MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
A Brief History
Altogether my father recorded twenty-four hours of audio chronicling his relationship with Bob Dylan, Dennis Hopper, Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Wavy Gravy, David Crosby, Tom Petty, the rest of the Traveling Wilburys and a few others who made up his inner circle of friends.
It's interesting and fortunate, in my opinion, that he chose this process for writing rather than something more traditional. If he only wrote what he was thinking, I believe there would be less of a chance of those pages being preserved over a decade later. Everything in this box in front of me seems brand new, aside from the deteriorating foam attached to the microphone.
There are several reasons he chose to record his voice rather than write. The simplest reason: My father always claimed he wasn't a writer and said on occasion it wasn't his preferred method of communicating. He was a conversationalist, an intelligent man with street smarts and a firm grasp of politics and current events. In his teens and twenties his education took place in coffee shops and music venues, not in the classroom. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening paragraph of his term paper, dated 1956:
In the following paper you will find that I have just about broken all the rules of proper grammar. For this I apologize. I realize I could do without doing this, but I do not feel that I can express myself to my satisfaction unless I write the way I talk.
Victor grew up with a sense of rebellion, most likely influenced by his parents' leadership of unions, social groups and religious fraternal orders. He was witness to them standing up for what they believed in, even when those beliefs ran contrary to the law. He adopted a mentality that he expressed to me when I was a child by saying, "We're a family of outlaws, not criminals, and that's a very important distinction. In order to do what's right, sometimes you have to live outside the law." As a nine-year-old child my interpretation of this was empowering, though sometimes in a way my mother surely regretted.
How his parents, my grandparents, indoctrinated him is complex and extends back hundreds of years. Both died from old age before I was a teenager, so with extensive research I've been able to piece together their history and plausible explanations for their ability to lead and protest.
Abe and Goldie Maymudes moved to New York City in 1920 from Brock, Poland, a small town located on the Bug River. The river was used heavily in the early 1900s to ship lumber from Poland to Germany. Both of Victor's parents lived in the same town as kids, but were only acquaintances. As teenagers they belonged to a Jewish organization for young boys and girls called Maccabee by the Germans and Herzliya by the Jews. Abe was the leader of the boys' section, Goldie the leader of the girls. Herzliya was a political and social club, embodying the spirit of the Russian Revolution at the time. Goldie and Abe were fifteen and sixteen respectively. The club was ultimately dissolved when Poland went to war against Russia in 1920. Goldie said in an interview in 1989:
The First World War really shook up the society. The youngsters went out from the yeshivas and from the chedorim [religious schools], and they went on to more worldly things. They went to learn; Maymudes [Abe] went to a German school for boys. We all went into regular government city schools to learn the language and to become more worldly people. This was a great change in our life. We stepped outside of the boundaries of our parents keeping us in their religious form.
Both Goldie and Abe came from extremely religious families. Goldie's grandfather on her father's side, my great-great-grandfather, was a dayen, a student of law and a rabbi. As the dayen he was the leader of the village, Brock. As for Abe, his lineage has been traced back thirteen generations to the Spanish Middle Ages, when the family name supposedly changed from Maimonides to Maymudes. This name change vaguely suggests the Maymudes lineage is connected to Moses Maimonides, the preeminent medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher, astronomer and one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages.
I've personally had a hard time believing this connection through our bloodline, but I admit the possibility despite lacking any hard proof. Maimonides's only son, Avraham, continued his father's legacy as a great scholar. As the history is written, the office of Nagid, the Jewish governing power, was presided over by the Maimonides family for four consecutive generations until the end of the fourteenth century.
Abe and Goldie's parents, my great-grandparents, fell on hard times after World War One. Work with decent-paying wages was hard to come by, so separately the families decided to move to New York City on the same day on the same ship in 1920. Abe's family, having less money, bought tickets in second class, while Goldie's family traveled in first class. Abe remembered seeing her once on the ship in passing. They were still only friends.
Once in New York the families both joined a left-wing Jewish organization. One afternoon during a boat outing on the Hudson River, Abe finally approached Goldie for a date. Within the next five years they would be married, and by 1930 Goldie had given birth to August, Victor's older brother.
