04 February 2008

It Was Forty Years Ago Today

By February 4, 1968 was already shaping up to be a spectacular year. Spectacularly good or spectacularly bad remained to be seen; there was considerably evidence for both cases.

On the plus side, I was no longer homeless, which was how I'd started the year. On the not so plus side, my new home was rapidly turning into the most demented hippie commune in town. Insanity House, people had taken to calling it, and while we thought of that as high praise, it wasn't generally intended as such.

Originally home to a couple of naive college girls, the one-bedroom apartment just off Ypsilanti's once-genteel but now slightly seedy North Huron Street had quickly become a refuge for an increasingly bizarre assortment of drug-addled misfits and random sociopaths who tended to think of me as first among equals.

The way it worked was generally this: people would show up on our doorstep, having heard that Insanity House was the scene of a more or less constant party, they would take LSD with us, and by the following morning, having shared the intimate bonds of a 12-hour psychedelic adventure, we couldn't imagine sending them back to their own homes, assuming they had any, so of course they had to move in.

Fortunately, it was an unusually large one-bedroom apartment, with the numerous nooks and crannies you'd expect to find in a sprawling 19th century (built 1845) house, so for a while new residents could find places to tuck themselves away where they'd scarcely be noticed. But we seemed to be accumulating people at the rate of one per LSD trip, in other words, one per day.

Well, that wasn't completely accurate. So far this year there'd only been one day I hadn't taken acid, and that had been yesterday, February 3. I hadn't noticed whether anyone had moved in that day, but I knew that the last time we tried counting how many people were living in Insanity House, there'd been over 30. We couldn't be more accurate than that because nobody would sit still long enough for us to finish counting.

But right now I was kind of worried. Partly because we'd run out of acid; at the beginning of the year one of the girls had persuaded some "heavy" dudes over in Ann Arbor to front her 300 hits of acid on the premise that we could sell them to our hippie friends for a good profit. The way we figured it, we only had to sell 200 and then we could afford to eat the rest, but as it happened we never got around to selling any and ate all 300 of them.

So I was mulling over what exactly she'd meant when she referred to the Ann Arbor dudes as "heavy." At the time "heavy" could mean one of two things: either some extra-long-haired guy with an above-average line in cosmic patter, or a drug dealer with guns. I was inclined to think we were involved with the latter.

I was also a bit concerned over something that had happened the night before last, which was the most recent time I'd taken LSD. Just after I'd dropped it, it occurred to me that I'd taken LSD every single day thus far in 1968, and rather brashly announced that I was going to continue to do so for the rest of the year. That string had been broken the very next day, but that wasn't the main thing bothering me (though I did find it slightly annoying to not have been able to follow through on a sincerely made commitment). No, what was troubling me more was the experience I'd had late that night, when I stepped outside to discover that the world had reversed itself and now looked like a photographic negative.

When I woke up the following afternoon, I was nervous about opening my eyes, because I wasn't sure if the world would have returned to its proper color scheme. What actually happened was worse: when I finally did open my eyes, I couldn't tell if it had or hadn't because I simply couldn't remember what color or colors the world was supposed to be. So I moped around the house all day, kind of squinting at things as if by limiting the amount of light that reached my brain I might be able to get a better handle on it.

Another problem made itself evident now that we were out of LSD: a total lack of food and/or money to buy some with. As long as we were tripping, food seemed irrelevant, and we'd gotten by on things like Jello or free pizzas from the hippie who worked at Domino's, but the absence of drugs in our systems made us painfully conscious of the fact that we'd barely eaten in days.

We had one surefire way of raising small amounts of money: this being a college town, there were two big stores where the students bought their textbooks. Whenever they entered either of the stores, they had to leave their own books on shelves at the front of the store (these were more trusting times, so one saw the need for lockers or a bookcheck counter). We'd skulk in, pick up a load of books as though we were the student who'd left them there, and then sidle down the street to the other store where we'd sell them as used.

As high as we usually were, we could see that this was a pretty low thing to be doing, but we figured that as long as the money was going for the cause of the hippie revolution, i.e., to help spread peace, love and drugs throughout the world, ours was the higher cause. "Besides," we frequently reasoned, "those college kids have rich parents, they can afford to buy more books."

But while tactics like that would keep us in junk food and cigarettes, they weren't going to feed 30-some people on a daily basis. Never mind rent; we'd already decided we weren't going to pay it, and if the landlady had an issue with that she was going to have to reckon with the revolutionary wrath of the people. But still, we had to get some money and, more importantly, some drugs.

By early evening our prayers had been answered twofold: our LSD procurer had been been back to Ann Arbor and somehow convinced the "heavy" dudes that if they hoped ever to be paid for the previous 300 hits of acid, they'd have to front us some more. She handed me a vial containing 100 capsules, saying, "Okay, we've got to sell all of these at $5 a pop; that's the only way we'll make enough to pay those guys back."

