Flight of a Lifetime:
Bob Harvey on His Adventures with Jefferson Airplane and Beyond
When my friend Amanda first told me that her cousin was an original member of Jefferson Airplane, and not only that but he lived in metro Atlanta, I was skeptical. The Airplane have always been one of my favorite West Coast bands of the 1960s, and I’ve read plenty of articles and books on them, but his name – Bob Harvey – didn’t ring a bell. Besides, why would he be living in Conyers, of all places? I had memories of an infamous con artist who was hanging around in Atlanta in the late ’80s claiming to be Jerry Nolan, drummer of the New York Dolls. Having no reason to doubt him – why would anyone pick Jerry Nolan to impersonate? – many of us in the scene believed him until several years later when Nolan died, and yet the guy claiming to be him was still seen around Atlanta! Eventually, Sylvain Sylvain actually did move to Atlanta, making the whole story even stranger.
But Bob Harvey is the real deal. He was indeed an original member of Jefferson Airplane, playing bass in the nascent, groundbreaking group for close to a year. Though he’s not on their debut album, he played on the Columbia Records demos that would later interest RCA, and performed with the band at their earliest shows at Marty Balin’s club The Matrix, as well as at what was among the earliest of San Francisco’s LSD-saturated rock ‘n’ roll dance parties.
Although his stint in the Airplane was brief, his involvement in the growing West Coast folk and psychedelic scene was only beginning, and his subsequent experiences are arguably even more interesting. (He was even still recording and playing regularly around the Atlanta area – and California – with a bluegrass group called Georgia Blue for a period several years ago.) I first met Bob a little over a year ago, and again – this time with a digital recorder in hand – just last month, the day after he turned 80 years old. It’s my pleasure to offer you some of the highlights of that two-hour conversation…
How did you first get started as a musician, Bob?
“Seattle Christian School, I became the high tenor for their gospel quartet that went out every Sunday with the headmaster of the school to different churches to raise money. That’s where I learned – and loved – four-part harmony. And then, in the Navy, I gravitated to country players, because I had a chance to sing harmony and it was on a level that I could relate to easily, because everything was E, A and G. So I hung out with the country people aboard the ship, and sang harmony to everything that they were doing. This was the Korean War, and I got stationed in the Philippines with a squadron after I got through with being aboard ship. I had a ventriloquist act, and was putting on shows at the officer’s club at Clark Air Base. The pay was good. One night I put on a show at Sangley Point Naval Air Station, and got a note backstage after the show from the commanding officer: ‘Would you come to our table? We’ve got a seat for you here.’ I go out there and I’m introduced to his friend, who owns an advertising agency in Manila. He had a client, Panda Corn Syrup, who wanted a ventriloquist, and there wasn’t one in the Philippines. So he asked the commanding officer if he could use me. What he didn’t realize was that an enlisted man in a foreign country never can work a job and get paid money. Well, the commanding officer put in a request for me, and it went through the senator from Washington State, and I was given special permission because they decided it was good PR for the Navy – “A sailor having a television show on Manila TV? Yes, we like that a lot.’ So they built a panda bear dummy, and I’d sing the songs – they had a cheat board up for me so I could read the lyrics. I still know many of them, and any time that I see a Filipino, especially in an elevator, I’d start singing a Tagalog song, and they’ll go, ‘Wow! Where in the world did you ever learn that?’ I had that show for a year, getting paid a thousand pesos a week, and I had free gangway liberty. But the thing is, that producer that gave me the TV show also gave me a recording contract in the Philippines. I had a friend in my unit who I was singing country songs with, and we recorded in the Philippines, and it was put out on a tiny label called Gibson Records because we were both playing Gibson instruments, and the first song out was called ‘Be My Doll.’ I have it in a 78. That’s where I first got started, in Manila. I was playing banjo.”
After you got back to the States, you kept playing?
“We were living in Burlingame, California, and going to the First Baptist Church. I was married, and we were in the young people’s group, and the pastor was sitting at the back – he wasn’t leading it, he just wanted to listen to what was going on. And I talked about singing and playing my instrument in the Philippines and recording. He came up to me afterwards, and said, ‘We’ve just opened up a restaurant in downtown Burlingame called the Golden Lamp, and it’s our outreach to young people. We want you to hold hootenannies on Friday night, and draw people in, and we’ll take it from there.’ The guys in Big Brother and the Holding Company, they went to college with me at San Mateo. And they were the first ones there [at the hootenannies] with me.”
This was early ‘60s?
