Big Lake in the Sky

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  • The Bowl

    by John Michael Gorrindo


    The phalanx of Hells Angels rumbled into Kings Beach riding two abreast in long columns.  Spontaneity was foreign to their collective behavior and highly crafted image. With the meticulousness of runway models they fashioned their confident defiance after a careful calculation. The explosive bursts of sun reflecting off their dark sunglasses as framed by their long hair streaming free like flags rippling in the wind were just two of the more dynamic effects.  Like heralding trumpeters who proudly signaled the approach of the King’s legion, the deep-throated chorus of thirty Harley Davidsons gave everyone fair warning of the biker gang’s arrival.  Not even the deaf could have justified ignorance as to the bikers’ whereabouts.  The highway quaked under their rolling thunder and let it be known a reckoning was at hand.

    By the mid-1960’s, the Angels had decided to bring their traveling show to California’s Sierra Nevadas during the summer months.  Cloaked in black leather jackets emblazoned with skull and cross-bones, burly bikers in convoy were becoming a common sight in the higher altitudes; each saddling a Hawg with the long legs of a biker chick chapped in black leather wrapped around their waists. They snaked west-to-east over the “Range of Light” through granite mountain passes or north-and-south along Hiway 49’s Gold Rush route threading through the western foothills. Following a prescribed pattern of migration, the Angels converged upon old Gold Rush towns such as Angel’s Camp for the annual Calaveras Frog Jumping contest during the 4th of July.  Once they had had their fill they moved on to points further north like Lake Tahoe.

    That Jewel of the Sierras and the World’s most Beautiful Lake, Lake Tahoe had unluckily found itself victim to a geo-political misfortune that left it straddling the border between the states of California and Nevada. The legendary body of water was much too magnificent to be claimed by one state alone. The Stateline neatly cut the crystalline body of glacial melt in two along a north-south axis.  Nevada permitted casino gaming whereas the Golden State forbade it, so clusters of casinos had grown-up along the Stateline boundaries at both the North and South Shores on the Nevada side.

    The adjoining California towns lieing just west of Stateline on both the North and South Shores were tawdry outposts whose underdeveloped economies were directly tied to the fortunes of the casinos just across the border.  On the North Shore was Kings Beach, affectionately known to some of us locals as the Arm Pit of Lake Tahoe.  It was little wonder the Hells Angels held the small mountain town in great affection, having chosen it as their stomping ground while visiting “The Lake.”

    Like many western towns, Kings Beach had grown-up virtually overnight.  Cast in the mold of many other California Empire Builders, Old Joe King had held grand title to the huge parcel of land that was to become his own little kingdom and developed it into a town in the 1940’s.  In typical Tahoe fashion, it was mythologized that King had acquired the land parcel in payment for winnings resulting from an all night card game between himself and George Whittel, the eccentric millionaire real estate developer from San Francisco who had inherited a mining fortune from the gold and silver boom of Virginia City’s Comstock Load.  Disputed by historians as apocryphal, this yarn has continued to curry favor with those who prefer their history of the Wild West be kept purely fantastic.

    No matter the true origins of Kings Beach, the Hells Angels knew their kind of town when they saw it.  By the late 1960’s, Ole Joe King was either dying or dead and the original commercial buildings he had erected along the town’s expansive beach front just twenty years previous were quickly deteriorating from neglect.  The old man had shot his wad and no one else seemed much interested in perpetuating his legacy. Set back a good distance from the lake and sandwiched in between the pine trees in the town’s densely wooded backstreets were rustic houses made of knotty pine, small trailer parks, and low rent groups of bungalows where hundreds of mainly itinerant casino employees lived alongside a demographic of hardy locals.


    My parents had moved into Kings Beach in the summer of 1958.  I was all of six years old.  At the hands of many a school yard bully I was quickly put through the paces of the ritual hazing associated with attending the town’s rough and tumble elementary school.  Kings Beach’s predominantly white population of mountain folk constituted in large part a rather intractable group of rednecks.  I soon discovered the youngins naturally followed suit. The town’s pride and prejudices weren’t much different from those found in many an American mountain town.  The Sierras weren’t much different than the Appalachians, Ozarks, or Smoky Mountains.  Mountain folk were mountain folk.

