Category: Photography/Art

Photography/Art

On the Road to the Summer of Love

Dennis McNally

Editor’s Note: In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, the California Historical Society’s “On the Road to the Summer of Love” tells the story of this countercultural movement through an ambitious photographic exhibition. The selection of images and text included with this article are reproduced from the larger exhibition and highlight a portion of the cultural and contextual features that led up to the 1967 Summer of Love. The full exhibition will be on display through 24 September 2017 at 678 Mission Street, San Francisco.


The Summer of Love

The community that grew up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood  from 1965 to 1967  was part of a vital tradition celebrating personal freedom and the right of peaceful protest that has traveled through American history since Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1954). The thread is intrinsic to San Francisco, which as Thoreau began his masterpiece was emerging during California’s Gold Rush. The forty-niners were not dutiful servants of the Protestant work ethic but rogues gambling their lives for gold, scamps who cherished an eccentricity uniquely American.

Today, fifty years from the Summer of Love, its impact—social, cultural, economic, political, psychosexual—continues its ripples through American culture. Its unabashed pursuit of liberation triggered all manner of questioning of gender identity. LSD challenged social hierarchies, which had a particular impact on engineers around Palo Alto; without the West Coast psychedelic ethos, Silicon Valley and the development of the personal computer may have happened in Boston. It also created sensitivity to what one put in one’s body that led to natural foods and the organic food industry. The music and graphic art of the subculture swept the globe and seized young imaginations everywhere.

All this and more remains with us: the origins of the revolutionary maelstrom begin with the tribal elders known as the Beat Generation, succeeding important political events and the mind-changing effects of a powerful avant-garde art scene. Combined with psychedelics and rock and roll, the result was the creation of a new consciousness, which we call the Summer of Love.


The Beats

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Helen Haight and Don Graham at Grant and Green, 1958, Jerry Stoll (1923-2004); courtesy of Jerry Stoll Photography.

The roots of the Haight-Ashbury scene arose in a small cluster of disaffected writers repulsed by the monstrous death and destruction birthed from World War II. In 1944, a seaman and Columbia University dropout named Jack Kerouac fell in with Columbia students Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr and another man, William S. Burroughs. They created a “new vision,” a mix of transcendentalism and bohemianism that evolved into “Beat,”[1] a rejection of mainstream bourgeois American beliefs and an advocacy of art and spirituality pursued through intense experience.

Their friend Neal Cassady settled in San Francisco, and then Kerouac and Ginsberg followed. Here Ginsberg blossomed as a poet, producing Howl in 1955. He first read it at the Six Gallery along with sympathetic companions and fellow readers Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and others, with the elder of the city’s poetry scene, Kenneth Rexroth, as master of ceremonies. Howl was published the next year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press. Along with Kerouac’s 1957, On the Road, the poem inspired young artists to align with the idea of Beat, especially in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.


Protest Movements

A succession of youth-dominated political events prepared the ground for the consciousness labeled the Summer of Love. In 1960, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) came to San Francisco’s City Hall to hold hearings, and the students of UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University demanded the right to attend. They were not only denied entrance, but forced down the hall’s grand staircase by firehoses. Outside, students and left-wing unionists mocked HUAC with Nazi salutes; the once-terrifying power of the committee would soon disintegrate.

In 1964, students from the two schools came together again, this time to challenge white-only hiring among the auto dealers along San Francisco’s Van Ness Avenue and at the Sheraton Palace Hotel. After nonviolent picketing and hundreds of arrests, they achieved victory when the car dealers and hotel owners agreed to integrate.

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Barbara Dane, Vietnam Protest, 1964, by Erik Weber.

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Auto Row Protest, “We Want Jobs,” by Joe Rosenthal, San Francisco Chronicle; courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle

Later that year, students at UC Berkeley created the Free Speech Movement, as they named it, and challenged the limits on political free speech in the university’s Sproul Plaza in what developed into a countercultural critique of a technocratic university treating education as a product. The mass arrests and frequent violence surrounding the FSM presaged many more such incidents to come across the nation, as well as the ensuing reaction that helped elect Ronald Reagan as California governor and later US president, jumpstarting a nascent conservative movement still ascendant in 2017.

Coupled with an awakening sexual liberation stimulated by birth control and ongoing Vietnam War protests, many young people in the Bay Area evolved a very new perspective by the mid-1960s. The experiences, experiments, and beliefs of those “hipsters” or “hippies” would soon rock the world.

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Mario Savio on top of Police Car, University of California, Berkeley, 1964, photo by Ronald L. Enfield (b. 1945).

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Crowd led by FSM Banner through Sather Gate, Regents’ Meeting, University of California, Berkeley, 1964, photo by Ronald L. Enfield (b. 1945).


Arts Ferment

An underappreciated element of the cultural and intellectual flowering of the Haight-Ashbury scene is the role played by various avant-garde arts group and individuals over the previous decade. The Actor’s Workshop, the Tape Music Center, the Committee and Lenny Bruce, the Open Theater, Canyon Cinema—each had a heavy impact on young people whose minds had been opened by Beat poetry and political events. Two groups emerged as particularly significant.

The Actor’s Workshop would have a far-reaching impact, bringing serious theater to San Francisco with plays by Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet. They sought, wrote co-director Herb Blau, to “shock, disturb, remind, tease and infuriate our audiences.” They succeeded. Among the veterans of AW was former assistant director Ronnie Davis, founder of the legendary San Francisco Mime Troupe.

The Tape Music Center, founded by Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick with Pauline Oliveros, Bill Maginnis, and Tony Martin, would challenge the notion of what music was. It was central to the development of modern avant-garde music, and its propensity for interacting with other groups—for instance composing for the Actor’s Workshop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin—made it an aesthetic nexus in the scene.

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Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, 1962, by Jerry Melrose (b. 1939); courtesy of the artist.

Untitled [S.F. Mime Troupe] circa 1966

San Francisco Mime Troupe, c. 1966. Photo by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.


The Catalysts

Poetry, politics, and avant-garde art were the elements in the alembic chamber (wherein alchemists tried to change base metals into gold). LSD and rock and roll were the final agents that catalyzed a remarkable transmutation in the minds of the Haight’s new citizens. The need for spiritual transcendence is a fundamental aspect of humanity, and LSD was a revolutionary agent of change, making the psychedelic experience exponentially more accessible—inexpensive, powerful, and easily obtained in San Francisco. It found a perfect partner in high-volume, visceral rock and roll.

In the summer of 1965, the San Francisco band the Charlatans took over the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, and became the first band to routinely combine LSD, a light show, and rock and roll. Later that year, author Ken Kesey and his friends the Merry Pranksters began a series of parties where LSD was available, dubbing them Acid Tests. They grew very quickly, and reached their apogee in January 1966 at the Trips Festival at Longshoreman’s Hall, with thousands in attendance. Many of the avant-garde arts groups—the Tape Music Center, Anna Halprin, the Open Theater—took part, but it was Tony Martin’s light show and the rock and roll bands (the Grateful Dead, Big Brother, and the Holding Company) that people embraced.

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Ken Kesey and Carolyn Adams at Courthouse, 1966, San Francisco Chronicle; courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Hit of Blotter Acid, 1981; courtesy of Mark McCloud.

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Avalon Ballroom, 1967, by Ben Van Meter (b. 1941); courtesy of the artist.

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Jefferson Airplane at the Monterey Jazz Festival, 1966, by Stephen Rees (b. 1948); courtesy of the artist.

[The Grateful Dead on steps of 710 Ashbury Street headquarters,

Grateful Dead on steps of 710 Ashbury Street headquarters, c. 1966, photo by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.


