Official website at


"Tales from the Beach, Part 2"

Photo by John Puklus

By extraordinarily popular demand, the Topanga Historical Society presents Part 2 of "Tales from the Beach," on Wednesday, October 18, a continuation of its successful Part 1 event about Lower Topanga in the '60s and '70s that was held in August.

The Topanga Community House will, once again, take you down Memory Lane with more stories and pictures about this special time in history at Topanga State Beach, as well as offer up music by Blue Juice (the beach band from back then), awesome food and knee-slappin' reminiscing about the good old days.

The potluck starts at 7 p.m. Bring your best dish and your favorite beverage to share. THS will provide organic decaf coffee, hot tea and lemon water. The program begins at 8 p.m.

The Topanga Community Center is located at 1440 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290.


"Memory of Place"

Poet and publisher Pablo Capra is haunted by a place that no longer exists, the vanished bohemian Eden of Lower Topanga. The loss of his childhood home has been the catalyst for his life and art.

by Suzanne Guldimann
Photo by Harry Varnas

Lower Topanga was erased from the map by the California Department of Parks and Recreation in the first decade of the 21st century. In 2002, the community of artists, poets, writers, musicians, surfers, stoners, dreamers, and outlaws received eviction notices. By 2007, the neighborhood of bungalows, shacks and tiny houses originally built in the 1920s was gone, torn down to make way for park facilities.

That loss inspired Pablo Capra's quest to preserve the history of his childhood home. "It was a motivation to make sure it was not erased from memory," he told the "Messenger Mountain News." "It's weird, it's like it didn't exist," he said. "The house where we lived, even the road it was on are completely gone."

Capra, who started out writing and publishing poetry, including a collection of Lower Topanga poets called "Idlers of the Bamboo Grove," has spent nearly two decades collecting the history of Topanga Beach, interviewing former residents, gathering photos and publishing the stories and images in a series of books called "Topanga Beach Experience."

Early books featured the quirkily pen and ink illustrations of James Mathers. More recently, Capra has gravitated to photographic covers, often images from his growing collection of archival photos.

"I was 22 or something when I started doing this," Capra said. "I kept putting together more. It amazes me how much I've been able to find from the '60s and '70s. There's a lot less from the '80s and '90s than from 50 years ago."

The era of the digital camera and social media has dynamically added to the record of Topanga Beach, Capra explained. "There's incredible stuff," he said. "Photos from 100 years ago, photos from one hour ago. There are so many people documenting the area, the beach culture. There's always someone on the beach with a camera."

While Lower Topanga and Topanga Beach have "taken up a lot of energies of the press," Brass Tacks Press has unfolded in related directions, publishing the works of other poets, including lifelong Malibu resident Alden Marin and Downtown Los Angeles poet laureate and Brass Tacks Press co-founder Richard McDowell.

In 2016, Capra collaborated with historian Jay Ruby to publish "The Property: Malibu's Other Colony," a history of a small artists' utopia located just west of Topanga Beach, near Tuna Canyon, that shared much in common with the Lower Topanga community.

Capra recently contributed an essay on life in Lower Topanga's lost paradise for Ruby's book "Bohemia in Southern California," published earlier this year by San Diego State University Press.

In his essay, Capra reflects on his personal lost world. "When you're confronted with that kind of freedom, you really get to develop your individuality," he wrote.

There was a dark side as well. "Like in many bohemian communities, there were plenty of opportunities for hedonism and abuse," Capra wrote. "The privacy was so seductive, and the low cost of living was such a relief, that it was easy to overindulge. Pushing that freedom was addictive. There was almost a sense of torch-bearing, like we should do this because we can… before the end, which always seemed to be looming."

When the end came, Capra was there to document it and he's kept the stories alive for another generation, one that will never know what [the late part-time resident and poet Robert] Campbell described as:

a perfect place just to get away
from the annoying crossroads
and noisy street signs
from the hustle and bustle struggle
just to stay alive
a move back to the big sky
with the flowers and trees
to let his mind shimmer
in the summer breeze.

"How have these values served me in life?" Capra asks in the essay. "I think mostly they’ve kept me healthy, honest, and positive.... However, I still long for those idle days that enticed me to explore my creativity, and hope to find a place that feels so much like home again."

As one of the last children to grow up in the storied Lower Canyon, and as the keeper of its history, Capra has found a way no only to preserve the memory of place, he has set those memories free to live in other people's thoughts, and perhaps to inspire them in turn.

Capra is one of the guest speakers at this year's Transport Topanga Literary Festival, and will be speaking on September 24, 3:45 - 5 p.m., with his collaborators Eric Dugdale, Paul Lovas and Gail McDonald-Tune.

More information is available online at

Learn more about Brass Tacks Press and the Lower Topanga Photo Archive at



“The Topanga Historical Society Presents: Living on the Edge of America”

by Rebecca Catterall
Photo by John Clemens / The Lower Topanga Photo Archive

Ever wonder about the local folklore concerning cabins on Topanga Beach that were demolished in 1978? Or stories before the bulldozing of The Rodeo Grounds and Snake Pit neighborhoods in 2006? And how did they get those names anyway? Your curiosity will be satisfied at the Topanga Historical Society Quarterly meeting, Wednesday evening, July 19 at the Topanga Community Center (TCC). The potluck begins at 7 p.m. before the 8 p.m. program.

Our story begins around 9,000 years ago when Topanga Beach was inhabited by Chumash and Tongva tribes. The area was called Humaliwo (Malibu), “where the waves sound loud.” A friendly line in the sand was drawn dividing these two tribes for living, but commerce and creating unique canoes (tomols) kept them neighborly.

Fast forward to the Mission Movement and Ranchos when long-horn cattle studded the landscape. Again the land was divided between Boca de Santa Monica Rancho and Malibu Rancho, coincidently on the same line that divided the first peoples’ tribes.

Recreating that time, silent film actor Tom Mix filmed Westerns on Topanga Beach and in the Canyon. Also hanging around was William Randolph Hearst who purchased the land when building a palatial Santa Monica beach house for Marian Davies in the 1920’s. He also built small houses on Topanga Beach for the use of his movie-star friends; the likes of Garbo and Keaton lived there, and later on Shirley Temple and others.

