When the British invaded the USA for the second time with the Beatles leading the charge, they occupied my home in the form of a girl who embodied all the most desirable and fashionable things from across the ocean blue. The daughter of a war buddy of my father’s, Lindy Mason came to live with my family for a semester. The plan was that I would later spend six months in New Zealand with her family.
Lindy’s arrival was preceded by a newspaper clipping with a photo of her shrieking her head off at a Beatles concert in Australia, hands held to her face as in Munch’s “The Scream” and tears streaming down her cheeks. I was dubious that we’d find anything in common. When Lindy finally walked into the San Francisco Airport, exhausted from the long flight, I warily took in her long, straight blonde hair, dazzling figure, fabulous Carnaby Street-style clothing and outrageously cute British accent. Lindy was Jane Asher, Patti Boyd, Marianne Faithfull and Jean Shrimpton all rolled into one perfect package. In other words, she was a gawky, frizzy-haired fifteen year-old girl’s worst nightmare.
Lindy, however, had other ideas about me. She saw potential where I saw none, and took me on as a fixer-upper. She convinced me that I was not intrinsically freakish-looking, but just desperately in need of a makeover. I marvel now at how confident she was in a strange country and with a new family. Lindy took me shopping, picking out hip-hugger mini-skirts, wide belts, form-fitting velour tops, knee-high boots, sexy fishnet and lace tights and long, dangly earrings. My figure was beginning to show signs of throwing a few curves, so she marched me, red-faced and wincing, into Bentley’s Foundations to buy lacy bras and nylon bikini panties in rainbow colors. Bentley’s, which sold everything from dance leotards to those old, practically bullet-proof girdles to skimpy lingerie, was run by an immigrant couple. If I remember correctly, they were Holocaust survivors. The wife was as buxom, loud and intimidating as her husband was short, silent and dour. Ask any woman of a certain age who grew up in Berkeley and I guarantee that she will remember buying sexy underwear at Bentley’s as a rite of passage.
Gathering steam, Lindy dragged me into a hair salon to get my frizzy hair laced with foul-smelling chemicals until it gave up the fight and hung straight. She taught me how to wrap it around huge hard plastic rollers every night to keep it straight, starting a painful tradition that continued well into my thirties. My bemused parents agreed to her pleadings to pay for contact lenses. When my eyes emerged from behind thick, dark-rimmed glasses, Lindy was at the ready with a pair of eyebrow tweezers. She carefully coached me on how to adorn my newly exposed eyelids with black eyeliner, goopy purple eyeshadow and to load up my eyelashes with the clumpy black mascara of the time.
Lindy had an eager pupil. Feeling even just a teensy bit more like a swan beat the hell out of the ugly duckling routine. Every morning I spent an interminable amount of time getting dressed, combed, painted and primped. Before leaving for school I stood in front of a full length mirror and gave my appearance an assessment every bit as detailed as a rock bands’ sound check before a concert. I’d feel mortified all day if I found a tiny pimple on my chin or if my hair frizzed a little bit on a damp day.
When I made my debut at Berkeley High School, kids I had known since kindergarten literally didn’t recognize me. Even more exciting, a few boys seemed to take notice. Mostly they noticed Lindy, the exotic newcomer. But Lindy noticed boys noticing me. She determined that I needed some practical knowledge in matters of men, and thought it prudent to give me instruction in French kissing. I practiced assiduously on my pillow and the back of my hand. I pretended that these surrogates were really the sweet mouth of Mick Jagger.
Just before school started, I had taken Lindy with me to an interracial conference for high school students. It was sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, an organization with a mission to put Quaker values into action. The conference was held at John Woolman School, a Quaker boarding “free school” in the countryside near Grass Valley. The informal anthem of that venerable institution was:
They’re fucking in the parlor,
They’re fucking in the hall;
If you can’t get fucked at Woolman,
You can’t get fucked at all!
If any such thing was going on while we were on the premises, earnestly dealing with race relations in workshops, lectures and encounter groups, I didn’t know about it. However, during that week a tall, lean Afro-American boy from the slums of Richmond fell completely off the deep end for Lindy. A couple of weeks after school started, Bill invited her to a party in Berkeley. In order to seal the deal, he agreed to her non-negotiable terms that she be allowed to bring along her “little sister.”
The party turned out to be weird and uncomfortable. Lindy and I were the only whites present. The boys all asked me to dance. The girls looked daggers at me. Lindy had disappeared with Bill into some dark corner of the room. I was on my own, thanks a lot. I wanted to sink through the floor with embarrassment.
I practically fainted with relief when a boy I knew vaguely from the American Friends Service Committee conference showed up. He guided me onto the dance floor and announced that he was “taking over.” Wow. Nobody had ever wanted to take me over before. Nigel Graham was a compact, muscular, black senior—a senior!!!—from Richmond High School. His sharp intelligence and commanding presence had immediately catapulted him into a leadership role among the conference participants. And now, that same assertiveness emerged as, after a few dances, he guided me outside and found a spot between some camellia bushes where we could just fit.
