The Growing Season: The Noctambulist, Rondo, & Iopan
I arrived early that night and parked at the rear. There was no one around. Looking down the dark corridor toward Canon Perdido Street, I saw that other businesses were closed. But here in back, where something was always going on at this time of night, the coffee house was strangely quiet. The back door was locked. No one came when I knocked.
With guitar case heavy in hand, I followed the empty corridor to the sidewalk out in front, went around, and came back along the other side, hearing my slow footsteps on the worn walkway between the building and the adjacent Lobero Theater. The front door of the coffee house was locked, too. The place was dark inside except for a night-light behind the counter. Through a colored window I saw silhouettes of cups and dishes in disarray, of chairs and tables askew. No one was inside. The Noctambulist coffee house was closed. My first gig as a folksinger was over!
Just beyond those colored windows, from Memorial Day weekend 1959 until January 1960, I shared the stage with a variety of folksingers and musicians, artists and exhibitionists, as people stood in lines half a block long—at both doors—waiting to get in and see what the beatnik coffee house phenomenon was all about.
Against the sizzle, hiss and gurgle of the espresso machine, steeped in the scents of cider, cinnamon and coffee, shrouded in the fog of cigarette smoke, I sang folk songs and accompanied myself on a new Goya nylon-string guitar. Getting ten or fifteen dollars a night to do what I loved, I could hardly believe my good fortune. With the place doing such good business—so I thought—I was shocked when the Noctambulist closed. In Santa Barbara in January 1960, there was nowhere else to play.
I grew up with music. My dad was a classically trained singer who performed and taught, and played alto saxophone. My mom was a pianist. At the age of six, I awakened to the beauty of music in the themes of the “Lone Ranger” radio program. From then on music was part of my life. Piano lessons came first at age nine. Later I learned Hawaiian guitar, alto and tenor saxophones, and clarinet and bass clarinet. As a teenager I played sax and clarinet in dance bands and had numerous gigs. At Pasadena City College I was in the marching band. At UCSB I was in the concert band and woodwind ensemble, as well as dance bands. I entertained with my tenor sax during sloppy parties, or reverberating from tiled bathrooms late at night, or by pounding out dissonant rhythms on the piano at the fraternity house.
My second musical awakening happened at age sixteen in 1950 when I heard “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky. This moved me to become a serious composer. I majored in music at Pasadena City College and the University of California, Santa Barbara. But before I really got going, I was discouraged from composition by the department head and my dad. They urged me to be practical, to get a teaching credential instead. Then I was intimidated by older musician friends who surpassed me in skill and experience. And, if truth be told, I was embarrassed to be a music major. I dropped out of formal music altogether, but continued to play the piano and the sax and to compose pieces on my own. I loved modern music, some classical music, and was interested in jazz and what was then referred to as “race music.” But I turned to another love, writing, and finally left college to be a writer.
I enjoyed singing in grade school, in the Pasadena Boys’ Choir, in the UCSB men’s glee club, and college fraternity performances—as long as I didn’t have to sing a solo. Then it was a misery. I was even embarrassed to hum a tune to a friend. No one would have predicted my ending up a professional singer.
My earliest folksinger model was my dad. As an operatic-type singer, he had an accompanist. But for a brief period, he became enthused about accompanying himself on guitar and learned enough to do so. I found it embarrassing. Then in college I heard a girl sing quaint folk songs while playing the guitar upside down and backwards. I thought she was intriguing.
My third musical awakening occurred at age twenty-three in 1957, in the army at Fort Gordon, Georgia. A fellow in my company named John Killgrew had a classical guitar and played Spanish-sounding music. He also sang folksongs. I listened and was thrilled. Soon I had my mom in Pasadena send an unused guitar. Killgrew showed me some chords and pickings. In January 1958, after replacing the steel strings with easier-playing nylon strings, I became serious and started teaching myself to play the guitar.
My fourth musical awakening, still at age twenty-three, occurred at the Bon Aire Hotel lounge in Augusta, Georgia. There a singer-guitarist called “King Charles the Second,” known in the 1960s as Casey Anderson, sang with such a rich, expressive baritone voice that I was completely inspired. I was so moved that I wanted to sing by myself and—glory be!—was no longer embarrassed to do so. By the time I got out of the army in January 1959, I had a small repertoire and—more amazing yet—had actually entertained army buddies. My life had taken a new direction.
I lived with my folks in Pasadena, and worked at gardening jobs during the day and song arrangements at night. I bought a Goya G-20 classical guitar from the Southern California Music Company in Los Angeles.
My dad, surprised and impressed by my new approach to music, called on me to perform whenever there were guests. Among my new arrangements were some Old English bawdy songs that I learned from a recording by Ed McCurdy. I embarrassed the guests, amused my dad, and caused my mom to leave the room. Oh well… I was on a new road and unstoppable.
