Robbie Conal interview at his loft in Santa Monica, CA June 16, 1991


ROBBIE CONAL: I'll tell you... I don't really want to tell you taxi driver stories but I'll tell you stories about actually what it was like, actually what was going on because that's heroine I know that 's a real part of my life that goes a long way toward maybe helping, might go a long way toward helping people understand another part of the streets, my relationship to the streets and ridding around in the middle of the night because that is what it was...just like being a DJ, a midnight DJ.

We should have taken you to my friend Laddy Dill... who had a party for amnesty international down at Laddy's studio on Electric and they flew up Nathan and the Zadyco cha-cha band from Lafayette and also a bunch of crawfish gumbos.. it was good.

Anyway, talking out of both sides of my mouth. Let me see what was I going to tell you, you know in terms of exactly when everything happened, I' m a living example of Robin Williams' cautionary phrase um, that if you remember the '60's you were not there, cause, but I know sometime around 1970, 71, I'd come back from Canada and I was living in the Haight, in the upper Haight-Ashbury and I had no job, no nothing, and I went and got a job as a cab driver with Yellow working the graveyard shift, I think we came on at 7:30 the evening and drove 'til 4:30 in the morning, and it was, I mean cab drivers are cowboys anyway, and it's really the last, maybe not the last, but the deaththrows of the man and his horse out on the range, the solitary entrepreneur and all that stuff, it was very wild at that time and we had on the midnight crew we had a group of reprobates who um, actually had a club together called the High Flag Club, high flagging in cab driving talk is when you downthrow your meter and just drive around and make deals with your customers and to hell with everything, but we had it a little more sophisticated we worked it out in a more sophisticated manner than that...

To give you an idea of what it was like, we had a guy named Big Bob who would drive with us, who just got out of prison and he was in prison for nine years for making synthetic Methedrine or trying to in his father's basement, in the basement of the house he lived in, and when he got back from San Quentin, strangely enough the Judge said "okay, we need to get you a job," so this guy was driving the midnight shift the first thing he did, go to his father's basement and try to make it again. "I've gotta a better idea, I think I can do it better this time, I have been studying in jail for nine years." So the only thing this kid did was lift weights and grow, 'cause he went in when he was twenty, and he was about 6'4", 220 and of course he was a madman.

Every evening he would, or at least once a week, he would come in and we'd all meet and he'd have a little baggy, you know like a sandwich baggy full of this brown gick and say "try this, try this" and so you have these cab drivers, I had long hair to my shoulders, fly buzzing around my head. I was smoking two pack of cigarettes a shift, drinking about eight Coke, Coca-Cola classics, well they were not Classic, and a night and driving around like a maniac with a little brown bag of brown yuck right at my hip all night long,

When it hit, after two o'clock when the bars would close, we'd meet again downtown and in the Tenderloin for lunch and the guys get together and we'd play games like "Okay no traffic lights, no stop signs for an hour, no nothing" and we meet you at three o'clock and we see how we did. there were guys, there was one guy, who, it was a nine hour shift or eight or nine something, he only drove for four hours, the rest of the time he collected bets, from people and and would go to the track on his time off and place the bets for everybody, one day I mean the guy just threw me he his wallet at the airport and said "here, hold this for me until the shift is over, I don't trust myself," and then just kind of passed out in the cab and he was always, I checked his wallet, He had like $900, 9 bills, 9 hundred dollar bills and I had to drive around with it all night and have him 'cause he was passed out in the cab.

He was a guy who always had a lot of get rich quick schemes, kind of like Ralph Cramden and Ed Norton, his favorite one, the one he was sure was going to make it, was penis shaped Popsicles, he really thought that was going to get big in Frisco, he had like a trunk full of them in the back of his cab and he'd say, they'd be working on it you know, He would say "do these look like flakes, is this going to work, what do you think, do you think the translucent ones work better or what do you think the best flavors are," he handed out all this stuff and we just kind of go, "o man, Danny, you are out of your gourd," but everybody was out of their gourd...

