Features and Occasionals

Cosmic Aeroplane: A Love Story

By James Taylor

Salt Lake’s Cosmic Aeroplane (1967-1991) was a major nexus of cultural changes that were rippling through the youth culture in America in the mid- to late ’60s. The Civil Rights Movement—an insane war that still had the support of the country at large—the birth of the modern day environmental movement—the call of psychedelics and the mind-opening possibilities they presented—a growing interest in Eastern philosophies—and an abiding interest in the new music of the day: These concerns coalesced in a little store that expanded the minds of many people who walked through its doors.

Web editor’s note: This story has LOTS of pictures. Lots. And a really cool layout. To see it the way it looks in the print edition, click here.

The Summer of Love, 1967, was an exotic and mind-blowing year for this 13-year-old aspiring hippie. With my grandpa, after much cajoling, I traveled from Bountiful, Utah to San Fran­cis­co’s Haight-Ashbury district, epicenter of the hippie movement. This trip was more like a pilgrimage in that I had avidly been following the media back home on the “flower children” who were flooding in to that city. These exuberant, free-spirited and openly counter-cultural types I saw there were early role models for me.

I was the son of a beatnik beauty who had jazz musician lovers and husbands. She was a free-thinker who exposed me to Buddhism, astrology, D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller before I was a teen. There was a little white house behind my grandfolks’ home where she lived from time to time. Counter to the white, homogenous, conservative ward, or Mormon church precinct, that we lived in, my mother’s house often hosted parties with black musicians, Latino reefer-smoking reprobates and lots of alcohol for all involved. And yes, the cops came a time or two.

There were oddly appealing echoes of the lifestyle my mother and her friends lived on the streets of San Francisco and the smell of burning hemp was something I was familiar with. I had already begun to let my hair grow long, and had made myself a pair of bell-bottom pants, which were otherwise only available in war surplus stores. I wore beads and wild shirts that I scored from Deseret Industries, the local thrift store, and thus wearing the uniform I proudly proclaimed myself a hippie.

Also, without the permission of grandparents who would have been worried, I began to regularly travel into Salt Lake City to immerse myself in the burgeoning youth culture that was springing up there. I lived on Main Street in Bountiful which happened to also be Highway 89, running from Canada to Mexico. The bus stop was right in front of my house. I took the Lakeshore bus 10 miles to the south for 30 cents or hitchhiked to and from the city when older car-driving friends couldn’t ferry me.

Prime destination: The Cosmic Aeroplane

The original Cosmic Aeroplane opened in June of 1967 at 875 E. 900 South. The Ninth & Ninth neighborhood, as we know it, was yet to “arrive.” The few hip establishments sharing the corner included Phillips Gallery, Desolation Row Sub Shop (run by a musician from the then-popular Smoke Blues Band) and the Tower Theater. More prosaic establishments filled out the intersection: a barber shop, a small motor repair shop and a laundromat.

The Aeroplane was Steve Jones’ brainchild. Steve was perpetually dressed in a long-sleeved blue denim shirt and matching jeans (as he was the last time I saw him a few years back). Thin as a rail with a quiet seriousness, Steve was spare with his words and only implied all the freewheeling, drug-endorsing, social activist eastern liberality that we made of him.

His family moved to Utah from New Jersey in 1956. He graduated from Olympus High, class of 1961, and knocked about with friends for a few years until he and Sherm Clow decided the times were a’changin’ everywhere, and even Salt Lake City needed what was then called a psychedelic shop.

Cofounder Sherm Clow, also known as Reverend Willis, was an indispensable part of the scene in the early days. He fell out of the picture around the time the Aeroplane moved to West Temple.

The Aeroplane had an eye-popping selection of underground comics. Early on I bought issues of Zap Comix and some early solo work of R. Crumb. The adult themes and explicit, if cartoonish, images fueled my adolescent imagination as well they might. Crumb’s ‘Keep on Truckin’ image was ubiquitous by 1969.

