How Graffiti Damning John Lennon Sparked my Love of Haight-Ashbury
My love affair with Haight-Ashbury began on March 18, 1981, with a piece of graffiti that slagged off the recently assassinated John Lennon. More to the point, my love affair began with the response to that graffiti.
I was living in western Canada that winter and twice hitchhiked down to northern California – the first time was the week Ronald Reagan was sworn in, the second the week before he was shot.
I really liked Haight-Ashbury during the first trip, because of the spirit, the parties, the history of the place. The seeds of The Haight, my murder mystery set in the neighbourhood, were planted during that first visit. I returned to Vancouver, worked as a bouncer in a blues club, and dreamed of getting back to the Haight. But circumstances changed. I had to return to the east coast. Before I did, I wanted one more trip to California. I had to see Haight Street again.
On this second trip, I arrived on St. Patrick’s Day. After driving all night, we’d stopped for gas and breakfast outside Sacramento. A few locals were already loaded, yelling “Toppathamarning” to everyone who entered the diner. That ride ended just beyond Sacramento, and another ride took me right into San Francisco. I got a room in Mission, slept until nightfall. The next day, I headed back to the Haight.
The nostalgia industry in Haight-Ashbury had not yet begun in 1981. Not like today. There were none of the outdoor murals and few visible signs of the Summer of Love. You had to already know that 710 Ashbury was the place the Dead had lived – there were no tourists stopping to take pictures in those days.
Haight Street had some cool coffee shops and the place I really liked was The Haight Café. I had a note pad, on which I was writing letters to friends and family (we did that in those days) and jotting down notes. I liked just hanging out there writing. I remember the waitress sitting and chatting with me. She’d recently been on a trans-Atlantic cruise, during which she’d read the Bible, Genesis to Revelation. “Good book,” she said. I bought a beige T-shirt that said The Haight Café. I wore it back East until it fell apart.
There was a genuine atmosphere in The Haight Café that I associated with the neighborhood, though the locals noted the café didn’t date back to the glory days of 1967. As I recall, it had either recently opened or they’d just renovated the washrooms. In any case, the men’s room had been painted not long before. After washing my hands, I turned to look for paper towel and was overwhelmed by the web of graffiti on the opposite wall.
It had started with some guy writing in bold black marker:
JOHN LENNON WAS AN A-POLITICAL PIG WHO DIDN’T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT THE PEOPLE OF NORTHERN IRELAND. HE GOT WHAT WAS COMING TO HIM.
Lennon had been assassinated three months earlier, and we all still had raw emotions about the brutal death of the man who wrote “All You Need Is Love”. The graffiti was shocking, but what held my fascination was the reaction to it.
Surrounding it, radiating out, was a written debate that took up the entire wall. There were different branches of the debate. Some guys discussed whether Lennon’s pacifism proved he was not a-political. Others focused on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Several condemned the writer for speaking ill of a man so recently killed—that line branched into a debate on freedom of speech.
Mesmerized, I focused on the libertarian debate. One writer fervently defended the right of Lennon’s opponent to voice his opinion and applauded everyone who joined the forum. He ended with these words, which I wrote down: “God, or whatever, bless all of us with life enough to drink and love enough to write.” It became the epigraph for my first stab at fiction, a novel that was mercifully never published.
That was when I realized Haight-Ashbury is a place like no other. Washroom graffiti wasn’t simple vandalism but a forum for debate. It was a place of intelligent discussion and creative thinking. I’ve been fascinated by the neighbourhood ever since and am thrilled that this week I will finally have published a novel set in Haight-Ashbury. The Haight is almost here, 37 years after I first caught the bug.