Left to right:
Leigh Stephens (in back, Blue Cheer) me (in foreground with moustache), Micky Waller (in back, Jeff Beck), Harry Reynolds (Hair Band).
I had met Leigh and his old lady at the time Liz, when Micky Waller took me over to a mews cottage they were renting in London around January or February ’69. He had been there recording his “Red Weather” album. We got along well.
Leigh tore off a small triangular scrap of paper and drew a diagram in pencil of Santa Monica Pier near Los Angeles. He drew in an arrow pointing to an outside door at the top of some stairs running up the side of a building listed as a Merry Go Round. That was it…no phone number or anything.
Six months later I had saved up enough money for a ticket from Gatwick Airport, which is south of London, to New York City. There I planned to change airlines and fly on across the US continent to Los Angeles International. The airline was Loft Leider Icelandic Airlines who still used four engine propeller aircraft for their trans-Atlantic flights.
When my dad drove me to Gatwick to see me off he wished me luck and told me to be careful. He communicated his concern and depth of caring through the look in his eyes, which is what Englishmen do instead of hugging when saying goodbye to people they care deeply for. He shook my hand and asked me to write and let them know how things were going.
I was twenty one years old…being a parent of two children myself I now realize what inner turmoil he must have been going through. Even though I’d lived a pretty full life up to that point, the unease he must have felt at seeing his young son flying off into the unknown, into what you know from personal experience is a dangerous world full of people who would do you harm. It is something that only now as a father can I fully appreciate. Jeannette and I have gone through it with both our children…when Dylan first went off to India, and later when Natalie also went to India on her own, working for women and children’s rights, as well as cleaning feces of dying women brought in off the streets as a volunteer at Mother Theresa’s in Calcutta. Pretty intense work for a woman travelling alone. Throughout your child’s life you gradually, step by step have to make that leap of faith and let the rope out a bit at a time. For me at twenty one it was all unbelievably exciting, and I felt the whole world was before me. I had gone through the psychedelic music and drug culture of the sixties; living all over London as a young rock musician at one time or another and I now felt myself drawn by some imperceptible force to cross an ocean and a continent into the unknown. I was armed only with the scrap of torn paper and scribbled diagram Leigh had given me six months earlier. No phone number or actual address. I had no idea if he still lived there anymore. After my dad left me at Gatwick I found out our scheduled plane had mechanical problems and they had no other aircraft available so the airline split everyone up and put us on different airlines. It was storming outside that day and I and several other Loft Leider passengers were put on an airline called “Dan Air”…who flew Comet 4’s. This was my first time flying in anything and I had vague recollections of having read about Comet 4’s being one of the first jet airliners put into service in the 1950’s, and hearing that they would sometimes explode in mid-air due to cabin pressure problems at altitude. This made me feel a bit uneasy to say the least, but I got on the plane anyway. I found out later of course that the aircraft had been modified since those terrible accidents and were supposedly perfectly safe. The plane was surprisingly narrow for an airliner, two seats rows on either side and we were soon buffeting around in the rough air, packed in like sardines in a can. I tried to relax my white knuckles, took a deep breath and did my best to stiffen my upper lip as Englishman are supposed to do. After an hour or so we were getting thrown around pretty bad; I noticed people were inhaling short bursts of air and holding their breath, and nobody was talking. A few were throwing up. Suddenly a stewardess ran down the aisle and looked anxiously out the window over the wing…I grabbed the seat a bit harder. The aircraft then began a gradual descent and you could have cut the nervous tension with a knife…a sharp one anyway. We were supposed to be in route to Prestwick Airport in Scotland so I assumed that was the airport we were approaching. We finally landed in a driving rain and taxied to a stop outside a small terminal which didn’t look big enough to be Prestwick. Sure enough we’d landed at a small airport about thirty miles away, apparently due to weather related air traffic congestion…although the thought of mechanical problems had certainly crossed my mind. Judging from the looks on the other passengers faces I wasn’t alone in these imaginings. We all spent a rough night in the small airport terminal trying to get some rest on the hard plastic bench seats. There was not another airline or plane in sight, and no other passengers. We must have looked a sorry sight by then, a small bedraggled, slightly pissed off, shell shocked group of passengers who were supposed to be on their way to New York City. We dozed off as best we could but could only sleep in snatches. The next day we were driven across the Scottish hills to Prestwick in a coach. It was all very bizarre…but I was young and it was an adventure. By this time we were all following each other’s baggage carts and the intercom instructions like dazed sheep. We were finally placed on a BOAC Boeing 747…back to London. So there we were, flying over Big Ben and the river Thames bound for Heathrow on a clear bright morning the day after we had left Gatwick. It was very weird. We were eventually transferred to a British Airways 747 bound for New York. I was on my way.
