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[whitespace] Snapshots Party Joint: Club Z hosted any musical act that captured Tom Louagie's imagination, anything and everything that was new and different. Photographs courtesy of Tom Louagie.

Real Times

Back in the '70s, Club Zayante embodied the 'real' Santa Cruz

By Louise Brooks

I HAD HEARD stories about Club Zayante--the legendary Santa Cruz Mountains music club--before I ever got to Santa Cruz. Back in Montana last year, I heard that the club was a crazy California hippie joint, the first place you'd stop if you were passing through Santa Cruz. I heard it was an old house in the redwoods, with bands playing every night, a bar, a kitchen serving up avocado pies, a nude swimming pool out back and often unbounded performances: Albert Collins out in the middle of Zayante Road, with a 100-foot extension cord, his electric guitar screaming into the night.

"It's the real Santa Cruz," someone told me.

But all that was back in the '70s. Club Z had been defunct for years by the time I got to town. I found that locals described the club differently. They always point out that the culture that Zayante embodied is now sadly missing.

"Yeah, Club Zayante, that was when Santa Cruz was still real."

I wanted to know what was going on in Zayante in the '70s, and what was going on in Santa Cruz today. How does a place--a bunch of ramshackle wooden shacks in a stand of redwoods--come to personify an era that people will later peg as "real"? And if times aren't real today, what are they?

So I sat down one sunny afternoon with Tom Louagie, the guy who started and ran Club Z. For the next two hours, I tried to piece together some answers to my questions as he told me story after story of Santa Cruz' past.

The Redneck Way of Crazy

IT TURNS OUT that Tom's own story began with the search for real times. He came to California in 1966 seeking Cannery Row.

"I got hooked on John Steinbeck in high school back in Michigan," he says. "I wanted to be Doc, and to hang out with Mac and the boys on Cannery Row. When I got there, that Cannery Row was gone ... but I found it on the other side of Monterey Bay."

One night, Tom came home from a day of teaching other people's kids. His own wife and kids had recently gone back to Michigan for a visit from which they never returned. Battling loneliness, he ended up in a little bar in Capitola, "just sitting in the corner, listening to the scene go down. It was a young crowd, younger then me, I was about 28 years old, and these were Cabrillo kids, 21, 22."

Tom bought the place and changed its name to the Local.

"By the end of the summer, and $700 later, I was a partner in the place; a few months later, I was the owner. The only live music around at the time was a lounge band at the Interlude on Pacific Avenue. There was no music at the Local, not even a jukebox. So I brought in my stereo and put on some Swiss yodeling. They loved it! People started bringing their favorite albums, and I got to be the DJ. Every night at nine, we dropped the needle on 'Back in the U.S.S.R.,' and a wild sock hop began. We got very busy, and very unpopular with the cops. I don't know why, we never called them. We had our own biker gang, the Righteous Few, to keep the creeps out. Nice guys; big guys. It was time to head for the hills though. My lease was about to run out, so I went looking for a place to buy, a place with less government."

One afternoon, Tom went up to Zayante to visit a friend. She told him about a much-loved local country club--originally built in the 1920s as a storage shack for road-building equipment--that had sat vacant for five years after its owner died in a fire. The neighbors were hoping someone would buy it and start it up again.

So in January of '69, Tom bought the place. He was 29 years old. The $36,000 price tag included a liquor license, a basement full of liquor and all the furniture that had been left in the bottom of the defunct pool.

Club Zayante did not start out as the hippie club it is remembered as today. For its first year, Tom ran the club on its old schedule of luaus, family nights, Wild West parties and swimming club memberships. "A family trip--straight, couldn't be straighter." Tom taught swimming lessons to toddlers, served up "gin and tonics, and gin fizz brunches and shit like that. The redneck way of getting crazy."

Tom and his new wife were "Mr. and Mrs. Zayante"--celebrated for bringing the old neighborhood club back to life. Then Labor Day hit, and everyone left.

"I found out that these people didn't really live up the road. They lived in Redwood City, they lived in San Francisco, Berkeley. These were their summer places, and they all went away and left me with about four hard-core alcoholics, bums who lived in the neighborhood. I could see that things were going downhill in a hurry, and no hope really for getting out of it. So I thought, well, okay, if this is going to go down the tubes, at least I'm going to have fun with it in the last stretch.

