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If one building focused The Sons at the start of the seventies, it was The Church, 1405 San Anselmo Avenue, San Anselmo. I spent a lot of time in that building, where two of the Sons' albums were recorded.
The building dated from just after the turn of the century, one of the oldest buildings in San Anselmo. It had originally stood alone on a sunny slope a hundred yards from a train stop called Lansdale Station, a typical tiny church sanctuary for a town whose residents must have then numbered in the hundreds. Over the years a neighborhood had grown up around it and a school was built across the street. The trains quit running in 1950, and parking started to be a problem for the small church.
The original structure was one large room for services, perhaps forty by twenty-five feet, with a high, vaulted ceiling, large enough for a congregation of fifty or sixty. By the time I saw it, this had been converted to living quarters, because The Church had expanded.
Above: Julie Salles, me and Tony Black in the stairwell of The Church
When the congregation outgrew the original building, a larger sanctuary was built on one side of the original building, ruining the architecture and complicating the drainage off the hillside. In 1969 the building went on the market, and three partners, Bruce Walford, Paul Stubblebine and Alan Rockefeller scraped together the $19,000 to purchase the building. Their idea was to build a studio in the big room. Bruce Walford had engineered the Sons' first album, and Paul Stubblebine had worked with Bruce to build the Sons' first sound system.
Alan and his family took up residence in the old part of the building, and work started in the sanctuary. A wall was built even with the end of the choir loft, and in the loft a double pane window of heavy butcher display-case plate glass was installed, and an eight-track Ampex machine the size of a refrigerator hoisted up through the window before it was sealed. A mixing board was installed in the loft, and mike cables strung through the floor of the loft to the main floor. The floor below the loft was turned into shop and storage space, and the rest of the big room was the studio. With limited circulation, the loft could get really hot, when four or five people got together in it along with the tape machines and amplifiers.
All the time this was going on, I was living in various parts of the building. It was a honeycomb of small rooms, and over the next few years I lived in three of them. As long as I worked on the building, no one minded me living in whatever part kept me out of the way. That was cheap enough rent, since I was dragging down a regular $30 a week as a part-time sound guy at The Lion's Share and riding my bicycle virtually all day every day.
After the recording gear was installed, the band finished its three album contract with a leisurely session. Capitol had given up on The Sons, everyone knew that they were toast, but they DID have the right to finish the contract, even if the company was going to throw the album away as soon as it was done.
So over a period of several weeks, "Follow Your Heart" was recorded. The entire band, now minus Tim Cain, was almost never assembled at any one time. Bill and Geoff played a lot of the drums and bass on it, leaving Bowen and Strong off several tracks entirely, not exactly a roaring vote of confidence. Bill played my cheap Japanese classical guitar on one track, bought for $62 in Phoenix in 1967, probably the funkiest instrument he ever recorded with, and I don't mean funky-good. Anne Hatch did the artwork, working in another room of the building. Gary Phillippet and Bruce Brymer came by and sang lead on a track. An album happened, was released and forgotten, although two of the songs on it managed to get back on the playlist in 2001 (Follow Your Heart and Hey, Children).
I lived in and around The Church for another several years. Any correspondence to The Sons arrived there, and in the absence of anyone else, I sometimes answered it. My associate in these activities was Julie Salles, who had arrived on the scene in 1969 as Bill's teenage babysitter and then become our secretary and the only female member of the ten or so people who formed the hardest core of the band. She and I were all that passed for management, and that would be stretching the term. I didn't care to manage, all I wanted to do was get the gear wherever it needed to be. Management is for people who want stress. The guys did not care to hear from me about what they should do. Equipment is goal-oriented, and you get to accomplish the goal on a daily basis, which suited me fine. The band needed at least one roadie, but it had a tendency to eat managers. As long as I kept showing up and didn't burn the gear or wreck the truck, the job would be mine. Julie was great on the phone, using charm instead of money to get what the band needed at that moment, and since she didn't type, hand-writing whatever correspondence was necessary.