But the biggest housing explosion was after 1929 when the Rindge family, owner of the Malibu Rancho at that time, lost control of the property and Roosevelt Highway (PCH) was built. The workers lived in Topanga Beach Tent City. The community was later known as Elkhorn, complete with a café and dance hall.

The Depression hit Hearst hard and in 1938 he sold the land to the Los Angeles Athletic Club. At that point it was still a Hollywood escape and rumors have it that Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, Peter Lawford and others stayed in the now defunct motel.

Continue to fast forward to the 1960’s and the bohemian world invades Los Angeles, settling in Topanga. Different groups gravitate to three distinct locations: the beach, The Rodeo Grounds, and The Snake Pit. There are hardcore bikers called The Heathens; a group called The Pirates who lived up to their names as robbers; and surfers, known as The Bombers, who were not always willing to share the waves with outsiders.  And, of course, the poets, artists, and musicians such as Mama Cass, Bear from Canned Heat, and Buddy Miles from Jimi Hendrix’s band. Perhaps the most notorious, living in a black bus in The Snake Pit with his “family,” was Charles Manson.

Life on the beach was life on the edge for many. But for some there was added value in the bohemian lifestyle, producing writers, filmmakers, and even a skateboard champ. And the occasional fire and flood experienced up the Canyon also impacted those at the mouth of the creek. There are images of a VW Bus being washed out to sea and an Amerigas truck nearly met the same fate.

The presentation will be by local historian Eric Dugdale, former Rodeo Grounds resident and poet Pablo Capra, and you, the audience. Time will be available during the second half of the program for locals to share their own stories and recollections of living on Topanga Beach.

Copies of “The Topanga Story” will be available for purchase, along with “Topanga Beach Experience,” published by Pablo Capra’s Brass Tacks Press, and a recent anthology, “Bohemia in Southern California,” that contains a first-person essay by Capra.

Become a Member—Topanga Historical Society membership is only $20/year for individuals or $30/year for a family.

The program is open to all and free of charge. The potluck begins at 7 p.m. Bring a main dish, side dish or dessert to share. Coffee and tea will be provided. The program starts at 8 p.m. The Topanga Community Center is located at 1440 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga, CA 90290. 

BOHEMIA IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA edited by Jay Ruby (San Diego State University Press, April 2017)

Bohemia in Southern California
edited by Jay Ruby
San Diego State University Press, 2017
262 pages


"Idlers of the Bamboo Grove"

by Pablo Capra

"Even from the air, the neighborhood was basically hidden." (1979)
© 2002-2015 Kenneth & Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project,

The dirt road to my neighborhood was easy to miss, an opening in the trees. It dipped off the highway at a steep crooked angle like it was meant to impede the attackers of a medieval fortress. Wary visitors then had to cross a moat-like creek, bounce over oil-pan breaking bumps, and decide if they wanted to continue into a dense bamboo casbah whose only sign of habitation was the baleful sound of barking dogs. Even from the air, the neighborhood was basically hidden.

The AmeriGas truck got stuck in the creek every winter. Pizza places wouldn't deliver there. Police never came to the neighborhood unless called. Firefighters battling the big blazes common to the area took their stand just beyond it. Left to their own devices during the 1993 Malibu fire, residents boldly set their own backfires.
Shortly after 5 a.m., as flames shot over the ridge above their homes and there was nary a firefighter in sight, they decided to go for broke.
At the last possible moment, [Shane] McMahon and his friends lighted three backfires that with the wind's help zoomed up the ridge and met the oncoming inferno like a first baseman outracing a runner to the bag.
In the aftermath of the devastating Malibu fire, "Shane's backfire" was the buzz of the canyon this week, as die-hard residents credited the volunteers with saving up to 40 houses in one of Topanga's oldest and most bohemian neighborhoods.
McMahon, 38, a surfer and construction worker who has lived in the canyon 20 years, was philosophical.
"We like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals up here," he said. "If there's no one to help us, we'll fend for ourselves."
(Russell 1993)
Even the landlord was rarely seen. Residents were expected to handle home repairs themselves, including grading the dirt road and building an impressive suspension footbridge across the creek. Presumably this, and the fact that the old rustic houses were often damaged by heavy rains and flooding, is why rents were kept extremely low.

"Wary visitors then had to cross a moat-like creek…"
Photo by Baretta, early 2000s

Yet the natural beauty of the neighborhood was an inspiring compensation, bestowing a feeling of riches greater than living in luxury homes. Part-time resident and poet Robert Campbell perceived it as… 
a lush green mansion
just east of Malibu
that abbreviates those palaces there….
(Campbell 2000 A)
We lived just outside the city limit of Los Angeles and across the street from the first beach in Malibu… but really it felt like we were in our own isolated village, perhaps in another country. At night, there were no streetlights. I loved taking night walks! I'd step outside and disappear. The darkness felt so sheltering. Yet, in walking distance, we had our own market, motel, gas station, hair salon, feed store, bait shop, restaurants, and bus stop to downtown Los Angeles. 

I think it was this feeling of frontier-town independence, combined with opportunities for idleness and the proximity to big-city culture, that turned this into a bohemian neighborhood. In the words of Campbell again, it was…
a perfect place just to get away
from the annoying crossroads
and noisy street signs
from the hustle and bustle struggle
just to stay alive
a move back to the big sky
with the flowers and trees
to let his mind shimmer
in the summer breeze.
(Campbell 2000 B)
When you're confronted with that kind of freedom, you really get to develop your individuality. Growing up, I rarely felt pressured to look a certain way or get a job. I never drove a car, partly because I never felt the joy in leaving. I lived in a greenhouse. I wrote a lot, and started my own poetry press called Brass Tacks Press—which also released a series of books about the neighborhood (quoted in this essay) and collaborated on two documentary films, Malibu Song by Natalie Lettner and Werner Hanak (2006) and Last Bastion by Anastasia Fite (2009).