Nigel carefully positioned me with my back against the side of the house. My heart was pounding and I felt like I might slither right down the wall. I was excited and also strangely detached, as if I was hovering overhead, observing the two of us. Nigel was just an inch or two taller than me. He smelled faintly of Old Spice. He put his arms around me and gently placed his mouth on mine and parted my lips with his tongue. Omigod. I tentatively kissed him back. It was happening just the way Lindy had described it—only she hadn’t told me anything about the way he was rubbing a very hard bulge in his pants against my pelvis. Nigel was breathing heavily, but I was too lost in a daze of fear and happiness to feel anything much at all.
“I hope you don’t mind what I’m doing,” he murmured.
“I don’t know what you’re doing,” I replied, half-coyly and half-truthfully.
“Well, it ain’t bad,” he assured me with a breathless laugh. We kissed and he rubbed some more. After a little while we went back inside. I was blushing furiously and picking a few stray camellia leaves out of my hair. Nigel wore a shit-eating grin and was practically strutting.
Lindy and her besotted pursuer and Nigel and I went on one double date, to Pepe’s Pizza on Telegraph Avenue. However, Lindy, secure in her absolute power to make boys fall at her feet, was not about to settle down and go steady during her one semester in the USA. She dumped her ardent swain. Poor Bill continued to send her heartbroken letters for another month, filled with bad spelling and vows of eternal love. I never saw Nigel again. I didn’t really mind. I was only in it for kissing as a rite of passage; kissing as an assurance that I was desirable, kissing, well, just because it was supposed to be something really great. The reality of those kisses wasn’t actually all that great, but now there was a ray of hope that I might get another crack at it.
THE BRITISH BANDS
Transcending clothes, make-up and discussions about boys and their moving parts, Lindy and my sisterhood was sealed most profoundly by our love of music. Every day after school we’d come home and dance together to the radio or records. Top Forty stations now featured the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Manfred Mann, the Animals the Yardbirds and other British groups. To that hopeless anachronism, the adult brain, the British Invasion appeared mostly as one unified army, either a blessing or a curse depending upon which side of the cash register you stood. However, the adolescent cognoscenti immediately attuned their highly calibrated radar to the Brit bands, discerning intricate subtleties that defined each group’s place in the social order of American high schools. Tell me which British group you listen to and I’ll tell you who you are.
Darby Slick of The Great Society, an early San Francisco rock band featuring Grace Slick, wrote, “That first Beatles album knocked many whole forms of music right off the road. Later, talking to some of my friends in various bands, some wouldn’t admit to having been encouraged to form their groups by the success of the Beatles. I guess they just happened to like boots and long hair.”
However, if you were in-your-face hip and wanted to appear to be a sexy beast, you preferred the darker, badder Rolling Stones over the sunny Beatles. Lindy and I became avid Stones fans. They were playing mostly raunchy American rhythm and blues at the time. while the Fab Four just wanna-ed to hold your hand, and were happy just to dance with you. (“I don’t want to kiss or hold you tight, I just want to dance with you all night.” Who did they think they were kidding?) On the other hand, if you fancied yourself a deep thinker and a poet, the Moody Blues “Knights in White Satin” carried your sophisticated, significant soul with them on their never-ending journey. If you were a cutie pie, boy-crazy chick and Paul was your favorite Beatle, then Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits was your kind of guy. The Animals cut a wide swath across teenage angst with earthy laments of being well-intended but misunderstood and stuck in rotten places they wanted to get out of. The Kinks also crossed social barriers as they stomped and snarled out everyone’s sexual frustrations. Along with the Rolling Stones, they were the British poster boys of horniness.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH THE BEATLES
KYA surfed the British Invasion wave and scored the ultimate coup when DJ Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue organized a Beatles concert. On August 29, 1966, John, Paul, George and Ringo would play in Candlestick Park, the San Francisco Giants’ baseball stadium on a wind-blown hill in South San Francisco. Stadium concerts were fairly new. There were no big screens to bring you an up-close look at the artists. The sound equipment used to amplify rock music in such an environment was far from perfect. Even more horrific, the cheapest seats cost an outrageous seven dollars! Lindy and I decided to stay home rather than pay such an exorbitant fee to squint down at four ants on a faraway playing field. Thus it came to pass that we missed the Beatles’ last live concert.
However, never ones to be completely out of the loop, we phoned Tommy Saunders on the KYA request line and begged him to give John Lennon a psychedelic button I had made especially for him. I had cut out a circle of cardboard and covered it with purple papier maché. Using a rapidograph technical drawing pen, I made a tiny, intricate rendering of a Middle Earth wizard surrounded by psychedelic letters spelling out, “Gandalf Lives.” I then taped a safety pin to the back. Tommy Saunders explained in apologetic tones that he would love nothing better than to give John Lennon that button, but the DJs weren’t going to be allowed anywhere near the Beatles. I learned from him many years later that he had to work that day and wasn’t even at the concert.
