After my hitch in the Navy where I assiduously avoided sea duty with every ounce of cunning I had, I joined the U S Merchant Marine. I’m not sure why, but I needed a job.
You can’t really compare the two services. The Navy crams hundreds of sailors into tiny spaces, spends months at sea with, many times, with no apparent destination and nobody tells you anything. The pay is peanuts and you don’t do anything without some kind of permission.
The Merchant service is the opposite. The ships are just as big but with very small crews. There is no uniform, not even for the officers. You always know where you are going and when you will get there. What you do ashore is your own business and is only limited by how long it take to turn the ship around, by which I mean unload and reload cargo. Duty is fairly easy most of the time. It’s a little cold in the gulf of Alaska in the winter and the decks get warmish in the tropics but most of the time it’s pretty pleasant.
I shipped with a typically motley crew. The deck division, the Able Bodied and Ordinary Seamen were responsible for the upkeep of the ship, cargo handling and standing both underway and port watches. The ship owners are only concerned about the movement of cargo so maintenance is a pretty low consideration. Chip a little rust, slap on some paint and find something better to do. If the deck plates are so badly corroded that someone might step through the deck and fall into the hold, just weld a few stanchions around it, attach some chain and tell every one to walk around it.
The Bos’n was named “Pinky,” he had very fair skin and as a young sailor he sunburned easily, hence the name. Big Ray had earned the distinction of being torpedoed twice by the Japanese in WWII. Maybe that why he and his wife had 10 kids. Spread the risk around so to speak. Don was just about my age and was also a Navy Veteran. He grew up on the hard streets around Hill Top Park, Long Beach. He was raised by an Aunt, a nurse, served his four in the Nav’ and joined the MMS, same as me. We cruised together quite a lot when we were ashore.
Shore leave in the merchant service is plentiful but its seldom in places where there is any cultural opportunity unless its of the low kind. Consider where tank ships tie up; National City, El Segundo, Terminal Island, Port of Oakland, Longview on the Colombia River, Anacortes or Bellingham Washington. We put into in places like Rosarito Beach in Baja Norte, Barber’s Point, Hawaii, Ventura and Estero Bay where the ship pumped from an undersea line and no one got off. Where do you go in Avila Beach, Barbara’s by the Sea? Most places we docked featured dirty old bars that smelled of spilled beer, cigarette smoke, worn out people on the stools, girls on the stroll, dead ends. You can have a beer, play some pool and try and not get in a fist fight with a local. How about Drift River Alaska where we tied up to an offshore platform and the ship was surrounded by ice flows in the winter and a gazillion bird sized mosquitos in the summer. Two days there and you might wish for that smelly old bar.
Opportunities to do something different were few and far between, but they did happen. In March of 1971 we slid under the Golden Gate bridge, passed Alcatraz on our starboard side and tied up at the Rodeo oil terminal at Davis Point up in San Pablo bay. We were off loading and would run in ballast for Drift River, Alaska. Donnie and I both had the night off and so we went down the gangplank, walked up the pier where we called a cab from a pay phone and got a ride into Oakland. We were dropped off in whats now Jack London Square. Even then no one went into south Oakland unless they had a death wish so we just tooled around a little looking in the windows. As we waited for the light at 2nd and Broadway we noticed, tacked to a pole, a poster advertising a show at the Fillmore West in San Francisco that night. We decided to go. Easy enough, we just took a bus across the bay bridge to the downtown San Francisco bus terminal at Mission and Howard streets. Then still known as “South of the Slot,” San Francisco was divided midway by the Slot. The Slot was an iron crack that ran along the center of Market street, and from the Slot from which once arose the hiss of the ceaseless, endless steel cable that was hitched at will to the cable cars it dragged up and down Market. The cars were no more, replaced by electrified buses but the name remained. North of the Slot were the theaters, hotels, and shopping district; the banks and the staid, respectable business houses. South of the Slot were the factories, slums, laundries, machine-shops, boiler works, and the homes of the working class. The Slot was completely burnt out in 1906 but in true San Francisco style, sprung up like an overnight mushroom. No time to worry about permits and building codes, commerce will out every time. It’s very seediness was it’s charm I guess, though the Navy liberty buses passing through the Mission District from Hunters Point Naval Shipyard had heavy wire screens over the windows to protect the sailors from bricks thrown by the local residents.
We walked from transit center up to the corner of Market and 2nd, then turned up uphill and dawdled along for the 11 or so blocks to Van Ness. We passed streets whose names date back to the earliest days of the old wood and canvas town, Turk, Powell, Ellis and O’Farrell. “The City,” Queen of California, the most beautiful city in the West. The old City of Paris, Gump’s department store, the Palace Hotel, The old Call newspaper building, and the great Fairmont hotel, built by the “Silver King’s” James Fair’s daughters in his memory and reinforced by Julia Morgan after the ’06 quake. Our destination, on that triangular corner where Van Ness crosses Market, the nexus of rock and roll, jazz, bluegrass and gospel, was the old Carousel Ballroom. We were there for a show.