One night I sang at a party above the Sunset Strip and was a big hit, and pleased, to be sure. One of my fraternity brothers told me about a coffee house that was opening in Santa Barbara and said I could get a job there.
Soon I auditioned for Jerry Nuvalon, one of the owners of the new Noctambulist coffee house in Santa Barbara, and was hired. He wanted me to come in on weekends, late, to attract crowds after the bars closed. So I started around midnight, Friday of Memorial Day weekend in May 1959, several weeks after my twenty-fifth birthday. I had several dozen songs in my repertoire, a third of them bawdy and satirical, and a lot of them had Spanish-sounding accompaniments. Jerry introduced me as a “flamingo folksinger.”
Going through the crowded room to the stage, I was amazed, and not a little terrified, to think I was about to play for all those people—for fifteen dollars, yet!—pretty good pay in those days and double what I made doing yard work all day. I wore a dark brown suit and dark tie, glasses, temporarily had a trimmed mustache like John Killgrew, and was very nervous. I played and sang with rigid intensity and didn’t have much to say, to say the least. During the breaks, I didn’t know what to do. So I stood by the counter and got in the way of the frantic waitresses, Irene, Sandi, Judy, and Susie. The scents, the sounds, and the sights were all so new and strange that it was a relief when Jerry Nuvalon asked me to do another set. By then the crowd had thinned.
A blond-haired guy and a blond-haired gal sat at a table directly in front of me and appeared to be very interested. At the end of my set, he told me that we knew each other, but it took me awhile to remember him. Gary Sorenson was his name, and we had
attended Arroyo Seco Elementary School in Pasadena at the same time, years ago. We renewed our acquaintance.
The blond gal with him was named Caroline Denny. She didn’t say much, but I thought she was quizzically interested. I was attracted to her. She was separated from her husband at age twenty-two.
During my last set, I could not help noticing a teenaged boy sitting by himself at a table along the wall. He applauded loudly after every song and shouted his approval. When I ended for the night with “Sam Hall,” about a man facing the gallows, in which each stanza concluded with the phrase, “Goddamn your eyes!” he stood up and cheered. He was so enthusiastic; I figured I was bound for stardom.
His name was David Crosby. He was sixteen and had a choirboy’s cherubic face, in which lurked the devil. He was there many times when I played. Soon I would hear him singing in the audience. When I mentioned that he sang good harmony, he moved closer until he was sitting on the edge of the stage. When I acknowledged this, he took to sitting beside me on stage. Soon he edged in to share the microphone. Pretty soon I heard us called “Tony and Dave.” Later in the school year, it became “Dave and Tony.” We weren’t really a duo, however. David was a nervy kid with a nice voice who wasn’t afraid to use it. He didn’t play an instrument; but he did have a good ear for harmony, paid close attention to what I was doing, and usually blended well. He added to the music, so I didn’t mind him sitting in.
The Noctambulist coffee house was owned by Bill Yeakel and Jerry Nuvalon. Bill was one of the Yeakel Brothers of the car dealership in Los Angeles. I heard that he put up the money. Jerry apparently had a background in restaurant management. He ran the place.
The Noctambulist was located in the endmost unit in a long, Spanish-style building next to the Lobero Theater on Cañon Perdido and Anacapa streets. It consisted of a larger main room and a smaller, balcony-like room for quiet couples. The back door gave access to a large parking lot behind the building. It was supposed to be the service entrance but was used mainly by the regulars. The front entrance was directly across from the Green Room of the Lobero Theater. Actors came over for cappuccinos or hot ciders during rehearsals, and the theater crowd stopped by after performances.
As you entered the front door, a small stage was just to the right. Some colored lights shown down upon the stage with its microphone, chairs, upright piano, and dark drapes. From the stage you looked across a roomful of old-fashioned long and narrow tables, small tables, and old chairs. Glass-enclosed candles burned on the tables. Across the room, against the far wall by the back door, was the small kitchen area with a counter-bar. An even smaller dishwashing area was in back of the kitchen. A large copper steam machine stood impressively on the bar, but it was more decorative than functional, according to the other Bill (not Yeakel), who, with his long, twirling, rusty orange mustache, was the mastermind of the drinks. Instead, a sleek modern Italian espresso machine sizzled and gurgled hot drinks. Bill helped set up the Noctambulist, having acquired his experience at the Insomniac coffee house in Hermosa Beach. He played the banjo a little. Bill left early in the summer.
To the right of the stage was the smaller room with its short staircase and balcony rail. During breaks, recordings of Theodore Bikel, Cynthia Gooding, The Limelighters, Carlos Montoya, and others were played on the house sound system below. As viewed from the stage, the wall on the left was decorated with a colorful, cartoon-like mural by the well-known artist Don Freeman, which satirized various local “very important people.” The slouching, androgynous figure of the “night walker” on the Noctambulist menu cover was done by local fine artist Michael Dvortcsak. The attempt to combine classic Santa Barbara sensibilities with current beatnik strangeness seemed successful and made the Noctambulist a unique and interesting place. It seemed to have so much going for it that I couldn’t understand why it lasted less than a year.