The Real Summer of Love

The true Summer of Love was not the public affair of 1967, but the private social experiments that took place largely in the Haight-Ashbury in 1966. Among the most fondly remembered of these was a pair of parties at Olompali, a large home in Marin County where the Grateful Dead had taken up residence for the summer. Inviting their friends—members of Jefferson Airplane, the Charlatans, Big Brother and the Holding Company, among others—they played, danced, and got quite high in the private, natural setting of the ranch.

Back in the city, a psychedelic neighborhood sprang up along Haight Street. Hip businesses like Mnasidika, the Psychedelic Shop, and In Gear opened. The Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium presented music, poster artists advertised the shows with extraordinary creativity, and a community grew. By fall, the Haight had generated its own iconic social-theatrical-political visionary troupe, the Diggers, who would subvert the dominant paradigm with art and humor.

When LSD was made illegal on 6 October 1966, the Diggers and their friend Allen Cohen of the Haight’s newspaper the Oracle responded with the Love Pageant Rally, a celebration rather than a protest. At their request, the Grateful Dead played for free, and free music in the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park became a fixture of the Haight experience.

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Fantasy Fair, Mill Valley, 1967, by Elaine Mayes (b. 1936); courtesy of the artist.

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Cop Strings Orchids on Antennae, 1967, by Elaine Mayes (b. 1936); courtesy of the artist.

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Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop, 1967, by Suki Hill (1941-2014); courtesy of the artist.


The Gathering of the Tribes

As 1966 drew to a close, there was a palpable sense of accomplishment in the Haight. Peace, joy, and love were actually working. A few hundred people had created something remarkably beautiful. It called for a celebration, and Allen Cohen and his artist friend Michael Bowen of the Haight’s Oracle newspaper conceived of a Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In, to be held in Golden Gate Park on 14 January 1967.

Among those who came together, there were elder and mentor poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Lew Welch; spiritual leaders like Timothy Leary and the apostle of Zen Buddhism in America, Shunryu Suzuki; various rock bands; and even the Berkeley radicals. They were celebrating, as someone remarked, nothing in particular. It was a truly wonderful day.

But it had enormous, unanticipated consequences. Up to that point, the Haight-Ashbury scene, whose members referred to themselves as “freaks,” had flown largely under mainstream society’s notice, not least because the group was actually quite small. But the Be-In attracted tens of thousands to the park, and the spell of invisibility vanished. The media descended, the phrase “hippie” became immortalized, and suddenly the trivial accoutrements of life in the Haight—long hair, flowers, extravagant clothing—were broadcast around the world.

[l to r: Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Freewheel

Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Alan Ginsberg at the Be-In, 1967, by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.

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Dizzy Gillespie at the Be-In, Polo Grounds, Golden Gate Park, 1967, by Erik Weber (b. 1940); from the collection of the California Historical Society.

[Winding down at the Be-In, Golden Gate Park, 1967 January 14]

Couple on Ground After Be-In, by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.


Notes

[1] For a discussion of Kerouac’s understanding of “beat” as tramping along with a rucksack, and as beatitude, beatific, see Conversations with Jack Kerouac, ed. Kevin J. Hayes (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2005), 31. With thanks to David L. Ulin for this reference.


Dennis McNally
is author, historian, and music publicist. He was the publicist for the Grateful Dead, is the band’s authorized biographer, and wrote the bestselling history of the band, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, as well as the recently published On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom and Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, and America. He lives in San Francisco.

Copyright: © 2017 Dennis McNally and the California Historical Society. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Photography/ArtReviews

Photography and Public Lands: Seeing Yosemite

Hetch Hetchy

Stone trail work at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

A review of Nancy Robbins, A Sense of Yosemite, with essays by David Mas Masumoto. Yosemite National Park: Yosemite Conservancy, 2016.

Sublime photos of heaven-high cliffs, canyons, and waterfalls have long defined Yosemite. In her book, A Sense of Yosemite, photographer Nancy Robbins builds on this tradition of photography as both an artistic medium and an articulation of the importance of public lands.

Robbins lives within Yosemite’s boundaries, and her familiarity with the park serves as her greatest advantage. She offers her audience a refreshing glimpse of Yosemite beyond familiar black-and-white stock images. Her detailed perspectives treat the landscape with the keen observation that intimacy provides.

Robbins’s eye for detail takes us beyond the usual vistas of the park. She focuses on the textures of scabbed bark, the veins of yellow leaves encased in a sheet of ice, and brilliant waterfalls of fiery light. These rich images guide the reader through the might and brilliance of each season, documenting foxes to cottonwood trees, rivers to gauzy starlight, and more.

By excluding people from her images of the park, Robbins joins other landscape photographers in perpetuating the myth of pristine wilderness. The only noticeable photo of people depicts distant climbers on a cliffside bivouac at night. This image beautifully speaks to the adventurous spirit of Yosemite but fails to tell the whole story. It’s rare to experience the park without people.

Tuolumne Meadows_1843_16x20 copy (2)a_2000While Robbins’s photos of the park through its seasonal cycles are impressive, the book’s structure and written commentary leave us wanting more. Her captions and David Mas Masumoto’s essays convey little about Yosemite’s intricacies. Robbins’s vivid images speak far more powerfully about the park than the text, which in comparison comes off rather bland.

As a farmer living outside of Yosemite Valley, Masumoto provides a perspective that many readers can identify with: a neighbor to Yosemite who feels a connection to the place. However, the relationship between his essays laced throughout the first half of the book and the photos can feel a bit jarring. The reader is pulled from the visual flow of Robbins’s work that frame Yosemite through both the senses and the seasons.

Unfortunately, the book neglects to mention the park’s indigenous history and Yosemite’s central role in the development of the national park system and conservation movement. Nor does it touch upon the grave ecological challenges facing Yosemite precipitated by a changing climate and ever-increasing human visitation. Briefly, Masumoto writes: “We all have a stake in the destinies of these sacred geographies.” But in this narrative of the visual sublimity of Yosemite, an opportunity is lost to prompt readers to grasp its complex, pivotal history, and to contemplate what is at stake for its future.

Although A Sense of Yosemite may not offer such fully discerning reflections upon this iconic park, for any reader wishing to experience Yosemite through a collection of colorful photographs with striking light, this book will satisfy. Robbins’s work celebrates the park in every season, portraying both light and color with a softness that reflects the subtlest moods of the landscape. Through her technical mastery, her access to singular weather phenomena and rare moments, and her obvious affection for Yosemite, Robbins successfully captures the splendor of one of the most inspirational places in North America and the place she calls home.

Milky Way over Yosemite Valley

The Milky Way over Yosemite Valley, photographed from Tunnel View.

Notes

  • All photographs taken by Nancy Robbins. All rights reserved.

Reviewed by Jai Bashir, Ayja Bounous, Casey Clifford, Bianca Greeff, Dan Hohl, Kailey Kornhauser, Brooke Larsen, Kathleen Metcalf, Maya Silver, Francesca Varela, and Josh Wennergren, graduate students in the Environmental Humanities writing seminar, University of Utah, taught by Stephen Trimble. Trimble’s publications include, Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America (UC Press), The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin (University of Nevada Press), and Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah’s Public Lands (Torrey House Press). Trimble makes his home in Salt Lake City and in the redrock country of Torrey, Utah.

Copyright: © 2017 The Authors. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

ArticlesPhotography/Art

The Smell of Gold: On the Yuba River

Caitlin Mohan

My son and I sit on a boulder in the Yuba River when he asks if the river looked this way a hundred years ago. Since I have been visiting this same place for the last forty-five summers and with the exception of a new wash of gravel or a fallen tree that changes the depth of a hole, I tell him that the river will remain the same. Probably.

