The Rico Chronicles: 1966

Guild Theatre, Menlo Park circa 1967

This is the third in a series of articles commemorating my friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees.

March 1966. Menlo Park, California

About the time Rico and I became friends, the movie A Thousand Clowns starring Jason Robards, Martin Balsam, Barbara Harris, and Barry Gordon played at the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park. Rico and I both loved the movie, loved the drama of a funny creative person longing to be free in a society of copycats, and we conflated the movie with our existential favorite Waiting For Godot.

Martin Balsam, who reminded me of Rico’s father Robert, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in A Thousand Clowns and the movie became an instant counterculture classic. At some point our Waiting For Godot nicknames, Didi and Gogo, gave way to nicknames derived from A Thousand Clowns: Murray and Irving. In the beginning we were interchangeably Murray and Irving, but over time I became Murray and Rico became Irving. In retrospect, I understand these nicknames allowed us to be Jewish with each other without overtly acknowledging our Jewishness.

I remained Murray to Rico for the rest of his life, and he was Irving to me for several years until one day I began a letter to him Dear Rico, and thereafter he signed his letters to me Rico and I never called him anything else.

When Rico and I became friends, I didn’t realize that my physical disability and Rico’s physical limitations were part of what made us comfortable with each other, nor was I aware that Rico being Jewish and my being Jewish (before I understood I was Jewish) also united us, but both things were true.

As far as I was aware at the time, we became best friends because we clicked emotionally and intellectually, which was a huge relief to me at a time when I knew almost no one who felt as I did about the world and our society. Rico was only fourteen at the outset of our friendship, but he was far more perceptive about human affairs than anyone I knew, adults included. He was, I came to realize, a wise old soul in a young person’s body.

Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, which roughly translates as bone development imperfect (also known in those days as brittle bones), Rico wore braces on his legs until he was twelve to keep his bones straight as they grew, and because he suffered many childhood fractures, he was often in casts. As an adult, he was short of stature and slight of build and he could not run. He loved to swim, which was the main physical activity of his childhood and teenage years, and he loved to go fishing with his father and brothers.

Rico was the middle child of three brothers, Steve the eldest, Kevin the youngest, neither afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta, both of them robust and healthy. Rico’s mother Barbara was an artist and art collector, and Rico’s father Robert was a real estate investor. They lived in a beautiful one-story house in Atherton full of modern art by well-known contemporary artists. Originally from Chicago, Barbara and Bob were members of nearby Congregation Beth Am, a Reform Synagogue.

When I met Rico, he and I related to each other as aspiring beatniks intrigued by the hippy counterculture of the Bay Area of the 1960s. The most Jewish thing about our friendship was that Rico introduced me to the delights of Jewish deli, notably lox and bagels with cream cheese, pickled herring, and pastrami sandwiches with all the fixings, such goodies frequent lunch entrees at the Rees household.

Jefferson Airplane 1966

The summer after my junior year of high school was momentous for many reasons. Not only was Rico now my good friend with whom I spent lots of time, but I had another new friend Dave Biasotti who subsequently became Rico’s friend, too. Dave was an excellent artist and a fine guitarist, and he was writing and producing musicals with another of my good friends Scott Oakley.

Dave and I started writing folk rock songs together that summer and formed a band called Joy Ride. We were enthralled with Jefferson Airplane, and by far the best concert I ever saw by a rock band was Jefferson Airplane at the Berkeley Folk Festival in July of 1966. This was before Grace Slick replaced the marvelous Signe Anderson, before Skip Spence left the band to form Moby Grape, and before drugs eroded much of the band’s talent.

With Signe as their female vocalist, Marty Balin’s voice yet to be compromised, Skip Spence superb on drums, and Jorma Kaukonen at the top of his guitar-playing game, their three and four-part vocal harmonies were heavenly, and the concert setting with a fantastic sound system, as opposed to the cavernous echoing Fillmore, was ideal for the interplay of their virtuoso playing and gorgeous vocals.

One night when Dave and I were writing a song for Joy Ride, he encouraged me to play the piano to accompany his guitar playing, and though I could only muster a few simple chords to begin with, ere long I added musician to writer and actor on the list of things I aspired to be.

In August of that summer, I went to Europe for the only time in my life, a three-week trip with my family to Ireland, Scotland, London, Paris, and Amsterdam, the excuse for the trip a psychiatric convention my father attended in Edinburgh. I was deeply smitten with Europe and hoped to return one day, but never did. The Beatles had just come out with Revolver, and I brought home with me the British LP of Revolver that had two songs not on the American LP. Was I hip or what?

