The summer of 1977—at least in my memory—was golden, culturally transcendent, incomparable. Santa Cruz seemed to be oozing with creativity and passion in every aspect of its being: music, food, dance, poetry, film, politics, conversation. One moved through the Santa Cruz scene that summer with a pulsating sense of wonder and urgency.
It’s hard to imagine how the ravages of global capital have impacted our little burg, but that summer, rents were cheap. Music was everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. I recently counted more than 50 venues where live music was played in the county on a regular basis that year, and that’s not counting smaller coffeehouses and cafes.
Jazz wizard Don McCaslin and Warmth held court daily at the Cooper House in the margarita sunshine. David Crosby was slated to play at the Civic that summer; so was Bob Marley (only to have to cancel after being diagnosed with melanoma). Dave Mason was booked to play something akin to “A Day on the Green” at Cabrillo College. Jerry Jeff Walker was also performing at the Civic. Even Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver, author of the polemic Soul On Ice, was coming to town to deliver a speech. The place was absolutely alive.
And then the rumors started shortly after the Fourth of July: Neil Young was reportedly on his way to Santa Cruz to join forces with a band led by country-folk-rocker Jeff “Buck” Blackburn, of Blackburn and Snow fame. The band also included bass player and singer-songwriter Bob Mosley, who had most recently been in Moby Grape; and local drummer Johnny Craviotto, the hometown wunderkind and surfer boy out of Santa Cruz High, better known simply as “Johnny C.”
I asked Craviotto, an old family friend, if the rumor was true, and he just winked at me and smiled that million-watt Johnny C. smile of his. He didn’t say a word, but I somehow got the drift: game on.
Like a lot of rock ’n’ roll lore, the history of Neil Young and the Ducks—the band with which he played here during the summer of 1977—is wrapped in myth and nostalgia. Some of it’s true, some is no doubt bullshit, and much of it is in between. There were plenty of good drugs in town that summer, and no shortage of whiskey and tequila, and they definitely took a serious toll on the collective memory.
Last year, before he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 68, Johnny C. and I scheduled an interview about his summer-long tenure with the band.
“To be honest,” he said with a chuckle, “I don’t remember all that many details. It’s all pretty vague.” Indeed, there was one gig where Johnny C., who never met a party he didn’t like, passed out in the middle of a set from drinking just a tad too much.
All pretty vague, indeed.
I’ve heard a zillion versions of the legend—accounts vary wildly and considerably. And I was there for some of it. I’ve gone back to the original sources, and here’s the best I can come up with: The fledgling band played their first semi-gig on Saturday, July 9, at the Back Room bar in the New Riverside Hotel, at what was billed as a birthday party for legendary guitarist Jerry Miller of Moby Grape fame.
Performing on stage that night were several well-known musicians, including bassist Jack Register, keyboardist Dale Ockerman (from one of my favorite local bands of the era, Snail), singer Juanita Franklin, trumpet player John Maritano, Blackburn, Craviotto and Mosley. Young came out to play the final three songs.
From that point on, the Ducks played more than two dozen more shows (sometimes they played two shows a night) including at the Back Room, the Crossroads (a sweet little club at the Old Sash Mill), the Catalyst, the Veterans Hall, and the Pacific Coast Steamship Company (in Harvey West Park), until their final shows on Labor Day weekend at the Civic.
It was a wild time. There was no advertising for any of the club concerts, as I recall; news travelled simply by word of mouth. Remember, kids, this was before the advent of Facebook and Twitter. Locals took to carrying duck calls around their necks and blowing on them when word of a new gig was circulated—although the rumors weren’t always reliable. I recall hearing once that they were going to play at the Back Room, only to arrive and find a large crowd, but no show.
Fans of Young flocked in from around the Bay Area, and, really, from around the world (my dad, who had left town long before, attended a show with my cousin and me at the Back Room). With cover charges of only a couple of bucks—sometimes there was a code word for getting in free—the shows were a steal.
