"Just Like a Poem: Richard Brautigan and Mad River"
Richard Brautigan: Essays on the Writings and Life. Edited by John F. Barber. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006. 92-116.
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Though they recorded two albums for Capitol Records, Mad River remains
one of the least-documented and enigmatic Bay Area bands of the late
Sixties. That so much of their music is strange—emotional, edgy,
meticulously orchestrated and quite unlike anything their peers were
doing at the time—adds to the air of mystery that has long surrounded
them. Their demanding music ensured that Mad River would never rise
beyond cult status, but they did have their admirers, some of them
well-known and influential. "Big Daddy" Tom Donahue at radio station
KMPX championed the band; music critic Ralph J. Gleason liked them as
well. Another fan was Richard Brautigan, who, though neither
particularly well-known nor influential when Mad River first met him,
would soon become both, when Trout Fishing in America hit it big.
Brautigan not only befriended the young band, he helped feed them and
introduce them to the local scene. As a gesture of thanks, Mad River
dedicated their first album to him, and Brautigan would appear on their
second album, performing his poem "Love's Not the Way to Treat a
Friend." While providing an interesting glimpse of Brautigan's life in
those days, the story of his friendship with Mad River also offers, in
its way, a reminder of how, in that unique period on the West Coast,
poets, musicians, political activists, bikers and freaks all swam
together in the same countercultural soup.
Mad River, or the Mad River Blues Band as they first called themselves,
came together around the spring of 1966 at the famously progressive
Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Says Tom Manning, who played
bass, then rhythm guitar for the group, "What Antioch did was to have
three months on campus to study. The college would get you a job with a
company or an organization, and you'd work for three months off campus,
come back, and write papers about it. So you were in school all the
time, but you were six months on a job during the year, and six months
on campus during the year. It was amazing." Guitarists Dave Robinson and
Tom Manning, folkies both, were the first to start playing together.
Folkies everywhere were succumbing to the allure of electric music, and
Robinson and Manning soon decided to start a band of their own. They
brought in Greg Druian on guitar and Lawrence Hammond, who, though
classically trained and proficient on a number of instruments, initially
played blues harp with the band. When a drummer was found, a younger
local kid named Greg Dewey, the first lineup was in place.
It was during their off-campus work stint in Washington, D.C. that the
band began to truly jell. (Manning had gone west to do his work-study at
the University of Washington's Department of Oceanography, so Hammond
moved over to bass.) Sharing a flat, they worked at their various day
jobs, while non-Antiochian Greg Dewey kicked around town, visiting
museums and killing time. In the evenings they would either rehearse or
play any club gigs they could scrape up. By the time they returned to
Antioch, they had become a very tight band. More than that, they had
At first, their play list had consisted mostly of blues and R&B
covers, though they would occasionally work in an original or two. (One
of their first originals was William Blake's "The Fly," for which
Lawrence Hammond composed a musical setting.) Increasingly, though,
Hammond was coming up with songs, many of them quite dark, and all of
them musically demanding. Says Greg Dewey, "Some of the intros took four
weeks to figure out. Just the intros! We literally had to memorize
every measure. When I think back on it, it was intense, intense work. We
would get into enormous arguments and have huge fights."
The Bay Area was where it was happening, and that is where Mad River
decided to go. "Putting the move together was an act of faith," says
Dave Robinson, "a leap of desperation and a process that bonded us
together. Essentially, we all said, 'Hey, we're out of here, and we'll
meet in two weeks. Here's the address and the phone number. We're going
to go where the action is.'" Tom Manning had rejoined them on rhythm
guitar. As Greg Druian had opted out to continue work towards his
degree, guitarist and fellow Antiochian Rick Bockner was asked to join
the band on this venture, which he happily did. Says Bockner, "Because
I'd been out there once and seen the sort of embryonic beginnings of the
scene there, I was interested to go back and see it. And we were
getting credit for doing it—it was part of our college education, to go
to the Bay Area and be a rock band!" And so, in the spring of 1967 they
made their various ways to the West Coast and rendezvoused in Berkeley,
first at the flat of Greg Dewey's sister. Soon, they got their own place
and started finding their way around.
