Paladin, the Berkeley Biker-Poet:
Every Damn Body Was Born to Die
What the hell was this guy doing on stage at a poetry reading? He appeared to be an outlaw biker. He’d been introduced simply as “Paladin,” grabbed the microphone as soon as he hit the stage, and started strutting back and forth, loudly clomping his boot heels on the wooden platform, shooting confrontational glances at anyone who was talking, until he’d shut the whole place up—which was not an easy task.
The Starry Plough was a rowdy Irish pub on the south side of Berkeley and the poets who read on open mic night generally had to put up with the less-than-polite din of the drinking crowd. Decked out in traditional biker garb—very grungy leathers, a dirty bandana tying back his greasy-looking black hair—and displaying a shut-the-fuck-up attitude that was highly abnormal on poetry night—Paladin finally stopped strutting when the crowd quieted down. Then he launched into a loud, abrasive, rhyming poem that went something like this:
Every damn body was born to die
So while you’re waitin’ you better get high
’Cause the trip is whatever you manage to buy
And you pay for it soon as you’re born
Now, me, I get off on women and sin
Getting’ righteously wasted
But mostly a big ol’ Milwaukee V-twin
’Cause there’s nothin’ at all like a righteous machine
About dynamite fast and say, medium clean
And if you’ve been hangin’ out there
You flat know what I mean
Tearin’ up empty streets around dawn
Tearin’ down highways out on a run
With a few or more bros, out havin’ fun
The wind in your armpits, your chrome in the sun
And like the wind, you’re gone
On a knucklehead, or a panhead, or a shovelhead
’Cause once you’re gone, you’re gonna stay dead
So, meanwhile, Get it on!
I believe I’m missing a phrase from the second stanza (somewhere around “hard partyin’” and “getting’ righteously wasted”), but I’m reproducing this poem from memory (and yes, I heard him recite it so many times back in the 70s that close to forty years later, I can almost recite it myself).
That night in 1974 when I first saw Paladin onstage, I was so impressed with his performance that I bought him a Guinness and we sat at the bar talking till the pub closed at 2 a.m. He struck me as brilliant, crazy, funny, and fearless. Oh, I forgot to mention. He was all of about five feet tall, even with his boots on.
He became a fast friend of mine within a few days of that first meeting at the pub. I got a phone call a couple mornings later as I was about to leave for work at the Oakland Post Office. It was the Berkeley Police Department, asking if I’d accept a call from “Martin Rosenberg.” In the background, a voice yelled out, “It’s me! Paladin!” I took the call.
He’d been busted the night before for shoplifting a pair of sweat socks at Hinks, a downtown Berkeley department store that was notorious for mistrusting hippies. If you just entered the store looking countercultural at all, a store detective would follow you around until you left. But, what did Paladin know? He was the new kid on the block. He called me because he didn’t know anyone else in town and my phone number was the only one he had.
He needed someone to come up with a hundred bucks for bail, so he wouldn’t have to sit in the cooler for god knows how long, until his trial. As he was telling me this, he kept repeating, “Stop laughing, godammit!” Since I was about to leave for work, I called a friend who got over to the jail and bailed him out within an hour.
I don’t know that any of Paladin’s poetry was ever published, as he considered poetry to be a performance art. I used to have quite a few hours of his poetry on audio tape—mostly from readings around the Bay Area, but some performed in my living room—that I recorded on a reel-to-reel machine. I had a theater group at the time, Expoetry Express, and Paladin performed in quite a few of the plays I produced. (And I’m using the term “plays” loosely, as much of what we did had no master script and everyone wrote their own lines.) Unfortunately, I lost all of my tapes of him, plus photos, and quite a bit of his artwork, in a fire in 1991.
Paladin became well-known on the local open-mic poetry scene in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived for the last 14 years of his life. He was also a respected freelance tattoo artist in the East Bay in the late 70s—long before the tattoo craze—in addition to being a freelance motorcycle mechanic and a freelance knife maker.
He was a talented cartoonist and did a number of illustrations for a gambling quarterly—Blackjack Forum— that I’d started publishing in 1981. He was never a gambler, but he thought it was interesting that I was taking off to Reno or Tahoe every other weekend to play blackjack, and he was intrigued that I was writing books telling players how to beat the game. He often jokingly accused me of being a “snake oil salesman.” In 1986, he did a caricature of me, that I later used on a Blackjack Forum cover. I no longer have the original artwork, but here’s the illustration, taken from the mag:
One of his stylistic influences, as you can see clearly in this drawing, was Jack Davis, the famous Mad magazine cartoonist.
Paladin died of heart failure in 1988 at the tragic age of 45. It didn’t seem fair. I never knew him to be into drugs. He rarely took a hit when a joint was passed around and he didn’t drink much. He’d had a serious motorcycle accident that put him in the hospital a couple years before he died, and I believe there were internal injuries that may have contributed to his death at such a young age. I visited him in the hospital a few times and was amazed that whenever I showed up, there were Berkeley cops visiting to wish him well. His wake was an affair to remember, with all the bikers, poets, artists, and tattoo freaks who showed up.
I’ve recently had some email communication with Paul d’Orleans, who knew Paladin as a motorcycle enthusiast back then. Paul has a vintage motorcycle website that features a page on Paladin under his “Legendary Riders” section. You can find that here: The Vintagent on Paladin.
Paul offered to put up a Wikipedia page on Paladin if we can find a bit more of Paladin’s poetry and artwork. So, I’m reaching out to anyone from the Berkeley poetry scene back then who might have any of Paladin’s work, maybe even photos of tattoos he designed. For a few years, Paladin had a column, “Paladin’s Notebook,” in Iron Horse magazine that featured his motorcycle designs. You can see one of his Iron Horse contributions here. If anyone has any more of these they could send, or scan, please get in touch–2013 marks 25 years since Paladin’s death, and I think a Wikipedia page would be a fitting memorial. Send or email all materials to me. Just click on my CONTACT button above for my addresses.
The photo of Paladin above is from Berkeley U.S.A., by Anne Moose (1981, Alternative Press), still available at Amazon here.
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