This time we start out in deep left field. For a brief period in the late 1960s, San Francisco had a gifted spiritual teacher with a devoted and growing following named Stephen Gaskin. The meetings became known as Monday Night Class, and I was lucky enough to have attended some of them. I’m not sure how it started, but I know where: Stephen’s writing class evolved into an informal series of talks at SF State, and the lounge or classroom they gave him was soon too small, so they moved him to a lecture hall, and then more people started showing up, necessitating a move to the Straight Theater on Haight Street. From there he moved with his followers in a 50-100 car/truck/bus caravan to Tennessee, where he resided until he died in 2014. His community there, known as The Farm, has become a center for spiritual advancement and midwifery. In fact, a friend of mine was pregnant and told me about the midwife she was talking to, and was amazed that I knew who Stephen was. Now you can, too: Stephen Gaskin - Wikipedia
But now we’re done with Stephen Gaskin except for one thing: the souvenir I have from the day I met him.
My girlfriend had just moved back to Long Island and I was depressed about that and everything else, and didn’t know if I had the rent money for our my place in Mill Valley. I was driving out of the City in the left lane of Lombard Street, the main approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, with no real plan. I just wanted to get out of the City. I just needed to get… somewhere. I saw a guy hitch-hiking way over on the curb of the extreme right lane, and without knowing what I was doing or why I was doing it, I jerked the car all the way over to the right, pissing off three lanes of drivers and maybe nearly hurting someone, and I screeched to a stop and picked him up. Maybe it was loneliness, or maybe it was just what us muggles would call an instinct. When I asked where he was going, he said he was on his way to meet some friends up on Mt. Tamalpais, and he said I should go, too. I said it sounded good, and he said, “No, really- you should come.” He said he didn’t know how many people would be there, but I’d like them and they’d like me. With nowhere else to go, I went.
On the way, he told me who Stephen was, and the group was anyone who knew Stephen and wanted to come; they were meeting in a meadow near the top. My passenger’s name was Michael, and I guess he wasn’t expecting a single ride from the City all the way to the top of Mt. Tam, so we got there early. Stephen and his crew had just gotten there in their bus, and we were invited aboard. It was chilly and misty up there, and inside, the bus was warm and very relaxed, very friendly.
Interesting aside: As we were driving up the mountain, Michael told me he was married to Stephen and their two wives. It was a four-way marriage, and I don’t recall anyone ever questioning that. Michael introduced me to the people in the bus, and after that my presence wasn’t questioned. For those of you familiar with the phrase “set and setting,” please keep that in mind. Everyone was open and friendly and I met some very warm, loving people that afternoon and had my first mudra, which I’m not going to explain. I still don’t know how to describe it, but there was a spiritual… will… in the air, although no actual teaching or lecturing was taking place. I’d call it a vibe if it wouldn’t embarrass me. This group shared a mindset, but they weren’t there for an extension of Monday Night Class; they were there for a relaxing outdoor afternoon among friends in a beautiful place. And so it was.
One of the people I met that afternoon was a young woman about twenty-five—I wish I could remember her name—and we chatted, and for whatever reason, I told her that I was looking for one of those Indian shirts you could buy in the head shops that still proliferated in the area. No, not Nehru shirts or jackets- those had banded collars and these shirts had none. These were thigh-length, with slits up the sides, and a slit-like opening at the throat. I know you’ve seen them in films: usually, they were thin and some were slightly transparent. Oh, they were around and you could buy them back then, but I didn’t want a shirt that you could buy anywhere; I didn’t like the idea of, y’know… following. The young woman said she understood, and that if I bought some fabric, she’d make the shirt for me. Okay, then, and the next day I hied myself over to Haight Street to buy the fabric.
