Thom thought the Stud was a “terrible” leather bar. That was in 1966, when it opened at 1535 Folsom. By the spring of 1968 it had become “a strange French cooking western bar,” recalled Don Doody, who tended bar there, and “it was really, really empty.” Don persuaded the owners to let Chuck Arnett paint murals and decorate it. “Don was going to be John Lennon and Chuck rather astonishingly was going to be Paul,” Thom laughed, “the beautiful one who was responsible for the art as op-
posed to the ideas.”

Chuck’s psychedelic black light mural depicted a Tool Box–style leatherman dropping acid and transforming into a hippie drag queen. Don wanted to make the Stud the hottest bar in town for music, dancing, and LSD. “Dancing in those days . . . meant swinging your arms around and jumping around,” Don recalled. “They had a policy not to give dancing permits to gay bars, only to straight bars. I said [to the local beat cop], ‘They’re not dancing. They’re just feeling good.’” The Stud was one of the first bars, if not the first, to play taped music—including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and other local bands—rather than a jukebox. “All of a sudden the place was really jammed with lines outside,” he recalled, “because it was the only place in town where you could hear that music.” By September, Don had “succeeded magnificently” with the Stud. “There are now more murals, there is dancing and affability,” Thom told Tanner, “and it is probably the most packed bar in town.” It was “a bar like no other in the world,” he later reflected, “a gay druggie bar, not particularly a leather bar.”

Chuck and the Clara Street family moved into the apartment above the Stud, which ensured a steady supply of drugs into the bar. A hit of anything cost no more than a dollar. Don ensured his bartenders had easy access to methamphetamine. “It was easy to get lots of pharmaceutical speed in those days, like ‘Christmas trees’ and . . . ‘Black Beauties,’” Thom recalled. “Bartenders took it to be good and alert whatever trips they’d been on the previous night.” Everything was shared, “like ‘a new drug, hey, try this pill. You’ll love it.’” Everyone wore large wooden beads and, on one occasion, a guy “showed a larger bead, just the size of a capsule, to a friend of his,” Thom recalled, “and the other guy just took it and thought he was offering him a capsule and swallowed it!”

The Stud became the center of “a spiritual quest to save the world with Love,” reflected Mike Caffee. “LSD has done this for us and we expected the world to follow. Thom was an integral part of this.” It also brought Thom and Mike Kitay closer together. “I was a dancer,” Mike reflected. “I loved getting high and getting stoned on acid and hearing live music and dancing.” This affected Mike’s relationship with Don, whom he had found abrasive and aloof; Don had thought Mike uptight. “Don has started telling me he likes Mike,” Thom told Tanner. “He likes him because he is in general more relaxed, is liked by various of Don’s friends, turns on, and enjoys the Stud . . . [I]f they continue getting on together it could certainly make an old lady’s life easier.”

For eighteen months, the Stud became the center of Thom’s San Francisco. The highlight of the year was the party Don held at the Stud on December 17 to celebrate the Roman Saturnalia. Don invited 150 friends and patrons to the Saturnalia, which he modeled on the Acid Tests held by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Its theme was “Psychedelic Freak Out.” Arnett decorated the bar “to look like a kind of Venusian Fingal’s Cave, with flexible stalactites,” Thom told Tanner. “And everybody, including Mike and me, said it was the best party they’d ever been to. One thing that helped was that everyone was offered acid, and so about 70 of us were on a reasonably heavy trip.” Thom and Mike, still “tripping our tits off,” tried to leave around two in the morning. “The buildings on Folsom were leaning together like the buildings in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” Thom remembered. “Mike and I got in our car and before he put his key in he said, ‘YOU MADE IT MOVE!’”

They stayed: Chuck hosted an after-party upstairs, at which Mike had “long sex” with a dealer named Alan Anderson. “He was around the Stud a little bit,” Mike recalled. “He was like a minor villain—that’s too strong a word.” Thom and Mike were both attracted to him. Thom thought him “very bright & lovely . . . & has spent 1½ years in prison (6 months of which in solitary) and is really very Alyosha like.” This gave Thom the idea for “Street Song,” his Elizabethan-influenced peddler song about a drug dealer on Haight Street. Thom and Mike liked Alan so much that, just before Christmas, Thom asked him to move in with them. “I mean it,” Thom wrote, “but Mike feels doubtful.” In the event, a crisis developed around New Year’s when, at Thom’s invitation, John Zeigel arrived to stay at Filbert and drop acid on Folsom. “After we go to Stud, & to E. Bishop’s very groovy party,” Thom wrote, “Alan & [John] make out in back room, & it turns out M is in love with Alan. This I had not even guessed at.” Mike left the apartment early the next morning after he and Thom had their “first quarrel for a very long time.” Thom asked them to leave, but Alan and John slept together in the back room the next night. Mike left again, calling Thom a shit. “AA of course will not be living here,” Thom wrote. “Probably it is best M has discovered AA cannot be owned, now rather than when he was living with us. What an awful complicated & unnecessary business!”