It really was a desperate time, we'd all figured out a way to uh, actually unlock the seals on the meters. so we could disconnect the meters and drive around back into the garage and hook them up and Bob or somebody found a place where you could find, he brought a box of meter seals that looked exactly like the cab drivers, the cab company meter seals and would re-attach them, so all night long we would drive around making deals with your customers, you know, you go from here to here, okay I'll charge you this or that or whatever... and um, it was

This is, you're talking about people you know, like the inside of the cab is a total smoke cloud you know, with cans of Coke, empty Coke cans all over the place, and um smelling like some kind of toxic gymnasium. I went through a couple of pack of cigarettes a night, roaring around, sweat bursting out of veins and pouring out of my ears and just tearing around San Francisco...

There was a bunch of us tearing around San Francisco like maniacs, you know, killer, killer bees in bananas or something, I was just unbelievable, unreal, everything that anybody ever tells you about cab driving, cab driving stories about what happened in the middle of the night, who you picked up, what fares, this or that, the trouble and craziness they got into, is all true, I don't care what they tell you, it's true, I'm very thrilled that I lived through that actually, I would rather not have lived, LIVED it but I am glad that I lived through it, got to meet lots and lots of very strange people, including myself... You can put soft rock behind the whole thing, an ode to KSURF,

Every time I go to San Francisco, first of all, San Francisco just gives me a stomach ache, I lived there for so long, I was a hippy there from the time I was just turning eighteen on and I landed right in the Haight-Ashbury just about, every place I go in San Francisco something happened to me, I broke up with this girlfriend, had a fight with this person, beat somebody in a drug deal over there or had a wonderful experience over here, it's just haunted for me, it isn't before I got together with Debbie and Debbie loved San Francisco so much as a place to visit that I could actually bear to go back there, I didn't poster San Francisco for years because I just didn't want to deal with the ghosts, I still have my problems with it in terms of the hauntings but I gotta say, I know that town maybe too well. It's just, it's like I burnt rubber all over these streets, the burnt rubber of my life is all over those streets, blown tires and so forth and so on, I figure I wasted a lot of time there,

I was always doing artwork, maybe some people would not call it that, I have friends who have kept some of my work from say when I was cabdriving and trying to paint this is stuff, the stuff that is of true blackmail, they are keeping because they figure if I ever get famous or anything ever happens, they can pull this stuff out and make a good living off me getting me to keep it hid. It's just atrocious, awful, ugly stuff of course that's what I do now, but...

Biomorphic abstractions of the insides of ray fish and scads and creatures of the deep, the subconscious, something like that. Certainly I was running on empty, so, most of the time, so whatever I thought of to make art out of, didn't come from the more rational parts of my being, I don't think, the rational part of my being at the time was hiding,

I went to San Francisco State forever because, first of all it wasn't really school, it was just a place you go meet your friends and listen to rock-n-roll and take drugs and drink cafeteria coffee and stuff. It was laissez-faire education to the max, It was very, loose. We had some idea of what we were doing but it's like one of those things when you sit around smoking dope and you get ten ideas that you think are absolutely brilliant, and if you go try to execute one of them, or two of them, it would take you a whole career. So the ideas were flying off the walls, but it doesn't mean anything was getting done, or made or realized, but we were having a lot of fun I guess,

You've gotta understand my idea of art at San Francisco State. I remember taking a printmaking class with this guy John Ealy, who bless his heart, I don't think he was, I actually didn't get to him, he was too big time for me to get to him, he had an assistant or something who actually taught the class, I think it was Dennis Beale was a lower level professor than Ealy. The guy said "okay" we're going to do a print, we are going to explain printmaking, and so forth and so on, I said, "oh, okay," he said, "you've got got something you want to do?" So I went to Chinatown, which was one of our haunts and I got three six packs of dried cuttlefish which are like squid leather or something and I inked them up with different colors and ran them through the press, and while I am doing this I am drawing a crowd of about twenty people coming from all over to see the squid prints, and they are embossed into the paper, and you see Dennis Beale kind of getting a whiff, literally, of what's going on and he comes rushing over , you see this madman coming rushing over from the other side of the building, yelling "my blankets, my blankets, you are getting squid juice on my blankets. You're ruining my blankets!" And we were just cracking up, I mean, I thought they looked really cute actually.

