Archives August 2021

JUST TRYING TO MAKE ART

JUST TRYING TO MAKE ART

Julia and I moved into a flat on Sutter Street and transferred into San Francisco State in 1963. The flat was in a run-down three-floor victorian and the ad for the rental said, “7 room flat, very dirty, $57.50 per month.” The landlord had recently evicted the previous tenants, several black working girls, and their kids. “Very dirty,” didn’t do it justice. I had to shovel three feet of household garbage out of the pantry, and we had to scrub and disinfect everything. We painted the walls and ceilings with the cheapest white wall paint we could find and the floors with gray deck enamel.

In San Francisco, at this time the Goodwill and other thrift stores were gold mines of Victorian furniture, clothing, jewelry, and other assorted treasures, dirt cheap. We had previously lived in a large apartment complex that had been built right after the earthquake and fire of 1905, and the landlady there had let us borrow furniture from the storerooms on the ground floor. We borrowed all this stuff permanently and had a completely furnished flat full of elegant, Victorian oak furniture, Art Noveau prints, abalone shell dresser sets, framed mirrors and photos, wall hangings, etc.

Julia entered the Art Department at S.F. State and I enrolled as a Poetry Writing major and started taking classes in the Film Department and Beginning Photography in the Art Department. After a couple of semesters of this, I signed up for Beginning Color Photography, taught by a guy named Don West.

Don, as I remember had trained to be a concert pianist in his youth but was too prone to stage fright to pursue this career. The Photography Department faculty was all into the f64, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, etc. school of photography. Don was doing the same kind of thing but in color. His mission was to make and to teach how to make beautiful and technically perfect color close-ups of rocks, green and red peppers, rusty railroad cars, etc. “Eternity in a grain of sand,” kind of thing I guess.

The color class was a combined Beginning and Intermediate class so the second-semester students were already meticulously striving for darkroom perfection, and the beginning students were just being introduced to the mysteries of color balance and dodging and burning in and…and… I just wasn’t interested in this path.

Instead of shooting a lot of new color pictures I took my old black and white 4”x5” view camera negatives and scratched them, punched holes in them, and collaged them together. Then I made color prints and drew and painted on the prints. I rephotographed the prints and repeated the process until I had something I considered interesting. Remember this was 25 years before Photoshop 1.0 was released.

When the first critique came around all the Intermediate students put up their imperfect attempts at photographic perfection. Don critiqued them rather harshly, “Too much cyan,” etc. Then it was the Beginning student’s turn and more of the same with the Intermediates joining in somewhat condescendingly. Since it was done in alphabetical order I was last.

After I put up my eight or ten outrageous transgressions of the rules of photographic purity there was a stunned silence. Finally, Don muttered, “Interesting…interesting, but is it Photographic?”

Light Show Daze

Light Show Daze

“After Mime Troupe leader Ronnie Davis was arrested on obscenity charges during an outdoor performance, Graham organized a benefit concert to cover the troupe’s legal fees. The concert was a success and Graham saw a business opportunity.” Wikipedia

Bill, the Wolf, Graham acquired the old Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in early ‘66 and the games began. Every weekend there was a line of freaks a block long to get into the shows. I was in the line with my trusty Bolex a couple of times and shot multiply exposed footage. Tony Martin was doing liquid projections from the rear balcony onto the wall behind the bandstand. Tony had a 16mm projector but just some stock footage so I started bringing last week’s footage and projecting it into Tony’s liquids. Because I was doing this, Graham started letting me and Sandra in free. I was one of few who did get a pass. Graham would go into battle fury half an hour before the box office opened and go around kicking out everybody he could. He eighty-sixth band members hangers-on, girlfriends, groupies, wives, everybody he thought inessential to the show.

Gene Estribou and Augustus Stanley Owsley III were early backers of the Grateful Dead and Graham kicked them out once before a Dead show. Gene told me that he and Owsley talked about having Graham killed. They knew someone who would do it for five grand. Luckily for Graham, their karma, and the whole scene they didn’t follow through.

In May of 1966, Graham presented Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. This was a multi-media show headlined by Lou Reed and Nico. Graham had to put up plastic screens along the 100’ long side wall of the hall for Warhol to project his films on, and I knew that he was not going to take them down. I asked him to hire me to fill them the coming week and he agreed. My friend Roger Hillyard and I set up in the balcony opposite the screens and began trying to fill them with a couple of overhead projectors for liquids, one 16mm, one 8mm movie projector, and one Kodak Carousel slide projector. So began the Light Show Daze.