The river’s granite boulders and jade waters teach firsthand how water takes the path of least resistance. In fact, this small radius of my childhood, Highway 49 running past Nevada City over the south fork and up a dirt road, looks from a dusty car window as it always has—a red earth, scrub brush landscape that curves away from pressures of modern life even as it pulls the imagination back to gold miners and a hundred years later to the rednecks, retirees, and back-to-the-land types.

What’s different today is that when I roll down the window a sirocco of marijuana saturates the car—the new smell just beyond the road that will become the scratch-and-sniff memory for my children’s recollection of this place.

When I was a kid, summer’s first swim began with my nose skimming the water’s surface in an effort to rediscover that familiar scent of river, rock, dragonfly—whatever it was that brewed Gold Country smell. My father, for whom “odors” were of paramount importance, a gateway to memory and feelings, taught me to register the smells of Highway 49. He would hang his head out the car window, shouting into hot wind, “Can you smell it?” For a New Jersey transplant by way of Greenwich Village and Berkeley, California was a land of Lotus Eaters. He never could get over the place and the smell of (what was it?) witch hazel, cedar, manzanita—it drove him wild.

Yes, I could smell it, though we could never name the intoxicating elixir of plants, animals, and dirt, for we were East Coast in origin, summer visitors and hedonists, not scientists. We would leave the diagnostics to people like Gary Snyder who lived year round on the ridge and actually studied the super biodiversity of California in general and this watershed in particular. My father was a romantic and so to smell and to feel, void of precise nomenclature, were enough—were everything.

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Late afternoon glisten, Yuba River.

Perhaps it was his sense of romance that brought my father to purchase eight and a half acres and a cabin on the Middle Fork. Its scrap-wood walls and buddy-taped electrical wires called to his inner yearning for Walden. He was an English teacher, so this wasn’t just a cabin; it was a sanctuary in the way of Robinson Jeffers’s Tor House or Jack London’s Wolf House—a place to slow if not stop time, a place to shelter his kids from the crap of the world. There was no TV, no phone, and for the first two decades, no toilet or hot water. It was a place to play ping pong, eat fudgesicles. It was a place to swim in the clear, moving water that taught me most of what I know about force and abeyance, and set my life’s course so that it feels sacrilegious to mention it in passing. It was a place to preserve what was best in ourselves through reading, watching, and talking under the stars.

In 1972, people were doing this sort of thing. We weren’t the only people who had copies of Whole Earth Catalogue and Shelter magazine, which reprinted today can be found on any earthy boutique shelf in Nevada City. Perhaps sparked by his particular desires to escape the harangue of Berkeley politics and soothe his marriage, he was fueled too by the larger Californian and American consciousness to get back to the land—or get back to something. As a kid, I saw this idea on the cover of The Band album, in a group of musicians who looked as if they had crawled out of a mine shaft in patina leather. What were they digging for? I saw it in the films like Easy Rider and Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue—individuals leaving home, setting up watering holes in the middle of the desert, always with dirt-encrusted beards. I heard it in Joni Mitchell’s directive to “get back to the Garden.” And so the Gold Country, like places of the imagination across time, became an El Dorado for those traveling from something to something, and ultimately looking for a return to Eden, even as they looked forward to the precipice of enterprise and fortune.

For a while, the cabin became a halfway station for such dreamers. One Thanksgiving, a family friend, Bob O’Garbage, as we lovingly called him, rolled up from Virginia in a 1954 pearl-gray Mercedes with his family; he left two years later wearing nothing but a pair of lederhosen and his long beard, and carrying a staff. Bob worked sporadically at the mill; his wife, Blanch, would bathe the kids in a horse trough; and we all had great times together on the weekend. During this time, two parcels of land on either side of the cabin were purchased—one by a Southern California contractor who was rumored to be a Republican and the other by his handsome Paul Bunyan nephew who built a Shwartzwaldian zendo in homage to Yogananda. Both of these men loved the land, raised their families, and earned legal livings. Their eventual schism has always stood vaguely iconic of the larger cultural splits that infuse menacing energy into the region: rednecks vs. hippies, meth heads vs. pot heads, retirees vs. entrepreneurs, and perhaps now a subdivision: certain types of growers vs. other types of growers.

In the eighties, we rented out the cabin to a parade of seekers: a roadie for Supertramp and a less savory family who made a lab of the kitchen with dusty jars of thick mystery and pot galore. We knew they were not part of the Edenic dream when their youngest, a forest troll of about four years old, came running out of the cabin as we rolled up, and yelled, “Dad, fucking Mohan’s here!” This in contrast to our gentlest renter, Carl, with spritely laugh and guitar, who loved the land, planted a vegetable garden, and wrote a song called Hot Shit in Mexico (a local favorite at the time), and whose refrain “Hot shit in Mexico, paraquot shit in Mexico” reminds us where California’s dope used to come from and why there is a market for organic product.

All of the cabin dwellers smoked their share of marijuana. With the exception of Carl, who later set up a teepee on our land and may have had a single plant for his own personal use, none of them were growers. Now, however, everybody’s growing it. Goat people with dreads coiled around their heads, wearing loin cloths, smoking joints the size of corn cobs with names like Star Compost are doing it, and people like our neighbors, who tired of the excess and pace of the Bay Area are doing it. We couldn’t ask for better weed-growing neighbors: educated, ethical, and organic. They are kind people with refined interests who do not smoke their product.

Perhaps some who come to the Gold Country today to live share that dream of living off the land, escaping the rat race, and absorbing the wisdom of the river like Siddhartha. But people have always come here to make money mining gold, logging trees, and now growing pot. And so the question arises: What is California dreaming? Are these pursuits a means to an end? Is gold still and always the dream? Or, is the work itself the dream: the mining, the logging, the growing? Just months ago, the parcel belonging to the Republican uncle was sold to an investor who employs a property manager and farmer. The wooden fence that once corralled a horse is now six feet tall and possibly electrical. We met the hired farmer—a county native—yesterday, the nicest guy who’s traveled the world only to come home. I wonder if his California dream is growing marijuana for somebody else or if he is still searching.

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Joy in granite, Yuba River.

With both properties on each side of our cabin owned by growers, my summer cabin is the cream filling in a cannabis Oreo. I am caught between accepting this latest gold rush economy as the antidote for a historically poor area and feeling protective of the land. Not all growers are as ideal as my neighbors; many use harmful fertilizers, leave the land worse for wear, and lure cartel types to the area. All growers siphon from the watershed, and most don’t pay taxes on their crops. But I am also protective of a time when people came here to get back to the land and not for the sake of profit, when people believed we had strayed from Eden but ultimately belonged to it. Of course, these are sentimental notions from a summer visitor who has never had to earn a living in an area that offers few options. And, California dreams are so close to California schemes it is often difficult to tell which is which.

Today on the rock, my son asks if the river looked the same a thousand years ago, and this is where I am stumped. That’s a long time for anything to endure, let alone remain unaltered; but if anything around here will remain, I hope it will be the river and that its water will not become the next form of gold, though of course it already is. I think of how just yesterday at the Nevada City library we learned who might have been the first people here. When we touched the computer display, a song of the Nisenan tribe came out of the kiosk, causing me to wonder why it took me forty-five years to learn this name. Most of the history of this tribe is unknown and misunderstood by those who live near and on their tribal land. The stories of recent, successful financial enterprise have masked their past, just as the odor of weed now covers what I recently learned is a major herbal ingredient in the air of my childhood: mountain misery.