I raised my eyebrows. "All of them?" "Well, almost all of them. There's probably enough that maybe five of us can trip one time." She then told me she was entrusting me with the stash because if people knew she had it, they'd all be bugging her to give them some.

Meanwhile, I had my own big operation going. A few nights earlier I'd been tripping with some strange guys from Detroit. The acid had been a little speedy and I'd been shooting my mouth off all night about how we were the biggest drug dealers in town and how we were going to use our profits to buy weapons and bombs for the revolutions. It was complete and utter bullshit; most days we were lucky if we could organize ourselves out the front door of our squalid little hippie pad. But the guys from Detroit seemed to take it seriously, especially one shifty-eyed character known as Maurice.

"So, could you get me a key?" he asked, meaning a kilo of marijuana. No problem, I said, I could get a dozen keys if he wanted. In real life the most marijuana I'd ever seen was an ounce, and at $10, that represented considerably more than my life savings.

But here I was on my way to Ann Arbor to do a big dope deal. I was going to bury the LSD stash under the snow in the back yard, but after covering it and uncovering it several times, each time getting more paranoid that someone had seen me or that I wouldn't be able to find it again, and finally stuffed it back in my pocket and took it with me.

The dope deal didn't go quite as planned: my dealer was accustomed to selling ounces and half-ounces to U of M students, not kilos to Detroit wholesalers. He reluctantly sold me all four ounces that he had and I headed back to the car where Maurice was waiting. I was only going to making $5 instead of the $100 I'd planned on, so I felt entitled to grab a handful of dope out of each bag on the way. Even then I was in a foul mood as I climbed back in the car and told Maurice, "Let's get out of here."

But Maurice didn't move, just sat there with a faraway look in his eyes. Across the street I noticed a flurry of motion, which quickly resolved into two rough-looking characters running across the street in our direction. They didn't look friendly, and I said with more urgency, "Maurice, start the car and let's get out of here." Maurice still said nothing, and I made a grab for the keys to start the engine myself, and as I did, I saw that the approaching men were carrying guns.

Ten seconds later I'd been yanked out the door, put face down on sidewalk, and felt the handcuffs snapping into place. I wondered why the cops weren't doing the same to Maurice and then finally put two and two together.

At the cop shop they searched me again, this time finding the extra marijuana I'd pinched and the 100 hits of LSD. They kept me in lockup for a while before questioning me and telling me that I was going to be charged with sales of narcotics (as marijuana was then classified), which carried a penalty of 20 years to life. The only way I'd get off easier was if I testified against the guy I'd bought it from.

Well, that's it, I thought. 20 years old and my life is over. I'd been in jail before, but never for more than a few hours, and now I was going to be locked up for at least as long as I'd been alive. I waited for another hour or two for them to take me back downstairs to the cells, but then they did the last thing I expected: let me go.

"We'll be bringing you back in a few days," the cops said, "but right now you have a little time to think about whether you want to help us out or you want do to the full 20 to life." Later on a lawyer would tell me that what the cops were hoping for was that once back on the street I'd lead them to bigger fish, but at the time I just assumed they were crazy.

Like I'm going to stick around waiting to be locked up for what might as well be life? Fat chance of that that. I hitchhiked back to Ypsilanti, where everyone had already heard the news, and convened a hippie council at one of the neighboring communes. We were supposed to be talking about what I should do, but I'd already decided I was running for it; the only question now was how.

20 or 30 of crammed into a hot, way too brightly lighted room, and a local dealer suggested that we could think better if we all took some LSD, which he duly passed around. By dawn it was arranged that I'd sneak out of town with our friend Jay, who was leaving town and moving back to his parents' house in Brooklyn. He'd hide me there while we figured out the next step, and before it was fully light, we were wrapped up in blankets in his heater-less, headlight-less '41 Mercury, heading south for the Ohio Turnpike.

I only had to hide out for slightly less than a year before things died down. The laws were relaxed, the dealer the cops wanted me to testify against disappeared, and eventually I was able to turn myself in and plead guilty to a greatly reduced charge. But in the meantime, I got to live the life of a fugitive, moving from town to town and state to state, at times relying on the kindness and generosity of the local hippies, at other times eking out a very marginal existence at minimum wage jobs in restaurants, warehouses and canneries.

It was terrifying and exhilarating, often both at the same time. Originally I thought I'd only have to lie low until the revolution came, but a few trips across mainstream America disabused of the notion that that was going to happen any time soon. I lived in squats on the Lower East Side and with a rock band in California, and while I'd never, ever want to go through that year again, I'm kind of glad I had the opportunity to do it once.

If nothing else, it got me out of Michigan and introduced me to California, which turned out to be the place I was meant to spend most of my adult life. In that sense and several others, one of the worst things that could have happened to me turned out to be one of the best, and life often seems to work out that way, doesn't it?


