Remembering Santa Rosa

I recently repatriated from northern California back to Portland. I spent the past twenty-plus years in Santa Rosa, the heart of Sonoma Wine Country. Residing there one becomes accustomed to ever-moving ground and resultant cracked walls and stuck and then unstuck doors. Once a diverse agricultural area, while I was there, Gravenstein apples, hops, prunes and other crops were replaced with vineyards. Nearly every bare patch of ground was planted with wine grapes. Santa Rosa was the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s murder-suspense “Shadow of a Doubt.” The artist Christo brought notoriety to Sonoma County in the sixties with his “Running Fence.” Every spring, the Rose Parade, smaller scale than Portland’s Rose Festival, brings out thousands of spectators.

When I became a full-time resident, the city’s population was about 125,000; it was about 175,000 when I left last year. What the population is today is a guess; three thousand homes have been destroyed by fire, including the affluent

Fountain Grove Inn – before
Fountain Grove Inn – after

Fountain Grove neighborhood and the working class Coffey Park area. The Fountain Grove homeowners have the means to be okay sooner than the residents of Coffey Park, many of them renters. Businesses, Trader Joe’s, the Hilton Hotel, K-Mart and dozens more have been destroyed. Chateau St. Jean and Paradise Ridge Wineries are no more; other wineries suffered significant damage. The home of “Peanuts” creator, Charles Schulz burned to the ground. (His widow Jean had been evacuated.) The Charles M. Schulz Museum and adjacent Snoopy’s Ice Rink areunscathed so far. Celebrity chef Guy Fieri, whose Santa Rosa home still stands, recruited volunteers and suppliers for outdoor grilling near the fairgrounds to feed first responders and those who suddenly became homeless.

This is Santa Rosa’s worst disaster since 1906. The epicenter of the San Francisco Earthquake was a couple miles west of Santa Rosa. With about 7,000 residents at the time, Santa Rosa suffered, per capita, greater damage and loss of life than the big city fifty miles south.

Santa Rosa, in transition from small agricultural town to Wine Country destination during my time there, will survive and rebuild, but the scars and pain will last a long time.

Sonny Boy 1 & Sonny Boy 2… and Randy Newman

Amongst the detritus of my youth is a vinyl LP “Sonny Boy Williamson & the Yardbirds.” The album was released in 1966, to capitalize on the growing fame of the British group. It is a recording of a 1963 concert with the Yardbirds backing U.S. blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson. Eighteen-year-old guitar novice Eric Clapton is in the band. The Yardbirds are remembered as a training program for rock guitar wizards. Jeff Beck replaced Clapton and Jimmy Page replaced Beck. (Page achieved greater fame with Led Zeppelin, the band that set the standard for rock ‘n’ roll debauchery.)

Rice Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson

Sonny Boy Williamson was born in Mississippi in 1899… or 1909… or maybe 1897. His given name was Aleck… or Alex… or Rice – which might have been a nickname – Miller… or Ford. In the 1930s he was traveling the Delta, performing under the name Little Boy Blue. In the 1940s he became a star on the King Biscuit Time radio show. The sponsor felt they could sell more King Biscuit Flour if their star had a better-known name. Rice Miller took the persona of the late blues singer and harmonica virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson. There was no Facebook or Twitter to tell radio listeners of the ruse.

John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson

John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, born in Tennessee in 1914, was younger than his impersonator. He learned his trade in the Delta before moving north to Chicago. His RCA recordings and live performances were hugely influential in the Chicago blues scene and beyond. Muddy Waters and Little Walter were among his acolytes. In 1948, walking home after a performance in Chicago, Williamson was shot to death in a robbery. Rice Miller soon was claiming to be “the original Sonny Boy.”

Which brings us to Randy Newman. Many know Newman as the composer of musical soundtracks for “Toy Story” and other motion pictures. He is also the creator of acerbic and often misinterpreted songs satirizing prejudice (“Sail Away”, “Rednecks”, “Short People”), self-absorbed yuppies (“I Love L.A.”), and nuclear holocaust (“Political Science”) among other topics. He can also convey heart-breaking empathy. (“Louisiana 1927”) Newman’s just-released new album “Dark Matter” includes the song “Sonny Boy,” wherein the original Sonny Boy Williamson – “the only blues man in heaven” – vents his resentment about having his name and career stolen.

My Summer of Love – Part 2

Port Authority Bus Station

After a week at Canada’s centennial celebration, Expo 67, immersed in the sixties’ version of the future, I rode the Greyhound to New York City. My seatmate was a lady who said she was escaping from Montreal after a summer of tourist congestion. She also complained about the fair’s cost to the city.

The Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan was impressive with its several stories of ramps with buses arriving and departing. I found the bus to Staten Island and a couple hours later knocked on the front door of the home of my father’s World War II, fellow B-29 crewmember. His family put me up for the night. He, along with his teenage son, took me on a brief tour of the city, the highlight being Nathan’s Famous at Coney Island. A hot dog was a dime, a beer was a nickel – consumed standing up outside – and the drinking age at that time in New York was eighteen.

I met up with Vince the next day. We rented a room at the Sloane House Y.M.C.A. on 34th street, near Pennsylvania Station. A room with two beds, bath down the hall and towels included, was $5.20 a night.. We visited a saloon, sat at the bar, feeling sophisticated with our drinks and a complimentary bowl of pretzels in front of us. One visit and one drink was our financial limit. Pushcart hot dogs provided our daily sustenance.

My father’s buddy worked as a cameraman for the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He arranged tickets for Vince and me a couple days later. My one regret of that trip has stayed with me. Martha and the Vandellas were headlining at the Apollo Theater. People convinced us that two white boys would not be safe in Harlem after dark. Newark and Detroit had suffered rioting earlier that summer. Harlem had its violence three years before, in 1964. I will never know if we did the right thing; Martha and the Vandellas at the Apollo would have been memorable, though, I am sure.

We spent much of our time in Greenwich Village. Music clubs there admitted all ages, no alcohol served. Admission to a name act was $2.50 plus a one-drink minimum. A soft drink cost $1.50, an inconceivable amount. For the buck-and-a-half one was brought a vat of Coke.

The Bitter End featured a British singer who had recently left a popular band and as a solo performer had a hit record that summer: “Brown Eyed Girl.” Vince and I and maybe two-dozen others were entertained by Van Morrison, accompanying himself with guitar and backed by a bass-guitar player and a drummer. During one number with an extended “psychedelic” instrumental break, several in the audience left.

Another night we visited the Café Au Go Go, where the Blues Project gave what was announced as their final performance. The opening act was a folk duo, the Times Square Two, whose lead singer repeatedly told us he didn’t give a rat’s ass whether we liked them or not. For some reason, they never made it big. During the Blues Project’s set, they announced that a couple of its members were forming a new band, rock ‘n’ roll with horns. Al Kooper and Steve Katz went on to found Blood Sweat & Tears.

We also took the Circle Line boat tour around Manhattan Island. The tour guide addressed the perception that New York in the sixties was not safe. He opined that yes there were places best avoided at certain times, but a good rule to follow is “Stay where the people are.” That principle has served me well in the decades since.

We were given seats, not together, on our flight home with a stop in Chicago. The gate agent reminded us we were flying standby, the flights were full and do not get off the plane in Chicago; we could lose our seats. We didn’t and made it back home in time to resume college life.

My Summer of Love – Part 1

As winter transitioned to spring during my first year at Gonzaga University, a dormitory neighbor who knew about everything that was cool, told me about a music festival planned for Monterey California that summer. The lineup of performers convinced me I needed to go. First I needed to find where was Monterey and how to get there. Reality interfered with my plans, however.

The Monterey Pop Festival took place in the middle of June, too soon to earn enough from a summer job to pay for the trip and accumulate some money for the fall semester. Also, the chances a summer employer would hire me and agree to my taking a week off right away were pretty close to – if not exactly – zero. I decided my best plan would be to use the summer’s earnings to buy a car. That plan lasted until I heard about Expo 67 in Montreal, commemorating Canada’s centennial. And why not visit New York City, too? It’s right on the way. Well, sort of.

I put aside $300 from my summer job for the trip. Airlines at that time, attempting to build lifetime customer loyalty with baby boomers, offered half-price stand-by fares for travelers between ages twelve and twenty-one. Round-trip Portland to New York City cost $150, leaving $150 for food, lodging and entertainment. Vince Chiotti (pronounced Quixote), a friend since grade school, said it sounded like fun.

We made the standby flight to Kennedy airport with no problem. We accepted an offer to share a cab with a couple. They got off at their destination, paid their fare, and we continued on our way. We became concerned and then worried as we watched the taxi’s meter spin. The driver graciously let us out near a subway stop. As we tried to figure out how to navigate the subway, we also realized the taxi driver had not reset the meter when the first passengers got out, thus collecting twice for the first part of the trip.

The next morning we boarded a Greyhound for Montreal. We arrived late afternoon with no idea about where to find inexpensive – make that cheap – lodging in the last week of August in the city hosting a world’s fair. We wandered about, asking strangers for suggestions. We were seriously considering spending the night in a nearby park, when someone suggested we check out an old convent/school that had been converted to a hostel.

Rooms rented for six dollars a night. For a dollar, a male person could have a bed on the fourth floor. The top floor of the building was filled with bunk beds constructed of unfinished lumber. We paid for two nights. Very shortly after claiming our beds, we determined that there was no system to keep track of who was there and who had paid. We stayed a week. Several Canadians tried to convince us that Toronto was a good place for draft-age Americans to move to.