It was said that because of contractual obligations that Young had with his longtime back-up band Crazy Horse, the Ducks were restricted to playing gigs solely within the city limits of Santa Cruz, but I’ve never been able to verify this. A handful of the shows were apparently recorded in some fashion (I recall a huge sound truck at one), and while several sessions can be found on the internet, no formal recording has ever been released—though rumors that one is impending have circulated for years, and continue to this day.
One aspect of the Ducks’ lineage that has long been overlooked is that the roots of their magical convergence extended back to the Bay Area in the 1960s. In a certain sense, it was the Summer of Love: Take Two—just a little further on down the road.
Blackburn, who grew up as a bit of a nomad in Texas and Bakersfield, had been the first to hit the big time—in 1964, as one half of the popular folk-rock duo Blackburn and Snow. They released a couple of singles in the mid-’60s that generated national attention, including “Stranger in a Strange Land” (written by David Crosby under a pseudonym).
The duo played on the bill at the iconoclastic Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival in June of 1967, held on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin, that also included the likes of Wilson Pickett, the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds and Moby Grape. The festival is largely viewed as kicking off the Summer of Love in San Francisco, and it was there that Blackburn developed friendships with a host of legendary musicians, including Bob Mosley, Moby Grape’s talented bass player.
Young at that time was playing with Buffalo Springfield, which had formed in L.A. and included Stephen Stills. A native of Toronto, the enigmatic Young had bounced around Canada before winding up in California.
Santa Cruz hometown boy Johnny C. also had considerable musical pedigree. The charismatic percussionist came up as a kid fresh out of Mission Hill Junior High with Corny and the Corvettes (featuring Cornelius Bumpus, later of Doobie Brothers fame), and played drums for the likes of Ry Cooder, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Moby Grape, Captain Beefheart, and Arlo Guthrie.
By the spring of 1977, Blackburn, Mosley, Craviotto and guitarist Eddie James were all playing in the Jeff Blackburn Band, after briefly joining up in a precursor ensemble called Soquel. James, a schoolmate of Craviotto’s at Santa Cruz High, was a superb lead guitarist who himself had gained national attention with the soft-rock band Harpers Bizarre in the late 1960s.
James, then in his late 20s, was feeling the weight of familial responsibilities, and was working days for the City of Santa Cruz. Playing in the band was just “too much,” he recently told me, so he bowed out. Blackburn was disappointed because “I thought we were playing very tight … there was some magic there.” Word spread quickly that the band was in need of a replacement.
Down in Los Angeles, Young and longtime Bay Area artist and psychedelic lighting guru Jim Mazzeo were living together in Malibu near Trancas Canyon. Both had lots of connections with the scene in Santa Cruz (Mazzeo and Mosley were friends with the Grape), so some phone calls were made, and Young and Mazzeo made their way north in Young’s renovated 1948 Packard woodie. They stayed first with Blackburn at his spread on 38th Avenue (dubbed Duck Landing) before eventually taking up residence in some bungalows overlooking Castle Beach (directly across from the city’s Natural History Museum).
Young—who had purchased a ranch near La Honda earlier in the decade and was a frequent visitor to Santa Cruz during his stays there—immediately replaced James in the band’s starting lineup. They began rehearsing at Blackburn’s spread in Pleasure Point, while Mazzeo started to negotiate the band’s booking arrangements, which had previously been handled by Blackburn.
Again, stories vary, but the general consensus is that the band’s name came from an incident that had taken place near Twin Lakes in the mid-1960s. A transplanted surfer from Southern California, Dave Puissegur, had killed some ducks while driving on East Cliff, resulting in a “curse” on the community that would not be lifted until the ducks were sufficiently honored by a collective homage from the citizens. Hence the Ducks were so named.
I recently tracked down Puissegur’s “incident,” which occurred in the spring of 1963, and while the account made no mention of any ducks, “erratic driving” was indeed cited, along with a certain level of adult beverages having been consumed. Of such cloth are legends made. So much for a curse.
