Bugging out in Big Sur Bobby Darin’s missing years

Photo illustration | Julie Reynolds Martinez, Creative Commons

By Paul Wilner

“Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear

And it shows them pearly white

Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe,

And he keeps it out of sight.’’

Bobby Darin, an illegitimate kid from East Harlem, was no one’s idea of a counter-culture icon. Rising to fame in 1958 with the novelty hit “Splish Splash,’’ co-written with New York deejay Murray (“The K’’) Kaufman, Darin seemed positioned to follow in the footsteps of nightclub crooners like Sinatra, Dean Martin and Vic Damone.

Hipper – and with much better vocals — than the brand of rock n’ roll being put out by Frankie Avalon, Fabian and other Philadelphia rockers, his finger-snapping stage persona was perfectly suited for the Copacabana and other trendy spots of the time, but worlds away, geographically and artistically, from The Cavern and other dives where The Beatles, Rolling Stones would make their bones.

But by 1959, Darin’s career was climbing higher, with the release of “Dream Lover,’’ his self-composed tune that sold in the millions. The next year, “Mack The Knife,’’ his adaptation of the tune from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera,’’ was an unlikely smash hit, selling 2 million copies and winning Grammies as Record of the Year and another for Darin as Best New Artist.

He was an unquestioned smash who’d come a long way from the doggerel lyrics of “Splish-splash, I was taking a bath.’’ And his national attention was boosted when he married “Gidget’’ star Sandra Dee in 1960. Dream lovers, indeed.

“Mack’’ was followed by other hits: “Beyond The Sea,’’ “Artificial Flowers,’’ and he mentored everyone from Wayne Newton – his publishing company gave Newton “Danke Schoen’’ – to Roger McGuinn, later to rise to fame with The Byrds.

Darin was branching out. By the early ‘60s, he was recording country and western tunes, and in 1966, he helped the career of folk-rock singer/songwriter Tim Hardin by releasing his own version of Hardin’s classic tune, “If I Were A Carpenter.’’

But the times were definitely a-changing, and so was Darin.

By ’68, deeply affected by the anti-war and civil rights movement, he had allied himself closely with Bobby Kennedy, and was at the Ambassador Hotel with the senator on the night RFK was shot: June 4, 1968.

Darin was devastated – and decided to do something about it.

In true ‘60s fashion, he bugged out – to a trailer in Sycamore Canyon in Big Sur, where he could reflect, walk away from the baggage of fame and the expectations of show business, and decide what he wanted to do next on his own terms.

It’s a little-known chapter in the pop icon’s life, but one that left a deep impression on the singer, and the remaining Big Sur contacts he had from that era recall a bygone time and place when literally anything – for better or worse – seemed possible.

Sterling Doughty remembers it well. A key player described by a friend as a “Hemingwayesque’’ figure in the Big Sur social scene of the late ‘60s, he was living on the Sycamore Canyon property, then owned by Jan Brewer, when Darin arrived.

“Bobby knew Jan,’’ recalls Doughty, now relocated to Zurich, in a phone interview. “By way of background, Sycamore Canyon runs about two miles from Pfeiffer Beach. Jan had a big farmhouse when I started working there – it was supposed to be a farm, but we ended up selling real estate.

“The road to the beach went through Brewer’s property, so we started charging people $2 to go to the beach. People went crazy because these hippies were charging money when everything was supposed to be free.’’

“I don’t know how Bobby knew Jan – maybe through Mike Love or Al Jardine of the Beach Boys, who now owns the property. The house was an incredible place – the people from Esalen would come through like (co-founder) Dick Price and John Lilly.

“Ravi Shankar came by one time and Richard Beymer, the star of “West Side Story,’’ who came by and wanted to make a movie. It was an amorphous, but well-connected community.

“Anyhow, after Bobby met Jan, he came in and spent about four days at the house. We had about four spare bedrooms. He was just a really nice man. We were a group that were not exactly hippies, but we certainly smoked a lot of dope, and some people were taking acid, though Bobby didn’t, to my knowledge.

“He needed a break from Hollywood, and just thought it was fucking great. We all liked him, and we’d play guitar and hang around the house, or go up to Nepenthe, about 10 miles down the road, and have a few drinks and go dancing.