Gail Land and Rico in On Borrowed Time
Joe Tiffany, Todd, Scott Oakley in On Borrowed Time

The fall play of 1966, my senior year and Rico’s sophomore year, was On Borrowed Time. Rico was cast as Pud, another little boy part, this one a major role, and I was cast as Mr. Brink, the personification of Death.

The gist of the play is Mr. Brink comes to claim an old man, Gramps, played in our production by Joe Tiffany. Gramps is the guardian of Pud who recently lost his parents in a car accident. Not wanting to leave Pud without a loving parent, Gramps tricks Death into climbing into a magic apple tree from which Death cannot escape unless Gramps releases him. With Death trapped in the tree, nothing and no one can die.

To outwit Gramps, Death entices Pud to climb into the tree from where Pud falls and mortally injures himself; but the little boy cannot die and end his terrible suffering until Gramps allows Death to come down from the tree and take him and Pud to the hereafter. Your typical cheerful high school play.

What I remember most vividly about the production is the scene in which I entice Rico into the tree and mesmerize him so he loses his balance and begins to fall…Blackout! In early rehearsals, Rico and I played the scene as if we were Didi and Gogo in Waiting For Godot, imbuing our lines with the abstraction and bewilderment of those two lost souls. Our wonderful director George Ward allowed us to play the scene that way for a few rehearsals, enjoying our theatre-of-the-absurd interpretation, and then looked over the top of his glasses at us and said, “But seriously, folks,” and we got the message and thereafter played the scene in harmony with the rest of the play.

Shortly after On Borrowed Time, in November of 1966, Rico and I went with Bill Kane, Rico’s English teacher, to a poetry reading in San Francisco. Bill Kane was young and not yet tenured. He wore a suit and tie to work every day, kept his hair cut short, and did nothing to make the conservative administrators presiding over Woodside High think he was anything but an obedient servant of the cookie-cutter system of education.

What those administrators didn’t know and didn’t find out until Mr. Kane was granted tenure and showed up for a new year of teaching with long hair and wearing jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt, was that he was a rebel with a cause, and his cause was to awaken his students to books and ideas that questioned the dominant ideology of sameness and conformity.

But before he got tenure and started rocking the boat, Bill Kane and his wife kept their counterculture leanings secret to all but a few people, and one of those people was Rico, and another, by association, was Todd.

And the poetry reading he took us to was not just any poetry reading, but one of the legendary poetry readings of the Sixties, a lineup of the great Bay Area Beats: Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and David Meltzer.

In 1996, thirty years after Rico and I attended that life-changing poetry reading, Bantam published my novel Ruby & Spear, the novel prefaced with a poem by Philip Whalen and including Lew Welch’s great poem I Saw Myself. A fictional account of that poetry reading figures prominently in the early pages of Ruby & Spear, complete with a cameo by Rico.

Here is that account.

And now I’m seventeen, just getting comfortable with my cane, climbing onto the train with my friend Rico, heading to San Francisco for a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch.

We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us. “It’s Robert Duncan himself,” Rico whispered reverently. “My god, my god.”

“Who is he?”

“My favorite poet,” said Rico, his eyes full of tears. “My numero uno hero.”

“What did he write?”

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.’”

The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become now that I couldn’t play basketball? My parents wanted me to be a doctor, or failing that a lawyer. I was singing in a rock band from hell, my antidote to screaming pain, but I had no illusions about making my living from that. And what about college? Sex? Money?

Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight, looking like Errol Flynn, dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, “I’ve been hanging out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rrrrrr. Rahrr. Roar!” All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed.

And when the house lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.

I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.


(Ruby & Spear is available as a Kindle or Apple Book, as a used paperback, and as a delightful audio book narrated by yours truly.)

Miles In Mind


The Rico Chronicles: Bye Bye Birdie

Joe Tiffany and Rico in Bye Bye Birdie 1966

My great friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees, died recently at the age of sixty-eight. To celebrate Rico and the myriad ways our lives intersected over the years, I am posting a series of remembrances entitled The Rico Chronicles. Here for your enjoyment is the second of those memories.

Spring of 1966. Woodside High School. Redwood City, California.

When I was sixteen and a junior, much to my surprise I landed the part of Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie.

I had been in constant pain and walking with an extreme limp for the year preceding being cast as Conrad Birdie. The medical diagnosis of my malady was ankylosing spondylitis, a premature fusing of the lower vertebrae in my spine. For the first few months of dealing with ferocious pain in my lower back and hips, I could barely walk. Eventually I was put on a regimen of anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers that significantly dulled my senses but allowed me to go to school. For most of my junior year I was excused from PE and spent that hour every day in the school library reading plays and short stories.

