The Bay Area had several notable newspapers that thrived during the Sixties, offering an alternative to the standard-issue local rags. They reflected the opinions and perspectives of the counterculture. The Berkeley Barb was founded in 1965 by Max Scherr, the owner of a popular bar, the Steppenwolf. It featured on its masthead an image of Don Quixote on his horse, lance pointed to attack the Establishment. The Barb started out as mostly radical political commentary on all manner of subjects. It was widely read and discussed, and served as a focal point for alternative views of the political situation. It had columns on sex advice, information about drug busts and largely, anti-Vietnam War news.
Over the years, the Barb began carrying ads of sex workers, and it gradually reached the point where one-third of the newspaper featured sex ads. The whole tone of the paper changed, and it lost much of its original counterculture readership.
The City of San Francisco Oracle was a lavish news magazine that was published from 1966 to 1968. It was the news outlet of the Haight-Ashbury. The Oracle had a spiritual and psychedelic attitude that reflected the hippie community. Zen philosopher Allen Watts was a major contributor. Works of beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were published, as well as notable psychedelic artists such as Rick Griffin. Each issue was a work of art. Ultimately, it only published twelve issues.
The new publication out of San Francisco that took the deepest root was Rolling Stone. It was largely devoted to music, but also featured some political commentary At first it was read and appreciated by the counterculture alone. We gleefully absorbed each new issue, celebrating that a magazine reflecting our musical interests now existed. Printed on the masthead of each issue was, “We believe in the Cosmic Giggle.”
Publisher Jann Wenner wrote in the first edition of Rolling Stone on November 9, 1967 “You’re probably wondering what we are trying to do. It’s hard to say: sort of a magazine and sort of a newspaper. The name of it is Rolling Stone, which comes from an old saying: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” The name had a hoary musical history. Muddy Waters had written a song about a rolling stone, from which the Rolling Stones took their name. “Like a Rolling Stone” was Bob Dylan’s first song featuring electric instruments.
Ben Fong-Torres, long-time writer for Rolling Stone told me, “Jann was in an area where he was a music fan. He saw that there were teen magazines, there were Hit Parade and song hits magazines and otherwise there was a void. He decided, ‘Maybe it is time for a more serious, interesting, wider-ranging publication covering what I am perceiving to be exploding all around me. And since there’s nothing like that, I will create one.’ He created something that had not existed before, and therefore had either a different set of rules or no rules. The fact is there were rules.
“Jann, although he came into an arena where Rolling Stone was often compared to the underground press was, in fact, an entrepeneur. He was a business person with a vision. He was not there to put out a free newspaper. He was not there to collect a commune of like spirits who would put together this rock magazine. He was there to basically create a business, and beyond that an empire, ultimately. That was his goal. But for us coming in, from wherever we came, this was such a refreshing different new voice that we just basked in it.
“I came in still pretty fresh out of college. I had run the school paper there and so I had a little professional experience, and a lot of passion for radio and music. Even though I hadn’t had any experience at some Establishment newspaper I just knew by the surroundings, by the environment, that we were in a different world. Here we were in this little rent-free office in an upstairs loft in the South of Market area on Brannan St. All the people around me — and there weren’t all that many to begin with; we had a staff of maybe about six people — were a whole different looking group of people. They were the longhairs and young and hip and vibrant, and just curious about the scene around us. What made us curious is what we would write about. And it had instant popularity because it was the only game in town.”
“Because of that, rock bands, artists, musicians from other areas that we were interested in, country, blues, jazz, folk, would be delighted to be able to be in the magazine. There was total cooperation. We didn’t necessarily ask for things like an exclusivity — that wasn’t even part of the vocabulary because there was no one else over whom to try to get a story. It was a different time that will probably never happen again. There were all these different terms people had to dig up about the history of newspapers to try to figure out what Rolling Stone was, because it looked and felt like nothing that had come before it. The first few issues did not feature a cover. It was just page one folded over. It only had three colors at first. So to be up there in the national magazine racks looking so odd threw the magazine Establishment for loops. It got a lot of attention. “
“We knew the basic rules and tenets of journalism, and of course that made way for the stylists, the ones who were more idiosyncratic and more the rebels. Just for something different and more fun Jann Wenner would bring in record reviewers who wrote unlike any critics ever had written before; he would discover and bring in Hunter Thompson, who had no idea what the rules might be although he himself was also extremely well trained as a professional journalist. He just had a different head and he went with it.”