The neighborhood attracted a diverse group of people including artists, surfers, families, outlaws, and anyone looking for something different. People came because it was cheap, because it was a place to escape from society's expectations, and to be closer to nature. Most stayed for decades. They built outdoor bathtubs, totem poles, parade floats, and skateboard ramps (on the roof!). They painted their houses in Caribbean colors and lived in unusual structures like treehouses and water tanks. They grew pot, planted fruit trees, went nude, had campfires, fired guns at rattlesnakes, kept horses, and let their dogs and cats roam free.

The neighborhood had a few different areas, but the main ones were The Rodeo Grounds (where I lived) and The Snake Pit (which was a little wilder). Some people kept to themselves, some fostered community—either way the shared experience of living in this unique place became something of a group identity. The neighborhood's self-image was only strengthened by its individuals and eccentrics, like in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row (1945). In some ways, it resembled the nearby artists' colony The Property, which the founders had planned as a "Commune of Autocrats" (see Ruby, this volume). It took its lead from the hippie stronghold in the Topanga mountains, and the Hollywood coolness of Malibu. But the neighborhood was such its own animal that it almost had its own lingo… although Malibu as a whole has a tribal vocabulary, and words that seem normal there like "bitchin'" are met with quizzical looks in more inland parts of Los Angeles. 

Like in many bohemian communities, there were plenty of opportunities for hedonism and abuse as well. The privacy was so seductive, and the low cost of living was such a relief, that it was easy to overindulge. As Campbell commented in his poem:
Rodeo Grounds Eden
a perfect setting for sin….
(Campbell 2000 A)
Pushing that freedom was addictive. There was almost a sense of torch-bearing, like we should do this because we can… before the end, which always seemed to be looming. One reason the neighborhood had remained in a kind of adolescent state were the rumors that the land would eventually be sold off for development or a park. As these rumors turned into reality around 2000, the hedonism of the neighborhood increased, and every year was celebrated as the last.
Like a beautiful woman dying of cancer
Our village counts the days,
Each a gift of infinite pleasure.
Is anything sweeter than another empty day?
(Mathers 2002)
What will we do with the cats
When the bulldozers come?
We don't like to think of it
But we have to some.
Do what you want while we have the canyon,
Each day is a dreamy memory one.
(McCrackin 2002)
I had just reached adulthood when I learned that it would all be taken away from me soon. This spurred me on to begin archiving the history of the neighborhood. I cherished the pictures and stories I collected, knowing that most would vanish if I didn't preserve them now. By 2007 not only were all the houses gone, but my whole street had been bulldozed into oblivion. 

My street winds through the bamboo grove.
Photo by Pablo Capra, early 2000s

I felt like Ishi (Kroeber 1964). I was the last young adult left in the neighborhood, and my connection to it seemed like an almost mythical pedigree. I knew growing up here had made me different, but what were the values I had learned? How would they serve me in life? What had others done with this lifestyle?

It turns out they had done a lot! 

Even though the neighborhood felt so far away from the outside world, it was nevertheless a hotbed of surprising contributions. Naturally, the neighborhood began as a place of recreation. An early tourist guidebook advertises…
Swimming is the leading diversion at Topanga Beach, though dancing claims its share of the popularity. Cabin accommodations are to be had at Topanga Beach Tent City.
Far enough inland to be among the oaks and sycamores yet near enough for an easy hike to the beach and swim, Elkhorn Camp is a pleasant spot for a week-end stopover. There is a store and café in connection with the cabins at Elkhorn, as well as a good dancing pavilion.
(Brunner 1925:8)
Cowboy actor Tom Mix and his friends are said to have used my circular street as a rodeo ring: hence its name, Rodeo Grounds. Mix "was Hollywood's first Western megastar and is noted as having helped define the genre for all cowboy actors who followed" (Wikipedia). Rumors of an earlier Japanese fishing village have been harder to substantiate.

According to film historian Dan Price (Capra 2002), William Randolph Hearst bought the neighborhood and much of the surrounding coastline in the Teens or '20s. In the late '20s, Hearst built several cottages where he and his mistress, actress Marion Davies, could throw parties and put up their guests. In 1938, Hearst sold the property to the Los Angeles Athletic Club, who leased the cottages out to a motel. Today these cottages are some of the last remaining structures in the neighborhood, intended to be preserved for their history, but no longer in use and falling apart. Famous actors reported to have stayed at the motel include Marilyn Monroe, Errol Flynn, and Peter Lawford. Other actors who lived in the neighborhood include Greta Garbo, Shirley Temple, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Carole Lombard, Ida Lupino, Buster Keaton, Sally Field, Doug McClure, Jan Michael Vincent, and Sara Lane (Capra 2002).

But the discovery that fascinated me most was that my neighborhood had been twice as big. Right on the beach, there'd been a rambunctious community that had met the same fate as my area when it was bulldozed for public access in 1978.

