‘Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone…’
I was living in San Francisco’s North Beach, and on my spot in front of the Swiss American Hotel one night in 1973, playing the 13th Floor Elevators song ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me, ‘ when I noticed this skinny white guy, about my age, leaning against the no parking sign, smoking a cigarette, watching me. He had short curly hair, wore old blue jeans, white deck sneakers, and a blue/green wooly sweater. At first look, he didn’t really fit in with the scruffy Broadway outlaw scene. I watched as he walked off, and I saw when he came back later, with a big German Shepherd on a short leash, and stopped to listen again.
The next evening he passed by, walking, with a pretty, long haired woman, up a few doors to the Condor Club. She was wearing the full length type of overcoat that all the Condor dancers favored wearing to and from work, and after she pushed through the curtains and disappeared into the club, the guy came back, and listened to me play some more. He was definitely checking me out.
I took a break, bummed a smoke, and started talking to him. He loved Roky Erikson’s wild harp on the end of ‘Miss Me.’ I was surprised he knew Roky’s name. Me & Johnny had been the worlds prime interpreters of the Elevator’s music, we played their songs every night, and talked about them endlessly. Anyhow, the guy said his name was Jack, that he was a songwriter, came from Alaska, and dug the music I was doing. He was putting a band together. I went back and picked up my guitar and played ‘Friday On My Mind,’ ‘Secret Weapon’ and ‘Sunnyland Moan,” and made a couple bucks.
He asked me ‘How much, on the average, do you make out here a night?’ and I lied and said ‘ fifty bucks.’ He lied and said ‘I’ll pay you double that if you join my band,’ and that was the beginning of it.
He invited me up the street with him, to share a joint.
Sure. I packed up my Yamaki and we headed up Broadway past the strip clubs, to Stockton Street. We took a right and walked another half block, up to where a white Ford Country Squire wagon was parked on the curb. He unlocked it, we got in, he lit up and we smoked.
I got real high. Maybe ’cause I hadn’t eaten all day, but as we were sitting there watching the traffic on the street, I felt like an alien, the SF street so foreign, the light, the sky, the pigeons, all seemed so chaotic. Life is so strange.
‘How you gonna make it?’ he asked me.
A deep question. I felt like I was in the bottom of a hole the size of the Grand Canyon, and Jack had leaned over and yelled it down to me from a great height.
‘Huh? What do you mean, make it? I am making it’ I answered.
‘No, how are you going to make it in music? You know, make records, get famous and rich… play concerts around the world? You know what I mean. How are you going to make it?’
I’d never thought of that before, it had never even occurred to me as a serious subject. I was playing music for a living already, wasn’t I? I mean, vaguely, as something that could happen in the distant future, a big career in rock and roll? Maybe. Derek and I had talked about it, but had never got anywhere. Johnny was running from the law, so he wasn’t interested. I had kinda figured I wanted to be like my heroes, a nomadic blues singer, or some kind of wandering minstrel.
I had nothing to say for myself.
Jack asked if he could borrow the guitar so I got it out and passed it to him, and he started to sing, sitting right there, all cramped behind the steering wheel, turned my way. It was a loud fast one, that he’d written himself, and his face turned crimson as he sang. ‘Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone! Don’t leave me hangin’ on the telephone!.’
Impressive. But I wasn’t really moved. So he played another one, and turned an even brighter shade of red. This one was ‘I’m a new man living in wide world! I’m a new man, living in a wide world.’ It had a driving beat and a great melody. I got caught on the hook. This one got me. A wide world, that was my dream. Starting a new life, a million miles away from my past. Yes.
I told him I’d think about it.
He split, and I walked the streets of North Beach. Man, I had better get busy.
By the next time we ran into each other on Broadway, Jack had worked up a secret plan to make it to the top. His ideas and enthusiasm were charismatic. At least I thought so. Soon I began to see a lot people weren’t so taken with him. He talked fast, with a sort of Northwestern twang, and it was obvious to me, he was going to make a dent in the wall of the worlds indifference. He was a couple years older than me, and though he seemed to have come up on the outside of life like I did, he was ahead of me in a lot of ways. He was his own Lennon, McCartney, and Brian Epstein all boiled into one dreaming loudmouth!
