"The Beginning" "Kay Powers "O'Gara"-- © Copyright January 2002
This is an un-revised excerpt from Dino's Bio that I am in the process of writing.
The Beginning – told from my eyes.
Dino had a very different upbringing than most. My late brother, Chester W. Powers, a.k.a. Dino Valenti, a.k.a. Jessie Orris Farrow, and I grew up on carnivals traveling to different towns from week to week. We wintered in the warmer states, mostly, while our mom and dad played theaters (vaudeville) and nightclubs in the carnie's off-season as a comedy act. And we really did sleep in a trunk backstage until the show was over and it was time to go home – either a hotel room or a travel trailer. We went to a different school every year, always entering a little late and leaving a little early to coincide with the carnie season, so no great attachments were made. Nor were we ever really accepted while we were there as we were thought of in derogatory terms and stigmatized as “gypsies” or “circus freaks” and totally socially unacceptable in those days.
It was very educational on a rather unique level, particularly for a kid, since most of the carnies were misfits of one sort or another, and some were outlaws hiding from the authorities. Others didn't fit into society anywhere and some were just ahead of the time. We were a close knit “family" of misfits, however, and among us there were no holds barred. Very little was hidden from view, and there were no hushed whispers so that "the kids" would not hear. And though we were to be seen and not heard as very young children, we were always allowed to listen…not very much candy coating there.
As small children you tend to think that everyone lives the way you do, so in the very beginning you are confused as to why the other kids don't like you and what all the fuss is about anyway. It soon becomes obvious that "they are they" and "we are we" when you learn to refer to "them" as "town suckers" and "marks" and you hear yourself referred to as "carnie freaks" and "gypsies," though, personally, somewhere inside, I was flattered by the gypsy stigma. I'm certain that Dino was as well, because the gypsies on our carnies were honorable in our circle, and we saw them as colorful and exciting and musical and mystical and even magical. It was a carnie kid's fairy tale of heroes and heroines.
We were allowed to be wild and free by most standards when we were very little. Although it seems like eons ago, I still remember waking up in the morning in our trailer which was parked directly behind the girl show, and in the evening or wee hours, when our mom and dad closed down the show and came to the trailer, in order for them to be able to sleep in, as the girl shows usually only ran at night except for the Saturday matinees, mom would set up cereal bowls for us with cereal and sugar and all we has to do was add the milk, and there was always money beside our plates so that we could go onto the midway and play the games, ride the ponies, etc. We didn't have to pay for them really because we were "with it", but my dad always insisted that we did, so we had choices to make as to how to spend our money.
The other carnies kept a close eye on us for our mom and dad and when they woke up, my dad sent out the word, and wherever we were we were told that it was time to go home, to our trailer. As we got a little older there were concessions (joints) on the midway that we were allowed to work at and get paid for at a very young age. Dino usually worked the penny pitch, where the marks would throw a penny and try to land on a pack of cigarettes and other various prizes, and he also worked various scams in the sideshow, fire-eater, etc., while I worked the cotton candy "joint" and an animal act (with a trained chimpanzee) in the sideshow. I vaguely remember one season, him lying on a bed of nails in the sideshow, while I rode over him with a bicycle. We learned from watching our elders how to "short change" the marks and that it was okay to do so if they weren't smart enough to catch it. We were lacking morality in that area and also lacking somewhat in the social graces. We were not exposed to robotized societal conditioning, socially, morally, religiously or emotionally, so we didn't have a lot to unlearn when not too much later in life we began to question how things really worked as opposed to how they seemed. And we learned to not accept anything just because someone else said it was so, and to consider that even if it were so was that the only way it could be?
Dino and I eventually learned that it's really not okay to take advantage of people or dislike them just because you might think that they are not as "hip" as you in some areas or because of the differences in people's nature, ethnicity, background, etc. You know full well what it's like to be judged for things that are sometimes beyond your control and even for things that are not...and we eventually taught ourselves the "fine art of dining.”
Dino was born in Danbury, CT, and, almost immediately, was taken to the midway of the Jimmy Straits Shows, one of the largest "carnies" of its kind at that time. “Home” was a trailer on the carnie lot. Dino did a song about "Mojo," and in it he closely echoes the lines of the Willie Dixon blues classic, "Gypsy woman told my mama, on the day that I was born, you got a boy child coming to you woman, bound to be a son of a gun.” Our mother said this really happened, and Dino, in typical Dino fashion, wove this part of his colorful and elusive life into a song. I was born two years later under similar circumstances. Given who and what our parents were, and with these surroundings, we both naturally ended up in show business. He became a poet, singer (minstrel) and songwriter. David Crosby, whom Dino considered to be among his rather small preferential circle of friends, once stated, "Dino could write a song on his way to the bathroom,” which is not all that surprising when you consider that his musical career started when, at six or seven, he learned how to play our father's "uke" and started making up his own songs.