“Yeah, ’62, ’63. Well, I ran into a five-string banjo player, and a flat picker, who was singing harmony on Friday nights at the hoots, and I said, ‘I’d sure like to sing with you guys.’ And they said, ‘We don’t need another singer, we need a bass player.’ So I went out to the nearest hockshop and found myself a C. Meisel for $200. And if I had that C. Meisel now, it would be worth about $28,000. It got stolen somewhere along the way. Anyway, we started a bluegrass band called the Slippery Rock String Band (pictured upper left), and we picked it ‘cause [one of us] stuck his finger on Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania on the map, and said, ‘That’s our name – Slippery Rock String Band!’ And we eventually went with Bob Hope to Vietnam, and immediately had somebody come up and say, ‘I’m from Slippery Rock! Are you guys really from Slippery Rock?!’”
And of course you said yes.
“Yes! ‘Born and raised!’ Some of the best marijuana I ever smoked in my life was in Vietnam in a tent sitting around with a bunch of enlisted men, and a couple officers went through while we were sitting there smoking, and nobody paid attention to anything because that was at a time when it was being winked at, at that point. But that was a window of time that didn’t last long. They called it black ganja, and they told me where to get it downtown, and I got a coffee can, full, for fifteen dollars. And I filled my upright bass three quarters full of black ganja, and we didn’t get checked on the plane coming back. We were with the Bob Hope show!”
And then you started going to San Francisco State?
“’Yeah, ‘63 and ’64. The Slippery Rock String Band was appearing in North Beach. Coffee ‘n’ Confusion, the Coffee Gallery – these were folk music places, and you played for ten dollars a man, and you had to do twelve to fourteen sets a night. And you had to pay for your own coffee! (laughs) But that wasn’t where we wanted to be. Where we wanted to be was where the best musicians in town hung out, which was the Drinking Gourd, a bar. That was where Marty Balin and Paul Kantner hung out. So we went to open mic nights, hootenanny nights, for almost a year, and finally somebody got sick and couldn’t show up for the gig, and I got the call. We got the gig, and it became our night – we got Friday nights at the Drinking Gourd, which was top of the mark. [One night] I walk past a table where Marty and Paul were sitting, and Marty said to Paul, ‘I want it to be a folk-rock band…’ And I backed up and I said, ‘Can I play bass?’ He said, ‘Well, come over to my apartment tomorrow and we’ll see if it works.’ That’s how I got in Jefferson Airplane. It didn’t have a name then. It was just an idea.”
What were those first practices like?
“They were doing folk musicians’ music. The ones that were well known in San Francisco. Marty would pick their songs, and we were doing it. We were mostly picking local folk musicians that Marty knew.”
And Marty had already been recording at that point.
“Oh, yes. Jerry Peloquin was the drummer, and Signe Toly [Anderson] was singing. She was from Portland. Her brother worked at the Drinking Gourd, he was the bouncer. She later left the band after she got pregnant and wouldn’t give up the baby. She got married and moved back to Portland. But she would still fill in whenever Grace wasn’t available, which happened fairly regularly. Grace was such a prima donna. She was an asshole. Signe was the better singer, and a better person. The better everything!”
Your first shows were at the Matrix, a San Francisco club that Marty had some involvement in.
“Marty had these Jewish dentists who wanted to get their money going in another direction, and so he talked them into stating the Matrix. They came up with the money, and the band were part owners. I was a part owner of the Matrix. And we played at the Matrix five days a week, and then six days a week, and never got paid a dime, because we were ‘part owners’! I never saw any of that money.”
I’m sure Marty did.
“Oh, yeah (laughs).”
One of the first shows Jefferson Airplane played outside of the Matrix was the Family Dog’s first promotion, “A Tribute to Dr. Strange: A Rock and Roll Dance Party” at Longshoreman’s Hall in Fisherman’s Wharf on October 16th, 1965. Alongside The Great Society, The Charlatans and The Marbles, it turned out to be a huge acid party. What was that scene like? Were people just walking in blind and drinking the punch and getting stoned?
“Yes! The Great Society with Grace Slick was our opening band. That night is when she and Paul Kantner got together. [Ken] Kesey was there. The poster [for the show] was the very first psychedelic poster. I colored it on acid. It was in black & white, it was just an 8 x 10 black & white flyer. I spent 12 hours on that sucker, on acid. The thing about San Francisco, it was so original, and so totally different. Nobody did what San Francisco did. ‘Cause that show, we were blowing people’s minds. I don’t think they’d ever seen a band onstage where the band was high, we were on acid on stage, and most of the people in the crowd were on acid, and didn’t know it.”
They had no idea the punch was laced?
“Oh, no. Purposely laced punch.”
Whose idea was that?
“Grace. Absolutely. She made sure that Kesey was there, and it was her idea to lace the punch with acid. Just like it was her idea to go do it to the president! If they had ever let her into the White House, it would’ve been a total mind-fuck. The President of the United States, tripping!”
That was the first night you met her, and you were tripping – what was your first impression of her?
