When Jim Morrison sang, "The West is the best" in his song "The End", he was referring to the mass exodus of young people to California in the mid-1960s. There has always been a draw to the Golden State though. From the 49ers to Grapes Of Wrath searchers to hippie seekers, many movements have happened from the arrival of so many different views.
As someone who grew up learning and reading about the West it was only appropriate that my honeymoon would be spent there.
The first thing I decided to do was to contact some of the hippies I had interviewed over the years to find out where the best places to go would be. Paul Olsen, who grew up on Haight Street, was a part of the Artists Liberation Front in 1966, and knew the area well gave me some great advice. We wanted to see the touristy stuff, but also leave the beaten path. The only things set in stone were that we were flying into Sacramento and leaving through Las Vegas 10 days later. Paul and I exchanged long emails and he helped to plan my trip.
We also contacted Lee Conklin (Fillmore Wests poster artist from 1967-1969) and Ken Babbs (Merry Prankster, Acid Tests, and Ken Keseys right-hand man). Once an itinerary was established and the wedding was over we embarked on a journey. Mapquest led us on an adventure.
After landing in Sacramento the first shock is that in August most of the plants are dead in California. The dryness and heat make it like our cold winter and quickly you learn why this state is called, "The Golden State."
Following Mapquests directions (Always the shortest path, but not the safest) we ended up driving about 20 miles down the windiest road I had ever seen. Through the Sierra Mountains, turning up and down roads that were barely as wide as our car, there were many beautiful sights to be seen. The reward is when you arrive in the wine country of Napa Valley the smells, colors, and atmosphere are breathtaking.
Driving through the traffic jam of tourists in Saint Helena we stopped at the Berenger Winery for our first tasting. You learn how to release the smell of the wine, twirl, taste, and become an aficionado. For people like me who are not wine drinkers the nice part is that you get several different wines in small servings. This way if the pallet rejects a certain wine you are not trying to force down an entire bottle.
There was one reminder of home there, certain wines are stored in "toasted" barrels. These wines taste like when you cook your water over a fire in the Boundary Waters. The more expensive some wines were the more that burned taste was in them.
The town we were staying in, Calistoga, which was recommended by Paul Olsen, was off the beaten path. Located at the top of the wine country in a quiet valley, we quickly learned that it is always nice to end up staying somewhere that only the natives know about.
Calistoga is a spa town that was beautiful, and with weather that was sunny and 80 during the day and 60 at night it was perfect. The only adjustment was that the wineries open at 10 am and close at 4 pm, so you have to start out early.
After sampling the noble grape for a few days we headed out for the next part of our odyssey, staying 4 days in the San Francisco area. For our next adventure though we would trek up to the Yosemite area and meet Lee Conklin, a gifted artist in the history of Rock and Roll.
Known for his pen and ink drawings used on album covers for Santana, posters for Cream, The Dead, and many others, he has an eye for capturing things most never dream. Even the cover for our wedding program was designed by Lee.
The drive to reach Conklin was down these long and winding roads, up the mountains, and through the windmills of Altamont.
Lee lives in the city of Columbia, a gold rush town with unbelievably gorgeous views. His house was on the top of a mountain and soon we were pulling into his driveway. When he came out to meet us he was dressed in a tie-dye shirt and bandana, a long white hair and beard on top, and was very gracious.
Lee gave us a tour of his house, which was a work of art in itself. His yard was filled with trees and he continued that view onto his walls. He painted a large mural so that if you stood in his living room it was like the woods never ended. His walls were also covered with his old sketches from a book that was published in the early 1970s. You would think he would have the originals, but he sold those long ago.
My wife, Lee, and I talked about the 1960s, how he lived out of his van selling art in the 1970s, his family, art, and anything else we could fit in. He then pulled out a portfolio filled with original watercolors he had painted and then drawn on. Lee Conklin is best known by for drawing faces into his work.
Today, when Lee paints a watercolor of a scene, he then draws different shapes and people throughout the image. A great example would be a watercolor painting I purchased with the mountain's highest peaks being drawn as a woman lying down and her legs slightly bent upward.
Lee also is not afraid to use technology to improve upon what he has learned. He took a digital picture of a flower, blew it up on Kodak paper, and then dripped chemicals on the picture to slightly skew everything. He then went about with different colored pens finding people hidden in the image. In the bay area he is quite well known and his art sells for thousands of dollars. He sold me two originals, a print, and also had the original of my wedding artwork blown up and signed as a gift. The meeting was unbelievable.
After our meeting Lee told me to visit Rockposters.com on Powell Street near Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco.
The Bay Area is best described as Duluth on steroids. The hills are much higher and longer, the mountains are huge, and the weather in mid-August was cold (59 degrees) and foggy.
Knowing only that the shop was on Powell St., we ended up walking the entire thing. It ended up being a few miles up and down gigantic hills to the other side before we finally reached our destination.
