Book of the Week: In Search Of Captain Beefheart – Pt. 21 – A slow motion crash

A slow motion crash

The 1960s came to an end like a slow motion crash. I imagine it as a huge ocean liner serenely piling into an iceberg. Like in some cartoon the front end just crumples up as it sails into the immovable berg and it just keeps going getting shorter and shorter. It left all us 60s freaks floundering around in the icy waters of the second-rate 70s.

We never thought it would and didn’t really believe it had when it did. It took me years to finally accept. All those dreams, alternative societies, camaraderie and ideals seemed to decay into fluff and get blown away.

All around me was death, sell-out and casualties.

Jimi choked on his own vomit in strange circumstances, Jim Morrison mysteriously died in his bath in Paris, and Janis O.D’Ed in her hotel room, Brian Jones was found suspiciously floated face down in his pool. Even Bob Dylan’s motorbike accident a few years earlier was weird. He’d come back as an impostor! If I had a suspicious mind I might have thought someone had organised all this.

Then there were the walking wounded, the acid casualties like Syd Barrett and Peter Green, the heroin victims like Clapton and a whole series of others.

On the personal front one of my good friends, Jeff Evans, had got really fucked up on Hollis Brown cough medicine and then acid and dope. He developed extreme paranoia and ended up jumping off a bridge into an express train.

The last time I saw him was in the so called summer of 1970 when I was working as a road sweeper. Unbeknown to me I was busy sweeping down his road. He had popped out of his flat and bumped into me. It had been a really warm greeting. I hadn’t seen him for a good year or so. We chatted for a couple of minutes. His eyes looked strangely blown and vacuous but he sounded fine. Then Jeff said that he was going to get a newspaper and I’d have to pop up for a coffee. That sounded good to me. I worked my way up the street and noticed Jeff coming back. He was hiding behind trees and peeping round at me and scuttled into his house. It was weird. I figured I wasn’t going to get that coffee after all.

That night I met up with a few friends and mentioned it. They said that he’d been getting all these flash-backs and paranoid stuff. Rooms melted and there were machines in the walls. He thought people were robots sent to spy on him.

A few weeks later he killed himself.

Lanky was another friend who got into heroin. He just dropped out of sight and mouldered.

It was a pattern I’d see on many occasions. Once into the abyss they’d rarely make it back, at least not as the same people.

There is a fine line in all risks, explorations and quests. A life without risk is an empty life but taking risks without engaging the brain is just plain stupidity.

The optimism of the 60s was fractured. The Beatles split, as did the Doors, Country Joe & the Fish, Love, Cream, Jimmy Hendrix Experience, Taste, Free, Fleetwood Mac, Velvet Underground and numerous others. It was carnage.

There was the bad vibes of Altamont and the decay of San Francisco.

Those bands that were left were lacklustre and becoming boring.

At first we were lulled. Out of the ashes there were some notable tours de force. Lennon’s first two albums were vitriolic and brilliant. George Harrison released a great triple album. Even Bad Company did a couple of great tracks, but in general it was over.

Everyone woke up to the fact that all the sharing and idealism was a lot of lip service to most of the two faced bastards. There were all our heroes jet-setting around the globes with huge mansions and limousines, flying hairdressers in to do their hair before a gig, while preaching equality and sharing. At least the Beatles tried a more egalitarian approach with Apple and got their fingers burnt for all their trouble.

I was a little shielded from it. I had my hero Roy Harper to buoy me up.  Strangely as the scene disintegrated he was reaching his apotheosis with one startling creation after another and I was part of it.

 Opher & Liz – our wedding invite!

In 1971 Liz and I got married. We had a great time. We started off with a Buddhist ceremony, in which Liz and I were regaled in our red and orange gear, and to which we invited all the bemused relatives to. They were subjected to a long session of chanting from twelve Thai monks, witness to ceremonial lighting of candles and incense, signifying some drawing nearer to the truth, and then sprayed with water imbued with love and kindness. I’m sure they enjoyed it all. I certainly did.

