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Old Songs, Young Souls, & a Final Flight for the Airplane by RW Klarin


Santa Monica Pier Twilight Concerts

“Take another whiff of fresh air,” the gray-bearded bear of a man whispered from the stage. An authentic, original San Francisco hippie, David Freiberg (first of Quicksilver Messenger Service) again fronted the 21st century version of a rock institution on a late summer evening in 2015. The usual motley crowd of several hundred free entertainment seekers milled around the Santa Monica Pier, while the classic guitar riffs of an old Jefferson Airplane tune cut through the cacophony of chatter.  Almost 50 years since the Summer of Love in San Francisco, their original incarnation proclaimed, ‘When the truth is found to be lies.’ Well the truth of 2015 is that they are a mere shadow of the Airplane. But those riffs were just enough to provoke grins of recognition between me and an old friend from college days at Berkeley. He made a special pilgrimage to LA to see the last surviving member of the iconic group that epitomized the San Francisco hippie sound in the sixties. Known back in the day under the pseudonym of Jack, he is one of those rare Boomers who, now in our later days,  listens to current music as well as the classics.

Unfortunately, on that balmy Santa Monica night, after two songs the small guy, with wispy blonde hair who played those distinctive licks disappeared from the stage. The music continued, but Paul Kantner couldn’t, he’d made an appearance, but that was about it—a recent heart attack had taken its toll. Sadly, Kantner died in early 2016 at the age of 74 after another heart attack.
After Kantner left, the band consisting of four young musicians and Freiberg, carried on with the classic tunes. Although they were essentially a tribute band, competently covering the old songs, when I closed my eyes I heard Grace Slick singing White Rabbit and Miracles. Those old songs evoked the vibe, like a time-tunnel to the mood, spirit, excitement, and freedom, of the original hippie times. Like an invisible virus, music from our formative years rummages around in the memory banks and finds the young soul that lurks deep within the ever-aging mind and body. A remembrance, more than nostalgia, it’s like a secret, authentic self that is hiding in a closet coming out for a cameo.

Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship

Oldies music is not new, but the attitude about it is. In 1969, I attended a concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco, Sha Na Na came on and drove us young hippies wild with their fifties cover songs. In those days, a heavy dose of camp and sarcasm fueled our enthusiasm. We thought we had evolved so much that oldies music from ten years before was corny and hilarious.  That doesn’t happen now with oldies music. Now, even millennials like and respect music from the sixties and seventies. The generation gap that was so glaring back in the day has closed. That night on the Santa Monica Pier all ages swayed to the classic rock of Starship/ Airplane. Cruising through the time-tunnel, I recalled a free concert I saw by Jefferson Airplane at the Los Angeles’ Griffith Park/ Elysian  Park area in 1969. The impromptu show happened because somehow a planned concert at a real venue was cancelled by ‘The Man.’ The word spread through the hippie underground, mostly via the Los Angeles Free Press. A crowd of thousands appeared, peace and love permeated the scene, without a sign of ‘The Man’ seen. Radical politics of the time inspired their new album, Volunteers, and the kids shouted out in unison with lyrics that confronted the ‘System’ like ‘Up against the wall motherfuckers’ and ‘We can be together.’

Grace Slick and Paul Kantner ‘Volunteers’ era

For us Boomers the music was often more than entertainment, our lives organized around it. It was our social media where we shared political views, clothing and artistic styles, in addition to entertainment. Even today, fifty years later, those same performers and songs resuscitate the old spirit of community, justice, and freedom. Well-proven neuro-science states that our minds are still forming into the mid-to late twenties, so it makes sense that the imprints we experience at that age stay with and continue to excite us.

My friends and associates, except for the few hard-core music aficionados like Jack, listen to the old music from our formative twenties. Especially, the original bands like the Who, Stones, or Starship, who replicate the originals with new players. At the 2015 New Orleans Jazz Fest, the Who’s two remaining original members, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey performed the classics like ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ with gusto, but what blew me away was how the replacement drummer (Zake Starkey, son of Ringo Starr) didn’t miss one of Keith Moon’s original licks.

The author catches the Who at New Orleans Jazz Fest, 2015

Experiencing tribute or classic bands (even with one original member like the Starship) opens that deep mine of soul, freedom, and adventure hidden by the passage of the decades. It still resides inside us somewhere and the old music can bust out of the miasma of sameness and into freshness and spontaneity. After getting drunk on this strange elixir from the past, something wakes up in me and I want to ‘bang a gong, get it on.’ Who hasn’t felt that from a cherished oldie? Novelty through discovery and adventure feed the soul, but the old music satisfies in a way that new can’t. Like a fine pair of old jeans and tennis shoes and scratchy 45s, they’re well loved, like an old friend, it awakens the spirit of youth regardless of who is playing it.