"So I called up Red from One Hand Clapping, who had been one of the groups that had played down at the Local, and I said, 'I just decided that I'm going to take the jukebox and Glenn Miller out of here, and bring in some live music. And if this is going to go down, we're going to go down flaming!' And he said, 'Well, we'll come on up and jam.' And that was the beginning of moving the Local up here, a couple years later, in spirit anyway."

Not Weird, But Different

FROM THEN ON, the music was anything and everything. Anything that captured Tom's imagination, anything that came his way that was new and different. He tells me about lying in a hammock in the woods one afternoon, drinking tequila at a divorce party for a friend and hearing Clifton Chenier playing on a tape deck.

"It just knocked me over, that accordion and the rugboard and the French singing. I thought, 'Someday, I'm going to go down to New Orleans when I can get away, and I'm going to listen to this kind of music and the people who are doing it.'"

The next night, Ron Thompson was up at Zayante playing his blues show. He invited Tom to go see his buddy, Clifton Chenier, who was up from New Orleans and playing in town the next night. Needless to say, Tom went. He not only booked Chenier to play at his place the next week, but also struck up a friendship with the band that resulted in them staying at his house for weeks at a time whenever they came to the West Coast to tour.

In addition to drawing new music from out of town, Club Zayante supported a growing local music scene.

"Monday night was Jill Croston (Lacy J. Dalton) doing her folk scene; Tuesday night was Bob Brozman doing his crazy, wild, National steel guitar scene. Wednesday night we had open mic and the local TV station came up and anybody who wanted to, anybody, good, bad or what-not, could sit up on that stage and be videoed--it was all new then, and could be seen on TV that week.

"Thursday night was blues night. Ron Thompson was doing his incredible blues show and some real famous people would stop by: Albert Collins, John Lee Hooker. Friday night--international night. Whatever I could find that was weird. Not weird, but different. I couldn't find any Swiss yodelers, but we did have a gamelan night."

In retrospect, Tom realizes that this foray into nightlife and club-owning was not as accidental as it seemed to him at the time. His father had owned a nightclub in Jackson, Mich., and Tom's favorite act was "Flying Pee Wee, the cowboy singer who would sing 'Old Rugged Cross.'

"I used to go out and sweep the place up, and I would really get off on all the different colored lights, the stage lights, you know? [My father] would let me go back and flip the lights on and off, and there was something there, I didn't even know it, I guess it must have got inside me, even back then. I could see and feel that place, my father's old nightclub. And I could see and feel the Local when I came in there. I liked what was there, but I thought I could add to it, and make that place something more. And I did. And then I went up to Zayante and did the same thing all over again."

Club Zayante Pool Sharks: Club Zayante's swimming pool, which had been a mainstay of the old country club, slowly and almost accidentally became a skinny-dipping pool.

Naked at Noon

AS THE MUSIC scene at Zayante began evolving, the atmosphere of the club began shifting as well. The pool, which had been the mainstay of the old country club, used for family swimming lessons and brunches, slowly and almost accidentally became a skinny-dipping pool. In the process of rebuilding part of the club after it had been firebombed by an angry neighbor, Tom built a sauna.

"So we'd take saunas at night, and then we'd take saunas early in the morning, then later in the morning, and next thing you know, we reopen and there's a nude swimming pool here because we couldn't find anything in the books that actually said we couldn't do it."

Club Zayante was shaping Tom as much as he was shaping it.

"With the nude swimming pool, I was terrified, I was scared shitless. I said, 'Look, we're doing all this work out here because somebody firebombed us three times! And you want me to put the nude pool in the newspaper, and advertise it, and bring people up here, and sell liquor up here? You're out of your mind!' But, here we are, out here, naked, at noon, discussing this, you know? 'Maybe we should go naked?' Well, maybe we have!

"It was all new to everybody. I didn't realize that I wasn't the only one that was in culture shock at what was going on around me, and I didn't realize that I was a part of it, really. Things change all the time, you know? Things changed a whole lot faster then, that's for sure. For me personally--I don't know what was going on in other peoples' lives--but when I was 29 years old, I was married, a schoolteacher, a father, two children, teaching the fourth grade. When I was still 29 years old, I was a separated club owner still teaching the fourth grade.

"So my life changed incredibly, and at that time I didn't know that I was a hippie. I started at the Local when you weren't supposed to trust anybody over 30, and I was 29! I kind of laughed and wondered if people didn't think I was a narc or something!"

