Sonoma County women tell tales of the ’60s
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.
“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.