Sadly, Paul Kantner didn’t return to the stage that night at the Pier, but his daughter by Grace Slick, China Kantner sang harmony on Somebody to Love. The lineage received due honor. Paul Kantner reportedly never renounced his Summer of Love principles of peace, love, and a positive future. A stalwart icon of the hippie movement, his vision lives on in the music of the Airplane/ Starship and in the souls of the older ‘kids’ who took a breath of that fresh air of a utopian generation.

[Ed.’s Note:  In his first book of essays, Living the Dream Deferred, RW Klarin explored the uncharted domain for Baby Boomers– -retirement. Combining a journalist’s eye for detail with a teacher’s need to learn, he invited readers into the inner and outer journey of his reinvention.
His new project is an exploration of the Sixties counterculture influence on our world. As he visits significant, though not always famous places and persons of that tumultuous period, in this column, each Wednesday, we will join him as he recalls their past in the ‘era of the hippie’, assesses their present state, and talks with us about what it might mean for our future.]

 

Back to Paradise, Elysium Fields: Topanga’s Clothing-Optional Club by RW Klarin


“Five dollars please young man,” requested the mustachioed thirty-something man wearing only flip-flops and beads. I handed over the money and proceeded to the men’s changing room. Slowly I undressed for this first time in public nudity, anticipation rising I joined the crowd in the park-like grounds. Even though it was 1971, still a bold act for a 21-year-old kid from the suburban conformity of the San Fernando Valley. Just ten miles from my childhood home, I had landed at Los Angeles’ haven of the liberated human body and mind.

Given the zeitgeist of these times of building twenty-foot border walls, ethnic registries, and 24-hour surveillance, I wondered ‘could that memory have been real?’ Not just the practice, but the ideals. Audaciously the founder, a journalist and father-figure of American nudism, Ed Lange called his human potential naturist (or nude) club—Elysium Fields referencing the classic Greek mythology of the after-life playground. In the Sixties such idealistic names were the norm.

I learned about Elysium in a purloined copy of Playboy magazine, but it took several months for me to find out its exact location. Being young and fairly inexperienced, I was curious and excited about the expanding sexual/ social revolution and Elysium sounded like a perfect place to join it. Being a hippie radical, I regularly visited the Free Press Bookstore (ground zero for the counter-culture in LA) on Fairfax Ave, and one day someone slipped me the directions to Topanga Canyon’s clothing-optional club. The two canyons that mattered in Los Angeles back in the Sixties and early Seventies were Laurel and Topanga. Over-looking Hollywood, the former was the vortex of the burgeoning hippie rock scene of LA, whereas the hard-core back to the land hippies landed in Topanga. LA’s closest alternative to San Francisco’s Marin, Topanga hosted love-ins, festivals, and other hippie events back then (and still does to this day). With lots of open space, it epitomized local favorite, Canned Heat’s hit song, ‘Goin’ Up the Country.’

Entrance to Elysium Fields, Topanga circa 1970s

In those revolutionary times, a few experimental communities, each with its own flavor, emerged in Topanga,. The most notorious, Sandstone required a special invitation due to its partner-swapping parties. Another was known for esoteric spiritual rites like yoga, incense, séances, chanting and so on.  And then there was— Elysium Fields.
After numerous successful lawsuits the LA County Supervisors gave final permit approval, and Elysium Fields flourished as a private membership-only club until the 1990s. A good neighbor, the club was well-respected member of the Topanga community. Unfortunately, after Ed Lange died in 1995 his two daughters sold the property for $2.5 million. The executive director, Betty Meltzner and her husband poured their personal money into a new property in Malibu, but it soon floundered.

On a hot summer’s day, I enlisted my buddy, the Silver Tongue, (whose soft, understated voice was like a FM DJ) and raced through the mountain curves in my Triumph sports car (top down), a potent mix of anxiety and fear kept my pedal on the floor. Just north of the center where the Post Office, a head shop and the general store served local residents, a plain street sign announced Robinson Rd. Twisting and turning uphill for a couple miles, we arrived at a solid, wooden 10 foot fence with a regular house gate and purchased our temporary memberships. Forking over the high admission charge (in those days $5 would buy two record albums or a ticket to see the Animals at the Hollywood Bowl), we summoned as much cool as possible for a two horny, young guys from the Valley.

