. The blues can be cynical. It can be tongue-in-cheek. Sex. The blues had everything that I needed. I didn’t need to go any farther. I didn’t want to know about rock and roll anymore. Whatever.
I played different roles in the King Biscuit Blues Band. Bass, piano. I got a little miniature piano that took four guys to lift and drove it to gigs. And I played that until my fingers bled, because all we had was a microphone on it, and I was competing with guys with amps, horn sections, and the whole deal. So I’m beating on the piano. These Were my people. They always made room for me somehow. Whatever was happening, I was basically going to be playing with them.
The blues had giant variety. There was Delta blues, Mississippi blues, city blues, country blues. You had in-between guys like Jimmy Reed. You had city blues with big horn sections. Albert King. Powerful, big horns. Mississippi Delta blues. Robert Johnson. Bottleneck guitar. Elmore James. Elmore James with horns. Elmore James doing his country thing. I’d never heard of these guys. The harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson. Willie Dixon, the upright bass player. He’s the one that wrote “Little Red Rooster,” a song that I thought the Stones wrote.
When I heard Willie Dixon play, it was like, holy shit, that’s the real thing. There’s sex oozing from this stuff. That’s what the Stones recognized. That’s what made me think that they did “Little Red Rooster.” I’m giving the Stones credit for something that Willie Dixon’s doing. And Willie Dixon’s a bass player.
That’s where the idea of playing bass all of a sudden came to me, because I didn’t want to do a whole lot of practicing. And you had to do a lot of practicing to do blues licks. With the blues, you’d imitate the original guy’s lick, and you play it. People didn’t know squat about the origins of the blues and they’d think that some new guitar player is originating a sound. Sorry. That’s the way it is. Not too many guitar players express themselves with their own sound, because they’re limited in their structure. But eventually, I became a bass man. Then I realized that everyone needed a bass player. And that was probably one of the best choices I ever made in my life.
Then the pot thing started happening, and this was probably at a time when some kids were starting to move away from home. Eventually, if they were lucky, they lived in band houses. But a lot of kids wanted to stay at home. I know that Paul Cowie did. But his parents would ask him whether he was smoking again, and “God, put that thing out,” but that would be it. They would leave the room, and he would just light back up again. Some people had parents that were like that.
I really admired that kind of stuff. It was like, oh, boy.
I started smoking pot in high school, and it was a big deal. I come from a generation that was really unique, because we were basically force-fed a way of thinking. Not necessarily force-fed, but we had a comfortable lifestyle, and then outside cultural things were brought to our attention. We found out that there were other things besides what our parents were telling us to do. So one thing led to another, and I started smoking pot. Probably around age 17.
Not a lot of people smoked pot at Kearny. Kearny was still sports, and my deal, for me to be in the in crowd, was still sports. But when I was in the 11th and 12th grades, I started having problems, because the sports guys started getting together and would say things to me like,“Hey, Mike, tell us the name of that band that you play in now.” And I’d say, “It’s called the King Biscuit Blues Band.” And it was, like, “Har, har, har, har, har, har. Okay, you can leave now.” I remember that I was practicing tennis one time, and there was a battle of the bands on the football field at Mesa College. If I think of one instance that was a turning point in my life, that was it, and I got into big trouble. My dad was saying, “Concentrate on that backhand. Arm straight Shoulder low. Dip with the knee. Follow through.” And it was, like, screw this.
Those guys are down there playing, and I could smell incense. They were probably playing “Incense and Peppermints” or “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Songs like that. Whatever was going on. There were girls with bell-bottoms and flowers, and hippies were there, and older hippies. The incense probably smelled like pot to me. Whatever. Something was going on, and it was, like, there it is. That’s what I want to do, but I’m being forced to do this. And that was finally when I made the break. Right there.
At this time, I’d never heard about Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the bands that started the punk rock movement, although they all were playing music around this time. By then, I was so into the blues that nothing else mattered, and I didn’t take anything else too seriously. After I found the blues, I found my niche, and that was it. It was laid out and made sense to me now.