During this time in the early 1920s, they both taught classes for the Workmen's Circle, a Yiddish language–oriented Jewish-American fraternal organization committed to social justice. In 1922 there was a contentious political rift in the organization's top brass, which led to the creation of the leftist International Workers Order (IWO). The IWO was established in 1930, promoting leftist, progressive values and operating as a fraternal mutual aid organization and insurance provider. Members were provided with low-cost health and life insurance, as well as medical and dental clinics. The organization also supported foreign-language newspapers, cultural and educational activities and operated a summer camp and cemeteries for its members. The Jewish Section of the IWO was one of thirteen other sections, including Italian, Ukrainian, Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, English and other language branches. The Jewish/Yiddish branch was the largest and, in Los Angeles, one of the most important Jewish organizations in the first half of the twentieth century. The IWO at its peak had over two hundred thousand members, of which one third were Jewish. The Jewish section of the International Workers Order was also referred to as the Jewish People's Fraternal Order (JPFO).
In 1934, over a decade into their employment with the JPFO/IWO, Abe and Goldie moved across the country and transferred to teaching in the Los Angeles branch. In 1935, Goldie gave birth to Victor at the Los Angeles County Hospital.
The following year Abe was promoted from teaching to the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the JPFO. His organizational and political role as a teen was resurrected there. After the promotion they bought their first home in Rosemead, California, about twenty-five miles east of Los Angeles. On May 31, 1946, Goldie gave birth to Victor's younger sister, Zicel Maymudes.
When Victor was fifteen, Abe was transferred back to New York to become president of the entire organization. At the same time the Special Committee on Un-American Activities of the U.S. House of Representatives investigated the JPFO for what they declared was a "huge patronage machine furnishing positions for a host of Communist functionaries, who serve as the party's controlling commissars within the organization."
The Los Angeles developments followed the pattern of the nationwide McCarthy-era witch-hunt. The IWO was placed on the U.S. Attorney General's list of "subversive" organizations on December 5, 1947, and on December 14, 1950, the New York State Insurance Department moved to liquidate the Order on grounds that its significant cash reserves, far beyond what commercial insurers were required to maintain, would be turned over to the enemy in the event of war with the Soviet Union.
This happened despite Abe using his influence to raise over four hundred thousand dollars from the sale of war bonds to his organization's members, an act that he was congratulated for in a letter from Major Prayski, chairman of the War Savings Staff of the Treasury Department. He was informed that the army was naming a heavy bomber "the Spirit of Boyle Heights" to honor the JPFO/IWO, which maintained its Los Angeles offices in Boyle Heights. I assume naming a heavy bomber after a group that has secular and Communist ideology is a rare occasion for the United States military.
* * *
After a four-year heated struggle, the Jewish Community Council (which became the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles in 1959) ostracized the JPFO from the Jewish community, froze the JPFO's assets and worked toward its dissolution. The Los Angeles Community Council also began a process of halting support for the other Jewish community centers in Los Angeles—the Soto-Michigan Community Center and the City Terrace Cultural Center. Within a few years, not only was the JPFO destroyed, but so too were the other most important Jewish cultural institutions in Los Angeles.
Abe left the organization in 1950 and moved the family to Pacoima near Los Angeles. As the former president of a suspected Communist front, finding new employment was tricky for Abe during the McCarthy era. With the family in a desperate spot financially, Goldie took to raising chickens and selling eggs to keep the family afloat.
From Victor's birth to age sixteen, he was witness to a committed social and political philosophy. His parents cared about their community and actively protected it by educating others, leading demonstrations and offering social services. What the government labeled as illegal was actually a peaceful organization, patriotic to the United States and nourishing positive growth in their communities. They were defined as outlaws while doing what they felt was morally right and just.
In 1951 the family moved to Canoga Park to start a larger chicken farm. Sixteen-year-old Victor took an interest in carpentry and helped construct a large-scale chicken coop for the family. This type of construction and carpentry intrigued him and, upon his mother's suggestion, he decided to make it his trade. In a college essay, Victor recounted that he was able to find construction work nearby at the rate of three fifty per hour and felt on top of the world. After a few weeks of work, he claimed to have more money than he knew what to do with.