 Opher & Liz – Buddhist ceremony 1971

The following week, to appease Liz’s estranged parents (who just because they had read her diary had taken a sceptical view of me and banned her from consorting with me) we had a brief registrar office wedding (to which we were half hour late – that being two whole weddings!). We were late because we could not get the car started. We were trying to bump start it in our red and orange wedding gear! Fortunately a guy said he’d fix it for five quid and he did (£5 was a lot to us then!). On the way round the North Circular I got cut up by a lunatic (there’s a lot of them on the North Circular) and had to brake hard which sent the diced cheese and butter that we had in bowls on the back seat, flying through the air. We spent a while picking lumps of butter out of our golden locks and had our first big row. Liz seemed to think I could have avoided braking so hard. I took a different view. Fortunately when we finally arrived, with Liz’s Dad gleefully thinking we’d pulled out (Liz’s Mum refused to come), we were able to fit in a slot because an ex-girlfriend of mine by the name of Cas had forgotten to pick up her wedding banns and so couldn’t get married. It was all a bit hap-hazard back then!

Opher Liz & friends ceremony in the woods 1971

In the afternoon we had a ceremony in the woods. All our friends were invited and asked to bring food, drink and a performance. It was May the first. We wanted a maypole but nobody would let us have one. We wanted it in the park but nobody would let us do that either. So we settled for the woods. Someone set up a sound system, there was dancing, music, poems and sunshine. It worked like magic!

Following that we went to the States as the start of our world tour. We worked in Boston selling underground magazines, working as a waitress and dishwasher. Then we hitched and greyhounded our way round to San Francisco and LA and met loads of great people. San Francisco was in decay. The place was full of junkies. Fillmore West had a big sign up advertising the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane but it was historic and they no longer performed there. The scene may have decayed but we were experiencing an Indian summer. The dregs were good enough to hang on to and we did not notice.

Opher at Haight Asbury 1971

Memorably we hitch-hiked with our friend Jack to Pfeiffer State Beach at Big Sur. This was a mythical place where the legendary Henry Miller had set up home. We ambled two miles down the steep dirt road to the beach and arrived as the sun was getting low. There was a line of Freaks on the beach passing jays, strumming guitars and watching the sun slide down as the waves crashed through the big hole in the large rock in the middle of the bay. It was idyllic.

The sea turned orange, crimson, and then a deep mauve with turquoise foam on the waves.

After the sun had set we all got a big campfire lit and sat around eating, drinking, passing jays and strumming.

Then we got bust.

Opher at Big Sur 1971

The cops rolled up and rounded us all up. They frisked us down and informed us that it was illegal to camp on the beach. They threatened Liz and me with deportation. However they didn’t find any dope and decided to take us back up the road and dump us at the side of the highway.

We ended up getting our sleeping bags out and sleeping at the side of the road. It was a magical night up there in the Sierras. A huge wind got up and threatened to blow us away. Then it went completely calm and the sky was so clear the Milky Way was like a band of thick smoke and the heavens were a mass of stars. There were no spaces between them. I’d never seen anything like it. We lay on our back and stared up into the cosmos and talked while the mountain lions roared in the hills around us. We talked about life, infinity and the universe and it all seemed so incredibly near as if we were connected to it all like some great mystical dream.

Our world tour petered out into reality.

We came back penniless having literally spent our last dollar in getting a tiny present, a wind up plastic frog for the bath, in Macy’s, for my baby sister.

College was over. The 60s were over. I had to get a job.

I got a temporary job as a lab tech at my old college. It was a sort of halfway house. I could pretend I was still living the dream but I’d really sold my soul to mammon. We had to pay the rent. This was confirmed in 1973 when we had our first baby. The carefree hitch-hiking, sleeping on floors and partying all night, the mad rapping and idealistic dreams were replaced by a tempered realism.

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