Downrown Sacramento in the 1960s
Writer Joan Didion
The Day I Met Rene Magritte at the Berkeley Riots
by Ken Magri
Back in the spring of 1972, when President Nixon announced the mining of North Vietnam's Haiphong Harbor, students began several days of rioting in every major college town across America. Berkeley, the host city for one of the world’s greatest universities, was no stranger to anti-Viet Nam war riots. As with previous riots, police had to be brought in from all five Bay Area counties to restore order. They wore helmets, even inside their cars, drove in groups of four or five, and stretched duct tape across their windshields in an X formation to help stabilize the shatter from any incoming projectiles.
The protesters were keen on revolution but the police weren't amused. Their collective attitude started out as "just go home kids" on the first night's riots, but by day three it deteriorated into tear gas, nightstick beatings and shotgun shells filled with wooden cylinders and blue putty. My art school classmate, a native of Brazil, observed,
"You don't know how lucky you are in America. In my country the bullets are real and the weapons are automatic."
He was right of course, but had never heard about the National Guard shootings of student protestors at Kent State and Jackson State Universities. In Berkeley the riots usually happened under the cover of darkness. So I felt perfectly safe one quiet afternoon walking into Cody's bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. I needed a text for my English class, but couldn't help noticing a huge book about an artist whose name looked like mine.
Rene Magritte was a Surrealist painter from Brussels who thrived in his own illusionary world of visual conundrums until his death in 1967. As I thumbed through this book each new page was a revelation. Never before had I seen an artist who could illustrate such intriguing ideas with this kind of trick-the-eye ease and gentility.
Although Magritte was linked to the Surrealist movement of the 1920's his style never reached that level of confrontational shock for which others like Salvador Dali were known. Instead he mastered a brilliantly subtle technique of curious juxtaposition. By placing common objects in uncommon, dreamlike settings his narratives brought normality itself into question. One might have seen tubas before, but never on fire, or seen men in bowler hats, but not with an apple hovering in front of their faces, and surely not raining from the sky. Magritte felt that people sometimes panic when confronted by images which refuse all explanation. For him those moments of panic were what really counted:
"Sometimes an image can place its spectator under serious accusation.”
In 1972 I had no idea what that meant, but I stood in the bookstore for a half-hour turning each page and absorbing his mysterious plays on reality. What followed became the exclamation point at the end of his book. As I walked out of Cody's the street was jammed with chanting anti-war protesters, at least 500 people. A few feet away two police officers kept repeating,
"This is an unlawful assembly!"
Across the street another officer was arguing with a protester. Off to the right an old pickup truck from Leopold’s, the non-profit record store, slowly meandered through the crowd while people in the bed passed out ice cold jugs of apple cider. Someone passed a jug back to me. I was still just ten feet from the bookstore's entrance, jammed in by the crowd and unable to venture forward. Yet everything seemed strangely connected, as if it was one of Magritte's settings.
Then everyone in the crowd saw them at once. Marching towards us down Haste Street came the blue meanies, a special anti-riot squad from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, named for villains in the Beatles' film "Yellow Submarine." Known for their strong-arm tactics and royal blue jump suits with matching helmets, they were alleged to have shot a guy off a roof once.
The blue meanies wore fully-stocked utility belts and had a unique method for clearing out protesters. Side-by side, spanning the entire street they marched straight ahead in an attempt to kick the crap out of anything obstructing their path. The crowd knew about these guys and an anxious concern set in.
Within seconds the streets emptied. Protesters didn’t want a confrontation with these guys on this particular afternoon. As suddenly as everything began, it ended just as quickly. Soon after I was driving back home down Telegraph Avenue with Magritte on my mind, but without that text book I needed for English.