Thom blamed himself for what had happened. “It was all my fault,” he told Tanner. “Mike has come an awful long way in 6 months, and I was trying to push him too far at that point I think.” Thom admired Chuck Arnett and Jere Fransway’s families and thought he and Mike could add to their own family if Mike could find the right monogamous partner. Not everybody was convinced that Thom had Mike’s interests at heart. “Tom Gee tells M I am fucking M up,” he wrote. “Then at Stud . . . [another friend], shit-faced tells me DD & M that I am fucking up M’s life.” Before Mike flew east in late January to visit his parents, he and Thom had “a good talk” that “clear[ed] up many difficulties.” Thom had hoped to see Alan—whose “friendship (not sex)” he wanted “more than I have wanted anything in many years”—while Mike was away, but he discovered Alan was visiting Zeigel in Los Angeles. “This is a blow I am not ready for. Hardly slept and on Sunday morning ended up in tears!
[ . . . ] Stupid teenage sentiments.” With Mike and Alan both away, Thom felt able to clear his head. “It is good, every now and again, to live alone for a short spell,” he told Tanner. After the Alan situation, Thom became less prone to possessive infatuations. When Alan called, a fortnight later, Thom felt “over the hang up & can just love him in the good unpossessive way now.” Mike called later the same day: “It’s no trouble loving him.”


Thom may have been feeling sentimental. He was “already a bit distraught,” having agreed to teach the winter quarter at California State College at Hayward. Between January and March—“ the most depressing three months” he had had “in a long time”—he caught the bus there twice a week, “a real drag—1 ½ to 2 hrs . . . each way,” and found that “the students are not quite up to Berkeley standards.” Moreover, Thom found the heightened tensions on campus unsettling. “Since the Chicago convention I have come round to believing that ‘the revolution’ will take place,” he told Tanner. In California, students were “being beaten up very bloodily and usually without provocation, by cops, at San Francisco State College and at Berkeley, and the right wing is presumably getting stronger and stronger,” Thom told White.

Politically, Thom kept a low profile, but that February he took part in a benefit reading to support the SFSC strike organized by the Black Student Union. At Glide Memorial Church, he read with, among others, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Elizabeth Bishop, and Michael McClure. He also met Freewheelin Frank, the secretary of the San Francisco Hell’s Angels, who passed him a joint. “I passed it on to Elizabeth Bishop,” Thom told Tanner. “She puffed it manfully.” That spring, Thom also participated in a mass reading for the Society for Individual Rights. He had a minor affiliation with the SIR, having attended Duncan’s SIR poetry workshop the previous year. He had also appeared in their magazine, Vector, in 1967 as an independent sponsor for Proposition P—the immediate withdrawal from Vietnam—in local elections. “I thought I would be in the list of famous writers, along with Isherwood and people,” he told Tanner, “but actually I was in the list of local homosexuals . . . I was rather pleased by that!”

Having come to trust himself with LSD, and because teaching at Hayward was not onerous, Thom continued dropping acid on weekends. A blue barrel at the Stud gave him a “harsh and ragged” trip, but he had now learned “to deal with the difficulties.” He emerged from that trip “with what struck me as a mighty apothegm: ‘the experience is learning to live with the experience.’ More confident, he decided to “drop a ‘paper,’ acid on litmus,” his heaviest acid yet. “My first impulse was that I wasn’t up to it,” he told Tanner. “But I thought about it 2 days, and felt it was a challenge.” He said the “two hours at the center of the six or so I was on it were about the most interesting of my life.” His hallucinations were “so strong that it was completely part of reality” and “nothing had a permanent identity, least of all myself.” Don had also dropped “and became a lot of different people to me, at one stage my father.” They went up to the roof of the Stud together and Thom “had a conversation with God . . . the source of the universe. I can tell you,” he told Tanner,

I put some pretty challenging propositions to God, and he gave me no answer. Of course I didn’t see him, because it was not a human-shaped god I was speaking with. But I could see anybody who was relevant—as I say, including my father—except for Mike, interestingly enough. And there was a time when I felt quite a need for Mike to be there.