“She was gorgeous! She was a doll. She was thin and trim, pretty face, great eyes, nice hair. And a good singer. She had it. And she brought hit songs with her, for crying out loud! And Paul Kantner, he saw that comin’. He wanted her in the band, bad. He engineered Jorma [Kaukonen] being in the band, and he was going to engineer her.”
So Signe was going to be edged out anyway? The baby thing was just an excuse?
“Absolutely. But listen to that demo. And the sound is already there.”
Right, you recorded a five-song demo for Columbia Records pretty early on.
“Matthew Kates, our manager, he paid for the demo to be made at Columbia. He still owns that demo. And he paid Jack Casady for my playing on it! He paid Jack Casady a thousand dollars and he wasn’t on it. Columbia didn’t want anything to do with it, so Matthew went to his good friend Mort Weiner at RCA. They grew up together. And it was shuffled right in. I was shoved out before we signed. I was a few days shy of that. Because Jorma wanted his high school friend Jack Casady. They had had a band in high school in D.C. and they fired me and brought Jack in. But Jack’s a fine bass player. Lead bass.”
What were your feelings, then, after that whole experience of being edged out of the Airplane? Did you still want to play music?
“Oh yeah! That set me on fire. Right after the Airplane I went back to the bluegrass band, reformed it, and we moved to Los Angeles because the Dillards’ manager was in Los Angeles, and he liked us. And the Dillards left him, and we signed with him, and he started getting us jobs all around the country. So it was a good move for us. Plus he had [connections at] all those L.A. nightclubs – the Ice House in Pasadena, and the Golden Bear, Troubadour, all those places that we got to play.”
Tell me about your group with Paul Williams.
“Well, I went to a Manson party. Manson’s girls, his hangers on, all of them didn’t live out on the ranch. A lot of them lived in Hollywood, and had jobs. And they would have parties at their house. I was invited [to one], and that’s where I met Paul Williams. He had been writing with Manson, they had been writing songs together. And Paul had as big an ego as Manson did! And it didn’t work well, because Manson wouldn’t put up with his shit.”
Was Charles Manson at this particular party?
“Just momentarily. But I was busy talking to Paul. Because I found out that he was writing, and had a writing contract with White Whale Records, and I went, ‘Ooh, I can dig that. I’d like to do that too.’ So I was listening to everything he told me. He was telling me about all his adventures making a movie with Jonathan Winters, The Loved One. I’ll be the first to have to admit to you that he’s a talented human being. He can do stuff as a writer that is phenomenal. He had people telling him, ‘Here’s what the song is about, and we need it in 30 minutes.’ And he could go do it! I couldn’t. By hanging out with him, I had a chance to do that for White Whale, and I couldn’t come up with it. I’d have a mental block. But Paul and I had a band called The Holy Mackerel that had an album on Warner Bros. I was on the whole recording [but] I quit before the album came out.”
And let me guess – you didn’t get paid.
“No (laughs). We had to babysit Tiny Tim at our recording sessions. Because our producer [Richard Perry] was his producer. [Tim] had the mentality of a 12-year-old. He just wasn’t all there. The thing is, you’d give him a script, and he was beautiful. He was on it. But get him in a real life situation, and he was just a nut job. Richard would tell him, ‘Get the fuck out of this recording session! Go sit on the stairs!!’ And he would take his ukulele and go sit on the stairs and sing his little songs.”
For a while, you were taking photographs of nude models.
“I was photographing them and selling them to Golden State News [a publisher/distributor of low budget sex mags]. I needed money. I’ve been into cameras since the ‘50s. So I’d go down to Hollywood Boulevard and see a guy and his girlfriend and say, ‘Hey! You need ten bucks? I’ll give you ten bucks an hour!’ And I only used ‘em for 40 minutes. And I’d sell the pictures for $200… My kids went to L.A. Free School, where anything went. I would take nude models into L.A. Free School and photograph them in a classroom, while the class was going on! And the teachers loved it. The thing is, I taught there, biology. This was ’68. Private school for rich hippies. Zappa’s kids went there. Don Preston’s kids went there – he was the keyboard player for the Mothers of Invention. His son and daughter were my son’s best friends.”
You ended up working with Don on some low-budget movie soundtracks, and starred in some. How did that happen?
