By the time the kid made it into Greenwich Village he was, at 17, no longer a kid. He'd shorn himself of his given name, Chester Powers, Jr., and told people to call him Dino Valente. He'd just cut loose from his parents' chosen rat race, the runways and tents of the carnival circuit, and he told people that he was a composer, a guitar-picker, a folk singer.
Just like all the other cats those days in the late Fifties in the Village.
But if Valente was just getting himself into another rut — this time of basement clubs that didn't pay and of five-story walk-up crash pads — he didn't know it. Even among the newly-huddled nonconformists, he brashly thought himself unique.
So he spent his first evening in East Village singing in the park; there were no vacancies at any of the coffeehouses strung along McDougal. Then just before two A.M., Dino Valente entered one of the houses, determined to make his Village stage debut. He located the owner from out of the smoke-blanketed, Feifferesque audience, pointed at his guitar and said, "I want to play." The owner, Manny Ross, pointed to his wrist and said, "We're closing."
"Well, let me play 'til you close."
Man, I was really jacked up," Dino says, "and I went in there and started playing and didn't get off 'til two o'clock the next afternoon."
It's a short distance between the no-or low-pay Village clubs, and before long, Dino Valente had hit them all, earning a reputation as the "underground Dylan" (underground because he remained unrecorded for such a stubbornly long time).
It's a long distance from New York to San Francisco, with ten years and a jail term in between. But Dino hasn't changed much. At the Human Be-in at Golden Gate Park in early 1967, he pranced around the polo field like the minstrel clown he'd been raised to be, singing, joking, blowing his flute and a few hundred minds.
Even now, famed for his composition "Get Together" and having released, finally, a first LP, he prefers to roam the underground circuit, playing small clubs and the rock ballrooms.
And even more than that, he likes to drift around San Francisco, Mill Valley, and Sausalito (where he keeps a newly-bought houseboat) with his two Great Danes, his buddies from the Quicksilver Messenger Service, and/or any of a vast stable of chicks.
"I like things to be going on," he says. "I like trying, I like doing, flying, making, running, being, balling, ING-ing ... not stop-dead and stagnated."
Valente ends the assertion with a self-satisfied smile. Just showered, he's lotus-positioned on a couch in a dark, low-ceilinged Mill Valley shack he's dropped in on. Three young blondes hover over and around him, ready to serve their now-shirtless master at either a beck or a call.
They're pretty; seen at an original-design dress shop moving from rack to rack in floor-length Renaissance-period gowns, they might be called "groovy." This night, they're running water for Dino's shower, offering tea and pie for Dino's pangs, and serving as a might-as-well-be-canned audience for Dino's utterances.
For years now, it's been this way. Valente may not be an Electric Star (although he was asked by David Crosby, in 1965, to be one of the first Byrds) with teenyboppers hanging all over his body. But, as his good friend Tom Donahue says, "Dino's one of the few American singers around who have a real capacity to sing to chicks." And his rep as a superballer is as widespread and rampant as his mostly-discarded past.
On stage in a small club, Valente can be overpowering. To accommodate his frequent and fierce headshakes, six or eight mikes flank him; and he peers out at the audience hazily, as if looking over a growth of steel weeds. He is not good-looking; his voice is smoky, and, finesse on the 12-stringer notwithstanding, his compositions are musically monotonous, his lyrics remarkably unremarkable. Always there's that pained moan interrupting or punctuating a line, giving it a climactic clause; always that same beat, just draggy enough to allow a fluid guitar accompaniment.
The secret potion, for Valente, is a mixture of stance and communicative lyricism. He's the counselor, the brother, the available lover. In "Something New," he sings:
You tell me your guy doesn't turn you on any more...
Here's a tower straight and tall
Something to run to when you fall,
You don't have to cry, babe...
As Donovan Leitch seems transfixed by crystals and sunshine, Valente seems similarly absorbed with natural phenomena. "My Friend" is an image-a-line:
Just like-a breath of morning
Purple magic dawning
Can you know the dreams I always will dream
Can you see me, my friend
Then come laughing,
Dancing to the song the wind sings
Barefoot girl of beads and paper rings
Fairytale things, my friend.
And if use of the second person pronoun is the cardinal rule of effective communication, Valente's got it down pat. First lines establish the tone: "Listen to me, girl, and go find your mind," or "You tell me, little one, that you can't understand it," or "Girl, when I hear you say forever..." It's almost always a direct rap.
Valente, of course, doesn't admit to being caught in any kind of a bag. "Every song is different," he says, "like every day; a completely different thing, man."