The author at the American River
in 1970. Photo by Craig Lovell
Notes from a Native Son
A response to Joan Didion’s 1965 essay about
Sacramento in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”
...fifty years later
by Ken Magri
In “Notes From a Native Daughter” Joan Didion wrote that Sacramento began to change for good in 1950, from a sleepy farming town insulated by coastal mountains on the west and mighty Sierras to the east, into a jet-age city with the pace of a post-WWII metropolis rapidly filling up with outsiders. Joan was just 16 years old in 1950, but she already began to mourn the loss of something she couldn’t quite identify, something quiet, insular, that was now going to be lost. She lamented the emerging aerospace industry and its absentee owners. She wrote about expansion and losing the hops fields on H Street, and about the renaming of M Street to Capitol Avenue.
With retrospective elegance she recalled her family discussing the mountain roads that used to close after every winter snowstorm, and listening on the radio to reports of the river rising during flood years. She described with sadness the housing developments south of Highway 50 that were making the California wildflowers disappear, and again, her beloved hops.
She told a “Sacramento story” of a rich family who once owned thousands of acres along the Sacramento River, who had a daughter they sent abroad. The daughter married a prince, returned to Sacramento and they threw lavish parties at their riverfront mansion. Later they all died and the only surviving son lives on a trailer next to that burned-down mansion where only the chimneys survived. And that was Joan’s metaphor for Sacramento, a sort-of Scarlett O’Hara standing before a devastated Tara after the Civil War. Except in this version, Scarlett settles for life in an Airstream.
Ms. Didion ended by sympathizing with people like me, of the next generation, who she predicted would lose sight of her precious valley town and replace its real history with a manufactured one. Why? Because, she says, Sacramentans think California started only when they got here. Joan concluded her essay by writing that Sacramento was undergoing so many dramatic changes it had “lost its raison d’être,” its reason for existing. Ouch.
The words sting because people across America and around the world have read these melancholic notes believing that Joan’s take on Sacramento was the real Sacramento.
But it’s not. It was only Joan’s version, her customized city of relative privilege for the sons and daughters of a more narrowly defined social class. And even that particular construct never entirely went away. The thing that went away? It was Joan.
Her Sacramento Still Exists. The roads still close in winter after a heavy storm, and the news stations still send live shot reporters up to Blue Canyon or Pollock Pines to film the giant Cal-Trans snow removers. Sacramento still floods whenever a warm, snow-melting rainstorm comes through, and radio is still the best way to get fresh information when the water is rising. Joan’s dreaded housing tracts south of Highway 50? Yes, they begat more housing tracts. And then came more sprawl, and yes, natives complain. But the flowers and trees never left. The marine breezes still run across the valley floor in the evening, cooling off the hot July days so that you can sleep with an open window.
I grew up around the neighborhoods of Joan’s youth, went to her middle school, drove the same streets, felt the same valley fog go down to my inner bones in the muffled silence of a gray Sacramento January. I fell in love, just like she did. I played in the same rivers, lost a friend in those same rivers, read the same newspapers, went to the same California State Fair and saw the same agricultural displays in
the Beaux Arts styled Counties Building. If my sister and I behaved, Dad would stop at Merlino’s orange juice stand on the way out and buy us all orange freezes. It still sits on Stockton Boulevard, across the street from what used to be the fairgrounds.
I look at Joan’s photograph on the cover of this paperback. I close my eyes and visualize her as a cute teenage girl of my era, with long straight hair and bell-bottom jeans, blowing smoke rings and flicking cigarette ashes down into the mud along the river shoreline. As the waters flow past us in deep green aisles in the quiet of a lingering summer evening, you can smell the valley heat and the aroma of star-thistle in the fields. A mockingbird imitates the shriek of a blue jay and a family of quail scampers across the dust laden trail.
Boys throw rocks at the lampreys. Girls draw peace signs and hearts in the sand with their toes. Like all teenagers, we had our whole lives ahead of us, yet with nothing better to do than languish in how cool we looked. I see Joan’s sad smile right alongside of us. She may have lived her Sacramento life out twenty years before me, but the two of us grew up in the same places, had the same dreams, and ultimately felt that same sense of urgency about our rapidly changing era. By then the urban sprawl had ventured north and east, and west.