Though my own fourth-grade education favored constructing sugar-cube missions over studying California Indians, I learned a potent lesson in California history by visiting Malakoff Diggins, now a state historic park in Nevada City that preserves California’s largest hydraulic mining site. The eerie lunar landscape—hills blasted bare as skin by massive water hoses between 1853 and 1884—told me of a one-sided relationship between the miner and his environment. The nearby settlement, more of a ghost town than an historical site, appeared to have been left in a hurry or simply wandered off from. In the 1970s, you could simply press your nose against the window and peek over the pharmacy bottles to spy a woman’s shoe in the middle of the silty floor, sitting there as if she couldn’t find it but walked out the door just the same. You could wander into a leaning barn and see, or perhaps imagine, a noose swinging from the rafter, not unlike the make-shift gallows some miles up the North Fork, which hosted the only female hanging in California—Juanita—in 1851. At least the gallows had a crude plaque bearing meager details that belie a story of racism and sexism made obvious with hindsight.

But Malakoff Diggins was just another place, leaving me to wonder what we Californians make of our own history. Perhaps our history is too recent, too dredged in profit rather than ideals to have warranted in the 1970s, a mere 125 years from the Gold Rush, a cordon rope, a plaque, or tour guide with a badge. Perhaps California, like a child, did not have the perspective that comes with a more critical contextual awareness to take itself seriously enough to see itself as a historical subject.

So too, it has taken me a good chunk of my life to inaccurately, incompletely define the smell of this country, partly because of my own ignorance but also because the smell of the Gold Country isn’t only about plants and animals; it’s about the residue of the human endeavor that is palpable in the great piles of mossy boulders that Chinese miners pulled from the Yuba River that now sit on the roadside without ceremony or documentation. The smell is edible apple trees in the orchard, planted an unknowable number of years before my family bought the land, and which survive without irrigation or pruning. The smell is audible in the hush of rapids, momentarily drowned out by the motorcycle shifting into high gear on Highway 49. I suspect every California region from the county of Jefferson to the Imperial Valley provides a synesthesia of evidence to classify particular landscapes, histories, and endeavors, but I wonder if this Gold Country smell isn’t somehow more potent than it is in other areas. I wonder if the heart-cleaving beauty of the area coupled with a desperate drive to unearth a living hasn’t made love of this place more hard won. If California is, in the words of Wallace Stegner, “like the rest of America, only more so,” then perhaps the Gold Country is like the rest of California only more so—the unofficial capital of what the state is about—the always changing dreams, which following complicated labor, birth the next reality.

But odor is not a competition. California doesn’t need to compete with itself to define its character. The state is too diverse to characteristically identify with science or fiction; likewise, it remains impossible to name the smell of the Gold Country. So, I am not surprised when I ask my son as we sit on the rock what he thinks he smells and he says he doesn’t know. I instantly flash on a Gary Snyder poem that intimidated me with his authoritative chronology of the Malakoff Diggins area, citing millions and millions of years of evolution. That poem, “What Happened Here Before,” is one that still appeals to me for its allegiance to defining place using the names of plants and animals while imagining the erstwhile lives of miners, Indians, tax assessors, and a prophetic blue jay who screeches in response to the question of who we are: “We shall see / Who knows / How to be.”

The computerized kiosk at the Nevada City library emitted a Nisenan song, but it cannot produce the smell of the Gold Country, although I recently came across liquid soap in that aforementioned earthy boutique bearing the name Yuba. Its admirable but inadequate attempt to capture the river’s essence displays that no amount of technology will allow one to push a button and smell from the car window those first hits of red earth, stonefly, and mountain misery—odors that are now absorbed into the marijuana growing just feet from Highway 49.

I wonder what the Highway 49 smell will be when my children are grown, if they will bring their own kids here in the summer. I wonder if they will keep the TV, phone, computer, and other technology out of the cabin as we have done in hopes that without these distractions we can read, play ping pong, and eat fudgesicles. What will be the new industry of their time? The one that takes the path of least resistance. What will be the latest technological distraction? Will they have the inclination or grit to tell their kids to turn it off, crawl into bed, and inhale that Gold Country scent that travels through the screen window, the one we can never name that leads them to dreams of the river?

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Leaning toward the past.

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Yuba Green.

Note
All photographs by Conny Heinrich.

Caitlin Mohan is an educator and writer living in West Marin. She is currently working on a collection of essays and can be found every summer swimming in the rapids of the Yuba River.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Between Journalism and Fiction: Hunter S. Thompson and the Birth of Gonzo

Peter Richardson

According to Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson was “the only twentieth-century equivalent of Mark Twain.”Wolfe’s comparison was meant to feature Thompson as a humorist, but biographical similarities also linked the two writers. Both Twain and Thompson arrived in San Francisco as obscure journalists, thrived on the city’s anarchic energies, and departed as national figures. Exactly one hundred years after Twain left San Francisco, Thompson moved to Colorado and created his most extravagant character: himself. The signature works that followed—along with his drug and alcohol consumption, gun fetish, and “fortified compound”—are strongly associated with Woody Creek, where he lived until his suicide in 2005. But if Thompson’s celebrity was a Colorado phenomenon, his literary formation played out in San Francisco during what he called “a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again.”That peak helped Thompson invent not only a literary genre, but also himself.

Thompson’s self-fashioning unfolded in stages. In 1960, he set off on a Beat-style cross-country drive that ended in Seattle. From there, he hitchhiked to San Francisco, where he visited City Lights Bookstore and other Beat shrines. After failing to find work, Thompson decamped for Big Sur, the Beat hangout and home of novelist Henry Miller, a major influence. (Although he staked out Miller’s mailbox, he never met his idol.) After two years of travel, Thompson moved to the Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen, home of Jack London, before settling with his wife and infant son at 318 Parnassus Avenue, not far from Haight-Ashbury. Scratching out a living as a freelance journalist, he covered the 1964 GOP convention at the Cow Palace and wrote an unpublished review of Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965). Editorial quarrels over the coverage of the convention and the Wolfe review led to his split from The National Observer, his primary outlet at the time.

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Photograph of Hunter S. Thompson in the Hotel Jerome by David Hiser.

In January 1965, a destitute Thompson pitched story ideas to Carey McWilliams, then editor of The Nation. Before moving to New York City from Los Angeles in the 1950s, McWilliams had produced a stream of first-rate books and articles that established him as California’s shrewdest observer. His history of California farm labor, Factories in the Field (1939), impressed Thompson, who was compiling his own photographs for a book project called The Californians.Thompson’s query letter to The Nation, which referred to McWilliams as “an old California hand,” played to that expertise. Thompson’s first story idea was about “the final collapse of the myth of San Francisco.” In his view, the city’s personality had gone from “neurotic to paranoid to what now looks like the first stages of a catatonic fit.” His fallback ideas were stories about Governor Pat Brown’s budget proposals and a job his wife had taken as a telephone solicitor for a dance studio. What would happen, Thompson wondered, if a black customer accepted the telephone offer? He imagined the dilemma of a hypothetical and hard-pressed solicitor: “Will Sally make the sale and chance the ultimate disaster—a coon showing up at the studio—or will she somehow ascertain the pigment, then do her duty and queer her only sale?”4

McWilliams would not have welcomed the racial epithets in the query letter. Indeed, his earlier work on racial discrimination earned him an interview with the state legislature’s Committee on Un-American Activities in California in 1943. Committee chair Jack Tenney quizzed McWilliams about his views on interracial marriage, which was still illegal in California. McWilliams, who was serving in state government at the time, said he thought the law should be abolished. Tenney later reported that McWilliams’s views were “identical with [sic] Communist Party ideology.”5

In his reply to Thompson, McWilliams suggested a piece about the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, which Thompson eagerly accepted. McWilliams’s editorial intervention turned out to be life-changing. Shortly after that article appeared, Thompson had a book contract with Random House and spent the next eighteen months researching and writing his first-person account of life with the motorcycle gang. Dedicated to McWilliams, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga was Thompson’s first bestseller, a parade example of New Journalism and a shrewd critique of the mainstream media. For the rest of his career, McWilliams was the one editor whom he consistently and unhesitatingly admired. Throughout the 1960s, he wrote McWilliams almost weekly on a variety of topics. “More than any other person, Carey was responsible for the success of Hell’s Angels,” Thompson later acknowledged. “He encouraged me around every bend.”6

As Hell’s Angels made its way into the world, Thompson met Warren Hinckle, editor of Ramparts magazine. Founded in 1962 as a Catholic literary quarterly in Menlo Park, Ramparts had become an award-winning San Francisco muckraker that ran bombshell stories on Vietnam, the CIA, and the Black Panthers. Thompson, who was listed as a contributing editor but never wrote for the magazine, admired Hinckle’s swashbuckling style.