At first I saw Jerry Nuvalon quite often. Later I didn’t see much of him, since he hired managers. Bill Yeakel came to Santa Barbara on weekends for a while. Dating the good-looking waitresses was a primary activity of both of them. Jerry soon married one, a girl named Irene Schilling. They rented an apartment from David Crosby’s mother near the Miramar Hotel in Montecito. After awhile, Jerry took to inviting some of the regulars to Johnnie’s, a narrow bar nearby on State Street, where Al Reese sang and played piano, and George and Cal played jazz on piano and drums. There he would buy rounds for the house. Employees, left behind at the Noctambulist, began to talk about this with some concern.
There were lots of folksingers and musicians at the Noctambulist, and right away I found my position shaky. I was supposed to work on a certain night and at the last minute Jerry Nuvalon would tell me to come in some other night, or worse, to skip that week. But I hung in, and by the end of summer I was the regular.
Classical guitarist Celedonio Romero, his wife, and guitarist sons would stop by from time to time and clap “compas” to the flamenco guitar playing of Jeff Poklen, an art student at UCSB. Or one of the Romeros might do a piece or two. Pepe Romero played flamenco and dazzled the audience with his swift, fluid touch. Celin, the eldest son, tried out my Goya guitar one night and said it was good. I was pleased.
By far the best folksinger that summer was Tim Ward, a drama student from Stanford. Younger than I, Tim had obviously been at it awhile and used his resonant voice skillfully. His straightforward guitar playing complemented his voice. Urbane and tasteful, he did folk standards as well as more cutting-edge songs from Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. I listened to him with much interest and later worked out arrangements of several of his pieces, including “The Reuben James” and “The Bells of Rhymney.”
About two weeks after I started, a local radio announcer came in to record Tim Ward’s performance. He was nice enough to record me, too, as well as another singer named Peter Tevis. Peter was from Santa Barbara, as I recall, but had been in Los Angeles, where he had been trying to break into the music business. He was a good-looking, dynamic performer whose voice seemed too big for his small stature. He sounded more like pop singer Tony Martin than a folksinger. He played a nylon-string guitar and strummed so hard he once had bloody fingers. He left after a few weeks.
Probably the most popular singer was Julie Felix, who acted out her songs with sunny personality. She had many fans who came just to hear her do Mexican songs such as “Paloma.”
Jeff Poklen impressed me with his flamenco guitar playing, to the degree that I took some lessons from him. I went to his house on Mountain Drive near the reservoir on Sunday afternoons and tried to duplicate what he showed me, hoping I wouldn’t forget before I got home. Then I would drive in the warm wind down the winding road past the Old Mission, hearing those Phrygian modal chords and melodies winding down in my head to the inevitable root chord. I loved flamenco guitar but didn’t want to devote my life to being a flamenco guitarist. I wanted to do songs with arrangements that fit and enhanced them, and I thought I could use the flamenco techniques and invent my own. Nobody else around, that I knew about, was doing that sort of thing. It seemed like I was discovering something new.
A conga drum group played for a while, which included John Lazell, inventor of strange, giant instruments. The drumming was hypnotic but got to be a bit too much for me. John Stewart, who later replaced Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio, came in after a concert (of John and Monty) at UCSB and wanted to jam. I was all through and wanted to leave. The conga drummers were holding forth. During their break, Stewart borrowed my guitar. He sat on stage and did a song or two. Then the conga drummers came back on, surrounding him from behind, and started playing along. When he finished his song, they kept the beat going. It was a challenge, and he resumed playing instead of getting off the stage. They wouldn’t let him stop. I wanted to go around the corner to Stan’s and have breakfast, but John Stewart had my guitar. On and on they went. He was obviously getting worn out and I felt sorry for him. He finally left the stage, but the drummers stayed on. I was happy to get my guitar back and leave.
Bill Dodds entertained with a combination of Dixieland piano and tuba and took my former place in the late-night hours after the bars closed. He was terrific with his specialized good-time music and drew big crowds.
I worked hard that summer of 1959 on new arrangements. Ed McCurdy, Odetta, the Kingston Trio, Harry Belafonte, and Tom Lehrer were main sources. Several music books, such as Jerry Silverman’s book of blues and “Song Fest” by Dick and Beth Best, were also very useful. I liked the dramatic singing of McCurdy, Belafonte, and Odetta, and was so taken with Odetta’s signature guitar playing that I began to use similar hammer-on/pull-off effects.