Nonetheless, Ducks mania soon overtook the community. Duck hats and duck calls were seen and heard everywhere. Young changed the name of his classic woodie to the Duckmobile. At the band’s performances, duck puns and references were the meme du jour, and many of them were bad. Young would muse about “quacking up,” or say to the audience, “you won’t believe it when you see the bill.”
If the jokes often fell flat, the music was magnificent. While Young was clearly the main draw for the Ducks, he did not hog the spotlight. There was an egalitarian nature to the band’s set lists.
Johnny C. throttled the house each night with rock ’n’ roll standards from the Chuck Berry school, like “Tore Down” and “Bye Bye Johnny,” and he sang a couple of songs Mosley had composed, including the beautiful ballad “Don’t Let ’Em Get to You.” I adored his performances.
Mosley, who has yet to receive full recognition for his enormous musical talents, fronted Grape classics like “Gypsy Wedding.” He says he was “just happy to be working all the time. It was great to be constantly busy making music.”
While I was (and remain) a die-hard Young fan—songs like “Helpless” and “Pocahontas” and “Thrasher” form part of the soundtrack to my life—I was especially taken by the performances of Blackburn that summer. Young may have been a superstar, but it was Blackburn who provided the band’s gravitas, and whose presence held the band together. My favorite songs of his were “Silver Wings” (played as a hard Southern rock ballad), “Deeper Mystery” and “Wild Eyed and Willing.” I also delighted in his rhythm guitar riffs on “Windward Passage,” which the Ducks turned into a psychedelic surf rocker.
Young, for his part, performed a handful of his classics—“Mr. Soul,” “Are You Ready for the Country,” “Comes a Time,” “Long May You Run”—and also showcased a new song that summer, “Sail Away,” written in Santa Cruz and which would later appear on his album Live Rust.
There’s a road stretched out between us
Like a ribbon on the high plain
Down from Phoenix through Salinas
‘Round the bend and back again.
There was a pair of notable musical footnotes to Young’s Santa Cruz sojourn. In late August, he joined with David Crosby and Graham Nash for a memorable reunion performance that served as a benefit for the United Farm Workers’ Service Center. He also filled in for headliner Dave Mason at Cabrillo College Stadium when Mason didn’t show up for the highly anticipated event. Young, as reported by my Soquel High pal and then Sentinel music writer Greg Beebe, was brilliant at both performances. “Part of the magic from that summer,” says Blackburn, “is that we were all so young and passionate and intense. That was the common denominator with the band. And the passion and intensity made it magical.”
Shortly after the Ducks formed, Santa Cruz photographer and music writer Dan Coyro got into the Duckmobile with Young & Co. for a lengthy interview. “I’m starting to get back that certain feeling for playing my music,” Young told Coyro for his piece that was published in Good Times. “We’re in a place right now where we’re pure … it’s like being born again. We’re young and we need the safety of a small town to grow in. We’re self-contained right now, but maybe when we get bigger, we may move on … the possibilities are there. But right now, the Ducks are just developing, and I’m just one of the Ducks.”
For the past several years, Young had lived a peripatetic lifestyle, traveling across the country, always on the run. “Moving into Santa Cruz is like my re-emergence back into civilization,” Young told Coyro. “I like this town.”
Young, as it turned out, was apparently not pleased by a particular passage in the story. Coyro had quoted Young as saying: “If the situation remains cool, we can do this all summer long. I just hope the people in San Jose don’t find out about it … ”
According to Coyro, that last line set Young off. When Coyro went over to Young’s beach bungalow, Young threw him out of the house. An agitated Young complained about him “slamming people” in San Jose, and expressed concern about offending his San Jose fan base. “He was really pissed,” Coyro recalls. “I was wondering, ‘Are we gonna throw [get into a fight]?’”
They didn’t—and, according to Coyro, Young later apologized.
The “maybe” that Young mentioned in his interview never happened. There would be no “moving on” for the Ducks—just for Young. At one point late in the summer, it was reported that Young’s bungalow in Seabright was broken into, and several items were stolen, including one of his guitars. Then the hood ornament to the Duckmobile was stolen. Young was furious. The good vibes had ended.