I met [Hinckle] through his magazine, Ramparts. I met him before Rolling Stone ever existed. Ramparts was a crossroads of my world in San Francisco, a slicker version of The Nation—with glossy covers and such. Warren had a genius for getting stories that could be placed on the front page of The New York Times. He had a beautiful eye for what story had a high, weird look to it. You know, busting the Defense Department—Ramparts was real left, radical. I paid a lot of attention to them and ended up being a columnist.7

A Thompson visit to the Ramparts office, where Hinckle kept a capuchin monkey named Henry Luce, quickly became legend. The two men left for drinks and returned to find Thompson’s backpack open, pills of various colors strewn across the floor, and a deranged Henry Luce racing around the office. He was rushed to the veterinarian’s office to have his stomach pumped. An unsympathetic Thompson later wrote to Hinckle, “That fucking monkey should be killed—or at least arrested—on general principles.”8

Thompson’s 1966 move to Colorado re-created the bucolic bohemianism of Big Sur, but he attended the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago with Hinckle and his colleagues. He told his editor at Random House that his Ramparts contacts assured him that “all manner of hell is going to break loose” in Chicago.It was another turning point for Thompson, who was appalled by the police violence he witnessed there. Scampering from agitated officers on Michigan Avenue, Thompson found two cops posted outside his hotel blocking his retreat. As he recalled in a letter, “I finally just ran between the truncheons, screaming, ‘I live here, goddamnit! I’m paying fifty dollars a day!’” The experience rattled even a seasoned reporter who thrived on action. “I went from a state of Cold Shock on Monday, to Fear on Tuesday, then Rage, and finally Hysteria—which lasted for nearly a month,” he later wrote.10 Having built his reputation covering the Hells Angels, San Francisco hippies, and student radicals in Berkeley, he began to target what he saw as the corruption and violence of mainstream American politics. “I went to the Democratic convention as a journalist and returned a raving beast,” he later told a fellow journalist.11

To cover the convention and the mayhem outside its walls, Hinckle produced the Ramparts Wall Poster, which reported on the convention and related street activities. The posters were single full-folio sheets whose title and format recalled the publications of Mao Zedong’s Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. (The motto for the Ramparts Wall Poster was “Up Against the Wall.”) Two years later, Thompson lifted the idea during his campaign for sheriff in Pitkin County, Colorado. He promised to send Hinckle a copy of his Aspen Wallposter. “And if the Wallposter name rings a bell,” he wrote Hinckle, “well, I’ll never deny it.”12

When Ramparts filed for bankruptcy in January 1969, Hinckle left to start a new magazine called Scanlan’s. In its first issue, he ran a Thompson piece, rejected by Playboy, on skier Jean-Claude Killy. Thompson focused on the difficulty of writing the story, which would become a major theme in his work. While preparing the piece, he was accompanied by Boston Globe writer Bill Cardoso. Thompson wrote Cardoso into the story, and the presence of a companion would become another signature theme. Later, Cardoso coined the term “Gonzo” to describe Thompson’s work.

Thompson was grateful that Hinckle published the Killy article, but he was unhappy with the magazine’s design. “Graphically, it was a fucking horror show,” he wrote to Hinckle. “It looks like it was put together by a compositor’s apprentice with a head full of Seconal.” He especially disliked the illustrations that accompanied the Killy article. “On lesser fronts, I want to impose a condition on anything I may or may not sell you in the future—to wit: That any ‘cartoon/illustration’ by Jim Nutt will not be allowed within 15 pages on either side of my byline.”13 When Thompson offered to cover the 1970 Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s, Hinckle paired him with Welsh illustrator Ralph Steadman, whose drawings became the visual counterpart to Thompson’s extravagant prose. After the Derby, Steadman recalled that Thompson was concerned. “This whole thing will probably finish me as a writer,” he said. “I have no story.”14 Later, he confided to Steadman that the article was “useless, aside from the flashes of style & tone it captures.” The illustrations, on the other hand, were fine, and he proposed another collaboration. “I’d like nothing better than to work with you on another one of those savage binges again, & to that end I’ll tell my agent to bill us as a package—for good or ill.”15

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Poster by Thomas W. Benton, courtesy of Gonzo Gallery.

Widely considered the first example of Gonzo journalism, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” wasn’t the career-killer that Thompson initially feared. Writing to Hinckle in July 1970, Thompson proposed “a series of Ky. Derby-style articles (with Steadman) on things like the Super Bowl, Times Sq. on New Year’s eve, Mardi Gras, the Masters (golf) Tournament, the America’s Cup, Christmas Day with the Chicago Police, Grand National Rodeo in Denver…rape them all, quite systematically and then we could sell it as a book: ‘Amerikan Dreams.…’” The idea, in brief, was to “travel around the country and shit on everything.”16 Thompson thought the “Rape Series on Amerikan Institutions,” which Hinckle wanted to call the Thompson-Steadman Report, was a “king-bitch dog-fucker of an idea.” He and Steadman “could go almost anywhere & turn out a series of articles so weird & frightful as to stagger every mind in journalism.”17

Although the circulation for Scanlan’s reached 150,000 within six months, it tanked after eight issues, and Thompson again needed a suitable outlet. Now settled in Colorado, he began writing for Rolling Stone, an upstart San Francisco magazine that focused on the counterculture and its music. Its cofounders, Jann Wenner and San Francisco Chronicle music columnist Ralph J. Gleason, were both Ramparts alumni, but Hinckle laid off Wenner and infuriated Gleason by writing “A Social History of the Hippies” a few months before the Summer of Love. Nevertheless, Wenner lifted design elements from Ramparts and used the Ramparts office to mock up the first issue, which appeared November 1967.

Thompson began contributing to Rolling Stone the following October, but his next major work was a long piece on a motorcycle race and National District Attorney’s Association meeting that he and Los Angeles attorney Oscar Acosta attended in Las Vegas. Sports Illustrated rejected the article, whose word count far exceeded the editor’s request, and Wenner agreed to run it as a two-part feature in Rolling Stone with Steadman’s illustrations. Thompson used the byline Raoul Duke, the “well-worn pseudonym” he had used to acquire weapons while running for Pitkin County sheriff.18 The book version went to Random House, which published Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1972. Tom Wolfe’s blurb described the book as “a scorching, epochal sensation,” and it became Thompson’s Gonzo masterpiece. By that time, Thompson had been named chief of Rolling Stone’s National Affairs Desk. His reporting on the 1972 presidential election appeared in the magazine and was collected for Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. Straight Arrow Books, another Wenner creation, published the book version in 1973.

