Off the Map:the wild wild west … Muir Beach, 1969


Muir Beach

In every heart there is a vision of a simple life…
Alex Call

One Saturday noon we were supposed to play with the up-and-coming Creedence Clearwater Revival out on the big front porch at the Muir Beach Tavern. I’d seen Creedence out there before. Their P.A. system was just bull-horns on tall stands, no speakers. It made John Fogerty’s voice like that nasty, squawky bit on Susie-Q, the song that got the unstoppable Creedence ball rolling. I couldn’t stand it, it sounded so phony to me at the time, some white guy affecting this blues style, but what did I know?

If Haight was the center of the hippie galaxy, one of the far outer-rim planets was Muir Beach, five twisty, cliff-hugging, death-defying Pacific Coast Highway miles west of Mill Valley. The beach was sort of our home base. It’s a smallish grey-sand cove a half-mile across, set in the midst of towering headlands that plunge into the wild Pacific. From the beach you can see the whitewashed western part of San Francisco, the Sunset district, stretching out onto the ocean twenty miles to the south. Beyond this low-lying finger of the city are the dark, wooded coastal hills that rise to the west of the San Andreas Fault. Muir Beach is just east of that fault line. At the north end of the beach, above the tiny adjoining cove of Little Beach is a classic dragon-spine cliff-faced point that snakes its way down from the flanks of Mount Tamalpais, the highest peak in Marin County, to stick its nose in mighty swells of the dark, cold Pacific.

On the point were little houses of old Portuguese fishermen (who once doubled as prohibition rum-runners) and dairy people from the old days, along with the art- and driftwood-decorated cottages of painters, sculptors, poets, and college professors. The houses rested under fog-dripping gnarled, weathered cypresses and windswept pines. Giant bushes of flowering sawgrass framed entrances to well-kept gardens graced by stone Buddhas and tinkling wind chimes. The tiny streets that crisscrossed the steep hill were one-laners.

Muir Beach was an artists’ colony, full of intrigue and cliques, but close-knit at the same time. Everyone knew everybody and who they were sleeping with; who had a drinking problem; who had pot. The little community was a dysfunctional extended family of sorts, but when there was a crisis, everyone pitched in together. There were, and still are, around two hundred houses in total.

The community has been grandfathered into the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. Very few new houses can be built in the GGNRA; most of the vast, beautiful, wild western part of the county is forever protected from development. Hallelujah. Inland from the beach runs a narrow valley aptly named Green Gulch. When I was young, Green Gulch was a breeding ranch for world-class Hereford bulls, but later it became the home of the Zen Center, so very appropriate for the setting. The center’s organic gardens are just inland from the beach and the beach is just down the road from the redwood groves of Muir Woods National Monument. Mount Tamalpais rises above it. It’s a stunning, peaceful place.

Back then, the only structures on the beach proper were nine funky one-bedroom cabins set in an L-shape around a gravel-and-mud parking lot and the tavern. The cabins, which must have been built in the thirties or forties, rented for fifty bucks a month and were occupied by a collection of hipsters, young and old. My brother Lew’s childhood best friend, Peter G., had Cabin Five, right in the middle. It was action central, a safe place where we could get high and talk about the universe or play music until the sun came up. An older, bearded self-styled guru named Buddha lived with his old lady (what a term of endearment) in one of the other cabins. He was like an R. Crumb character: ex-biker and small time hood, this cat has a beautiful head!
The one-story, unpainted redwood Muir Beach Tavern dated back to Prohibition, when locals ran rum from their fishing boats into the sheltered cove. It had been a speakeasy and a restaurant and was currently mostly unused. It had a great big deck in front that overlooked a scraggly, unkempt patch of lawn and the wind-blown gray-sand beach beyond Redwood Creek. To the right of the creek’s outlet to the ocean was Little Beach, which was a nude beach. Oh boy, naked hippies playing Frisbee in the fog.
I grew up with Muir Beach as my backyard. From Homestead Valley where I lived it was a three hour hike. When I was eleven my buddies and I sometimes carried sleeping bags on the trails over the ridge and camped out on the beach. In those days, there was detritus from all over the world washed up on the sand: lots of tree trunks, bottles, dead sea-lions, jellyfish, fishing gear. It was a treasure trove. And there were no safety-minded tight-assed authorities to make it “safe” and therefore no fun. We ran on the tops of gigantic boulders washed by crashing waves at the foot of the towering cliffs. We climbed the cliffs, we ran out into the extremely cold ocean, we stalked steelhead and salmon up the creek. We built huge driftwood fires and melted down cans and bottles we found. We awoke in the fog-bound morning with cold, wet sand in our faces, but it was freedom.