When Victor turned eighteen in 1953, he was sent a draft letter and was required to attend an evaluation. His political and social ideology was heavily influenced by his parents' role as community organizers, and the idea of war or fighting for causes that contradicted his beliefs was something he would rail against. He attended the evaluation stoned and when asked if he was willing to shoot the enemy, he responded with, "If you give me a gun, I'll shoot everyone around me. Including you." His aggressive response wasn't born of inherent madness; it was a calculated statement targeted at failing the psych profile. He was deemed unfit for the draft and let go.
By 1955 a twenty-year-old Victor was entering the new culture of beatniks, music, art and drugs that Jack Kerouac would capture in On the Road, which was published in 1956. He and his friend Herb Cohen decided to open a coffee shop. They would become partners in the traditional sense; Herb would manage the business, and Victor would design and build the look and feel of the cafe. That year, in all of the city, there wasn't a single counterculture hangout or coffee shop. What they were planning was the first of its kind for Los Angeles: a home for live music and poetry; a reading room with a collection of hip books and ample space to play chess. It would quickly become a place where rebellion could thrive.
They found a perfect location in the heart of Hollywood at 8907 Sunset Blvd, the center of the Sunset Strip. Together they named the cafe: the Unicorn. For marketing they put posters up in liberal bookstores, music venues and any place that had a sense of hipness and a taste for folk music. Their posters were hand drawn with large hippie-looking characters playing guitars and sipping espressos. Swirling lines intertwined with slogans such as, "Where casual craznicks climb circular charcoal curbs for cool calculated confabulations" and "Espresso espression sessions on the patio." The cafe was painted entirely black inside and pictures of nude women hung upside down on the walls. They were defining what hip was and they nailed it. Once the place was built, Victor would reach out to musician friends and poets to book performances at the cafe.
When they opened the doors, the Unicorn was instantly a hit. Queues would stretch down the street and around the block. They had tapped right into something bigger than themselves, a cultural divide precipitated by the strict mentality of the 1950s. What they created didn't happen by chance, it was built by the entropy of a jaded youth reaching out for something to identify with. My father told me on many occasions about the feeling in the air at this time, as if everyone was waiting for something to happen. Some change of consciousness, like a giant wave that starts way out in the middle of the ocean. You know it's coming, you just don't know when it'll arrive or how big it's going to be. The venues for this revolution were being built, like the Unicorn; Victor would say they just needed a figurehead, a voice. They were waiting for someone to show up on the scene, someone who could reach across the oceans and connect people.
Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Odetta, Peter Fonda and many other Hollywood A-listers would come to the Unicorn and hang out. Victor came up with a novel idea of putting brandy extract in lattes, which then became the must-have trendy drink of 1958. Worried parents would call in, asking why their teenage daughters and sons smelled like whiskey after an evening at the cafe. Police would routinely stop in and check for alcohol in the drinks but to their dismay couldn't find any, despite the strong odor of whiskey.
In the evenings Lenny Bruce would come by after working at Duffy's Gaieties and stage his own special comedy shows. Bruce's rise to the status of cultural icon began in the mid-1950s. The iconoclastic edginess that would be his trademark was developed at the Unicorn and other clubs on the Sunset Strip. In his autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, Bruce describes the importance of the freedom that came from venues like this:
Four years working in clubs—that's what really made it for me—every night: doing it, doing it, doing it, getting bored and doing different ways, no pressure on you, and all the other comedians are drunken bums who don't show up, so I could try anything.
Police were troubled by Bruce's use of the word "cocksucker," and his use of the phrase "to come" (in a sexual sense) to the point that he was arrested for a performance at the Unicorn.
Herb and Victor also hired the "hippest" waitresses. They were referred to as being as mean as snakes, women fallen from grace. Waitresses would stare you down with menacing glares and have little appetite for wasting their time with your service. Departing from the chivalry of the 1950s, when service was king, these unruly waitresses were trend-setters in their own right. Once, Steve McQueen was accidentally denied entry due to overcrowding, when the hostess tending the door didn't recognize him and didn't care. It was the hottest spot in Hollywood, which put Victor in the center of the counterculture movement in Los Angeles. The following year, people trying to replicate the success of the Unicorn would open clones all around Los Angeles.
Paul Butterfield was an American blues vocalist and harmonica player who founded the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the early 1960s and performed at the original Woodstock Festival. In 1966 Paul used the Unicorn to record his band's album The Butterfield Blues Band Live at Unicorn Coffee House.
