The Famous and The Infamous

The first time I tried to stand up against the vast, ongoing (now Trumpian) scourge of American Racism was when I was just 11 years old. On our second 3,000 mile cross country drive with my parents, we stopped in Swathmore, Pennsylvania and got on a bus bound for Washington DC, to march in what has since been called “The March on Washington. The purpose of the march was to advocate for the civil and economic rights of African Americans and was where Martin Luther King gave his iconic and unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech, on August 28th, 1963.

After exiting our bus we walked for miles through the streets of DC, holding hands with black strangers, singing “We Shall Overcome” until we finally came to the reflecting pool in front of the Washington Monument. My brother and I stood in the pool to cool ourselves down while listening to the following paragons of freedom and wonder in song and speech. I heard Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson and Martin Luther King there for the first time, performing Live American Truth Music and giving powerful speeches calling for inclusion and equality.

MLK improvised the “I Have a Dream” section of his speech. It was not in the notes he had made previously. I salute my parents, where ever they might be now, for bringing me along on this amazing, history making march! It was a spirit changing day for the rest of my young and ongoing life!

March on Washington, August 1963. I am on the left side at the back, next to the water.

Spock was a half  Vulcan, half Human space oddity who believed in the triumph of logic in his interstellar adventures with Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise crew on the TV show Star Trek. My wife and I were given a photo of him, taken (appropriated) from the wall of the Hacienda Hotel bar where we were spending our wedding night, by Dan McCann, the bass player in Plan B, our wedding band. It was given to us as an unexpected, late night wedding present, with Dan’s wish that we should “Live Long and Prosper.” Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in the TV version of Star Trek, had eaten there and claimed that the food at the Hacienda, was “Out of this World.”

Spock had several catch phrases that spread through out popular culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s; including “Live long and prosper,” “Logic is the beginning of wisdom … not the end,” “Without followers, evil cannot spread,” and “Insufficient facts always invite danger, Captain.” Spock was made an informal mascot of NASA for having the “Right Stuff” for his out of this world explorations and adventures to distant galaxies. He was tall, dark, thoughtful, alien and exotic and somewhat devilish in appearance, with his strange ears. He had a brilliant mind, and the wisdom of a patriarch.

Live long and prosper!

I was at the Mountain View train station two weeks before Christmas, waiting for the 8:27 train to take me a few miles north to Palo Alto, when I was suddenly surrounded on the platform by several Santa Clauses and a dozen elves, all putting on their beards, reindeer antlers, knee high boots, pointy hats, shoes with bells and curled up toes and brightly colored scarves, capes and sashes. They were all young festive seasonal workers, bound for the malls and department stores a few stops to the north, ready to bring joy to children and sell promises, wishes, presents and photos of kids sitting on the lap of a jolly, plump, red cheeked, bearded alcoholic toy maker from the North Pole, surrounded on his throne by a small band of diminutive, mythical helpers.

I got on the train ahead of most of them and climbed the stairs to the upper deck. Four female elves piled into a banquette four-plex of seats in front of me and sat facing each other across a fixed Formica table. The eldest elf pulled out a bottle of Tito’s Vodka from her back pack along with four large plastic glasses and proceeded to pour four very tall doses of courage for her fellow Elves to help them prepare for a long day of dealing with an endless parade of needy, entitled, Silicon Valley children. By the time I got off the train three stops later, they had all doubled down on Tito’s elixir and were ready to ride a reindeer to the North Pole.

Santa’s Workshop

When I was young, I listened to a British friend of my parent’s who was staying with us at our home in rural Massachusetts, asking on the phone for bus arrival and departure times. He was trying to get to Burlington, Vermont, a couple of hundred miles to the north. The agent told him “Only Peter Pan can get you there.” He hung up in frustration, thinking they were mocking him for his British accent, but he called back a few minutes later after learning from my mother that Peter Pan was actually the name of a bus line in New England, and was the only way to get to Burlington, other than flying north powered by fairy dust. 

Only Peter Pan Can Get You There • Photo by MMB

Gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson said this after arriving very drunk, and an hour late, to a talk he was supposed to give to journalism students at Stanford in 1976. I was very disappointed in his incoherent, aggravated rambling rants, as were most of the people in the audience. The only thing worse than an alcoholic is an angry alcoholic.