Los Angeles was founded inland, and it wasn't until the early twentieth century that people started migrating to the beaches. Malibu was a private ranch owned by the Rindge family until 1929. Writer Reyner Banham coined the term "Surfurbia" to describe communities like Topanga Beach that began to alter the urban landscape.
Sun, sand, and surf are held to be ultimate and transcendental values, beyond mere physical goods:
"Give me a beach, something to eat, and a couple of broads, and I can get along without material things," said a Santa Monica bus-driver to me, summing up a very widespread attitude in which the pleasures of physical well-being are not "material" in the sense of the pleasures of possessing goods and chattels. The culture of the beach is in many ways a symbolic rejection of the values of the consumer society, a place where a man needs to own only what he stands up in—usually a pair of frayed shorts and sun-glasses.
There is a sense in which the beach is the only place in Los Angeles where all men are equal and on common ground.... It is roughly speaking possible for a man in beach trunks and a girl in a bikini to go to almost any beach unmolested—even private ones if they can muster the nerve to walk in.
(Banham 1971:20-21)
Even though Angelenos had finally learned to appreciate the beaches, surfing didn't really catch on in California until the movie Gidget came out in 1959 (See Lawler, this volume). Topanga Beach resident Paul Lovas saw the film when he was 11, and describes the lasting impression it left on his generation:
It was about this girl learning to surf all summer and hanging out at the beach. In the movie, the guys surfed because it was the greatest thing to do, and partied all the time, and met girls on the beach. That's what they lived for: having a good time. When you saw the movie, you wanted to do the exact same thing. 
Before Gidget, there were maybe 500 surfers in California. Afterwards, there were 25,000. It really changed everything. The whole culture came in: surf music (The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Dick Dale), surf shops, surf movies, skateboarding. Everyone wanted to be a surfer, or look like a surfer.
(Lovas and Capra 2011:1)
For Lovas, Topanga Beach was a place where he and his pals could live that surfers' dream.
Topanga was the surf hangout, groovy place to be away from LA. That's why we were there. It was a lifestyle, and getting used to it was a lot of fun.
(Lovas and Capra 2011:43)
Another surfer nicknamed Baretta was equally impressed when he chanced upon Topanga Beach. He had moved from San Diego to Los Angeles, and was getting burned out on the city.
But everything changed that day when I first saw how idyllic Topanga Beach was. It was a very shanty kind of village of makeshift places that had a lot of add-ons. None of the houses down there were spanking nice. They were rugged beach houses that were bootlegged, but they all seemed to have righteous decks in front where people would kick back, shoot the shit, and drink in the afternoon. And down towards the Charthouse [restaurant] all these groovy people were playing volleyball. There were several nets down there. It just looked like a totally bitchin' scene!
(Baretta 2006:1) 
High school teacher Carole Winter found a personal meaning in the date that she first came to Topanga Beach, the Fourth of July, since she felt it marked the beginning of her own liberation. 
A friend of mine said he was staying down at Topanga Beach, and gave me the address, and I drove there and never left. And that was in '69, July 4th... Independence Day.
(Lettner and Hanak 2006) 
Topanga Beach was so free-spirited that part of it became a nude beach. But what Reyner Banham saw as the ideal of "Surfurbia"—that anyone could walk onto a private beach and be accepted—was ironically no longer true once surfing took over. Topanga Beach gained a nasty reputation for keeping people out.
I used to drive by Topanga Beach, and passing over the bridge by the creek, all this bamboo was growing out, and the leaves were blowing in an offshore wind. It looked so inviting and mysterious… but I didn't think about stopping because it was very, very private. There was a chain-link fence, barbed wire, and "No Trespassing" signs.
The Topanga Bombers were the enforcers on the beach…. They didn't like sneak-ins.
The Topanga Bombers would break glass Sparkletts bottles in the creek because that was the only way to get to the beach. The glass would be in about a foot of water. Outsiders would be walking down with longboards on their heads and start falling down. 
Chicks would want to come down too, so the surfers would give them their own little trail, but no guys could get in. If you saw three guys coming down the creek with boards, the Topanga Bombers would get out of the water and go, "Get the heck out of here!" and start throwing rocks. Or they'd let them come out, then hit their car. Broken windshields. Flat tires.
(Lovas and Capra 2011:4)
The surf culture that everyone knew through Gidget was born a few miles north of Topanga Beach at Surfrider Beach (which was public). But Topanga Beach had a lot to do with the evolution of that culture.

Topanga Beach
Photo by John Puklus, July 1973

Probably the three top surfers in '70s Malibu were Topanga Beach locals George Trafton, Dave Hilton, and J. Riddle. Miki Dora, the top Gidget-era surfer who also appeared in the movie, later started surfing at Topanga Beach when Surfrider Beach became overrun.
The whole Topanga Beach scene in the early 1960s was this seething, artistic, alternative locale, and [Miki Dora] was a mentor in many ways. Topanga was sort of a retreat for him....
(Rensin 2009:88)
The winner of the first International Skateboard Championships in 1965, Woody Woodward, grew up on Topanga Beach. Two well-known surfboard shapers lived in the neighborhood: Robbie Dick ("Natural Progression") and Mike Perry. Three well-known surf filmmakers lived there: Scott Dittrich (Fluid Drive), Hal Jepsen (Cosmic Children), and Grant Rohloff (Men Who Ride Mountains). Artist Jim Ganzer started the popular surf clothing company Jimmy'Z there. 

Topanga Beach produced two important surfing publications: the Surfing Guide to Southern California by David H. Stern and Bill Cleary (1963), and Surf Guide magazine (1963-65, Surfer's early competitor). Among other things, Surf Guide is remembered for "Feigel Fables," a satirical column written by resident Bob Feigel. Feigel explains how Topanga Beach inspired his sense of humor:
Back in the early-'60s a whole group of legendary comedy writers rented a beach house down by the traffic lights, Bob Schiller (I Love Lucy, The Flip Wilson Show, M*A*S*H, All in the Family… and father of Saturday Night Live writer Tom Schiller), Bob Weiskopf, and others. There were some amazing, totally off-the-wall, impromptu sessions on the beach that pre-dated shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? by many, many years. Those sessions were also what got me interested in writing, improvisation and general insanity.
(Fiegel 2014)
The beach had its own surf band called Blue Juice (occasional members included Bernie Leadon from The Eagles and Jan Michael Vincent). Their songs, penned by bandleader J. Murf, captured the joy of being a young surfer at Topanga Beach.
Well you should have been there
in them offshore winds.
Corduroy, I swear!
Sets were rolling in.
The boys were out in force.
Time to take command.
Hurricane was the source.
Getting tubed was the plan.
you're coming down the line.
Nothing in the outside world can make you feel so fine.
(Blue Juice 1979)
The greater music scene was enriched by resident Herb Bermann, who wrote lyrics for Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band. This surreal sample reflects the free expression Bermann sought in his life and art:
bearded cowboy stains in black
reads dark roads without a map
seeking electricity.
(Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band 1967)
A number of other well-known musicians lived in the neighborhood for shorter periods, including The Bear (Canned Heat), Mama Cass (The Mamas & The Papas), and Buddy Miles (Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys). Rambling Jack Eliot was a frequent visitor. The punk rock band The Bags rehearsed there with early member and resident Johnny Nation. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti shot the music video for their first single "For Kate I Wait" there. 

One reason so many creative people came to the neighborhood was because of a few residents' communal approach to making art. Norton Wisdom was known to have parties where anyone could paint on his canvases. He also developed his painting into a nightclub act with a pioneering punk band called Panic. Michael Greene's (and later James Mathers's) art studio in The Rodeo Grounds was a major hangout spot for artists. In my era, most people who visited the neighborhood were going there.