There was an undeniably bucolic side to the Bay Area scene of 1967, but
it is sometimes forgotten that it was a dark and scary time as well. The
music of Mad River certainly reflected that darker side of things. Says
Dave Robinson, "We kind of fled to sunny California and San Francisco,
and that beautiful blue sky and that wonderful air and the sunshine, and
eight months later there were tanks rolling down the street and people
shooting at us. And why? Because we were speaking up against something
that we knew to be wrong. People are not aware of the intensity of
feeling and the storm clouds that were there. That terrible angst that
you lived with from day to day. And, you know, it was more than the war.
It was the oppression, the non-acceptance of who we were and the
lifestyle we had chosen. It was the Blue Meanies, it was the drug busts,
it was being roughed up and told to move along, the traffic stops, the
harassment. I've mellowed out a lot, but I used to be a punk, a real
wiseass. I don't regret that. There was a community there that you were
either true to or not true to."
While no one in the band can recall with exactitude when Richard
Brautigan entered their lives, it was sometime in the late summer of
that year. Lawrence Hammond remembers this: "There was a guy who lived
in our house when we lived in Berkeley. His name was Hal. He'd been with
us at Antioch and he always wound up sleeping in the closet with his
feet sticking out. Sleeping space was at a premium; there were about
thirteen people who crashed there on and off. Hal found himself working
at the Free Store, and I think that he ran into Brautigan and brought
him home. I'm pretty sure that's the way it happened."
The Diggers were the initial connection. As Rick Bockner remembers it,
"We got on to Richard or him on to us through the Diggers, Emmett Grogan
and the Diggers. The Free Store in Haight-Ashbury was the first free
store I'd ever seen. He was hanging around there." Says Dave Robinson,
"Our getting together may have been totally serendipitous. Richard was
one of a group of poets and performers that kind of floated around the
Diggers. The Diggers and the Hells Angels were very much from the same
mold: up the Establishment, and to a large extent, from my experience,
very straightforward, practical people. Straight shooters, kind of 'Get
it done' attitude, both allied against the Establishment. Meeting
Richard could have been as simple as him driving a car down to one of
these gigs that we played at. It may have been something as simple as
travel arrangements that led to the introduction."
Tom Manning and Greg Dewey are fairly certain that Brautigan had first
seen them play at an event in Berkeley's Provo Park. (Though officially
named Constitution Park at the time, local counterculturalists had
rechristened the tribal gathering spot in honor of Amsterdam's "playful
anarchist" Provo movement. It is now called Martin Luther King Jr.
Park.) Says Dewey, "He wanted to meet us. He always was a shy guy; the
fact that he even ever approached us and talked to us at all was pretty
Whatever the circumstances that led to the initial meeting, it is
generally acknowledged that, when Brautigan first visited their place,
he suggested Mad River play at a free concert that was happening the
following day in San Francisco's Panhandle neighborhood. "I think
Quicksilver Messenger Service played," says Hammond, "and the Airplane
played after them. There may have been three or four groups. I remember
we played and Richard standing up on stage. I remember candles being
handed around in the crowd and candles all over this flatbed truck. It
was a kind of cold and misty night. I remember getting little twinges of
shock, 'coz nothing was probably grounded very well!" Dewey adds, "We
were getting shocked and it was really cold. That's the coldest I think
I've ever tried to play. I remember Lawrence saying, 'Wear gloves!'"
Despite the fact Brautigan was more than ten years older and vastly more
experienced in worldly matters than anyone in the band, he and Mad
River seemed to click immediately. "He was older," says Dave Robinson.
"We were kids. We clung to each other out of necessity. That's
how we got fed, that's how we made music, that's how we lived. And here
was this very independent older guy, who kind of had it together and
knew the San Francisco scene and was connected and knew how to get
things done. We were hippies, he was a Digger. He was part
Beatnik; we didn't have any Beatnik blood. He was very much into that
North Beach intellectual thing. He used to hang a lot at that place
where you could sit outside, Enrico's. He would hang there with the
literati and the glitterati and hold forth and see and be seen."
Brautigan was fond of all the guys in Mad River, but became especially
friendly with Lawrence Hammond. That Hammond was the group's chief
lyricist, and one who took his craft seriously, no doubt had something
to do with the attraction. "He loved talking to Lawrence," Greg Dewey
remembers, "and he was fascinated with Lawrence's writing. Here's this
kid writing these wacky songs. Richard's writing from experience, and
here's this 20-year-old kid writing these songs that were like heavy
stuff." While Brautigan and Hammond dug talking to each other,
apparently their conversations were not centered on writing,
particularly. Says Hammond, "We didn't talk about art too much, he and
I. I don't think he liked to talk about it. If you talked about what you
were working on before it was finished, it became very difficult to
finish it, for some reason. I seem to remember him commenting on that. I
never asked him what he was working on at a particular time."
After the six-month lease on their place in Berkeley expired, the band
shifted its base of operations to a flat on Oak Street in the Haight,
across the street from the Panhandle. "Once we got to the City," says
Greg Dewey, "Richard became a regular visitor, almost daily. He really
took care of Mad River. Actually, the Diggers in general, probably
because of him, took a liking to Mad River and sheltered us. We were
very young and we didn't know what the hell we were doing, and they were
guys who were out there and had been around. They were very kind to us,
and took care of us. It was a major gift to us, that we had them in our
corner, so to speak. Without a doubt, it was Brautigan who put us in
As Lawrence Hammond remembers, "Brautigan started appearing in our flat
there on the Panhandle with Emmett Grogan and Bill Fritsch and Lenore
Kandel, who were biker poets, and all involved with the Diggers.
Brautigan would come and sort of regale us. When he was really wound up,
he would pace back and forth with that funny floppy hat, and his hands
behind his back, and just deliver all these lines." Adds Rick Bockner:
"He had posture like a question mark, you know. Just this big, curvy,
long guy. His head down and his hand on his chin, and his shoulders kind
of curled." Hammond continues: "I always thought he'd sit down down and
write in the morning, and then he'd try out what he'd written in
conversational riffs on whoever happened to be in his line of fire.
Anyway, he would do this and we'd all be laughing and wander off into
some other room. When we'd come back and open the refrigerator, there'd
be all this food in it, and we were starving. That was the Diggers'
thing, free food. Well, years later it came out they were hijacking
Safeway trucks. We all thought that they'd conned these people into
giving away free food!"
Often as not, Brautigan would show up at the Oak Street flat toting a
gallon of white wine, Gallo chablis or the like. "It was always a
delight when Richard came," says Greg Dewey. "It was like the circus
came. Everybody would show up, 'coz we'd get some wine and everybody
would sit around and have fun all night, talking and joking around and
drinking." Tom Manning: "Richard was a great guy. He was a spacey guy,
in the sense that he was the kind of guy who you think is there and he's
looking at you and he's seeing you, but he's seeing through you and
behind you and above you at the same time. He was always like that. He
was the neatest guy, one of the sweetest guys I've ever met in my life."
Brautigan would sometimes come by with poet Bill Fritsch, or "Sweet
William" as he was known to some. Rick Bockner: "Fritsch was in the
Hells Angels. He was head of the San Francisco chapter at one time. He
was real Kerouac material. He had a heart, he had an interesting soul.
The Hells Angels kind of went downhill from him, far as I'm concerned."
As Lawrence Hammond remembers, "Bill had black hair. Kind of a handsome
guy, and he rode with the Angels. I can remember coming home once and
walking into the living room, and there were two Hells Angels there. I
was kind of intimidated, and Richard and Bill were just sitting there
grinning. And these Angels were just riffing about guns and shooting
themselves in the feet. I was watching Richard during this whole thing,
and I had a feeling that he was taking it all in and getting ready to
write it down. I think he liked to do that, put people together and then
sit back and watch."
Mad River released their first recording, a three-song EP for the local
independent label Wee Records. Lonnie Hewitt, an East Bay jazz musician
and aspiring record producer, had heard them in rehearsal, liked them,
and booked the session. For one side of the EP they recorded a truncated
version of their signature instrumental, the Eastern-flavored "Wind
Chimes." Though in performance the piece could go on for thirteen
minutes or more, one side of an EP could only accommodate a little over
seven minutes in those days, so they were forced to edit it down. Also
recorded were two Lawrence Hammond songs, "Amphetamine Gazelle" (titled
"A Gazelle" on the EP) and the strange and lovely "Orange Fire," which
evokes a napalm attack from a Vietnamese child's point of view. A
thousand copies of the record were produced, and in the do-it-yourself
spirit of the thing, the band actually glued the album jackets together
themselves. Some recall Brautigan pitching in, as well. Rick Bockner:
"That was a fun project. Five guys, a chunk of hashish, and some
mucilage, gluing the covers together. We glued our own covers, and, to
my knowledge, I haven't seen one that's still in one piece!"
The release of the Mad River EP signaled a change in the band's
fortunes. Tom Donahue at KMPX, San Francisco's underground FM radio
station, dug it, and Mad River's music began circulating on the local
airwaves. This led first to some better gigs, and eventually to their
recording contract with Capitol Records. Greg Dewey: "The Capitol thing
was spurred on by the EP. The EP brought on the record thing, and that
was Tom Donahue's influence. The radio play from the EP was what brought
on the record companies. Just all of them came." Exactly how much money
the band received as an advance from Capitol is something no one seems
to recall with certainty, but what money they did see was mostly spent
on a new van, better guitars, and better amplifiers.
While some members of Mad River do not recall one way or the other,
others remember that a bit of their little financial windfall from
Capitol was used to help finance the publication of Brautigan's Please Plant This Book.
Rick Bockner thinks Mad River kicked in five hundred dollars or so. "I
wouldn't be able to tell you the figure," says Greg Dewey. "I thought we
financed it, period." Please Plant This Book was a folder
containing eight seed packets—four of flowers, four of vegetables. On
the front of each packet was a poem; planting instructions appeared on
the back. Some of the members of Mad River helped assemble the folders.
Dave Robinson: "Brautigan helped us glue together our EP jacket, and in
return we helped him glue together the folder for Please Plant This Book. We would sit there and lick these things, and the glue tasted horrible!
Those were two jugs of wine, pot of spaghetti kitchen projects." For
his part, Greg Dewey does not remember the folder-gluing project at all,
but, as he says, "Anything involved with Brautigan included booze, so I
could have been blotto!" Once the books were assembled, Mad River
helped distribute them. "We stood around on the corner in Sausalito,"
Rick Bockner recalls, "passing out these books to people to plant them."
Lawrence Hammond: "I remember being given four or five copies to
distribute. I think I have several copies. I think I still have the
seeds, so I disobeyed the title! I think everybody thought that this was
going to be a souvenir, something to have down the line. We did help to
glue them together, and I don't think the glue held up!"
During the time Mad River knew Brautigan, whatever was going on in his
romantic life seems to have been something of a mystery to them. Says
Tom Manning, "I don't remember ever seeing him with a woman." Rick
Bockner: "I don't know if he kept them away from us on purpose! I
suspect that he wasn't an entirely happy man. I didn't think about that
at the time, you know? I could see that there were probably those little
quirks in his personality that might make him possessive or guarded in
some departments, for sure." Says Dave Robinson, "We were all attracted
to the ladies. In that time and in that consciousness and in that
spirit, everybody was on the make. That's the reality of it. I always
think that he wound up at our place 'coz we generally had these
beautiful women around! God bless him, Richard would go after anything
that wasn't nailed down, right now! I think that was part of his deal,
that was part of his psyche, and very important to him. His love life
was central to his consciousness—and I cringe to call it 'love life.'
No, I won't do that, it's not at all what it was about. It was something
more than that, and it was important to him. It was important to all of
us. We didn't see much of the women he was with; he was kind of
guarded. He was guarding his and eager to meet ours!"
Occasionally, some of the Mad River guys would visit Brautigan in his
flat. "It was right at the corner of Geary and Masonic," says Lawrence
Hammond, "and it was this old house that sat all alone. He had the first
floor. It was Spartan in the extreme." Rick Bockner: "Not a lot there,
but it was really a welcoming space, a very nice space to be in." As
Dave Robinson remembers, "It was a hippie flat, one of those wonderful
old flats where you walk up the stoop and there's a parlor. You walk up
the hall a little bit and on the left there's a water closet. Then off
to the right there's a living room and a dining room, then a bedroom,
another bedroom, then a kitchen in the back, all down off this long
hallway. With those big San Francisco bay windows. Very spacious, full
"At this time," says Hammond, "Trout Fishing in America was
just way up the Best Seller list and there was all this money, but
Richard just couldn't fathom that, and so he was just living as he'd
always lived. I remember going over there and he decided he would
scramble us some eggs. He actually at times liked to cook and liked good
food, but only one burner on his stove worked. I said, 'Richard, how
long has it been like that?' and he said, 'Ever since I've been here.
I've become good at one-burner cooking.' There was nothing in his
bedroom. He always wore the same clothes. I suppose he went out to a
laundromat somewhere." The simplicity of Brautigan's lifestyle extended
to transportation, as Greg Dewey recalls. "I remember once when I was
walking with him and I said, 'So, Richard, how come you don't have a
car?' and he says, 'Well, I don't have a driver's license.' I was
astonished he didn't have a driver's license and I said, 'What do you
mean, you don't have a driver's license?' He says, 'I don't need a car.'
I went, 'What?' He says, 'Well, who needs a car?' I said, 'You've got
to have a car to get around' and he said, 'No, I don't. I just put my
thumb out, or I could walk, or I could get on a bus.'"
Considering Brautigan's eventual sad end, it is hard to avoid a sense of
ominous foreshadowing in the fact he kept guns around his flat. He
liked to talk about them at times. "It is kind of creepy in retrospect,"
says Lawrence Hammond. "I just kind of let him talk about it, because
he was such an unviolent guy." One of Brautigan's memorable
disquisitions involved a World War II vintage machine gun he had in his
place. "I can remember him expounding on why the Japanese lost the war,"
says Dave Robinson. "He wasn't a gun freak, but he had guns around. He
had this Japanese light machine gun. A heavy thing with a tripod, so you
can steady the barrel. There's a handle that comes out of the side of
the barrel. In the Japanese machine guns, that handle is welded to the
barrel, so that the barrel itself, if you take the gun apart, is a 25"
tubular affair with a handle sticking out the side of it. That's the
main weapon that's used in jungle warfare, a light machine gun. Those go
bad very quickly. If you fire a hundred rounds through that, it's
ruined. It just gets plugged up with lead, it warps, it gets too hot.
So, the logistics of jungle warfare is to get food and medicine and
machine gun barrels to your guys. And because of that handle welded onto
the side of the barrel, they could only pack I think like six of those
guys in a box one man could carry. Which is a very inefficient way of
doing it. The guns that were used by the Americans and most of the
Australians had a screw on the handle, and you get twenty of those
barrels in a crate. So, the geometry of that [Japanese] barrel limited
the number of machine guns that could be operable. That was Richard's
theory. It takes many a good reefer with this!
"He was a great one for implications. A lot of his wisdom was jumping to
the ultimate conclusion. Being able to travel great distances through
logic and intuition to the end point of an argument or question, often
with great humor."
Brautigan and Mad River often performed at the same events, for it was
the nature of the times that poets and musicians shared the same stage.
"Remember, this was not only music," says Dave Robinson. "There are
bands, there are musical hangers-on, there are poets, there are ranting
idiots who take the microphone from time to time, there are political
rabble rousers. Those shows were a chance to get to a microphone,
so that people whose art flowed through a microphone were attracted to
that. There were standup comedians, too. So, anybody that could hold
their own for more than a minute or two would show up at these things. I
think that's part of it."
As Rick Bockner recalls, "Our neatest gig—I think the most interesting
historical gig—we played a gig for poets against the war in Vietnam. It
was at the University of Santa Barbara, in '68. It was Kenneth Rexroth,
Robert Bly, Lenore Kandel, Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders. It was like
the cream of the cream of the crop of that Beat up to Hip era. It was
just a real powerful night. That was a neat literary moment, and we were
the music for it. Richard was there; it was probably him that made the
connection with that group for us. To me, that was some kind of a
cultural moment that I didn't truly appreciate at the time. But when I
look back at the poster from that, it's just an amazing lineup of the
best poets of the Sixties."
Also memorable was a beach party in Santa Barbara which was organized—if
that is the word for it—by the Diggers. Says Bockner, "This is one of
those California beach parties that are only talked about in legend and
song. It was a mixture of Hells Angels and poets and musicians and surfers—it
was just a mix. Brautigan was there. I remember cops running around
going 'Who's in charge here?!?'—which is the wrong thing to ask at a
Digger event! Everybody said, 'You are! What do you want to do?
What do you want to see happen? OK, take it away! If you can do it,
then you can get it!' It was absolute chaos, and we were playing on the
beach there." Dave Robinson: "We actually wound up sleeping right on the
beach. Terrible sand fleas."
For their first LP, Mad River were assigned veteran L.A. producer Nik
Venet. Venet had worked with countless acts, including the Beach Boys
and Bobby Darin, and had recently scored a hit with "Different Drum" by
the Stone Poneys, but he had never produced anything remotely
like Mad River. Says Tom Manning, "He comes up from L.A. in his Jaguar
XKE, trying to figure out what the fuck these longhairs from the
Haight-Ashbury are trying to do—it just blew him out of the shop!" Greg
Dewey: "I remember us doing mixes where all five of us had hands on the
slide pots, and Venet's back there going 'Give me another pill!'" There
was also, according to Isaac "Harry" Sobol, Mad River's manager, a bit
of romantic intrigue during the sessions. "David Robinson started having
an affair with Nik Venet's girlfriend, or secretary, or something like
that. How that affected Venet's take on things, I don't know!" As Rick
Bockner recalls, "There were a lot of arguments with Nik. We were really
prickly, you know. I hate to say it, but we didn't trust anybody. We
really took that 'Don't trust anybody over 30' business way too
seriously at the time, and we were pretty sure we were gonna get screwed
somehow. And we were! It was a self-fulfilling prophesy."
Any joy they experienced the day the carton containing 20 copies of the
freshly pressed and packaged Mad River LP arrived was extremely
short-lived. It was bad enough that the band members' names did not
match up with their pictures, and Rick Bockner's last name was
misspelled as "Bochner." The real horror came when they opened one up
and put it on the turntable: in post production, Capitol had actually
sped up the tracks. "It wasn't a mistake," says Tom Manning. "It was
considered at the time that 18 minutes per side was the best high
fidelity, and they just sped it up to fit into that." The resulting
product did the music, which was often speedy enough already, no favors,
and was especially unflattering to Lawrence Hammond's vocals. Greg
Dewey: "It was one of the biggest heartbreaks of my life, to have our
dream come out and just about everything about it was wrong. Then we get
slammed in Rolling Stone of all places, and by someone
that we know. [Reviewer Ed Ward was a fellow Antiochian.] That was just
about as bad as it could get."
Due in part to the critical shellacking it had received in Rolling Stone, Mad River did not sell, and Capitol did not renew the recording contract. Mad River was, however, able to record a second album, Paradise Bar and Grill.
Produced this time by an old friend, Jerry Corbitt of the Youngbloods,
the second album, recorded in Berkeley, boasted a much more varied sonic
palette, blending acoustic and electric textures in a way the first
album had not. The album was this time dedicated to departed bandmates
Greg Druian and Tom Manning. (Manning, feeling increasingly outclassed
by the formidable musicianship of the other guys, had decided to leave
Paradise Bar and Grill also featured the recording debut of
Richard Brautigan, "Love's Not the Way to Treat a Friend." This
performance was actually recorded during the sessions for the first
album, but was held over for the second. Says Greg Dewey, "My personal
feeling was that we didn't have a concept where that fit. We just wanted
to get it on tape." This was, in retrospect, a wise choice, as it sits
very nicely indeed on the first side of Paradise Bar and Grill.
Recorded live, Brautigan reads his poem to an acoustic guitar duet put
together by Robinson and Hammond. Says Rick Bockner, "I thought that was
such a great contribution to that album; it made it very special for
me. A great moment."
As to how the session came to be, Tom Manning says, "I think Lawrence
asked him to read a poem and said we'd put a piece of guitar work behind
it." "I think it was sort of a band idea," says Greg Dewey. "I think it
was one of those drunk night ideas. Richard was there, and the idea
was, 'How about if you read a poem to a guitar?' and he thought, 'Okay,
yeah!' But he had really never done anything like that; he had no idea
what we really meant. The guys came up with the piece. We got back
together at the studio—we didn't practice it. Richard had absolutely no
concept of how to read it; he read the whole poem before they even got
done with the first verse of the music! He had trouble with the verse
concept, waiting around to read his poem. We basically had to direct
him. It was rough. The music didn't actually work the way we intended it
to, so we cut it in half. We got Richard to slow down and we cut the
music in half." Manning adds, "It took a while and probably more than
one joint to figure out what the hell was going on, to make it work."
Dewey continues: "He was used to just reading his poem the way he felt
like it, and in this case he had to wait for the guitars to get done. I
think he had considered that songs are a lot like poems, but he had
never considered how you have to perform the poem within a song. So,
suddenly he was trying to do it and it was harder than he thought. We
didn't want him to try and sing it; we just wanted him to be Brautigan."
Asked about his take on the poem, Dewey replies, "It was kind of a
startling poem. I don't think I was prepared for it to be that poem. It
struck me as, wow, a heavy poem—he's lighter than that, usually. I think
that he's talking about a friend that fell in love with him, and that
was difficult for him. He probably had a buddy, a fuck friendship with
this person, and I think he had a number of those, but suddenly it was
turned into a love affair, and it was more complicated than he needed it
to be. I think that's what that was about, but I'm guessing, 'coz I
didn't talk to him about it."
An unqualified artistic success, Paradise Bar and Grill
also fared a bit better commercially than had the first album, and
actually managed to chart, albeit at #192. Though there never was a
break up—indeed, the members of Mad River remain good friends to this
day—things just wound down. For one thing, the draft, a worry that had
long dogged most of them, finally caught up with Rick Bockner, who split
to British Columbia. And when Greg Dewey was asked to drum for Country
Joe and the Fish, then at the height of their success, it was hardly an
offer he could turn down.
"After Mad River broke up," Dewey recalls, "Brautigan came over once. He
was getting famous. So was I. I was with Country Joe and the Fish. He
was busily drinking me under the table, as usual, and he said to me,
'So, what are you planning on doing? Are you going to get rich, or
famous, or both?' It didn't occur to me that I had to think about that. I
just thought if you got to be famous, you got both, so I said, 'Well,
you know, famous.' He said, "You better plan on getting rich.' He was right about that."
Lawrence Hammond and Greg Dewey kept in touch with Brautigan, though
over the years they saw increasingly less and less of him. "I'd go over
to the Bolinas bar," says Dewey, "and I'd see Richard there, and then
I'd go over to Richard's house and we got reacquainted. But I stayed
acquainted with him. The way I did was by running into him at Enrico's. I
made a point of dropping into Enrico's, 'coz he made a point of being
there. If I was going through the City I went there, and if he was
there, I stopped. That's just the way it went."
Of the sad trajectory Brautigan's life took in the following years, Rick
Bockner says, "It was hard for me when he ended up just kind of sinking
into wine and killing himself. It was really a harsh way to go for a
guy like that. He was kind of a prince at the time we knew him, you
"To tell you the truth," says Lawrence Hammond, "I didn't foresee what
happened to him was going to happen. I was apprehensive for him, but at
the time the book [Trout Fishing in America] came out, I
imagined that this guy was just going to go on and become a literary
giant. It didn't work out that way. I just think that the literary world
moved on, and he ended up as a novelty, a sort of artifact of the
hippie deal. He went on doing what he'd been doing, and suddenly there
were a million people doing it and doing it more elaborately, or even
better. When he started hanging out with [Tom] McGuane and those guys, I
think that—either because of his drinking or other things—they just
outpaced him. Tom Robbins, that whole set.
"Like Hemingway, he became an imitation of his own art—continued to try
to imitate what had worked before, and wasn't really able to forge
ahead. I think that when he was hanging out in Montana with Thomas
Berger and those guys, I think that was probably really bad for him—a
bunch of flamboyant personalities who were also fairly disciplined
artists and fairly disciplined about their drinking. Richard, being an
alcoholic, couldn't be disciplined. I'm quite sure he was probably
bi-polar, and I think he was bi-polar long before he became an
"That thing with guns. I didn't think too much about it for years, and
then I heard that when he was out at Bolinas he would drink and go out
and shoot cans for hours. In terms of literary style, he might have
denied it, but he borrowed so much stuff from Hemingway's tricks, in
terms of brevity. What was supposed to be left unsaid, he'd write it
down and then leave it out, which Hemingway did in a lot of his stories.
As the years went on I kind of thought of Hemingway's drinking more,
prone to depression and carrying the pistol his father had shot himself
with around with him. It all just seems kind of creepy to me. It seems
as time ran on that Hemingway and Brautigan wound up being afflicted by
the same addictive disease, and they became imitations of themselves and
had invented a public persona. The inside didn't match the outside. It
caused them to suffer a lot. I don't know, maybe I'm dragging the
parallels too far, but they both seem kind of bi-polar."
Greg Dewey was in Mill Valley, not far from Bolinas, when Brautigan
ended his life, in the fall of 1984. "I started becoming aware that
there were these rumors going around about what a jerk Brautigan was,
and that he'd been 86'd from the bar in Bolinas. At this time I was
trying to confront my own alcoholism problems; I was in trouble myself. I
knew Richard wasn't a bad person, I knew that this was one of the
kindest people I'd ever met in my entire life. I knew that this guy had
the same disease I had, and I wanted to help him personally. At the time
I was, oddly enough, what's called 'twelve-stepping' people. I was very
effective sending people to AA, and I wanted to talk to Richard."
Though Dewey wanted to contact Brautigan, he was, for whatever reasons,
brushed off by the people he spoke to. "He had people around him that
were basically groupies," he says. "I was trying to find Richard. I
thought he was in Bolinas, but they said he was in Japan. I was in Mill
Valley, I was only eight miles away from Richard, and I wanted to talk
to him, 'coz I knew that he was just a drunk." When asked why he thinks
his attempts to communicate were rebuffed, Dewey says of the people he
talked to, "Their basic trip is that it's more important for them to be
his friend than to have me be his friend—they wanted to deny my
friendship to him. Marty Balin and I called them EV's, which stands for
'energy vampires.' They can get severe. People get between you and them.
They think they're protecting him from people. They didn't believe me
that I knew him, or they didn't want to let him know that I was there,
or whatever—I don't know what the fuck. But, at any rate, they prevented
me from finding him and he shot himself. Not that I could have made a
difference—I just wish I could have found him. We could have shot each
other, or gotten into a fight, or we could have gone to the bar and got
drunk together one last time. I don't care what would have happened, I
just wanted the opportunity to try. I wanted to find him and tell him
that he was a beautiful person, and that he had the same disease I had."
Thinking back on his old friend, Lawrence Hammond says, "A lot of
painful memories there, but good ones, too." "He had a lot of
complicated things in his head," adds Tom Manning, "but to the people
who knew him and loved him, he seemed to be one of the most
uncomplicated guys there was."
Greg Dewey recalls a passing moment he shared with Brautigan one
afternoon in San Francisco, long ago. "One time he said, 'You know that
little breeze, Dewey?' It was in the summer, it was very hot. 'That
little breeze was just like a poem.'"