Our mother was a strange creature with little formal education, but she was very street savvy with a certain childlike innocence she wasn't aware she possessed. A small town girl from Moosup, CT, with a very rigid Catholic upbringing, she was married the first time, when she was about fifteen, to a much older man. It was a family-arranged marriage to hear her tell it, and she was still involved in the marriage, though not happily, when she met our dad, fell hopelessly in love with him and ran away with him to join the carnival. She had a great voice, and by today's standards she could have been a powerful force in the music industry. But the main thing that people remembered about her was this electric, raw, abounding energy that she possessed and fortunately passed down to a degree to Dino and me. She also passed on the quality of her childlike innocence to Dino as well, and though those who disliked him would scoff at that, those who knew him will know what I'm talking about.
Our dad was a small town boy from a rigid Catholic background as well, but he was one of the carnies who were ahead of their time, and the world itself wasn't big enough for him or his inquisitive mind. He always wanted to see the next place, meet the next people, and move on. He ran the "girlie" shows on the midway, one of which was called a "revue." It was set up to resemble a theater with "wings" in the curtains, and had a huge stage and rows of seats. My dad, playing the "pitchman" and hawking candy and other goodies before the show, had an eight girl chorus line with each of the girls having her own specialty act in the interim between the opening production number and the finale. There was a long outdoor stage where the girls would sway to the music while our dad would "bally"…perform tricks, tell jokes, and "con" the crowd into coming closer so that they would be ready to buy a ticket when he was done. It was called "drawing a tip.” Our dad was the emcee, our mom the songstress. Combined they were a comedy act with my dad being the baggy-panted, red-nosed comic and my Mom the "straight woman" feeding him his lines. Dino was "pitching" and "ballying" at a very early age, practically from the time he was able to talk coherently, and sometimes if it were slow and our dad couldn't get a tip, he would bring Dino on the bally, because Dino could parrot just about everything my dad usually said or did. And, being the consummate showman even then, he loved it when he was able to "draw" a bigger "tip" than our dad. Our dad also ran the” cootch” shows where the gals got “down and dirty” in the “back stage” section where the men had to pay extra to enter.
Our dad also ran the "G-top" (gambling tent) on Saturday nights after everyone got paid. The "roughies" (ride hands mostly) loved their Saturday night gambling and that's when we would have to start "tearing down,” taking down the tents and packing them up to get ready to leave Sunday Morning to travel to the next destination. Usually my dad would hire some marks to do the "bull" work, and Dino, knowing what needed to be done and what went where, would be in charge of supervising the tear down. With all of the above and running the concessions and working in the sideshow, Dino became very sharp and was totally accepted and well rounded as a carnie.
There eventually came a short period of so called normalcy where we lived in apartments in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and attended school on a normal schedule. However, we were already invented and it wasn't as significant as it seemed at one time. Our mom and dad had their private issues, and they had a habit of splitting up. Our dad would go off for a while, but he always came back. Finally, he split for the 100th time, but this time he didn't come back. He died on a carnie in Roanoke Virginia at the age of 51. Dino was very much like our dad and was deeply affected by his death. Shortly after our dad died, Dino's wanderlust kicked in, and he saw no reason to stay. So, with my mom signing for him, he joined the Air Force at age 17. Dino was busy getting himself ejected from the Air Force, and did eventually manage that with an undesirable discharge near the end of the beatnik era.
Part of Dino's psychiatric evaluation from the Air Force read, "Chester Powers is capable of doing anything he sets his mind to, however, he thinks that the whole United States Air Force should conform to his way of thinking." The rigid structure of the Air Force combined with a free gypsy spirit such as Dino made for a poor courtship, and he soon felt the need to move on. When he came home from the service, Mom gave him the option of going to hairdressing school or buying him a guitar. He opted for the guitar and started to explore the world professionally by performing in small clubs in Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island, and it wasn't long before he found his way to Greenwich Village, New York. He began working the various coffee houses, but the real music scene and the beginning of the "hippie" era were happening in San Francisco. Dino got married and had a son while in New York, but his life style and chosen profession weren't really conducive to a "young marriage," and it was very hard on his wife. So, very soon after his son, Joli, was born, she took the baby and left, and he hitchhiked to California and finally found his “home,”albeit not a very accepting one. He was a "dark horse" in the “oh so civilized" California culture.