I learned later that one of Steve Jones’ suppliers for these comix was Ken Sanders whose father owned Stan Sanders Trophy shop on State Street. Ken made a number of trips to San Francisco and brought back comix and issues of periodicals such as The Haight-Ashbury Tribune and the Berkeley Barb. Aside from featuring mind-blowing art, these underground newspapers were early political voices for the anti-war movement (um, that would be the Vietnam war).

Jones published his own underground paper called Electric News which ran erratically from 1968 into late ’69. Bruce Roberts published another alternative newspaper called The Street Paper in the early ’70s which was very political and associated with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), often connected with violent protests across the country and with a fire at the U of U ROTC building.

Besides the literature and poster business, very important cultural artifacts to the youth of those days, Steve was also the purveyor of cigarette rolling papers and pipes which were put to off-label uses by many, including myself.

The term “headshop” derived from the widely used pejorative “pot head,” a common name for marijuana users. The band Jefferson Airplane’s admonition from the song “White Rabbit” to “feed your head” was related but referred to the wider group of mind-altering substances such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and mescaline (synthetic derivative of several cacti). The smell of patchouli and sandalwood incense pervaded these counter-cultural gathering spots, impacting my limbic brain. Those scents still trigger memories from those days.

The concert scene

In the late ’60s, the psychedelic music scene in San Francisco and other points on the West Coast was producing bands that were in demand in the big cities east of there, Denver being one. As I recall there were a lot of great concerts on Thursday nights as the City of Salt made a fine stopover for these acts on their way to Friday and Saturday night shows in bigger markets.

During this period Santana came to SLC a number of times, originally as backup band for headliners such as It’s A Beauti­ful Day and the last few times as the main attraction; Quicksilver Messenger Service and The Byrds. were other favorites. Local artists produced posters advertising these concerts. The best were the works of Rob Brown, Neil Passey, Kenvin Lyman and Richard Taylor (no relation). Passey’s concert posters included the ingenious ‘Roo-A-Buck’ image used for the Ry Cooder concert in 1973. Over the years Neil produced work specifically for the Aeroplane in the form of calendars and bookmarks (see cover, this issue).

Kenvin Lyman’s seminal work for the Led Zeppelin poster in 1970 was one of many he produced. Richard Taylor made the art for the SDS Ball featuring The Grateful Dead in 1969 and eventually left the area for a career in Hollywood.

Rob Brown, also from Bountiful, had spent some time in San Francisco and had illustration credits from the Berkeley Barb. Tapehead Co. used his Conan the Barbarian poster as the art for the 1970 Pink Floyd concert (ticket price: $4).

From the White Rabbit, a competing headshop near Fourth Avenue and F St. I bought tickets to see Jefferson Airplane performed February 10, 1968 at the old Terrace Ballroom (since demolished to make way for Little America’s parking lot on Main St.). This was the first rock concert I attended; I was 14 years old.

I had fallen madly in love with Janis Joplin from listening to her sing “Piece of My Heart” from the Cheap Thrills album. Later in ’68 I saw her with her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, at the Patio Gardens in Lagoon. I had a front row seat and sometime halfway through her bottle of Southern Comfort she accepted a necklace I offered her and wore it for the rest of the show.

About a week after the Joplin concert, a large black and white photo of her from that concert appeared in Grass Roots, another headshop located in the Brown­stone Building on 100 South. She was wearing my gift.

The Aeroplane moves on

Around 1969, Steve acquired a new business partner, Jack Bills, and they moved the Aeroplane to more spacious digs at 369 W. South Temple, kitty-corner from the Union Pacific Train Depot. This was a more politically tumultuous period. The Aeroplane was closely connected with the anti-war movement, hosting the draft counseling center headed by Hal Sparck. In the back of the store was a practice space used by Smoke Blues Band, a local group that played backup for many of the great concerts that passed through SLC but also had a strong following and performed all over the valley.

The new location was also an early home for the phenomenal Human Ensemble, an on-the-edge acting/dancing troupe. The whole street was a gathering place of earnest young activists and stoned out hippies, not by any means mutually exclusive sets.

Around 1973, the Aeroplane moved to 366 So. West Temple, in the area formerly known as Japantown. Over the next few years, business improved considerably.