Rolling Stone would go on to move its headquarters to New York, and become an accepted and established magazine. But in the beginning it was original, refreshing, and reflective of “us,” the counterculture, as opposed to “them,” the Establishment.
One of the highlights of my young life, starting in 1967, was underground radio. It was pure communications magic. DJ “Big Daddy” Tom Donahue, who was working at KYA Top Forty radio, gathered together a staff for a radical new concept of programming on the airwaves. Donahue was a seasoned concert promoter, having organized Rolling Stones gigs and the final Beatles concert. He owned an ultra-cool psychedelic nightclub in North Beach, Mother’s. His record label, Autumn Records, featured hits by the Beau Brummels. Said Linda Bacon, record librarian for Donahue’s new radio stations, “Tom was funny, smart, witty, and if you were his friend, he was wonderful for you. If he liked you he totally included you.”
Never one to be indirect, Donahue wrote an article in Rolling Stone entitled, “AM Radio Is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up the Airwaves.”
“The disc jockeys have become robots,” he wrote, “performing their inanities at the direction of programmers who have succeeded in totally squeezing the human element out of their sound, and reducing it to a series of blips and bleeps and happy, oh yes, always happy, sounding cretins who are poured from bottles every three hours. They have succeeded in making everyone on the station staff sound the same—asinine. This is the much coveted ‘station sound.’”
About the records themselves, he said, “There are certain albums that outsell singles, particularly in San Francisco. . . .I know Donovan has had albums in this town that have outsold single records that should have been in the top ten. But in most of these radio stations, the program people don’t have faith in their own ear. They are afraid to go into an album and play the guts out of it.”
Legend has it that Donahue called up every radio station in San Francisco until he discovered one whose phone was disconnected. He concluded that the station must be broke, and that its owner would be desperate enough to try his new programming. Besides, there was one guy already in the groove at station, Larry Miller, playing an eclectic musical mix from midnight until six A.M..
And so it came to pass that on a warm San Francisco night, Friday, April 7th, 1967, at 8 PM, Tom Donahue joined Larry Miller in spinning discs and magic on an obscure foreign-language and religious program-oriented San Francisco FM station. Its call letters, KMPX would spell the shot heard ‘round the country.
Things got off to a shaky start when Donahue and his handful of volunteers discovered that few people actually received KMPX’s signal, which rolled over and played dead every time it hit one of San Francisco’s many hills and valleys. However, a techno-wiz among them jerry-rigged a TV antenna so that it could catch all the good vibes, and freaks of all stripes began to stop by the station for a do-it-yourself antenna diagram. Over the air, Donahue asked people to bring or mail in pretty, psychedelic tchochkes to decorate the studio: bells, peacock feathers, posters, beads, whatever. And bring them they did, along with dope, food and other offerings.
On another of those very early days, the station received a bill for $3,000 for a bill along with a notice that KMPX would be shut down if it wasn’t paid by the end of the day. Milan Melvin, who sold advertising, tried to obtain advance payments from advertisers to pay the bill, with no success. He went to Tom Donahue with the bad news, who nonchalantly handed him a joint. This caused Melvin to remember a group of people who had ready cash in such large amounts: dope dealers. A phone call to one of his drug connections saved the day. Later that year, the staff once got paid with mud-caked small bills that a dope dealer had kept buried in his yard.
KMPX engineer and DJ Dusty Street told me, “Tom had to slowly get the station full time. He first got it from six to midnight, then noon to midnight and finally twenty-four/seven. I remember religious and foreign language programming. It was pretty funny going from Chinese Opera to Grateful Dead — although sometimes it was hard to tell the difference.”