The customs officer in New York checked my visa and asked me what I was planning to do in the States. I told him I was visiting a friend in Los Angeles…he looked at my tobacco pipes, tin of Old Holborn rolling tobacco with black papers, and the few antique weird odds and ends I had in my suitcase, all that I owned in the world basically, and motioned me through with a wry look on his face. I made it…I was in the States. I struggled with my two bags over to the impressive looking TWA terminal in the hot sun and caught a beautiful silver Boeing 707 to Los Angeles. It was a bright clear blue sky and I sat in my own little world next to the window. I’ll never forget the feeling of adventure and elation as we climbed to 30,000 feet over the magnificent US continent while I listened to Hayden’s Unfinished Symphony at full volume on the headphones. The pilot had one of those wonderful reassuring military astronaut drawls…I was in heaven. To top it all off a beautiful girl called Nancy who I recognized as one of the original Dan Air passengers gracefully slipped herself onto the seat next to me…she had been visiting Europe and was on her way home to Anaheim just outside Los Angeles. The sky was clear the whole way across…the Rocky Mountains, the Great Salt Lake, the Sierra Mountains and finally I caught site of the blue Pacific Ocean as we approached for landing. After picking up my bags I realized I was stuck with very little money in a country with lousy public transportation and had to somehow make my way to Santa Monica from LA International. Nancy came to the rescue and her parents offered to drop me off at the Pier on their way home. We spoke the same language, but it felt as though I had landed on Mars. Nancy’s wonderful and kind parents looked exactly like a family from a 1950’s, early 60’s TV sit-com…her father wore Bermuda shorts, crewcut, and drove a large sprawling fake wood sided station wagon.
BBC television used to carry shows like Perry Mason, The Lone Ranger, Cisco Kid, Jack Benny, Father Knows Best, Flash Gordon, and Superman. Like many people visiting the US from Europe for the first time, my image of America was largely based on stereotypical images forged in the cynical fires of self-righteous arrogance.
Much of these were formed by the movies, 1950’s early 60’s TV shows and the image of the ugly loud American tourist throwing wads of cash around and smoking a green cigar chewed to mush at one end. Of course we were all aware to varying degrees of thankfulness, and for some resentment, that Europe would be a very different place if the US hadn’t entered WW2 and helped save our collective posteriors. We had won the Battle of Britain air war against Hitler and Goering’s Luftwaffe…but could never have managed the Normandy invasions and liberated Europe without the USA.
But the countries of Europe have treated each other with biases, distrust and arrogant cynicism for hundreds of years, so why would they be any different with their treatment of the USA. The sheer size of America with its diverse political and cultural belief systems never fails to astound me…something that can often be difficult for people living in close quarters in countries that would fit into the state of Texas alone to understand.
America has been very good to me, but it is still a young country and is still finding its feet. There is still much work to be done…so much corruption, greed with its own brand of cynicism and short sightedness. Mind numbing Orwellian “newspeak” spew from corporate controlled media outlets; most things that air on radio and Television are ratings driven at any cost, and we have an archaic health care system in spite of being one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
But there is also so much that is good: non-profits and responsible businesses that pick up the slack where irresponsible and shortsighted governments fall short, along with health care and social workers, educators and grass roots activists…all grossly underfunded. A country that can place a man on the moon, but can’t supply quality health care for all income levels like almost every other country in the developed world should send up a glaring red flag. Short term gain for the few seems to drive our country’s policy making decisions; exploiting the population’s natural sense of patriotism by calling anyone who questions those decisions “unpatriotic”. A sort of blind patriotism. The United States of America is a land of innovation, but also a land that needs to come to grips with some of the terrible wrongs it has perpetrated. Like on its native inhabitants who have been systematically abused since we occupied their land in the name of progress. Until we officially acknowledge the many mistakes we have made as a young nation, try to make amends and heal the wounds…we will never be able to truly grow. America is the land both my children were born into…and I love it.