Is anyone old enough to remember the cheap, colorful East Indian prints that were everywhere back then? I used to call them “madras prints,” but when you see the word “madras” now, you might think of those plaid shirts that were popular around the time of the Beach Boys, but this wasn’t those. These were cheapo fabrics about eight square feet that people (uhhh… hippies, mostly) used for bedspreads, wall hangings, table cloths, room dividers (for hippie pads, man!) and the always serviceable whatever. That was what I wanted: a shirt made from one of those. And I’d have the only one. So then I was in a head shop on Haight Street, looking over a table with about a hundred of them, most still neatly folded in their plastic bags, just as they were shipped from exotic India. Those who know me know that I am an enthusiastic shopper of almost anything, and would not be surprised that I examined every package carefully, exactingly, imagining each piece of fabric as a shirt, holding it out, resting it on my arm to get a sense of… shirt-ness, sorting through those dozens of fabrics, narrowing it down to eight or ten, then narrowing it down to four. Finally I had one package in my left hand and one on my right and I settled in for The Selection, standing at the table, examining, imagining, looking at each of them, my head nodding sideways back and forth as I saw each fabric as a shirt, asking myself which I liked better, and I was not enjoying the indecision when I heard a raspy, husky voice over my left shoulder say, “The one on the left’s really groovy, man,” and I turned around to see who’d said that. It was Janis Joplin.
“Oh, hi,” I said—or something stupider—and in an instant I was telling her what the fabric was for, and she nodded and said, “Yeah, the one on the left, man. That’s the one.” So I nodded, “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks.”
So I bought them both, and the fabric in my right hand became curtains in my next place, and the one in my left hand became a shirt. Which I have to this day and you can see it here, if you wish.
So I hope you liked that story, but that’s not why we’re here. I just told you because I like the story. For CA, I try to write about the music in me, not the shirts in my closet, and today’s missive details the wonderful and memorable event that happened either late one night or early one morning at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1968, and then what happened more than three decades later. So, first a minor glitch and then we’ll start:
The glitch is that I don’t know which show this happened at. I’ve seen several shows with Big Brother, and I know where this one took place. I’ve been through the posters, and the best bet is that it was the show on June 15th, 1968. I’m basing that on being very clear that it was Janis and the Fillmore; I’m sure of that, but my only memory of any other band that night is so hazy that you could spit on doubtful from there, and that memory is of someone running around on stage with his hair on fire, and that sounds like it might have been the guy from The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. But, y’know… seeing things like that might have happened for uhh… other reasons. Why? What do you care? I’m not running for office! The poster says the Foundations were there? Didn’t they do “Build Me Up, Buttercup?” Why would I remember them? But I know it was Janis, and I can relate with assurance that the when isn’t important, as we are confident of the where and who. Of course, the how will remain forever a mystery. As, perhaps, it should.
But that show I saw there in 1968 with Big Brother and the Holding Company? You know, Janis’ band? Well, it was all their band, man, but, y’know… it was Janis’ band. And yes, I was a normal sort of concert-goer back then, which means there might have been some chemicals involved, as they were, like, everywhere and often free, and I’m sorry if you’ll be disappointed in me if I—or someone like me—tells you I—or they—might have availed themselves of some of the abundant assortment of recreational chemicals that were in favor among a certain element at the time, but let me say this in my defense: I blame the Gypsies. What? Now they’re Roma? I don’t care! They’re Gypsies!
Moving on, it was late and it had to be around 1 or 2 A.M., or… really, I don’t know… and the band went into “Ball and Chain.” So help me, I have no idea if it was early in the set or late, or the closer or the opener or what, and it had to be late because I remember that there couldn’t have been more than thirty people in the house, but I remember her stepping up to the mic in that glamorously frumpy hippie-chic style she excelled at, and she started singing that song. She was into it, man, you could tell. It starts off slow and gets deep, and she was into it. Soon after this show she would announce that she was leaving the band and forming a bigger, horn-driven soul unit.* These things don’t happen overnight, they build up over time, and for all I know, before they came out to play that night, maybe they’d been backstage in a dressing room discussing it, I don’t know, but when she stepped up to the mic that night she was into it. She sang like she was hurt, she was wronged, and I felt her pain. I would never say there was a significance, I would never suggest a connection with that night, but in that period people had already been telling her that the band was holding her back, that they weren’t musicians enough for her, and that the two guitars, bass and drums wasn’t enough for her, either. We know she’d been hearing that for a while, that the band was holding her back, and as long-building and as difficult as that coming separation was going to be, no matter the pain of leaving, that night she came out and sang that love was hard, that love could hurt, that sometimes being in love was like being strapped to a ball and chain, and she sang it like she meant it. I’m not saying there’s a connection or that it happened like that. I’m just sayin’. But, y’know, think about it.