Even when it wasn't being used for recording, The Church was a great practice hall. While I lived there both Boz Skaggs and Van Morrison played there, and it was just on the other side of a wall from my room. When girls came to visit, I didn't need a stereo, because I had Van Morrison live a few feet away.
I gotta say something about Fido. Fido was the mascot, the symbol of The Church. Fido was a cat, but he was a lot more than that. He was the toughest cat in the neighborhood, an un-neutered tomcat with the shoulders of a wrestler, a few scars around the ears, and an appetite for rodents. We needed Fido, because the place was overrun with rats, and Fido saw the rambling buildings as the best territory a tomcat could ever stake out. Fido showed up, said hi, I'm here for the rats, I don't like you very much, I'm gonna spray in the corner of the living room, feed me.
The rats were history.
At least one rat committed suicide, probably because Fido customarily ate everything but the head and left that at the kill site. Fido was a predator, but he was also part poet.
In the big room that had once been the sanctuary but was now part of the living quarters, Fido came and went at will, in the most dramatic fashion. The huge window followed the lines of the vaulted ceiling, arching to a point ten or eleven feet off the floor. At the top a single pane had broken out, and since it was in a very awkward place to repair, it wasn't fixed. That was Fido's door. When he entered, he poked his head in the empty pane, looked around, then dropped straight down, bouncing off the window sill about three feet off the floor. THUD!
Leaving was even more dramatic. Fido would sit at the bottom of the window, looking up, then he would leap straight up, gather for an instant at the sill, then cover another six or more vertical feet of glass to hook his front feet on the wooden framework of the top panes, reach up and hook his back feet and give one more jump to the open pane. Three moves, all in about a second, straight up with no real purchase. People couldn't believe it when they first saw it. I can't imagine how he ever figured out how to do it, or if he ever missed before he got it down.
One night it we were hunkered down in a huge storm, and Fido started acting really weird. Alan said, "He's gonna shit in here, I know it." So he scooped up Fido and threw him out the side window, into the howling storm. No more than a minute later, Fido appears, at the top of the big window. "What, you guys think you can keep me out?" He must have run straight to that point, since it was quite a distance from where he had been thrown out. Fido made his typical entrance, dropping like a velvet rock, then he spit out the dead rat he had somehow killed in his one minute sojourn across the roof in the rain, "Hey, look what I do for you, too."
The winter of 1970-71 I earned my rent the hard way. The drainage behind the building was completely clogged, and water came in the back of the studio right through the cinder-block wall, across the floor to the front door and down the stairs to the street. We had to dig the collapsed hillside away from the back wall, build a retaining wall, and somehow route the water around the building. And it wasn't like we could wait for good weather to do it.
We worked in pouring rain, standing in a foot of water, running a Skilsaw in a violation of every known law of electricity. We built a wall and shoveled liquid mud over it. It was not a triumph of engineering, but it was a triumph of will. We saved our building so it could be sold to some new sucker before the bills came due. You can build a lot of good will, which equals a place to live, if you are willing to do that and not ask for money. So I did.
While I was living there Bruce Walford was approached by an avant-gard musician who wanted to assemble an album of about 150 splices, from a dozen or so reels of eight-track tapes made by jazz players. He needed a place with an eight-track and editing capabilities, and would pay $25 an hour to use the control room. Bruce didn't want to do it, but I accepted the job, giving Bruce $10 an hour for the studio time and keeping $15 an hour for myself.
The editing session took place in a single marathon of over 30 straight hours, as I ran the big tape machine and we listened for the few seconds he had chosen out of an hour session, then we would cut and splice a bit of the two-inch eight-track tape onto the master reel. I made about $500 in a day and a half, the best payday I had ever had and enough to purchase my first lightweight bicycle.
After a couple of years living in the Church I moved to the house behind it on the same property, which I rented from the Church owners for a couple more years until the building was sold again. In all I lived on the property for about four years. Who knew it would sound like such an adventure years later?
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