But even so, the older Sacramento never completely went away. Its spirit is nestled within the smell of anise and wild blackberries growing down along the American River bike trails. You can catch early morning sounds of trains as they roll in from Roseville along the 19th street tracks. The piercing screeches of metal on metal, that click-clack of wheels, can still be heard in the suburbs as one walks across the driveway in stocking feet to fetch the morning paper.
You can still hear the sound of leaves in autumn blowing through the back alleys downtown on a late afternoon. You can still find old run-down mansions along the Sacramento River, interspersed between endless rows of orchards. The corn grows tall down there, and at night you can listen to the breezes dance across the fields and pretend you’re in Nebraska. There haven’t been hops growing inside the city limits since I was a boy, but the hops Joan loved so much still grow out along Jackson Highway, and farming is still a crucial part of Sacramento’s identity. Yes, it still has those same characteristics.
Like Joan did, I also want to tell you a Sacramento story. Mine is about a couple of first generation Americans. He was a poor Italian kid from the wrong side of the streets in Chico, and she was the daughter of a Swiss-immigrant chicken farmer in Rio Linda. They fell in love, started a life together, worked hard and saved their money. When he marched off to war, she built them a little house, with a carport, and a screened back porch where you could enjoy the simple pleasure of a Central Valley sunset without bugs.
Soon afterwards they had a beautiful daughter and life was wonderful. They saved, worked and sacrificed, and in 1950, Joan’s pivotal year for Sacramento, this couple bought a business. Their customers were the same aerospace workers and out-of-state immigrants of Joan’s lament. After a few more years this couple had a son and was able to build a new house, not a riverfront mansion, but a fine suburban home on a quarter acre lot. It became their homestead. They worked and saved and sent their daughter to Europe, and their son to college. He became a college professor. The family grew, prospered, and lived happily ever after, in Sacramento.
It is the story of an American Dream fulfilled, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, America gives you an honest chance to at least try to achieve your dreams. And for this couple, the time and place for achieving those dreams was Joan’s post-1950 Sacramento. My Sacramento story has no poetic irony, no sense of loss. It has no smoldering chimneys and no depressing conclusion, because this couple was my parents.
I am their Sacramento native success story, and I have lectured about aspects of Sacramento’s history to generations of newcomers and natives alike. There are lots of me’s in this town that grew up and didn’t forget our city’s past. Neither did we leave it. Our raison d ‘etre still grows here with us.
Today is July fourth, 2015 in Sacramento. Throughout the suburbs driveway awnings and Bar-B Q sets came out early this morning. Children and their parents now gather at selected street corners for neighborhood parades scheduled to start promptly at 11:00am. Red wagons, bicycles-for-two, and small pet dogs are dressed in patriotic decorum. A pumper from the corner fire station shows up at 10:55. Kids are jumping up and down as twenty foot leash lines get tangled up in a passing bicyclist’s wheels, and golf cart filled with retirees holding cocktails goes whizzing by.
It is a scene of spontaneity and innocence. Some pranksters, apparently working in the middle of the night, turned all the street signs 90 degrees to the left. A few men join in now, while still holding their beer cans, to lift one of the signs and set it back in correctly. Three pre-teen girls practice a Pop dance move in the middle of the street.
It is a scene of contrasts, like the smell of searing meat mixed in with fireworks smoke. A half block away a group of chickens cluster around some thrown corn meal while a sheriff’s helicopter roars by above. The aroma of marijuana lofts over an ivy covered wall. Defiant teenagers have decided to stream heavy metal songs out into the yard from their bedroom window, but the parents don’t seem to notice. A dad yells at his sons to stop shoving one another, and a mom forces sunscreen onto her hyperactive toddler. Finally, the parade organizer calls for everyone to begin lining up.
Modest scenes like this will play out all across Sacramento today, these scenes in their redundant everydayness, filled with future lives worth living, lives that will be more tolerant, less bigoted, and less materialistic than the Sacramento lives before them. Every generation’s memories matter, even the next ones, and they can be just as rich as Joan’s. Her mournful rendition of a beautiful but bygone and seemingly forgotten Sacramento, however eloquent, are the memories of privilege, and as she herself suggests, perhaps the losses are hers and hers alone.