Don “didn’t comfort me when I asked panicky questions . . . but answered them honestly with difficult answers, which made me work out the problem on its own terms rather than dismiss it. E.g. at one time I said ‘Well, if I don’t have identity and I don’t have love, what is there?’ And he said ‘honor.’ Though I didn’t understand what he meant till some hours later, when he said that by honoring oneself one can honor other people.” The “ ‘loss of ego’ bit was difficult,” but he began the following day with “a cleaned-out brain . . . full of peace & self-control.” He decided to drop acid “once a week or, if I can take it, twice a week” once he had finished at Hayward. “I want to see what will happen,” he told Tanner. “I won’t turn into an angel and I won’t go mad, but it does burn the chromosomes very nicely and doing so cleans a nice hole in the brain which can be filled by what one chooses to put there.”


Thom had written steadily through the winter, drafting “Street Song” and finishing “For Signs,” “Words,” and “Justin.” In the spring, he turned his “loss of ego” trip into “At the Centre,” his first acid poem since “The Fair in the Woods.” Its first five stanzas begin with unfinished or interrupted questions—“ What place is this,” “What is this steady pouring that”—concluding with “What am,” in which the missing “I” represents the loss of ego. Thom surrenders to the “all-river”— what he called “a complete flowing” in a letter to Tanner—his metaphor for the perceiving mind. “Experience is a pouring of images,” he noted. “The things imaged are not always importantly distinct from each other, they are at all times part of an unstopping process of merging, blending, reforming, like currents in a fast river.” Images pour “in cascade over me and under” in such profusion it is difficult to distinguish between them. The last two stanzas, Thom felt, were about “the source overlapping its creation” and that, while humans “abstract things from the flux,” it is important to “acknowledge the flux” as much as possible. At the center of the trip, the mind “is not concerned with identity, least of all human identity,” he concluded, hence “What am” rather than “What am I.” In the poem, the trip focused on the beer sign on top of Hamm’s Brewery—the glass filled as its lights came on—which Thom felt was “a most extraordinary image of the whole created world, filing up with good things then draining out again.”

In April, Thom joined the Stud family on a bus ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to Kirby Cove, a private beach near Fort Cronkhite. He dropped a “strawberry barrel” as they came down “the long road to the cove, overlooking the sand.” As was usual by then, his trip was “a bit hard in the first stage (fantasy of rebirth)” but became “the most beautiful yet.” It was “a kind of barely controlled euphoria,” he told Tanner, “a feeling of discovery & a feeling of adequacy and delight in the things discovered.” The Kirby Cove trip inspired two poems: “Grasses” and “Being Born.” The first is a scene of rest and concentration, in which Thom compared the natural world and the LSD vision by adapting the pouring, river imagery he used in “At the Centre.” More significantly, “Being Born” was Thom’s attempt to examine the difficulties he faced at the beginning of trips. He saw in his drug experiences “glimpses, but only glimpses, of other ways of knowing, and of forces beyond you,” he told Tanner:

I have had a curious fancy more than once on acid that just at the edge of my vision there are a few giant pillars or maybe figures. I do not want to see those figures very clearly, because if I do they may turn into the doctor and the mid-wife delivering me into a new life, to which this life is only a preface.

These pillars became the “vague pillars, not quite visible,” of “Being Born,” which, upon closer examination, were revealed as “Midwife and doctor faintly apprehended.” “Must I rewrite my childhood?” he asked, fearing what “mergings of authority and pain, / Invading breath, must I live through again?” Birth imagery often featured in Thom’s acid poems from 1968 onward. “For Signs” featured his “birth-hour”; the speaker finds “the garden’s place of birth” in “The Garden of the Gods” and feels it “vined, / And rooted in the death-rich earth”; “Rites of Passage” concludes with a “stamp upon the earth / A message to my mother”; and “Tom-Dobbin” features a platypus mother and a male pup “hatched into separation.” In September 1968, almost six years into keeping his diary, Thom wrote, “Mother wd have been 65 today,” the first time he had marked her birthday.

                                                                                         • • •

Of the three poems Thom finished in late 1968, “For Signs” is the most significant. He was not averse to astrology, which exploded in popularity in the 1960s as part of the hippie aesthetic; the poem is set when the moon was in Scorpio, “that sign / It stood in at my birth-hour,” and which Thom was told meant “sexual perversion.” The poem is in three parts: waking, dreaming, and waking again. The speaker—whom Thom calls “Dream mentor”—dreams a “cool fantasy of violence.” The second part of the poem begins:

And sleep like moonlight drifts and clings to shape.
My mind, which learns its freedom every day,
Sinks into vacancy but cannot rest.
While moonlight floods the pillow where it lay,
It walks among the past, weeping, obsessed,
Trying to master it and learn escape

