When and Where: This morning in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California
What: I, Paul Windsor, fiftyish, bespectacled, shared my table with Eric Miller, a guy in his late sixties. Eric moved to Carmeline Creek from Oakland fifteen years ago. He’s a carpenter now, his specialty fences and gates, but for most of his twenty-five years in Oakland, he was a studio musician (guitar and congas) and a member of the folk rock quartet Suspenseful Animation. I recorded our conversation at the request of my son Conor (17) and my daughter Alexandra (14) who are making a movie based on Eric’s story about his guitar case and want audio of Eric telling the story to use in their movie.
Eric is five-foot-eight, stocky, with long black hair gone mostly gray. He wears T-shirts with slogans writ on the front, and today he is wearing a black T-shirt with white letters that proclaim I Saw You From A Great Distance.
Me: So… I’ve been assigned the pleasurable task of prompting you to tell your story about the guitar case one more time. You up for that?
Me: How old were you when this happened?
Eric: Twenty-three. 1972.
Me: Where were you?
Eric: Los Angeles. I was living in Santa Cruz at the time, but I’d gone to LA to shop some songs. Things were so different then, nobody under forty today, fifty maybe, can conceive of how different the music business was then. Our whole culture really. This was long before home computers and smart phones and the internet. The first copy shops had just opened, a decade before CDs started replacing LPs.
Me: So how would you go about shopping songs in those days? And who did you shop them to?
Eric: If you could afford it, you went into a studio, made a good recording, you know, on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and then you had cassette copies made of your recording to share with whoever, and if you could actually get your songs to somebody in the biz, you sent them a reel-to-reel version to play on their snazzy machines. If you couldn’t afford a studio recording, you did the best you could with whatever recorder you could afford. I had a couple good microphones and made recordings on a pretty good cassette recorder in my living room.
Me: What kind of music?
Eric: Folk rock. I grew up in the Bay Area and was smitten with Jefferson Airplane before Grace Slick, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Youngbloods, Dino Valenti, Buffalo Springfield.
Me: Okay, so you’re in LA. Set the scene.
Eric: So I was staying with my sister in West LA, which in those days was solid middle class. Houses and apartment buildings, nothing over three stories. I had a friend who was a singer with some recording connections and we met at UCLA in a practice room with a piano. I walked there with my guitar, a couple miles, sang a few songs for my friend, hung out in a café in Westwood for an hour or so, and then headed back to my sister’s apartment.
Me: What time of year?
Eric: Early summer. So smoggy your eyes burned. And the thing about LA in those days—I don’t know about now—but back then nobody walked anywhere, so I was an anomaly and I was keenly aware of this because people would frown at me as they drove by or roll down their windows and shout, “Get a job!”
Me: Why would they say that?
Eric: This is a little before your time, Paul, but in those days most people thought hippies were dope-smoking draft dodgers who didn’t want to work. So I guess with my long hair and guitar and tie-dyed T-shirt they thought I was a derelict hippy who couldn’t afford a car. And remember, this was before there were homeless people in LA, before Reagan closed all the mental hospitals and cut rich people’s taxes so there was less money for social services. And then he did the same thing to the rest of America, and so it continues today. But back then only poor people in LA walked anywhere, and most poor people in those days were African Americans or Mexicans. So a white guy with a ponytail walking through a middle-class neighborhood in LA was an odd thing. I know that sounds unbelievable, but that’s how it was.
Me: So you were walking back to your sister’s.
Eric: Right, and I’m on a sidewalk in an upscale neighborhood of newish apartment buildings and houses, just walking along schlepping my guitar, when up ahead of me, maybe two blocks away, I see this police car approaching. Then they turn on their flashing red light and their siren starts wailing, and I assume they’ll zoom past me in pursuit of somebody, but right before they get to me, they turn sharply, jump the curb, block the sidewalk, and two big cops jump out of the car, point their guns at me and shout, “Hands up!”
Me: Oh my God.
Eric: I was so fucking scared I thought they were gonna shoot me for sure. So I set my guitar case down and put up my hands, and one of the cops grabs me and slams me down on the hood of their car, twists my arm behind my back, and holds me down until his partner joins him and they handcuff my hands behind my back.
Me: Did they read you your rights?
Eric: No. And while one cop holds me down, the other cop gets my guitar case, brings it over to the car, sets it on the hood in front of me and asks, “What’s in the guitar case?” And the question seems so ridiculous, I laugh, and the cop holding me down, lifts me up a few inches and slams me down again and shouts, “What’s in the guitar case?” And I say, “A guitar!”
And then the other cop asks, “Can we open it?”
Why he bothered to ask my permission, I don’t know, but I say, “Yeah. Just don’t shoot me.”
This is when they realize they haven’t read me my rights, so the cop holding me down does that as fast as he can say the words, and then the other cop opens the guitar case, and there’s my guitar.
And the cop holding me down says, “Shit.” And the other cop says, “He’s not the guy.” And the cop holding me down says, “He’s gotta be. He fits the M-O exactly. This is the neighborhood he’s been hitting. It’s gotta be him.”
So then they put me in the backseat of the patrol car and head for the police station, and they get into an argument about whether I’m the guy or not, and I get up the nerve to say, “Listen I don’t know who you think I am, but I haven’t done anything wrong and my uncle is a lawyer here in Los Angeles, and when we get to the police station I will call him and tell him everything that just happened, which I don’t think is quite legal, the way you handled things, and…”
The cop riding shotgun turns around and looks at me and says, “Where were you last Saturday night?”
“Santa Cruz. Where I live. Witnesses galore.”
“Shit,” says the cop driving. “He’s not the guy.”
“Why were you walking?” asks the cop who isn’t driving.
“I like to walk.”
“Who is your uncle?” asks the cop driving.
“Shit,” says the other cop.
Then they pull over to the curb and the cop not driving says, “Look… we thought you were the guy who’s been robbing apartments in the area and getting away with stuff in a guitar case. But maybe we were wrong.”
Then he gets out, opens the back door, helps me out, takes off the cuffs, opens the trunk, hands me my guitar case and says, “Take it easy.”
Then he gets back in the car and they drive away.
Me: Couldn’t they have at least given you a ride home?
Eric: You would think so, but in those days… I was a hippy and they were hoping I’d just blow it off, which I did, though I was freaked out for a long time. Had nightmares for months afterwards. Always that same scenario. Being hurt by big men for no reason.
Me: If you’d resisted or run they might have killed you.
Eric: I’m sure they would have. They were young and inexperienced and God knows what else. As it was, I had a fractured rib and terrible neck pain for a long time after that.
Me: Did you tell your uncle what happened?
Eric: I did, and he said, “Whatever you do, don’t mess with the LA police department.” And then he said, “And the next time you come to LA, take cabs or rent a car, but never ever walk anywhere.”
Me: That’s insane.
Eric: That’s the way it was before jogging and walking were declared good for you. That’s how it was in LA in 1972 for a guy with long hair schlepping a guitar case.
Me: I wonder how Conor and Alexandra will capture the moment when the police car jumps the curb in front of you.
Eric: I think they’re gonna use a toy police car and stop-frame animation. Can’t wait to see it.