Although Gonzo journalism is synonymous with Thompson’s output, the term masks his greatest achievement. From the beginning, Thompson considered himself a novelist and modeled himself on Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. Whenever necessary, he shrugged off journalism’s protocols to supercharge his prose. “Fiction is a bridge to truth that journalism can’t reach,” he told an editor at Knopf. “Facts are lies when they’re added up.”19 That perspective wasn’t lost on his contemporaries. Political strategist Frank Mankiewicz observed that Thompson’s description of the 1972 presidential race was “the most accurate and least factual account of the campaign.”20 Likewise, novelist William Kennedy noted that his longtime friend seemed to be writing journalism while actually developing his fictional oeuvre. When his Random House editor asked whether Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was journalism or fiction, Thompson offered a lengthy reply questioning the distinction. In his view, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which he described as “a long rambling piece of personal journalism,” was “the first big breakthrough on this front.”21 Wenner was less interested in such generic distinctions, and though Thompson complained privately about writing for a magazine preoccupied with what the Jackson 5 had for breakfast, Rolling Stone made him a celebrity. His notoriety even gave rise to a cartoon character, Uncle Duke in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Although Thompson resented Trudeau’s invention, it amplified his fame.

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Poster by Thomas W. Benton, courtesy of Gonzo Gallery.

Fifty years after the publication of Thompson’s key works, and more than a decade after his death, Thompson is still regarded primarily as a celebrity. Yet there is a great deal of evidence to support his own claim, made to a Vietnamese colonel in 1975, that he was “one of the best writers currently using the English language as both a musical instrument and a political weapon.”22

Four separate developments combined to push Thompson beyond traditional journalism. The first was his experience in Chicago while covering the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which transformed his understanding of American politics and stoked his outrage. The second was his pairing with Ralph Steadman, whose illustrations were an indispensable part of Gonzo’s success. Third was Thompson’s idea to produce a string of stories in the mold of the Kentucky Derby piece. Although the Thompson-Steadman Report never came off at Scanlan’s, Thompson produced Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in its image. The final factor was Thompson’s decision to write that landmark book in the voice of Raoul Duke. It was an attempt, he later told Tom Wolfe, to prevent the “grey little cocksuckers who run things” from “drawing that line between Journalism and Fiction.”23

Well before Thompson visited Chicago, however, his literary formation was almost complete. “San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of,” he wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run…but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.”24 Thompson’s transformation required well-placed supporters and allies, and he was exceptionally fortunate to have worked with three California editors who shared his dissatisfaction with mainstream American journalism. McWilliams’s guidance, Hinckle’s audacity, and Wenner’s feeling for the countercultural zeitgeist were essential parts of Thompson’s self-creation. Unlike Twain, Thompson didn’t invent a new name for himself during his San Francisco sojourn; but much like his precursor, he left the city with everything he needed to become one of his generation’s most distinctive voices.

Thompson has at least one notable successor today. Matt Taibbi is profane, outlandish, scornful, and funny, and the Gonzo influence, especially in his early work, is unmistakable. His first solo book, Spanking the Donkey: On the Campaign Trail with the Democrats (2005), was an updated version of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72. Taibbi even itemized the contents of his car trunk, as Thompson did at the beginning of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was therefore fitting that Taibbi became a contributing editor at Rolling Stone following the book’s publication. After winning a National Magazine Award in 2008, he took on Goldman Sachs, the investment bank that he described as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”25 But Taibbi did more than impugn the Wall Street giant; he also explained its complicated hustles to general readers. That combination of bombast and clear explication made his claims increasingly difficult to ignore or refute. Wenner now regards Taibbi as “absolutely the first person to come along since Hunter who could be called Hunter’s peer.”26

After Rolling Stone moved to New York City in 1977, Mother Jones became the standard-bearer for San Francisco independent journalism. Its founders—Adam Hochschild, Richard Parker, and Paul Jacobs—were Ramparts veterans, and their premier issue in 1976 won a National Magazine Award. If Rolling Stone inherited Ramparts’ id, Mother Jones has continued its knack for producing big whistleblower stories. In 2012, David Corn reported on GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s closed-door remarks about 47 percent of American voters being overly dependent on the government. That piece drew an awkward apology from Romney and earned Mother Jones the prestigious George Polk Award. Earlier this year, Mother Jones published Shane Bauer’s 35,000-word story about working for a private prison in Louisiana. Its website received two million hits in the first twelve hours, larger outlets picked up the story, and the Department of Justice later announced that it would no longer contract with private prisons.

It is unclear whether or how San Francisco might launch the next literary celebrity. The city today is increasingly dominated by high-tech corporations whose products have shattered the business models for American journalism and publishing. Despite these challenges, San Francisco outlets continue to occupy a distinct niche in today’s media ecology. From the Gold Rush on, the city’s writers have challenged the political and literary status quo with style. Despite his short sojourn in San Francisco, Hunter Thompson occupies a special place in that alternative tradition.

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Poster by Thomas W. Benton, courtesy of Gonzo Gallery.

Notes

1
Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour, Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson (New York: Back Bay Books, 2008), 436.

2
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (New York: Random House, 1972; 2d ed. Vintage Books, 1998), 66.

3
William McKeen, Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), 94.

4
Hunter S. Thompson, The Proud Highway: The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (New York: Villard Books, 1997), 481.

5
Peter Richardson, American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 128.

6
Thompson, The Proud Highway, xxvii.

7
Douglas Brinkley and Terry McDonell, “The Art of Journalism: An Interview with Hunter S. Thompson,” The Paris Review 156 (Fall 2000), http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/619/the-art-of-journalism-no-1-hunter-s-thompson.

8
Thompson, The Proud Highway, 639.

9
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 15.

10
Hunter S. Thompson, Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 78–81.

11
William McKeen, Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), 125.

12
Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, 283.

13
Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, 283.

14
Steadman, The Joke’s Over (Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 2006), 31.

15
Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, 309–10.

16
Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, 319.

17
Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, 320.

18
Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, 325.

19
Thompson, The Proud Highway, 529.

20
McKeen, Outlaw Journalist, 194.

21
Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, 421.

22
Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, 613.

23
Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America, 376.

24
Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, 66–67.

25
Matt Taibbi, “The Great American Bubble Machine,” Rolling Stone, 13 July 2009.

26
Verini, James, “Lost Exile: The Unlikely Life and Sudden Death of The Exile, Russia’s Angriest Newspaper,” Vanity Fair, 24 February 2010. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/02/exile-201002.

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Photograph of Hunter S. Thompson by David Hiser.

Peter Richardson coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs at San Francisco State University. He has written critically acclaimed books about the Grateful Dead, Ramparts magazine, and Carey McWilliams.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Elegy