Man, we had it good. Kids don’t get that anymore. Fear was the Russkies incinerating us with H-bombs, not child-stalking killers. We all got the don’t talk to strangers speech when we were young, but we still hitchhiked around and slept on the dark beach with the big waves pounding and clouds rolling off the mighty Pacific. Our parents weren’t scared about it, and neither were we. A fire, a pack of hot dogs, and sometimes the wildly-illicit pilfered six-pack of god-awful beer. What a life! We didn’t even drink the beer that much. It tasted like cans. I didn’t know what adults saw in it. Sometimes we’d put one in the fire and stand back as it exploded from the heat.
But back to being hippies.

Clover and our other “family” band that opened for us a lot, the Flying Circus, were Muir Beach’s home bands. The tavern was the scene of many wild days and nights of music and drugs, guitars, and girls. It was way off the map of straight-people-land in those days, a hippie terra incognita. There were a lot of jam sessions, day and night, in the tavern. We played and strangers wandered in and joined in. One afternoon Mitch and I played along with a weird, stoned guy who Johnny Ciambotti knew a little named Bummer Bob. He played catatonic guitar, eyes glazed over from god-knows-what coursing through his veins. We felt like little kids playing with a weirdo. Later, Bummer Bob killed the bagpipe player with a sword as part of Charles Manson’s “family.” But I digress: it was usually not anything like that kind of dark. There were often hippie picnics and cookouts on the beach. Not just hippies, straight families too. There were lots and lots of musicians and artists and Zen people. Eric Burdon of the Animals was frequently there, digging the peaceful vibe. Bob Mosley from Moby Grape, one of the great bass players of the day, hung out. Blue Cheer recorded an album outside on the deck of the tavern. I must say they were horrible, even from a half -mile away. Sorry guys.

Clover played all the time at the tavern, drawing kids from Tam High and hippie surfer dudes and dudettes from neighboring Stinson Beach and far-out Bolinas further up the coast. Bolinas, “BoBo” to us, is a place that keeps itself off the map to this day by cutting down any and all signs on Highway 1 that say ”Bolinas.” The state of California keeps putting them up; the inhabitants of Bobo keep cutting them down. Bolinas is on the west side of the San Andreas Fault. When I was out there, I always felt like the Big One was going to hit and I would be split off from the coast and washed away by a tsunami, but Bolinas was the coolest place outside of Muir Beach.

We knew a couple of guys who lived at an isolated group of old dairy buildings perched on the cliffs above the ocean between Stinson Beach and Muir Beach called Slide Ranch. They were patrons of the arts and maybe herb businessmen. Hah! I never asked. Like hell. They took care of us band guys. We were like exotic pets they could show off to their cool friends. Slide Ranch was an ultra-cool place to hang, far from civilization. In fact, all of west Marin was open and free. We smoked pot and rambled all over the hills, running like madmen along the rocky shores. It was our own Wild West, unknown to the straight world. No one, even the dreaded authorities, the heat, the pigs, cared much about what was happening out there. I don’t think there were more than three or four cops for the whole west county: hundreds of square miles of open lands. During one Muir Beach gig, we were all out in the darkness on the deck of the tavern between sets, passing around a pipe. I took a big hit and, still holding it in, handed the pipe to the next guy, who to my deep chagrin was a sheriff’s deputy. He took the pipe and passed it along, no comment, no arrest. The good ole days.

The morning of the outdoor gig with Creedence, we got into a little speed and a gallon of Red Mountain. We might have had a reefer or two just to mellow us out. Good combo. We started playing, but for some unfathomable reason, we sounded like shit. During the second song, a funny little guy came up and requested some song that Ciambotti evidently didn’t care for. He went after the guy with his bass, trying to ram it up his ass. This set us off, since we were a bit messed up, and we pulled a Who, kicking over our amps and knocking down the drums. We stomped off the stage, both pissed-off and self-amused after a song and a half—too out of it to play but kind of digging the fact.

It was a beyond-terrible performance, nothing we were too proud of because we thought of ourselves as good band. But the Creedence guys, who are quite together as human beings and were respectfully watching from the lawn, somehow saw and heard enough in our song-and-a-half to recommend us to Saul Zaentz, owner of their label, Fantasy Records. From this highly unlikely audition we were signed to an album deal. The dream of every rock band. Go figure the process that got us there. We soon found out that the Creedence guys were great guys, though I still didn’t like their crappy P.A. system or the Susie-Q voice.

( buy an autographed copy of my book”867-5309/Jenny:the song that saved me” message me on Facebook or email at alcallhits@comcast.net..a great Christmas present!)

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4 Responses to Off the Map:the wild wild west … Muir Beach, 1969

  1. macdawg58 says:

    What a great remembrance, Alex. You really capture the flavor of wild west marin, a wee ahead of my time. I grew up in san reefer and muir beach was always something of a mystery. Clover played a couple of our school dances back in the early-mid seventies. I’m friends with your old college (?) roommate, Mac Holbert, up here in Ashland. This is really beautifully written, great attention to detail, nice flow. I look forward to perusing some of your other writings.

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