Every Nov. 12, like clockwork, Diamond Dave Whitaker gets a year older. And, every Nov. 12, like clockwork, the longtime San Francisco poet, activist and radio host plans a birthday party at Adobe Books.
This year will feature Whitaker returning to Adobe Books once more, scheduled for Nov. 12 at 5 p.m. at 3130 24th St. But that’s not all.
He announced on live radio that he’d be celebrating his 82nd birthday at Bottom of the Hill on Nov. 12. Instead of open mics and hip poetry reading, his birthday party would instead feature four live bands playing everything from electronic music to Latin jazz.
Whitaker made the announcement on his monthly Mutiny Radio show “The Common Thread Collective,” an open mic and poetry show he’s been hosting for more than a decade. His co-host, Valerie Ibarra, was caught off guard.
“I didn’t have a hand in planning it,” Ibarra said. “I don’t know that Bottom of the Hill even knows it’s happening, but Dave has a way of making it happen.”
So, in addition to the Nov. 12 event at Adobe, he’ll celebrate again at Bottom of the Hill at 1233 17th St. at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.
Breaking away from the norm is just the way Diamond Dave operates. His life has been anything but conventional. Some say he’s just as surprised as other people are that he made it to old age, yet the former beat poet is still writing new material every day.
Support local reporting. You can double your dollars to Mission Local today!
It required some finagling to visit Whitaker at his home, a place reminiscent of the Bay Area of yesteryear. Best described as an artist’s commune, it’s a vibrant place where an unknown number of people reside in unseen nooks and crannies within a warehouse-like structure in the city’s southeast. It’s also the type of place that is slowly disappearing from the Bay Area as cities crack down on such unwarranted housing after Oakland’s lethal Ghost Ship fire of 2016.
“So, what do you want to know?” Whitaker asked as he sips his tea and takes a drag of his cigarette. He still smokes, though he’s happy to announce that he quit drinking 10 years ago.
Whitaker was born in 1937, during a time when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was steering the country through the worst economic depression in modern history. Whitaker was born in Cleveland, but moved with his family to Minnesota when he was still young. He lived there until his teens and met Bob Dylan — née Robert Zimmerman — along the way.
He hitchhiked to San Francisco in 1957 after reading an article about beat poetry in the city, and soon ensconced himself in the city’s Beat scene. A few years later he traveled out of the country to Israel and lived on a kibbutz before coming back stateside. He returned to San Francisco in 1966, just ahead of the Summer of Love. He smoked his fair share of pot in that era.
“It was a bunch of people coming together from different backgrounds. There were so many people on Haight Street that it would stop traffic,” Whitaker said.
He was also one of the first members of The Diggers, an arts group that held performances but also gave free food to Haight Ashbury denizens.
Diamond Dave’s Summer of Love poem, circa 1997. Video courtesy of Foundsf.org
In 1970, Whitaker became one of the first radio hosts on KPOO 89.5 FM, a low-power city radio station, and hosted his initial iteration of political radio. He helped organize the first People’s Congress, joined the punk scene in the ’80s and fathered nine kids along the way.
Until the mid-2000s, Whitaker lived near 22nd and Valencia in the Mission and was a frequent patron at Revolution Cafe. He remembers the Mission of yore, too: the rise of protests against the conflicts in Central America, the creation of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, the art and artists — and the cheap rents. He’s now lived at his current space for 11 years.
“Do you have the web on that machine?” Whitaker interjects, as he points to my smartphone.
We pull up a video of his son, Ubi, as he strums a bass guitar on YouTube.
Nowadays, Whitaker takes it easy. His back hurts, and he has to take smaller steps to get around. He uses a brightly decorated walker to move about his home; it’s painted lime green. He doesn’t get out as much nowadays. Art is everywhere in his home, outside of his door, on his door and above his bed. A flag above his pillow has a rainbow-colored peace sign, and above that is a painting of Whitaker when he was younger, complete with his applejack newsboy hat.
Adjacent to him are bookcases filled with old tomes about European politics, philosophy and social studies.
“History came out of the books. Herstory came out of the women’s movement in the ’70s. But what I do is called ‘hipstory,’” Whitaker said as we discuss his library.
Whitaker has his own place in this city’s hipstory. In 2016, the Board of Supervisors announced Feb. 2 as Diamond Dave Day, in recognition of his decades of activism and sheer longevity.
The idea for a birthday concert was spontaneous, says Laura Camacho. She moved into a studio next to Whitaker in September and instantly connected with him. Camacho, originally from Chicago, came to California to pursue a music career and is a singer, musician and music instructor.
Camacho said that she and her group, Lauda and Los Bad Hombres, were booked to play at Bottom of the Hill with additional talent coming in from as far off as Chicago. When Whitaker initially asked if the band would play at his birthday party, she immediately said yes, but was disappointed to learn it was the same night as her Bottom of the Hill gig.
“He said, ‘That’s okay. We could do it at your show!’” Camacho said. “Of the four bands, Diamond Dave opening up the night with poetry is probably the hottest act.”
Eventually, the plan shifted. Camacho was worried about Whitaker’s health and managed to get his poetry night at Adobe Books booked. Now scheduled for 5 p.m., it’ll be a classic night of poetry and prose with one of the city’s truest rebels.
One of Whitaker’s favorite sayings is, “doing more together” — so maybe his 82nd birthday party will feature everyone doing a bit of everything.
Diamond Dave’s Open Mic night at Adobe Books at 3130 24th St. runs from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and is open to the public.
Bottom of the Hill’s Nov. 12 show features bands Copyslut, Wizard Apprentice, Blacker Face and Lauda and the Bad Hombres. The show starts at 8 p.m. and the door price is $10 and is located at 1233 17th St. in Potrero Hill.