He explains: "You sit down and something turns you on and you hear a timbre, a vibration because you're right this instant turned on about something. And it's in your mind that you hear it. It may be soft, it may be fine, it may be heavy — it's just a certain set of tonalities, or sometimes it's just a set of chords that start going around your head ... Well, you sit down and start to play it on your guitar and as you play the music, sometimes you hear the music has words in it. And so then you find out what the song says.
"Other times you're down and may be pissed about something so you write the words without bothering with the music; then you listen to the words over and over again and you hear the music.When a song starts you don't think about anything but getting next to it without breaking it. It's like getting next to a wild horse."
But when all is said, what's done seems quite simplistic. And in a tune like "Dino's Song" (recorded by Quicksilver), the lines are derivative beyond coincidence:
I don't ever wanna spoil your party, babe
Or tell you when to go or what to do
All I ever wanted to do was love you
And maybe hope you could love me too ...
His album, produced on Epic by Bob Johnston (Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Flatt and Scruggs), is mostly Valente and guitar. Only one number, "Tomorrow," is sweetened, and that, Valente says, "was totally Bob's idea. I cut my track and he stayed around all night and added to it. He knows how to really get things together."
Valente isn't even keeping track of how the LP's doing. He looks anxiously, instead, to the next one.
"With all this fucking renewed energy and the knowledge I've picked up in the studio, I can go in there and put down a fucking album that is just going to cream everybody. Next time I'm gonna walk down to LA, go in the studio, unzip it, do a song, zip it back up. I'm hip to it now."
Lyrical and energetic, Valente is a willing talker, but he hates to re-hash his past, especially chronologically, by the years. So he slurs his way through the necessary play-by-play of his run-ins with narcs and his nine-month stay at the state pen. And he barely mentions his formative years, when he worked in the East Coast carny as a pitchman, trapeze flyer, alligator runner, girl-show operator, side show operator, and all-around workman until, at 17, he made his getaway.
What Valente left to the imagination, in terms of events, dates, and places, was put into at least some order by friend Donahue, the San Francisco radio and music big wheel who met Dino six years ago via Paul Stookey and Bob Gibson.
Valente had apparently left the East Coast around 1960, after ample tastes of both the Village and Boston scenes, heading for Los Angeles. About a year later, he'd had enough of LA (which he recently described as resembling "a really gaudy 17-year-old whore with a carnival atmosphere") and made it to the Bay Area and the upper North Beach sector of San Francisco, where he dove into the coffeehouse scene with frenetic" vigor, sometimes playing two houses in a night.
All this time, Valente shied away from the record companies. "He'd had a couple of unpleasant experiences with labels back east," Donahue explained, and he demanded "total artistic freedom," unheard of in those pre-everything days of '62 and '63.
But he was soon forced into a need for bread — the kind that few entities other than record companies could offer. Valente was busted for grass while riding in a friend's car; while awaiting trial, he was stopped and shaken down as he left a Grant Avenue gig; they found some cannabis. Then cops broke into his apartment and took him in for speed, and Valente eventually wound up with a one-to-tenner at Folsom.
But Dino isn't called "elusive" (or, more specifically, "the elusive gypsy") for nothing. With some legal maneuvering and miscellaneous jiving worthy of the best carny pitchman, Valente became, in his own words, "the first cat in California to get bailed out of the state penitentiary, pending determination of a writ of habeas corpus."
He had pried a three-year parole from the Adult Parole Authority, then signed up with Epic Records, removing a final wedge to gain freedom. In essence, he'd kicked his parole on a signed promise to be a good boy and go make some records. It was, to say the least, unprecedented.
And it was costly. To finance his bail and subsequent court appearances, he sold a song, "Get Together," to Frank Werber's SFO music Company. He relinquished all rights to the song, thereby effectively cutting himself off from the usual penny-per-record share of royalties.
Having been recorded on albums by such artists as Jefferson Airplane, the Youngbloods, Fred Neil, and We Five, not to mention singles success by the Youngbloods, the song has sold nearly two million copies, becoming, in 1966, an anthem of sorts for the gathering "hippie" tribe. So Valente lost out on something like $20,000.
But he is slightly less than regretful. "A lot of people say I was stupid for selling all my rights to the song" he says, "but for ten years of my life, man, I can write another song."
Those nine months in the pen, however, weren't without their rewards. "One thing about going to prison," Valente says, "is that when you get out, you know that nothing else they could ever do to you could ever blow your mind. You've had so much time to think, and your brain is so fucking slick ... In prison everybody is so aware, quiet and tuned in ... either that or they flake out in front of TV and do what they want you to, go the other way, push to the extreme boundaries.