He went on to become the lead singer/songwriter for the late 60's San Francisco-based rock band called "Quicksilver Messenger Service." He recorded a solo album before he joined QMS, and also wrote the 60's anthem, "Get Together,""Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now." Then came a pot bust or two – not a misdemeanor at that time – and he drew a one-to-five-year sentence and ended up selling his rights to "Get Together" in order to hire an attorney to help him get out of prison. When asked in later years how he felt about selling "Get Together" he said, "At the time, I figured I could always write another song." He now has upwards of a hundred songs listed with the Library Of Congress, and some of his better ones are still not released.
He lived a stranger, more unique lifestyle than most, and what might have seemed "normal" to most, sometimes confused and irritated Dino, and what seemed normal to Dino, confused and irritated others, and he would get either defensive or offensive, depending on who was telling the story, but he never just shrugged and walked away quietly; it just wasn't in his nature. He never fully transcended, nor do I think he ever really cared to transcend, after our early childhood, the stigma of being a gypsy and a carnie freak, even though he never felt totally accepted in "normal" society. He had drawn certain conclusions based on his experiences and didn't hesitate to voice his opinion. He was very passionate about standing up for what he believed in, but realized that (another line from one of Dino's songs), "When you stand up for what you do believe, be prepared to be shot down." So, allowing that his wasn't necessarily the only truth, but his truth for that moment in time, he felt that he was entitled to it, especially if he were willing to face the consequences of expressing the convictions of his individual truths. This gained Dino a somewhat undesirable reputation, as he wouldn't play the money game. He refused to sell out and demanded artistic freedom…mostly unheard of in those days.
His passionate and theatrical nature caused many a discourse, and he was known to "deck" a few people here and there. On the Carnies, where you grow up seeing "hey rubes" (the carnies and the marks getting into knock down drag out huge brawls), and on the east coast where we grew up, this was somewhat acceptable and known as survival. In "normal" life, and on the west coast where people tend to be more "civilized" and laid back, he obviously wasn't a "favorite son." He was one of those people that you either despised or loved, or just found too damn difficult to deal with, but either way, you would never disregard him. And if you met him, you never forgot him.
So, growing up on carnies and in a theatrical atmosphere, and possessing the raw energy that was inherited from our mom, the unique way of seeing the world that was taught to us by our dad, the "bawdy" acceptance of life as it is, and always feeling the need to watch your back because you were different, helped to promote a passionate, emotional, and determined nature in Dino. However, in his case, all of that was coupled with the fact that he had a large ATVM (arterial venal mass) growing and pressing on the emotional center of his brain. It had been growing there since he was born, but was not detected until it became life threatening. He had major brain surgery ten years before he died. Given his passion and energy – which could be conducive to a "hot temper" to begin with – and given his background and given this malady, what truly amazes me is that all he ever did was "deck" a few people here and there, because the malady that he had has been known to cause others to commit serious crimes against their fellow man. To me, this just proves what amazing control this incredible man had over his nature, and that his character and compassion, for the most part, took precedence over his physiological condition.
He left this planet suddenly – and left me – among many others – with a broken heart. We were closer than most siblings. As kids we had no choice; we were all we had for friends, and we knew of nobody else who could relate to our childhood. As we grew, we grew to really love, like, and respect each other. He was very wise and a true guru to many people, and I was his most faithful follower. He was my "big" brother, and much of the above that I state we learned, especially when we were kids, was usually thought of by him first, and I took it as gospel. His mind was like lightning, and he was on to the next thing in a "NY minute." He was the same way when performing. He was here, there, everywhere all at once; raw electric energy…ubiquitous was the illusion that he created. He brought the full theatrical effects from his background including the costumes and magicians illusions (that he loved so very much as a kid) with him everywhere he went, but never quite as completely as during a performance. He was labeled "The Magical Brat" on the QMS "Just For Love" album that was recorded in his favorite place on this planet, Hawaii. And I think this “handle” is a very astute observation on someone's part as to one element of Dino's many faceted natures. I have always perceived him as being a brilliant, many faceted "diamond in the rough.” Everyone who knew Dino knew a different Dino, and each has his or her own unique view of him. And good or bad, everyone has a "Dino story."
There was a poem written by a very talented and highly regarded poet named Kent Foreman, a very close friend and brother. Dino and he ran together in Dino's Greenwich Village days. The poem was written about Dino as the archetype of the definitive troubadour, and is an example of how one person saw him. In the end, it alludes to the mythical Phoenix. Dino considered Kent Foreman to be one of the few "real" people who passed through his life and Dino loved the poem and would recite it often. Appropriately, the last line of the poem is the last line on Dino's headstone: “Every Phoenix must fall before each resurrection.”