Jersey Beat said...

On 2/4/68, I was two days away from my 15th birthday and hoping I could be captain of the chess team someday.

P said...

Fascinating. You should write a book.

Ted said...

Which "rock band" did you live with in California?

Larry Livermore said...

The band was named Milkwood, after the Dylan Thomas play. They were from Rochester, New York, except for one guy who was a dead ringer in both looks and attitude for Frank Zappa. I can't remember what a single one of their songs sounded like even though they practiced in our living room almost every day. I'm guessing it was fairly generic hippie stuff.

A friend of mine was their "manager" for a while, but after he sent them on a 200-mile trip to San Luis Obispo for a show that didn't exist, he was out of the picture, and I don't remember them doing many gigs after that apart from a free show in Provo Park. Their crowning achievement, and something they had dreamed of doing ever since they migrated west, was to play at the Straight Theater on Haight Street. Not many people showed up, but it was a real show at a real hippie venue, and after that there seemed nowhere to go but down. The Zappa clone went back to LA and the rest of them went home to Rochester where I imagine you might still find some of them today.

I don't mean my dismissive comments about the music to obscure the fact that they were very nice people (Zappa clone excepted) and were very kind to take me in off the streets. There were also a couple other Rochester-ites living there who weren't in the band but who I grew very closely, one being a Mama Cass lookalike named Sandy and the other a bizarre but fascinating hobbit-like creature called Flam, who even in the midst of summer wore an ankle-length overcoat that covered everything but his face and an enormous Afro that sat like a ball of dark brown cotton candy atop his beanpole frame.

Flam was a non-drug taking, non-drinking, non-swearing medievalist who was about as far removed from the cultural ferment of 1968 Berkeley as Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine, who he liked to read late, late at night seated under a random street lamp. Flam also coined a memorable term which I've been using ever since: once, when we were lounging about on the lawn of some stately home back in Rochester, a Ladies Garden Club delegation passed by looking rather sniffily at us. "Don't gawk, ladies," Flam shouted, "we're just aristocrats in exile."

Ted said...

It's interesting that they were once signed to Herb Alpert's label and their album has been re-issued on CD in Italy.

Patrick Lundborg writes about them
in his Acid Archives book and website:

UNDER MILKWOOD (San Francisco, CA)

"Under Milkwood" 1970 (A & M 4226) [test press; plain cover]
"Under Milkwood" 1993 (Fanny, Belgium) [500#d]
"Under Milkwood" 200 (Akarma 095, Italy)
"Under Milkwood" 200 (CD Akarma 095, Italy)

This test press item opens with an enjoyable Tripsichordish number but the rest of the album ranges from weak to awful, with some uninspired sax excursions that makes you wonder how A & M ever saw anything in them. In any event they were right not to release it, and it should never have been reissued. The album came in a plain cover with title and catalog number. The Fanny reissue credits the band as Milkwood only. [PL]

"Aristocrats in Exile" could be a candidate for a chapter or book title or the subtitle for your song "1973"!

Larry Livermore said...

Wow, I'm not even positive it's the same band. It's hard to imagine that they could have been recording or getting ready to record an album while I was living with them without my being aware of it, but such was the nature of the times. And actually, now that I think about it, I do have some vague recollections of some record company drama. But also, on one of the websites I found that mentions the album, they cite a different woman as singer, which bewilders me, although I suppose she could have been recording under a pseudonym and/or been replaced. The woman I knew was the girlfriend of the Frank Zappa clone, which seemed to me the main reason he was tolerated by the rest of the band. The description of the music sounds about right, though. I also note that they're variously referred to as Under Milkwood and just plain Milkwood, which also jibes with my memories; it seems like they were going back and forth over which name to use.

br37t said...

That was a really cool story. I wish i could have lived during those times because its so diffrent now and i feel like i dont fit in. I should have been alive during the 60's. BTW i live in Livonia MI i just find that funny.

Christen said...

Ahhhh, the Age of Aquarius. When I say it sounds like the most nauseous phase of recent history, I mean it literally and with great respect; as someone who gets nauseated at the drop of a hat, I have utmost respect for anyone who lived through that period without horking constantly.

Anonymous said...

Hey there, I wrote the review of Milkwood mentioned a few posts above this. It's possible it was a different band, would be cool to figure out. Do you recall if "your" Milkwood featured a sax player? There's a lot of sax on that A & M test press album.

// Patrick L

Larry Livermore said...

I don't remember a sax player. And I think the time line is wrong, too, as at least some of the members of "my" Milkwood were back in Rochester NY (where most of them hailed from) by May of 1969. What might be a more likely possibility is that some (or maybe only one or two) kept the band or at least the name going after the rest of them gave up on it and headed back east. I also seem to have noticed that the female singer listed on the recording had a different name than the girl that lived with us.