Mitchell Holman – April 30th, 2009

GEDC0163I met with Mitchell a couple of weeks ago at his home just north of Philo on Hwy 128. With the living room full of musical and sound equipment, we sat down to talk at the kitchen table with a delicious glass of fresh grapefruit juice each…

Mitchell was born in 1949 in Denver, Colorado to a family of almost exclusive Irish heritage. It was a case of Mitchell-in-the-middle with two older and two younger siblings. His mother, Thelma, was a homemaker whilst his father, Jack, was in sales, mainly of sporting goods and he was a very knowledgeable hunter and fisherman, even hosting his own radio show on these topics. “I loved my Dad and gained a passion for fishing from him. However, he would die a frustrated man. He was also homophobic and racist. In his words, the worse thing I could have been was a ‘fag’ or a ‘nigger’.“

When Mitchell was eight the family moved to the L.A. suburban sprawl outside Los Angeles, returning to Denver a couple of years later for two years when Mitchell’s grandfather was ill. “Denver was so prejudiced at that time – a very racist community, and so when we returned to the San Fernando Valley near to L.A. again it was great. L.A. was so progressive, it was exploding.” Mitchell attended Monroe High School but didn’t really like it and often cut classes. Over a few years in the early to mid-sixties the graduation rate fell from 98% to 65%, although Mitchell was one of those who did get through. “Everyone was rebelling against the system. They hypocrisy of the teachers, of our parents generation, and of so many of those who had gone before us, blew us away. Were we at school to be educated or was it so that we could be judged by the way we looked? Of course the drug scene had arrived and Mexican marijuana was everywhere but the teachers and cops were not really on to it at that point. It was good, ‘happy’ weed – the biggest consequence of smoking it was the pain in your jaw from laughing.”

Mitchell was an outcast and barely graduated on time in 1967. “I was very quiet and generally a loner but always had a close friend or two. We’d commit minor crimes – burglary of the school, garages, sheds. I learnt to drive whilst stealing cars. My mother had a job for a time at a dry cleaners and I’d get any ‘forgotten’ items. I wore turtleneck sweaters and a paisley tuxedo coat to school. My parents didn’t like it but what could they say? I was the best-dressed kid in the school!…I got into music when I was fourteen or so and played bass. It kept me from getting into any serious trouble and totally saved me as I had been pissed off at everything, particularly the older generation – they knew things were not right with the world but had not dealt with it and kept it stuffed away.”

“I did not attend my graduation ceremony and soon after, with a friend Val Fuentes, a drummer, we hitched to San Francisco where we found what seemed to be about a million other kids who thought like we did. It was the summer of 1967 and something was definitely bubbling as we moved into the Panhandle area. Val and I played music at various coffee houses and a guy called Smitty told us that a band needed a bass player and a drummer. They were Dave and Linda La Flamme, Hal Waggoner, and Pattie Santos and we started playing together in the late summer. John Walker, a friend of Bill Graham, became our manager following our split with Matt Katz and we settled on the name ‘It’s a Beautiful Day’’ (I.B.D.). I guess we were the second wave as Electra had already signed The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, The Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, who were not very good to be honest but then they were fortunate to find Janis… C.B.S. now got involved and signed Santana, The Flock with John McLaughlin, Dr. John, and us. We shared a practice studio with Santana and hung out with those guys, The Youngbloods, Taj Mahal, and Ritchie Havens too – I still get a hug and a kiss from Ritchie when I see him…We went up to Seattle to play a few gigs and lived in a big mansion there before we came back and began to play the bigger S.F. venues such as The Fillmore, The Avalon, and The Matrix and toured the country appearing at festival after festival. It was that time, man.”

It was a time of rapid development on the technical side of the music scene and Mitchell was very interested in this aspect. “The sound systems were very basic at the beginning. Everything was new and the logistics of putting on these festivals were in their infant stage. The cops didn’t know how to police them, the toilet situation was primitive – the whole scene was being born. We played at the Atlanta Pop Festival and 350,000 people were there – many never actually got to the venue. We stayed at the Holiday Inn where the pool’s water was brown with dust from people all jumping in as they passed by and we were flown into the arena by helicopter over the masses of people trying to get in.”