Once we got over the initial jitters, we had fun sipping wine, looking at the girls behind our sunglasses, and cooking in the hot tub. I envied the regulars who had booked the private meditation room in advance. I made a few contacts but didn’t get lucky that day. In addition to the recreational activities, human potential workshops (a la Esalen) were offered on various days. I planned to come back for enhancing my aura, thinking it may help me get girls, but I never did. My consciousness was still wrapped up in my Berkeley college days and the political revolution, not personal enlightenment.
Although I embraced the counterculture ethos of skinny dipping at youth hang-outs like Tahquitz Falls in Palm Springs, Elysium was more than kids self-consciously jumping into the water. Distributed around the lush lawn a couple dozen ‘grown-ups’ ranging in age from 25-50—all naked—‘frolicked.’ Not just lying around, but playing volleyball and shuffleboard or chatting and sipping wine, while several waited for a turn in the sauna/ hot tub. All in all, a civil, calm adult scene. We meandered on the look-out for young women to ogle among the mostly ‘mature’ women in the grounds. Feeling quite exposed and nervous the whole time, it felt like a dream, a Maxfield Parish painting from the 1920s, all fuzzy and ethereal. Mentally I took notes: Life lesson #1 most bodies are average, more or less, without clothes. Lesson #2 when nudity is the norm, it isn’t titillating, but actually relaxing, pretense is dropped along with clothes.

Both lessons were regularly affirmed for me years later during my annual trips to Harbin Hot Springs, a clothing-optional neo-hippie resort north of San Francisco, until it burned to the ground in 2014. On the other hand, non-participation invites the voyeurism seen at Black’s Beach near La Jolla in San Diego in the 70s. When the word got out that people were disrobing at Black’s, the cliffs above soon became a magnet for all kinds of with binoculars. The scene was ruined. That never happened to Elysium. Maybe it was the admission fee and the secluded location, but it exemplified the highest hippie ideals; free love (not just physical), community, consciousness expansion, and fun.

Fast forward to 2016 and the emergence of my seniority in age, if not maturity, one of my interests now is pilgrimage to the old counter-cultural scenes. What was the back story? What was it about? What did it contribute to my life and others? What, if any, survives the decades? We live in a continuous present with ever thickening layers of experience over experience, which often results in embellishment, denial, and puffery. With that in mind and wondering if I could find any artifacts and spirit of the old Elysium Fields of Topanga, I drove up there recently.
The Robinson Road sign still points to the highlands where bucolic spaces welcome dogs and beat-up old vehicles. I passed fancy restored homes closer to the highway, and then higher up, California oaks thicken and the yards get bigger and some with old trucks and equipment rusting in the weeds. My thoughts drifted back to that day decades ago and the spirit of possibility I felt. This day I sensed or saw nothing evocative of that magical day in 1971, just a few Buddhist prayer flags and a phone pole with a flyer announcing a lost dog and guitar lessons. Your classic Topanga life that could’ve been 1991, 1971, or 1951, still expressing eccentric individualism and California country living. Although in my Porsche Cayman (still in a sports car), I drove slower this time taking it all in. At the assigned address, a foreboding gate blocked the entrance. My only option to get closer was farther up Robinson Rd around the backside where I saw the familiar lush, green lawn, surrounded by a few out buildings. And empty. No people. No dogs. Like an empty movie set. I tried to imagine that day with the hip, exploratory young and middle-aged adults of LA who came up here to explore consciousness and sexual freedom, but no ghosts appeared from the oaks and the luxury cars.

Entrance to the former site of Elysium Fields, Topanga Canyon, CA

Today that site and most of Topanga look the same, but the visit revealed the lessons of Elysium. A significant element of those free-wheeling times in the Sixties/ Seventies, Elysium made a mark as a real-world example of progressive culture that transcended ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation. For me, my vision of community, creativity, and expression was solidified in the rustling leaves of the oaks. Now, it is my turn to share the hope and the ideals that I tasted that day over forty years ago. Even in these potentially dark days of moralistic, hypo-critical family values national leaders, experiments in liberation and community continue and always have. Deep in my heart and many others of my generation, the experiments of those days aren’t forgotten. Its seeds continue to sprout in healthy, consciousness-expanding, uninhibited resorts and communities all over the world. Elysium was a dream, but the dream didn’t die.

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