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Sonoma County women tell tales of the ’60s

Authors Nancy J. Martin of Sonoma and Ilene English of Jenner each wrote a memoir about life in the 1960s.|

Insights on the ’60s

Lifestyle: “We lived like gypsies in various rental houses.”

Music: “During this age of rock & roll that had swept the nation and also the world, many of the rock bands were using drugs such as meth and cocaine and the sound of their music reflected that state of mind.”

- “From the Summer of Love to the Valley of the Moon,” by Nancy J. Martin

Sex: “So free love was really about men satisfying their own needs.”

Race: “I think white people miss out in a big way by not having black people in their lives.”

- “Hippie Chick: Coming of Age in the ’60s,” by Ilene English

For those who came of age in the 1960s, the era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll has never lost its fascination. It continues to leave its mark, even on those whose lives have changed completely since then. Younger generations, too, can feel the effects wrought by the societal changes during that tumultuous decade.

Two Sonoma County women have written memoirs about what they learned during the ’60s, each from a different point of view, but both profoundly influenced by their earlier experiences.

“I find people of all ages have a very strong fascination with that period of time,” said Nancy J. Martin, author of “From the Summer of Love to the Valley of the Moon,” which she self-published earlier this year. “Young people today are fascinated with the clothing and the music. All aspects of hippie culture appeal to kids today.”

Martin, 72, has had an eventful life. She was born in San Francisco and grew up in Marin County, then migrated to Sonoma Valley and now lives in the town of Sonoma. She married and divorced two Bay Area rock musicians and had a child with another. She later opened her own women’s clothing store in Sonoma Square.

Ilene English, 74, grew up in New Jersey before coming to San Francisco as a teenager in the early ’60s.

“It was a pretty revolutionary time,” she said of the period. English married and divorced a student of Zen Buddhism, then raised her one daughter as a single parent. Her book, “Hippie Chick: Coming of Age in the ’60s,” was published last fall by She Writes Press. Both her book and Martin’s book are available on Amazon.

Like Martin, English also has had adventures. In her youth, she hung out with Bay Area jazz musicians, studied in Hawaii and became an arts leader in Oregon. She learned to craft stained glass and ultimately got her master’s degree from the New College of California in San Francisco.

She now lives in Jenner, works as a psychotherapist and has been married to builder Don Paul for 25 years.

For both women, writing a memoir proved to be a journey of self-discovery.

Remembering

“I just wanted to get it all out,” Martin said. “Some things were fabulous and some were difficult for me. It was all a growth experience.”

Rock and roll musicians play a major role in her story. In 1967, at age 19, she married Al Strong, the bassist with the popular Bay Area band The Sons of Champlin.

“It was an exciting time,” Martin said.

“Almost every single night they were opening for Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service or Jefferson Airplane.”

After her divorce from Strong, Martin began a five-year relationship with drummer Bill Vitt in 1972, and they had a daughter, Aura Serena, in 1974.

Vitt played with The Sons of Champlin after Strong left, but he also is remembered for his work with Brewer & Shipley, Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders.

In 1976, Martin married blues guitarist Michael Barclay, and that marriage lasted 11 years.

Her happiest career break came in 1981, when she went to work in marketing at St. Francis Winery for founder Joe Martin.

“I had a meteoric career there,” she recalled. “I was allowed to run with every idea. I sold the heck out of that wine.”

Both her marriage to Barclay and her job at St. Francis Winery ended after she underwent surgery in 1986 to remove a benign brain tumor.

The operation left her with nerve damage that paralyzed half of her face. Over the next several years, radical reconstructive surgery failed to reverse the damage.

Nancy remained friends with Joe Martin and they ultimately married decades later, in 2004. He died five years ago after a massive stroke. His death sparked an outpouring of memories for Nancy.

“When he passed away, I had a difficult time dealing with it,” she said.

“I starting waking up at 5:30 a.m. and sitting down to write. It just kept pouring out.”

One-way ticket West

Both Martin and English drew material for their books from journals they had kept over the years, supplemented by interviews and historical research.

English spent about 15 years, off and on, writing her memoir. She rented an apartment in Sebastopol, miles from her Jenner home, to do most of the writing.

“I started out in a writing group I joined, thinking I was writing a parenting book, but people wanted to know why I was so passionate about writing my story,” she said.

“I needed to look at my own story.”

English has led a dramatic life. As a teenager, she rebelled against her stern mother, who suffered from a weak heart.

One day, she found her mother dead in the bathroom. To save English from living alone with a difficult father, one of her older sisters sent her a one-way plane ticket from New Jersey to San Francisco, inviting English to stay with her.

English didn’t stay with her sister for long. She soon moved to a house she shared with three young men, all of them fans of jazz, which was just beginning to lose ground to rock ‘n’ roll in the early ’60s.

She retained her devotion to the music and lived with a jazz trumpet player for a while.

Raised in the Jewish tradition, English grew curious about other beliefs and became a follower of counterculture icon Stephen Gaskin. She attended his famous “Monday Night Class” sessions in San Francisco, which drew up to 1,500 people.

She later followed Gaskin to the Tennessee commune he founded, known simply as The Farm.

In 1972, Gaskin officiated at her marriage there to her first husband, Larry Whitney, whom she had met in Berkeley when he was studying with Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi.

“The Farm became a sanctuary, not just for me, but for large numbers of people who yearned to live an alternative lifestyle. Though life got in the way, just knowing that The Farm existed was a great comfort to me.

“I could go there anytime I needed a place to be. Just knowing they were out there was so helpful to me during my early years as a single mom,” English said.

“Over the years, when life was too difficult to figure out on my own, I could head to Tennessee to spend time at The Farm.”

Whitney and English settled later that year in Eugene, Oregon, where he went to college and she pursued her interest in crafting stained glass. After they divorced, English focused on raising their daughter, Sarah Grace.

English stayed in Eugene for 14 years, working the last five of those years as manager at the weekly Saturday Market craft and food fair.

During the ’90s, she opened her own glass studio in Marin County.

As she wrote her book, English found new insights into her personal story.

“The #MeToo movement was coming to fore while I was writing, and that made me think about relationships and sex in the ’60s,” English said. “I was repeatedly abandoning myself to be with a man, but I got myself together. I am whole.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.

Insights on the ’60s

Lifestyle: “We lived like gypsies in various rental houses.”

Music: “During this age of rock & roll that had swept the nation and also the world, many of the rock bands were using drugs such as meth and cocaine and the sound of their music reflected that state of mind.”

- “From the Summer of Love to the Valley of the Moon,” by Nancy J. Martin

Sex: “So free love was really about men satisfying their own needs.”

Race: “I think white people miss out in a big way by not having black people in their lives.”

- “Hippie Chick: Coming of Age in the ’60s,” by Ilene English

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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