I.B.D. signed a three-album deal with C.B.S. and their first one consisted of seven songs, including their signature tune and big hit, ‘White Bird’, which reached #1 in several States. ‘It was the days of the long jam and we could play three songs that took one-and-a half hours…With FM radio coming in that was cheap to set up, this new music was being heard for the first time all over the country. In S.F. it was on KMPX that also introduced the likes of B.B. King and Miles Davis to people who had never heard of them. It was a ton of new stuff with very few ads. However, it didn’t take long until big business got hip to this whole thing and then it really exploded but more commercialism crept in and soon it was all fucked up.”

By late 1968, Mitchell was living in the Potrero Hill district of S.F. but things were not going well within the band. “Dave, who was the acknowledged leader of the band, was very volatile and he was not good with money. Then it turned out he had stolen some songs. Soon he and Linda had split up and she left the band, being replaced by Fred Webb on keyboards – he was outrageous and very bi – he’d fuck anyone, which in those days was an asset I suppose…We had been a ‘family’ band and had lived together all through those days but when the first album credited all the songs to Dave and Linda, which was not true, tension began to creep in. The Grateful Dead went through similar growing pains and were ready to kill each other. In their case they took a break for a time and came back strong. We tried to stick together but had little guidance from management or the record company and we sort of self-destructed. We were like babes in the woods – I wasn’t even twenty years old. We had signed a good contract – 10% for us – but they managed to rip us off. For example,10.000 promo copies of a record for which we got nothing? – there were only 500 radio stations – stuff like that. We thought about taking them to court but we’d get no empathy there – in the judges’ eyes our sort were ruining their town and getting their daughters pregnant!”

“It had been a beautiful thing for a couple of years. In those times you could put the word out that there was going to be a concert in the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park and the news would spread like wildfire. Thousands would turn up and there’d be no problems. There were few police and the whole place would be completely cleaned up afterwards so I hope we didn’t mess up the town too much…By 1969 speed, cocaine, and alcohol had begun to come into the scene in a big way and then all these gawkers from L.A. etc started to arrive – just to get laid in most cases. This was not what it was about…The Altamont thing was pretty much the end. Grace Slick on stage screeching like a banshee didn’t help matters and of course having the Hell’s Angels to police the event was not a good plan!…In 1970 we played a concert in Golden Gate Park and it got nasty. There was a big fight; someone stole my bike – a B.S.A 500. It was as if a big shock wave then spread through the community – the realization that it was all over”…

“Basically, the hippy thing, the whole movement, was about ecology; to get society back on track to help the Earth. Free expression had arrived, sex was not a taboo, and the pill was here. It had been a hard change in direction and I personally never felt I had a choice – I was so disappointed in those who had gone before me.”

The band toured in 1971 but the end was near. “The cocaine thing was bad. People were very intense and uptight, destructively playing on stage. I’d come off stage and people would want to fight. In the early days there was none of that. The acid was great, and the mescaline trips and the marijuana of course but now it was very different. Our friends tried to talk us out of it but Hal and I left – it was not beautiful anymore.”

Later Mitchell was to learn that the manager, John Walker, had also ripped him off. “That was too bad. We were pals and to this day we never have sorted that whole thing out. He claimed it was Dave who had ripped everyone off – when you are in a band you don’t think to look there but Dave was losing it. He even claimed that our big hit, ‘White Bird’ was about birds in Aspen trees – it wasn’t. I know it was about a cook who was with us in Seattle who had been in a fire and had burns on her face – all of us wrote it.”

Around this time Mitchell had met and fallen in love with Lydia, the manager’s former girlfriend, and soon after they had a daughter, Eva…By mid-1971, Hal and Mitchell had formed a band with Tim Dawe called The Natural Act Band but it never really found its identity and the record companies were not interested. During these years Mitchell lived off his earnings from his ‘It’s a Beautiful Day’ days and then in 1974 he left the group, although he was to return two years later and produced an album for the band entitled ‘Timothy and Ms Pickens with Natural Act’.

