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Flashback to the Night I Witnessed the Birth of Heavy Metal

The Kent State shootings hadn’t happened yet. Neither had Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk. President John F. Kennedy was four years gone, but Bobby was still alive. 1968 was both a clear precursor to the more sobering upheavals of 1969, and the last year with any tangible connection to 1967’s Summer of Love. Rock was in its psychedelic golden age, the Sgt. Pepper/Satanic Majesties era. “Light My Fire” was the counterculture’s national anthem. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Brian Jones were still alive, and I had seen them all.

Napa High School — I was a junior that year — was not the epicenter of the growing subculture, but damn close. Only a chaparral-hilled 39 miles separated us from San Francisco. It was a journey I undertook every chance I got, but it was a night ride into neighboring Sonoma County that provided the heaviest musical impact that summer of 1968.

In Northern California, we had our own claim to aural infamy. Named after an ephiphanic admixture of Owlsey’s LSD, Blue Cheer, a band the critics mostly hated, had drilled its way to number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart with a psychedelicized cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” The band’s debut album, "Vincebus Eruptum," peaked at number 11 on the Billboard Top 200, largely on the strength of the blistering single.

Tickets to Blue Cheer’s early June "Bill Graham Presents" concert at Sonoma County Fairgrounds had sold out briskly, but I’d gotten in line at Napa’s only music store in plenty of time to snag a handful for a carload of my friends.

Though the band we were going to see was named after a hallucinogenic drug we’d dabbled in, the night of the concert our stash consisted only of Mexican weed and two bottles of the Southern Comfort Joplin had made famous. I was designated driver not because I had agreed to stay sober, but because I was the only one with a car. My aunt had willed me her old 1947 Dodge sedan; no seat belts, no headrests, a steel dashboard and hard-charging V-8 that meant no good business for a 16-year-old rock hound unleashed.

It fell to me that summer evening to make the rounds, picking up friends who exist today only in long-haired photos in musty high school yearbooks. Absorbing the usual admonitions from my mother and walking out the door, I remembered to grab my Polaroid camera.

Forty-nine years ago, the drive from Napa to Sonoma was distinctly a country drive, especially at night. Sudden curves wound through John Muir’s forests, and undulating threads dipped and fell over endless vineyards. On concert nights, it could be counted on that most if not all the traffic was headed west, towards Sonoma, the Wine Country’s biggest little city.