As it turned out, my Beatles saga did not end on that flat note in 1966. One sunny Southern California day in 1991, I was testing recipes in the kitchen of a Transcendental Meditation retreat in Pacific Palisades for a cookbook I was writing. It was about three P.M. and I was alone in the cavernous industrial kitchen. A tall, unfamiliar man with a graying beard and longish salt-and-pepper hair approached me. He was wearing a light blue work shirt and torn, scruffy jeans. In a lightly accented voice he asked politely whether there was some food available. I looked at him more closely. He looked familiar. Very. I had probably seen more photos of George Harrison over the years than of my own mother.
I quickly fetched a plate and heaped it with the food I had prepared. I had been making Indian food that day, which suited George Harrison just fine. I led him to the staff dining table in the dingy kitchen, swept aside some discarded pages of the Los Angeles Times and whisked away a dirty plate someone had left behind. By now I was in agony. I was trying so hard to act natural that I was sure I sounded like a total idiot. While Harrison kept the conversational ball rolling about the spiritual nature of Indian food and vegetarianism I attempted to hold up my end and act casual and natural. I hated myself. It was clear that George wanted to be treated like jes’ plain folks. But how do you divorce a few decades’ worth of iconoclasm from the real live person?
I must not have totally spooked Harrison, because the next day he returned with his wife and son to have lunch again. As he made introductions all around, I wondered if he realized that I—along with everyone else in the western world—already knew Olivia’s and Dhani’s names. As we ate, he talked about how he had decided to do a benefit concert for the Natural Law Party, a political party backed by the Transcendental Meditation organization that espoused spiritual values. He told me that he was going to try to get the remaining Beatles involved, and that he wanted to hold the concert at the Royal Alpert Hall in London.
I saw George and Olivia a couple of more times. Although it was hardly the beginning of a beautiful friendship, it was magical to listen to the plans for a Beatles reunion of sorts. A short time later the concert was officially announced, and the buzz went wild in the news media. People made pilgrimages from around the world to attend. George and Ringo companionably performed together. George’s son Dhani and Ringo’s son Zak and daughter Lee Starkey joined them onstage for a song or two. Julian Lennon was in the audience. It was the closest thing to a Beatles’ reunion concert that had ever taken place.
I missed that concert too. London was a bit too far from Los Angeles for my budget. However, listening to George Harrison in 1991 planning the rebirth of a musical phoenix from the ashes more than made up for missing its cremation in 1966.
JOHN LENNON’S FAVORITE SONG
Rock saxophone player Martin Fierro told me about a significant experience involving him, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia.
“I walked into the dressing room of The Bottom Line in New York City because my reed broke in the middle of a set. There’s John Lennon in that dressing room. I couldn’t utter a sound. I couldn’t even say hi to him. I couldn’t say anything. He hung out with us for three days and he was such a sweetheart! I’ve never met anybody who was so charismatic— and he and Jerry Garcia became best friends, of course.
“John got a hotel room, even though he lived in New York. He wasn’t with Yoko or security guards, he was just by himself. He hung out with us the rest of the night, he went out to breakfast with us that night after the gig, he got a room next to Jerry’s and mine and Merle’s and he rode back to the hotel with us in the limo. He kept talking to me.
‘I love the way you play, man. You play so beautiful, mate. You’re so sound is so soulful.’ He put his arms around me. I put my arms around him but I couldn’t say anything to him.
“John said to Jerry, ‘He won’t say anything to me. Is he mad at me?’
“Jerry said ‘Nooo! Martin’s an Indian, man.’ Jerry was just bullshitting. ‘You’ve seen those drugstore Indians, right? You’ve seen how still they are? Martin’s just like that. He loves you, man. He’s in one of his silent periods right now. Believe me, he’s fine.’
‘Oh, okay!’ He’s smiling that smile.
“So on the last night we were hanging out, we were going back to the hotel and the song “What About Me” by Dino Valente, played by The Quicksilver Messenger Service comes on the limo radio.
John hears the song and he says to Jerry, ‘Jerry, you know that’s my favorite song of all time, because that song says just about everything I would have liked to say in a song but didn’t.’
So Jerry says, ‘Well, you know who’s playing on that song, don’t you? Martin’s playing.’
‘Ohhhh. My goodness, Martin. Give me a big hug!’
“He says, ‘Listen man, I want you to do one thing for me. When you see Dino Valente, you give him a big from me and you tell him, this is from John Lennon. He told you to tell him that this is the most beautiful song that he has ever, ever heard. He wishes he could have written that song, but he didn’t.’
“Thirty years went by, and I saw Mountain Girl (Jerry Garcia’s former wife).
I said to her, ‘I still remember the time that John Lennon came and hung out with us at the The Bottom Line and it was so beautiful, and Jerry and him was such good friends and Jerry was so cool with him.’
‘Awwww,’ Mountain Girl says. ‘Fuckin’ Jerry. John Lennon wanted to sit in with you guys and Jerry wouldn’t let him. He didn’t want him to steal his thunder!’