Nancy and her family dropped me off on Santa Monica Pier to the sound of surreal merry go round music pumping out of an old carnival pipe organ. It was the boiling hot summer of 1969 and there I stood in my big old black London overcoat, my worldly possessions in two suitcases lying next to me, and trying to come to terms with my peculiar situation. I had about five bucks in my pocket, a few pound notes, and a handful of British coins. I was turning the little scrap of paper Leigh had given me six months earlier this way and that, trying to match the staircase and door he’d drawn with what I was seeing. It felt a bit like a strange dream, or like the early stages of an acid trip…just as you are coming on. Muscle Beach was off to one side, which I just couldn’t come to grips with, and these beautiful brown bodied California women and hippie guys off to the other. Then there was the Pacific Ocean stretching off as far as the eye could see…and the waves were calm. I walked up and down the pier a bit…past old fortune telling machines, hot dog stands and men selling cotton candy. The Santa Monica area and Venice Beach were like ghost towns in ’69…with one foot still in the early part of the twentieth century. Faded and peeling paint on old wood, warped with age…young hip culture everywhere, and the only sleazy element to be seen were the poor old winos lying around drinking rot-gut Red Mountain wine. There was innocence to it all back then…before renovations and new apartment complexes destroyed the charm and purity of natural aging. The hippies drank cheap Ripple wine which wasn’t much better than Red Mountain.
I found the steps that ran up the right side of the wooden building that housed the Merry Go Round. I lugged my baggage to the small landing at the top and rang the doorbell. I rang a couple more times until the sinking feeling that had begun to creep over me was cut short by the door slowly swinging open. An attractive woman, about my age appeared. There was a faint hint of a smile adding a touch of mystery to an aura that was all too familiar to me…the look of somebody completely and utterly stoned. She was dressed in a flowing rust colored dress and shawl that looked like they belonged to the roaring twenties. Her look perfectly matched the ethereal sounds floating up in the withering heat from the old pipe organ below.
She didn’t say anything.
“Hello, I’ve just flown in from England; I’m looking for Leigh Stephens…does he still live here? He told me to look him up if I ever get to the States?”
Silence…just the sound of the pipe organ and children’s laughter.
“Leigh…he’s a musician…I met him and Liz in London.”
Still nothing, but her smile and eyes opened just a bit wider.
More pipe organ…and then.
“Yeah, Leigh, he doesn’t live here anymore…I live here with his friend and manager, Charlie. Charlie rents the place.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“He and Liz live near here…they might be rehearsing.”
I was getting very hot…I’d never experienced that kind of heat before…I was just standing there outside her door with all my stuff and I was fading fast…I’d been up for two days.
I said “look I’ve just come six thousand miles…could you at least ask me in for a cup of tea?”
It was like she suddenly woke from a dream.
“Yeah, of course, come in…I’ll make some tea”
We walked into an old planked painted hallway with a balcony overlooking the Merry Go Round below…she motioned me through the door to their apartment. It was full of rustic old world charm…it felt like it should be floating under full sail in mid-ocean instead of stuck on dry land…the whole pier had that vibe. The windows were oval on top and everything was painted cream with red trim. She made me some sort of herbal tea without saying much of anything…no questions; nothing. She did tell me her name was Ginny. Then she just sat staring out a window on the other side of the room with that faint smile of contentment on her face. I sat down and pondered my situation again…things definitely looked better than they had ten minutes ago. I was no longer standing in the hot sun, I’d taken off my big old black greatcoat, and I was sipping some sort of hot liquid that was supposed to pass for tea. There had also been some name recognition at the mention of Leigh’s name…which at that time meant a lot me.