    A typical Kings Beach bread winner was an ornery, hard drinking, foul mouthed, good ole boy who worked for the Public Utility District or owned a small plumbing business run out of his truck.  In the back of his pickup he carted his two hounds around town, and likely carried a concealed weapon in his glove box if only to protect himself and his animals from the roaming packs of wild dogs that stalked the surrounding woods.  He was sure to encourage his son to learn fisticuffs in order to protect himself at school.  As a contributing member of society he found his calling as a member of a service organization such as E Clampus Vitus or the Free Masons.  Sons were often drafted into the DeMolays as soon as they reached the minimum membership age.  Once I realized Ben Franklin had been a Free Mason, my hopes for America’s future were dashed.  Eligibility for membership sure had slipped over the intervening generations.

    The town’s boys were thuggish and ever on the ready to shed blood. They taunted and teased until their objects of ridicule exploded with vitriol or folded up in a heap on the ground.  As a group they committed every kind of hate crime imaginable. They even sodomized the weaker boys out in the manzanita groves at the golf course. Gaunt and sporting a hungry look, they appeared undernourished and their growth seemed stunted from lack of sunshine.  When not busy pummeling each other for recreation and practice, they would sometimes band together and rumble at the golf course with gangs from Reno who occasionally came into town looking for trouble. Upon entering high school, many of my peers had long since accrued the badges of boyhood honor that came along with growing up male in Kings Beach- scars all about the body and face; maybe a broken nose or missing tooth.

    By 1965, cultural conditions hadn’t changed terribly much.  The State of California had finally outlawed corporal punishment in public schools, but Kings Beach Elementary was a zone of exemption where the teachers and principal still brandished the plywood paddle with a clenched fist lashed to the handle.  They whooped the living hell out of any kid who even thought of misbehaving. Their disciplinary styles took on two approaches as best embodied by two very different teachers- Mr. Strong and Mr. Wilen.

    Mr. Strong, my fourth grade teacher, lasted but a year at the school.  I don’t think even the evil-minded District Superintendent knew how vicious vicious could be upon hiring the man.  An ex-boxer and veteran of the U.S. Marines, Strong was a short, explosive-tempered American Indian whose pock-marked face twisted-up into furls and crew cut sort of stiffened on end when he was angry.  He kept a bundle of thirty inch, 2 x 2 soft pine sticks next to his desk, and when the situation so merited took one out and promptly cracked it across the edge of a large wooden table he had stationed at the front of the classroom. The effect was akin to a major league slugger swinging mightily on a fast ball taken in on the hands and breaking his bat. Long slivers of wood large enough to impale a child to their seats were sent rifling across the classroom in several directions. 

    As children are very adept at survival, me and my fourth grade classmates had sharpened our reflexes and learned how to expertly duck for cover come late October.  As the first stick was used solely to express the mere fact of Mr. Strong’s towering rage, the second he would clench tight and slap repeatedly into the open palm of his other hand while uttering “Cheezus, Cheezus,” repeatedly. The mantra eventually caused something in him to snap and without further notice or additional provocation he leapt on his poor victim and thwacked him handily, sending the scamp flying headlong into the coat rack at the back of the room.  Mr. Strong was a man ahead of his time- his approach to punishment was equal-opportunity. He hit the girls as well as the boys.

    Mr. Wilen was a kind of evil genius miscast as a seventh grade teacher.  He was an accomplished jazz pianist and more educated than anyone I knew.  Of course, in a place like Lake Tahoe in the mid-1960’s, there were vast, empty vistas where very few could rightfully claim a spot at the top of the IQ spectrum. Barney Wilen was actually a very good science teacher, and we respected his knowledge, but his finer attributes were overshadowed by a dark streak of perverse cruelty. 

    Like Mr. Strong, Mr. Wilen was an ex-marine, but unlike Strong, he had achieved the rank of Drill Sergeant. In this he had apparently attained his perfect station, as it is one that excuses wanton malice. Mr. Wilen had obviously learned the ways and means of both physical and psychological torture during his tour of duty in Korea.  He was not one to explode in class as did Mr. Strong.  No, Wilen took disciplinary matters as an opportunity to finely hone his techniques for terrorizing twelve year olds through prolonged, tension-filled stand offs with the entire class.  A master of dramaturgy, he was expert at subjecting his seventh grade captives to a harrowing drama he scripted spontaneously. 