But that's the kind of thing, going into the sculpture studio, Mel Anderson was just like the chief space cadet, he probably still runs the place, and he was wonderful to me, not only was he supportive, but he was supportive in a passive way, just let us do anything, so he said, "what do you want to do?" "We're going to do the lost wax method of casting, so explain it to me," so he explains it, and I said, "okay, I'll see you in a while, I'm gonna go to the fish store" And I got a squid tentacle, I was into these creatures of the deep, this is like Moby Dick revisited, great Americana type stuff, got the biggest squid tentacle I could get at the fish store, and you know we are talking San Francisco, so they get some pretty big squids there, it was an octopus tentacle!

PHONE, hello, hey gorgeous, I'm not listening to the radio...

Can you kind of cut in that octopus?

So, so Mel Anderson who was the chief space cadet of the sculpture department and probably still is, tells us we are going to do lost wax method casting and once he explained it I said, "okay, I gotta split," and he said "where are you going?" I said, "I'm gonna work on my project, I'm gonna go to the fish store and I'll be right back." I took off probably for a couple of days or something and came back with the biggest octopus tentacle I could find, squids, octopus, and Moby Dick, you know the whole, and this is real Americana stuff, of the cosmic unconscious, that links us all tentacle wise, so...

I come in and set up my project and Anderson takes one look at this giant octopus tentacle and goes, "Oh my god, clear the place," not that he stopped me or anything, you got to understand the spirit, he just said, "this is really going to stink," and he was right we just curdled the sculpture department with this octopus' tentacle. I had to put a copper rod through it so I could bend it, get it into the artiest shape I could get, something that I liked, then invest it into some cement like grunge, and wait for the cement to set and you know, we were around hippy time, so it was like the next two or three days I got back to it while you know, I was busy buzzing around outer space, or inner space and it just stank up the whole sculpture department, terrible, the thing is you put this thing in the oven and you fire it to burn it up so burnt octopus flesh, burnt rotten octopus flesh has a certain charm to it that is indescribable, but I'm sure you know, you have wonderful imaginations, you can conjure it up, and it just was like a fire drill in there, you know like everybody left, and it was just another one of those things like, "ah, well, I guess it's part of my education."

They just kind of let us do anything, and what we were doing at that time, aside from free love and drugs and rock-n-roll was staying out of the draft and staying out of Vietnam which was a pretty good idea I think. So, all the young men would sign up for fifteen units, you know, worth of classes and then at the last day you could drop them, drop down to nine units which is the smallest number you could carry and still stay in school, and so it took me, for that and other reasons, and there are plenty of other reasons, took me about eight years to get through San Francisco State.

In fact, you know, to give you a sense of the spirit of the whole enterprise, when I finally got accepted to Stanford graduate school, Frank Lobdell was the chairman of the department at the time called me in. And actually, I had already moved to Los Angeles at the time in 1976 I said, "forget it," I had dropped my stuff off at Stanford, and I look at all the other stuff that had been dropped off and I said "my art doesn't look anything like this shit, these guys are not going to take me, I'm going to L.A.. forget it."

