I found myself in San Diego, CA. when 1979 began. Our traveling group of friends had left the environs of Santa Cruz a few months previous because we had been told that San Diego had lots of work. Once we got there, of course, we decided that the only work we really wanted was that of the temporary variety. Fortunately there was enough of that so if we wanted to work we could. My jobs included two weeks at the Buck Knife factory and a month at the Naval Air Station on Coronado Island helping build a computerized mechanism that retrieved parts for fighter planes.. Despite its beaches and the city’s hip enclave of Ocean Beach, San Diego turned out to be a town of sailors, conservative old people, and a police force full of klansmen. It was not the place for folks like us. Of course, none of us knew this when we arrived except for R, who had spent some time there when he was in the Navy during the war. This time, Rwas there less than a week before he landed in jail for an open container. At the time, you could drink outside anywhere outside of downtown. Z was holding an open can of beer one block inside of the legal definition of downtown the first time he was busted. After that first arrest, the cops busted and beat him nearly every weekend.
We had closed out 1978 with a Grateful Dead show in San Diego’s Golden Hall. The music on the radio left a bit to be desired during this period of rock and roll and I could only listen to so much punk before I stopped hearing it. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the Dead Kennedys wildly anarchistic shows at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens and saw the Clash play at a financially disastrous music fest in Monterey in summer 1978. Without a doubt, it was their set along with that of Peter Tosh’s that were the highlights of that weekend.
In February, Jimmy Carter brought US forces home from Nicaragua and broke off negotiations with the dictator Somoza. The Shah of Iran was trying to find a place to hide his family after being forced to leave Iran in mid-January. His money had already found a place to hide. Elvis Costello played a rapid-fire forty-five minute set in San Diego’s Fox Theatre. They were forty-five of the best musical minutes I ever spent. They played their entire first album and a rock and roll standard or two barely stopping in between songs. The only complaint is I wanted more, but I don’t know if Elvis and the Attractions had any more to give. Rhodesia continued its war against its black inhabitants, despite the growing desire of whites to negotiate a better ending than the one they feared. Afghanistan’s left-leaning government was under fire from mujahedin who were being armed by Washington and Saudi Arabia. This decision would come back to haunt Washington in the years to come.
In early March, after winning a rent strike we had organized, most of us left separately for the East Coast where we met up at the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina. As fpr that rent strike, the moment I relished the most was when a local television news crew came to the building, interviewed a few of the tenants and then turned to ask the landlord some questions. He was a young dapper kind of guy who lived in La Jolla—a rich folks’ paradise in the northern part of San Diego county. The first question he was asked was whether our charges of unhealthy and unsafe living conditions was true. This was after the television crew had filmed the water coming through the ceilings and buckets half-filled with rain water in over a dozen different apartments. His answer was that he would never live in a place like this. Even the newscaster on the six-o’clock news looked a little incredulous after that piece was broadcast. Like I said, we won the rent strike. The buildings were re-roofed and we got three months of free rent.
Sometime while we were enroute to the eastern seaboard, the nuclear power plant known as Three Mile Island suffered a partial core meltdown. The stories from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the plant’s owners exposed their ignorance (and their assumption of our ignorance as well) in the face of impending disaster. A few days after the fiddlers’ convention, the bunch of us went to a Dead show in Baltimore and–a couple days after that–to a huge antinuclear rally in DC. The Dead performed quite well like they did most of the time in those days. The rally was a bit lukewarm in its politics, but the performance by Bonnie Raitt made it worthwhile. Not long afterwards, we packed up a friend’s VW bus and headed west. The route back to the Golden State this time around was through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and the Badlands. From there we headed into Utah and across Nevada. By the time we reached Winnemucca, NV. we could almost smell the Pacific and hear its waves calling us to what we regarded as home.
We arrived in Berkeley the day after the riots in San Francisco following the verdict for the ex-cop who killed Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone. The six of us spent a month or so looking for a place to live. Most landlords rejected any thought of renting to us as soon as they saw our scruffy lot. Eventually, we did find a place. After listening to the landlord, who happened to be the second largest slumlord in the Eastbay, tell us how hard it was to be rich, we got the keys and moved in. Six of us in three bedrooms. We weren’t a collective so much as we were a collection of people. We celebrated our new abode with a case or two of malt liquor and a gallon of wine. Bob Dylan’s live album from Budokan was the newest album on our playlist. Jimmy Carter made a speech about a national malaise related to Washington’s defeat in Vietnam and the corruption and fascist tendencies that had been exposed by the Watergate bust and investigation.. The Sandinistas were our latest heroes as they fought their way towards an eventual victory in Nicaragua. Nicaragua’s malaise was being wiped away by revolution.
Sure enough, a couple months later Somoza fled Nicaragua and the Sandinistas were the new government in that country. From all appearances, it seemed that the Nicaraguan people were for the most part happy with the change. Unfortunately, the next president of the United States would not share their enthusiasm. In Afghanistan, the US stepped up its support of a predominantly Islamist insurgency. On November 4th, Iranian students occupied the US Embassy in Tehran, beginning a countdown on evening newscasts in the US that would end only when the hostages were released immediately after Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in January 1980. The timing of the release of the hostages would eventually be shown to have been arranged by future Reagan officials who promised to work with the rightist elements of the Islamic revolutionary regime and re-arm part of its arsenal by transferring weapons through Israel.
As the year got closer to its end, Jimmy Carter presented the Carter Doctrine to the world. In essence, this doctrine re-emphasized that Washington would do whatever it took to protect so-called vital resources, especially those of the fossil fuel variety. Consequently, this meant Washington would be increasing its military presence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions. Sure enough, within days the Carter administration dispatched the carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and a battle group from the Philippines to the Persian Gulf. Moscow responded in its own way by dispatching Soviet troops to Afghanistan to defend its client government in Kabul. The Cold War was heating up again.
A few days before Christmas, while the sounds of Pink Floyd’s The Wall reverberated in our apartment on Berkeley’s Dwight Way from the building next door a friend walked in the door with a double album from the Clash titled London Calling. This album was not only the best punk album of the year. It was the best album, period. From the first cut called “London Calling” to the final cut “Train In Vain,” this work had everything a rock album could hope to contain. Rebellion, reggae, and straight-out rock and roll. Armageddon, the street, and the essence of love. When our friends who didn’t really like punk took a listen to this album, it changed their minds. Meanwhile, the hostages in Iran were still hostages and the wars of Afghanistan were beginning in earnest.
On a personal level, day to day existence during this period was pretty straightforward. No one was chasing the dollar or what passed for comfort in modern America. We had a car that ran most of the time, a roof over our heads, enough money for beer and pot and the occasional concert and record album. Our clothes were from the free box or second-hand stores. We ate lots of rice, beans and potatoes. Sometimes one of the permanent guests sleeping on our floor would buy us all a meal or some liquor as a form of payment for a place out of the weather. It wasn’t expected but it certainly was appreciated. We managed to come up with rent every month and kept the power on.
The 1980s were just around the corner. The beginning of the right wing counterrevolution was at hand. We were not ready for the darkness ahead.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org