Funky Paul Olsen
Funky Paul was there for it all and his stories make up a piece of the puzzle that tells the tale of San Francisco, California.
There are many young people that look back at the 1960s in America as THE time to be alive. Olsen was there for posters, Janis Joplin, and even learned to play the drums from his idol – Ginger Baker of Cream.
“Ha! I’ll tell you what,” Olsen said. “I wrote a memoir (unpublished...and it now needs to be expanded) from which I am really going to go into detail to write “The Book of Haight.” The memoir is called “The Loop,” but the working title was “The Right Place at the Right Time.” And even back then I realized I was exactly in the right place at the right time (though in hindsight, I would love to have been in England from 1960 to early 1965).”
I asked Olsen what it was like to grow up in the center of the universe for the 1960s as opposed to the carpetbaggers who came later?
“That’s a biggie....” Olsen said. “I remember growing up in the City and thinking already it was one of the best places in the whole world to live, from what I could tell of the rest of the world. I remember saying to my dad in 1965 that if I was consigned to never leave the City for the rest of my life, that it would be OK; it was such a beautiful place. I only remember being “envious” of New York when I was very little and living in Fairfax in Marin County (just over the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge---which ALWAYS takes my breath away every time I see it! Only because New York seemed to be the center of the universe...certainly Chicago, Boston and New York were where almost all my toys came from!”
San Francisco holds a special place in the history of our last century.
“What was interesting about the 60’s in San Francisco is that it is not only a beautiful, inspiring place to live with a great cosmopolitan atmosphere, the general population is also very well educated and at the leading edge of modern culture. San Francisco is a Victorian town full of architectural gems everywhere you look with a rich history, but there are several great universities nearby, and ALL the movers and shakers in 1965 were fairly well-educated, well-traveled people...from Ken Kesey on down....the availability of The Pill in 1961, and the free speech movement in Berkeley in the early 60’s sparked off a social revolution that was fueled by the hatred of the Vietnam war...and then the plutonium of LSD came along at EXACTLY the right moment, and we were in the middle of a critical mass that exploded and consumed the world almost instantly in psychedelic creativity and free love...it was some period of time, let me tell you....and we could all FEEL it immediately. It was special,” Olsen said.
I asked Olsen what separated San Francisco from other places in the 1960s and why he felt that it became the capitol of the hippie generation.
“San Francisco was then like a small town,” Olsen said. “And the Haight Ashbury was filled to the brim with lovely Victorian houses that were cheap to live in, within walking distance of two Universities, and the main street filled with vacant shops, begging to be let to hippies who could make a go at selling groovy stuff. Yes, I think there have been a few magical periods in the last century...the 20’ in Paris and New York, the 30’s in LA, the 60’s in San Francisco, and the late 60’s, early 70’s in London. There hasn’t been anything since, and I’m willing to bet the next one will be in China or India...but not soon. Also, the world is so plugged in now, that everywhere is a bit like everywhere else intellectually. I always envied my dad growing up in the Haight in the 20’s and 30’s....he still fills my imagination with his stories of his childhood back then which sounded wonderful. I always wanted to be born in the 1870’s, to experience the Old West, the 1880’s in San Francisco, and the Edwardian period in London....but I feel lucky to have been in two wonderful periods of time....I could write about it for the rest of my life, really.”
In the mid-sixties poster art began to take over the culture of San Francisco and would soon spread around the world. Olsen began his artistic journey with this new burgeoning artform.
“In early ‘65 I lived around the corner from a little used bookshop on Polk and Broadway,” Olsen said. “I popped in one day in mid-65 to find Yuri Toropov, who had hair down his back ----I had NEVER seen anyone with long hair to that point---so I had to talk to him to find out about him. As we were talking, Marty Balin came in to visit as they obviously knew each other, and Marty asked Yuri if he knew anyone who could whip out a poster for his band’s gig at the Matrix. I piped up that I was an artist, and I knocked out a little one color thing for them. I don’t have a copy and have never seen it anywhere. It would be worth a packet now. Yuri told me about “The Artist’s Liberation Front,” something he was trying to put together and the first meeting was to be at some girl’s basement flat who lived right around the corner in Hayes Valley, from those famous series of carpenter’s gothic houses you see in any shot of San Francisco. I went to the first meeting, and I guess there were about 25 people there, including Yuri, myself, my future partner Jack, Bill Graham, several players from the Mime Troupe (who Bill was managing), and assorted other artists.”
Funky Features was soon formed over the love of an MGB convertible.