The Grateful Dead’s record collection helped start the radio station. Bob Weir told me, “We would go down there and they’d play anything we would bring in. We’d have Coltrane. We never went into any radio station without some Coltrane under our arms. Phil Lesh would usually bring some modern classical, maybe something like Stockhausen, maybe some avante-garde, and we’d throw everything at ‘em. We knew you were going to catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. We’d also bring our favorite rock ’n’ roll or blues, because that was real big, so we knew we could keep the gentle listener strung out a little bit. ‘Okay, now if you’ll sit through a little John Coltrane, then we’re gonna play for you some Taj Mahal or something like that. It worked real well.”
By August there were enough DJs to rock around the clock, and the foreign language and religious programs disappeared entirely. Donahue implemented a new style of creative music programming which later came to be known as “free-form” or “underground” radio. The format of playing only three-minute songs was deep sixed — length didn’t matter. He also encouraged the DJs to express their musical tastes and to play whatever turned them on.
DJ Edward Bear said to me, “We came to music for comfort, truth and all the things people go to religion for. We looked to music to inspire us and tell us the truth when for the most part, society was telling us bullshit.” The result was a magnificent musical stew featuring large amounts of folk music, rock, blues and R & B spiced with smidgeons of gospel, jazz, bossanova—whatever the person selecting the music felt like playing at that particular moment. An impassioned protest song might be followed by Miles Davis giving birth to the cool, followed by goofy Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks bouncing off the walls. Even a little classical music was stirred into the mix if it was slightly surreal and sounded good when tripping on acid; Eric Satie was a particular favorite.
KMPX played unissued tapes and test pressings. A new, little-known band could record a tape and if KMPX would play it, they would receive huge local publicity that could put them on the map. Musicians flocked to the studios. Local groups groups brought their tapes, hoping for airplay. Out of town groups appearing at local gigs would come to be interviewed on air, or even just to hang out and talk with the DJs. Taj Mahal, who had trained as a veterinarian, came in once to dispense advice to people who called in with questions about their pets.
Country Joe McDonald told me, “KMPX was first station to give me airplay. Janis Joplin and I used to listen to KMPX when I was living with her for a few months in the Haight.” Ralph J. Gleason wrote, “Country Joe & the Fish, who later were to sign with Vanguard Records and become one of the top selling rock bands in the country with three albums on the Billboard best-seller chart, made a privately pressed small album which was played on the station.”
The Youngbloods recorded “Get Together” on an album. It received a lot of airplay on KMPX, which inspired the band to release it as a single. The song made it to number eighty-five on the charts. The Chambers Brothers’ “Time” was also popularized on KMPX and later released as a single. Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded a long version of “Susie Q” for KMPX. Before that, they were called the Golliwogs, and were performing rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll covers for frat parties and at a coffee house. KMPX’s airplay increased their popularity until they were hired to play at Bill Graham’s ballroom venues. From there, they began writing their own songs and became nationally known.
Albert King’s career took a giant leap to white audiences and to the ballrooms from KMPX playing his song, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Eric Clapton brought a tape of Disraeli Gears to KMPX two months before its release in the United States as an album. KMPX also was possibly the first station in the United States to play Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” DJ Bob McClay had received an unreleased pressing from a friend in England and propelled it into the airwaves. Hendrix’s second LP, Axis: Bold as Love, was also aired on KMPX weeks before it became available as an album.
Later, Music From Big Pink by The Band had was played for almost a month before it hit the record stores. KMPX airplay caused the first shipment to San Francisco to sell out in four days. That was followed by 20,000 back orders.
In February, 1969 Voco introduced a track by The Northern California State Youth Choir, a black gospel group. Their director, Edwin Hawkins, had entered them in a singing competition at a youth convention in Cleveland. To raise funds for the trip they recorded eight songs on a two-track machine in the Ephesian Church of God in Christ. These were made into an album, Let Us Go into the House of the Lord, of which a thousand copies were produced to be sold at the convention. One track, “Oh Happy Day,” was a call-and-response led by a young singer named Dorothy Morrison. A friend gave Voco a copy and he started playing and promoting “Oh Happy Day.” It took off like wildfire. Things went a little crazy for the choir, bringing on some of the various complications of instant fame. However, even as they continued to sort themselves out, San Francisco continued to have a happy day for many months.