The customers at the Noctambulist were diverse. Most were nice, but not all. Once, I became aware of two guys making fun of me. Actually, their remarks and snickers were antagonistic. I finally stopped playing and walked past their cuts to the counter. I told the harried manager what was happening. He told me flatly that he was too busy. I had a problem. I couldn’t deal with another set like the last, but I had no one to help me. I decided there was no course but to face those guys. I went straight to their table and, seeing the hostility in their faces, introduced myself, shook hands, and asked if I could sit down. They were looking for a fight and this caught them off guard. Their faces changed. I don’t remember what I said, but I made friends with them. They stayed for another set and were applauding. They became fans and returned often over the summer.
People from the past showed up to find out what my new musical role was about. Usually they seemed surprised, and sometimes impressed. In addition, new fans were on the scene, some of whom were very intense and a bit disturbing. Being shy, I was still able to make friends with many people at the Noctambulist. In dance bands, I was distant from the dancers. In the coffee house, I actually sat down and got to know the customers.
Others weren’t interested in the music at all. Two plainclothes policemen asked me what I knew about drug use there. I knew as much about that as I did about the surface of the moon. And I wondered if the powers-that-be were trying to shut the place down.
Some customers came out of spite. Why would a beatnik coffee house have a dress code? Apparently it did and it had been enforced, and now the fellows came back to mock it. Their shoes were swim flippers. They wore shorts. They wore sport coats with ties but no shirts. One had a banana in his breast pocket. Jerry Nuvalon approached them with his forced smile and said, “I see you have a banana in your pocket.” An altercation of words followed and they flapped out shouting obscenities.
Some came to be offended. The Noctambulist was placed off-limits to students of Westmont College, a religious school, because the Westmont authorities considered me and my songs offensive. I found that absurd and irritating. My rebellious streak was aroused and I wasn’t about to change my ways. I enjoyed making people laugh, especially by poking fun at self-righteous morality and religion.
Some customers came to sell things. In the fall, a man approached me during a break and said, “I understand you’re looking for a banjo.” I wasn’t, but what kind and how much? In an old chipboard case with the inscription “Kansas Ramblers,” it was a Bacon banjo with a fifth string that got in his way. I bought it for his asking price of fifty bucks—a steal—and finally taught myself to play with the help of Pete Seeger’s instruction booklet. Aside from a couple of harmonicas, that Bacon five-string banjo was the only musical instrument that was ever stolen from me. But I got it back!
Some came to sing along. David Crosby brought two high school friends, Maria Cordero and René Leyva. Suddenly we were an impressive quartet. Maria was around a lot but I had no idea she could sing so well. That was the first time I met René and heard his rich voice. They all sang great harmony.
Some came to play along. Larry Finley was a wizard on the bongos. He accompanied my up-tempo songs with verve and had the good taste not to play on the slow ones. Denis (Rick) Hazelwood brought his stand-up bass, quickly learned the songs, and added solid depth.
Some of the regulars became my guitar students. Caroline Denny rented a Martin classical guitar from the Bonnie Langley Music Company. I showed her how to play a few things and she recorded my songs—my second recording session. When I played her guitar, I scratched its face. She ended up buying it. She was a natural who learned quickly but rarely practiced. She was my first guitar student and David Crosby was the second. David’s mother bought him a new Goya G-10. Shortly, the bridge tore loose. He was devastated, but it was repaired or replaced and I gave him some lessons.
There were many regulars: Robert and Regina, and her sisters Stella and Carrie, who were always interested; Don a student at Brooks Institute who shot my first publicity photos; Bud the photographer from across the street who never brought his camera; Bobby the blond elf who adventured in a dangerous world; Big Jim the mustachioed cowpoke of folklore; Jim the hunter and his blond doe of a wife; Charlotte the lonely mountain woman; Jeannie who projected her vision of love; the liquor store clerk who didn’t like the way I didn’t look at people; Pollyanna of rigid religion who yearned to break free; Steve the baritone sax band mate and his nephews Tom and Fred; the last manager Kenny; and so many others whose names have vanished from memory.
With so many people coming to the Noctambulist, Jerry Nuvalon wore the mask of success. But he drank a lot and with a pocket full of cash bought rounds for the house at Johnnie’s. He apparently owed money to many. Getting paid was easy at first. Later on I had to ask Jerry and even go to his house. The very last time, he came to the door with a grey-green complexion, but he paid me. I was one of the lucky ones to whom no money was owed at the end.
I was on Gene Forsell’s late-night TV talk show for the first time on January 1, 1960. Gene introduced me, we chatted a bit, and I sang two songs: “The Reuben James” and “Easy Rider.” Returning to the Noctambulist after the show, I found there were no customers. We soon closed up for the night. Not long after that, the Noctambulist closed up for good.
What to do now? For a while I was at loose ends. In those days one could survive, and even thrive, on very little money. I was living in a tin shed in an elderly woman’s backyard. I didn’t need much. So, with no responsibilities, I decided to forget about performing and spend as much time as possible on new music and writing.
