Did you know Birmingham had a counterculture?

Terry Barr
Terry Barr

Today’s guest columnist is Terry Barr.

My brother asked me the other day if I remembered a place on Birmingham’s north side—1st Avenue, to be exact.

A place run by an old Bessemer guy, a friend of our mother, named Jim Anderson. His place was called: Seeds 4: Never Before Store.

Of course I remembered it: a sort of Head Shop with old wooden floors and high ceilings—long and filled with stuff, though somehow organized with a certain hippie logic—that also sold antiques and various forms of “Mod” merchandise, mixed with Americana kitsch.

A place where you could find a full-sized red phone booth in the store; where you could purchase a pair of Amelia Earhart’s goggles or “We Want Wilkie” pennants, or life-size cardboard statues of John, Paul, George, and Ringo from Yellow Submarine.

A place where my brother and I bought Monkees and Beatles, Bridget Bardot and Raquel Welch posters (or rather, our mother bought them for us, because in that period—1967/8—we were only eleven and seven respectively). All varieties of incense and Love Beads.

I didn’t know exactly what London’s Carnaby Street looked like or meant, but if you had asked me then, likely I would have said: “Just like this—Seeds 4.”

After my brother and I spoke, I began reviewing other places in the Birmingham/Bessemer area that felt alternative to me, and maybe were to others, too.

These were the years when I began listening to and then collecting records—mainly 45’s because even I could scrape together 77 cents to spend on the latest hit by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Steppenwolf, The Dave Clark Five, Paul Revere and the Raiders, or The Turtles.

While department stores like Pizitz carried records—and was the place where I first saw The Beatles iconic album/cover of Rubber Soul—Bessemer’s The Music Box was the place where I could find any oldie I wanted though I had to pay $1.00 for each. Located on 19th Street, just a block away from the Bright Star, The Music Box centralized music for me in those days when I often walked downtown on Saturday afternoon right after viewing Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” and so was motivated to pick up something by Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival or Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

I grew up too late to experience Bessemer’s “Teen Town” aka “the Attic” upstairs from some office also on 19th Street. Imagine a place where teens could go, hang out, and listen to a juke box. I so wanted that, but had to be content with Pasquale’s, whose jukebox was at least current.

I know there were other Bessemer hangouts like The Underground, but in these still for all practical purposes segregated times, I never thought I could or should go there. The same with Shelley’s Record Mart in Birmingham.

But in Birmingham, I did find places I could enter—that felt off-limits but drew me because I was a teenager who needed something different—something that spoke to my culture no matter how deeply or not I felt a part of that culture.

Again, I came just a bit too late for Joe Rumore’s Record Rack in Homewood, but I did find The Angry Revolt after it opened in the early 1970’s. I discovered this heady place after listening to WJLN-FM which became a Free Form Rock station after being for years WJLD-AM’s sister soul station.

The Angry Revolt advertised all over WJLN (which later became WZZK), and they had a weekly special called The Angry Revolt’s “Rip-Off Album of the Week, “an album that was specially priced. I remember when the week’s special was Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and David Freiberg’s Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun. The album featured a song called “Sketches of China,” which I loved. Still, the entire record seemed too dangerous to buy, given the albeit little I knew about the druggies from the former Jefferson Airplane.

The Angry Revolt started as a coffee shop and hangout for Birmingham’s politically left denizens, founded by Ken Forbes, Jr, grandson of the founder of Forbes Organs. Check out the site BhamWiki for more info. But the store eventually sold records, “smoking paraphernalia,” and waterbeds. It felt strange, somewhat forbidden, and so very romantically hip to enter.

Maybe just as hip was a retail store in the 5 Points West area, (a place near “Britches” which advertised “Scene Jeans by Liberty” all over WSGN). This other place, The Purple Mushroom, I think, sold Mod and Hippie clothes, jewelry, and other accessories for the rebel youth culture. I remember more about the building and its purple mushroom design than anything else, but every time a commercial for it came on WSGN, I wondered what all went on there, and how I could get there since at that point, I couldn’t drive.

Other venues for shopping and hanging opened in those days—the late 1960’s and 70’s—including Charlemagne Records in 5 Points South, and Oz Records in Eastwood and Midfield.

And nagging at me is a bookstore/health food store on 11th Avenue South, The Golden Temple, right under Birmingham Festival Theatre. I don’t remember what I might have bought or browsed through there, but it was only a block from Charlemagne and so part of my rounds in this teenaged attempt to feel part of the Birmingham “cool” scene.

