The Automatic Jukebox, one of San Francisco’s most famous street musicians in the ’70s and ’80s, was found dead on a sidewalk last month. He was 59 and the cause of death was alcohol poisoning. His music had died long ago, but not before he entertained thousands of Bay Area visitors. You plunked money in this tall, cardboard box -- usually near Fisherman’s Wharf -- and out he popped, trumpet in hand to play requests.
The Automatic Human Jukebox was big. He was featured in guidebooks, got interviewed for national TV by Mike Douglas and Charles Kuralt, made Newsweek, and was the subject of a Wall Street Journal feature story. This was before years of substance abuse addled his brain, enveloping him in mental illness and homelessness.
Three years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle found him living in a rat-infested dump under a rotted piano covered by refuse. He was wearing women’s clothing, his hair and beard were long and matted, and the loss of a front tooth meant he couldn’t play a trumpet even if he’d had one.
When he made the news this time, it was -- briefly -- as an icon raised by advocates for the homeless. My memories of Grimes Poznik, who later changed his name to Poznikov before becoming the Automatic Human Jukebox, are much different. I went to college with Grimes and, like other classmates who’d followed his life from a distance -- always with a smile -- seeing those photos of him living on the street were terribly depressing.
As a student during the mid-’60s at Cornell College, a small, liberal arts school in Iowa, I sat in a huge, packed chapel one autumn night and was swept away by Grimes’ musical performance. This was our college’s annual freshman talent show -- a quaint notion now -- and here was this cocky little first-year student from a small town in Kansas who came onstage twirling his trumpet as if it were a six-shooter and he a TV cowboy.
I don’t recall the tunes, but I do remember Grimes got called back for many encores. Finally, he finished with a flourish, sliding across the floor on his knees and hitting a note so high it was a miracle the stained-glass windows didn’t shatter. Everyone was convinced we’d just heard the next Maynard Ferguson.
At the very least, we knew Grimes Poznik was a special talent, and we felt lucky to have him in our midst. He was impossible to avoid on our little campus and, if he hadn’t made that first impression with his horn, his colorful, hip, affectations otherwise made him stand out like Maynard G. Krebs among future Rotarians.
America’s beatniks were becoming hippies then, with Grimes wholeheartedly along for the ride. At the same time, almost everyone was touched by the politics of the Vietnam era. Grimes was with those of us who “got clean for Gene McCarthy” in the spring of 1968, tramping all over the Midwest to work in election primaries.
But Grimes took it another step and obtained absolute, cultlike status among us campus lefties when he managed to get arrested that summer at the Democratic convention in Chicago, along with 309 others rounded up by police. His crime: Standing on a statue in Grant Park playing “ America the Beautiful” on his horn while rioting took place below him.
How cool was that? It was pure Grimes, and he became our hero throughout the subsequent school year. A Grimes Poznik Defense Fund was organized to pay his expenses for a later court appearance. (He had to pay a fine, his sister, Jenny Predpelski, recalls.)
As the Class of ’69 at Cornell dispersed and we headed into our callings, it became clear over the years that Grimes never really left the ’60s. He taught for a while in Chicago and traveled to Europe, but basically he joined the peace movement full time, and armed with his most effective weapon, a horn, moved to San Francisco.
In that time of Yippies, Weathermen and assorted other zealots assuring us they had answers to the world’s problems, Grimes added to the din the way he knew best. He organized SANC -- the Society for the Advancement of Nonverbal Communication. He had business cards printed that further declared he was in its Division of Experimental Multi-Media Art Development. He first started passing cards out his last year on our campus.
With this came his SANC-sanctioned “People’s Band,” made up of people who weren’t musicians at all but anti-war activists armed with kazoos and slide whistles. His band supplied music to accompany sympathetic rallies, such as those by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, or it tried to drown out rhetoric at opposition gatherings and political conventions, which was the case at the Republicans in their 1972 national convention in Miami.
The People’s Band’s real specialty was playing patriotic tunes whenever anti-war demonstrators were being gassed or arrested at demonstrations mostly in his adopted California or any other place his wanderings took him. “May music be the ultimate weapon of The Revolution” was the band’s motto, a strategy Grimes first demonstrated in 1968 in Chicago.
Ahead of his time
Grimes, as one childhood pal said, always was a few notes ahead of the masses.
His final battles were in San Francisco, where he championed the cause of street musicians like himself. This led to skirmishes with City Hall and its attempts to tighten restrictions on performers. In 1975, according to the Chronicle, Grimes was arrested for occupying a public street without a permit. He petitioned officials to have street-friendly measures put on ballots. In 1987, he was arrested for playing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” 13 decibels above the legal sound limit.
Relatives say Grimes was deep into substance abuse and living in abandoned buildings by the 1990s. He grew convinced the CIA was out to get him for past transgressions, including his arrest in Chicago. There was no gaining back his life, undoubtedly, after he hocked his horn for money, according to his cousin, Judy Poznik. By then, he was looking in dumpsters for sustenance.
The Automatic Human Jukebox died Oct. 27. He was discovered on a sidewalk under a Highway 101 overpass. His death rated an obituary on eJazzNews.com, a Web site covering the music scene, as well as most other local publications. His friends in the San Francisco area are trying to organize some sort of memorial for Grimes, whose ashes have been stored in the medical examiner’s office. They’d like to scatter them in the bay but first must raise $700 to cover expenses.
“My brother was brilliant,” said Predpelski, the sister who lives in Kansas. “He did a lot of things for a lot of people. He fought a lot of battles in his own way. He could do anything.”
Grimes never became the next Maynard Ferguson and this is not necessarily a bad thing. He got stuck in the ’60s, when there was a spontaneity, naivete and idealism in our culture that seems sadly absent today. Nobody I’ve known embodied this spirit more than he did and, to me, that is the tragedy of his death.
Nov. 18, 2005