My disability marked the end of thinking of myself as an athlete and decided me on trying to be an actor and a writer. I would eventually overcome many of the physical challenges associated with ankylosing spondylitis and become a backpacker, a physical laborer, and an avid playground basketball player, but when I was sixteen the medical prognosis was for a sedentary life dependent on painkillers.

To play Conrad Birdie without a limp was one of the great challenges of my young life, and many years later I discovered that contrary to what my doctors believed, I was able to transcend my physical challenges because the root cause of the inflammation was not physical, but rather the severe emotional distress I experienced in relation to my parents. When I was performing, both my emotional distress and physical pain disappeared.

In Bye Bye Birdie, a teenage girl wins the honor of being kissed by Conrad Birdie as part of his farewell shenanigans before going into the Army. The girl’s father, mother, and younger brother are important characters in the play, and Dick (Rico) was cast in the role of the younger brother. In makeup and dressed as a little kid, Rico was entirely convincing as a goofy ten-year-old, though he was fourteen and had a deep voice.

The wonderful George Ward (who died just two weeks after Rico died) directed Bye Bye Birdie and surprised everybody by casting me in the role of Conrad Birdie. George was the longtime Drama teacher at Woodside High and had a gift for bringing out the best in his young thespians. How he brought out our best was something Rico and I discussed at length when we were in Bye Bye Birdie together, and again the next year when we were in On Borrowed Time together.

We concluded that though George had his favorites, he rarely cast anyone in a part they weren’t inherently suited for. This may seem like something all directors would do as a matter of course, but in the theatre world favoritism often trumps talent—not so with George.  

Nor did George begin rehearsals by describing how he wanted us to play our parts. Instead he allowed us to find our ways into our characters over the course of acting out the scenes with the other characters, and as we became familiar with our lines and the flow of action, he would occasionally comment about a line’s delivery or a character’s motivation in a particular moment.

Prior to being cast as Conrad Birdie, I played the part of Mr. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank, my first major role in a play. Mr. Van Daan is a terribly conflicted person and the nemesis of young Anne. I remember a rehearsal a week or so before opening night when we did a scene in which Mr. Van Daan is particularly cruel to Anne.

When the scene ended, George said to me in his quiet way, “Are you angry? Or are you frightened? Or both?”

And in that moment I understood that though it was appropriate for me to mask my fear with anger, less anger—a more transparent mask—would make the scene work better and make my character more believable. This understanding not only changed how I played the scene, it transformed my character for the entire play.

Todd and Nancy Losey in Bye Bye Birdie 1966

In one scene in Bye Bye Birdie, Conrad enters the kitchen of the family in which Rico played the brother of the girl he is destined to kiss. Breakfast awaits Conrad, but instead he gets a can of beer out of the refrigerator, makes a mess opening the can, guzzles the beer, and belches.

Time and again I overplayed this scene until George said, “I don’t think Conrad does this on purpose. I think he’s oblivious to other people.”

And thereafter I stopped trying to be funny and played the scene as if no one else was there; and then the scene was funny.

Bye Bye Birdie was the first play Rico was in at Woodside High, and we met for the first time backstage at the first rehearsal. The moment we saw each other, we both felt a jolt of recognition.

So I limped across the expanse between us, looked into Rico’s eyes, and said the opening line of Waiting For Godot, which I’d just seen for the first time and then read and was enthralled by. “Nothing to be done.”

Rico’s eyes lit up and he replied, “Are you Didi or Gogo?” (the nicknames of Vladimir and Estragon, the two characters in Waiting For Godot)

“I never can remember which one is Didi and which one is Gogo. Who do you want to be?”

“Either one,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t think it matters.”

Then we blathered on for a few more minutes as if we were characters in an absurdist drama, which of course we were, and then rehearsal began.

The next day at lunchtime, I found Rico hanging out with the counter culture kids of our high school, known as the Water Fountain Gang because they congregated by a certain water fountain—kids into Drama and art and folk music and folk rock, the first hippies of our generation, a daily potluck of mostly girls and some boys, the boys letting their hair grow long, the girls nascent feminists—rebels fighting The System designed to squish us into versions of our conformist parents, high school a genteel prison we longed to be free of. And when we were free, then what? We didn’t know, and that was our bond: not knowing.

I hailed Rico with “Didi!”

“Gogo,” he said, raising his hand in greeting.

And for the next few months we were Didi and Gogo to each other and it didn’t matter who was which so long as we were together in the absurdist drama of our young lives.


The Magician