The Ducks played two final gigs on back-to-back nights at the Civic Auditorium on Labor Day weekend in early September. Shortly after, Young reportedly drove off to Nashville, and that was it.
Young didn’t mention his stint with the Ducks in his highly praised 2012 autobiography,
Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream; he did, however, briefly recount the tale of the band in its 2014 sequel, Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars. He alluded to the Puissegur Curse (misspelling it Pussinger) and also recalled the theft of his woodie’s “beautiful winged bird” ornament. “That sad event broke [the Ducks’] spirit,” he wrote. “Since that criminal act was committed, Santa Cruz, California, Surf City, has long suffered from transients, homelessness, street crime, an active drug trade, and some well-known unsafe areas where the Pussinger [sic] Curse still remains particularly strong to this day. Santa Cruz is now considered one of the most crime-ridden towns in all of America.”
I’ll leave that for others to deconstruct. Maybe Young Neil (as my dear and dyslexic mother always called him) knows something about Santa Cruz that I don’t. Bitter is as bitter does, I suppose. I’ll always remember the magic of the moment, the pulsating music and unforgettable performances, the spontaneity, the beauty of it all.
Earlier this month, on a warm Sunday at the Steel Bonnet Brewing Company in Scotts Valley, with the ghost of the Ducks long behind him, Jeff Blackburn is still pursuing his passion, playing once again as Blackburn and Friends at intimate venues throughout Santa Cruz County. His repertoire, at least at this show, is made up primarily of songs he’s written over his remarkable 50-year career as a performing musician.
His significant other, JoJo Fox (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a cousin of mine) plays bass, Ron Green backs up on percussion and, occasionally, Harpin’ Jonny Troutner (who performed with the late Larry Hosford) sits in on harmonica.
Playing backup guitar is his old sidekick Eddie James—the very same guitarist who Neil Young replaced in the Ducks—and I discover it’s the first time that Blackburn and James have played together, in public anyway, since James packed up his guitar case 40 summers ago.
It’s something of a nostalgic moment for me. I first saw James more than a half century ago, when he was with the Tikis (my first favorite Santa Cruz band), and I have always marveled at his talents as a guitarist.
Blackburn, for his part, is every bit as wiry and sure as he was back in the summer of 1977, and maybe a bit more solid. He’s had more than his share of hard miles under his hood, which gives his voice more authority, more resonance, as he makes his way through many of his old standards—“Deeper Mystery,” “Wide Eyed and Willing” (which he identifies as his “theme song”) and “Cartune.”
James performs magnificent solos on many of the songs. He tells me that he’s a little rusty, not quite as agile as he used to be with his fingers, but there’s a feeling, and perhaps wisdom to his playing that resonates deeply.
One of the steady themes of Blackburn’s oeuvre is the passage of time, and if he was aware of its passage “back in the day,” as he says, he’s clearly even more aware of it now. He closes his final set with “Fork in the Road,” which he says he wrote “sometime in the ’70s.”
I know my time, it is not long
Still my feelings are so strong
I’ll leave it all behind
Going to see what I can find
Coming to that fork in the road
And, then, with perfect ease, Blackburn segues into the rock ’n’ roll classic he co-wrote with Young during the summer of the Ducks, and which became Young’s anthem during his punk-flavored Rust Never Sleeps era in the late 1970s, following his days in Santa Cruz.
Hey hey, my my
Rock and roll can never die
There’s more to the picture
Than meets the eye
Hey hey, my my …
The audience grows respectfully silent and takes it all in. There may be a little rust, but no one is fading away. Forty years since the summer of 1977, the passion and magic of the Ducks lives on.
Jeff Blackburn & Friends
Saturday, Aug. 19, 7 p.m., Bella Vista Italian Kitchen & Bar, Aptos
Thursday, Aug. 31, 6 p.m., Bargetto Winery, Soquel
Sunday, Sept. 17, 6 p.m., Bella Vista Italian Kitchen & Bar, Aptos
Saturday, Oct. 7, 4 p.m., Steel Bonnet Brewing Company, Scotts Valley