I watched, stunned, as no performer, no person, had ever affected me that way, and I stood mesmerized, watching, listening, feeling her pain with every note, feeling her letting us inside her pain, and I felt so much, so much… that I just couldn’t stand any more. No, not that I couldn’t stand it anymore. I just couldn’t stand any more. So I sat down. I had to sit down to watch her.
Janis was so powerful… and her pain was so devastating that I was blown away by her singing- or just by her presence. This had to be late at night because there were so few people in the house, but I don’t think she noticed. Maybe she just sang to let something out. She was in command of the band and everyone in the house, and when she sang, I felt the ache, I felt the pain, I understood her tears, and I don’t know how else to describe it. I know a lot of words, and I rarely use three when I can get away with using ten, but I am helpless to describe her performance. Those who’ve had transcendent moments (you know you’re out there!) either through art or nature or love or a chemical or of course by any means possible, will know how I felt, that I felt so much that I had to sit down. I sat on the floor and watched and listened and then I thought—no, really, I actually remember that moment, and I remember exactly what I said to myself, I said—“Holy shit! She just knocked me off my feet! I thought that was just a saying…” And after that I went to that mystical place of transcendence. She was amazing. Such power. Such… presence. Okay, I know it might have had something to do with the drugs (f**king Gypsies!) but I just had to sit down to get through it. Eventually, as it must, the concert ended and I got back to Mill Valley, although I don’t remember how. But I got home. Maybe I floated. It could happen back then!
Then, in 1999, I was invited to spend a week with the Rolling Stones as they rehearsed at the Fillmore Auditorium for their upcoming “No Security Tour.” I’ve been privileged to have been in numerous circumstances and environments with them besides this one, and if I hung out in bars, I’d have enough stories to drink free for years. CA readers will have suffered bravely through some of these already.
So I’m hanging out, watching them run through songs, try them out, discuss them, select some and reject others. If they wanted to keep them as possibilities, they put them on a corkboard written on two-inch paper strips. If not, I never saw or heard them again. Yeah, it was a pretty remarkable experience, but at one point one night the band declared a dinner break, and they went upstairs to the dining area, where they had their own caterer. The band had been playing on the floor of the auditorium, and the horn section was playing on the stage. At the break, the main room emptied, but the horn section stood in a group on the stage, talking for a while, then filed off the steps at stage right and came over to me.
They asked, “You’re from San Francisco, aren’t you?” I said I was, and they asked if this Fillmore Auditorium was the same, the legendary Fillmore Auditorium where all those shows happened in the Sixties. I said it was, and I told them to follow me. I led them to a spot on the floor (you know the one), pointed down and said, “Let me tell you what happened here…”
They nodded, but of course, they’d missed it. Janis was now a legend and here was a guy who’d seen her, several times in fact, and right here. Legend to them, memories to me. Then I told them about the shirt and they laughed. Sure, we all laughed, but I’ve still got a shirt I designed with Janis Joplin. You got one of those?
*Founding Big Brother member Sam Andrew, who left with Janis to form her new band said: “She felt like some of the people in Big Brother weren’t working as hard as we were — and that was the truth. She was getting impatient,” Andrew said. “She wanted to have a soul band — she was getting into that phase.”**
**When was the last time you read a footnote?
“Ball and Chain” from the Monterey show, 1967:
Janis Leaves Big Brother: Link
Crazy World Of Arthur Brown: Link
Two books about Stephen Gaskin, both of whose covers were created by the man I gave a ride to that day:
Monday Night Class: Link
The Caravan to the Farm: Link
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.