“I remember him talking about how much he liked Bobby Kennedy and how he wanted to get away from the Las Vegas, Reno kind of scene, all the kind of contracts that he was stuck in.

“He was just an ordinary guy who wanted to be real, and knew the scene he was involved in wasn’t. When he was with us at the far house, he could just be real. So he bought a trailer and brought it to the property, and parked it there.

“He had a lot of fishing gear, and sometimes his little boy, Dodd, [came] to the farm, and they would go to the beach and go fishing. At night, he would play the guitar, and everyone would be smoking dope.

“I remember one time he brought Sandra Dee there – I think they were separated at the time – and I think it was all too much for her,” Doughty laughed. “We were like on another planet. She was in that other world he was trying to escape, but I think she thought we were living like wolves or something…

“As far as I know, Bobby didn’t get over to Esalen,’’ he added. “He may have, but what he liked was the solitude, having a little place in the corner where he could come and go as he pleased. It’s a bit of a cliché, but he wanted to find himself, and get away from the box of expectations from his agents, what he should do with his singing and his career and the Sandra Dee thing. Nothing against her, she was cute and nice, but it was the same thing he was trying to get away from — she was molded by forces he was trying to get away from.’’

Doughty, who left the States after a bad experience with a Gurdjieff-related group that devolved into a cult, said he didn’t know why Darin ultimately left Big Sur, but wished he had been able to spend more time with him.

“In 1971, I was driving from California to New York, and Bobby was back in show business, and headlining in Reno,’’ he remembered. “I was going to stop and say hello, and didn’t. He didn’t last too long after that.’’ (Darin died in 1973).

“But when I think back on it, something wonderful happened to him in Big Sur. Something changed, so even if he had to go back, he wasn’t the same guy anymore. He had accomplished something just by hanging out and taking his boy fishing, not having to be anybody but who he was. There was nobody there who’d give a shit if he was Bobby Darin or not.

“That was the nice thing about Big Sur at the time. Kim Novak was living there, too, and people like her could go to Nepenthe and dance and not be attacked by paparazzi. Today, I don’t know how people could do it and not be destroyed by the attention. For Bobby, maybe for the first time since he became famous, he felt like he could breathe normally.’’

Ernie Montague, a sidekick of Brewer and Doughty in that period, agreed.

“When we met, we were just a group of blue-collar guys drinking beer – no one told me who he was, I found out later. He was a very sweet man – I was impressed with how unHollywood he was, in comparison to some of the other people hanging out in Big Sur at the time … Steve McQueen, Ali McGraw. Dyan Cannon spent a night at the house my wife and I had after she and her 3-year-old daughter had been thrown out of Esalen for rowdy behavior, after she had separated from Cary Grant.”

“Back when Bobby came to Big Sur, it was a respite from Hollywood and other forces. It was like that for 10 or 15 years for a lot of people, but that’s pretty much gone now,” Montague added.

John Goodwin, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter who was a family friend of Darin’s when he was growing up in Southern California and had connections with him on the Central Coast, knew Darin well.

“I remember seeing Roger McGuinn at parties at Bobby’s house after Bobby signed him to a publishing deal, and he went on the road as a guitar player with Bobby at the Copa and the Flamingo. Roger was called Jim, then, and had real short hair – he looked like a Marine. By the late ‘60s, he had started The Byrds and everything had changed, but I’d still see him at Bobby’s place once in a while.’’

“I’m sure he knew the Beatles, I don’t know how well he knew Dylan but he admired him. I was at their house one time in ’64, and heard him and Sandra talking about a Dylan concert. She said, ‘Do you think we should go,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, Bob would be hurt if we didn’t show up.’”

“As I got older, when I was 18 or so, I started writing songs, and Bobby freaked out and said I was the greatest raw talent he’d ever seen.  But Bobby many times said that our friendship had nothing to do with the fact that he knew my dad – we were just artists communicating generationally and musically.’’

Goodwin, who co-wrote the opening song in the Academy Award-winning “Crazy Heart,’’ starring his boyhood friend Jeff Bridges, added: “Bobby told me that when he got there, he and I were going to write a lot of songs together. I was a young songwriter and he loved my work.