Back in the Ninth & Ninth neighborhood, that juncture at the corner of 9th East and 9th South would become Salt Lake’s own little version of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. The Tower Theater now offered art and foreign films. Round Records offered an esoteric selection of music. Mother’s Earth Things sold clothing and jewelry. The Skin Company sold leather goods. And now-former business partner Jack Bills opened his own headshop and sandwich shop, The Connection.

The Aeroplane lands

In May 1976 Steve acquired partners and moved the store to 258 E. 100 South. He went into business with Ken Sanders, who had been working for Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore, and with former Uni­versity of Utah student and SDS rabble-rouser Bruce Roberts.

José Knighton, another Weller’s refugee, had come to work for Ken at the new location. José, a friend from high school days, got me a job there in the summer of ’78. I intended to work only the summer and then return to school, but I ended up working there almost five years.

José and Ken Sanders both referred to themselves as Weller refugees. Sam Weller was the most lovable of tyrants. Got to know him very well over many years and worked with him in the Utah Bookseller’s association. Got to know Tony well too. He came into to the Aeroplane as a very punk kid, long before he went to work for his dad. Bob Ormsby also was a Weller refugee and went back to work for him eventually.

At the Aeroplane, José Knighton, a fine poet himself, managed the most indepth and up-to-date poetry collection available anywhere in Utah.

The Aeroplane: Its environs and more about its denizens

The First South location (next to current-day Nostalgia Coffe Shop) consisted of two large bays with an interior connecting doorway.

On the main floor were books and comics. Rare books, kept in a vault once used to store movie films, connected to the Blue Mouse, a small screening theater for the movie industry that later became open to the public.

The western bay was occupied by the headshop and jewelry store. The jewelry section was headed up by Camille Chart (who went on to found Chameleon, another fixture in the counter-cultural commerce of the ’80s and ’90s), later by Karen Liston Page and Roz Hammond and Callie Floor. The building had two basements with used books on the east side and the music store on the west.

Much of the soundtrack of my young life was available at Cosmic Aeroplane. Classics in rock, blues, R&B and a smattering of jazz were there of course, but there was a constant press of new music blasting out of the basement. My flower-child melodic sensibilities had been tempered by the heavy hand of the realities of the life I’d lived since. I was ready for the newer voices of Talking Heads, Simple Minds and Joy Division. Toward the end of my time there I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the raw edged thrashing of punk. I made an adjustment or two in my attitude and welcomed The Residents, The Meat Puppets and others as they came along.

The music store was originally headed up by Smokey Koelsch, who had hosted the long-running Smokey’s Blues Hour on KUER and later on KRCL. As the music of the times took on a harsher edge, Smokey exited the Aeroplane and opened his own record store, Smokey’s Records on 15th and 15th (where Mazza is now). Replacement Doug Stalker ushered in the new era. A short-time employee of his was Brad Collins, a definite bad-boy, who hosted the KRCL program Dead Air which later evolved into Music From Beyond The Zion Curtain. Brad played really loud thrashing music delivered with all the bad attitude he could muster. He later opened Raunch Records that served the skate/punk scene with music, clothing and equipment.

Steve hired Tony Martinez, a gifted potter and founder of Stone Age Crafts, another 9th and 9th establishment, to run the headshop. After Jones sold his portion of the business to Bruce Roberts in ’82, Tony left to open the Blue Boutique with his wife Laura and longtime Aeroplane employee Lisa Versteeg. Lisa was a founding member of the punk rock scene in SLC and the lead singer of the band Shot In The Dark.

On the bookstore side, a delightful young guy named Jon Bray worked for us while he was still in high school. Eventually he acquired his own comix store in Salt Lake City, Dr. Volt’s Comic Connection.

Metaphysics and eastern philosophies at the Aeroplane

The year after I came on board, the metaphysics and eastern philosophy sections, which I had been running, had gathered a strong following.

One of our earliest customers was the legendary barber James Wardle whose barbershop had been a gathering place for the Mormon counter-culture and curious orthodox Mormons as well, since the early ’60s or perhaps earlier.