I hated to disturb her reverie, but it was getting late. I finished my tea and asked if she had a phone number for Leigh…she said she did but didn’t have a phone. “There’s a pay phone downstairs.”
She handed me a coin I didn’t recognize.
I walked back down the stairs…the music was constant but happy sounding and it lifted my spirits. I found what looked like some sort of pay phone contraption and spent some time trying to work out how to use it. I lifted up the receiver; put the coin in and the dial tone magically appeared. I dialed the number. It rang a couple of times.
“Leigh is that you”
“Yeah, who’s this?”
“It’s me, Pete Sears…you remember you told me to look you up if I ever got over to the states…well I’m here”
“Pete…you gotta be kiddin!…where are you?”
“I’m on Santa Monica Pier…I just met Ginny; sort of, she let me in…gave me your number. Where are you?”
“Wow, I can’t believe you’re here…I’ll come down and get you right away”
“Fantastic…see you soon”
And that was that…I had started what turned out to be a lifelong love affair with California and the rest of the United States. I moved into a small rented apartment with Leigh and Liz in Venice Beach. They put me up on the sofa in the living room…there was only a bedroom and a living room. I shared the room with a creature I was unfamiliar with, they called it a Raccoon. I once watched it push aside a chair they had leaning against a food cupboard to keep the door closed, somehow wriggle its way up onto the shelf and begin eating. It was morning and I had just opened my eyes…I lay there completely fascinated by this wily creature that looked like a California version of something from “Wind in the Willows”. The first I fully realized it was a wild animal was when the neighbors called the police on Leigh and Liz and it was taken away. A danger to children in the apartment complex they said.
I was recently told of another incident that happened at that apartment; although I personally have very little recollection of it. Leigh and Liz were apparently lying in bed one morning when they heard me yelling “How the &%$@ did they find me here”.
A man from “Sears Roebuck” was delivering something just outside the front door and was yelling “Sears…Sears”.
I remember watching the Moon landing on their small black and white TV set…that was something to see.
“One small step…..
Leigh’s old college friend Charlie Osborne was our manager and lived with Ginny in the Santa Monica Pier apartment.
We started jamming together day and night in a rehearsal room below the “Whale” bar on the land side of the Cheetah Ballroom Pier in Venice Beach. I cut the legs off my jeans and would walk in and out of the ocean whenever the mood took me. Leigh would take me down to a place on the boulevard that sold Lox and Cream cheese…which I couldn’t get enough of. A beautiful half Cherokee Indian woman called Dani from Oklahoma bought me breakfast a few times. I caught the clap for the second time in my life…the first being during my crazy years with Sam Gopal Dream. A shot of penicillin at the San Vicente clap clinic took care of that. I remember walking into a liquor store once and asking for a packet of fags…the guy behind the counter thought I was being funny until I explained “Fags” meant cigarettes in England. It was while I was hanging out in the “Whale” rehearsal rooms that I first met Larry Rainer…a sweet giant of a guy who had recently returned from a tour of heavy combat in Vietnam. It was my first exposure to the hell those guys went through over there…I saw the shrapnel wounds on his back. I give money to every vet I see on the street asking for money…you can tell who they are. Larry eventually died of a heroin overdose in New York City…a habit he’d picked up in Vietnam. I was told he expired lying on a bed with Dani nodding out in a chair next to him…oblivious to the fact Larry was dying right next to her. It wasn’t really her fault…that’s what it was like in that world. I had last seen him at a Brewer & Shipley benefit concert I was involved with (they were talking to me about producing a record for them) for Native American’s on the West Coast back in the seventies…I still think about Larry from time to time.
Micky Waller and Bryn Howarth later came over to help form the band…but Bryn didn’t stay.
