It was my time of loud Harley’s and fast women. It was a period when I wore tough like a favorite pair of Levis. All I wanted was the wild wind in my face and the feeling of straddling more power than one young man should experience.
Ben was loud and tall and his boyish good looks got all the women, so I hung with him hoping to learn from the master.
One summer evening he called. “Let’s go to the Hell’s Angels dance tonight.”
My tough guy answered without hesitation. “Where are we going?”
“The Avalon Ballroom. We’ll ride together and show up in style.”
I laughed. “It’ll be my first concert.”
Any excuse to fly down the freeway on my dream machine, a custom chopped fifty-nine Harley Panhead. What hadn’t been chromed was painted Canary Yellow with Fire Engine Red flames. I’d worked graveyard in a gas station for a year to by that monster. Once I owned it, we were inseparable.
After a wild forty mile ride into San Francisco on that hot summer night, we found ourselves at the end of a line of Harley’s parked in tight formation, four to a space, both sides of the street for seven city block. It was Hawg heaven. To counted as one of so many custom choppers etched itself in my memory.
With lots of macho revving of engines and showman maneuvering, we parked and locked our machines. I secretly wondered if my bike would still be there when we got back.
Along our seven-block power strut toward the Avalon, dangerously leather-clad, waveringly drunken bikers and want-to-be bikers, stood by and lay passed out next to their chrome and steel machines. The closer we got to the front door, the more dangerous the situation looked. Stepping down the last block we were forced to detour around groups of menacingly inebriated masculinity. They pushed each other, slammed fists into each others faces and wrestled on the pavement.
As we closed in on the entrance, I turned and looked at Ben’s pale face. “What’s that lined against the wall?”
“Looks like drunks.”
“There must be thirty of them.”
“Lot of drunks at a Hell’s Angels dance, I guess.”
I looked at my wrist. “It’s only eight o’clock.”
When we reached the line of blood-spattered bikers slumped against the wall, I gasped at the true gravity of our situation.
I grabbed the sleve of Ben’s leather coat. “They’re not drunk, they’re beat to a pulp.”
We swaggered a little more cautiously toward the front door.
From out of nowhere, two fully-leathered Hells Angel line backers pushed through the filthy glass front doors, dragging a bloodied body by his collar. They cracked a joke as they pulled the lump of flesh past us like a sack of grain, drug him to the end of the line and carelessly slammed him against the wall.
My mind screamed to get the fuck out of there, but I’d been strutting my tough guy too long to turn and run, especially in front of Ben. There was no turning back.
At the door, we both paid five dollars with a vague memory of donating to some kind of Hell’s Angel philanthropy.
From the moment we walked through the door, my tough guy persona, something I had sported since getting my Harley, turned and patiently waited outside along the wall with the rejects.
Thirty years ago, when this took place, the famous Avalon Ballroom, once a building of grace and style, was an ancient crumbling structure. The small, paint-chipped foyer led to a squalid grand stairwell, then climbed a half-flight to a tattered carpet landing. The stairs turned right and disappeared up to the main floor.
As we walked through the foyer, something big was tossed over the balcony. I looked in time to see another bloodied biker drop eight feet and pitch hard onto the landing. As he crumpled into a battered mass, the same pair of burley Hells Angels climbed the stairs and grabbed the bloody pile of leather by the collar. They drug him unceremoniously down the remaining twenty steps, around the bend into the foyer in front of us and out the doors. A few moments later another body flew over the balcony, dropped to the landing and waited for the two linebackers.
Between unscheduled flights of broken bikers, Ben and I scampered up the stairs and into a scene only imagined in the twisted mind of a science fiction writer. With grins as friendly as we could muster, Ben at my side, we found a wall and backed up to it. While we nudged our way down the wall toward the main concert hall, groups of drunken biker factions continued to taunt and pick fights with one other. A number of times during the ten minutes we slowly moved down the wall, the entire room exploded into fist-slinging, beer-bottle-cracking, boot-kicking, pandemonium. Once the culprit’s were beat to a pulp, and there was always more than one, they were drug over to the balcony and tossed over the railing.
Once we passed some imaginary line only the bikers knew, the tension lessened. Everyone in the concert hall was dancing wildly to the music of Jefferson Airplane with a light show and hundreds upon hundreds of hippies stoned on things I remember and cringe for the chances we all took.
When the Airplane took a break, the room roared in anticipation of the next act. I’d never heard of Janice Joplin, but she stepped on stage and belted out a set that left me standing slack jawed in awe. I had never heard her kind of blues. At the time, I didn’t know I was standing in the middle of history. I heard live recordings were made of that night, but who knows for sure.
There was a man who held a ten-foot pipe with a smoking ball of dark resinous hash the size of my fist. Although he maintained possession of the bowl of the pipe, the far end was passed from one person to another. A cloud of expelled hash smoke settled on the crowd and mingled with the myriad of other burning substances, mostly illegal. To calm my frayed nerves, I stayed close to that bowl for the first hour of our stay.
Half into the night, I stumbled into a large room that smelled like a pay toilet in a bus station. Covering the entire floor, laying three-deep, passed out revelers had been drug in and stacked on top one another like cordwood.
Late into the night, long before the party was over, Ben and I went outside, reconnected with our tough guys and raced across the bay bridge to Oakland. It had been a night to remember and I was glad to be out of there in one piece with my Harley still in possession.
The second and last time I saw Janice Joplin was at a concert the next weekend in San Jose. Since we were Harley riders, Janice had us escorted to park our bikes next to the stage.
It wasn’t long after that summer afternoon, listening to her belt out her heart-wrenching blues, watching her take long pulls on a bottle of Southern Comfort stashed in her hip pocket, that Janice also went by the way of a number of other great entertainers of the time. She died from living fast in a historic period of overindulgence with dangerous drugs.
I survived, but I do not know how.