    Holding a plywood paddle whose face had been perforated by a drill press with dozens of small holes to make the paddle hit its mark with greater accuracy, speed, and force; he would stand arms folded in his cardigan sweater, leaning casually against his science table. For minutes on end he built slowly towards an interminable climax that always culminated in violence. He engaged the class as a collective in a sort of Socratic dialog, using an uncanny mix of rhetorical speech, interrogation, and jaded humor to hint at the doom that was to come.  The real drama was founded on the fact that we didn’t know just who would be struck with that ply paddle; how hard; how many times; and worst of all- when it would all happen.  All of this and much more was open to question and served to keep everyone in dark suspense.  By whim he might hit two or five or ten of us. But usually he was very selective and methodical.  If he deemed the infraction worthy of punishment to be complicit in nature, he was sure to ferret out the culprit lot by means of grand inquisition, imputing each of the guilty in due turn; and assassinating their individual characters before declaring them a cadre of co-conspirators. Mr. Wilen’s prosecutorial logic was sine qua non. Moreover, his marine training had taught him how to prolong punishment through psychological means, tapping into our childhood psyches with skills he had once practiced on prisoners of war.  With palpable pleasure he exploited our every imaginable fear at a leisurely and inexorable pace, leading us to the brink.

    But that is the subject for another sordid tale from “The Lake.”

    These quaint stories as taken from my early school days only serve to underscore one theme- Kings Beach had a hard edge to it. And the Hells Angels found it much to their liking.  Despite their postured bravura and frightening appearance, the Angels really weren’t much different than any other touring group attracted to Lake Tahoe.  As much as anybody else they were partial to a nice, picturesque vacation spot in the mountains that still provided a reminder of home.  For those Angels who were the originals as based in Oakland and other parts of San Francisco’s East Bay, Kings Beach was of natural attraction. There was that something special and yet homey adrift in the air. It must have been that whiff of violence as mixed in with the sweet scent of pine resin from the forest.

    Kings Beach was also a place where the biker’s club could easily peddle illegal drugs, often of their own manufacture.  Again, the Angels were very much in keeping with the conventions of the American spirit.  They were hard working, small businessmen who took their lives into their own hands, responsibly manufacturing goods and providing services for those in the market for the commodities they offered, often at competitive prices.  The fact that commodity turned out to be crystal methedrine- the same stuff invented by Nazi chemists to keep the Luftwaffa up and flying on a twenty-four a day basis- must not be taken to obscure the point at hand.

    For many of us, 1967 marked a turning point in Kings Beach’s history. It was “The Summer of Love” and Flower Power culture had swept into the Lake from San Francisco.  But flowers were not the signature of Kings Beach’s youth scene.  Neither were the ideals of love, peace, and understanding.  Kings Beach was a town that embraced the vices of gambling, casual sex, violence and drugs as inspired by the casino life that existed “up on the hill” and just a short mile away from its small downtown. The slightly veiled face of the mafia was still at work as the major player operating the casino machine.  Its ethics had filtered its way down and was manifest in the less-than-emancipated cultural climate that was Lake Tahoe and Kings Beach in particular.

     Kings Beach offered more than just these cultural amenities to the Angels.  For their musical pleasure, there was the Kings Beach Bowl.  The old bowling alley had been built right on the lake a few years previously, and had been converted in 1965 to a dance hall.  The lanes had been ripped out, leaving a concrete shell where a small proscenium stage had been built into one corner.  The acoustics were no better than a gymnasium’s, but that never entered anybody’s mind.

    A Kings Beach local by the name of Al Goodall had bought “The Bowl.”  With the help of his two sons- both of whom were Placer County Sheriff Deputies- Goodall turned the Bowl into a cultural icon.  He was Lake Tahoe’s answer to Bill Graham- a no-nonsense Rock Impresario who aggressively recruited a surprising list of great rock bands to perform every summer weekend.

    The spirit of the Bowl was an extension of the Wild West’s.  In fact, Goodall may well have seen and been inspired by the original psychedelic concerts put on at Virginia City’s Red Dog Saloon in 1965. These concerts even predated those of the Fillmore in San Francisco. This freewheeling tradition had been faithfully carried on by the Goodalls.  Like the Red Dog in Virginia City, the Bowl pulsated with paradox.  Its charged atmosphere crackled with a lightening born of a disparate community comprised of odd bed fellows confined within a concrete shell all listening to the deafening sounds of a new musical experiment.

    In general terms one witnessed in the Bowl the sublime courting the ridiculous; the beautiful in company with the contemptible; the innocent rubbing shoulders with the criminal.  The Bowl was an updated dance hall in the Wild West tradition. The particulars were hard to fathom at first blush. Here was a group of cops making money off of young hippies and their suburban imitators. Here were the fair-skinned scions of Bay Area’s professional class dancing cheek-to-cheek with the pock-marked mugs of the Great Unwashed. Here were the pre-pubescent bubble-gummers testing the nefarious waters of a drug-infested den. Of the Bowl’s patrons, some of us were just the local rabble.  The rest were a vast collection of what might be called outsiders but were really just tourists- youthful suburbanites, drug dealers from nearby cities such as Sacramento, and yes-  the Hells Angels, too.

    Business interests certainly took precedence over enforcing drug laws. It seemed on first analysis surprising that the Goodalls would cut most of their concert-goers a large amount of slack concerning the small quantities of drugs they all carried around in their pockets.  They were cops after all. And we local kids were pretty damned paranoid of their power. Narks were commonplace at the Bowl, but they seemed to be floating about the concert hall mostly to keep the Sheriff narcotics detail looking respectably busy.  There were never any dragnets though there were often good causes for one. The drug sales going on in the bathrooms and outside parking lot made for booming business.  But disturb the underground economy that was part and parcel to psychedelic era concert culture and one would kill the goose that laid the golden egg.  The Goodalls were businessmen first, and officers of the law second.

    Kings Beach- a hard-nosed mountain town whose educators beat their children and citizenry harbored prejudice against long-hair, pacifists, and the psychedelic culture- had suddenly become laissez-faire.

    Even when the Hell’s Angels hit town, the cops treated them with kid gloves.  Everyone knew “Speed Kills.”  But when the Angels openly brandished their crystal meth, it sold briskly and unimpeded like everything else available on the streets surrounding the Bowl. Sure, a few arrests had to be made to make it look as if law enforcement was doing their job.  But we all grew to realize that life in a tourist town had its distinct benefits.  As long as one showed a modicum of discretion, there was an invisible buffer that kept us protected from the law.  Certainly the Angels operated freely and had it all well in hand.

    At the Bowl, drugs were treated more as recreational objects than an end in themselves.  It was a sensual accessory like candy or popcorn for moviegoers.  They helped promote a state of mind conducive to enhancing the visual and auditory stimulus that comes with a experiencing a rock concert. LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, STP, DMT, marijuana, opiated hash, secanol, speed- it was all terribly available.  But as for me and my fellow teenage band mates, the Bowl was primarily about music- not drugs or even sex. (Well- I don’t mean to imply my readership to be that gullible- sex did matter a little bit)

    The politics and social experiments of the 1960’s don’t bear up well under present day criticism, but almost everybody can agree it was a golden age exploding at the seams with artistic creativity.  (Even the likes of Senator Strom Thurmond praised the Grateful Dead!) This was especially true in terms of music.  The little known and long-forgotten Kings Beach Bowl featured a dazzling array of 60’s musical performers.  The Goodalls were able to feature almost every great San Francisco psychedelic band of the Flower Power era- including the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Santana, Country Joe and the Fish, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Moby Grape.  Rhythm and Blues artists included Magic Sam, the Chamber Brothers, James Cotton, Mike Bloomfield, and Charlie Musselwhite.  LA bands such as Steppenwolf, Canned Heat, Spirit, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Buffalo Springfield performed as well.

    In that moment of history, Tahoe was a still a beautiful venue for enjoying life, but its glamorous veneer was wholly misleading.  The culture and economy were anything but diverse.  The ruling style of the region’s controlling business interests as found in the casinos, ski areas, and hotels was predatory and anti-labor. A cultural of violence was deeply rooted in its past.  The economic struggle to survive and long winters drove people to behave in disturbed and unnatural ways.  Family life was unsupported by community resources. Transience didn’t help build any social momentum. Alcoholism and divorces plagued the Lake’s small towns.  Products of broken homes, children were often left to their own devices. The mother of one friend once shocked me by summing up the Lake’s family values in brutal succinctness- “Tahoe was the place that ate its young.”

    Finally, we the children of Lake Tahoe had our own music.  It helped us to forget if only for a brief moment the social inadequacies that characterized the greater community in which we were growing up.  It helped us to see there was a larger world beyond the lake’s basin.  It even taught some of us how to play rock and roll and the blues. And it had all been courtesy of the Al Goodall’s Kings Beach Bowl.  Nothing could have come along at a more opportune time and done more than to provide some much needed stimulus.

    At the Bowl a young budding musician such as myself could stand at the foot of the bandstand and watch great musicians play within arm’s reach.  My musical learning curve shot skyward.  Studying each guitar player that hit the stage sent me running home after the concert to figure out and practice everything I had heard and seen.  Each player was unique in their musical approach and sound. It was a musical epoch that defied nature repeating itself. Every musician needs their mentor. I was lucky enough to have several.

