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"When the student is ready, the teacher will appear…"
A guitarist recalls student days in '70s San Francisco
by Joseph Thompson
When I moved to San Francisco looking for a teacher in 1973, I left Ashland, Oregon with $100 in my pocket and everything I owned in the back seat of my Volkswagen Bug. I ran out of money in the first three days and got a job washing dishes in a retirement hotel on Sutter Street downtown not far from Union Square. I worked from 7-10 a.m. for room and board and had afternoons and evenings free to practice and explore the city.
I soon discovered the North Beach district, La Bodega (a Spanish Restaurant on Grant near Green) and the Old Spaghetti Factory (an Italian restaurant on Green near Grant). I began to haunt these establishments. At La Bodega the owners were a man who played flamenco guitar and his wife who danced flamenco. They waited tables when things were busy and when there was a lull, he played and she danced. There was a table in one corner which was reserved for guitarists to hang out. The guitarists were always passing a guitar around when the owners were busy.
I started hanging out there, sitting at the bar and following the action. One night, someone noticed that I had been there every night and asked me if I played. I said yes and he passed me the guitar. I sat down at the table and played the "Prelude No. 1" by Villa Lobos. Everyone nodded their approval and the fellow who passed me the guitar offered some advice on how I might do some things differently. I felt like I had been welcomed into some inner sanctum. After that night, when I went to La Bodega, I sat at the guitarists' table.
Jeffrey Chinn was one of the guitarists at La Bodega. I had met Jeffrey in Oregon in 1972. Karl had played concerts at the annual Peter Britt Festival in 1969-71 in Jacksonville, Oregon. When Karl was unable to perform in the 1972 season, he sent Jeffrey as a replacement. It was a delight running into Jeffrey again in San Francisco. When he hung out at La Bodega, a beautiful Spanish woman usually accompanied him. I remember once she tried to clap palmas to one of the weaker flamencos. She suddenly stopped, threw up her hands and declared in frustration, "No compas!"
One night soon after, I was sitting with the other guitarists when a man walked in with a woman on his arm. I didn't know the man, but everyone at the guitarists' table became quiet when he walked in, following his every move. He wore a weathered brown leather jacket, blue jeans with holes in the knees and had long scraggly hair. A full scruffy beard covered most of his face and had grown a good third of the way down his chest. He walked right up to the guitarist's table and, pulling up a chair for his companion, sat down.
The bearded man began holding court, with everyone else clearly focused entirely on him, hanging on his every word. There was something familiar in his eyes and voice. As I listened, I ventured a guess. At a quiet point, I asked, "Are you Karl Herreshoff?" He looked at me and said, "Yes, do I know you?" I said, "You probably don't remember me, but we met in Ashland, Oregon…"
He interrupted me saying, "Joe, how are you doing and how is your girlfriend Toni?" Not only did he remember me, he remembered my girlfriend and her name and her parents' names and a half a dozen other folks that he asked about, including Steve Rekas who had moved to Barcelona by then. This after more than a year! I asked Karl if he was taking students and he said that he had been known to do that. I got his phone number and that evening became his student. In retrospect, I can't help thinking, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear…"
I soon landed a gig playing at the Cliff House out at the end of Geary Boulevard overlooking the ocean. I played from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at a kind of craft fair with artisans working on their wares. A tour bus would pull up and spill out sixty German tourists. I would play, the tourists would mill about, and the artisans would practice their crafts and sell their goods.
Then a whistle would blow, everyone would get back on the bus, and everything would be quiet again until the next busload of Japanese tourists arrived. I was paid $5.00 an hour and walked away at the end of the day with $25. I was making $125 a week playing guitar in San Francisco and walking on air.
By then I had found a garret (literally) in a Victorian on Lake St. in the Richmond District not far from Golden Gate Park. Out the back door of the house was Mountain Lake Park. My rent was $50 a month. I was in heaven. I had a teacher, I had a job playing music, and I had a place to call home. The Lake Street house was just across The Presidio from the Golden Gate. Late nights, I could hear the foghorns guiding the ships to safe passage in the harbor. As the world famous fog rolled into the bay, it would set off the foghorns, one by one. Each horn, with its own pitch, duration and period, would sound in succession, playing out a wind symphony. At night, I would lie in bed listening to the music from San Francisco Bay. During the day, I practiced for hours at a stretch, lived inexpensively and drank coffee with Karl.
Karl was returning to his roots in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was on hiatus from his years of playing concerts around the country, working out of New York City. While in San Francisco, he played mostly at coffee houses with no real concerts to speak of. He found irony in the fact that it was easier to get a concert in San Francisco when he was living in New York. At that time he was looking for a simpler way. He was beginning to explore the idea of house concerts. I set up a house concert for him at the Lake Street house where he said he would be willing to play for dinner. We made the drive up to Ashland a number of times where he also did a house concert.
One of our trips to Oregon (a 360 mile drive one-way) was in the dead of winter.
Karl lived mostly in the Sunset District near Golden Gate Park and near his brother's home. There were two coffeehouses on Ninth Avenue between Irving and Judah- The Marigold Café and The Owl and the Monkey Café. Karl played mostly at the Marigold but later on played at the Owl and the Monkey as well. Each time he played, these simple gigs would turn into full-blown recitals on both lute and guitar. Everyone stopped what they were doing and listened. I heard him play many of these café concerts. Karl loved to improvise and he would improvise extended pieces in his performances. He had themes that he would develop over a long period of time, reworking and developing the ideas each time he played them through.
Karl liked to make up titles and composers for his improvisations. It was a little secret game he liked to play with the audience. I remember Karl once playing at the Marigold Café. The great Michael Lorimer was teaching at the S. F. Conservatory at the time. Michael had heard about Karl's playing and showed up to check him out. During his café concert, Karl introduced one of his fictitious composers and titles and then played one of his improvisations. Michael's wide eyes never left Karl's hands. After Karl had finished, Michael asked where he could get a copy of the sheet music and Karl said, "I think it's out of print."
Lessons with Karl were an adventure in life. Our lessons were at The Guitar Shop, which was just down the street in the same block. Wong's Chinese restaurant was in the same block also, so Karl had everything he needed: coffee, a place to eat cheap Chinese food, a place to play, a place to hang out and talk, and a place to teach lessons- not that he taught a lot of lessons. He didn't really like to teach that much. I had a lesson on "The Care and Feeding of the Fingernails". He gave me some scales, slurs and arpeggios. He said, "Play these a lot." Then he had me buy the Sagreras collection of studies and we worked through those, working on keeping things connected and landing chord fingerings simultaneously. But mostly we sight-read. He had me buy Bartok's 44 violin duets and we sight-read those many times over. Karl was a great sight-reader and he never cut me any slack in reading. If I lost my way, I had to find my way back in. He wouldn't stop for me unless I asked. To ask was to admit defeat, so I never asked. Karl wasn't a clock-watcher; the lessons were over when they were over. They often went on for a few hours. We would finish by improvising duets, and usually ended up laughing, uproariously.
We made many trips over to North Beach for coffee, and to hang out with Jeffrey and the flamencos at La Bodega and the Old Spaghetti Factory. North Beach was the Italian neighborhood just across Broadway from Chinatown and, in the early '50's, had been the home of San Francisco's "Beat Generation". The locals always got a good laugh at the tourists who wandered around North Beach with their flippers and snorkeling gear looking for the beach which, as it turned out, was nowhere near the hilltop neighborhood.
The Spaghetti Factory was the main stop on my North Beach treks with Karl. I don't remember the Spaghetti Factory's food in particular, but I remember the ceiling which was hung with the most amazing collection of old broken chairs. Upon our entry into the Spaghetti Factory, we would veer through the crowd to the right, past the bar. At the wall, we would turn left and walk down a long dark hallway, which led to the restrooms on the left and a non-descript door on the right.
Karl would lead the way through that door which opened onto a most wondrous scene. This was the greenroom for the famous San Francisco flamenco show. The adjacent room had been the very heart of the flamenco community in San Francisco for over 20 years. They ran shows every Friday and Saturday night into the wee hours. There was a core group of flamencos who were always there and then the more transient flamencos who would show up and be part of the show before moving on.
The host of characters that swarmed the greenroom always welcomed Karl warmly. They included the shows flamenco dancers, singers and guitarists. And then there was Jeffrey Chinn. Years earlier, Jeffrey had established himself as one of the premiere flamenco guitarists in San Francisco. That was before he got the classical bug. He had known Karl in the early '60's before Karl moved to New York. He was now carving out a living doing concerts on classical guitar and Renaissance lute. When he wasn't concertizing, he had a gig playing short sets between the flamenco shows in the back room of the Spaghetti Factory.
These were the first flamenco shows I had ever experienced and I found them completely captivating. Karl would go into the flamenco room for Jeffrey's sets but mostly he liked to hang out in the greenroom. Adjacent to the greenroom was the flamencos' dressing room. I remember that the walls of the dressing room were completely covered with a large collection of flamenco images- dancers, singers, players. Once when I went to visit Jeffrey at the Factory, we sat in the dressing room between his shows and he honored me by asking me to play for him.
Eventually, Karl moved on to New Zealand and I moved back to Ashland, the small southern Oregon town where I grew up. I played gigs and concerts and taught music at the local university for ten years. I now teach in a private downtown studio. I haven't gone on to make a big impression on the world in general, but feel like I have contributed to my community in important ways through my music. I am very happily married...never had kids...but now have two stepchildren who are 27 and 28 years of age and a delight in my life. I love my life and there is not much I would go back and change. I have many warm memories of those wonderful days in San Francisco.
Recently, I went to a flamenco show called, "Yaelisa and Caminos Flamenco". They are a traveling flamenco show working out of San Francisco. Yaelisa, darkly beautiful and mysterious, is a very exciting and gifted flamenco dancer. After the show, I had an opportunity to talk with her. I asked her if she knew about the flamencos at the Old Spaghetti Factory. She told me that her mother was one of the original dancers in the show. Yaelisa said she used to baby-sit her siblings while her mother danced on weekends. Yaelisa's job was to clean up the cigarette butts from the floor on the mornings after the shows. I got chills as she told me how her mother had asked her to paste her collection of flamenco images on the walls of the flamenco's dressing room.
About four years ago, my wife, Marcy and I were in San Francisco, walking up Grant Street through North Beach. I was telling her all the stories from my early days and pointing out the places that I remembered. We stopped by the Old Spaghetti Factory just to see what it looked like. I had heard that it had closed. By then, it was a kind of New Age artsy restaurant with none of the old character. As we wandered in through the now modern front doorway, I instinctively veered to the right and then down the old hallway. It was still dark and dank like the old days. My blood began to roil, as I got closer to the door...
THE DOOR! I could vaguely hear Marcy's voice behind me asking, "Where are you going?" little knowing of the quest that had suddenly taken hold of me. I came to the door only to find it locked with a hook and eye with wire wrapped around it to keep out the curious. I was more than curious and began unwrapping the wire with Marcy behind me saying, "What are you doing?"
Finally the wire puzzle was solved and the hook was released. The door slowly squeaked open. "What are you doing? You can't go in there! What are you doing?" I stepped into the old space. I could see all of the old images and people; I could hear the music flooding in from the next room. But the reality was a dark, dank, dingy, musty room with a pile of rags on the floor, the walls torn and beaten, and no sign of the dressing room or the walls with the flamenco images. I was in a daze. The spell was finally broken with Marcy's words, "Let's get outta here before someone catches us!"
To learn more about Joseph Thompson, please see the "Artist Interview" and "Tales from the Road" columns in the February 2005 issue of Guitar Sessions.
Philip Hi has created a Web tribute to lutenist and guitarist Karl Frederick Herreshoff III at: http://philiphii.com/notes/herreshoff.html
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