The shows’ engineers were all women and were credited on the air, an unprecedented phenomenon. Dusty “Superchick” Street, Katy “The Easter Pig” Johnson and Susie “Creamcheese” or alternatively “Sweetsmiles” Henderson became radio personalities themselves as the DJs bantered with and about them on the air. There was a big sign in the bathroom that said “Dusty is an easy street.”
“It was totally a breakthrough. There had never been female engineers,” remembers Dusty Street. “We were very cliquey. It was hard to hang out with us. If you weren’t cool and hip we put you away. I was at San Francisco State hanging out with Milan Melvin. He said, ‘We’re just starting a new radio station and we’re hiring chick engineers.’ He made it sound like I could do it. Tom Donahue asked me if I had a license and I said yes. On my way out the door, I stuck my head through the door of the room where the equipment was and said, ‘What’s a radio license and how do I get one?’ The engineer told me to go to Radio Shack and get a booklet. So I did, and took a test. I got a license, but I didn’t know what kind of license it was. I went back to KMPX and didn’t know how to run the board. The DJ kicked me out and told me to not come back until I knew what I was doing. The only guy running his own board was Larry Miller on the midnight-to-six shift, so I sat with him all night and learned. When Tom Donahue finally looked at my license it turned out I had flunked everything except permission to be a Western Union operator. These things can never happen again—it’s too bad.
“The women wanted their own show. Tom, in his infinite wisdom, said that they could do a one-hour special and he handed it over to me. By the end they were singing my praises. Racheal Donahue, Bonnie Simmons and I did a women’s special called “He Hit Me and it Felt Like A Kiss.” One of the titles was “I Do Not Date On The First Fuck.”
Smoky-voiced Street moved on down the line to become a full-fledged DJ, with all its rights and privileges. Meanwhile, former AM station DJs happily dropped the hyperactive hype and let their inner selves out to boogie. Tom Donahue presented himself as a granddaddy hipster, bridging the beatnik and hippie eras. He opened his show every night with, “I’m here to clean up your face and mess up your mind.” Bob Prescott threw coins and did an I Ching reading for the city each morning. For a while he had people send in descriptions of their dreams and he would read them over the air. Tony Bigg reinvented himself as Tony the Pig and proved to be sardonically funny, engaging in hyper-cool repartee with his girlfriend Katy Johnson, who engineered the show. Super-hip Milan Melvin, with hair halfway down his back, who would later have a wild affair with Janis Joplin and marry Mimi Farina, up and confessed to the entire Bay Area that he had once been an FBI agent.
Linda Bacon told me, “I was the record librarian. I got a library science degree in Austin. I dropped out of school and came to California where it was cool in the summer and there weren’t any bugs. Poster artist Alton Kelly knew I had worked as a librarian at University of Texas. Kelly told me Tom Donahue was looking for a record librarian for KMPX. I showed up and they said, ‘you’re hired.’.As long as we were selling advertising, it was okay. It was a radically loose, spacey way of running a business.”
DJ Edward Bear arrived via New York. He told me, “My apartment was robbed, so I said “screw New York.” I had an invitation from Ralph Metzner to go to San Francisco and re-establish The Psychedelic Review. I was going to write and photograph for it. After a summer’s hiatus in Aspen, a friend had fixed up an old hearse and painted it orange, and we drove it to San Francisco. I arrived in a big hammock strung across the back of the hearse. A short time later I heard KMPX for the first time. I had a basket that I had bought in Spain, and I kept a portable radio in it tuned to KMPX. I carried it around all the time. DJ Bob Prescott had been a manager at the Figaro coffee house at Bleecker and MacDougal Streets in Greenwich Village. He took me to meet Donahue. Donahue was a powerful, interesting man. He was a great driving force to gather a group like that together and create the station. By the time I got to the station it was swinging.
I told Donahue, ‘I’m one of the best programmers you’ve ever seen.’ He said, ‘Prove it. Come in on Sunday night.’ So I made a demo a demo tape starting literally at the beginning, with the creation of the universe. I had sounds of air and water, then birds, then mammals, and then you could hear a rumbling of people talking in the background. I had a record of Maharishi come into the foreground, talking about the nature of life, until he was drowned out by applause. Then the crowd started screaming—I took it off a soundtrack of a bullfight. Next, all the sound stopped and I said, ‘And that brings us up to date.’”