    But it wasn’t just about the music.  A lot more was in the air. I remember the shock of walking into the Bowl to watch Country Joe and the Fish one June evening in 1967. Outside of Andy Warhol’s Factory in Manhattan, there was no more single, potent iconoclastic spirit extant on the planet as compared to the Fish.  To watch Country Joe- composer of the most famous anti-war anthem of the Vietnam era- sing Sector 43 was for me an initiation into realizing that we were all living on the edge of the miraculous.  The Doors of Perception had been thrown wide open and I hadn’t had to ingest one microgram of LSD in order to walk through them.

    Later, the Bowl hired my own band to back-up headliners.  I had gotten to know Goodall because I had volunteered to sweep out the dance hall after the concerts let out.  It seemed a most natural way to get on stage.  First you had to keep it clean for the more experienced players to prance about and show their chops.  Later, you would be given a chance to display your own after paying your dues while wood shedding at home.  It was a system of mentorship and dues paying that made sense and did everybody good.

    As Bill Graham once said, the inspired, freewheeling days of rock were dead by 1970.  It wasn’t just that the Beatles had broken up or that the Great Troika of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison were about to or already had died.  No, it wasn’t about corporeal extinction. It was more due to Corporate America having quickly stepped in to co-opt the youth movement.  Radio formats became niched and segregated. The music itself lost its originality and became more formula than art.  Rock was no more a revolution but a business.  Record companies promoted fewer and fewer bands while disregarding the rest.  The Block Buster mentality had greatly reduced the chances of a band being signed to a record label. Drugs that had at one time enlightened now addled the spirit of youth.  The Viet Nam War dragged on and sapped the vitals of the nation.

    Epochs of great artistic creativity often occur during times of great social change, and are born and die within a short, prescribed window of time.  Take Paris at the turn of the 20th century; or New Orleans around the same time; or the Bauhaus in Germany just before the rise of Hitler. Like a Super Nova, the explosive periods of cultural creativity and destruction happen in short bursts preceded and followed by longer, languid interims of some kind of status quo.  It is a status quo often characterized by stagnation.  In one felt swoop, a simmering undercurrent breaches the palisades, destroying what has come before, forging a new mantle.  It is why the Hindu religion puts Vishnu and Shiva on even par. The Creator and the Dissolver are two faces on opposite sides of the same coin.

    For my generation, that window of creative and destructive time had spent its force by the end of the 1960’s. The Kings Beach Bowl closed its doors just as the decade elapsed. The
    bands had become too big and wouldn’t play for the fees Goodall could afford to pay. But it was better that way.  Entropy strongly urges that all things should die their own natural death.  Rock and roll on life support doesn’t cut it, Jack.  The Bowl folded when rock had reached its creative zenith.

    Don’t take any of this to mean I am sentimental for what was the Kings Beach Bowl.  My weaknesses take on other distinct forms. But what was, was; and no one to my knowledge has written about it.  The Bowl cannot and should not be compared to the great rock palaces of that era.  The Fillmore was the real bell weather of  rock music venues.  But the dozens of small halls- some of them converted bowling alleys- scattered across rural America helped seize and recruit the spirit of youth, delivering it to the shores of unheard of possibilities.  Some of us could see there was another way to breath, live, work, think, love, and die. I don’t believe many of us crossed over for more than a year or two.  History seems to bear that out.  Our nation has not learned from the mistakes our generation decried during the Viet Nam era. “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.”  Even Jim Jones professed as much.  Maybe the post-war European Nihilists like the playwright Ionesco were right- life is no more than a tragedy and there is “no cure for the crushing weight of the material world.”  But that is not for me to argue here. (Thank God!)

    One can still rightfully celebrate a prescient moment of time.  There aren’t many in life, and it is better they be celebrated as memorial than immemorial.

    As for the Hell’s Angels, they were just bit players who should be recognized as purveyors of a certain roguish style and attitude commensurate with their time.  Their rugged individualism was more camp and for show than real. They were too violent and conformist to their own insular small group think to be taken as a proper emblem for the 1960’s. Of course, I doubt they give a shit about it one way or another, either then or now.  They certainly catered to no one other than themselves. But you have to give them credit- they are nothing if consistent. To this day they still manufacturer and distribute crystal methedrine.

    Just like rock and roll, the Angels rolled in and out of my little home town of Kings Beach.  Just like rock and roll, they live on long after they should have died out.  Entropy doesn’t always call the shots when human will is involved.  Rock on!

    I’m not sure if rock and the Angels will survive the post war generation. I can only safely predict this- what will surely remain when my generation dies out will still be that whiff of violence in the air mixed in with the scent of pine tar.  Or did I say sap?