When Charlie Was One, or Rather, Wasn’t

Perhaps you’ve seen the colorful postcards, most of which bear the psychedelically lettered, ‘Being is Beyond Charlie’. Maybe you’ve gone to the parties, often crowded but always loud, with light-show effects and sporadic dancing to a (mostly) 60’s rock ’n’ roll soundtrack that runs the gamut from lost gold to doomed obscurity…

“Yes, but who’s Charlie?” someone is sure to ask; and one might fairly reply, “Charlie? A figment of nostalgia, my dear, a ghost raised by fleeting memories of vanished youth; a phantom, fated to dance for a night, and fade again.”

Yes, some of us still celebrate our footsteps; and why not? Time appears, looms over us, breathes on us sweetly or foully according to our own air, but flits away. Just as inevitably, sooner or later, one way or another, dancing or sandbagged, we too shall become at last permanent residents of the past.

Of course, the original Charlie party was not about the past. Most of us were young, so it was about what was happening, which is to say, what was passing. Charlie was an end of summer dance party … one last long fling before the romance had to stop … or start … or change gears …

Important point: It was not the ‘Summer of Love’.

Not that there was anything wrong with 1967 that couldn’t have been fixed with a lot less attention from the press … * sigh * … What a bad joke gone worse the hippie craze was. And it all started with the sainted S.F. Chronicle columnist Herb Caen and his relentless popularization of the Beatniks.

Items from the Beat culture made his name-drop sundae tres cool, oh yes. Hipness was the tastiest olive in the surreal martini… But as time passed, Caen encountered the need to refer to the next generation. Were they ‘Beatnik babies’? ‘Junior Beatniks’? Too obvious. No phrase is ever as catchy as a moniker.

Big Hip… Little Hippie. There you have it.

The other problem came about because the Beatniks were so film noir, so folk-and-jazz. Caen plainly expected the beatniks to rear kids who would in turn ‘rebel’ by becoming stock-brokers or something. Instead, Beatnik Babies formed the fifth column of the British Invasion. Not Beat but the Big Beat — Beatlemania, no less! Not Kerouac but Carnaby Street.

Not just Caen but the whole Chronicle went gaga; and soon, San Francisco fashions followed. Remember, this was years before the first malls displayed the first tie-dyed psychedelic muscle-shirts and paisley bell-bottoms with pre-fab flower patches. Back then, the SFO Lounge didn’t sell granny glasses. Some people seem to think that mix-and-match look originated in Swinging London. Nope. Back then, the Beatles were very carefully clipped and styled; the Rolling Stones were shaggier, but they were still wearing matching suits.

No, for today’s Anything-Goes-If-It’s-Over-the-Top stage dress, we really have to thank, or blame, the San Francisco Sound, as performed by the Beau Brummels, the Charlatans, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Youngbloods, Blackburn & Snow, Country Joe, the Sons of Champlin, Big Brother, Blue Cheer, the original Dead… The audience never had any idea what the singer was going to wear, if anything; much less could anyone be sure what it would sound like.

But there was more to Charlie than fancy clothes, hormones and the love of music. It was the attitude, really … an attitude which has never resurfaced, despite the most whole-hearted of efforts to re-evoke it. What was it, precisely? I wish I knew.

I can say, back then Berkeley itself was very different. It wasn’t Berzerkly yet. The universal suspicion had not yet prevailed. In 1966, Berkeley still had a — well, I personally dread the words ‘small town attitude’ more than most people, but there’s just no other way to put it. The ordinary citizen was almost invariably friendly, not let’s-all-be-tolerant but truly friendly. There were open doors and welcoming gardens where now stand grim walls and parking lots and pebbled-concrete buildings…

Wait, maybe the word I wanted was ‘innocence’?

No, that’s not it. Innocence does return… Forgive me. I digress.

The original Charlie dance tapes broke out of their boxes into a tiny apartment decorated with flashing red and blue lightbulbs, maybe a dozen balloons in similarly primary colors, a borrowed black light and several even more colorful posters scavenged from such dance palaces as the Harmon Gym, the Fillmore Auditorium, the Avalon Ballroom … Nestled betwixt and between were an uncertain number of intentionally enigmatic hand-lettered notices, generally adjudged to be gibberish. Two have remained in memory: ‘Nirvana Night Circus’ and ‘Being is beyond Charlie’.

“Charlie?” one asks again. “Is this like Ringo Starr being asked what he called his haircut?”

Well, yes and no. To the hipsters of olden times, ‘Mister Charlie’ was a code name for the ordinary man in the street… the square who ‘just doesn’t get it’.

Really, you see, everything is beyond Charlie.

-- David R. Bradley, Summer 2002

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