Hunter S. Thompson, father of Gonzo Journalism

I lived in the very rural hills in Palo Alto for a year after I graduated from Stanford. We lived in a former Russian Orthodox Nunnery which had been converted into a house, previously known as Saint Seraphim’s Sanctuary on 17 acres with a lake near the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains. We had two large intentional communities nearby as neighbors. The singer Joan Baez founded and had lived in one called Struggle Mountain, which was the center for her group “The Institute for the Study of Non-violence.” Her husband, the author and activist David Harris, was then in jail for draft resistance. The other community was a sprawling 750 acre ranch simply know as “The Land” where people lived off the grid for free in hand crafted homes and tree houses. 

Lake swimming at Saint Seraphim’s was a daily affair in the hot summers, and Gridly Wright, leader of the nomadic, hippie, polyamorous group known as Shivalila Sect, was visiting one of our neighboring communes and often brought his tribe over to bathe. He believed that the key to higher consciousness was taking copious quantities of LSD and re-experiencing the innocence and wonder of childhood through babies and children, and to that end he had four very pregnant partners who constantly surrounded him and wandered the lake shore and forest naked, with shaven heads. They also had many already born young children, that they were continuously learning from. This was toward the dark, creepy, cultish end of the Hippie Era. Wright was later knifed by a psychotic Australian man in Goa, India, and died from complications from the wounds.

Full moon rising above Saint Seraphim’s Sanctuary, 1976 • Palo Alto hills • Photo by MMB

Bob Denver was describing his next career move after his Gilligan’s Island TV show to me and my girl friend Sallie Dodge, as we sat together in a motel room in Boulder, Colorado, drinking the iconic, pale, tasteless Colorado beer; Coors in the yellow golden cans, made just a few miles south of Boulder in the town of Golden. Sallie’s roommate, who Sallie had met in her prep school in Switzerland, was Bob Denver’s partner at the time. 

Bob was best know as “Gilligan” for his role as the bumbling first mate among a small group of shipwrecked castaways in the show “Gilligan’s Island”, but I knew him much better from his earlier role as Maynard G. Krebs, the teenaged beatnik best friend of Dobie Gillis on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” a TV show that ran from 1959 to 1963 on network TV.  On that show he was a comic beatnik oddball and played the bongos, collected tinfoil and petrified frogs, and commented ironically and comedically on the problems of his best friend Dobie’s love life. 

My brother Peter and I loved the show and watched every episode on our tiny, static plagued snowy 15” black and white TV. I was stunned to be sitting in a room drinking beer and chatting with Maynard G. Krebs, one of my childhood comic heroes, as he smoked most of a pack of cigarettes and commented ironically on life. He seemed sweet, smart, funny and sad and drank most of the 6 pack of Coors by himself that night.

Dwayne Hickman as Dobie Giillis, Shiela James as Zelda Gilroy
and Bob Denver as the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs

We were enjoying a seafood dinner in a restaurant in the central California coastal town of Morro Bay, when a small, trim older man in a shiny, brightly embroidered Simpson’s jacket strolled over to our table. I was with my wife and my sister and brother in laws Nancy and Alan. We were there for seaside fun and a weekend of mostly pinot noir wine tasting in the hills above nearby Paso Robles. The very fit man looked like he was in his mid 80’s. He extended his hand, introduced himself as Jack LaLanne, and asked us if we wanted to see him do 20 push ups in 10 seconds. Of course we said “yes,” and he dropped to the floor and did a rapid blur of push ups faster than anyone I had ever seen before.

I asked him where he got his Simpson’s jacket and he told us that he had been a character on a recent Simpson’s episode entitled “The Old Man and the “C” Student.” He explained that the boat that the Simpson family was on had been rammed by another boat and was on the verge of sinking when his character grabbed a rope, jumped off of the bow and pulled the stricken boat to shore with the rope in his teeth, heroically saving the day and every one on the boat.  

Jack LaLanne was an American fitness and exercise guru and a nutritional expert and motivational speaker who was sometimes nicknamed “the godfather of fitness” and the “first fitness superhero.” In 1936, he opened the nation’s first health and fitness club in Oakland, California. Among his many aquatic feats of strength and daring were a swim from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco while handcuffed and shackled, and towing a 1,000 pound boat. To commemorate the “Spirit of ‘76”, United States Bicentennial in 1976, he swam one mile in Long Beach Harbor while handcuffed and shackled, and towing 13 boats (representing the 13 original colonies) containing 76 people.

His quick succession of push ups on land in a seaside restaurant were only a pale imitation of the superhuman, oceanic feats that he was actually capable of performing.

