When a 20-year-old hippie-punk going by the name Sunfrog found his way from Detroit to the Nevada Test Site in 1988 to protest nuclear weapons, he did not anticipate meeting a Beat legend and Rainbow warrior like Diamond Dave Whitaker. The man responsible for introducing a young Bob Dylan to both Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and Woody Guthrie’s Bound For Glory, Dave Whitaker played a pivotal role in reestablishing a counterculture that he thought was already long dead, a connecting point between the original Beats, Dylan’s Minneapolis, the first eruptions in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, and still a part of the scene when the punks arrived a decade later.
The following interview originally appeared in the rambling encyclopedia-like hippie-punk anarchist fanzine called Babyfish Lost Its Momma, self-published by Sunfrog, and distributed via bookstores, mail-order, and old-school Factsheet Five-style underground networks. It dives into Diamond Dave’s roots with Bob Dylan, his theory of the unbroken lineage that made the concept of “hippie-punk” even possible, and uncharted countercultural history.
Whitaker gets a shout from Dylan himself in Martin Scorsese’s recent Rolling Thunder movie, during conversation between Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. Even after escaping Minneapolis, Dylan would return to Whitaker’s house for a 1963 session. Even more remarkably, Diamond Dave Whitaker is still shouting for himself, and can be heard regularly on the low-power Mission District radio station KPOO in San Francisco, and even more regularly via mutiny.fm. He recently celebrated his 82nd birthday. (The music writer formerly-known-as Sunfrog now goes by his given name of Andrew Smith and lives and works in middle Tennessee, as a “preacher-teacher sober creature,” poet-activist-theologian, and radio host.)
Originally published in Babyfish Lost Its Momma in Fall 1988. Enormous thanks to James Adams for the transcription help.
Across the highway from the Nevada Test Site of Mercury, Nevada… during a week of protests against the war testing machine… in the middle of our desert camp, i got with a man named dave whitaker, who at age 51 has been involved heavily with youth, rock and roll, political, and countercultural activities for over 30 years… his history is a colorful and noisy one which embodies the hopes and dreams of an entire revolutionary movement which expresses itself through poetry and music…this interview brings forth the stories of Dave Whitaker, poet and the passion…
Babyfish: First, can you give me a little bit of history about your roots in the beatnik movement, and how you first got involved in what we might call the counterculture?
Dave Whitaker: I’m going all the way back to 1956, 1955, the middle fifties, the Eisenhower era, the McCarthy era, the time of the men in their grey flannel suits.
I left my home in Minnesota to join a carnival in Wisconsin. At that time the counterculture was more or less dead. It seemed to be a thing of the past. It seemed to be no more. I went out and I joined a carnival where I used to be a talker saying, “Freaks, Geeks and Curiosities, the strangest and most unusual people on the face of the earth! Step right in. Step right in.”
Babyfish: How old were you?
Dave Whitaker: I was about 17. I was born in 1937. When I was working at the carnival, I began to hear that something was happening in San Francisco. Joe McCarthy was dead and his movement—the great anti-communism hysteria of the ‘50s—was about to be broken, was about to collapse when it seemed to be at its height. It started to collapse when a handful of people got together in San Francisco, and the news began to get around. This was just before it was named the beat movement. This is people like Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, and finally 50 or 60 others. And there the seeds were planted of building an alternative culture of people taking care of each other, of spontaneity, of the possibility of people beginning to pick stuff up and bang on it, and the rebuilding of an alternative politics that had been more or less destroyed. The framework had more or less been destroyed by the blacklisting of the McCarthy period. And so you began to see the rise of poetry reading, the rise of a new generation of white folks beginning to see that they could play jazz, for instance, that was thought to be a black province. And the beginning of an intellectual group coming into the counterculture, beginning to see the use of marijuana. And this was before LSD, but certainly peyote, mushrooms, and a little bit later, morning glory seeds, as possible tools for internal enlightenment.
Babyfish: So, where did you go from the carnival?
Dave Whitaker: I came right to what was the Haight-Ashbury of San Francisco at that time. I’m talking about North Beach, what was the Haight St. of the time, I’m talking about Grant Ave., and the clubs and the coffee houses up and down that street. And at that time we discovered that, as John Lennon said, “I’m not the only one,” that others were also headed in the same direction.
Babyfish: You began as a poet then?
Dave Whitaker: I began hanging around with poets. My poetry was later to develop. It was there, but certainly the hanging around with people and attending the readings of people like Kerouac, Corso, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and many others was the fertile ground from which my own seeds could begin to sprout and germinate. From there, I went to Israel and Europe for a couple of years. I lived on a kibbutz in Israel and came back to Paris after a couple years. That was 1958-1961, just in time to see the inception of what was called the Beat Hotel. A lot of the beats, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso and others had been in Tangier; they came to Paris and moved into a place that came to be known as the Beat Hotel in Paris where I rejoined them. That was the beginning of another new wave, and the coming together of the European anarchist/Trotskyist underground tradition with the Beat tradition, and the Beats were very respected in Europe. In fact, just when I got there, the Paris MATCH, the LIFE magazine of Paris, had a long article that had a lot of humor and brought people together—it was about cops in New York City dressing up as beatniks and busting a lot of people on marijuana charges. And it was entrapment that went around the world and brought a lot of people together. In Paris, you could smoke marijuana and hashish in the cafés, and that was very enlightening to a lot of Americans who were used to having to face 4-5 years in jail. If caught at that time it was a very serious thing, and so people would have to lock themselves up in their rooms. There was all this paranoia attached. Also, the encounter with the peace movement in France against the war in Algeria seemed to give people a lot of ideas to use a few years later, a decade away, in the beginning of the anti-Vietnam war movement. It brought together the Beats and the people began to struggle against the war in Vietnam as well.
Babyfish: So were you involved somewhat in the jazz poetry political movement as well?
Dave Whitaker: Certainly we took part in the demonstrations in Paris, and there was a jazz club called Blue Note that was a legendary club on the left bank, right on the river Seine. It was a place for the black pop musicians who had expatriated themselves; people like Bud Powell, writers like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Chester Hines and black writers of an older generation that had been in Paris since the second World War.
Babyfish: What was your first involvement with rock ‘n’ roll?
Dave Whitaker: I went back to Minneapolis after that in 1961. We began to see the first generation of young white musicians, people like Mike Bloomfield in Chicago, Spider John Koerner, Snaker Dave Wright (a 12 string player), Little Son Tony Glover (harp player). We began to listen to Bob Dylan, just coming down from Hibbing in Minnesota. In Minneapolis, we all lived together, a network spun up throughout the Midwest in the college towns, places like Antioch, Reed, Wisconsin (Madison), Minneapolis, of underground musicians: the beginning of a new wave of radical politics, and people began supporting themselves by dealing in the herb. And Morning Glory seeds was a psychedelic; we used to go to garden stores and say, “Give us a pound-and-a-half of Morning Glory seeds,” and that was our natural source of LSD. Later, they discovered, and put something on it so it can’t be edible. It was a fantastic trip. It was kind of the cusp between the Beat movement and the hippie movement through music and the beginning of the New Left, and that was by and large around support of the Cuban revolution, the organization called Fair Play for Cuba. It brought together the Old Left, the Trotskyists and the Communists, the New Left of the bohemian radical youth, and certainly Bob Dylan who was definitely there as a young kid just down from Hibbing and began to get his legacy. He came to my house, knocked on the door, I opened the door and there he was with a guitar, and he said, “I heard this is where I’m supposed to be,” and I said, “Come on in,” and he stayed the whole year. And because I’d been around I was kind of his mentor. This was when he was just another guy. Then we called Woody Guthrie one day, I turned him on to Woody Guthrie’s auto-biography, and we called Woody Guthrie, and at that time he was in such bad shape. He was in Greystone, and Dylan–Bob–says, “Well, I’m gonna go see him.” It was a mental hospital in New Jersey and we took him out on the road and met him with his guitar and he said, ”Well, I wanna play for him,” and he went off, and the rest is history. And people, if they’re interested, can read Tony Scaduto’s biography of Dylan, and if you look up my name in the index you’ll see a whole buncha references which’ll tell you a lot about the time.
I got back to San Francisco in about 1964 or ’65. Walked down Haight St. for the first time, and I moved into a place, 1090 Page Street., in the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco where some bands that later became legendary used to be jamming in the basement, and a lot of people were living there. It was owned by Peter Albin of Big Brother and the Holding Co., Janis Joplin’s band. His brother actually owned the place, so it was like free turf. Big Brother, Quicksilver, the Dead, would come through, but they were by and large down at Ken Kesey’s place in La Honda which was like our weekend retreat. We’d go there for parties on the weekends.
Babyfish: So you hung out at Ken Kesey’s during the days of the Merry Pranksters?
Dave Whitaker: Exactly. Neal Cassady would come through, he was driving the bus from the Beat days, and that was definitely a place where one generation was replacing another.
Babyfish: Did you stay in San Francisco during the whole heyday of Haight Ashbury?
Dave Whitaker: The rise of the Digger movement, where people began to realize it wasn’t just rock-n-roll, but, hey, we needed to have a way to provide food for the body, mind, and spirit for all the countless hoards that were coming in ’67 for the Summer of Love. I’m making on the one hand, quite a long story extremely short, a lot of water under the bridge, but, indeed, I like to make a long story short because you can fill it in yourself.
Babyfish: Were you a poet by that time?
Dave Whitaker: Well, I was beginning to do poetry; one of my lines, practice may not make perfect, but it does make better. So, I was definitely putting it out there. But I was also involved in the poilitics, the feeding of people, learning that it was all one. And also I began to build family by this time, and so I was also involved much more in the raising of my family. So, I wasn’t quite as out front for a lot of that period. Although I was, as I am now, where I can be pretty much as I like because my children are grown.
Babyfish: How did you feel when the whole hippie thing died out?
Dave Whitaker: I was working in the black community as a community worker. I had been hired in a job program out of the ranks of the so-called hardcore unemployed to work with the hardcore unemployed which came out of the war on poverty and the riots in the ghettos. I was married to a black woman and we had numerous mulatto children who are now grown. And more and more I found myself almost entirely living in the ghetto. So as the hippie movement died out, I did have connections with what was happening with the rise of what I call… ‘70s freaks we were called, I guess. And those hippies who hadn’t taken a spiritual path or gone up to the Mendocino hills to become growers, stayed in town and became more and more in coalition with black and brown people. There was the White Panther Party which came out of Detroit, John Sinclair and the MC5, and so city hippies was what I was more involved with in the black community. We had the Good Earth Commune, which was a Maoist, biker, outlaw, big commune in the Haight, and the Black Panther Party, and I had a radio show throughout that time on KPOO radio which was the only Third World community-based station on non-commercial. I was a talk show host and a political analyst, and we used that station to bring people together. Now I’m going to recite a poem.
with the people we meet
and being entertained
by the folks along the way
support the native people
they’ll watch out for you
support the latino people
their spirit will be with you
support the rastas, dreadlock rastas
and Jah will smile down on you
support the living in the cities
and the dying core in the ghettos
they’ll keep an eye out
support the farmers
they’ll take care of you
support the old folks
they’ll bring the wisdom along
support the kids
they’ll be right there by your side
support the people
and they’ll support you
unite with the many
to oppose the few
feed the people
they’ll feed you
encourage one another
support one another
love one another
take down the walls
open the doors
and get rid of the borders, too
I believe in that
just a line
on their map
find the common thread
let life flourish
the path leads within
and the path leads without
and the path surely does
lead with you.
I thought of that poem because what began to happen in the ‘70s was the breaking down of, in many ways, the hippie movement as some kind of special elite group, and the beginning of an understanding that we needed to be in coalition with all struggling people, and the realization, as [John] Sinclair was putting it, of the youth culture itself, as an oppressed minority group.
And so we saw the rise of it—and it lasted. The ‘70s was a tough time; the cops were everywhere, people were getting busted, out of it came serious looks at the possibility and the need of perhaps underground guerilla warfare. And we had the rise of such groups as New World Liberation Front, of Sepata Brigade, the Black Liberation Army. In most cities, there were various groups that were thinking seriously of (they were underground certainly) and were actually beginning what it looked like was going to be a period of prolonged armed guerilla struggle in this country. And I was definitely involved as an above-ground person at the same time I was working for the state of California as community employment counselor. I needed to wear a number of hats. My radio show was the one where when there would be a bombing or some kind of underground action, I would get a call that would say, “Dave, this is New World Liberation Front. We just blew up the Bank of America, you’ll find a communique, or explanation, under this phone book, at this telephone booth, at this gas station.” I’d sneak out, pick it up and read it over the air. It was definitely interesting.
Babyfish: Did you ever during those times you were publicly announcing guerrilla movements, were you ever harassed or threatened by the government?
Dave Whitaker: No, because I was a media person, and if you think about it now, it’s kind of amazing.
Babyfish: How did the bridge ever come about with the punk movement?
Dave Whitaker: I got involved with the punk movement. I began to see punks around. I began to see that they were a group I definitely wanted to be a part of, and identified with. When I really became involved, I was doing a T.V. show called Friday Night Live. It was a place in which bands could come and play. It was like a big party that would go on for 3 or 4 hours on Friday. And I began to have bands. There was a Western Front show, and I began to meet the folks. I was working at the soup kitchen in the Haight. Some of the bands began to eat there. The first bands I really became a part of were the Dicks and MDC who had just come up from Austin.
Babyfish: What year?
Dave Whitaker: This was 1981 or so. Then there was the first underground club that was doing shows from midnight to 6 a. m. every Saturday. That was the first underground, totally non-legal punk club in San Francisco and I found myself living there. It was called the Offensive. It was the early bands like some skin bands, Bad Posture, and other early heavy hardcore bands. It was definitely a gnarly underground scene, it wasn’t for kids from the suburbs any way at all. And that was finally busted by the cops. By that time we had two or three-hundred people. It was like a sea of black jackets every Saturday. I began doing a poetry series every Wednesday with a guy named Richie Fortune and Destiny, his old lady. And you had this rise of “Are they Beats? Or are they punks?” They were punkbeats.
Then in ’82, Rock Against Reagan came in and did a show in Delores Park in San Francisco, and I saw it and thought this is what I want to become involved with. So I became the MC for Rock Against Reagan starting at the Democratic Convention and the Rainbow Gathering. Also, I began going to Rainbow Gatherings at that time, and joined the Rainbow Family. And I began to see more and more as my role kind of as bringing the three generations together. I’ll do this poem now.
If you’re here
there’s probably a good reason for it
the whole is greater
than the sum of its parts
we can do more together
than any of us can do on our own
they’ll fuck with us
FUCK WITH US!
when we’re alone out there on the streets
they’re gonna think twice
about coming through THAT door
don’t live to get high
get high and live
as Bob Dylan said once
way back then
“If you’re going to live outside the law,
you must be honest.”
in 1955 a handful of beatniks
got together and changed history
1965, a gago of hippies
ushered in a new age
1975, a bunch of punk rockers
brought it all back home
well, it’s 1985
and time to really come alive
we transcend all past categories
and welcome all cool folk
out here on the cutting edge
rock-n-roll, our common tongue,
and it’s time
I believe it’s way overtime
that we take another
walk on the wild side.
Before then, I began to see at shows that I was becoming more and more a fixture at hardcore shows around. Because I definitely liked the enthusiasm, energy and excitement. I’ve always had a line since then: “If you want to stay young, hang out with the young.” I began to say, “Hey, there’s this time between when one band’s going on and one band’s going off and there’s nothing happening, people are just standing around, it’s the perfect time to do some poetry.” So I jumped up one night at the club, at what later turned out to be, I say, there are great shows, and there are legendary shows, and this was a legendary show. It was DRI, the Dicks, MDC, it was a whole Texas show, and Legionnaires Disease all out of Austin, and there was time to be used, so I said, “Hey, why not do some poetry?” So I jumped on the stage, grabbed the mike, and the skins are trying to get to me and people are holding them back, and I put some poetry out, and it kind of broke the way. And now they have, since then, poetry between sets. It’s the thing to do. They call it, I believe, Spoken Word. And even such people as Henry Rollins do it, and I’m rather proud to say, that I was the first person to ever do Spoken Word in that space between MDC and the Dicks. Two great bands coming out of the anarchist hardcore movement.
Babyfish: Could you talk about your political evolution?
Dave Whitaker: Well, I was always, I think, kind of an anarchist. In the 60’s, I became more and more involved with the Marxist Leninism that was an independent Marxist Leninist kind of group that came out of the coalition with the Black Panther Party. But I always had a strong anarchist strain, and also, well, in the 70’s, I definitely supported the idea of guerilla struggle in terms of destruction of property and not of human beings, if possible. I certainly supported the guerilla movement around the world whether it be Cuba or Vietnam because we were going through all that. Because we saw the Vietnamese people in their struggle as our struggle. In fact, my radio show was called, One Struggle, Many Fronts. But with the regrowth of the nonviolent alternative movement, I believe what we are doing, in many ways, is creating a positive alternative. I believe what happens in the peace camps, on the peace walks, at the Rainbow Gatherings, of learning to live together, of providing a positive alternative to the Death Machine, to the War Machine, to the Capitalist system, is as important as our actions in crossing the fences. And so, more and more I’ve seen this as an organic struggle to find a place for people to live outside the system. So, in many ways, I can see myself going from Marx to Jesus because I can see Jesus and the things that he taught as, in many ways, much more revolutionary. Jesus spoke of, “What must I do to be saved?” Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to those that are sick and in prison. I believe that the struggle is both within and without, and to the degree that we learn to love one another. So this may be something that happens as you get older, but it has definitely happened to me. I have now past my first half century and am going into my second.
Babyfish: Tell me about being the Mayor of Haight Street.
Dave Whitaker: Well, they call me the Mayor ‘cuz I’m identified with the soup kitchen and I’m also a person who’s been around a long time, and who knows the ropes in terms of getting people out of jail or a person who is regarded by these three generations—beatniks, hippies, punks, and skins—as a person who can deal with problems in a certain degree of neutrality, whether it be a dope deal gone bad or a situation of possible war breaking out between the punks and the skins on Haight Street. And I’ll tell you this story as an example. A few years ago there was a tension that increasingly looked like it might become violent, although the violence was certainly exaggerated, between the young punk movement on Haight Street, where everybody hangs out, and the skins, I’m talking about the SF Skins and the BASH boys, Bay Area Skinheads. And so I had to use the Rainbow Spirit. I had John Quilt, who did the jacket for Smoke Signals (MDC’s second album), do my jacket. Somebody dumpstered a Harley jacket for me. In rainbow colors it said, “Beatniks, Hippies, Punks, and Skins—A Three Generation Rainbow.” I did a T. V. show called “Bikers, Punks, Skins and the Community.” Everybody came and at first it was, “Argh, argh, argh,” “Rargh, rargh, rargh,” But at the end everybody was just standing about having a nice time. Then I got a public skin. I always wanted to have a skin head. I wanted to see what it was like and this was my excuse, so I just got skinned publically, collectively, at an Agnostic Front show as they were playing. Everybody took turns with the buzzer, buzzin’ all my hair off. And then the SF Skins formally inducted me. They did it to get painted out of corner they had painted themselves into where everybody didn’t want nothing to do with them anymore. They gave me red, white, and blue suspenders to wear around my knees. And they all called me Gandhi. If you’d seen me, you’d probably see, that indeed, I did look a great deal like Mahatma Gandhi. So it was the haircut that brought peace to the neighborhood. And that is just an example of somebody who is called Mayor.
Babyfish: Where do you see the movement going?
Dave Whitaker: Well, I was on the New England Peace Walk, walked all the way down New England, not so much on the highways, but on the byways, the country lanes, the college towns and the village greens, hitting the nuclear hot spots and the war machine. The New England Peace Walk, that’s from Portsmouth to Groton, sometimes fast, but mostly slow-motin’ to Groton. But anyway, on the Great Peace Walk, I see again we’re in a time of beginning to really build an alternative culture where we can live together and have fun together, and certainly, I believe, that the experience everybody has to take home with them this week, for instance, out in the desert, is: “Hey! This is a lot of fun. This is not a big sacrifice. This is a lot of fun!”
We were brought together for a reason
and that reason is that we love one another
we were brought together for a reason
and that reason is that we heal one another
we were brought together for a reason
and that reason is that we complete one another
we were brought together for a reason
and that reason is that we complement one another
like yin and yang
old and young
left and right
man and woman
/// endAndrew Smith, fka as Sunfrog”
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