“I have played in band after band since those days but I am not polluted by trying to ‘make it’. I was in a punk band called The Minesweepers in S.F. – I told them I wanted $70 a gig and would play only a bowed bass. They agreed but it didn’t feel good if we made just $64 and they had to pay me the rest out of their pocket…I formed The Mitchell Holman Trio with my bass, a cello, and a sax and then there was Oreo with two black guys in the early eighties; a country band, and Eagles-type rock band, and then in 1985 I just stopped all together and went solo after finding a backer, Mike Weldon, who had previously been a producer of surf movies then soft porn. I did quite well for a time, earning $500 a week for a couple of years.”…

In the late eighties Mitchell met Jennifer Schmitt at Raven Restaurant in Healdsburg. “She was unique, very open, and we fell in love…I moved up to the area and that pretty much killed the deal with the backer, who died soon after anyway. Our son Jack was born in 1992 and soon after we moved to the Valley. Not long after arriving in Mendocino County, I formed Zen Snap with Larry Blackshire and Jennifer got a job as bartender/cook with her cousin Johnny who owned the Boonville Hotel and we lived on the property on the Clow homestead behind where I am now. I had been through the Valley a few times but now I really began to appreciate it. I found some work as a sound engineer for various shows both in the music and business world, such as the Banana Republic fashion show.”

Mitchell became very close to Bub and Eleanor Clow, despite coming from very different backgrounds and lifestyles, and eventually was offered the opportunity to buy the house he now lives in for a great price. “Realtor Mike Shapiro likes to say it was ‘the last good deal in the Valley’ and I’d have to agree with him.”…In 1999, whilst in Alaska, Mitchell met a “beautiful Italian woman” called Carol. They fell in love but it was very volatile relationship. They had a horrible break-up, got back together again,and were then married. It lasted three years. “She claimed she hated it here.”

For the past fifteen years Mitchell has been at the helm of sound engineering for a satellite radio station out of San Francisco, called West Coast Live. It was the first to go on the Internet and for two hours every Saturday it brings an eclectic mixture of entertainment to listeners. “We have a host and a piano player and have various musicians, authors, etc being interviewed and sharing their work. It has over sixty outlets and can be heard locally in Ft. Bragg and Gualala but not on the Valley’s KZYX & Z, for reasons I do not understand. We still go on the road with the show and were in Alaska last year where we managed to get two longtime opposing Indian Chiefs on the show together. They ended up tearfully hugging each other – their tribes had been ‘at war’ for seventy years.”

Mitchell has continued to work as a sound engineer for a variety of functions including The Valley’s Variety Show, The Film Festival, and the now defunct Wild Iris Festival, specializing in sound for outdoor events for perhaps as many as 1200 people. Other than that and the radio show, he always finds his handyman skills are in demand by a group of regular clients. ‘I can pretty much fix anything and I’m an expert electrician – you won’t even have to turn it off!” he adds with a wide grin. The radio show pays his bills and as far as his great passion, music, is concerned, “I feel as if I am coming of age again with my music – things are happening. We’ll see…”

I asked Mitchell about what he liked most about life here in the Valley. “It is the perfect climate and has a small community that always looks after its own. Sure there is a level of gossip but you can certainly be yourself up here…For me personally it is a little far from the City but I’ve made that work. I loved San Francisco but it went crazy. It’s coming back but I can’t see it regaining the soul it had during the hippy years. I love it here but I don’t know that I’ve found my place on Earth. I’m a nomad and don’t feel attached to land at all. Lately, I have being considering moving to Hawaii”…