"It's really fuckin' raw so those cats that used to get me uptight don't any more 'cause I know what's happened to them."
"Oh" — and he's hot now — "You know, man, I never knew when I was getting out. I had a one-to-ten year sentence. The parole board in there is like God, man. They take you in and some guys get on their knees and cry and then they say 'I don't think you've learned your lesson,' and you wait for another year ... and another year."
When Valente is speaking, his eyes are intent and wide; with his long wet hair somehow gathered over and behind his ears, he resembles Dustin Hoffman (only homelier, with none of Hoffman's well-scuffed innocence). His rap is either an excited ego-tripping ramble ridden with contradictions and incongruities, or polished reflections on thought processes, order, energy, astrology, dianetics, change, and societal downers. Visually-oriented, he recounts dreams to do for theories what anecdotes would do for the biographical details he prefers to withhold.
A balance-seeking Libra, he once dreamt a confirmation of his own conscious goal of order:
"These people were leaving this town," he recalls — "all Pilgrims. The chicks had shawls on and the cats had big brown hats ... and the town was burned; it was finished. No one was even looking back on it. And then as the last person left, came this other person. But he looked different, like he had high boots on and a long crimson cape and he had shades on. And as he went to leave, he was the last person out. And it was felt, it was known that no one would ever see that town again. It was going to be nonexistent. And as he turned, man, all these different lines were in accordance with each other: the town, the charred burns, the walls. Near the front of it was this one piece of wood that was an offense to the rest of the design. And no one would ever see that town. And he walked over and straightened it. For no one.
"That's the thing that you feel that makes you feel good. It's like musical timbres. I can play something that could put most people in mind of a cornfield, if they're from the Midwest. Or play something like the Scottish bagpipes marching cats into war, into death. Once you stop the bagpipes, they may turn to run. But the timbre moves some fibers in their entity and they respond to it."
Even as Valente discusses music, he embodies musicianship; as he sings, so he talks, extending final words to sweep in the beginning of the next sentence; as he talks, the soothing sweet-talk tone often comes through, and a synthesis of animation, fatherly common sense, heavy thoughts, and glowing eyes commands attention.
"There's a way," he is saying softly, "if you wanted to know what the inside of your mind looks like and how it works, all you have to do would be to look at the model man has made of his mind: that's the computer. And you know how a computer works — a very slow process, slower than thought. You take a question, you go back to store data only of things that have happened. And relate to these and come back with the answer.
"I think the machines think: 'ting-ting-ting-ting ... ching-ching-ching-ching...' That's a computerized thing. Men think the same way: 'ting-ting-ting-ting ... ching-ching-ching-ching.' But sometimes when you're really stoned, try and stop that for a minute. And just open everything to another person's vibrations without the thoughts, without the computations. just to feel. If you're not afraid to be hurt, then you can feel the most beautiful things. Then you won't get hurt.
"But the important thing is to stay open like that, using a newer process of thought. Find it by trying not to take for granted all the facts when someone says 'this is the only way it is and ever can be.' You have to look for it, extrapolate, find somewhere where it didn't have to be that way. And that keeps your head free. But if you take it, if you just open up to people, it's the way to stop that, to change that."
If computers must be defused, so, too, then, must the forces that push the buttons.
"Institutions are a drag — mental, educational institutions. People should have more confidence in their ability as individuals."
"The government?" Valente turned almost savage, flailing his arms like the Italian he isn't. "If I had to rely on the government I'd quit. I have a whole survival thing going on one hand, and on the other I'm trying to affect the culture so I won't have to use it. The government — I cashed my hand in when they shot Jack Kennedy. The government! That's a case of mass hysteria which is inducing the public a case of passive hysteria!"
And again the counselor: "That's why you have to surround yourself with beautiful things that turn you on so you remember who you are, or you fall into that conglomerate jelly."
Valente's been at the old 12-stringer for more than a decade now, and he must be nearly 30 years old. But his work — the work he's cut out for himself — has just barely begun: "I'm trying to say something or show something — or be something so someone can see what I got, 'cause I think I'm pretty fortunate. Not everything I have people could use, but I've met people I could use a part of, and I took it and incorporated it. And I know people who've done that same thing to me.
"I think that's a heavy form of communication.
"Sometimes it's hard to set an example, because the people who don't open up, fearing dying, never experience the job of living, never knowing that living's well worth dying. It's a matter of experience."
If you hear this song I'm singing you will understand
You hold the key to love and fear
All in your trembling little hand
Just one key unlocks them both
It's there at your command
Come on, people now,
Smile on your brother,
Everybody get together
Try and love one another right now ...