Because the residents were so resourceful, it seems fitting that there were several inventors. One whose name I've forgotten, but whom I obviously liked a lot as a kid, invented toys. More often, though, people were coming up with new ways to get away with stuff. A guy on the beach, Tim Harvey, built a remote-controlled lighthouse on his roof so the surfers could surf at night. Another guy in The Snake Pit, nicknamed Tool, made a career of building secret compartments to smuggle contraband. His description of a hiding place he built in his backyard sounds like something out of a Cheech & Chong movie.
We ended up growing 300 damn plants! ...all of a sudden my house was just full. There wasn't a flat space. My shower, every inch of floor, every tabletop was covered. There was barely a path to walk in, sit down on the couch, watch TV, and get to your bed. Everything was half-gallon milk containers with three-foot plants. And my house had too many windows by now for this kind of behavior. We had the curtains semi-pulled all the time, but I wanted the plants out in the sun.
So my next secret panel was a deck I built in my backyard to hide the plants from the helicopters. I went to House of Plastic, bought brown, quarter-inch, smoked (but transparent) Plexiglas, had them cut it in 3.5-inch strips to look like planks of wood, and made a fake deck. I even sanded the strips so they weren't shiny, so they looked more brown and flat. And I had sun chairs and tables on top of it. 
(Tool 2007:22)  
The neighborhood's most popular "inventor" was Craig Halley. 
Craigy was like a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I mean, I always liked him. Craigy was classic. But he was always into some crazy stuff. Like, "Yeah, I'll fix your fridge," and he would MacGyver two pieces of tinfoil together with some gum, and it would work for a day, and then crumble down. Or, "Yeah, I know roofing!" and he'd throw some tar up there. Whatever the case might have been, he didn't really have a master in any of it, but he would do everything.
(Rohloff and Capra 2009:47-48)  
When he was 15, he'd hook up your cable TV for a free pack of beer. He had 20 houses hooked up to one house. And he had access to everybody's house because they needed Craigy to fix their shit (because he would never fix things right the first time). All of a sudden, Craigy would be in your room going, "Hup, hup, hup, hup." And then he'd be gone.
Craigy built a Jacuzzi in the hallway of his house. On Friday night, he would fill it for the girls who came down by draining the hot water heaters of the houses on either side. This is before there really were Jacuzzis. He just dammed up the doors in his hallway, made a cement tub, and put a floating motor in the water.
(Lovas and Capra 2011:23)
Halley was like the mascot for the neighborhood's zany creative spirit. He was a rebel against consumer culture, and an aristocrat who had no intention of living like a "normal citizen."
Sometimes at George's, you'd look over and see Craigy with tons of people in his car, people on the hood, and people on the top of the car, hanging on, wasted, just trying to make the stretch on PCH up Topanga Canyon to The Pit without getting caught by the cops. 
It was like, "Let's just go for it! Let's not be normal citizens and ride inside the car. Let's ride all over the car, on the roof, on the hood."
(Rohloff and Capra 2009:48)
The neighborhood was so independent that it often resisted authority. There are numerous accounts of people outrunning cops by disappearing into the neighborhood. If you knew the roads and trails, you were as good as invisible. Even on the beach, residents could travel incognito from one end to the other on the roofs of the houses. People were allowed to live by their own rules, even if they were hardcore drug addicts and non-conformists. The following are three outrageous examples:
George's Market was very close to some of the lanes, and the people who were really addicted to 'ludes, the sad cases, would crawl to it on a daily basis. Somebody would usually intervene on the way though and say, "Hey… I'll go to the store for you, bro. Just give me the money," so they wouldn't have to crawl the whole way. The village was so friendly, and everybody knew what biscuits did to you….
I remember seeing some crawlers in the market that had made it all the way. They would just look up at the clerk and go, "Heyahsomemilk." And the market was so friendly too that they would help them. They knew what was going on. The addicts were accepted in the neighborhood.
(Baretta 2006:16)
…there was this PCP guy who was living naked on the roof below me. He didn't live in a room. The guy would eat only fruits and vegetables and be naked. And he wouldn't remove any of the peels, so it was like this bizarre debris of dried orange peels, and watermelon skins, and him naked doing PCP on the roof.
(Tool 2007:41)
And I remember once we got really deep in this bamboo forest, and all of a sudden we noticed there was a couch and a makeshift mini-house! That was my first time meeting Frank. 
Frank actually turned out to be one of the nicest guys to the kids. Our parents knew we were with him, and they knew he was basically harmless—which sounds trippy today. You'd be considered a molester or some weird freak for hanging out with kids like that now, but he never did anything. He just needed friends. 
My dad told me that Frank had been a scientist, a philosopher, and a professor at Ivy League schools… and then all of sudden Timothy Leary, acid, and the '60s happened. According to my dad, Frank had taken 100 hits at once, dropped out of the whole teaching profession, and ended up in The Snake Pit (where a lot of these people who had lost their minds would end up). He chose to stop living the "Big Brother" government way of life. He had no address, and was totally reclusive. I think he'd saved some money from his teaching days, and he had a rich family back east, so he had money coming in, but he still lived very meagerly on canned goods.
(Rohloff and Capra 2009:13)
When the first lifeguards were brought to the beach at the transition to its going public, their rules were scorned—especially the ban on dogs. Tim Harvey built an alarm system that warned the whole beach to bring their dogs in whenever the dogcatcher was around. Eventually the dogs learned to run inside when the alarm rang, and the dogcatcher was foiled.