Linda Bacon remembered, “When they opened another radio station in LA, Tom and Raechel Donahue started going back and forth, and I moved into their house on Scott Street. They left me in charge of daughter Buzzy and son Tommy, who were seventeen and eighteen. We spent most of our time making pot butter and making cookies out of it and staying completely stoned.
“I lived there for two, three months. Then I fell in love and moved to the Santa Cruz mountains. By the time KMPX became KSAN I moved to Santa Cruz mountains to be an earth mother. I worked at KSAN two or three years. The owners couldn’t figure out what had happened. There were all these suits Tom was butting heads with. There were all these crazies and the suits. But as long as we were selling advertising, it was okay. There were times that Paul Boucher, program director, would light incense and meditate before he would bring the Board together if there was a problem. Everyone was certain that they were the coolest, and we were doing the niftiest thing we could possibly be doing. “
The DJs read many of the ads, often making fun of the products or at least having some fun with them. “Soobbbb, I want my Saaab!” sobbed an infantile voice. Edward Bear said, “Roland Jacopetti produced the ads. We got requests for the ads! I never was at any station that got requests for their ads. Roland had all the DJs as resources; he’d call us in and give us lines to say. I did a voter registration PSA that got taken off the air. I said in German accent imitating a happy Nazi: ‘Vat’s all this I hear about voter registration? You don’t haf to register. You don’t haf to vote. Just leave everything to us!’ German-American groups protested and the irony was completely lost.”
“There’s a group shot of the staff naked on a waterbed with a model. A waterbed store wanted a print ad with a nude model on the waterbed in the lobby of KSAN. Then the staff joined her, clothed, for a shot. Someone said, ‘It’s not fair for her to be the only naked person,’ and the clothes started flying. People were sprawled all over the waterbed.”
A news team delivered the goods throughout the day, sort of. The news, or “gnus,” as the station spelled it, sometimes opened with the sound of a man and woman panting and moaning with increasing fervor. Just when an ecstatic climax seemed imminent, a chirpy BBC-type voice broke in, announcing brightly, “And now, the news!” What followed was usually a satirical commentary on the doings of the Establishment. I remember that when Lynda Byrd Johnson Robb gave birth to her first child, an announcer reported that a star had risen in the east and three wise men were spotted riding their camels along the Beltway, searching for the White House. Scoop Nisker called it “All the news that fit to spit,” and finished off each news broadcast with, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”
Scoop Nisker wrote, “I was consumed with a desire to stop the Vietnam War. KSAN began to function as a communication center not only for the antiwar movement but also for the Black Panthers, the Young Socialists, and even the Weather Underground. My first broadcasts were satirical, I soon turned to calls for serious activism and protest ….However, the main message was always music. Hippies and radicals alike were caught up in the spell of rock and roll, he heartbeat of our common generational revolt. We told each other, “they can’t bust our music,” meaning that no matter how much authorities would squelch political protest, radio could always get out messages of freedom, justice and flower power out to the people through rock and roll songs. To create a newscast, I sometimes take a tape recorder out into the streets and talk to people about current issues and mix their voices in with politician’s speeches on the subjects, and add the statements of a few cartoon characters and some sound effects, or put it all together over a rock song or an Indian raga.
The KMPX Strike
This channel for the life force was briefly interrupted when the station owners attempted to have their way with the programming at KMPX. They even wanted to institute a dress code. In the wee hours of the morning in March, 1968 the staff went on strike. Listeners cheered them on. An impromptu celebration began as hundreds of listeners joined the strikers on the street outside the radio station. Creedence Clearwater Revival and Blue Cheer played. The Grateful Dead performed on a flatbed truck they brought. Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi of Traffic were in town, and joined the Dead on the truck. A light show company associated with the Family Dog provided psychedelic visuals.
The strike lasted for eight weeks, supported fully by the listeners. The strikers formed a union, the AAFDIFMWW, or the Amalgamated American Federation of International FM Workers of the World. Strike benefits were held. Strikers spoke at the Fillmore, Winterland and Avalon ballrooms. Scab labor had to cross jeering picket lines to enter the station. In the meantime, the Rolling Stones, Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish asked that their songs not be aired on KMPX.