Advertising in the paper, I got a few guitar students and a part-time gardening job in Montecito. From then on I followed a schedule: Up early to write stories, followed by music. In the afternoons the job, then a workout, dinner at Joe’s, Leon’s, Arnoldi’s or Nanking Gardens, at friends’ houses, such as the Berquists’, or at home, followed by teaching or…whatever. The “early to bed-early to rise” regimen, though not my natural way, was invigorating and productive. By summer’s end I had doubled my repertoire and written several long stories. I was in the best shape yet, and life seemed pretty good. The missing element was performing, but I didn’t miss it much.
My first original songs, written during that time with college friend Bill Richardson—his words and my music—were: “Flow River Flow,” “The Runaway Donkey,” “Last Ride,” and “That’s Lobotomy” (“The One Note Call” came several years later). The first song with both my music and lyrics, “Come Back My Love,” was written then, too.
Folk music places began to crop up near UCSB. In Isla Vista a small, nondescript house was the site of the Limbo. A blues singer named Te-Jo Dugay was on hand to perform whenever customers appeared.
The Omtae was in Isla Vista on Camino Del Norte. The name was an acronym for Our Means To An End. The owner was a screenwriter who had taken refuge in Isla Vista after some bitter experiences in the Hollywood film industry. I did a set one night. David Crosby happened by and moved right in to sing along. Borsodi’s appeared later. And later, too, came The Fishbowl, where I played a few times.
I seem to recall that flamenco guitarist/ teacher Chuck Keyser ran a small coffee house in Isla Vista, as well, that presented Spanish Gypsy music. Later on I took lessons from Chuck.
A modern beer bar called the Contempus featured a state-of-the-art sound system that played jazz. Located on Hollister near Fairview in Goleta, this place had no live entertainment, but it did have small tables, fat cushions, and round wicker chairs that foreshadowed the Rondo décor. Eventually, it became the site of the Nexus, where lots of entertainers performed, including me.
My third recording session occurred on September 16, 1960, at Scott Robinson’s house. A friend of David Crosby, Scott had some good equipment. David was there, too. I recorded their choice of songs, plus my new ones, mostly in one take. There was a lot of pressure because recording was like fixing the songs in cement. David wanted to sing harmony. But Scott insisted on recording me and my guitar. David only sang on two: “They Call the Wind Maria” and “Shenandoah.” It was interesting to encounter someone more willful than David.
Another night at Scott Robinson’s house, David Crosby introduced me to Jim McGuinn, a guitar and banjo player from Chicago. Known later as Roger McGuinn, he was accompanying The Limelighters or Chad Mitchell Trio. David met him in L.A., was impressed and thought the two of us should get together. We tried to accommodate each other, but our musical meeting was awkward. We did “Sloop John B” and other songs, and David sang harmony. Jim was very pleasant. But we played in such different ways that I was too uncomfortable. So the embryonic Byrds began forming without me.
In early autumn, Bud & Travis came to UCSB. They were unique, I read, because of their wide repertoire and counterpoint between voices and classical/flamenco guitars. But that was my approach—and I thought I was unique! It was a great show with stunning vocals, guitar playing, and humor. They were unique. Well…we were each unique! The next day, inspired by Bud & Travis, I started the guitar accompaniment for my song, “Coming Home,” a song which took months to complete.
Then Caroline Denny told me about the Rondo. Not a coffee house, it was more an art gallery with beer. They were interested in having entertainment. She had talked to the owner about me. After hearing Bud & Travis, I wanted to start playing again, so I went that night.
The Rondo was located on the ground floor of a two-story building at the northwest corner of Canon Perdido and De La Vina streets, several blocks west of the defunct Noctambulist. The second story consisted of apartments. This combination of business and living units proved, in the long run, fatal to the Rondo.
The entrance was in an alcove on Canon Perdido Street. What you experienced when you came past the rough-hewn door was relaxed good taste, pleasing to the senses. A partition of strung pottery pieces and a large redwood planter separated the entry from the main room just beyond. Turning left, you approached the bar that was parallel to the street and was lighted by hanging pottery lamps made by Oscar Bucher. The barstools were like tall chairs in someone’s modern home. Colorful abstracts by local artists adorned the walls. Comfortable carpet flowed up and onto low benches along the walls. Small tables, low chairs, and fat cushions encouraged sitting around on the floor. Clusters of pottery lamps hung in the corners. Close to the far end of the bar were entrances to two other rooms. One room, at the corner of the building, had a locked doorway to the street. It was the art gallery showing abstract paintings. The other was a back room with long, low benches along the walls. Cushions, small tables, and the same low, circular seats of woven cane and metal frame were here and there on the raffia-woven rug. It was like someone’s comfortable home, someone with a penchant for art and entertaining friends. The bartender said the owner, Lili Schuler, was going to be there the following night and that I should meet her.