While Warhol was in town someone from the press set up an interview with Andy and his posse and myself, filmmaker Robert Nelson and poster artist Wes Wilson. When Nico made her entrance Warhol kidded her about whose leather pants she was wearing today. The west coast contingent talked about psychedelics, expanded consciousness, Buddhism, peace, love, and macrobiotics, and the east coast contingent about heroin. Compared to the tanned and healthy-looking San Francisco guys, the New Yorkers looked like pasty-faced zombies. For some reason, I didn’t bring my camera that day. It would have made interesting footage.

Anyway, Roger and I worked for Graham until the middle of the summer for $35.00 each a night. We had to supply our own equipment and materials. I still shot films and slides each week in the hall and on Haight Street during the week. The word had gone out that something was going on in San Francisco and freaks of all ages were beginning to arrive. I added images to my projections on a weekly basis.

Unfit for Service

Unfit for Service

As I mentioned before, my long saga of attempting to be classified as a Conscientious Objector resulted in an IA-O classification, and this meant that I was still viewed as cannon fodder but would not be required to carry a gun. This was not appealing in the least. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali. “No Viet Cong ever called me ‘Nigger lover.'”

I had one draft physical in Oakland in 1963 while still married to Julia and passed with one exception. When I was 17 I had been hospitalized for a couple of weeks with “Suspected Rheumatic Fever,” and this flagged me for an electrocardiograph test. I was told to come back in a week after the test had been read and to bring my toothbrush. I knew that there was no problem with my heart so I was actually prepared to return and refuse to take the step forward that would send me to Vietnam. Not taking the step would send me to prison, and in my youthful ignorance of the prison system, I didn’t realize that I would be fresh meat for the sodomy train. Luckily during that week, President Kennedy exempted married men. After he was assassinated Johnson rescinded the exemption and another exam loomed in early 1966,

By then I had graduated, started my filmmaking career, met Sandra, and learned a little more about what going to prison would actually be like. My options were two, head for Canada or convince the draft board that they did not want me in their army. I chose the latter and began preparing several months in advance. My first project was to get myself under psychiatric care. Toward this end, I went to the clinic at Mt. Zion Hospital and told the social worker who interviews me that I needed to talk to a shrink because “I have an emotional dependence on marijuana.”

She assumed a stern demeanor and asked, “Are you high on marijuana right now.” I admitted that I was. and she told me to go home and come back tomorrow morning without smoking anything. I agreed. The next morning I smoked a big fat one and went to the appointment. When she asked piously if I had smoked this morning I answered guilefully “No mam, I have not.” I figured that this was an ethical lie, not unlike lying to the S.S. about Jews in the basement. She smiled at how effective her (non-M.I.) intervention had been and made me an appointment to see a psychiatrist.

Dr. Sterling Bunuel was a young, slightly overweight shrink. He read the paperwork from the social worker and then asked, “What’s this about an ‘Emotional dependence on marijuana?'”

“That’s not the real reason I wanted to see you,” I said, “it’s really about these nightmares I’ve been having.

He leaned forward, interested, “Nightmares, what kind of nightmares?”

“About being in the Army,” I replied.

For the next few months, we met weekly and talked about our L.S.D. trips with one another. I was definitely under psychiatric care.

Someone also told me that the Army didn’t like draftees to be too dumb or too smart. I knew I couldn’t fake dumb and resolved to impress them as “too smart.” I knew that the comprehensive I.Q. and everything you know the test was given first thing at eight a.m. There were about 200 of us taking it and most hadn’t even had any coffee. There was a collective groan as the thick test was passed out, and everybody but me started laboriously plodding through it. I dove into it with all synapses firing as my life depended on it, which it did. I finished first and when they gave them back I had the highest score.

On the medical history form, I checked everything they couldn’t prove otherwise: nightmares, insomnia, bedwetting, use of drugs, and homosexual tendencies.

When we had the physical exam and they said to strip to my shorts I dropped my Levi’s and revealed that I wasn’t wearing any underwear. “Put your pants back on!” one of the horrifying homophobic Orcs yelled. A doctor tried to trip me up by saying, “Looks like you have flat feet, right?” “No Sir,” I replied, “Always had high arches.” I was also wearing a necklace with a pink day glow disk with an upside-down crucifix on it.

Finally, I was flagged to be interviewed by their shrink. He read my papers and then asked three question: “What drugs do you use?”

I named everything that you didn’t have to shoot (no track marks) i.e. marijuana, l.s.d., hashish, DMT uppers, downers, etc.

His second question was, “Are you a homosexual?”

I shrugged, “I don’t know, man, I go either way.”

Final question, “Is there any reason you shouldn’t be in the Army?”

My reply was, “Well I don’t think I’d be very happy in the army and I don’t think the Army would be happy with me.”

He scribbled on my papers and handed them back to me. Does his note read? “Not suitable for military service. No reexamination believed necessary.”

I asked a Sergeant on the way out what classification that meant, and he snarled, “Means 4-F.”