‘We’ll make it right off the street! San Francisco is our Liverpool. This street music scene will be our cavern club. We’ll use amps, man, battrey operated. Pat’s got one, a Mike Matthews Freedom Amp! We can take the whole band out to where the people are. Play outside on the Wharf during lunch hours. School kids and secretaries will come out, it’ll be a sensation, we’ll cause riots. Herb Caen will have to cover it. But the whole thing has to be undeniable! The songs, the guitars, the clothes, it all has to be right, powerful.’
There was a big street music thing going on in San Francisco. And if the songs were great, when you really thought about it, with a little imagination, it did seem possible.
He wanted the band to wear short hair, long hair was hippie, old style. He said the electric guitar should sound like a saxophone, he was tired of all the guitar noodling that was in vogue in 70’s ‘progressive’ rock. He hated hard rock, heavy metal, and progressive, and he mocked it all.
‘Music’s been dead since the 60’s, but it comes back again every ten years,’ he said.
I wasn’t so sure. He challenged me.
“What’s any good. then?”
“The Stone’s Exile” I answered. “The Band, Bob Dylan, blues.”
‘The Stones were great when they had Brian Jones, man, and when Jagger and Richards were still writing great songs. They’re past it! That blues stuff is tired, man, it’s been done.”
He wouldn’t discuss those other guys, still, there was something about what he was saying. I was intrigued, this was the invitation to an adventure. And he was by far the most talented songwriter I’d met in California so far. There was some real magic in those tunes, something I knew was hard to come by.
The first Nerves rehearsal was a gas, more like a party. It was in someone’s apartment on Sutter Street. Pat Speed, the rush freak, was there to blow harp, and Sitka Pat, the street musician that frequently played out in front of the Swiss, played lead guitar. It turned out he had grown up with Jack in Alaska. An old black blues singer named Koko made the scene. He always played a harmonica taped to the broomhandle neck of a washtub bass that he thumped in crazy rockin’ jump time. Koko was a big drinker, had lost all his teeth, and sounded like Sonny Boy Williamson. I think Rush invited him, Guitar Pat invited Rush. Jack invited me, though it wasn’t clear what my role was supposed to be. i didn’t have an electric guitar or amp, just my Yamaki. Jack wanted me there, so I went, ’cause I was curious, drawn… this band thing was fascinating in it’s possibilities. I pulled it out and rocked along in another dimension.
Jack and Sitka Pat got their arrangement of Hanging On The Telephone down, while Pat Speed vibrated, twitched, commented through his high velocity mustache, and generally irritated Jack, every so often even blowing a little harp. Koko rocked, drank wine, and his speech got more and more unintelligible, his patois was so thick in the first place, and after awhile no one could understand a word he said but Pat Speed, who held great lively conversations with him.
The next session was across the bay, in a black residential neighborhood on the Oakland/ Berkeley line. WE met in the garage behind the house of the drummer Bobby Freeman’s Condor Club band. he was a great drummer, but he’d never played anything like ‘Hangin’ On the Telephone.’ This was the first day of the new dispensation, the first blast of the new music that would be coming from everywhere in a few years. Something new was being born that day in that garage.
We were all smoked up to the moon. Jack was on bass, Sitka Pat played loud electric lead through the Matthews amp. Pat Speed was nowhere to be seen, guess he hadn’t made the cut. I banged on the acoustic, and played percussion, and as the day went on, the session got more intense.
Jack sat in a chair facing the drummer and shouting at him, trying to get this guy who was used to 50’s R&B and strip house show band rock grooves, to play a fast and driving straight eighth note groove, without fills, or anything fancy. Everytime the guy tried to tart it up, Jack yelled over the electric blare. It was ‘yeah… yeah…. YEAH! … NO! on and on. Jack turned red and the whole thing kept going.
It was the assault of the new: loud, driving, a catchy song, but intense and screaming. Nothing had ever sounded like this.
I knew it was great, that I was the witness at a birth, and I was bored at the same time. I saw it was Jack’s scene, he didn’t care what anyone else did or thought. I got restless and went outside, looking around the area for something to do, while I waited for a ride back to the city with Pat and Jack. I played my guitar. I was still looking for it.