Knowing Mitchell to be an intelligent man of strong opinions I wanted to ask him about his thoughts on various Valley issues and entities…The School System? – “Jack attended the Mountain Song grade school and learned a lot about life skills. You can knock the A.V.H.S but the biggest problem in my view is the kids not applying themselves. Unlike at the big school I attended, parents can solve or at least address problems by talking to the teacher, who will probably know personally…The school is great for the relationship with the Mexican community here. We can all learn from each other. We should be jealous of their sense of Family and learn from it – our sense of that is an old folks home. Learning each others language is surely a good thing and Jack has real friends in the Mexican community”…The wineries? – “I guess they’re kinda cute but they do not seem to be paying attention to the water situation. That’s very sad and the damage to our fisheries is a great concern. I suppose it’s better than liquor and wine-making has artistic merit but we do not need any more vineyards – too many are owned by assholes who do not live here and just take. They are not part of the community. A neighbor put in a pond last year for their vines and now the creek next to the property has dried up, gone…To answer you question about being Mayor that you sometimes ask, if I was Mayor there would be a local law that states that if you don’t live here for at least six months of the year then local people can move into your house and squat there. Lets’ get that on the ballot – it may not pass but it would be a wake-up call…I’d also introduce a pond tax – if you have a pond, you pay some taxes on it and that would pay for fish hatcheries and we’d have salmon here again. I strongly believe we should incorporate the Valley and have the ability to control the destiny of our unique situation here.”…

The local radio station – KZYX & Z? – “It was formed by inspired people but if it does not ‘grow’ it will die. It needs to embrace the times. Mendocino County is one of the most progressive places on the planet in its thinking and the radio station could be a much more effective part of that…I was the Station Manager for a time and feel very passionate about it. Let’s make it rock – let’s do something with this thing. It’s hard to change things I know and the leadership is set. I like Mary Aigner the program director but she is all-powerful – it’s Mary’s left-white radio station…I like some of the programming, particularly Fred Wooley on Sundays, but do we get to hear much of the new music out there? Radical and new thinkers should have a greater presence on our local public radio – so much could be achieved. In some ways it’s so poor. I don’t want to hear some guy say ‘it’s going to rain soon, certainly tomorrow’ when if he looked outside he would see it’s raining now! That sort of sums it all up, I guess”…

To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Mitchell many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…

What is your favorite word or phrase? – “I’ll go with ‘Let’ – as in ‘let it occur’.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “Err, let’s say ‘Can’t’ – I don’t like to hear that.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Improvisation.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Following the word, not the heart…Contrived things”…

What sound or noise do you love? – ‘Harmony”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Hummm”

What is your favorite curse word? – “Well I use lots but I do like ‘Darn it’ – I was arrested by a cop for nude swimming and he just couldn’t handle it, repeatedly saying ‘darn it’ as I stood there in front of him.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “Well there’s, ‘The Old Man and The Sea’ by Hemmingway; films, ‘Dr Zhivago’ and ‘The Matrix’; and song, ‘What a Wonderful World’ – how’s that?”

What is your favorite hobby? – “Music is my whole life but I suppose I do like Industrial Design – I spend a lot of time in my head re-designing the planet. I’ve never been bored in my whole life – I may be in line but I’m not waiting.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “An architect – I came real close at one point.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “Any nine-to-five would not be good…Nor would Radio Station Manager…”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “Childbirth – both Eva and Jack’s births saw me just ecstatic.”

What was the saddest? – “Just thinking about that question and I see a dark hole and don’t want to go there……I guess Bush’s victory the second time was pretty bad.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “The same as my least favorite – it seems to be my job to make people laugh about themselves and to acknowledge that personal growth is needed. I laugh at stuff that upsets others. Going through this can be painful for people and they get hurt, but the pain can be relieved. Some thank me; others get very upset. It’s probably why I’ve had so many relationships.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – ‘Welcome home,”

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Published in: on May 5, 2009 at 11:49 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Mitchell Holman is one of the nicest, most talented real people and musician on this planet. I am grateful to have met him. He most graciously hosted us in his home, gave us live show on KZYX, and we have enjoyed his music every time we have seen him play. So nice that someone finally did an article on his life.

  2. I can see the light and it looks . I am looking to my next visit. Keep me plug-in.


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