When I was around eight or nine years old, my grandfather, who raised me, would often take me into SLC to Wardle’s Barbershop to get a haircut. My grandfather’s people were of pioneer stock and one his great-grandfathers had had five wives. Although my family were active members of the LDS Church and there had been no polygamy in the family for generations, they still had friends and associates who did practice plural marriage and Mr. Wardle, a member of the Reform LDS Church, was a central switchboard for communications within that community.

Mr. Wardle was also an avid collector of Tarot cards which Steve Jones had been offering since the earliest days of the Aeroplane and he had a very large collection which we supplemented from time to time as new decks came out. The primary publisher/distributor for Tarot cards was US Games Systems and for most of the years I worked at the Aeroplane we were their largest account outside of Samuel Weiser Bookstore in NYC and The Bodhi Tree in LA.

During that period we connected with various spiritual communities in the area, presenting or supporting workshops of authors from what we now call the New Age community.

At that time Salt Lake was home to the Paracelsus College on 7th East in South Salt Lake, an internationally known school of alchemy headed by Frater Albertus Spagyricus (it closed when Frater Albertus died in 1984). Alchemy was one of the topics I maintained a collection of works on in our metaphysics section. Often I had access to the store window on the west side and one month set up a window display on alchemy for which I was loaned equipment from Paracelsus College; just one more example of the diverse subcultures that were in Salt Lake’s larger spiritual communities.

In 1980 Cosmic Aeroplane supported a successful multi-day workshop at Snowbird featuring Jean Houston from the Foundation for Mind Research, author (along with cofounder Robert Masters) of Mind Games (1972) and The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience (1966). The workshop was based on their recently released book, Listening to the Body: The Psychophysical Way to Health and Awareness (1979).

As participants in this workshop we were paired up to do some exercises with glossolalia, sometimes called speaking in tongues. Through an exercise we were brought into a state to speak and write in glossolalia and then had the task of translating this material into English. I produced a poem out of this that I was rather pleased with. It so happened that my partner in this experience was Greta Belanger who became a friend and a relevant figure in the Salt Lake community, as I trust you are aware.

The Aeroplane and the launch of CATALYST

In early 1982 a friend by the name of Lezlee Spilsbury asked if she might meet with me at the store to discuss a new venture with herself and her friends Greta Belanger and Victoria Fugit. I was pleased to do so and at that meeting Greta laid out their vision of a magazine to be called CATALYST, a vision that has fulfilled itself and been amplified over 33 years in untold ways. As I recall she had two questions for me: One, did I think a publication which presented local happenings in a calendar form and was supplemented by articles would be viable? and two, would the Aeroplane be interested in advertising in it?

The answers to both questions were an emphatic yes. The first issue, in April of 1982, launched the monthly with an essay/mission statement. (It can be found online.) Here’s one quote: “The CATALYST staff approaches its task more as an organism than organization, adopting a principle of flexibility in growth responsive to readers’ interests and for ever-changing cultural and political patterns.” Certainly true of CATALYST but, minus any such self-awareness, is something that may have also been said of the Cosmic Aeroplane, regarding its evolution and role in the wider community.

The drug culture and beyond

Jean Houston and Robert Masters had been involved in the early research on LSD, while it was still legal. They contributed to the work of the larger community which included Stanislaw Grof, John Lilly, Richard Alpert who became Ram Dass, and notoriously Timothy Leary. Other writers in the field included the famed psychonaut Terence McKenna and his brother Dennis. I was keenly interested in LSD and entheogens in general and it was an honor and a privilege to share in a dose of psilocybe cubensis with Terence once when he was visiting friends in Salt Lake City. Terence also introduced DMT to myself and a few friends. The Aeroplane had its own book section on these topics made available along with the ever-present magazine High Times.

The Aeroplane was later involved in producing a lecture/workshop with Leary at the Universty of Utah in the early ’80s after all the hubbub had died down about his role as psychedelic priest. Leary was now working in conjunction with a team of computer scientists, forging an interface called Skippy that utilized early artificial intelligence technology which actually learned from the student/computer relationship. Their early successes were especially good with math topics.

