Hippies on Haight Street
C’mon people now, smile on your brother
Everybody get together, try and love one another right now….
Abba zaba zoom
Hippie chicks. Not scary at all. Oh no, quite the opposite, brother. Make love, not war. Moving long-limbed and freely in their granny dresses, long tresses flowing down their skinny backs, tan shoulders exposed to the sun and wind, they looked like Aphrodite’s sisters. Some of them were a bit frightening to me in their dazzling beauty, but it was a desire-driven frenzied fear: the kind a moth must feel for a flame.
Brown Derby Beer. Fear the beer.
John McFee slouched on the old cat-barf sofa and let out a whole-quart-of-beer belch, which took the form of moist, gaseous words, “Fuuccckkk yoouuu!” to Mike Walter, who was coming down the steps to our hillside hippie pad at 96 Laverne Avenue in Mill Valley. “Yoouuu ahhsshoole!”
This cracked us all up. McFee could out-belch anyone. Mike smilingly flipped him off and reached into his pocket, then dangled a small bag of pot like a dainty object.
“Here you are, girls!”
Pot! Mitch rolled, we smoked. The gear was set up right in the living room: Mitch’s drums, Johnny Ciambotti’s bass rig, the two Fender twin reverb amps, telecasters leaning up against them, and our candy-apple blue tuck-and-roll Kustom P.A. It was a setup right out of my old Fender and Gibson catalogs, right from the dog-eared pages of those glossy, color-photograph dream machines.
We were called Clover now. For a year right out of high school McFee, Mitch Howie, and I had a band called the Tiny Hearing Aid Company. Mitch and I had been banging around on guitar and drums for six years. We met McFee through his brother Bob. John was just seventeen, as was Mitch. I had just turned nineteen.
Ciambotti plugged in his bass. Johnny had just joined the band; that’s why we’d changed the name. He’d been playing with a band of slightly older guys called the Outfit, but we started jamming and he ended up joining us. He was our resident old man at twenty-five. He was handsome, street-smart and brought a different vibe to our band. We were legit now.
We jammed and rehearsed our set. McFee broke into an outrageous solo on Wade in the Water. We picked up on that song from watching the Charley Musselwhite blues band with the magical Harvey Mandel on guitar. Our rather free-form covers of that and Junior Walker’s Shotgun were staples of our gigs at Mill Valley’s tiny Browns Hall, one of our regular shows. The hall—almost a dead-on duplicate of my childhood Outdoor Art Club, right down to the pale-green, aluminum coffee-urned kitchen and plastic-brass-eagle-tipped flags—was packed with wildly enthusiastic sweaty teenagers from Tamalpais High School every time we played. Just eight years after my night of musical revelation, we were the young gods on the stage, inspiring new legions of nerds to get telecasters and start singing.
John McFee was a great, uniquely talented guitar player from day one. I don’t think he ever played an unintentional bad note in his life. He was capable of playing the world’s worst solo, but if he did it was completely intentional. Make it cry, John. He was tall and thin, with long brown hair and a broken nose he got from his brother growing up in Orange County. He ditched both high school and his mom, whom he loved, but who was a mess, to come up to San Francisco with his wild older brother Bob, who was my age.
John had country music in his family background along with surf music, the Beatles, Stones, and Kinks and all that. I’d also found country at age fifteen in those Buck Owens records at VVS. Johnny Ciambotti came from a bluegrass background. Mitch and I played a lot of Ray Charles and Kinks. So Clover was really all over the place musically. We didn’t think about categorizing ourselves. We listened to and played straight country, blues, and R&B, anything as long as it was roots. We might have been turned on to the blues guys by the Stones, Paul Butterfield, and Charlie Musslewhite, but the real blues guys were still out there: Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson (#1), Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. A note about Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley: Mr. Berry really is a giant in American pop music. He bridged the gap between black and white music with his accessible lyrics and rootsy riffs. Bob Dylan was part Chuck Berry on acid. Subterranean Homesick Blues. Bo Diddley’s famous beat has soaked into the roots of pop and rock music. We saw him at the Avalon. What a gas.
Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley, where you been?
Been around the world and I’m goin’ again…
James Brown was huge for us, as was Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, the Coasters, the Staple Singers, and Bobby Blue Bland. For country, we liked Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Buck Owens, Lefty Frizzel, Jim and Jesse, and later Merle Haggard. Our present-day heroes were the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Taj Mahal, and the greatest guitar player of all time, Jimi Hendrix.
Wow, we pounded those Jimi records. My brother made a star globe: a light bulb inside a rotating ball with holes poked in it and red and green cello paper inside that projected colored dots of light on the walls and ceilings. Our own light show. We got stoned and listened to The Wind Cries Mary and the rest of Jimi’s amazing stuff. Are we high yet?
There were also jazz records like Django Reinhardt, Howard Roberts, and Vince Guaraldi in our hippie house, plus odd- ball stuff like Hawaiian music ‘78’s and the Mills Brothers. Like I said, we were all over the musical map.
McFee took up pedal steel and fiddle and soon was legit, especially on the steel. He got a pedal steel and just figured it out. The man can flat-out play any instrument well. Because we were one of the few bands who had pedal steel and fiddle in our rock music, Clover became known as a country-rock band. That also reflected our non-city lifestyle vibe, the cowboy boots, and shirts, the beer-soaked jam sessions on country tunes. We spent a lot of time going to the City, as any proper San Franciscan calls it, but wide-open west Marin County was home. Clover was never really country-rock; that was more the zone of Gram Parsons and Flying Burrito Brothers. We might’ve made it work if we’d made a decision to be an actual country-rock band, but you can’t be country-rock if you play Merle Haggard and James Brown in the same set, as we did. We were unconscious. We just played what we liked.
John’s brother Bob McFee was a real character. He called himself Jim Roberts or something—he had a couple of names and even more life stories—it was hard to sort truth out of the tales he told. It was hippie time, late in the Summer of Love, and who knew who anyone was? People had new names, like Sunshine or Mellow Mike, or Shooter. You name it: Buddha, RJ, Bummer Bob, Rainbow. But John McFee, unlike his brother Jim-Bob-whatever, was a straight-shooter, and he was also extremely smart and highly spiritual. He soon became a teetotaling vegetarian yogi who somehow remained calm through many years of band storms.
McFee’s incendiary and original chicken-pickin-meets-Jimi Hendrix guitar playing was the best thing about Clover, though Johnny Ciambotti was a solid bass player and another very smart guy. Mitch Howie played well on drums, sometimes very well. People said I had a good voice; whether I was a good lead singer or not was a question I couldn’t answer. I wrote most of the songs, some on guitar and some on piano. Johnny wrote a couple of straight country songs. We could all sing, and the Clover harmony sound was a big part of what we did.
By 1968 our cosmically enormous, insane LSD year was behind us. We’d become funky beer-and-pot heads. We liked wearing cowboy stuff; we liked to rock out. We were committed anti-war types but we weren’t Peace, OM, Love, and Groovy hippies. We were a little too smart and cynical to be real hippies, plus we liked alcohol a lot. Hippies ate magic mushrooms and chanted. OOOMMM. And said vapid, yet irrefutable things like “I love you so much, man” while stealing your pot stash. We drank Brown Derby beer and belched. We also stole your pot stash, but we didn’t rationalize it. We stole it because we deserved and needed it more than you.