If surfers were fighting on the beach, they might prevent authorities from breaking up the fight.
Ambulances showed up sometimes and then got scared off the beach, so they wouldn't pick anybody up.
(Rohloff and Capra 2009:8)
There are actually reports of Wild West showdowns in The Snake Pit between gun-toting neighbors.
They were more or less idle threats, but the guns were real, and they would shoot them off in the air sometimes, and I questioned my safety in this neighborhood that I had chosen.
(Baretta 2006:23)
No wonder a few real outlaws liked this place. On the beach there lived a wild group nicknamed The Pirates. They were serious drug dealers, who were also wanted for armored robbery and killing a security guard.
Their place was amazing. All the windows were blacked out, and the inside was lit purple with black lights like a nightclub. All the closets in the house had been turned into little orgy rooms. You opened the door, and there'd be a bed and a skylight in the roof…. 
In the middle of the living room, on a table, there was a big bowl with every drug you could possibly imagine. They called them Monday through Friday specials. And on the weekends, they'd mix them up. Like, "Today I'm going to try a Thursday and a Friday special," or "a Monday/Wednesday combo."
(Lovas and Capra 2011:26)
The neighborhood was also a hangout for a murderous biker gang called The Heathens, a rival of the Hell's Angels.
The Heathens used to love to operate down in The Snake Pit around one or two in the morning. They rode gnarly Harleys—not nice, pristine, shiny ones but old Heathen ones put together with shoestring and tin cans—and they'd come in and ride, hooting and hollering, at night, scaring the locals out of their sleep. They'd be swooping around, pulling 360s, and the dust would be coming up like the Indians were going to attack. They had their adrenaline going, and who knows who they had fucked over, or killed, or beaten up earlier that evening.
(Baretta 2006:31)
But the vilest outlaws (although no one knew it at the time) were Charles Manson's gang. They lived in a black bus in The Snake Pit, where Manson recruited a young girl named Diane "Snake" Lake and listened to The Beatles's White Album for the first time. Manson's son "Pooh Bear" was born there. Later, after a murder, the gang again took refuge in the neighborhood.

Artist James Mathers scowls as the market is bulldozed.
Photo by Baretta, June 2003.

So after all my research, here's what I think I learned from living in this neighborhood. I have a deep appreciation for art, and a communal approach to making it. I have a strong DIY ethic (although I'm not "rugged" enough to set a backfire or build a bridge). I think nonconformity is cool. Possessions don't carry status for me. I love surfing. I'm environmentally conscious. I'm suspicious of wolves in bohemians' clothing. I don't smoke, drink, or do drugs because I saw too many people struggle with addiction.

And how have these values served me in life? I think mostly they've kept me healthy, honest, and positive. Finding my place in the outside world was a struggle and took me as far away as Germany, but I'm proud to have finally reached some stability in my 30s. However, I still long for those idle days that enticed me to explore my creativity, and hope to find a place that feels so much like home again.

The park that was meant to replace the neighborhood in 2006 never opened (some outlaws make the laws!). Several businesses still operate along the Pacific Coast Highway, but the rest of the land remains in an untended demolished-looking state. The beach is still a popular surfing spot, but only a fiery bougainvillea and a few pilings that protrude "Ozymandias"-like from the sand hint at the "wild life" that was once there. 
I'm glad it became a public beach instead of something else. They put in a nice parking lot. They have a lifeguard there to save you. There are no more cocktails on the beach. No smoking, dogs, nudity, or horses. No houses, no nothing. All those new rules, you get used to them… but, boy, we had a great time breaking them when we could!
(Lovas and Capra 2011:43) 


Banham, Reyner 
- 1971 Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies
- 2006 Topanga Beach Snake Pit: Volume 1. Los Angeles: Brass Tacks Press.
Blue Juice
- 1979 "Inside-Outside Boogie." The Best of Blue Juice. Malibu: J. Murf (distributed by Brass Tacks Press).
Brunner, Francis
- 1925 Southern California's Prettiest Drive: Topanga and Las Flores Canyon Stages. Reprinted by the Topanga Historical Society in 2000.
Campbell, Robert
- 2002 "Rodeo Grounds Last Spark of Eden," Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon. Los Angeles: Brass Tacks Press.
- 2002 "The Rebirth of the Frustrated Artist," Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon. Los Angeles: Brass Tacks Press.
Capra, Pablo (editor)
- 2002 Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon. Los Angeles: Brass Tacks Press.
- 2004 "Topanga Ranch Motel Residents Get 30-Day Notice." Topanga Messenger. July 29.
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
- 1967 "Electricity." Safe As Milk. New York City: Buddah Records.
Feigel, Bob
- 2014 A Personal History of Surfing's Gold Years. 
Lovas, Paul and Capra, Pablo
- 2011 Topanga Beach Experience: 1960s-70s. Los Angeles: Brass Tacks Press.
Mathers, James
- 2002 "A Village on Cracking Stilts," Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon. Los Angeles: Brass Tacks Press.
McCrackin, Daisy Duck
- 2002 "In the Canyon," Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon. Los Angeles: Brass Tacks Press.
Rensin, David
- 2009 "Miki Dora: Topanga Days," Malibu Magazine. April 1.
Rohloff, Chris and Capra, Pablo
- 2009 Topanga Beach Snake Pit: Volume 3. Los Angeles: Brass Tacks Press.
Russell, Ron 
- 1993 "Going for Broke to Battle Blaze," Los Angeles Times. November 11.
- 2007 Topanga Beach Snake Pit: Volume 2. Los Angeles: Brass Tacks Press.


PABLO CAPRA is a writer and publisher of Brass Tacks Press. From 2006-2011, he edited and co-wrote a series of Topanga Beach books. The most recent one was Topanga Beach Experience:1960s-70s with co-writer Paul Lovas. He manages a Lower Topanga Photo Archive, which is hosted on the Brass Tacks Press website,



“The Readable Feast—Mystery Man”

by Vic Tripp

The Mystery Man from the Magic Band
by Herb Bermann 
with an Introduction by John “Drumbo” French
Interview by Derek Laskie 
and Foreword by Alec Baldwin 
(Brass Tacks Press, Los Angeles, 2015)

For a long time, one of Herb Bermann’s many careers was among the best kept secrets in Southern California. Bermann, a Topanga Canyon resident from most of the ’70s through 2006, has a lengthy resume. His acting credits include Don Siegel’s 1962 war drama, “Hell Is for Heroes,” a recurring role in the TV series, “Dr. Kildare” and the 1950 film noir, The Asphalt Jungle. He also appeared as George Washington in a recent pair of MasterCard commercials. 

His writing runs from the screenplay for Dennis Hopper’s film, After the Gold Rush, through multiple scripts for TV shows “S.W.A.T.,” “Medical Center” and “Wonder Woman.” 