Thom was used to bad dreams. Earlier that year he had “a very strange dream where I found my mother dead. I thought, callously, ‘Oh no, not again. I think I’ll let somebody else find her body this time.’ Which I did! Also in this dream I got on very well with my father.” In an early draft of “For Signs,” the “cool fantasy of violence” is an explicit description of finding his mother’s body:

The dreams begin.
Real things are recombined.
On different carpets, detail rearranged,
A corpse is found, in scarlet, as at first.
The body, open-eyed, . . . is unchanged,
Only the finding variously rehearsed
Within the rooms/vaults/chambers that honeycomb the mind

Thom cut the personal details, but “For Signs” was an important part of his “push outward,” he told Tanner, “a Romantic push—towards dream, hallucination, etc.” The poem was prompted by, and reflects on, his acid experiences, and balances his “Romantic push” with an acknowledgment that his past is inescapable: “Cycle that I in part am governed by / And cannot understand where it is dark.” It capped “a great burst of writing” that made Thom feel “more confident about what I’ve been doing than any time in about 10 years!”

Writing about his mother in “For Signs” was no coincidence. Thom had family, and ideas about family, on his mind. “Family” was Thom’s word for communes and collectives, gay and/or hippie; groups with Don, Chuck, or Jere at their center were families. He loved that acid trips were communal occasions, either at the Stud or on Kesey-style bus rides with Don, Chuck, and their extended families. After a “very euphoric” trip in Golden Gate Park, Thom received a telephone call from a young artist named Bill Schuessler. They had met during the Summer of Love when Bill, then twenty, had left Sheboygan, Wisconsin, with his best friend, Michael Belot, to travel to San Francisco. “We wanted to wear flowers in our hair, as McKenzie says,” Bill recalled. “Walking down Haight Street barefooted and acting like we’re so natural and people would open their windows and shove out balloons that they were blowing up all night. And it was wonderful. It was like just any kind of thing was going on.” Days were spent in Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park, but at night Bill snuck into leather bars on Folsom Street. “I saw [Thom] at the end of the bar in a sort of leather corner,” Bill recalled of the Tool Box, “and I flashed on him and cruised him. He cruised me back and we ended up on Filbert Street.” Thom referred to Bill in his diary as a “21yr old from Milwaukee . . . groovy & gorgeous.” He showed him around the city, taking him to Lands End and the de Young Museum. Bill wanted to stay in San Francisco, but Thom gave him “the wonderful advice” to return home and complete his degree at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. “He said that, even if you don’t use it, you’ll always be happy that you did it,” Bill reflected, “because you’ll know that you finished it. So I did, and he was right.”

Two years later, in spring 1969, Bill was ready to return. Thom brought him to Filbert Street for dinner: “Very good vibrations between Bill S & me,” he wrote. Mike felt the same. “The evening I met [Bill] there were very good vibrations,” he recalled. “That’s kind of what got us together.” Mike guessed how Thom and Bill knew each other. “Neither of them ever explained it to me, nor did I ask,” he reflected. “I’m pretty sure they’d met in a bar and did whatever they did.” For Mike, an affair with a younger man—Bill was fifteen years his junior—was a new experience. “It was parental. Not consciously, but because of the age difference,” he reflected. “That was at the height of drugs and the Stud. Bill doesn’t have much to say. He never did. That was fine with me.” They liked dropping together and going to the big open-air concerts in Golden Gate Park. Thom sometimes went with them but mainly left them to themselves. “[Thom] was thinking of my happiness with Bill,” Mike reflected. “They had been close at one time. I’ve never known Thom to be so sweet, and fatherly, as he was with Bill.” Within two months, Thom asked Bill to move in with them. “Michael and I were having a mad affair,” Bill recalled, “and [Thom] invited me rather than Mickey, which I found very nice in the sense that I didn’t feel like I was stepping on his toes when I did move in.” “When I say Thom was generous,” Mike reflected, “he was the one who invited Bill to live at Filbert Street, which I wouldn’t have done on my own.” Thom was “very glad” that Bill decided to move in with them. “Everybody is very happy!” he told Tony White. “It really makes me feel, for almost the first time, that one can successfully manipulate one’s life if one tries hard enough.”