Lili Schuler was a stout, pretty woman with a warm, outgoing personality, who always seemed to be on the verge of giving you a hug. She spoke in an accented, musical voice that tumbled easily into laughter. She was expecting me. I played a set of songs while sitting on one of the long benches in the back room. She was enthusiastic and effusive. I was hired. With the entertainer’s blood flowing and glowing again, I started my second gig as a folksinger in November 1960, around the time JFK was elected president.
I held forth in the back room and soon discovered that playing in a beer bar was quite different from a coffee house. For one thing, a lot more people were a lot more loose. Without a stage or sound system, I really had to sing out to be heard over the din. In addition, the cigarette smoke was dense. When large, jolly groups filled the back room, the noise and the smoke were almost too much to take. Music listeners became annoyed at the talkers. Verbal altercations sometimes took place. One night the people were so loud that I stood up and said to no one in particular—because no one could hear me—“I’m going to take a long break.”
The best times for me were early or late, when people came just for the music. Some I knew from the Noctambulist. And I made new friends and fans. It got so that I could put on pretty good shows, singing and playing well, chattering between songs whenever relevant or humorous thoughts popped into mind, smiling at people, talking with them during the breaks. I enjoyed those times immensely.
Denis Hazelwood brought his bass in to back me up. (They wouldn’t let David Crosby, who was still a minor, in the door.) Denis also brought his flute, and I would accompany him on several pieces. He started singing, as well, and I would often take the harmony part, which was great fun. I got a classical guitar strap and took to standing up when Denis was there. Awkward at first, standing soon became preferable. Dealing with the noisy, smoky crowds was a little easier with both of us making music.
I wrote some new songs around then with Jason Smith, a friend of Bill Richardson. He brought me the words and I set them to music as “Caryl Chessman,” “The Night Wind Is My Bride,” and “Angela.”
I didn’t see Lili Schuler very often, nor meet her husband Fred for a while, because the Rondo was run by her brother Oscar Bucher and his wife Joy, neither of whom had much experience along that line. Instead, Oscar was a potter of growing renown and Joy was a painter. They lived with the Schulers and their children, along with the grandparents, in a big, Spanish-style house near La Cumbre Road. It was a house full of colorful pots, paintings, and parties, in a state of constant chaos, with big containers of lentil soup simmering on the restaurant-style stove ready for feeding the multitudes. Lili and her family had come from Switzerland. Fred Schuler, born in the U.S. of Swiss descent, was quiet and sculpted small, careful forms in his studio. He was a chemist with some big company in town. They had four young children.
Other folksingers didn’t show up much at the Rondo, probably because of the casual, noisy conditions and no stage or sound system. In addition to me, a singer named John Cook was hired briefly. John Stewart also dropped in to the Rondo to jam. In town for concerts with The Cumberland Three, he brought along a new guy in the group, Mike Settle. The two of them and Denis and myself made quite a sound for the folks in the back room.
The success of the Rondo brought its own problems. The main one concerned audience response. People lived in the apartments upstairs, and the landlord claimed they complained about the applause. But many tenants, including long-time friend Brad Currey, liked the Rondo and came to hear the music. Apparently, some did not, and they were out to have their way. The landlord, Mert Lusink, told Lili, Oscar, and Joy they would have to stop the entertainment. But an agreement was worked out with Lusink to limit entertainment to Friday and Saturday nights—without applause. We told customers in the back room not to applaud, but to snap their fingers instead. This caught on and people got a kick out of it. Someone brought a tape machine in during that time and recorded a couple of sets, so the strange finger-snapping was captured for posterity.
A brief gig at the Boom Boom came along to fill the empty nights. Located on the east side of State Street just south of Haley, the Boom Boom was a beer bar in a narrow room with a South Seas motif. I seem to remember fishnet with cork floaters and glass balls on the ceiling, palm fronds with colorful designs, and basket-woven panels around. It was owned by Steve Genardini, a conga drummer who played there with a jazz group. I did my varied mix of songs.
John Stewart came to jam at the Boom Boom. The Cumberland Three performed all over the place in those days, and John asked me if they could use “The Runaway Donkey,” one of the songs I’d written with Bill Richardson. And I said no! I can’t for the life of me remember why I said no. But there must have been some good reason. Oh well…
One night, a woman was not amused during my rendition of “The Old Dope Peddler” by Tom Lehrer. She soon left. During my next night, Steve Genardini approached with some concern. It seemed that I had been reported to the police by that very woman for trying to sell drugs at the Boom Boom. He was contacted by the authorities and apparently told them the woman was sort of a nut case, that all I did was sing a funny song. Steve seemed amused, but may have advised caution. I found it hard to believe anyone could be so offended, go to such an extreme, over a song. I was not sympathetic, just annoyed and rebellious. This and the Westmont experience were making me a bit paranoid.