During the time of the Unicorn Cafe, Victor moved to Topanga Canyon, a hippie community on the outskirts of Los Angeles in the Santa Monica Mountains. There he settled in with his friend Will Geer, who had a large estate. The same A-list attendees of the Unicorn would also take refuge at Will Geer's place with Victor. Woody Guthrie, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, the group Peter, Paul and Mary and the singer Odetta were just a few of the people Victor became close friends with while living there.
Victor and his business partner started having issues with each other. Money and greed caused conflict in their relationship. Herb had a reputation for being abrasive and tough. The American folk rock musician, record producer and arranger Jerry Yester is quoted as saying:
Herbie was a lot scarier than people would think. They'd think he was a kind of pudgy Jewish guy, but he was absolutely terrifying in conflict. I mean, he had a box of hand grenades in the trunk of his car.
Herb Cohen started managing bands in the early 1960s. The first band was the Modern Folk Quartet, followed by the Mothers of Invention with Frank Zappa. Later Cohen and Zappa created several record labels, DiscReet, Straight and Bizarre. Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart, Lenny Bruce, Ted Nugent's band the Amboy Dukes all released albums through Cohen and Zappa's record labels. Linda Ronstadt once said that Cohen "wasn't one to coddle his artists, he didn't let me get caught up with my reflection in the mirror." Herb Cohen signed Linda Ronstadt after hearing her perform at the Troubadour in Los Angeles during an open mic night. Victor wasn't the only one who found it difficult to maintain a relationship with Herb Cohen; one by one his business ventures with Frank Zappa, Linda Ronstadt and even Tom Waits ended in lawsuits. Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, says that "something always went wrong at the end" regarding Cohen's business relationships.
After a falling out with Herb Cohen on the business side of the Unicorn, in the late 1950s Victor moved on to promoting concerts and getting deeper into the music scene. He partnered with Dan Gordon, Odetta's husband, to form a production company. They named themselves Dandetta Productions and started putting on shows with Miles Davis, Hugh Romney (Wavy Gravy), the Clancy Brothers, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Lenny Bruce, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and most importantly Odetta herself. Their main venue was the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. In addition to promoting concerts, Victor took on trying to manage Wavy Gravy and Ramblin' Jack Elliott and began booking shows for them at cafes and little clubs around the country.
Wavy Gravy, born Hugh Nanton Romney, was a clown in the literal sense and used his talents in comedy to become a political pundit. Romney's clown persona actually resulted from his political activism. The police at demonstrations frequently apprehended him, so he decided he would be less likely to be arrested if he dressed as a clown. "Clowns are safe," he would say.
Ramblin' Jack, on the other hand, was a folky country singer who Victor met in 1952. Ramblin' Jack was born as Elliot Charles Adnopoz in Brooklyn to Jewish parents in 1931. He acquired his fascination with cowboy culture as a boy from attending rodeos at Madison Square Garden. His fascination led him to run away from home at age fifteen and join a touring rodeo founded by Colonel Jim Eskew. His rebellion was fueled by his father's relentless pressure on him to become a surgeon. Young Ramblin' Jack lasted three months on the tour before his parents tracked him down and had him sent home. His parents physically removed him from the cowboy lifestyle but the impression left by a singing rodeo clown on the tour named Brahmer Rogers imprinted options for a new identity that he would later adopt in life. Back home, rather than taking up medical school, Elliott taught himself guitar and started busking for a living. Through the years, his love of music took him on a path straight to Woody Guthrie, with whom he stayed and worked as an apprentice. In 1952 Ramblin' Jack introduced Victor to numerous provocative people, including Ralph Bellamy, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, Woody Guthrie and his close friend Cisco Houston, an American folksinger who lived over the hill from Los Angeles in the San Bernardino Valley. It was Ramblin' Jack who originally brought Victor to Will Geer's in Topanga Canyon. Victor would continue to work with Wavy and Ramblin' Jack throughout the fifties and early sixties.
Then in 1961, Ramblin' Jack and Wavy, on separate occasions, told my father that he needed to go to the Gaslight in New York City and meet a promising new kid on the folk scene by the name of Bob Dylan.
Copyright © 2014 by Jacob Maymudes