Jack Lalanne • 1961

Jack Lalanne on the Simpsons

Jack Lalanne towing 70 boats a mile and a half on his 70th birthday

I was at a rally outside of the Federal Building in San Francisco in 1968 with several high school friends, singing along with the crowd, demanding freedom for Huey P. Newton, Minister of Defense for the Black Panther Party who was in prison on dubious charges for the murder of an Oakland police officer. Under Newton’s leadership the Black Panther Party opened food banks, medical clinics, HIV support groups, sickle cell anemia tests, prison busing for families of inmates, legal advice seminars, clothing banks, housing cooperates and their own ambulance service. At the rally the speakers often exhorted everyone in the crowd to hold up their “Little Red Books” (pocket sized red colored books filled with the quotations and aphorisms of Chairman Mao) which almost everyone in the crowd seemed to have. The favorite quote that was shouted in unison many times that day was “Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun!” Several years later Newton went to China and met with Mao’s second in command, Premier Zhou Enlai and Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, leader of the infamous “Gang of Four” which was responsible for the purges, damage and devastation caused by the Cultural Revolution. Public humiliation, imprisonment, torture, hard labor, seizure of property, and sometimes execution or harassment into suicide were common tactics of the cultural Revolution, especially against intellectuals and educated people.

My parent’s later met Newton at a fund raising event and said that he was so drunk or high at the time that what he was saying to the crowd was largely incomprehensible. Newton was later murdered in Oakland by Tyrone Robinson, who wanted to advance his position in the Black Guerrilla Family, a Marxist–Leninist narcotics prison gang.

Huey P. Newton • Minister of Defense • Black Panther Party

I was in the quad at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1959, standing on the lawn, when I found myself shaking hands with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was there for some sort of social action and justice event which I thankfully had not attended. My mother knew her from democratic political activist circles. I remember being amazed by her sturdy blue leather shoes, with high heels the width of fence posts, exactly like the ones my grandmother wore. Of course I had no idea that she had been the First Lady of the USA before I was born, nor did I have any idea of what a First Lady was or did.

Elanor Roosevelt

I was sitting in a cafe one evening on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, writing on my laptop, using 1/2 hour of paid time for the not-for-free wi-fi when a stranger sat down next to me, insisting that I was the horror novelist Stephen King. When I told him I was not, he insisted that I show him my driver’s license.

 After I did so to calm him down, he pulled out his phone and showed me dozens of photos of Stephen King. Since I don’t really now what I look like, by choice, I couldn’t tell if I resembled Stephen King.  At my advanced age, I avoid looking into mirrors if at all possible. I told him that I had met Stephen King’s editor who lived in the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s stone cottage in Heath, Massachusetts, but I had never met Stephen King and had not read any of his books, having no interest in that kind of frightening storytelling. He eventually let me get back to my e-mail, writing and photo editing but continued to insist that I was Stephen King’s twin brother or doppelganger.

Stephen King

My friend Steve was a young lawyer working overtime in overdrive on high stakes Silicon Valley mergers and acquisition deals when he returned from lunch one afternoon to find a note on his desk from his administrative assistant directing him to call “The Node Coleslaw.” Puzzled at first, he soon figured out that it was a directive to get in touch with Vinod Khosla, for whom he was drafting legal documents for another of his many high stakes deals. 

Khosla was one of the founders of Sun Microsystems and later became one of the primary venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, heading Khosla Ventures which now manages approximately $1 billion of investor capital as well as investments funded by Khosla himself.

Khosla has more recently achieved a degree of ecologically-barbaric infamy on the California Coast. He purchased land near Martin’s Beach, just south of Half Moon Bay, California in 2010, which was previously a popular family beach and surf spot before Khosla purchased the property adjacent to the beach. Khosla promptly built a gate and blocked public access to the beach. The litigation over public access has been in the courts for over 10 years and all judgements thus far have been against Khosla. Former Congressman Pete McCloskey said about the land closure, “To put a rope across the road and say, ‘The hell with you’ – I’d call it the arrogance of great wealth.”

Martin’s Beach

Jimi Hendrix said this on mic, moments before playing “Wild Thing,” setting his guitar on fire, smashing it and throwing it into the audience at the Monterrey Pops Festival in June, 1967. I was in the audience at age 16: rapt, enthralled and unbelieving, not yet knowing that the Who was about to appear next, and would destroy all of their instruments at the violent end of their set. Hendrix had lost the coin toss as to who would close the show that night and did his best to set the night on fire and burn himself into everyone’s memory and remain unforgettable and iconic for the rest of rock history.

Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar • Monterey Pops Festival • June, 1967

Here are some songs about Fame:

Fame • David Bowie and John Lennon

The Rolling Stones on Infamy:

Saint Augustine

Paul McCartney on the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960’s: