The rock stars next door

For years and years I didn’t remember a whole lot from my childhood. Now I find that something’s been released in my brain lately and I’m finding all kinds of things crammed away in there that I’d forgotten about.

The other day was warm enough to open the window in the second bedroom that serves as our office. When it’s warm, my neighbor’s dog, Lola, is outside on their deck. She barks at anything that moves, with the mailman and cats being the big winners usually.

Last summer I bought a device called the Barkstopper Pro. It was useless against Lola’s constant auditory onslaught. So I’ve gotten used to the barking and it’s only a real nuisance when I’m on the phone. Or when I think about what we’re going to do if we ever want to sell this house.

I knew the mail had arrived, because Lola was barking her head off. Then I suddenly remembered a song called “Barking Dog Blues.” It was written by Peter Kaukonen, brother of Jorma, both members of various incarnations of Jefferson Airplane/Starship. Like Proust’s fateful madeleine, that stupid dog brought on a flood of memories.

I mostly grew up in Mill Valley, California, which is about 20 minutes north of San Francisco. We moved there in 1970 and lived about halfway up to the top of Mount Tamalpais. Mill Valley was kind of a magical place in which to grow up, something I didn’t fully appreciate until after I left roughly 13 years later. It is a gorgeous town, with houses stuck into the side of the mountain, carpeted with old growth redwoods and sycamores and full of discoveries, like secret steps you can use to take shortcuts everywhere, horse farms and fantastic parks and trails.

In the sixties and seventies it was a hotbed of musical activity. To give you an idea of what it was like there, my best friend, Johanna, lived higher up on the mountain in a big A-frame. Her house was in earshot of Carlos Santana’s place, and we could sometimes hear them rehearsing in the afternoons. (She also had a neighbor a bit closer in who sometimes made pornographic movies outside on the deck. Needless to say, to our cultural peril, we found the latter activity of much greater interest.)

My family lived next door to Peter Kaukonen and his wife at the time, Jacky. They had no kids, but they seemed to like me, their seven-year-old neighbor. I found them fascinating. Peter had a home recording studio and a room full of musical instruments.

Even then I was intensely drawn to all kinds of music (I was, for example, obsessed at the time with a couple of albums my dad gave me by the Baha Marimba Band, a faux-Mexican outfit) and enjoyed just being around all the drums and guitars. They were like works of art and I loved looking at them as much as I liked hearing them played. Ten years ago I bought my dream guitar, a Gibson Les Paul Custom. I play it badly and it needs attention from a good luthier. But it’s a beautiful piece of art to me.

In the early seventies, people weren’t paranoid about their kids hanging around with adults. I used to go over to Peter and Jacky’s some afternoons after school just to hang out and see what they were up to. It still amazes me that they welcomed me into their home rather than seeing me as a nuisance.

Who would you rather hang around with after school? No fucking contest.

Peter had recorded an album, Black Kangaroo, and he wrote the song “Barking Dog Blues” as a minor protest against (or, really a lament about) our neighbors’ dog, which barked incessantly. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been to try to record an album with a fucking dog going in the background. On that recording, he gave up and made the barking the song’s centerpiece.

Along with all their instruments, they had a menagerie of exotic reptile pets. It was like a little zoo of lizards and snakes over there. All this was so much more interesting than either school or my friends’ houses that I couldn’t wait to go over there sometimes.

One time I went into San Francisco with Jacky to a store (I’m pretty sure it was in Chinatown — where else would it possibly have been?) where she bought all the food for their pets: dried grubs, live bugs — and live mice. This was a big treat — going with an adult somewhere to do something undeniably adult, like buying live animals. Jacky handled the transaction with a perfect mixture of sensitivity and matter-of-factness. Snakes ate mice; that was just nature at work. I even remember her saying something to this effect before we went in. She was careful to check that I wasn’t upset by this concept, which I wasn’t, although it didn’t seem like I had much of an option.

Doing some casual Googling, I see that they’re both still around, although it looks like they split up quite awhile ago. Looking back, I realize that Peter and Jacky were just kids themselves at the time — probably not even 30 years old. But they seemed so grown up to me, yet accessible and cool in way that my parents and my friends’ parents could never be. They were very kind to me, and the impression they made on me has influenced how I deal with kids, since I know that small gestures can stick.

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