A reflection of Santa Cruz in the 1970s
They were planting in the full moon.
They had given all they had for something new.
— Neil Young, “Thrasher”
1975 was a great year to be young and bohemian in Santa Cruz. I had just turned 20 that spring, and, like Henry Miller nearly a half-century earlier in Paris, I had no money, no resources, no hopes. I was the luckiest man alive.
Santa Cruz was oozing with sensuality back then, not just in respect to sex—although there was always plenty of that to go around—but in every aspect of its culture: music, food, dance, poetry, film, politics, and conversation. Even the air and the light seemed sensual. One moved through the Santa Cruz scene in those years with a pulsating, physical passion. To borrow a phrase from Ernest Hemingway about Paris in the ’20s, it was a movable feast.
The community was just beginning to emerge from a dark, psychotically twisted cocoon of the Eisenhower era and strange, nearly incomprehensible violence. In the early years of the decade, Santa Cruz had been rocked by a grim series of mass murders, earning it the dubious rubric “Murder Capital of the World.”
But by 1975, that darkness, at least for the moment, seemed to be passing; Santa Cruz was once again enveloped in light. Looking back 40 years, the times seem remarkably free and easy. Rooms rented for as little as $15 a month. During one period in the mid-’70s, I slept outside at the beach, in the willows along Soquel Creek, and on the deck of some friends for a year and a half straight without ever sleeping inside. I wore shoes only when I had to, and made all the money I needed for an entire year on a three-month ditch-digging stint in Boulder Creek.
The economics of the city and the region were vastly different. Steve Jobs (who was only a few weeks older than I) visited Santa Cruz to go to the beach. It was long before the Information Age. And let me weigh in on this here: I preferred Santa Cruz before the Digital Revolution. The pace was simply slower, more rhythmic. One could be moved by the silence.
My livelihood then was attached to the circularity of the seasons. During the spring and summer months, I cut fish at the wharf daily for Jack White and the party boats and several of the fish markets. I even traded fish heads for deep-fried calamari with Frank Cardinale and the boys. There was a great assortment of cooks at the wharf in the 1970s—my favorite was Robbie Canepa at Malio’s—and they all made marvelous meals for me in exchange for sharpening their knives.
I took odd jobs gardening, cutting firewood, doing light construction. A friend of mine got me a gig working as a laborer on Highway 9; the checks were made out in his name and he took only a 10 percent fee. My cousins and I painted boats during the winter at the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor. It was physical outdoor work that was often paid in cash. How could it get better than that?
The center of the universe in the ’70s was the Pacific Garden Mall. From one end to the other, and off its side streets, it was teeming with life. During the day, its main hub was the Cooper House, with jazz wizard Don McCaslin and a musical ensemble he called Warmth holding court in the margarita sunshine. The music bounced off the 19th century walls up and down the avenue, calling out to one and all that the circus was in town—every day, every night.
The scenes after sundown were many and varied. One of my first hangouts downtown was Seychelles, then located in a brick building behind the old Bookshop Santa Cruz. It was dark with lots of little nooks and angles and wooden tables that rattled against the floor. My friends from the university and I would drink carafes of red wine and spend endless hours there discussing Mao Tse-tung and Virginia Woolf, Jean Rimbaud and Jack Kerouac. Intellectual horizons seemed to stretch into eternity.
There were lots of other truly magical nightspots that have long since vanished, all with their own unique flavor and unforgettable charm. On North Pacific Avenue, there was the working-class-chic United Bar, and, of course, the Flat Iron Building housed the legendary Teacup. There was nothing quite like a kamikaze in the Teacup listening to Don Yee’s stories and dreaming about faraway places. That would come to be my hangout for the next decade and a half, until the 1989 earthquake wiped it all out. The Catalyst was still located in the wonderfully intimate Garden Court of the old St. George Hotel. That was the place I had my first public drink at the age of 19—with my father, who was passing through town—and where some great local bands like Snail, Annie Steinhart and Oganookie played into the wee hours of darkness.
If you wanted to brave the elements and stray away from the friendly counter-culture confines of the Pacific Garden Mall, you could head for blue-collar heaven up Soquel Avenue. There was the Eastside Tavern (now One-Double-Oh-Seven), where most of my high-school buddies and a band of pseudo Hells Angels hung out, and Rita’s Senator Club, from which I was permanently eighty-sixed for getting in a fight with a redneck plumber who either didn’t like my dreadlocks or my pubescent goatee. Probably both.
Out of town, there was the Zayante Club up in Lompico, the Sail Inn on Portola Drive, the Edgewater and Capitola Joe’s in Capitola, and you could always make closing time with Jimmy Del Pierre at Mac’s Patio. Before that there had been the Sticky Wicket in Aptos, and a host of smaller funkier joints. All those places are long gone.