Rockposters.com has thousands of old concert posters, and almost every Fillmore poster from the 1960s to today. Fillmore posters were hand-painted by southern California artists in the mid-sixties to advertise Acid Tests and Hippie concerts. San Francisco was the place to be then, and this artwork is what is collected by those who know about it. I began my collection in the mid-1990s when the posters were cheap; today they all sell for thousands.
Grant at Rockposters.com had all the really hard to find posters. He also explained a few back-stories about some of the posters. One was about Wes Wilson and why he painted a naked woman with her arms out in 1966. It was to signify that his wife was pregnant and they needed more money. Bill Graham refused to ante up and so each week Wilson went further with his images.
This situation built to the point of when Wilson painted a snake at the bottom of one poster with a swastika and dollar signs. He was fired for doing this and that was when Lee Conklin came on board. A day later while walking down Haight Street I found one of those Wes Wilson posters hanging in a used record shop, it was a bit beat up, but was priced $20. What a find! Many of the original posters were only printed once, which has made their price and value soar over the years.
Speaking of Hippies, I was pleasantly surprised that Haight Ashbury was not a tourist Mecca. The one thing that stood out was when you look at the pavement on the sidewalks and the wear. You can picture the kids who lived on those streets back in the 1960s and what once existed there. When you walk down the Haight the houses are so unique in shape and color. At the corner of Haight and Ashbury though is a Gap Store, showing that things indeed have changed. The hippies selling pot at the end of the street show that some things will always stay the same for that area though.
On August 18th it was my 30th birthday. I had gotten married six days prior, but now we were in San Francisco on a Friday Night wondering what to do.
On the shuttle from our hotel to the train station there were two gentlemen sitting in front of us. We sparked up a conversation and soon learned that they were members of the group The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They had a show that night in downtown San Francisco at the Independent and were going into town to find provisions. When they found out it was my birthday and honeymoon they put us on the list for the show and demanded we attend.
So that night we drove into downtown San Francisco and found a nice free parking place a block from the venue. When we got to the ticket booth and told them our names they immediately gave us two tickets and we entered the theater. Inside, it was dark and kind of similar to The Tap Room in size, but a bit larger. Quickly the place became packed, and after the opening band was finished The Dirty Dozen Brass Band took the stage. You may have caught the band this past week on ABCs Good Morning America and World News Tonight with Charles Gibson. They are a true New Orleans brass band, and have just released an album titled, Whats Going On in recognition of the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. They write on their web site about the release, "Thirty-five years after its original release, the evocative themes and social commentary found in the songs on Whats Going Onare just as relevant today. Guest vocalists Chuck D, Ivan Neville, G. Love, Guru and Bettye LaVette contribute to The Dirty Dozen Brass Bands musical message. In stores August 29th, Shout! Factory and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band will donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of each copy of Whats Going On to the Tipitinas Foundation, benefiting the music community of New Orleans." Kevin Harris (Saxophone) and Peanut (Trombone) were the two members that we met, and they were spectacular on stage. True New Orleans blues/jazz played to perfection in front of a large crowd. What could be better for ones birthday than getting on the list for a huge band the first night in town, and seeing awesome music? I told them about our Bayfront Blues festival and they sounded interested in trying to come next year.. Well see what happens next summer.
Some other entertainment related items were the Viper Room and Whiskey A Go-Go in Los Angeles. Both were small venues, not what you think of when you read about them. The Whiskey was two floors and about the size of The Fineline in Minneapolis. The unique thing about the club was that the stage is in a corner, forcing it to be the focal point of the bar. We also drove down Hollywood Blvd. and saw the red carpet out at Manns Chinese Theater for the movie premiere of "Beerfest." From there it was onto Las Vegas, and The Fab Four. This is a Beatles tribute that is dead on. Moving through the years they play their own instruments and are excellent. During the show the John Lennon character had a white suit on (Circa the "Imagine" years) and stopped for a moment to reflect on Lennons contributions to society. Extremely heartfelt, you almost felt like Lennon was back in spirit to remind us to carry on his legacy. A legacy that says yes, we need to give peace a chance. He also pointed out how senseless it was for John to be shot while signing an autograph outside of his home.
The last live music we heard was by the Pussycat Dolls at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Not the ones on TV, those are the LA Dolls that stemmed from Johnny Depps Viper Room in L.A. These Dolls looked the same, but were the Vegas franchise (You may have caught them on one of those VH1 list shows out) . There is always a show going on in Vegas, and it was surprising how many big acts are now stationed there. From Celine Dion, Elton John, and Toni Braxton to The Platters, Drifters, Hootie, and even Paris Hilton next week.
At 105 degrees day and night though one cannot help but miss Duluth. The Gold of California and the dessert of Las Vegas are vastly different from the lush green colors of home. Hopefully this year The Dirty Dozen Brass Band makes it up here for Bayfront. Check out their web site to listen or purchase their latest CD at: www.dirtydozenbrass.com.