“Within a few months of that evening, I moved to Carmel Valley, where I was staying in my mother’s house. Tragically, I began having a nervous breakdown at that time. One day, my mother came down to my room and said ‘Bobby Darin is on the phone for you.’

“I went to the phone and talked with him for a few minutes but I was in a bad state of mind. He told me that he was in the Las Vegas airport (calling me on a pay phone) and that he was headed to L.A., to sell his place and then he was going to make the move to Big Sur. It seemed like he said something like ‘I’ll call you when I get there.’

“By the time he got there, I was in a hospital, slowly recovering from the nervous breakdown. My mother drove Bobby out to visit me. We visited for a while but my state of mind was really shaky. It took me a few months for me to recover and during that time, I was oblivious to the fact the Bobby was living in Big Sur — 25 miles from where I was living. By the time I had fully recovered from all that, Bobby had spent his time in Big Sur and had moved back to Los Angeles.

“Unfortunately, I missed out on writing all those songs he said we were going to write together when we got to Big Sur. I think the next time I saw him was at a house he was living in in Malibu.

“I continued to see him and talk with him during the following years, until the tragic day when my father told me that my dear friend, Bobby Darin, had died following his second open heart surgery.

“I would like to add, in whatever context this might be shared, that Bobby was one of the most gifted singers, entertainers and songwriters the world has ever known. He always had time for me. He always wanted to hear what I had to say.

“I think about him often. I have so many memories of times spent with him. I wish he had lived a long life, so we could have laughed about the ‘old days.’”

Goodwin’s sister, Pacific Grove resident Barbara Brussell Fessler, said, “I was there when Bobby came to the Brookdale house (in Carmel Valley). “He was very concerned about you. He stayed to talk to Mom for quite a while in the kitchen. He looked different, blue jean pants and jacket.

“I listened to them talking, then walked in, mute but keenly aware of Bobby’s authentic and captivating presence. Mom introduced me as ‘your sister, Barbara.’  He might have said, ‘How do you do,’ and gave me a smile. Mom added, “She’s 14.’’ Happily, I have what he gave me next. ‘She’s quite a 14-year-old.’ I was burning up, while trying to act cool. They continued talking, I slithered out.’’

“I’m sorry you never even knew he was so close,’’ she added. “But I could feel his love for you!’’

Goodwin thinks the dichotomy between Darin the nightclub singer and the reclusive folkie is overplayed.

“There was only one guy, man,’’ he said, speaking in soft, thoughtful tones. “You can light a candle or a campfire, but a fire is a fire. The same passion drove his work as a musician and performer.

“When he came back from Big Sur, he changed his act and came out in a five-piece rock band in Las Vegas, and then on his own at the Troubadour … I was there almost every night. A lot of people didn’t dig it, some did.

“A guy from one of the huge agencies in L.A. came up to me and sad, “You’re such a close friend of Bobby’s – you have to get him out of those blue jeans and back into a tuxedo.’’ I said, ‘No, man, I’m just his friend – I can’t tell him what to do.’’’

“But I don’t think there was any competition between genres as far as he was concerned,’” Goodwin added. “He was one of the pop idols of the pre-Beatles era, and had a string of hits that put him up there with Elvis, Dion, The Shirelles, people like that. He had a talent for The Great American Songbook – Capitol Records signed him in ’66 to save their pop division. At one point he did a country song, “You’re The Reason I’m Living,’’ and he sang everyone from Hank Williams to Charles Aznavour.

“To him, it was just music.’’

Maybe Darin put it best, in his largely unheralded 1970 release, “Maybe We Can Get It Together.’’

Maybe we can get it together

Maybe if we really try

Maybe we can get it together

Before we die…

Come on all my brothers and sisters

Now’s the time to become involved

Everybody stand and be counted

Nothin’ questioned…nothing sung…

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Paul Wilner

About Paul Wilner

Paul Wilner is a Monterey-based writer and editor who has worked for the Monterey County Weekly, San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, The Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times. He grew up digging Bobby Darin, Sinatra and The Beatles.