There was this young girl who was madly in love with this guy; I won’t say his name in case he reads this. Something happened between them one day and a guy named Doug and I heard her crying hysterically from inside this small locked room off the rehearsal room. We broke down the door and found her sitting with her back against the wall in a pool of blood…she had made deep gashes all up her arms and legs. Not deep enough to hit a major artery…almost certainly a cry for help and not a serious suicide attempt…but enough to permanently scar her emotionally and physically. We carried her sobbing to an old Volkswagen one of the guys had and took her to the nearest hospital where they refused to treat her because she wouldn’t give her parent’s name and address. It came out that she was only sixteen years old. I couldn’t believe that a hospital wouldn’t treat someone and ask questions later…this would not happen in a European hospital…so we went on to another hospital and they wouldn’t treat her either, for the same reason. Her situation was not immediately life threatening as the blood in her open gashes had congealed by then. But she was a mess. No one would treat her…so we took her back to the apartment over the Merry Go Round, which had shut down for the night and put her in the one spare bedroom. She could see a regular doctor in the morning. We all tried to get some rest on the living room floor. We told the fellow who will remain nameless he ought to go and check on her…which he did. He was gone for about ten minutes when we heard her cry and slam the door to the bathroom. Some time went by and we heard her slip back into the bedroom. Then the nameless fellow appeared and said “I think she’s cut her throat”.
We’re all laying on the floor in the dark…someone said,
“You gotta be kiddin”
The nameless fellow…who I shall never name…went and laid down in the living room.
“Better check it out” I said.
I went in and opened the door to the bedroom. She was lying on the bed with the white sheet held tightly up to her chin to hide her throat. The light was on. I imagined all sorts of horrible things were lurking under that sheet. I spoke to her softly, and gradually coaxed her hand and sheet down away from her neck. She had cut several shallow gashes with a razor blade side to side clear across the length of her throat…she was obviously in no danger of bleeding to death, but the risk of infection all over her body was clear. She was an emotional wreck and shivering badly. I told her to lie still and went to the bathroom to look for something I could use. I found a tube of white over the counter antiseptic cream and began smearing it in all the many gashes she had made on her arms, legs and throat. I then gently stroked her forehead, telling her everything was going to be alright until she finally fell asleep from sheer exhaustion a couple of hours later. Three years later in 1972, I was living on my own in a small room I was renting from Doug and Shelley McGuire on Morning Sun in Mill Valley when I received a letter…it was from her. She had somehow tracked me down and was thanking me for looking after her that night. The letter meant a lot to me…it sounded like she was in a better place and had got her life together.
The band became “Silver Metre” and after spending three months in Venice Beach we drove a couple of cars up to Big Sur and spent two weeks in Charlie’s stepfather’s cabin on “Big Creek”. We had no electricity and I would sleep outside in a hammock slung between two trees in the pitch black night listening to the ancient creek relentlessly roar by. The rest of the guys slept in the cabin…although I did exchange places with them a few times. We’d sometimes light a fire on some rocks in the middle of the creek and hang out in a natural hot spring made from a circle of stones fed from a pipe carrying hot water from a natural spring. The pool of flickering light from the fire burning on the rock above our heads barely made a dent in the ink black darkness surrounding us.
It was all so amazing; I knew I wanted to go north.
The band rented an apartment on Buchannan Street near Japan Town in San Francisco…we’d often eat at Tommy’s Joint…famous for their Buffalo Stew. We later moved across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County and stayed at a house in Ross with a bunch of other musicians, including the great keyboard player Howie Wales. The house was owned by Buck Sumski, an attorney. We’d get high on this horrible stuff I’d never heard of before coming to California called “Amoeba Weed”…I was certain I could hear my brain cells popping. It turned out to be our circle’s name for Angel Dust…or PCP…parsley soaked in horse tranquilizer. Charlie handed over management to FM Rock DJ big Tom Donahue, who got us a record deal with National General Records and a small record advance…so I had come over to the states with five bucks in my pocket, and gone back to London with $5,000. My only regret was being so caught up in the otherworldliness of it all that I didn’t write home to my parents or Lucy soon enough. I was twenty one and living day to day. I felt like I was on another planet…but I knew I’d be back. California’s like that.