I developed a routine back then in the mid-’70s that I was to maintain, more or less, until the earthquake. On Friday afternoons, I would start with a coffee in the courtyard behind Bookshop Santa Cruz, where everybody seemed to know everybody and where you could pick up all the weeklies and semi-weeklies and variations of the so-called alternative press. I started in the basement of Bookshop, then eventually browsed my way out the front door onto the Pacific Garden Mall, where there would always be more conversations and more friends. If you were lucky, you might run into a delightful cast of elderly mall characters like Tom Scribner or Sid Canepa. You never knew how long a trek down the mall could take. Sometimes it took hours; sometimes even days—perhaps weeks. Santa Cruz was nothing else if not an adventure.
My next stop was Logos, land of funky books and records and hip magazines waiting to be found, before heading into happy hour at the Catalyst (which was eventually relocated to the old Santa Cruz Bowl, its present location, in 1976). For most of that era, Jake and the Abalone Stompers belted out Dixieland jazz every Friday night. Happy hour at the Cat was, for many Santa Cruzans, something akin to going to church on Sundays. All walks of life crossed paths there, all ages, all political persuasions. You just didn’t miss it.
After the bell was rung at the Cat (signifying an end to cheap drinks), I recharged with dinner at Tampico, where the refried beans and enchiladas always seemed to sober me up a bit. Then it was anyone’s guess—down to 16th Avenue for a beach fire with Wags, Orca Man, Rex, Bobon, Bobby Lee, the Belle, Eddie Mo and the rest of the Cove Rats; up to Johnnie’s Valley Lounge with Hugo and the Hamm, Stewart and Meyer brothers. You just never knew. A lot of it was simply mix-and-match, roll your own, and whatever happened, happened. You woke up the next day, to steal a line from Jackson Browne (who also loved Santa Cruz), and did it all over again.
The ’70s, to my mind, at least, have gotten something of a bum rap by history. Tom Wolfe, of course, dubbed it “The Me Decade,” while today’s younger generations view the era as one of bell bottoms and disco, a perpetual re-run of Saturday Night Fever, the absolutely awful That ’70s Show, or, at best, a stoned-out caricature of Dazed and Confused. I dunno, maybe Santa Cruz existed in a parallel universe—but I don’t think so.
At any rate, that sensibility seems all wrong to me. The ’70s, in my view, represent a high-water mark in American cinema (The Godfathers 1 & 2, The Last Picture Show, Chinatown, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Hearts and Minds, Five Easy Pieces—the list is endless) and an apotheosis, of sorts, in rock ’n’ roll (Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Desire, for example, were both released mid-decade). Southern rock—The Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and, my favorite, the Marshall Tucker Band—provided a new American-roots soundtrack to the era.
Motown was pounding—the Temptations released “Just My Imagination,” Roberta Flack “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On,” and Stevie Wonder “Superstition” early in the decade, before Stevie blew it all open with Songs in the Key of Life. And then there were the early sounds coming out of the Caribbean—Jimmy Cliff, the Maytals, the Itals; let’s not forget that Bob Marley played at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium to close the decade. The only thing resembling a disco I ever saw in Santa Cruz was the unforgettable Dragon Moon, and, honey, that was no disco. And, to my memory at least, that came much later, in the ’80s.
Then there was the Summer of the Ducks. In early July of 1976, word hit the street that something momentous was about to happen: rock star Neil Young (Harvest had come out in 1972, and Zuma in 1974) had joined a band of talented local musicians—guitarist Jeff Blackburn; bassist Bob Mosley; and drummer Johnny Craviotto—and the rumor was that they were going to be playing at small clubs around town. They called themselves the Ducks, reportedly after spotting a flock of the migrating birds at Santa Cruz’s Schwan Lagoon.
Recollections vary, and the record is not quite definitive, but by my best calculation and memory, the Ducks played in Santa Cruz at least 20 times that summer. Because of contractual obligations that Young had with his longtime backup band Crazy Horse, the Ducks were allegedly restricted to playing gigs solely within the city limits of Santa Cruz. Jim Mazzeo, Young’s good friend and road manager in the 1970s, handled the band’s bookings and arrangements.
Beginning on July 9 at the New Riverside’s “Back Room” bar (site of today’s Riverside Inn), then to the Crossroads (located at today’s Sash Mill), then to various haunts, including the Catalyst, Veterans Hall, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company (in Harvey West Park), and even the Civic Auditorium (twice), the Ducks played to mostly packed and enthusiastic houses until Labor Day weekend. Young himself performed some of his personal anthems—“Mr. Soul,” “Are You Ready for the Country,” “Comes a Time”—and also showcased a new song that summer, “Sail Away,” which would later appear on his album Live Rust. Their all-too-brief summer stint marked one of the glories of that era.
While there was probably too much drinking going on during the ’70s—and most certainly too many drugs—there was also a powerful sense of community that permeated the era. I would argue that the ’70s actually marked the flowering of the ’60s, the fruition of the counter culture’s ideals and values, not the rejection of them. We were dazed, perhaps, but never confused.
Political activism had transformed from the apocalyptic protests of the ’60s to the more difficult, and arguably more productive, mode of grassroots community organizing—and no more so than in Santa Cruz. A full-bore political revolution took place locally during that era, one that changed the face and tenor of local politics permanently.