Then there’s music. Aficionados of avant-garde rock and roll are well acquainted with the work of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band. Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, a high-desert neighbor of Bermann’s, recorded the classic ‘60s and ‘70s albums, Safe as Milk and Trout Mask Replica, that have drawn in fans like Lennon and McCartney (who tried to sign him to their label), Leonard Bernstein, Tom Waits, Johnny Rotten, Joan Osbourne, the Black Keys and PJ Harvey. 

While Beefheart is rightly regarded as a singular artist, famous for instructing his band musicians on every note they played, what is less known is that he had a lyric collaborator, whom he lauded as “the Poet”… Herb Bermann.

“The Mystery Man from the Magic Band” is Bermann’s long untold tale. It’s something more than a memoir, not quite an autobiography, but a fascinating mix of personal history, songs and poems, topped by an in-depth interview that not only fills in colorful career details but paints a masterful portrait of adventurous artists doing their unique things in the California of the ‘60s. The work is here—more than 60 lyrics to tunes that graced Beefheart albums like 1966’s Safe as Milk, 1968’s Strictly Personal and 1978’s Shiny Beast—but so are the stories behind them, and the connections between the people who inhabited Bermann’s world during that crazed creative era: actor Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Frank Zappa, Texas Blues man Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ry Cooder and others. While he received credit for his Captain Beefheart co-writes (among them “Electricity,” “Autumn’s Child,” “Zig Zag Wanderer” and “Owed T’ Alex”), Bermann kept quiet about his role in the music until 1998 (“so silent,” writes interviewer Derek Laskie in the book, “that some people said that Captain Beefheart had invented him”). That year a music researcher turned up an old Lancaster associate of Van Vliet’s, who explained that the ‘mystery man’ indeed existed and was alive and well.

Of particular interest is Bermann’s affection for Lower Topanga Canyon, where he explains, “The body of my work was produced in that special place.” In 2002, Bermann, along with 10 other poets, collaborated on the book, “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove,” which celebrated the land they were soon to be displaced from when the state commandeered it for the expansion of Topanga State Park.

For more information: Brass Tacks Press:



The Mystery Man from The Magic Band
by Herb Bermann
Price: $25.00
Pages: 116
Brass Tacks Press, 2015


by Alec Baldwin

Back in 1985, I met Herb Bermann in Los Angeles, through mutual friends. He was a quiet and intense guy just shy of 50 years old. I was an actor in my late 20s, who had moved to LA to get into the film and television business.

As I got to know Herb, I enjoyed learning about his career as an actor in the 1950s, toward the end of the studio system of contract players. He played on TV shows like Dr. Kildare, then went on to enjoy a successful career as a screenwriter, winning a Writers Guild Award for the mini-series The Psychiatrist, and writing a screenplay alongside his friend Dean Stockwell that inspired Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush album.

Herb was also a full-fledged denizen of Malibu in the 1960s and ‘70s, and he, along with a wild gallery of musicians, actors, and their celebrity entourage, committed himself to every bit of that colorful lifestyle that you and I have read so much about.

Along the way, however, Herb crafted some genuinely creative writing in the form of lyrics to the music of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, who were considered one of the most original acts of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Always a bit of a cipher, frequently witty, while always modest, thoughtful, and kind, Herb is a great writer who had the good fortune to connect his talent to other great artists at a time when talent seemed to matter more.

I hope you enjoy this book as much as I’ve enjoyed my friendship with Herb these past 30 years.


“A look at the new book from Herb Bermann, Don’s co-writer on Safe As Milk.”

It’s not that long ago that many people thought that Herb Bermann was just another myth created by Don Van Vliet. Although he shared writing credits on eight songs on the Safe As Milk album, and, much later, one on Shiny Beast, he seemed to have disappeared off the radar. But the Radar Station kept looking for him….

You can read about my and Derek Laskie’s search here. We were certain he was out there and Derek eventually managed to secure an exclusive interview with him for the Radar Station (read interview). Herb is proud of his work with Don, apart from being annoyed at not getting writing credits on some of the Strictly Personal songs, but he’s not bothered about shouting about it from the rooftops.

Some time in 2014 an interesting item turned up on eBay. One of many items that have appeared for sale from Herb Cohen’s estate. (Herb Cohen was Frank Zappa’s and Don Van Vliet’s manager for a time… it’s their acrimonious falling out that delayed the release of Bat Chain Puller for over 35 years). This particular eBay item was a collection of original song lyrics from Safe As Milk. Unfortunately the Radar Station couldn’t afford to buy them and secure them for Beefheart fans. However Derek alerted Herb to the sale of his manuscript. It was clear to Derek that this was a copy of the document he had quoted from during their interview. In the exchange which followed he suggested that Brass Tacks publish a facsimile edition of the manuscript.

And thanks to Pablo Capra at Brass Tacks Press here we have that facsimile plus other fascinating bits and pieces.

The Mystery Man from the Magic Band
Publisher: Brass Tacks Press, Los Angeles
Published: June 2015
First Edition of 100 signed / numbered copies
ISBN: 978-0-9820140-1-1
Price: $25.00


From Brass Tacks Press publicity:

Herb Bermann was credited as co-writing eight of the songs on Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s debut album Safe As Milk (1967); it would have been a completely different record without him.

Yet Bermann kept silent about Captain Beefheart for almost 50 years—so silent that some people said that Captain Beefheart had invented him. Now Bermann shares his story!

Fans will be charmed by Bermann’s descriptions of how his songs came to be written. They may also be surprised to learn just which songs he says he wrote. Included is a facsimile reproduction of his original lyric sheets, with dozens more songs that were never produced.

Bermann’s story reveals previously unpublished information about the early work of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Neil Young and Steven Spielberg. It also introduces us to an artist whose work and influence have been generally overlooked.


by Steve Froy

The centrepiece of the book is the facsimile of the 64 typewritten lyric sheets of songs composed by Don Van Vliet with Herb Bermann, plus some only written by Bermann. This is great stuff! To finally see the actual lyrics Don would have used for the songs on Safe As Milk, and to find out what some of the more difficult to hear words are at long last.