David L. Ulin

Andrew Molera State Park. I didn’t know it was the almost perfect midpoint of the California coast when I visited in late May 1980. It was also the almost perfect midpoint of my time living by the Bay. Just days before my roommate was due to leave San Francisco and return east, we drove south, through Santa Cruz and Watsonville, to Big Sur to spend a weekend camping at the sea. What we saw first were naked women, two of them, walking the trail back from the beach loose-limbed and jangly, like the beating of my heart. I was eighteen and mostly inexperienced, but I knew enough to look them in the eye. Down at the water’s edge, my roommate suggested we get naked also; the idea made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to say. Instead, I peeled my jeans as if I were shedding skin, averted my gaze as he did the same. Then we smoked a joint and wandered the rocky shore, sporadically crossing paths with other walkers, all of us as bare-assed as if we were newly born. This was not a nude beach, not specifically, although the overall sensibility was When in Rome. I felt titillated but not physically, more in the sense that I was crossing into adulthood…or at least adulthood as I imagined it might be. Later in the afternoon, we stumbled upon a couple having sex behind an outcropping; by then, we had already put our pants back on and were on our way to pitch our tent. I don’t recall much else, just this small sequence of images, all of them taking place over an hour or two between the trailhead and the waves. Oh, and one other thing, one more sensation: that this wasn’t who I was, not quite, not exactly, no matter how I wished it might be so.
Fort Mason. I had a job working for Greenpeace, three evenings a week, canvassing Marin, the East and South Bays, going door to door to ask for funds. The office was in Fort Mason Center, which had only recently been turned over to the National Park Service; before that, it had been an army post, going back to the Civil War. I would take the Fillmore bus, get off in front of Marina Middle School, walk the dozen or so blocks to the office where we would gather like a squadron about to go out on patrol. We would pile into a brown VW bus, listen to the Dead or Public Image Ltd., drive out of the city, stop for dinner, and hit the neighborhoods. The higher end, the better: In Mill Valley once, I was invited into a party, given beer and joints for my fellow canvassers, as well as a $150 check. That was a night’s work, more than one; in certain neighborhoods, I’d be lucky to scrounge up sixty or seventy bucks. Around 8:00 or 8:30, we would meet back at the bus and return to the city where we would add up our donations and cash out. Then I would head into the cool San Francisco night, fog drifting in from the Bay, and wander in great looping arcs from the Marina through Cow Hollow, across Pacific Heights, the Western Addition, Alamo Square, and Hayes Valley, before angling southwest to the Haight. Some evenings I would take Fillmore the whole way, others Divisidero, clinging to the shadows in the darkness like a ghost. What I liked about San Francisco was that it had a history, although I didn’t know it, which left me suspended, in some sense, between the present and the past. That, and the fact that I understood there was no future for me in this place; that like my roommate I, too, would be leaving; that it was unlikely I’d be living here again.

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View from Bernal Hill, San Francisco in the 1980s. Photograph by Mimi Plumb.

Marin Headlands. Earlier that year, perhaps in April, we spent a Saturday afternoon climbing in the Marin Headlands. Was this the same day we went to Green Dragon Temple in Muir Beach for tea and lunch? We did not sit zazen or read the sutras, but I can still see us pull up before the square construction of the zendo, piling out of the car as if the journey was much longer than seventeen miles. For as long as we stayed—an hour? maybe two?—I imagined what it might be like to live here, to stay behind when the car left and shed the concerns and ambitions of the world. Even then, however, I knew that I would never be able to sit still long enough. Maybe this is why we ended up circling back to the Headlands, all that dirt and grass. We spent an hour or two crawling over the concrete batteries dug into the hillsides, the residue of two world wars. And yet, was this so different from where we had just been? No, just another place for turning inward, not toward stillness, silence, but to ourselves, our fantasies. That day, I felt like a ten-year-old again, wanting to fit myself through the narrow gun slits, to sit inside, protected, hidden from the city and its claims. Later, I would read a book, Jim Paul’s Catapult, about two friends who get a grant to build a medieval siege weapon and shoot stones from the Headlands into the sea. In a way, what Paul is describing is its own form of meditation, its own mechanism for stepping outside time. This is how I felt a lot during those months, as if time had slowed or slipped or grown elastic, as if there were time enough at last. That this turned out (how could it not?) to be another illusion is, of course, the point—not just of memory but also of all these sites and artifacts, which I could not, which I still cannot, move beyond.

Old Waldorf. Our first weekend in the city, a group of us took blotter acid, ended up in Golden Gate Park. Many hours later, we crept out of the park and meandered from the Haight through Hayes Valley, the Civic Center, deep into the Financial District, where there was a club on Battery called the Old Waldorf, owned by Bill Graham. Battery, batteries, the city and its defenses, military or cultural, through which time moved as liquid essence…or maybe that was the drugs. We went to the Old Waldorf often, that or the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway, where we heard SVT, Vital Parts, the Dead Kennedys, Jim Carroll Band. We were in the middle, on the seam between two eras, wannabe hippies (we weren’t old enough) lit on fire by punk. My last night in the city, ten weeks after that trip to Andrew Molera State Park, I stood atop the Stockton Street tunnel with my best friend and his girlfriend, smoking cigarettes after one last show. Below us: the crush of Sutter Street, its delis and massage parlors; while up there the three of us, we lingered, shrouded in the fog of leaving, aware that our time had come. Who had we seen that night? It could have been anyone—Jorma, Carroll, even Jerry Garcia who played, when he was in town, once a month in North Beach at the Stone. The next morning, I packed the last few items in my backpack, locked my apartment, and left the keys in the super’s box. The air was chilly, overcast I want to tell you (although that may have been internal weather), and I remember shivering a little as I stepped onto Haight Street and waited for the bus to take me to the Transbay Terminal on Mission and Howard, where I would start my journey home.

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Dogpatch, San Francisco in the 1980s. Photograph by Mimi Plumb.

Sutro Tower. I had a dream once, during the months I lived in San Francisco, of dancing underneath the Sutro Tower, that vast three-pronged transmission standard that overlooks the city from a hill not far from Clarendon Heights. I could feel the buzz of all those broadcasts, all those voices, all that electricity pulsing through my body, lines of energy. The closest I ever came to making something like that happen was one night at Twin Peaks, where a group of us came to drink and get high and dance to the boombox someone brought. The Grateful Dead or the Dead Kennedys, Jerry Garcia or Jello Biafra, Sutro, sutra, Freddie Mercury. When Queen played Oakland in July 1980, the singer came to party in the Castro, just over the hill from where I lived. That summer, everybody looked like Freddy: tight jeans, bandannas folded neatly into rear pockets, close-cropped haircuts, mustaches. “Terminal” was still a word we might use to describe a bus station; it had not yet become a harbinger of fear. A decade afterward, Mercury was dead, like so many of the men in that neighborhood, who I’d encountered on the sidewalks or when I took the bus. I don’t mean to offer up an elegy, but I want to remain clear about what I remember, which is this: I remember something that felt like abandon, the sensation that anything I could imagine might come true. I remember grace, or better yet elevation, from the Headlands to the tunnels to the hills. I remember feeling that time had erased itself even as I understood that time kept passing, that it always would. I remember that as much as I wished otherwise—Green Dragon Temple, Greenpeace, Andrew Molera State Park—I was just a visitor here.

David L. Ulin is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay.

Photography/Art

Becoming Kevin Starr: Images in the Making of California’s Son

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Great-grandfather and great-grandmother of Kevin Starr

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Grandfather and grandmother of Kevin Starr, and father as infant, San Francisco 1918

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Owen Starr and Kevin Starr, San Francisco 1940

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Kevin Starr, 45 Clayton Street, San Francisco 1945

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Kevin Starr, US Army, Germany 1962

kevin-starr-allston-burr-senior-tutor-eliot-house-harvard-university-1972_

Kevin Starr, Allston Burr Senior Tutor, Eliot House, Harvard University, 1972

kevin-starr-wife-sheila-gordon-starr-daughters-marian-and-jessica-san-francisco-1974_

Kevin Starr, wife Sheila Gordon Starr, daughters Marian and Jessica, San Francisco 1974

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Kevin Starr, San Francisco Examiner columnist, 1980

Notes

With special thanks to Sheila Starr, who in incalculable ways has made a profound contribution to our understanding of California, and in memory of a true California son, Kevin Starr (b. 3 September, 1940, San Francisco – d. 14 January, 2017, San Francisco). Requiescat in pace.

Copyright: © 2017 Sheila Starr. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Juvenile in Justice

Richard Ross

Introduction by Danielle Moss

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

The United States is the only country in the world to sentence juveniles to life in prison. A majority of juveniles sentenced to life serve their time in just five states, California among them. While many breakthroughs are still needed, California has begun to right the wrongs it has committed against the state’s most vulnerable population.