So of course, when the letter came from Lobdell saying he wanted to see me, that I had been accepted but he wanted to talk to me before, I started the program, it came to a store front where my friend Lenny and I shared, an old used TV store, in north Oakland and Lenny did not open it because it was my mail, and I missed my appointment by about a month and a half, but finally Lenny was feeling so guilty that he held it up to a spot light he had in the studio and saw that it was good news from Stanford, he called me thinking he had blown the whole thing, anyway, I came up went to see Lobdell at Stanford, which is basically like taking, scrapping scrunch off the streets of north Oakland and dropping it in a country club, that's like my trip from the old used TV store to the farm, to Stanford,

So I go down there, it's unbelievable down there, walk into this beautiful art department, talk to the chairman, he's a great artist, and who I admired greatly and still do, and he sits me down and says, "okay, so, you know we accepted you and we are going to give you a lot of money, we're gonna give you a studio and everything but, I wanna talk to you about your transcript from San Francisco State before we let you in. He said, "you never really graduated. It's not a problem for me but you are two units short of graduation even though you have 168 units which is enough to graduate two or three times or something." He said, "You're missing two, could you make it up for me and aside from that, how come you only got A's and F's? in equal number?" I said, "well," and I hadn't thought about my transcript ever except when they made me get one for the application or something I mean. I said, "well as far as I can recall, I either liked the class or didn't like it and I avoided all the ones that I knew I could never do, like chemistry or something, you know, if it was world literature and I got to read books and write what I thought about 'em, I did okay. You know, if it was something else and I didn't, I conveniently forgot about it, Frank. Baby."

He says, "well," he was great I mean, you know, he did not really give a shit about it, he was just being responsible, he said "go take, where ever you are now, if you're in L.A., please sign up for some summer course and go take the class and fulfill the two units just so you make us look good, you know, like, because, it says here in your application that you actually have a BFA and you actually don't." Not that he cared. That was the kind of spirit of the thing, I mean it was just like we were really much busier with the universe and the Four Tops and the Temptations and them and the Rolling Stones and everybody, than we were with the administration at San Francisco State.

Oh no, I started in '63, the fall of '63, and I got out, went to Canada, in '69, I came back in '70, '71, and I applied to Stanford once a few years after that, I mean, I was just in these used store fronts, being an artist working odd jobs like cab driving, like production line cabinet making, like delivering newspapers and stuff, you know, being the total jerk thinking I could make art and do crummy jobs, and, maybe that was kind of normal,

These are embarrassingly colorful stories, it's really hard to deliver this to you, I had a bunch of friends, my parents lived, at that time they were living in La Jolla, my father had been out of work for thirteen or fourteen years because he was, cased out of political science and polling by the McCarthy committee and, what was I telling you.... No after... We can stop for a second...

My father was, he worked for the CIO and he was a, actually kind of a political scientist and, he ran some polling of minority communities for the CIO and he got chased out of his profession along with a lot of other people by the McClellan committee and McCarthy committee and he was out of work for thirteen or fourteen years so, he finally made up another job as a research and grant administrator and was working at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a lot of old lefties were around who knew him and knew his work and finally found a place for him to do something where he could actually make some money and Jonas Salk had just started the Salk Institute in La Jolla and he, needed someone to translate scientists' requests for money for projects into English and someone who could figure out some way to write grant proposals that was intelligible and also there's, you know, like a little scientific methodology to that, so my father,

He hired my father and they came out to La Jolla and I was in San Francisco so I would come down, for the holidays and stuff you know Thanksgiving, Christmas, whatever, long holidays to visit my folks and you got to remember hair down to here, flies buzzing around my head, psychedelic bob, and um, Herbert Marcuso was at U.C.S.D. teaching, graduate classes there in philosophy and he and my father became friends and through that relationship I became friends with Marcuso's graduate students who became my buddies for life, and um, so when I would come down from psychedelic San Francisco to surfin' La Jolla, I would run around with these guys who were just brilliant philosoph, Marxist philosophy students and we would have a wonderful time, it was like playland down there, they had this house in Del Mar and I would go visit them and we'd run around and when they came up to the Bay area, we would run around the Bay area and they were my buddies and when they were graduating, getting their Master's out of Marcuso's program, down in La Jolla, they got offered teaching jobs at the University of Saskatchewan, kind in a package deal, with Marcuso, now Marcuso was not going to go anywhere, he was ensconced and he was an old man and it was beautiful down there, but his graduate students were also afraid they would get out of school and get drafted to, so, Darris Smithe, who had been a kind of pinkish administrator in the Roosevelt Administration had taken over the social sciences division of the University of Saskatchewan at Regina, and um, he had made this offer to the graduate students and they accepted it and they said, "we're going to bring our pal along," they said, "Robbie do you want to go, four five of us are gonna go up and you wanna to go?" we were all going out of school, and we were all vulnerable to the draft and that's...