The old Didion family house in Sacramento, far from the
Below on this page:
1. The Day I Met Rene Magritte at the Berkeley Riots
2. Rest in Peace,Dickie Peterson
3. Notes From a Native Son
4. Andy Warhol Remembered
5. Sacramento News and Review's Capital Cannabis Guide articles
Didion in Haight Ashbury in 1967,
taking the anxieties of the priveledged onto her
Rest in Peace Dickie Peterson 1946-2009
Dickie Peterson in Sacramento in 1974. Photo by Ken Magri
From an article published on October 22nd, 2009 in the Sacramento News and Review
Richard Allan “Dickie” Peterson, the founding member of Blue Cheer and former Sacramentan, died on October 12, 2009 in Germany of liver cancer. He was 63. Born in North Dakota, Peterson, a former Davis resident, was bassist and singer for the famous power trio, which first hit the charts in 1968, covering “Summertime Blues” on their album Vincebus Eruptum. The group also featured Leigh Stephens on guitar and Paul Whaley on drums. A favorite of bikers and 1%ers everywhere, Blue Cheer took their name from a local brand of LSD. The group’s earth-shaking blues sound, featuring Peterson’s booming voice and vibrating bass licks, punctuated the psychedelic era of Bay Area acid rock and created a template that influenced an entire generation of heavy-metal bands.
The term “dime the Marshalls” came from Blue Cheer’s reasoning that the volume setting on their Marshall amps went all the way up to 10 for a reason.
Blue Cheer appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand in 1968 on the strength of their single “Summertime Blues.” “ At the time,” said Peterson in a 2007 interview, “we were being managed by "Gut" Terkl, who'd been a Hell's Angel, and Gut and I were sitting in the dressing room, smoking a bowl of hash, and Dick Clark walked in, and looked at us, and he says, " PEOPLE LIKE YOU GIVE ROCK 'n' ROLL A BAD NAME!" We looked back at him, and we said, "Thank you very much!" That was the last time we were ever on Bandstand.”
After a few personnel changes and less successful albums Blue Cheer broke up. Peterson eventually moved to Sacramento in 1974, forming a new group Peterbuilt with his brother Jerre Peterson and playing numerous West Coast venues. In 1988, he reincarnated Blue Cheer again, with guitarist Andrew “Duck” MacDonald and original drummer Paul Whaley, and toured regularly throughout Europe. The group’s live DVD, Blue Cheer Rocks Europe, came out in 2009. It was Blue Cheer’s first album in almost 40 years. Andrew “Duck” Macdonald, left, Dickie Peterson and Paul Whaley formed the version of last Blue Cheer.
“Dickie waits for the rest of us,” MacDonald said,
“And then he will turn and face God and say,
‘We’re Blue Cheer, and this is what we do,’ and
Magri Manor being build while the
War in the Pacific raged on.
Andy Warhol Remembered by Ken Magri
Originally published in March, 1987 in the Suttertown News
Writing about Andy Warhol can be tricky because his life was full of contradictions. Through his artworks the mundane could become interesting. As a celebrity he was accessible to almost everyone, yet he shunned the intimacy of personal contact.
Warhol never preached any specific art dogma, and the commentary in his works was usually vague; open to some interpretation. The images, however, did manage to mirror a cold war era America infatuated with itself, while celebrating the brand name abundance which characterized most of the country and most of Pop art in the 60s. Silk screened soup cans, Coke bottles, car crashes and movie stars had more iconic meaning under his repetitive eye.
Cal State Sacramento professor Kurt von Meier likened Andy's thinking to that of the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp and his ideas about the function of choice, which were brilliantly revived in Warhol's art. "Of all the images of Marilyn Monroe, he chose the one that went straight to the archetype," said von Meier. "Through his choice he was able to focus on the essence."