All of the above individuals involved in drug research went on to produce books that were based on later non-drug-related research. John Lilly’s Mind of the Dolphin was one such book sold by the Aeroplane, but perhaps none were more successful than Ram Dass’ Be Here Now (which sold for $3.33 when first published in 1971). It was still a best seller for us at the time I left the Aeroplane in ’82 and is still in print today.

The Aeroplane’s final decade

In 1981 Sanders and I, among others, worked with Ed Abbey to produce the 1982 Edward Abbey Western Wilderness Calendar partly as a fund raiser for the Utah Wilderness Association. The calendar was so popular that Sanders sold his portion of the Cosmic Aeroplane in order to devote his attention to Dream Garden Press which went on to publish a Western Wilderness Calendar for a number of years.

I left the Aeroplane shortly after Steve Jones sold his portion of the business. My entire focus at the Aeroplane had become the spiritual community. The remaining partner had no interest in these matters and his lead book buyer was actively opposed to such an emphasis.

The Aeroplane was a microcosm of the counter-culture which evolved to meet a number of needs in its 24 years of existence. Its location on First South could be characterized as a counter-cultural, alternate lifestyle department store, in large part a bookstore but also a headshop, a music store and a jewelry store. It was next door to a much-beloved, long-lamented little theater that itself was a cultural icon. Mention Rocky Horror Picture Show in SLC and people of a certain age will remember the Blue Mouse, the way that people nowadays think of the Tower. Upstairs from the Blue Mouse was the first studio of listener-supported KRCL Radio.

The Cosmic Aeroplane was a hub for any number of separate communities, a sponsor of musical, literary and spiritual events and a destination point for hours of free time spent browsing and hanging out with like minds as well as a meet-up point for all the amazing diversity that our little city was producing.

The Aeroplane was often an initiator of cultural change but more often emblematic of the changes that were taking place in the ’60s and ’70s and it became a central establishment in SLC during the ’80s. For a while it was well-rewarded for its efforts: 1982 sales exceeded $1 million.

On January 30, 1991, The Deseret News published an article by Brent Israelsen titled “High-Flying Days Finished for Cosmic Aeroplane.” Brent finished the article quoting José Knighton: “Nothing lasts forever.”

José, who stayed until very near the end, told me that the Aeroplane’s demise was primarily a problem of under-capitalization. The buy-outs of Ken Sanders and Steve Jones weighed heavily on cash flow.

I believe there were other factors, one of them being that the Aeroplane transferred a significant element of its earlier success to the businesses it spawned: Chameleon, The Blue Boutique, Smokey’s Records and Raunch. The New Age community moved on to the Golden Braid, which so earnestly and successfully filled that niche.

This is the story of the Cosmic Aeroplane as an institution painted in broad brushstrokes. Others would have told this story differently and would be able to speak of things I did not. Much of what I would like to have said about the Cosmic Aeroplane has to do with the people who worked there over the years. Complex personalities living large lives, going through and sharing changes with one another, epiphanies, outrageous love affairs, rants and raves and some falling outs. It was a dynamic place to work. It was also one hell of a lot of fun. There was a lot of communal whiskey drinking in the back of the store to get us through the madness of the shopping season just before Christmas.

And so a last chance shout-out to Bonnie Fox, Jane Shurtleff, Susanne Millsaps, Richard Montague, Bob Ormsby, Jim Connolly, Mike Wanke, Doug Stalker, Bob Ladle, Barb Guy, Dave Fagiolli and a host of other memorable characters. Someone should speak more eloquently to their accomplishments and contributions to the community.

The Aeroplane came into my life at the most formative period of my youth and generated real and lasting changes in me. Later on I became a part of its history, as it had been a part of mine. It was a place with a sense of mission, though I doubt any two people would state it the same way. There was a bit of pride and sometimes arrogance in working at a place so well known, infamous even. We were at the hub of huge flows of energy throughout the valley. As I spoke to some of the people who had worked there with me while gathering information for this story and sanity-checking my memories with them, that sentiment was echoed time and again. Our time at the Aeroplane remains a touchstone.

Jim Taylor now lives in South Carolina, where he is studying to be a Unity minister and continuing to engage in his love of photography: www.pbase.com/jimbeau.

This article was originally published on July 1, 2014.