'69, '68, '69 and uh, yes '68 I guess, and uh, you know, it was a good position to be in, across the border just in case and also it was an adventure for us. So, for whatever reason and however it worked out we went up there and you know, it was ridiculous up there and that's a whole different story what happened up there...


So for whatever reason we went to Regina, Saskatchewan, you can imagine this invasion, I mean, it was ridiculous out there. We were ridiculous out there, it was a serious situation, you got to remember it was 1968, '69, all over the western world, students and especially kids at universities were kind of revolting, in both senses of the word, and that was starting to foment there too. So, it was kind of like, "here they come, you know, Marcuso's graduate students, this arty type," and there really wasn't a job for me, we had to make up one, but, uh...

We managed to do that and I found myself teaching some night class, Sociology 101 or something, and some art class, and you can just see the hippy professor coming in, sitting on top of the desk with all these people from this farming culture, who are coming in, they were either civil servants, because Regina was one of the centers of the provincial bureaucracy civil servants coming back to get credit by taking classes at the University after work and farm wives and old farmers coming in because they are bored out of their gourds on the prairie, coming into the big city to get an education meant a big deal to them and of course just the regular students who could not fit into the regular class schedule in the daytime and were kind of curious as to who the hell these guys were, coming into the class it would be like an auditorium of a couple hundred people,

I'd be sitting on the desk trying to explain de-sublimated repression to them was pretty interesting and then of course once I understood that the conversation, the teaching would always degenerate into stories about San Francisco, which is what they really wanted to hear, I would take, it was a three hours class, I would take the last half hour and, I'd take the last hour and half of it would be just question and answer about hippies in San Francisco, people they had seen on the "Brady Bunch," I saw you, you're a hippy are you, I saw someone just like you on the "Brady Bunch, I know" and that kind of thing, along with, uh tapes, my kind of musicology of popular culture, tapes that I would bring them and for the last half-hour, I would just play rock-n-roll.

(motorcycle passes outside)

Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda just stopping by, It's kind of like one of those flashbacks, psychedelic flashbacks, auditory hallucinations, collective auditory...

I honestly don't know. I mean as it was, when I got my draft notice, to come to my pre-induction physical, my draft board was in Plentywood, Montana, and I went to Plentywood, which was right across the border and I walked into the Army Recruiting Center there, and I said, "well here I am" and they said, "Well, we're gonna put you on a bus with all the rest of the guys, send you down to Butte, Montana for your pre-induction physical," I said, "I'm not going on any bus, I don't need no stinking bus, I'll get there on my own!"

So I went with my friends, drove me down and put us up in an hotel in Butte and Butte had just been literally almost burnt to the ground by disaffected miners who had an eight months strike broken, and a conduit had broken some strike and they thought the union sold-out and they were leaving the town and burning their houses behind them and we walk into this town and we're hold up in a hotel with the other draftees and all of them, I was twenty-four, and these kids were eighteen, seventeen, no they were eighteen I guess, nineteen, something like that and they were scared to death, so we spent the whole night, first we took them all out to a double feature James Bond movies and then we spent the whole night with our doors open, it was me, my friend Jim Baroline and Margo, his wife, sitting on our beds, we had these two double beds in the room, just fielding these kids who wanted to come in and talk to us about their lives and about how scared they were and what was gonna to happen and we just ended up counseling them for, just the rest of the night,

And when I finally went into my physical, and of course I refused to sign a loyalty oath, and I got shunted of, you know into a room with a guy who said, "what are you, crazy!?" I said, "well you know, I have been called worse, but you know I am not signing this." He says, "I think you're crazy, we're gonna to send you to the army psychiatrist!" I said, "okay." As it turns out the army psychiatrist was in Missoula, Montana and I had to go there and wait a week to get an appointment with the guy 'cause I guess a lot of people were...