Looking for a larger hall for his shows, Bill Graham had moved from the old Fillmore on Geary to the Carousel at 10 Van Ness, calling it the Fillmore West. Locals affectionately still referred to it as the Carousel though. Graham filled San Francisco with sound. Any touring band worth their salt were booked into one of his halls there. Home town groups like the Jefferson Airplane, Sons of Champlin, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the group that became a symbol for the city, The Grateful Dead played the Fillmore. Otis Redding, The Staples Sisters, and blues groups out of Chicago and Detroit City, like Paul Butterfield and John Lee Hooker. And Miles Davis. I had been to a concert the year before when his group opened for Laura Nyro. That band featured drummer Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira, Keith Jarrett and Chick Correira and did they cook. One of the best jazz groups ever put together and each famous in his own right. You had to follow that with Laura Nyro’s sweet voice the same way you had to take an Alka Seltzer after a night of serious drinking.
Our night. We ought our tickets and strolled inside. In those days, the floor had few seats, you could move around during concerts as the mood seized you. The earlier you got in the closer you got to the stage. It was a happy crowd. All the Hippies had their freak on, the girls dressed in prize clothing from thrift stores, The boys in Top hats and tails. Everyone was expecting a good show. The last night of a tour is always the best. The bands are really tight from long practice and they know the next day is for home. They are happy too.
The opening act was from Oakland, just across the bay, what we called a horn band in those days, not well known, but they moved the crowd. They were one of Bill Graham’s contract groups and still a couple years away from famous. Tower of Power.
After Tower of Power the main acts began to appear on stage, the roadies moving equipment, pushing the big Hammond B-3 Organ to the back corner of the stage, The Fender Rhodes keyboard upstage. They quickly assembled Bernard Purdie’s drum kit, the instrument stands and the mikes in a choreographed ballet polished with long familiarity.
Band members began to drift on stage and take their places, a few drum rattles, keys turned, guitars tuning as sounds were matched and finally when everything was in place the Kingpins marched on stage, accompanied by the Memphis Horns, took their places and without a pause, in response to some subtle signal, launched into “Memphis Soul Stew,” followed by Procol Harems’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Baby, the crowd was getting’ really wound up, this was some kind of music they weren’t used to.
And finally she’s there. She struts onstage wearing a white pants suit with a wide gold belt and a rasta man beanie, grabs the mike on the stand, swings it left then right, and shouts, “Allright?” flips her hand a little to cue the band and its,
What you want, baby, I got it
What you need, do you know I got it?
All I’m askin’ is for a little respect when you get home
…and everyone is on their feet. The “Sweethearts of Soul”, grooving, Billy Preston’s hands flying over the organ keys, King Curtis’ Saxophone, it’s distinctive honk a counterpoint to Aretha belting it out.
The delivery of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” hymn was a gem. Her covers instantly make the originals obsolete, “Make it With You,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Love the One You’re With.” One way of looking at those song choices is that Aretha was reminding everyone that there was no song she couldn’t improve. She takes you inside the church where Eleanor Rigby is sweeping up after someone else’s wedding, she makes you feel her aching back, her despair. She shows Stephen Stills what sexual agency really means. She even makes Bread’s “Make It With You,” that forgettable soft-rock schlock sound deep.
Being in the audience was exhausting. No one ever stopped moving. Finally, near the end, Aretha came down into the audience and pulled an “impeccably dressed” man from the audience and up onto the stage. He was dressed in black from head to toe. His eyes were hidden by wrap-around dark glasses. She led him to the stage, sat him down at the Fender Rhodes and within seconds we recognized Ray Charles. The huge crowd went crazy. Ray joined with Aretha in the closing and, to become legendary, 10-minute rendition of “Spirit in the Dark.”
Never, ever have I experienced anything like Aretha at the Fillmore. It wasn’t that the hippies just liked her. They were out of their minds. They were completely lost in her.
It was March 7th, 1971, a Sunday night in San Francisco. The new American Dream is falling apart; Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, the Vietnam war is spreading to Cambodia and Laos, the boys are coming home in boxes, the utopian ideal of the sixties is breathing its last. The Haight is drowning in drugs. The venue whose rafters Aretha is currently rattling, Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, will close its doors forever a few months after this show. Disco lurks. These are some terribly troubled waters, and it takes a singer with Aretha’s forceful kind of grace to calm them, at least for one night.
Goodbye sweet and God Bless. We will miss you.