In 2014 and 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills that give California inmates who were under the age of twenty-three at the time of their crime and were given a “lengthy or life sentence” a chance for a parole hearing after serving fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years, depending on the length of the original sentence. Parole is not guaranteed, and it is not an option for those sentenced to life without parole, but SB 260 and SB 261, as the bills are known, give youthful offenders hope where none has previously existed. Over 10,000 inmates meet SB 261’s eligibility requirements, meaning that in light of the nature of their crimes, they are not disqualified from receiving a parole hearing.

SB 261 recognizes that, neurobiologically, young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two share more characteristics with teenagers than they do with adults. In terms of judgment and impulsivity, the young brain simply hasn’t had enough time to fully develop.

“If you take a fully mature adult and a friend says, ‘let’s go rob a 7/11,’ an adult is more likely to recognize that if you have guns when you do that, something even worse than the robbery is likely to happen,” said Elizabeth Calvin, senior advocate of the Children’s Rights Division. A juvenile is “less able to think into the future and recognize that A plus B will equal C in all likelihood.”

SB 261 ensures that people who were younger when committing serious crimes have possibilities more closely aligned with juvenile justice concerns, giving them more opportunities to earn their way home if they can demonstrate they are no longer a public danger. More than that, Scott Budnick, founder and president of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, explained that the bill exists to give hope to people who come from hopeless environments. These inmates “think they have no chance of ever regaining their freedom; then all of a sudden a light turns on and they have a chance at parole,” Budnick continued.

According to Calvin, it is impossible to know who a sixteen-year-old person is going to be twenty, thirty, or especially sixty years from now. So to give them a life sentence, this final, irrevocable punishment, “it makes no sense,” she said. At its heart, SB 261 requires the parole board to give great weight to the fact that these people were very young when they committed their crimes. At its essence, this bill requires the board to say, “Let’s see who you are now,” rather than “This is who you’ll be forever.” In no way does SB 261 alleviate responsibility for criminal actions; it simply recognizes that due to where they were developmentally, they had diminished culpability in comparison to fully developed adults, Calvin explained.

In passing SB 260 and later SB 261, California has taken great strides toward improving the criminal justice system. Still, America’s prison system is incomparable to any other penal system in the world, so we must not idle.

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Moving forward, the Public Safety and Reform Initiative, which can be found on the November 2016 ballot as Proposition 57, will build on the victory of SB 261. This measure will change the process for how kids under the age of eighteen are tried in the adult system. Currently, California is one of fifteen states that grant prosecutors, rather than judges, the authority to file a child’s case directly into the adult system. Prosecutors must make their decisions within 48 hours of the crime, typically without having considered any school reports, any psychological disabilities the child may have, or what their home life is like—really, without any analytical information whatsoever.

Conversely, if a judge were making the decision—”the single most important decision the state can make in a child’s life,” Calvin called it—the judge could consider all aspects of the case in order to make an informed decision. “It’s not hyperbole to say that when we throw kids into the adult system, we’re giving up on them.” These decisions must be made with the utmost care.

“At its essence, these initiatives are about how we treat children and young adults,” Calvin said, and so far, our treatment should be viewed as failure. These laws are about recognizing that we, as a society, have been neglecting our responsibility to take care of young people. While we cannot lose sight of how monumental our failure has been, now it is time to focus on what needs to happen next, because more can always be done.

The following photographs from photographer Richard Ross’s widely hailed Juvenile in Justiceproject documents men and women in California’s prisons who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed as children.

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Kimberly Gutierrez, age 28. “Our victim was a man. Just a careless act. I had a gun because I ran on the streets. I felt safe with a gun. The man didn’t do anything to merit his life being taken. I was angry. . . I want to be a woman and stop acting like an animal. I am sincere about the changes I want to make and not just saying it because it is expected.”

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David Kuns, age 54. “Did my crime at 17, was incarcerated at 19. Murder.”

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Frank Barker, age 47. “I was 16 when I committed a murder. . . They tried to give me the death penalty so they pushed it over to adult charges. I got 15 to life. I have had two parole hearings. Last time I got seven-year denial for lack of parole plans. . . I have been clean and in programs since—for the last 21 years, I’ve had no write ups.”

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Raylene Brooks, age 44. “I was incarcerated since I was 17. I was in CYA [California Youth Authority] until I was 25 and then here on my 25th birthday. . . I came here from South Central LA. I have two life sentences. . . For those who want to improve themselves we have the luxury of all that here. . . not on the streets. These groups are not the normal for me. In South Central LA the norm is you just survive. Improvement is not an option.”

Luis.

Luis.

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Niki Martinez, age 38 Illinois.

Photography/Art

A Vast Strangeness

text and photographs by Josef Jacques

Prisons invading California

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

The United States imprisons nearly 2.2 million people; we have the largest incarcerated population in the world. If California were a country, it would have the world’s fourth highest incarceration rate. A study from The Hamilton Project recently noted that in 2010 the United States spent $80 billion at the federal, state, and local levels to keep people incarcerated. In 2015 at the state level alone, California spent $10.7 billion on corrections and rehabilitation.

At any given time, roughly 240,000 people are incarcerated within California’s borders. Around 160,000 of these have been confined in long-term imprisonment. In addition to nearly 6,000 state prisoners housed in Arizona and Mississippi, on proper California soil there are 35 adult and 4 juvenile state prisons; 10 federal prisons; 6 US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers; 18 private detention centers run by the Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the Florida-based GEO Group; and 124 county jails. Each of California’s fifty-eight counties also runs its own juvenile hall.

These places of imprisonment are scattered throughout the state with a large concentration in the great Central Valley. Many are clustered menacingly along the spine of the San Andreas fault in a region pejoratively called “prison alley.”

This series of photographs illustrates both the scale and the vast strangeness of California’s Prison Industrial Complex. The prisons are photographed at night from a distance so that the lights from the prison illuminate the landscape. The light that controls the prison population stands as an indicator of state control. The visual effect references the images from the test sites of nuclear bombs, an enormous display of technocratic power reflecting a truly destructive invasion into otherwise peaceful pastoral settings.

California Men’s Colony, San Luis Obispo.

Deuel Vocational Facility, Tracy.

Golden State Modified Correctional Facility, McFarland.

Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran.

Wasco State Prison-Reception Center, Wasco.

High Desert State Prison, Susanville.

Folsom State Prison, Sacramento.

Valley State Prison and Central California Women’s Facility, Chowchilla.

California Health Care Facility, Stockton.

Photography/Art

Imperial Landscapes

by Noé Montes

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Editor’s note: Photographer Noé Montes knows the Imperial Valley of California as few do. His long relationship with the land began in childhood, first taking it in through the car window as his family looked for work in the fields of the vast valley bordering Mexico south of the Salton Sea. In his twenties, Montes crisscrossed the valley when he worked as a farm equipment repair technician.

Though possessed by a desire to photograph the Imperial Valley since he first learned to use a camera, Montes hadn’t acted on that desire until recently. Last year, with a journalism fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, he began a project to document the valley’s landscapes and people. He continued that work in this photo essay for Boom.

Montes sees the valley’s spare environment as not just aesthetically compelling, but also saturated with meaning—meaning that has changed over time, and that continues to change as California agricultural changes.

“I thought about the pictures I would make here for many, many years,” he says. “I am, of course, seeing the same things that have always been there, but these things are now imbued with much more history and meaning. They speak to me now of systemic, historic, abuse of power.”

The Imperial Valley “is very rich in resources, but the people who live there are almost all very poor,” Montes says. “This needs to change.”