Earlier that spring of 1961, two fellows named Bill Berner and Dan Barrows asked me to play at their new coffee house, the Iopan. But I was already committed. Later, when the no-applause/weekends-only policy went into effect at the Rondo, Bill and Dan were nice enough to bring me to the Iopan during the week. For a short time I may even have played at all three places: the Iopan, the Boom Boom, and the Rondo.
At the Rondo, the complaints still came. Finally, Lusink threatened to cancel the Schulers’ lease unless they stopped the entertainment entirely. Lili was too upset to tell me, I think, so Oscar and Joy gave me the edict.
At that point, Bill Berner, Dan Barrows, and I agreed to my working regularly at the Iopan, a gig that lasted for the better part of a year. The Iopan was located in an old, Victorian-style house, three stories tall, on the southwest corner of Chapala and Micheltorena streets. It was set back from the streets. The yard alongside Micheltorena was for customer parking. I used to park under a tall evergreen tree there. You went up some steps and crossed the front porch to reach the door. I remember it as creaky and kind of like a ghost house, a great spot for a coffee house. You entered a fairly large, hall-like room with a high ceiling. To the right was an unused portion. Ahead was a staircase to the upper floors, which were living quarters. Next to the staircase was a long hallway leading to a bathroom, extra rooms, and the kitchen. To your left was a large living room that opened into a dining room. Colorful paintings hung here and there. Picnic-style tables and benches had tall, glass-enclosed candles and ashtrays on them. A kind of stool with a wing-like top to put capos and picks on, as well as one’s behind, was for the performer. The wing-topped stool was located at the end of the room nearest the entrance and was where I held forth most of the time, semi-sitting, semi-standing. On other occasions the entertainment was centered at the opposite end of the room close to the kitchen.
The Iopan was a whole different world from the Rondo. For one thing, it was quiet. I was so used to being immersed in that swamp of noise and smoke, that for a while I was like a fish out of water, exposed and vulnerable. There was no hiding out at the Iopan. I had to be right on target, hit the right notes, because whatever I did could be heard with clarity. Getting used to the quiet was as hard as getting used to the noise at the Rondo.
Old friends and fans started coming and I started making new ones, as well. Bill Berner and Dan Barrows were pleased, kidded around as tycoons, referring to each other by their initials, BB and DB, and they included me, TT, too. I never quite knew what to make of them. Bill had thick, sandy-colored hair. Dan was almost bald. Bill was an artist who seemed more like an actor. Dan was an actor who seemed more like an artist. Neither one seemed like a businessman. Dan was like the Sancho Panza to Bill’s Don Quixote. Bill was the visionary and Dan was on a lark. They both had a twinkle in the eye and laughed a lot. And that suited me. Bill and Dan never missed paying me, either.
Marilyn Berner, Bill’s wife, was the main presence at the Iopan. A lovely gal, she radiated warmth and friendliness and did everything in an easy manner. Marilyn greeted people, waited tables, managed the kitchen, prepared the food and drinks, cleaned up, and dealt with the unexpected—not that Bill and Dan didn’t help out, too. She had been on the road as an actress in The Bishop’s Company, but was now in the domestic mode. Bill had a wild little kid named Billy from a previous marriage who was in Marilyn’s care. And she and Bill were expecting their first child.
I heard David Crosby do mournful songs in minor keys and give his philosophy of life. Don Robertson came in from a day job and sang with an impressive voice. I seem to recall Don trading a nylon-string guitar for a brown-wood, steel-string guitar owned by a co-worker, Gordon Buck, making them both happy. John Cook played and sang blues and folk standards in his studied, poker-faced manner. I think Te-Jo Dugay may have been there awhile with his raw blues. Russ Johnson picked out country tunes and played classical pieces on his old, steel-string dreadnaught. Bill Thompson would come in from the night and chant lonesome sea chanties in a strong voice. Then there was Johnny Swingle, who sat on a straight-backed chair and sang folk songs in a big, operatic-style voice, while strumming an autoharp on his lap without finger picks. Christopher Tree projected light through globs and swirls of colored oils in Petri dishes onto a screen, to the accompaniment of tympani, gongs, bells, and chimes played by an accomplice from San Francisco.
I walked in one night to hear Tom Goux doing his arrangement of “The Night Wind Is My Bride,” a song by Jason Smith and myself. It was the very first time I heard someone performing one of my songs. Nick Hoffman sang and played blues on a twelve-string guitar and put down fast runs with his right hand index and middle fingers, like the flamenco players. A talented mime, named Peter Lane, appeared briefly on his way from New York to San Francisco. He told me about a new, up-and-coming folk group in New York called Peter, Paul and Mary.