I was able to drive by then, and also took in plays up at Festival Theatre—a haven for edgy drama by contemporary and avant-garde playwrights, founded by Carl Stewart, Randy Marsh, and Vic Fichtner. Seeing any show there, especially something by Pinter, Albee, or Brecht, made me wonder about all I didn’t know about my world.

Just in 1974, I saw these plays: “The Effects of Gamma Rays on the Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”, “Berlin to Broadway”, “The Country Girl”, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”, “Blithe Spirit”, “What the Butler Saw”, and “The Seagull.”

All of this is not to say that I engaged and became a part of anything alternative or countercultural in my hometown. It’s more to remind myself and others that despite all of Birmingham’s problems—its racism, violence, and intolerance of outsiders—there were places I’ll remember, “all my life, though some have changed; some forever, not for better.” Most have gone. Only Golden Temple remains.

Yeah yeah yeah. I loved them all.

Terry Barr is a native of Bessemer. He has been a Professor of English at Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina since 1987. His most recent essay collection, Secrets I’m Dying to Tell You (Red Hawk Press), is available at Amazon.com, and you can find him at medium.com/@terrybarr.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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10 thoughts on “Did you know Birmingham had a counterculture?”

  1. Awesome read and journey down Birmingham’s history. I love Birmingham-it was my first home and where I remember trips on street cars to downtown on Saturdays with the family and lunch treat at one of the tiny “hole in the wall hotdog stands” and, of course the trip to Woolworths fountain for a Coca Cola where years before my Mother worked as the bookkeeper then on to Pizitz Department Store where I worked in advertising as a young woman. So many memories, so many simple pleasures seemingly gone by the wayside, but never forgotten nor the people who made it all happen and made it seem so magical to a young kid. As a young woman , I had the privilege of following my Mother’s lead by taking a job at Mr. King Furniture, a family owned business operated by the Sher family…some of the best folks I ever worked for. Thank you and all of the many others who were the foundation of the Birmingham I still love at age 73……

  2. Great trip down memory lane. I didn’t grow up in Birmingham, but the same scene played out in my home town of Tuscaloosa – advanced of course by the presence of the University of Alabama. Other Alabama cities had similar scenes, all depicting a vibrant youth culture in the heavily conservative “Heart of Dixie.”I do have one suggested revision to your fine article. I think you should point out that Birmingham’s counter culture of the late 60s-early 70s arose despite – or in opposition – to DJs Tom Charles and Doug Layton’s misguided plan to publicly burn Beatles records in 1966. Their campaign, which was never carried out, was in protest to John Lennon’s statement that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Just as Birmingham and other Southern cities moved on from their racist histories of the 1950s and early 1960s, they moved on in their acceptance of rock and roll…and books…and theatre…and many more elements of national popular culture. And it was black and white young people who played a pivotal role in that movement.

    1. Yes, Robert, you are right. I could have mentioned that incident with the DJ’s but I was trying to stay positive. I remember a friend who wanted us to burn our Beatles’ records, but fortunately, I didn’t follow him!

  3. The Birmingham Festival Theater is another survivor, still just above the Golden Temple. Maybe that is a charmed corner across the generations. The Festival Theater continues to support cutting edge productions like those from the Birmingham Black Repertory Theater.

    1. I’m so glad it survives! Such a cutting edge venue even in the 70’s! Thanks George!

      Terry

  4. Let’s not forget The Cornerstone on Magnolia Ave and 21st South – Birmingham’s first head shop, Yellow Dog On 7th Ave. South, Cadillac Cafe’ Highland @20th St. Avondale Park on Saturday and Sunday summer afternoons and so many others.

    Joey McClure

    1. Thanks–let’s definitely not forget these. I vaguely remember them, though never got the chance to go! Thanks Joey!

  5. So, I just started reading this post without really looking at the photo or by line and about three paragraphs in, I said to myself, “Self, you MUST send this to Terry Barr. He will love it!” Then I looked up to see who had written in and there you were, LOL. Thanks as always for your amazing deep memories for Bessemer/Birmingham and I wholeheartedly recommend Secrets I’m Dying to Tell You!

    1. It’s great to hear from you, Teresa! I hope you’re well. What are you working on these days?

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