NICKELS AND DIMES
“Fixin’ To Die.” “Bury My Body.” “Yer Blues.” “Roberta.” “Heart-break Hotel.” “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” “The Teenage Death Blues.” This was my repertoire and my specialty. I was out on the wharf, singing at the top of my voice, fading away into it. I heard a jangle or two and opened my eyes. Someone had tossed a quarter in my open guitar case, as they walked past, without slowing down. Tourists in white shoes and flowered shirts passed, staring at me as if I were standing out there in my underwear. A couple of teenage girls stopped, listened, took my picture. I started putting on a little more of a show, making eye contact, bobbin’ and weavin’ to the music. Then their parents caught up, and they split, off together for a quaint family bowl of chowder in one of the dockside cafes.
I was about a minute into “Highway 51 Blues” when I noticed a strange figure standing off to the side, a Caucasian male, 30 some years old, sideburns, with mirrored shades, dressed head to toe in black leather, wearing high boots, and a big leather hat. He looked like a combination of Bo Diddley and Lee Marvin. He had a big, beat up hardshell guitar case that he was sort of leanin’ ‘gainst as he listensed. After a song or two, when no one else was around and I was taking a break, he stepped forward, shook my hand, and spoke with a very gruff voice.
“Hey man, sounds good. I like what you’re doing. You could be the singer in my band.”
This guy seemed like a complete outlaw. I got a little nervous. “What’s your band?”
“We’re called Loose Gravel. It’s rock and roll, and blues. We play a lot of biker parties and stuff. The way you sing, you’d fit right in. I’ve got a lot of gigs but my singer split. C’mon, pack your stuff, man, I’ll buy you a drink and tell you all about it.”
I packed up, and we set off down the wharf. A block or so down on the right there was a big sorta funky bar, and we went in. He ordered a pint of dark beer, and I ordered the same, but the bartender demanded to see my ID. I handed him my New York State driver’s license, and he shook his head: “Sorry pal, you gotta be 21 here.” First I ever heard about it. It was 18 in New York. “You’re in California now.”
The guy finished his beer while I sat there. He said “Sorry man, the places I play, you gotta be 21. I thought you were older.”
What a drag. I only gave a shit for a minute or two. I wasn’t expecting anything. He gave me a little of his story: his name was Mike Wilhelm. He’d started the Charlatans. I knew about them, a legendary group, the first SF psychedelic band. They were famous.
The bartender shouted over at us: “Hey bub, you can stay and drink, but the kid’s gotta go. It’s the law. Bye bye, sonny.” We cleared out, started walking towards North Beach, about a 20 minute jaunt. We trundled past the park, hung a left, continued up to Grant Ave. and turned right. Wilhelm kept yakkin’ the whole time in his hoarse rasp… “haw haw haw”… the inside story of rock and roll.
On the corner of Grant Avenue and Green Street, a large crowd was gathered. There was a big game of coin toss goin’ on, against the outside wall of a liquor store. The crowd on the corner was rowdy and spilled over into the street. The contestants were hipsters, winos, and street people, plenty of full time professional alcoholics, and from the looks of it, they’d really been getting the job done. There was a row of quarters that had been tossed up along where the sidewalk met the wall. A lot of the coins were within a few inches. One guy was the self-made “master of ceremonies,” officiating and trying to get some passerby into the game, which would raise the stakes. There was really a high level of excitement going on, and some people seemed to have a lot riding on it. One beat-up looking dude, in flip-flops and jeans with his shirt hanging out stepped up, and with his toss leaned his quarter up against the wall, taking the pot. Must be all of five bucks. The crowd erupted in cheers and loud arguments, as the winner headed into the store for his prize.
We kept going, arrived at the Coffee Gallery and went inside. Wilhelm was going to be playing there in an hour or so. I got a beer. Nobody was asking for any ID in this joint. The juke box was blaring an Allman Brothers track. I checked out the room. The bar was crowded, even though it was mid-afternoon, full of people talking loud and drinking pints.
I looked at Mike Wilhelm and nodded towards a man at the corner of the bar, wrapped in a Mexican poncho, his afro hair leaning down, with little bits of things in it. He was intently writing, on a napkin, with shaky hands. “Oh, that’s Bob Kaufman, the poet, man” said Wilhelm, lowering his voice for once. “He’s a great writer, man, but he never talks.”
Mike got up and played an hour or so later, with a bass player and drummer, for some kind of afternoon session that they had scheduled there. He pulled a Gretsch electric out of the case, plugged into an amp on stage and starts rockin’ a song called “Styrofoam”: “LA Lady lives in a home, made entirely of Styrofoam!” He wore a pick on his right hand, playing bass, rhythm, and lead at the same time, using the thumb and fingers, playing loud and hard, and the audience ate it up, yelling drunkenly. Somebody threw a glass ashtray which shattered on the stage, but you couldn’t see where it came from in the darkened room.
That’s when I had a feeling, it was almost like a vision, that somehow, if I really practiced hard and played right, if everything fell together, I, too, might be able to play the Coffee Gallery in North Beach, someday, just like Wilhelm.
I knew I wasn’t ready yet.