Hugh Romney, later known as Wavy Gravy, emoted and satirized life. His manager, Victor Maymudes, told me Hugh had only one desire: to be pointed to the stage and the microphone when his time came to perform. Joe & Eddie were young black guys from the East Bay up north who stood, sang, shouted, hollered, snapped their fingers, and clapped their hands to folk standards with an energy that shook the old, three-story, Iopan building. Eddie Brown was the good-looking fellow with the solid baritone voice who provided the structure from which Joe Gilbert, the creative genius, took off on inspired flights of vocal improvisation. Joe & Eddie had a guitar player to provide the musical background, but hardly needed him. Their gospel/rhythm-and-blues approach to folk songs was unique. When they appeared a second time, their regular guitarist, Bill Mundy, couldn’t come. So they asked me to fill in. We rehearsed in the afternoon. The performance came off without a hitch and I backed them up for the whole engagement. I also accompanied Joe & Eddie on a week’s TV gig on the Mike Stookey Show in Hollywood, as well as a recording session and various auditions there.
Of the many customers I met at the Iopan, a few remain in vivid memories: Mark Ferrer and a friend spent their evenings listening and discussing. They asked me about the inspiration for my new song, “Coming Home.” I couldn’t remember and said that I just put some rhyming words together so they made some sense. The looks on their faces were quite interesting. I think my standing in the world slipped a few notches. Lynn had life-threatening asthma, but seemed healthy at the Iopan. She even smoked with apparent impunity. Waiting tables on occasion, she became friends with everyone.
One night Noctambulist muralist Don Freeman told me I had really improved over the past two years. Nice to hear—but was I that bad back then? Bob Corti worked at the Talk of the Town restaurant and came in late with his young, pregnant wife. They cuddled and listened to the music. Michael Peake and Maria Cordero seemed to be dozing in the corner, until I suddenly realized they were listening closely. Maria also waited tables at the Iopan.
Dennis came to all the places I played, including the Iopan. He didn’t have to make requests anymore; I just started doing Tom Lehrer’s songs whenever he showed up. Russ Johnson backed me up on guitar occasionally when I was on the banjo. Two of my banjo songs were learned from his stack of old country music 78 records—and I even returned them all! Russ tended to forget who he’d lent them to and practically gave them all away. Bill Worthen smoked a lot and talked about many things in a serious tone. One night after I played a couple of up-tempo banjo pieces fairly well, he said, “You’ve really been wood-shedding it!” Some fellow I didn’t know gave me the sheet music for “La Malaguena.” Using the music and a Los Hermanos Zaizar recording, I worked out the song, but don’t remember him coming back to hear me sing it. David Crosby showed me Travis Edmonson’s huapango strum, which I eventually used also. Ed McKin was a tall, lanky fellow who wore thick glasses and smoked so much his fingers were colored orange-brown. He had some sort of job, but photography was his passion. He took many fine photos of me at the Iopan and elsewhere over the years.
One night some teenaged girls were enjoying the humorous songs. Suddenly a woman burst in yelling at the girls, “I won’t have you listening to this trash!” Then she yelled at me: “I’ve been standing outside for half an hour listening to this junk and I won’t stand for it!” She gave me an angry look, grabbed one of the girls, and forced the sheepish group to leave. On September 18, 1961, almost a year to the day since the recording session at his house, Scott Robinson came to the Iopan and recorded a couple of my sets, again, mostly his requests.
When school started in the fall, business dropped off during the week. Once there was no one to sing to, so I took a long break and played my guitar in the storage room down the hall. Before I knew it, a lonely melody found its way out of the guitar, and then a brighter companion. Together, I called them “Guitar Song.” I took off one night to perform at a freshman orientation program in the Robertson Gym at UCSB. Denis Hazelwood backed me up on “Old Cottonfields At Home” and “John Henry” through a mushy sound system to the largest gathering I had ever played for, up till then. I was happy to get through it intact.
In the cold January of 1962, a promoter-type invited Caroline and me to his ranch to meet a woman who could help my career. Driving there, he even accelerated on downhill, snowy roads. It wasn’t his ranch at all, but the foreman of the ranch was his wife’s father. As promised, however, the well-connected woman who owned the ranch did listen to my music. Buck Rogers, who I met at the Rondo, also came to the Iopan. I lived at his place for a while and often sang for his family, friends, and clients. During that January of 1962 he instigated my first record album, but withdrew before the project was finished. A tall fellow with slicked-back, dark hair and southern accent told me that I had a very good ear, that he liked my music and the way I tuned my guitar. He was a piano tuner named Jerry Blake, who worked at recording studios in Hollywood. He arranged some auditions for me.
In 1962 I went to Los Angeles to expand my career. I played regularly at hoots at the Ice House, the Troubadour, and occasionally the Ash Grove, in order to become known. At night I had gigs at the Coventry Inn in Arcadia, Rosie’s Red Banjo in Westwood, and the Pickwick restaurant in Burbank. During the day I wrote songs and tried to make connections with music business people. My two brothers and I formed a singing group called “The Townsend Boys” and signed a contract with Tabb Records.