But after I hooked up with the King Biscuit Blues Band, I was still exploring. I joined up with Dana Ferris’s band, the Fly People. Now, Dana was way ahead of his time. When long hair started happening, something happened to that dude, man. He had red hair that grew down to his waist, and he would get into a lot of trouble for it. Street fights. Now, Dana wasn’t a fighter. He had a girlfriend that was just like Twiggy, with the wild makeup and stuff. The Fly People painted their faces, and Dana Ferris was pretty well known as an accomplished guitar player. At that time, Jerry Raney was playing with Glory, and people looked up to him as an accomplished player also, and still do.
But with the Fly People, I’m still modeling my bass-playing on the blues, because I had the luxury of understanding the blues. If you understand the blues, you understand all forms of music, basically, except for the forms that I’d be playing professionally later! Iggy Pop had nothing to do with blues, and it was real difficult for me to learn his music, being stone .ground into the blues like I was.
But whenever I would get off a little too far, Cowie, Rocca, or whoever would pull me by the ear and say, “Look, Mike, you can go explore with this English stuff or whatever is happening for a bit, but get back into the inner circle, here. You need to listen to some Junior Wells. And there’s plenty of Otises for you to listen to. Otis Spann. Otis Redding. Otis Rush. Stick to your Otises and your Kings. B.B. King. Albert King. Freddie King. That’s enough to keep you busy here in this little thing that we’re doing. Don’t be going out there with those Psychedelic Stooges.”
It’s funny about Iggy Pop. A couple of my girlfriends showed me a picture of him once, and they said he was the most beautiful boy they’d ever seen, with his eyelashes, his body, and everything. But I was thinking, what the hell does that have to do with Elmore James? It had nothing to do with Elmore James. When I heard Iggy Pop’s album Raw Power, it had nothing to do with me, because I’m into Little Walter and this traditional stuff, and anything else that’s going on out there is lame. By this time, I didn’t care. I had my little school of guys, and we had our own world. We had our dress code. We had what it was that we did. And we don’t need anything else.
For me, rock and roll was a different thing altogether. I don’t know if the blues was part of rock and roll. Probably not, because the blues was different But then there are so many different forms of rock and roll The Beatles would sing, “Picture yourself in a da-da-da-da-da” from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and we’d take acid and mushrooms and listen to them play. Then the drug thing began to happen really, really heavily. Eventually, when I was old enough to move out of my parents’ place, that’s when all hell broke loose. Now I don’t have to fold over these sneakers anymore or staple up my pants. I can wear whatever I want. I was 19 when I moved out.
I lived on my own very successfully about 20 times but then would move back with my parents. I wasn’t going to get a job. No way. I’d never really had a job before. And the King Biscuit Blues Band was almost making enough money to pay the rent. About that time, we realized that we could sell drugs, or at least sell pot. We’d get free pot, and we had a brainstorm one day. Why buy this stuff when you can get a pound of it for free and distribute a couple of ounces? Not only do we get it for free, but now we can make a couple of extra bucks selling it. And there’s nothing wrong with selling pot. All your friends smoked it.
Eventually we ended up getting busted for drugs. We got busted for a big, huge hash thing. We had a place in Pacific Beach at Olney and Garnet that was an old Victorian house, with gas lamps on the wall and everything. It was a big, two-story wood place. And we were a real happening band in San Diego. The King Biscuit Blues Band. We were playing the love-ins, and the band was hot. It was a really, really good band. By that time, the band Canned Heat had started, but there still weren’t any blues bands. And we’re still experimenting. But the drugs were flowing freely, and that’s when we just did everything.
We’d take LSD just about every day and did that for a long, long time. We did exploratory drugs, not the stupid stuff. We never took barbiturates or anything like that. It was all exploratory and experience-heightening. We were having the time of our lives. We heard about this smoke-the-banana-peel stuff, and we gave those drugs to the general public to smoke, because we had the real stuff. Real Mexican pot.
And it was a whole lifestyle too. You really didn’t smoke that stuff out in the open, or whatever. That was too dumb to do, because we enjoyed getting away with it. So no one showed off or anything. But that whole drug thing pretty soon became a way of life. And all we did was listen to the blues all day long. Different variations. There was always some obscure artist that we hadn’t heard of.
There was only so much Robert Johnson that you could explore, because he’d only made one album. But I got so that I could name the date, the month, and the day that Robert Johnson recorded his songs, because all we did was explore the blues. A lot of the stuff we had was on 78s, because the blues labels were all still race music.
Next: Michael Page meets Iggy Pop
Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5