There were no showers on the fourth floor. Dormitory guests went down to the second floor – no elevator – to bathe. For a fifty-cent fee, plus a twenty-five-cent deposit, a person could rent a towel. We kept our eyes out for towels discarded by other guests, presumably wealthy guests, by our standards anyway. We redeemed enough towels to recoup our lodging expense.

United States pavilion

Expo 67’s theme was “Man and His World,” probably not a slogan that would be used today. The United States and Russia competed for the most grandiose pavilion and chest-pounding exhibits. The U.S. drew Vietnam War protesters, The U.S.S.R. celebrated fifty years since overthrowing the czars. While waiting in line for one exhibit, I munched on a candy bar. I walked over to deposit the wrapper into a trash receptacle and returned to the line. A young worker, carrying a broom and long-handled dustpan, came up and told me not to do that. If people threw their rubbish into the container instead of the floor, he said there would be no job for him.

Most everything was posted in English and French. Wandering around in a Franco-dominated neighborhood, we saw no English, giving me the opportunity to test my high-school French. We also saw “Vive le Quebec libre” graffiti.

Habitat 67 – factory-built units assembled on site

Expo 67 was endlessly interesting and offered enough food from carts for penurious young tourists more interested in cheap than healthy eating. The fair’s amusement-park section, La Ronde, is today a Six Flags park. Our tour of the Canadian pavilion ended at the British Columbia exhibit. Somehow they had brought in pine trees with scents reminding us of home in the Pacific Northwest.

We split up leaving Montreal, Vince to Ithaca to visit an uncle, me to Staten Island where a WWII friend of my father lived. Before boarding, the passengers carried their luggage to a baggage handler. When I made it to the front of the line, he reached around me and my duffel to take other passenger’s bags. I realized the others had the bag in one hand and a quarter in the other. I dug into my pocket was on my way to New York City. Vince and I would meet up in a couple days.

Keeping Portlandia Weird?

Portland’s version of the World Naked Bike Ride took to the streets a recent evening. Ten-thousand riders wearing shoes and helmets gathered at Fernhill Park in northeast Portland, two blocks from where I grew up  to begin the procession.

You may or may not believe Seattle’s claim that the World Naked Bike Ride was inspired by the Fremont Solstice Naked Bike Ride. Unclothed bike riders have long been a featured attraction of the annual solstice parade in the Fremont neighborhood. The event has morphed into the Fremont Solstice Parade and Painted Bike Ride. Most participants are naked or painted or both.

Portland’s bike-sharing Biketown (sponsored by the swoosh people) offered free use of their bicycles for the event with disposable seat covers included.

Johnson’s Beach

The spectacle’s purported purpose is “a protest against dependency on fossil fuels and for bike safety and body positivity.” The latter recalls the Russian River Blues Festival at Johnson’s Beach in Guerneville California. The festival was for many years a sibling bonding experience for my sister and me. Before transforming itself a few years ago into a more upscale “Jazz & Blues” fest in September, the festival took place in mid-June, usually very warm, even hot. The cynical part of me suggested there be color-coded wrist bands for the event, the color indicating how much skin a person would be allowed to expose… for the sake of other attendees, “body positivity” doesn’t have to mean uncovered.

If you can stand it, click here for uncensored photos from this year’s Naked Bike ride.

The Short Life and Death of Disco

If you’ve had your fill of slavering or revisionist fifty-year-anniversary reviews of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, then advance a decade and reminisce about the seventies. “Saturday Night Fever” hit the movie theatres nearly forty years ago, in late 1977. Produced for an estimated $3 million, within a year it grossed more than $125 million. (These days, John Travolta commands a salary estimated at $20 million per movie.) The soundtrack album, featuring the Australian Gibb brothers – The Bee Gees – sold 25 million copies.

The movie was based on what may or may not have been a factual article in New York magazine, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night.”  Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, had ambitions to move beyond the narrow confines of a working-class Brooklyn dance hall and move across the East River for a richer life in Manhattan. Ironically, millions of moviegoers wanted to be like the Brooklyn Tony.

Disco music, which had been bubbling under the surface of mainstream pop music but gaining fans, suddenly became huge, the predominate genre on AM radio. Although big names ranging from Diana Ross to Blondie to the Rolling Stones released disco-styled songs, a backlash came from rock ‘n’ roll purists as well as those who identified the dance music with gays and blacks.

Disco music officially died at Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979. A double-header between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers was promoted as “Disco Demolition Night.” Between games, a box of disco records contributed by fans was blown up on the field. The promotion filled the stadium and ended in a riot. Flying vinyl discs filled the air, fans ran on to the field and the White Sox forfeited the game.