“I talked with jack afterwards as he had an MGB convertible and I had just sold mine,” Olsen said. “I was on my Triumph Bonneville and he and I raced across town to his flat where we spent a bit of time talking and finding out about each other. Jack said he was thinking of forming a poster company with a friend of his named Sam...Jack was good at business and Sam was good at sales, but they didn’t know squat about posters! I liked their moxie right off the bat. I had grown up in the printing business and knew the printing side of things inside and out and also was an artist.....so I was the natural third member of this fledgling concept. Jack introduced me to Sam and we decided to form a partnership right then and there. We shook hands, and that was it! Then we needed a name. Sam, Jack, and I went into Golden Gate Park to the huge playground my dad used to take me to when I was little. We sat on the grass verge of the play area watching the children play and knocked around a bunch of names, but we couldn’t come up with a thing. We were stuck. Then Sam blurted, “How about Funky Features?” Jack and I creased up with laughter. Sam giggled, and that was it.”
Living on Haight Street led to an encounter eventually with famed singer Janis Joplin.
“(Funky) Sam knew her and introduced me at a concert in the panhandle (the strip of Golden Gate Park that parallels the Haight, just two short blocks away from Haight Street),” Olsen said. “We met and got to know Peter Albin, the bass player quite well as he lived directly across the street from the Funky Features House on Central, just off Haight. I moved to Church and 22nd street over the hill in the Castro district, and Janis moved just around the corner from me and would drop in after concerts... but we never said much, I was always busy upstairs painting in my studio, and she just wanted to come in and cool out before she went home to Linda, the girl she lived with who was also her wardrobe creator.”
“I never sat down and talked with her to get to know her because she always seemed a bit distant, and preoccupied (or drugged up or drunk, I don’t know) and a bit of a lost soul...I tend to gravitate towards people who are a little more together than she appeared to be, so I never made the effort to get to know her...we were just friends and really only because I lived around the corner and my place was a kind sanctuary for anyone who wanted to drop by, day or night. There was always something going on at my house, even when I wasn’t there! Janis just wanted to be able to cool out with her own thoughts before she went “home,” I think.”
As the scene changed in San Francisco, Olsen headed off to England in 1968.
“England was the first European country I had ever visited,” Olsen said. “I was looking forward to it immensely. When I landed, EVERYTHING about it was “foreign.” Everything. If you travel there today, it’s different than here, of course, but not that much different....the world is becoming so homogenized now, which is a shame. England was still a post-war country....no one had any money, people lived simply, hardly anyone had central heating, and no one had color television, and hardly anyone had access to a car, much less owned one (because they didn’t have credit like they do now....you had to pay for over half the car up front at the very least). No one had disposable income...everyone was just scraping by....there was NO middle class at all.....but you know what? It was a fabulous time, because people really made the most of the little they had. Like the lure of the Old West, life was very simple and basic....but it was lovely. I MUCH prefer it then than the way it is now, even with all the conveniences and better food, etc.”
Olsen saw similarities between what was occurring in London and what he had just experienced in San Francisco.
“If you’ve ever seen any of the Ealing comedies (“Lavender Hill Mob,”etc)....the way London looked in the 50’s was basically no different than in the late 60’s...except for the burgeoning “Swinging London” scene, which turned London into a fashion show---fascinating and exciting...the same buzz San Francisco had three years earlier. Something extremely creative was happening in London...and it was that very same creative outburst that occurred in San Francisco in 1965 and ‘66,” Olsen said.
Eventually Olsen was able to play drums with Ginger Baker of Cream.
“I was blown away by Cream, of course, who were musical giants compared to the relatively inept and unformed bands in San Francisco,” Olsen said. “I wanted to do what Ginger did, and Jack and I did a bit of quick talking with the real quick-talker of San Francisco music suppliers, Don Wehr---at whose shop on Columbus ALL the bands went to buy their gear---and scammed some gear.....I ended up with a green sparkle double Slingerland kit (I still have it) that Carlos Santana helped me pick out, because I knew nothing about drums. After I moved to England at the end of ‘69, I ended up playing with the great Graham Bond...one of the most amazing people I have ever met, and misunderstood by ALL his so-called friends, including Long John Baldry. It was weird, because Ginger and Jack had played with Graham before forming Cream with Eric. Then Graham died and I later met Ginger at a rehearsal studio in London when he was working on the Baker Gurvits Army and driving a black Corvette...probably the only one in England at that time. We talked about Graham, and he was very rude....so I left.”
Later in life Olsen would meet Baker again.
“I next met him in 1991 in LA,” Olsen said. “He was living out in the country northeast of LA and was giving drum lessons at a nightclub in Malibu called the Trancas Inn, where lost of famous people hung out...but it’s torn down now....so I took some lessons from and we got to talking about lots of mutual things....the story is all in the poster stuff....try to find it...probably with the Cream posters, I would imagine. there’s an amazing story in there about Yuki and the 8X10 photo Ginger showed me...it still blows me away...you must read it. I went out to his house for an afternoon one day, and gave him two of my Cream posters from the Fillmore because he had none....but loved art and had the Disraeli Gears original art up on his lounge wall. Taking lessons from him---and remember, I had played all over Europe at this time for 6 years straight, including some great tours with some top Detroit soul bands and got great reviews everywhere I played----was incredible....he taught me so much, and the few lessons (maybe 6 or 8) I had from Ginger opened everything up for me and changed my style and focused it.”