“[Porn director] Jack Genero was making nudies and B-movies like crazy. And he wanted music, but he didn’t wanna pay for it. So what he talked me into doing was he would give me ten hours of recording time if I would write the music, and record it, and then he would pay me to get ten hours of recording time that I could do what I wanted. And I was starving to death, and couldn’t afford recording time, so I went, ‘Yeah, I’ll go for that!’ I was gonna put out demos and try and sell ’em to some label. And if I have to act in [the movies], that’s alright too! Don and I did three together. The best is called Hard Ride to the Movies. We recorded it in Zappa’s studio, with Zappa’s musicians. It was a great soundtrack! Far better than the movie, because the movie was a low budget crap. I played the leader of a biker gang in San Francisco, and we read in Variety that they were making a biker movie in Los Angeles, and that there were no bikers involved. So we got highly irate and got on our bikes and rode all the way to Los Angeles, drove through the barrier, knocked it down at the studio where they were filming, and went in and threw all the pretend actors out and told ’em they were gonna make it with us. That’s the plot of the movie. It’s a very thin plot. In another movie called The Commune, I play a Charles Manson-like cult leader and I’ve got a Thompson submachine gun, and I’m nude, running through the desert, and I’ve got 20 chicks with me. And there was one called He and She, and the theme song that I wrote for that movie went, ‘Your smile has the rush of an erection…’”
So these were borderline porn films?
“Yeah. But there was no actual intercourse going on. It just looked like it. We filmed most of it in hotel rooms (laughs). Holiday Inn.”
And then you became a truck driver?
“Well, when I graduated from California State University in Los Angeles in December ’76 and got my B.A. in journalism, I got a job at the Downey Daily Signal. And they were too far right. I only lasted about two months, and I was fired. I wasn’t gonna toe their line, I was trying to say it like it was. So I went to a truck driving school, and paid $300 and got my Class 1 license and started driving 18-wheelers for a living… [On one trip], we came down the hill into Albuquerque and went to the Husky Truck Stop. My co-driver was chasing girls in the parking lot, and I was sleeping in the sleeper, and he came bangin’ on the door, he said, ‘Hey! I know you wanna be a writer – well, look what I got!’ And there was a convertible with five foxy looking girls passing out the first copy of Mother Trucker News. The very first issue. And I said, ‘Ooh, I’ve found a home!’ I headed for the office in San Bernardino, and pulled up, and parked right in front of all the cars that were parked there, ran in and said, ‘You’ve gotta hire me!’ And he said, ‘We don’t need writers, we need ad salesmen.’ I said, ‘If I sell ads, you’ll print my writing, right?’ I quit driving the truck immediately and hooked up with Mother Trucker, and I saw what they needed. They needed something bad. ‘Cause with a name like Mother Trucker, where the logo was a naked chick straddled over a Peterbilt, I mean, they were not selling advertising to the people they needed to sell it to. Peterbilt was not buying it. Kenworth wasn’t buying it. I went to Mort Weiner at RCA, and I said, ‘You’re just coming out with Waylon & Willie, right? He said, ‘Yep. Whatcha got?’ I said, ‘Truckers. They love country & western, and you aren’t attacking that market. At all! You need a full page ad in Mother Trucker, and you will sell some albums!’ And he did – he gave me a black & white one-page ad, and sold a lot of albums in truck stops. And that was the first real advertising that Mother Trucker ever got. And once RCA was advertising, the other labels were like, ‘If RCA’s going, we’re going.’ And suddenly, we became American Trucker Magazine, and threw the tits out. I became Entertainment Editor. The next album Willie Nelson put out, I was at the recording session, took pictures of him smokin’ a doobie…”
Great way to bring your life back into music after drifting out of it. And country music, too, which is how you started. How’d you eventually end up in Georgia?
“While I was Entertainment Editor at American Trucker, truck racing started happening. I did a couple of stories on Great American Truck Racing, and when American Trucker got bought out by a conglomerate, and they just wanted to kill it – and they did kill it – I became director of public relations for Great American Truck Racing. Which sounds very fancy, but all it really meant was that I was going to every city where there was going to be a race ahead of time, and hiring salesmen to go out and sell ads for the damn race program. But anyway, I got hired here in Atlanta, because this was the home of Great American Truck Racing. But I was gone seven months out of the year. And my wife said, ‘If you wanna come home and find anybody here, you better find a new job.’ So I looked in the newspaper, and HUD was hiring appraisers. This was in the ‘80s when the boom was happening. Real estate was king. An average civilian appraiser was making $150,000 to $200,000 a year, and he wasn’t about to take a job with HUD that started at $13,000. So I walked in said, ‘Can I have a job here?’ ‘What’s your background in real estate?’ ‘Oh, I’m a writer.’ ‘What makes you think that’s gonna equate to this?’ I said, ‘Well, when I go out to do a story, it’s so that someone who’s never seen what I’m writing about understands what I’m talking about in the story. You want me to go out and write about a house so that somebody that’s never seen the house can understand what the house is worth. Right?’ ‘Okay. We’ll buy it.’ So they sent me to appraiser’s school in Chicago, and by the end of the first year, I was up to about $25,000. By the end of the second year, I was up to $50,000. Then when the dump came, I was in, and everybody else wanted to get in, but they weren’t hiring! I have had a thing in my life of being in the right place at the right time.”
Thanks to David T. Lindsay and Lee Morin for their contributions to this interview.