So I went of to Missoula and went to Ms. Brown's boarding house for a week, and hung out in the University cafeteria and library waiting for my appointment with the army psychiatrist and when I finally went in there and talked to the guy, it was the first intelligent person I had met in this whole chain of events, except for some of the kids who were great of course, he said, "So, you probably wouldn't like the army, would you?" I said, "nah, I don't think so." He said, "you know, you'd probably just make trouble in the army, wouldn't you? I said, "yeah, I probably would."

Hello. (neighbor interrupts)

The army psychiatrist said uh, "you wouldn't really like the army, would you?" I said, "no, I really wouldn't." He said, "you wouldn't be any good in the army and the army probably wouldn't like you either, you'd probably just would make trouble there, huh?" I said, "yeah, yeah, I guess you're right, you know" and I'm sorry this is so embarrassingly colorful, this kind of stuff...

He said to me, "so, you take a lot of drugs?" I said, "Well, I took some drugs." He said, "what'd you take? any psychedelic drugs?" I said, "yeah, I took some." He said, "describe 'em to me." I said, "well, what do you want to know, you know." He said, "well, what have you taken?" So I told him, and he said, "oh, salicybin, you took salicybin?" I said, "yea."

He said, "spell it." So I spelled it for him and he said, "okay, okay, I guess you get a "1-Y" if you can spell salicybin after you've taken it." And he looked it up in the book and said, "Okay, now describe what it was like." And I said, "It was really great, really great, you know lots of nice colors and it's really great." No, I mean, I described to him what it was, you know I had just taken synthetic mescaline, they're all kind of mushroomy type, so I described it to him and he, I don't know what he was doing but, he had it figured you know that, as I say, he was the one intelligent person I met in the army bureaucracy and through that experience, and we just worked out a deal. He said, "okay, fine, I'll write you a '1-Y,' don't worry about it, you know, it would just be a mess, for you and the army if you were in the army, we don't really want you anyway, so."

WALKER. What is a "1-Y"?

It's a psychologically unfit, you know. He said, "you're probably a recovering drug addict, anyway, right?" And I said, "right." He said, "GOOD, good, okay."

WALKER. It sounds like you were genuinely going through the motions of what you had to do.

I was doing what I had to do, sure, I mean, it wasn't like, I, I would, if I didn't have to, what I was trying to do was avoid having to cut and run you know, and cut off my U.S. citizenship. I would go as far as I could go with the process and see if I could work out, or work some way out of it, that um, short of having to do that, because that was irrevocable at that time, I really didn't enjoy the prospect of having to play semi-pro baseball in Canada for the rest of my life, even though it was a lot of fun,

WALKER. You were the tallest one?

No, I was not the tallest one on the team. I was the goofiest. No, I wasn't even the goofiest one on the team. But, I was definitively um, one of the most entertaining members of that team for the populace, I mean, you know, I had a fan club and everything. They were all thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old kids but everywhere I went with that team, I had to have, we would play towns like Disley, Dilt, Pence, Elbow... You know, we were out there, I was on the Lungsdon Cubs, and every game we went to, if I wanted to get a hot-dog, or something after the game, I always had the shortstop and the first baseman, on my left and right holding baseball bats when I went up to the concession stand just to make sure I got there and got back, but we had a really good team...

I was ensconced, I was in a spot where if anything happened I was okay, and, if it didn't, I could figure out my way back so that was the idea anyway... There's Debbie. So, we can pick this up later.

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