In the early 1970s, the old-time conservative power structure still controlled Santa Cruz politics. Phil Harry was one of the first “liberals” to break the conservative wall here in 1970, with a victory over Russ McCallie in the 1970 3rd District supervisorial race. The old guard was proposing a nuclear power plant in Davenport, along with massive developments up the North Coast, at Lighthouse Point and in the greenbelt overlooking the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor. It’s easy to dismiss such notions now, but, in fact, they had every intention of turning Santa Cruz into Orange County North.
Environmental organizations and neighborhood groups rose to the challenge—the Friends of Lighthouse Field, the Frederick Street Irregulars, the Westside Neighbors. They passed petitions, flooded hearings and placed initiatives on the ballot. Perhaps most significantly, they got their candidates elected.
I remember passing around my first petition in opposition to the hideous Lighthouse Point Convention Center during my senior year of high school. Those petitions forced a ballot measure, and in the following spring of 1974, Santa Cruz voters overwhelmingly rejected the convention center by a vote of two-to-one. The tide had turned.
Those early development battles produced a number of political leaders—Gary Patton, Carole DePalma, Sally DiGirolamo, Andy Schiffrin, Burt Muhly, Mike Rotkin, Bruce Van Allen, Mardi Wormhoudt, Katherine Beiers, to name but a few—who would come to shape and define community politics for the next 30 years. Liberalism shifted into progressivism—a distinction that one fought over back then—and in 1974, Patton, then a young anti-war attorney who identified as an environmentalist and a progressive, was elected to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. It felt like a revolution.
Santa Cruz was also an important center for the burgeoning women’s movement, the gay and lesbian community, the farm worker and anti-war movements. There were always meetings and demonstrations to attend, posters and leaflets to be printed.
In the late 1970s, the ubiquitous Nikki Craft launched the first protest against the Miss California Pageant, which had been held in Santa Cruz since the 1920s. The demonstrations, later under the guidance of former model Ann Simonton, ultimately became larger than the pageant itself and served, in a sense, as part of the civic religion. You could always count on Santa Cruz for remarkable street theater.
Culturally, Santa Cruz was on fire. There was poetry and music and dance and theater and literature everywhere. If you weren’t a poet you weren’t alive.
Big-name writers were always storming into town—Kesey, Bukowski, DiPrima, Ferlinghetti. Many local poets, including Morton Marcus, Mary Norbert Korte, Tillie Olsen, George Hitchcock, Bill Everson and Stephen Kessler enjoyed national reputations. The annual Santa Cruz Poetry Festival actually packed the Civic Auditorium.
My hometown favorites in the ’70s were Robert Lundquist, my cousin Kenneth Lamb, and a big nervous guy named Greg Hall, whose poem “Rommel Drives Deep into Young Lovers” ended with major league baseball player Juan Marichal’s leg setting over the Pacific. My own first poems appeared in a journal named Ally, published by a bohemian retiree who lived and breathed poetry, Joe Drucker. He scrawled his acceptance—and rejection—letters in a chicken scratch that was nearly impossible to read, but which analyzed each submitted poem in remarkable detail. He cared that much about poetry.
There was also a thriving journalism scene. The New Journalism and the revelations of the Watergate scandal elevated investigative journalism to new heights. New papers seemed to be starting up every other month. The Santa Cruz Sentinel at the time seemed so conservative, so utterly reactionary, that it was completely out of touch with the emerging community zeitgeist; it was so bad that people felt compelled to have a paper of their own. Lots of them.
I wrote my first weekly article for a wonderful little rag called Sundâz in the mid-1970s. It had been preceded by the Free Spaghetti Dinner, and was followed by the Independent. There was also the Town Crier, Zeitgeist, Jim Heth’s Buy & Sell Press, the Santa Cruz Weekly, Matrix, and later, the Phoenix. I stayed broke writing for all of them.
This was the journalistic milieu in which one Jay Shore came to town and, after working at the Sentinel for a spell, started what he hoped would be a feisty little muckraker called the Santa Cruz Times. It lasted, like many others, a brief moment, and then he came back with something called Good Times, whose motto, “lighter than air,” I was certain would send it quickly into oblivion. (Wherever you are, Jay, I was wrong. Peace.)
Back then, however, things were never so sure. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, Buz Bezore, Christina Waters and company started a counter-culture weekly, The Express—featuring a host of talented writers, including Roz Spafford, Michael Gant (see page 34 of this issue), Bobby Johnson, Bruce Bratton, Kessler—and the battle for the alternative-press crown was on. The paper you are now holding is the bastard child of that warped literary lineage.
In local politics, too, there were the beginnings of a seismic shift at decade’s end. In the aftermath of Patton’s supervisorial victory, there was an ugly—albeit successful—recall against progressive supervisors Phil Baldwin and Ed Borovatz. On the other hand, Rotkin and Van Allen, both running as “socialist-feminists,” captured seats on the Santa Cruz City Council—and the local political landscape, for decades dominated by conservative business leaders, would never be the same again.
An earlier, shorter version of this piece appeared in ‘Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II,’ published by the Capitola Book Company. Top photo caption: Neil Young (right) joined up with Santa Cruz musicians to form the Ducks, playing relentlessly around town in the summer of 1976.