Even up in the hills, there were people who hated what was going on at Zayante. In addition to the three firebombings, there was constant legal trouble.

"There was this clown from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission who had been harassing us down at the Local, and he had followed me up to Zayante with two of his undercover agents. The Three Stooges! They tried everything, but they couldn't stick us. We didn't serve minors, and all the pot smoking was done in the forest, off the property. This guy was climbing the walls when we took our clothes off. He had to nail us now, but he bungled it so badly that the judge chewed him out in front of the whole courtroom. It's a funny story. All of our court cases were funny, but only because we won every one of them. They were expensive and stressful, though. I got pissed off and went political. If you can't join 'em, beat 'em! And we did. We 'Boogied for Borovatz' and registered more than 800 hippies at benefits that year. We elected the very first liberal supervisor in our district.

"It was a lot of hassle but there would be some times when you just knew you were the luckiest guy in the world. It'd be a Saturday night, and it'd be about midnight, and I knew by then that it was all covered. The band was on the stage, the door people had showed up, the bartenders, the cooks, the waitresses. The band was playing, the crowd was there, the parking lot was jammed full of people--there would be cars parked on both sides of Zayante Road all the way to the stop sign.

"And I'd go across the street and get high over there in the parking lot all by myself and just look over. It'd be like a big music box that I'd carved, and made all the little pieces, and got the batteries in, and cranked it on, and the whole thing's working, you know? I'd hear the band playing, and I'd see the people dancing and listening out in front, on the steps. And I knew that out by the pool, Slud Willie, our 300-pound cook, had put on Beethoven's Pastoral, this incredibly beautiful piece. He'd cranked it way up, and then jumped in the pool, naked, with Lilly, his 300-pound girlfriend. And the two of them were doing the most beautiful, most graceful water ballet you could ever imagine! Six hundred pounds of humanity, doing this beautiful thing.

"And I'd be sitting over there smoking a joint, and I thought, I know that Beethoven's playing out back, and I know that Ed McLear is probably over in that corner seducing some woman with his romantic Spanish guitar, and I know that everybody's having a great time, and is probably going to make it through the night without anything tragic going down and I would think, 'Man, I'm the luckiest guy in the world. This is what I got for a life, you know?'

"But then they would go away and there would be all the beer on the floor and the broken glass, but that was okay, that was okay, that was all okay."

There Goes the Neighborhood

TOM WILL TELL you with a laugh that he tried to "drag the '60s into the '80s." He will also tell you that he never decided to close the club; in 1983 he just stopped trying to reopen it.

"The neighborhood became very different. Yuppified. Now the cabins that were being rented to hippies, people either moved in full-time themselves or they sold it to somebody that's bought the place and now they're living in it. The place became filled up with different kinds of people. There weren't enough local people who were into the '60s anymore. Those people couldn't afford to live here anymore."

It's similar to the talk that's going around Santa Cruz today--the encroachment of Silicon Valley, dotcommers, the loss of something real, the overrunning effect of money. But Tom talks about it without any bitterness, without any sense of permanent loss. He will go on to tell you about the scattered, still great mountain clubs where he goes to hear music these days.

"Albert [Kent, owner of Henfling's] obviously sees things a lot like I used to and still do. He appreciates good food and good music, and thinks that the common man deserves these things. And he's bringing them to town, you know? You will meet the people who live in the area if you go there. If you go downtown to the bigger clubs, you will meet those people too, but you're going to meet a lot of people from out of town, and you're not going to know who's who.

"Any traveler will tell you, go to the neighborhood pubs and meet the folks that work all day. Just listen to their conversations, whether they're interesting or not to you, to really understand what it's like to live in this area."

There is a sense of continued purpose in Tom's talk. The economy of the 1980s had a crushing effect on Club Zayante, as well as on other places in Santa Cruz. But Tom will tell you, "It's just economics." More important is what we make of the places we have; places that exist now and are real.

The ability to make something of a place is Tom Louagie's particular talent. He came to California in the '60s looking for Cannery Row only to find that it no longer existed. Instead he created Club Zayante, a club that embodied the transformations of the '70s. That is why people still talk about Club Z with the exuberance of knowing they were witnesses to something real. But go looking for Club Zayante today, and all you'll find is a story encouraging you to move on.

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From the March 14-21, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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