The Man, as was his wont, did not have ears to hear the beat of those dancing feet of the vast army attuned to the beats of different drummers. However, another FM station, KSAN, welcomed in the radio refugees, put them back to work under acceptable conditions and the army of the airwaves turned its dials to a different number to receive its daily requirement of auditory nutrients.
Influence of Undergound Radio
Listening to the radio, as usual, from dawn’s early light until my last holdout brain cells shut down for the night, became enjoyable, and at last, totally without ambivalence. As I lay in my lonely bed, the radio united me with the others of my tribe who were all somewhere Out There, undoubtedly curled up (together) on Indian bedspread-covered mattresses in low-rent Victorian houses in the Haight-Ashbury, or sipping mu tea in mellow cottages among the Marin County redwoods with tie-dyed sheets tacked across the windows. Wherever and whomever, we were all turning on and tuning in to the very same frequency, grooving on the very same music as it crossed our blood-brain barriers and enfolded our consciousnesses in glorious, divine communion.
The announcers felt similarly attuned to the audience and even to the environment. Edward Bear told me, “We came to music for comfort, truth and all the things people go to religion for. We looked to music to inspire us and tell us the truth when for the most part, society was telling us bullshit.
“Doing the all night show taught me how to program. During the day you can play only three to four songs before you have ads. At night there were long segments — some ran for up to an hour. It put my programming skills to the test. San Francisco at night was a place of love and sex and fun, and a lot of soulful people. San Francisco is not like other big cities at night. Radio was the thread. It is the weave that includes all of us, if there is truth, inspiration, fun and busting idiots.
Milan Melvin wrote, “The phone rang constantly in the DJ/engineer’s booth, and more often than not audience members would call in to thank us for playing the exact tune that they had wanted. It was almost spooky at first. The DJs seemed to be tapping into some collective consciousness and the audience was making the real programming decisions.”
Edward Bear explained the phenomenon, “Pre-programmed music is making love by the numbers. I could feel what music needed to come next. It was a sort of creative panic. The music mix depended on the day. I took the weather into account. I played different music if it was raining than if it was sunny.”
Scoop Nisker wrote, “There were constant on-air drug references on KSAN, and listeners could occasionally hear the unmistakable sound of a DJ taking a drag off a joint. I was in charge of editing the on-air reports from Pharm Chem Labs, a commercial chemistry lab in Palo Alto that put out a weekly review of drugs available in various neighborhoods around the Bay Area. The idea was to warn people of bad acid, badly cut cocaine or heroin, marijuana that was extra-strong or sprayed with something toxic. They never moralized, sometimes they sounded like wine connoisseurs, recommending good buys. Also, KSAN listeners, for a fee, could send in a small sample of your drugs along with a 5-digit number and call up a few days later for a chemical analysis.”
Dusty Street recalled, “When Tom and Racheal Donahue got married in 1969, their wedding was in the Jefferson Airplane house. The girls who were cooking put acid in everything. If you ate or drank anything you got loaded. Later, as my husband was driving me to work, I said ‘you know, I feel like I’m coming on to acid.’ At this time we were doing the advertising for Woodstock. The opening line of my first commercial was, ‘How would you like to take a really far out trip?’ I read it in a way that made me realize that I was someplace that the audience hadn’t followed me to. So I turned off the microphone for the rest of the shift. I was putting the records away according to color and osmosis. Dave Mason had just come out with a record made out of multi-colored vinyl, and I just sat there staring at it. Tom and Racheal called me a couple of hours into my shift from their hotel in Sausalito. They told me I sounded really great!”
I moved out of the Bay Area in 1971, far beyond the reach of KSAN’s signal. The station continued until the end of the 1970s, and added announcers including Rolling Stone Magazine editor and journalist Ben Fong-Torres. Tom Donahue would exit the planet far too soon, leaving behind a legacy larger than he, and a type of radio programming that cut a wide swath for all too short a time period.
Edward Bear summed up the spirit of San Francisco’s underground radio, “We just happened to get a crowd that was musical, entertaining, who worked well together and who served the audience. It was about serving. That’s what the time was about: giving to others. Today it’s about taking more than you give: that’s the definition of profit”