11/29/2012 05:57 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

From San Fran '60s -- Haight-Ashbury Chicks

When I stood outside the door of Francine's Waller Street pad that night in June 1966, I was desperate and anxious.

We grew-up together in the same redneck Sierra mill town where she was one of my oldest closest friends, and when I visited her about six months before, she had invited me to move into her pad. But I hadn't seen her in those six months and suppose she had forgotten the invitation or now didn't have enough room? My first year of college had just ended and I couldn't afford my own apartment, and the only alternative was going back among the rednecks, which I couldn't possibly do, even just for the summer.

So, standing at the bottom of the windy crevasse between two close apartment buildings, I knocked on the door of Francine's illegal basement apartment.

She swung it open and I timidly said, "Hi!"

"Hi!" she cried, a smile instantly replacing a scowl. "What's happenin' man?!" She hugged me, and then as we parted said, "C'mon in."

I followed her in, reassured, somewhat, by the smile and the hug.

"I would have called but you don't have a phone," I said. "Classes ended at St. Mary's weeks ago and everybody left and I've been sort of ...camped out in my old dorm room."

We were standing in the livingroom, its white walls lit by a bare bulb in a ceiling a couple inches above my head.

"No shit?" she asked with a laugh as she sat in a creaky, threadbare recliner chair. "They let you do that?"

"Not exactly," I said, sitting on the swaybacked sofa. "But nobody's said anything... It's weird ... Anyway, I have to leave. There's going to be a convention or something. A groundskeeper told me yesterday. Any day now I'm going to be surrounded by hundreds of nuns."

She laughed her signature whinny and repeated, "Nuns?!"

Hanging over a doorway opposite the front door was a bedspread that parted and a short, drowsy guy with tousled brown hair emerged and stopped, staring at me.

Francine introduced him as Ralph.

"We went to school together," she told him about me. "We were the resident weirdos of Tuolumne High School," she said as if reading a trophy inscription. Then she added, "He's moving in."

Gushing relief and gratitude, I shook hands with Ralph, who grinned uncertainly.

"That's... that's groovy," he said.

I took note of "groovy." I was hearing it with increasing frequency.

Ralph was her lover of just a few weeks. Her immediately previous lover, Mike, who stayed on as a roommate hoping to change her mind, was working his shift at the Blue Unicorn Coffeehouse. Her husband, Ralph's best friend, had just gone AWOL from the army as his unit was sent to Vietnam and he was expected any day to pick up Francine on his way to Canada. Hence Ralph's uncertainty...

... In the coming months I would meet chicks like Francine all over Haight-Ashbury. They weren't shaving their legs or armpits, had doffed girdles and bras, and were getting comfortable in public and didn't give a damn about the wobble under their clothes. They were throwing away what men everywhere were trying to steal. And they had black lovers. Francine had had several. It was a litmus test for hip. No truly hip white chick would reject a black man solely because he was black, and no truly hip white cat would think less of a chick because she had had a black lover...

... Another of those sexy Haight-Ashbury chicks was Janis Joplin. In one of the earliest of the free rock concerts in the Panhandle, I saw an unknown group called Big Brother and the Holding Company. Usually a flat bed truck was the stage but on this overcast day the band was on the ground. The restless crowd flowed around and even between the musicians as they played. I was circulating too until I stopped in mid stride and turned around to watch the lead singer. Her long brown hair and purple shawl flared as she whooped and swayed to the music, tearing off notes oh so delicately and wringing her face into the microphone.

Gradually everyone realized there was a band somewhere among them and settled down and started watching her. After the usual poker-faced guitarists and wind-up Mick Jaggers, we weren't sure at first what to make of someone bleeding in public like that. She played the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms a few times and then the first "I Love Janis" lapel buttons started appearing.

It was about six months after that first concert that I saw her again in the Panhandle. She was still only a local star but clearly going to hit nationally. She was kissing another local star, Country Joe MacDonald. They parted and he crossed Oak Street and she continued toward the stage, right behind myself and two friends. Normally I wouldn't smoke grass in public but the crowd provided enough cover so my friends and I were passing a joint.

"Hey people! What are you up to up there?" came from behind us.

We turned toward the voice and she pulled up at my right shoulder and I handed her the joint. She was in love, or blissfully happy anyway.

"Are you playing today?" I asked.

She nodded and said through a held toke, "'Bout three..."

She exhaled and said, "Hey!" to a friend heading in the opposite direction. She handed back the joint and joined the friend.

I saw her often on Haight Street wearing some flamboyant thrift-store collage, and when she started appearing on TV, especially the Dick Cavette talk show, we were proud when she wore her Haight Street costumes. In that setting, in her boas and dyed plumes, she was like a rare tropical bird. She was just as rare, in that setting, for her absolute integrity and intellectual sophistication and radiant charm.

Once she was the only one on the show besides Cavette who had read the current best seller Zelda about Scott Fitzgerald's wife, and you could see Cavette's attitude toward Janis change, so that after she died a couple months later, he gave a somber, stricken speech about her at the beginning of a show.

There's more from San Fran '60s at