Warhol dumbfounded most art critics by striking at the so-called mystique of art and returning it to a pedestrian aesthetic. Images of race riots, Jackie Kennedy, electric chairs and Chairman Mao, gleaned straight from the front pages of newspapers, were familiar to the average American, even though Warhol put his own spin on them. While speaking of the superficiality in our lives, his flat colored, hastily rendered canvases seemed to celebrate it just the same."I sensed anger in some of his work," said Sacramento artist Darrell Forney. "There was a certain edge that kept it alive." Forney saw Warhol as an iconoclast, especially in his tradition-breaking use of film. "I was a graduate student at California College of Arts and Crafts in 1963, when all the Pop artists were making their impact. I would hit the Bay Area film festivals and inevitably see a Warhol film.”
In many ways Warhol's films posed a greater challenge than his art by setting extreme precedents for their unrelenting sexual themes and/or duration. Consider these two examples from 1964, shot with a static camera from a fixed viewpoint. "Empire" recorded eight hours of the top half of the Empire State building, and "Blow Job" focused only on a young man's face while an off camera participant performed fellatio on him.
People often dismissed Andy's films as camp put-ons and amateurish exercises in non-technique. Still others found significance in his willingness to push the boundaries of cinema beyond mere Hollywood standards. As the years progressed Warhol, with film partner Paul Morrisey, used more traditional techniques, but continued to explore explicit sexual themes that would generate protests or police confiscations. Without Andy's continual attack on artistic taboos, later films like John Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" and Bernardo Bertalucci's "Last Tango in Paris" would never have achieved Academy Award consideration. Warhol broke the ice, although film soon became a temporary means of expression.
Warhol slowed down considerably after surviving a near fatal point-blank shooting in 1968 at the hands of a disturbed young woman who wanted him to produce a film script she wrote. It seems so distant now to remember what a horribly violent year that was. The Soviets rolled their tanks into Prague, the Tet Offensive began in Viet Nam, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and while Warhol recovered from surgery to save his life, the news came in about Robert Kennedy's assassination. Out of the chaos and tragedy that enveloped the world that year Warhol became just another victim. He was never the same after 1968, but neither was America.
Throughout most of the 70s and 80s a mellowed Warhol concentrated on celebrity portraits and his new "Interview" magazine, a visually hip foray into the chic, if not substantive, side of New York glitterati. He was always seen with superstars (a word he coined, by the way), many of whom became his subjects. The list of notables included Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, Jane Fonda, O.J. Simpson, Jimmy Carter, Maria Shriver, fellow artists Man Ray and R.C. Gorman., and boxing great Muhammad Ali.
As a celebrity, Warhol endorsed everything from ice cream to office furniture. As a collector he purchased fabulous examples of contemporary paintings, Federalist period furniture, Art Deco housewares and Navajo rugs. He penned two books, did cameos in "Tootsie," on "Saturday Night Live" and "The Love Boat," and, at some point, became famous for being famous. While still making art right up to the end in 1987, it could be argued that Warhol's final masterpiece was the successful marketing of himself as the most recognizable artist since Pablo Picasso
Often portrayed as an enfant terrible, his most endearing characteristic, ironically, was his frailty. "He was shy, with almost a boyish quality," said Lisa Stanley, who helped arrange his 1981 appearance at the Weinstocks in downtown Sacramento. I met him that night and would agree. Warhol acted at times as if he was as surprised by his fame as anyone else.
Some art critics like Robert Hughes tried to downplay Warhol's importance, saying "his ideas had a half life," and that in the end he was little more than a "perfunctory social portraitist." But Hughes changed his tune in the 1990s, once it was apparent that Andy had inspired a whole wave of younger New York artists like Keith Haring, Ronnie Cutone, Kenny Scharf, and especially Jean Michel Basquait whom Warhol befriended and collaborated with."Look," said von Meier, "New York society can be voracious, yet it never gobbled him up." In the end it will be said that Andy Warhol far outlasted the 15 minutes of fame he accurately predicted for everybody else. "My gut hunch is that he’s going to survive very well" said Forney.
The State Capitol Annex being built in 1950.
There goes the neighbrhood.
Armando and Lu Magri,
my raison d'etre.