I could go on and tell you volumes of wonderful things he did for people, strangers as well as friends, lovers, and family, how deep and hard he loved, how hard he tried to teach people what he had learned, how he was truly concerned with mankind and this planet, etc. He was a very difficult man in a lot of ways, a true enigma. But at the end of the day, he always gave more than he took, and he always cared more than most knew, and he always loved as hard as he could. I could talk about many facets of his life, but it wouldn't change anyone's mind. As I said, you loved him or you found him too damn difficult to deal with, and those of us who loved him and knew him well accepted his nature and the difficulties, because in the end, his "Libra" scales always balanced in our favor. And in my opinion, we each left the "Dino experience" with much more than we came with.
I haven't addressed his musical and poetic genius here because I believe it's a given. What I have tried to do is give you some factual background on Dino, as it's a little-known story, and, in my opinion, it does lend some insight into who Dino was and why he was "who Dino was."
He was a bit more unusual than most, and he led a very unique life, and he lived it "his way" as the song says. He left here suddenly at a very young age by today's standards. The night he died, he called a lot of people…some of whom he hadn't talked to in quite a while. It's my understanding that it was all casual conversation, no revelations, or profundity, or theatrics, but more like he was saying hello one final time. I think, just as the Phoenix knows, he knew that his time was at hand, and being the "Gypsy soul" that he was, must have felt that such an event was about to take place. I think, too, that he grew weary of his “home" on this planet, and he felt he had done the best he could here, and was ready to try something else – see the next place, meet the next people, and move on. After all, Dino was a carnie.
So perhaps it's not really... The End
The following is a Relix Magazine Article
Get Together: Fans of the Bay Area music scene mourned the death of 57-year-old Quicksilver Messenger Service singer-songwriter Dino Valenti. Valenti, whose real name was Chester Powers, wrote the classic '60s anthem, "Get Together," which was recorded by the Youngbloods. The son of carnival performers, Valenti grew up on the road and learned guitar from his father, who played ukulele. After serving a hitch in the Air Force, Valenti hit Greenwich Village in 1960. According to fellow musician and friend David Crosby, "His guitar style was overpowering aggressive, and in his Village days he would never walk anywhere-he would stride."
These were the Greenwich Village days before Bob Dylan, and Valenti, along with other troubadours such as Hoyt Axton, were at the top of the folk music circuit. In 1963, Valenti relocated to the Bay Area, enjoying a residency at the legendary Coffee Gallery in North Beach. At that time, television actor Howard Hesseman worked as manager, booker and bartender at the club. Valenti had an appetite for drugs and the fast life. In 1965, legendary rock critic Ralph Gleason said in a review that, "Valenti had the kind of charisma that really turns the female audience on and he's so good musically that it doesn't ruin him with the males."
By the mid-'60s, like other folk artists of the day, he decided to go electric and join a rock band. Valenti joined forces with friend and fellow folkie David Frieberg plus John Cipollina, Gary Duncan, Greg Elmore and Jim Murray in Quicksilver Messenger Service. Only days after the band's formation, Valenti was busted for marijuana possession (reportedly only two joints) and served two years in a California Correctional Facility.
While in jail, the Jefferson Airplane recorded his song "Get Together" on its debut album, Take Off (FICA), and the Youngbloods included the tune on its self-titled debut as well. The Youngbloods re-released the song two years later, and "Get Together" became a Top Ten hit. After his release from prison in 1968, Valenti recorded a self-titled record for Epic Records. The record contained the first recording of Papa John Phillips' "Me And My Uncle," which has been a staple in the Grateful Dead's songbook for many years.
At Quicksilver Messenger Service's 1969 New Years Eve performance at Winterland, Valenti was reunited with the group. During Valenti's tenure with Quicksilver, the group enjoyed its greatest success, primarily because of the Valenti-penned radio hits "Fresh Air" and "What About Me?" Quicksilver guitarist Gary Duncan recalled, "He could pick up a guitar all by himself and totally entrance a whole audience. That's what he did best." The group broke up several times, and Valenti's last recording was 1975's Quicksilver reunion, Solid Silver (Capitol).
Valenti kept a low profile in the Bay Area, and in 1986 had brain surgery. After his illness, Valenti returned to writing songs and performing occasionally with Zero and with fellow guitarist Nazar Eljumaily. Kingfish keyboardist Barry Flast produced Valenti's most recent recordings in hopes of landing the songwriter a record deal. Ironically, Valenti gave blood to help his old friend David Crosby who, at the time, was awaiting a liver transplant. Valenti is survived by a sister and two children.
© Copyright Jan 2002 - Catherine Powers O'Gara
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