Although his writing year ended in September, Thom was pleased with his recent poems. “I have gone through a change in the last 10 years, but it has been pretty gradual,” he told White. “Away from closed-ness and Sartrean self-definitions, toward open-ness and an attempt to accept other possibilities than the strictly rational.” Dreams and hallucinations were the latest stage of that journey. “The trouble is,” he continued, “in the taking the direction I am taking, I may be going toward mush, and marsh, and general vague squishiness.” In taking “pure romantic experience-for-its-own-sake” and attempting “to give it meaning by rendering it through the human inventions of metrical and stanzaic form,” Thom saw his “difference from most of the good people around” as his interest in “why [the experience] seems important,” not merely “capturing the thing-in- itself or the experience-in- itself” and “producing it on its own terms.” He saw “experience as a good” and approached it “without pre-assuming what its meaning will be.” Thom needed this kind of rigorous intellectual exercise to ensure his poems about wonder and togetherness did not fall into “general vague squishiness.” Within eighteen months, LSD had become the focal point of Thom’s life and work. It gave him “more of an accepting attitude toward the world.” In poetry, this meant writing about sympathy and acceptance; in practice, it was a fulfillment of the ideal: Mike had a monogamous lover and they were bringing him into their Filbert Street family.

Thom spent the first fortnight of October 1969 in New York before embarking on the Michigan poetry circuit, a series of fifteen readings in eighteen days that began in Ohio. Unlike on the California circuit, Thom had little company and spent some “memorable mornings, on my own, in hotel rooms, of real neurosis.” It felt like his “period of most concentrated strain” since “the first few weeks of basic training in the army.” In Ann Arbor he stayed with Donald Hall, now a professor at the University of Michigan, who was “having much melodramatic trouble w/ a melodramatic girlfriend.” The first night, “DH v drunk, & propositions me!!!!!!!” Several days later, when Hall was “sober & there,” Thom mentioned “Tues night to reassure him,” and later wrote, hoping Hall was “a bit happier now. You really did seem pretty distraught . . . The girl, however good in other ways, sounds like she has a gift for melodramatics.”

The circuit introduced Thom to “several new Americas” outside California. “An intensely political person will say to me every now and again: Why do you choose to live in America when you can live in England?” he told Tanner.

Well, quite apart from personal reasons, I’d say that whereas there are several Englands (Philip Larkin’s England, Agatha Christie’s England, the Beatles’ England, Tony Tanner’s England and a few others) there are hundreds of Americas, and I haven’t got to the end of them yet.

Thom felt he was at his best “in writing, anyway—when I am trying to reconcile opposites,” he reflected. “E.g. Apollonian—Dionysian, impulse & self-discipline, etc. [ . . . ] & one of the most important of these living-between- opposites is being an Englishman in San Francisco.” In notes for a poem called “Looking for America,” Thom thought that “to find America you have to find a new self.” There was “no fixed self, a continual emerging, a process.” LSD certainly helped Thom’s process. He did not think of himself as American, “but I’m not (really) English either,” he told Tanner after the Michigan circuit:

The one thing I share with Sylvia Plath is that we are both Midatlantic poets. And I’m a Midatlantic person too. At least I believe so. Even if I were to go back and live in England for the rest of my life (God Forbid) I’d stay Midatlantic—or, let’s say, half-San Franciscan half-English . . . I find London exotic and I find San Francisco exotic.

Back in San Francisco, Thom capped an excellent year with the Stud’s second Saturnalia party, “A Day in the Park.” It was “a kind of Beerbohm Tree Forest of Arden,” he told Tanner, “pools, glades, three real birds, stage turf on the ground.” He dropped violet-colored acid (“with speed, I’m certain”) and was “really out of it for a couple of hours.”

Although he had not dropped acid once or twice a week as planned, between the two Saturnalia parties Thom had tripped sixteen times. Personally and poetically, 1969 had been one of his best years. “Mike’s happy, Bill’s happy,” he told Tanner. In notes for a poem called “The Lovers (M & Bill partly, M & me partly),” he wrote: “thr love is of the other’s uniqueness, thus of humanity.” On the subject of “making it & not wanting to make it,” he felt “M has genuinely got so much farther than I have.” But Thom was happy, too. He felt LSD “helped my writing in many ways where my writing needed help.” Having turned forty in August, he was glad that he had not started taking LSD until early middle age. “It opens up possibilities,” he reflected. “At twenty, one is all too aware of the nature of possibility; when one’s thirty-five, one has become a little enclosed in one’s mind.” Come 1970, Thom had four-fifths of a new book that promised to be almost entirely about acid. He was pleased his poems had stylistic and thematic consistency; something he felt lacking in Touch. Although it was not finished, Thom felt his next book would be a great leap forward. “The poems all seem to ‘cohere’ at least,” he told the Tanners. “The reviews will be really interesting. I mean, it’s almost as if I am inviting them to discuss acid and homosexuality rather than the quality of the poems.



Excerpted from THOM GUNN: A COOL QUEER LIFE by Michael Nott. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2024 by Michael Nott. All rights reserved.