What’s more there are a few surprises.

It seems Bermann was involved with four of the songs that appeared on Strictly Personal as Van Vliet-only credits. One of the extra items pictured in the book is a letter from Bob Krasnow informing Herb Bermann that he needs to get a letter signed from Don if he wants to get the writing credits changed.

More exciting are the lyrics for three of the songs that only exist as instrumentals on the Plain Brown Wrapper sessions—“Flower Pot,” “Moody Liz” and “Dirty Blue Jean.” Here’s a project begging for the Magic Band reunion to take on. Wouldn’t it be something if they could perform these three songs with lyrics! The “Dirty Blue Jean” lyrics are completely different to all the other later versions apart from one line— “don’t cha wish y’ nevah met dirty blue jean”.

(Click on image to see larger version. Doesn’t that first line of “Moody Liz” remind you instantly of the opening of “I’m Glad”?)

And, what’s more there are a bunch of songs, Bermann / Van Vliet collaborations, that have never been recorded. John French lets slip that some of them were rehearsed and early versions may exist on tapes still held by Doug Moon. It’s doubtful that any of Moon’s tapes will see the light of day (although one can hope!) but it would be another interesting exercise for John to revisit these songs with the reunion band. Although that’s probably easier said than done!

There are two pages of “End Notes” by Herb Bermann which offer a bit more detail about the songs and its origins. There’s some fascinating details here but I was hoping there would have been more than this relatively brief commentary which only touches on some of the songs.

All the songs are copyright 1966 which is the year Don and Herb met. It seems some of the songs/poems were already finished by the time of the meeting and it’s not clear what, or indeed, how much input Don had to the lyrics. Don was obviously very interested in Bermann’s work and, I’m sure, saw it as something he could build on and use to create his own style. Before they met Don’s use of words in his songs was fairly conventional. However, all that was to change and I think it was Bermann’s way of writing that kick-started the development in Don’s own songwriting. Bermann’s poems are lean and sparse with concentrated meaning, use of repetition, little or no punctuation and much use of the colloquial—“t’” instead of “the,” “mah” instead of “my,” “cain’t” instead of “can’t,” “nevah” instead of “never” etc. Don was to take this, develop it and take it to places nobody had been before. I’d like to speculate that “Abba Zaba” and “Beatle Bones and Smokin’ Stones” were early examples of Don using the “Bermann method.”

Fans often wondered why Herb Bermann didn’t appear again after Safe As Milk. I think it’s fairly obvious now. Don took what he needed. Through Herb he managed to find a way to his own unique songwriting style and once he’d found that he didn’t need the poet anymore. But there’s no denying Herb Bermann seems to have been an important influence on Don.

John French has written a short introduction to the book and the content is rounded off with an edited version of Derek Laskie’s excellent 2003 interview with Herb that appeared here on the Radar Station. Illustrated throughout with a number of photographs from Herb’s career—none of Don or the Magic Band unfortunately—this is a well designed, good looking large format paperback.

This first edition is limited to just 100 copies, all signed and numbered by Herb Bermann.

Currently only available from the publisher.

Definitely worth getting if you’re a fan.


"Book Review: Topanga Beach Experience by Paul Lovas"

by mobilemojoman
• Topanga Beach Experience: 1960s – 70s
• by Paul Lovas (as told to Pablo Capra)
• Publisher – Brass Tacks Press
• Copyright 2011
• 43 pages

RATING – 7.5/10

SUMMARY – Topanga Beach Experience is a chapbook recounting Paul Lovas‘ experiences there during the 1960s and 1970s. The book is short, but has some great anecdotes about bohemian life in Topanga before gentrification. At the end, the reader is left to ponder what we can learn about life from Lovas’ stories.

REVIEW – In the short book Topanga Beach Experience, Paul Lovas recounts his experiences living on Topanga Beach during the 1960s and 70s. He has a great collection of stories about how he and his friends “lived for the moment.”

The Topanga Destroyer

Lovas’ place in the world came about by happenstance. Back in the 1960s, he had a high school friend whose parents had a beach house on Topanga Beach. Lovas and the friend began surfing Topanga and Lovas then moved to Topanga, where he has lived since the sixties.

Eventually, Lovas acquired a reputation as an excellent surfer and friends dubbed him “The Topanga Destroyer.” Much of Topanga Beach Experience centers on the ways that surfing shaped Lovas’ life.


43 short chapters comprise the book, which loosely arranges the vignettes in chronological order. The chapters start with Lovas’ high school experiences and run to the 2000s. However, almost all of the book centers on the 1960s and 1970s.

For the most part, Topanga Beach Experience is lighthearted. Lovas recounts how he spent his early years surfing and partying with the creative people who drifted through Topanga. (In one memorable scene, Lovas and actor Jan-Michael Vincent barely escape getting arrested for drugs. In another, Lovas and a friend “take over” a beach house that Bob “Bear” Hite of Canned Heat had recently rented and trashed).

However, the book has a more-sobering, serious side. Lovas also discusses:

• the Vietnam draft,
• the time a good friend of his was stabbed in the heart. (He lived).
• And the destruction of Topanga’s beach community by (first) floods and (then) the State of California.

Whatever the topic and tone, the book is consistently interesting.

Areas for Improvement

Prospective buyers should know that Topanga Beach Experience is not a “true book” – it’s a chapbook and the printing reflects that. It’s something of a cross between a pamphlet and a book. There are 18 pages of interesting pictures, though they are grainy, black-and-white. (There are 43 pages of text, as the “photo pages” are not numbered). Moreover, the pages’ size varied a little, which gives the book an “untidy” appearance.

One thing that I would have liked to have read is a bit more reflection at the end of the book. Lovas sums up simply by stating that “success is just a smile on your face.” It’s not a bad way to end, but Lovas has lived an unconventional lifestyle in a place that has been a center of many of the social changes in the U.S. since the 1960s. Paul’s reflections on “what it all means” would have been welcome.


Topanga Beach Experience is a fun, lighthearted look at a world that – for the most part – no longer exists. It’s also cheap – with shipping, my copy set me back $7.50. I recommend it to anyone interested in the 1960s, bohemians, surfing, or southern California.

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