In the early 1970s, Nadine Condon found herself alone on a street in St. Louis, not far from her hometown.
She stopped in her tracks and listened to a stranger warble the lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s hit single, “Someone to Love.”
“I was already a big fan,” Condon says at her Oakmont home, where she lives with husband and heartthrob, Mark, otherwise known as “Honey.”
“That day in St. Louis, I told myself, ‘I want to be with that tribe. I want to be in San Francisco.’”
Listening to Condon talk about the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll feels like going on a magical musical tour. It’s perhaps ironic that she no longer lives in SF, which she describes as “a place that’s especially for the young.”
But on Oct. 21, she’s at San Francisco’s famed Make Out Room on Valencia Street with some of the aging giants of the Bay Area music scene: Ben Fong-Torres, Michael Goldberg, Greil Marcus, Joel Selvin and Berkeley’s maven of funk, Ricky Vincent, plus British born critic, singer and songwriter Sylvie Simmons. The event, “The Only Truth is Music,” is part of Litquake’s Litcrawl 2022 program. “I feel once again that my life has come full circle,” Condon gushes.
In a review of Confessions, long time Marin Independent Journal writer Paul Liberatore says that what makes the book unique is the author’s “mid-life rediscovery of religion and spirituality.” As they have aged, boomers have turned increasingly to churches and synagogues, though back in the day, many of them balanced the demands of rock with the call of ashrams, gurus and chanting. The Beatles, at least some of them, rejected Chairman Mao for the Maharishi and meditation, as did Mike Love of the Beach Boys.
From St. Louis, Condon didn’t make a beeline for “Baghdad by the Bay,” as Herb Caen, the “oracle of the city,” dubbed SF. She had a serious case of wanderlust that took her to New England. “I wanted to be a famous writer,” she says. “I was afraid of New York, so I went to Boston, instead, took a lowly administrative job at a newspaper, hid my desire to be a writer and heard all the great blues singers.” Now, with her memoir, Confessions, Condon’s writing is no longer under wraps or on a back burner.
After Boston, she hit the road, arrived in California, soaked in a hot tub in Big Sur, took in the spectacle of the full moon and sniffed the scent of marijuana in the air. “It was the first time I was naked in mixed company,” she says. “It was the first time I felt really free.” Not long after that immersion, she moved to San Francisco, met famed guitarist and bluesman, Nick “The Greek” Gravenites, a longtime Sonoma County music maven, and became his “girlfriend” and his manager. By then, Gravenites had produced Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line,” a song that captured the cannabis habit of a generation.
“I knew I was not musically inclined when I got together with Nick, but I was a huge music fan,” Condon says. The two were a duo. As a girl, Condon had listened to rock ‘n’ roll at night on a transistor radio in her bedroom in Louisville, KY, where she was born in 1951. She grew up with the soundtrack to Hair—a gift from her parents—and graduated to the Beatles and the Stones, belting out the words, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” No, no, no. Yes, yes, yes. Satisfaction came her way big time. Hey, it was the ’60s.
Hunkered down in Baghdad by the Bay, Condon recognized that the real buzz in the music biz was behind the stage, and that it went on 24/7.
“I wanted to be part of the action,” she says. It wasn’t a slam-dunk. The managers of the bands were, she learned, mostly male; the executives at the recording companies were mostly male; the concert promoters were mostly male; and the directors at the radio stations were mostly male.
“The men made the money and the women, who were employed by the companies, did the real work,” she says. “They were unsung.” Condon sings their praises and her own in Confessions and observes that she was “vastly underpaid” and that she contented herself with “the glam and the glitter.”
Fortunately, San Francisco hosted and boasted history-making women singers and songwriters such as Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. “I wanted to be like Janis,” Condon says. “A woman who was with the men in Big Brother and the Holding Company, but who was the star of the show, Grace stood out, but she was always part of the band, and not by herself on stage.” Nadine adds that “Janis was probably not the best role model, but I was inspired by her example as a woman who did it largely on her own.”
Condon slipped away from Gravenites and his high-powered studio, where she played backup, so to speak, and eased into a productive relationship with Starship and Slick. She toured the world with the band, and, when Slick left Starship in 1989, Condon started her own company, dubbed herself “The Godmother of Rock“ and launched “Nadine’s Wild Weekends,” a time she animates so loudly in Confessions that you can feel the beat bounce of the pages.
From 1998 to 2002, her increasingly wild “Wild Weekends” attracted superstars, as well as not so famous talents. They showcased 130 bands that stormed 20 venues. Condon had successfully branded herself and worked with Melissa Etheridge and Elton John’s Rocket Records. After that climb to the top of the rock pyramid, there was really only one thing to do, and that was to take a bow, say goodbye and exit the music scene.
“Grace offered me a template,” Condon says. “I thought that rock ‘n’ roll would be my whole life, but I watched Grace and saw that I could bring out a softer side of myself. She became an artist and painted wonderful portraits of people and whimsical rabbits, lots of rabbits.” No surprise that from the woman who gave audiences “White Rabbit,” that boasts the words, “Feed your head,” which recreates the Alice in Wonderland story and that Slick sang at Woodstock in 1969.
As a girl, Condon imagined herself wearing a habit, becoming a nun and devoting herself to the service of others. So, it wasn’t a huge shift to go from rock ‘n’ roll, sex and drugs to helping the homeless and working with people in hospice who were near the end of their time on the Earth. In one of the last sections of Confessions, Condon describes her current vocation as a spiritual helpmate to the dying and the severely ill. In the chapter called “Wisdom Keepers,” she says her life is one of “Practicing kindness.” She adds, “Kindness is my motto.” Her stellar work, which linked her to Grace Slick, has taken her, she says, “into a state of grace.”
Condon doesn’t miss the biz. Well, maybe “the expense accounts and the excitement.” Nor does she bemoan the loss of a Golden Age of Rock, which she says existed from about 1960 to the early 2000s when tech took over the city.
“Yes, San Francisco is different today than it was when I was in the thick of it,” she says. “It’s always morphing, and it’s always a city of opportunity. Right now, it’s in a chrysalis stage. The city that gave the world the wealth of the Gold Rush, the tycoons, Jack London, the dockworkers, Harry Bridges, the Beats, the hippies and the techies has something under its sleeve.”
How does she read Starship’s infectious words, “We built this city on rock ‘n’ roll”? “I take them metaphorically,” Condon says, her feet keeping the beat of a tune on her turntable. “San Francisco attracts people on the cutting edge. Always has and always will. Every time I come back here after traveling elsewhere, I kiss the ground.”
The city’s rock hasn’t been the same since the glory days, but there are rumors of a rock revival. Drummers, guitarists, harmonica players and more haven’t vanished. During the week, they’re at work making money so they can pay the bills. On weekends and on weekday evenings, they make music in garages, cafes and clubs, reminding themselves and audiences that rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay, though perhaps not to pay the way it once did.
‘The Only Truth is Music: Readings From Music Writers,’ 7:30pm, Friday, Oct. 21, The Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St., San Francisco.
I enjoy your style of writing Jonah and I love Nadine! When I fitst met her in San Francisco, she was managing Jefferson Airplane and started a group called ‘Women In Music’. I attened, and always liked Nadine’s friendly smile and fun conversations. I was managing a recording studio in SF at the time.