Former road rocker now on Santa Rosa streets

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Decades have boogied past since drummer Michael Equine and the band Cat Mother last warmed up major-venue audiences for Jimi Hendrix or set out from Mendocino for gigs at honkytonks up and down the coast.

In a way, though, Equine is on the road still. All these years after he played his part in the 1960s music scene in Manhattan's happening Greenwich and East Village neighborhoods and rocked Woodstock before it was Woodstock, he lives in his Jeep and parks nights near Santa Rosa's Coddingtown Mall.

"I'm eating at the soup kitchen," Equine said, seemingly without drama or self-pity, "and drinking senior coffee at McDonald's for 54 cents."

With no place to keep or play his drums, Equine parted with them way back. More recently the tall, lean and gentlemanly ex-Top 40 country-folk rocker plucked and strummed an electric guitar for personal enjoyment until he pawned it to raise a little cash.

"I have two months to get it out," he said through a moustache and beard little changed since his counterparts in the 5th Dimension heralded the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. This particular day Equine, once a frequent headliner at Cotati's hallowed Inn of the Beginning, wore atop his shoulder-length hair a sharp Western hat with a costume lawman's badge pinned to it.

Fully 60 years after he started his first band as a 13-year-old, unaware of how the music business and the lifestyle's attendant temptations can wring a person dry, he doesn't boast about the fleeting highs he achieved.

But Cat Mother, Equine's band, certainly held its own among some big names. It earned a billing as the house band at the East Village's Electric Circus club, also an early venue for the Allman Brothers, the Velvet Underground, Sly & the Family Stone and the future Blue Oyster Cult.

In 1968, a taste for change drew Cat Mother north to rural New York state and Woodstock. There, Equine and band co-founders Bob Smith, the keyboard player, and bass guitarist Roy Michaels and the rest of the group performed in the outdoor "Sound-Outs" that preceded the historic 1969 mega-concert.

After one Sound-Out, Equine recalled, a British stranger approached and said, "You guys are fabulous. How'd you like to travel and open for Jimi Hendrix?"

The guys in the band thought he was kidding. But Michael Jeffery, who'd managed — some would say mismanaged — Eric Burdon and The Animals before taking on Hendrix, assured them he was serious.

Equine doesn't savor talking about Jeffery, whom Cat Mother took on as the band's manager. "He stole all our money," he said.

But for a time, the association with Jeffery and Hendrix made for a magical ride.

In a flash following that initial contact at Woodstock, Equine and the band — known then as Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys — were opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience at shows across the U.S. and Canada.

Venues included the Forum in Inglewood, Chicago Coliseum, Woolsey Hall at Yale University, Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, Boston Garden and Cobo Arena in Detroit.

All through late 1968 and the first half of 1969, Equine said, "Wherever Jimi was, we were there."

Also in '69 Hendrix, perhaps the world's finest electric-guitar artist, produced Cat Mother's first of four albums. Released by Britain's Polydor Records and titled "The Street Giveth ... and the Street Taketh Away," the LP sent one song halfway up the Top 40 charts.

It was, "Good Old Rock & Roll," a deft medley tribute to late 1950s music from the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Knox. It rose to No. 21 and would stand as the band's one Top 40 hit.

Equine noted with a slight shake of his head, "We were bumped by, 'In the Year 2525,' which I thought was a godawful song."

Not long after Cat Mother fell off the Top 40, it pretty much disappeared from the national music scene. The Original Jimi Hendrix Experience broke up in 1969 and subsequent iterations traveled without Equine, Smith, Michaels and their band.

Cat Mother also distanced itself from Michael Jeffery when it became clear he had no intention of paying what he'd promised for the 1968-69 Hendrix tours, Equine said. The deal had been that the band was to receive $15,000 per show, he said.

"We got $100 a week (per person) in reality," Equine said.

He recalled the members of the band agreeing late in 1969 to caravan to a healthier, hippier place. They headed west from New York and stopped driving upon discovering Elk, the Mendocino Coast hamlet between Point Arena and the village of Mendocino.

"There were flowers and aqua blue streams flowing into the sea," Equine said. He would live the better part of the next 30 years on that rugged stretch of coast.

He and Cat Mother were performing at local clubs when they learned in September of 1970 that Jimi Hendrix had died in London at just 27. Equine doesn't pass judgment on allegations that ex-manager Jeffrey had a hand in the drug-involved death, but he's satisfied that Jeffery served Hendrix little better than he did Cat Mother.

"I never saw any real cash," he said. Any hope that Jeffery might come through with more money died with him in a mid-air jetliner crash over France in 1973.

As transplanted Californians, members of Cat Mother cut three more albums and became well-known throughout Mendocino and Sonoma counties and beyond. They played at the fair in Boonville, Cotati's Inn of the Beginning, Berkeley and as far south as Santa Cruz and Monterey.

As Equine recalls, by 1973 there was discord among the guys and he came to feel it was time to let go. "We were just going nowhere," he said.

So he resigned. The others took on another drummer, then a second and a third before the band dissolved.

Hanging it up as a professional musician, Equine never quite struck upon Plan B. Living simply, he worked for a time trimming trees as a forester. He also did some professional cooking, fondly recalling the social club he operated for a time in a Quonset hut in seaside Caspar.

"The health inspector used to come in and have breakfast, she liked it so much," he said.

Mendocino marijuana was always present in his life, but it was a fixation on cocaine that got him in trouble with the law. For several years Equine was in and out of prison.

"I kept violating my parole," he said. "I couldn't keep away from the stuff."

Through his quarter-century in Mendocino he was married three times, though only once officially. He has two daughters, ages 51 and 26.

He said he left Mendocino for Sonoma County after his third wife fell ill and died in his arms. "I came down here because everything up there reminded me of her."

At 73, he said, his last working gig was as a guard at a Petaluma storage yard that then switched to electronic security. He lived a long time in a trailer and for the past three years has slept in his Jeep.

Equine said he's free of drugs and he keeps himself and the car going on about $900 a month in Social Security and other government benefits. He said he was notified some time back that the state controller has more than $20,000 in unclaimed money that's due to survivors of Cat Mother, but he's been unable to get at it.

For him, one of the worst parts of living in a car is that it limits him musically to listening to the radio and maybe tapping on the steering wheel.

But at least, he said, "I still have music in my head, and in my heart."

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