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Down by Law 

Tom Waits raises dough for pal Don Hyde's defense

Wednesday, Jan 31 1996
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Don Hyde doesn't want to go to trial in Kentucky.
"It's like being dropped down a rabbit hole," he says.
Hyde's hallucinogenic Alice in Wonderland analogy couldn't be more appropriate. An investigation of an LSD ring snared the 48-year-old Healdsburg, Sonoma, theater owner last August, and the federal government charged him with conspiracy to distribute LSD, which comes with a potential life-in-prison sentence.

Fortunately, Hyde, a man with lifelong ties to rock music and the movies, has friends like Tom Waits, a part-time Sonoman. The reclusive performer is playing a rare live concert this Sunday evening at Oakland's Paramount Theater in support of his neighbor's legal defense fund.

Waits and his wife, Kathleen, visited Hyde a week after his arrest.
"I was a total mess," Hyde recalls, "just a puddle on the floor." It was the gravel-throated piano player's idea to stage a fund-raiser: "He felt like a grave injustice had been done," says Hyde, who is currently out on $400,000 bond.

Hyde's lawyer, longtime San Francisco civil liberties advocate Bill Osterhoudt, agrees. Osterhoudt, a 25-year veteran of criminal law, blames mandatory sentencing and the "three strikes" laws for predicaments like Hyde's: "The whole objective is to put people in prison for a long, long time, and let them out only ... because they turn somebody else in," he says. "What kind of system is that?"

Hyde's case stems from a Sept. 4, 1990, incident in which a Grateful Dead follower by the name of David Gaither allegedly transferred 2 grams of LSD to a buyer at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport in Covington. Gaither's subsequent arrest in Ohio provided a wedge for an extensive Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation of LSD distribution among Deadheads. The DEA, working its way backward through a network of suppliers, nabbed -- among many other suspects -- a Northern California drifter of undisclosed identity. Staring down a third felony conviction of his own, that man implicated Don Hyde.

Hyde does not deny an acquaintance with the drifter: "He's the kind of guy that would show up here at the theater," he says, "wanting to know if there was any work. I'd give him $20 to get him down the road, get him some gas to get rid of him." He pauses. "I've always had a pretty high tolerance for street trash, I guess."

There's not much to do in Healdsburg, 70 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Hyde's movie theater, the Raven, located in a '40s-era building just off the downtown plaza, has been central to the community since he revived it in 1988. Lent out regularly for events like Policemen's Association and Boys Club benefits, the Raven has also hosted a number of live-music performances of note since its grand reopening. Recently, Hyde took over an old JCPenney storefront next door, expanding the Raven's space to include five state-of-the-art projection screens.

A nightclub proprietor in his native Austin, Texas, during the psychedelic heyday of groups like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Hyde later worked as a protŽgŽ of celebrated filmmaker Sam Peckinpah before settling into the dimly lit office above the Raven's original screening room.

Certainly, he's no stranger to controversy. A well-groomed, soft-spoken man, the deceptively impish Hyde often leads the Raven into ideological skirmishes between family-values crusaders and arts advocates. Last July, following Bob Dole's much-publicized remonstrance of Hollywood sex and violence, Hyde launched his "Bob Dole Midnight Movie" series, showing deliberate eyebrow-raisers like A Clockwork Orange, Blue Velvet, and Natural Born Killers. Curiously, he included Waits' 1988 concert flick Big Time in the lineup; on a flier advertising the series, he called his friend's work "deviant hobo music at its finest."

Local churchgoers protested the flier Hyde used to promote the series, which depicted a virile-looking devil enjoying a great belly laugh, and the flap received a bit of attention in the national press.

"A lot of people thought that I was actually advocating drugs and free sex by this flier -- touting the virtues of Satan, or whatever," Hyde recalls, sliding down in his desk chair, both cowboy boots planted firmly on a dingy Oriental rug. The local newspaper (the Press Democrat) ran a front-page story in which Hyde accused Dole of attacking his business -- "and I'm firing back at him."

When Hyde saw the quote in print, he thought, "Oh shit, I'm going to get on the Secret Service list as a potential assassin," he says. "A week after that story came out, these guys were waiting for me in the [Raven] lobby." When he began apologizing for the "misunderstanding," Hyde says, the agents "had no idea what I was talking about."

The DEA simultaneously dispatched a second group of agents to Hyde's house, socked away down a six-mile dirt road outside Healdsburg. Had Hyde's wife, an illustrator of children's books, not accompanied him to the office that day she would have faced "helicopters and machine guns, flak jackets, the whole nine yards."

"This is the second time in my life that I've been through something like this," Hyde says. In 1967, at the age of 20, he opened a rock club called the Vulcan Gas Co. in Austin.

"Austin was a very sleepy town when I was growing up -- no music scene at all. I mean, there were a couple of black clubs, a couple of honky-tonks. ... My club was the first one that could hold a thousand people. Johnny Winter was my house band before he became famous. I'd put Muddy Waters with Johnny Winter, John Lee Hooker with Johnny Winter."

"The powers that be in Austin at the time were just outraged," he recalls. "It was the first time in Texas that anybody had ever booked black bands with white bands."

"I couldn't buy an ad in the local paper to advertise Muddy Waters. The city council passed a resolution against my club, saying it was bad for the town. ... The police would come through every weekend and look through everyone's guitar cases for anything they could find. They never found anything."

Fed up with the harassment, Hyde moved to California in early 1970. "I gave the club to some street people and told them they could run it," he says. "I think it lasted about two months after I left."

After a stint as a roadie for Quicksilver Messenger Service and another working for a San Rafael booking agent, Hyde set himself up in business as a film editor. By that time, he was "pretty well burnt out on rock 'n' roll," he says.

Hyde claims his 10-year association with director Peckinpah wrenched him out of his "hippie idealism." "When I started working for him," he chuckles, "I cut my hair, started eating meat, and stopped smoking pot all in the same week."

According to Hyde, Peckinpah enjoyed his company in part because he helped keep the director away from drugs. "I've always hated cocaine," Hyde says, though he does admit, "I love my whiskey, and I still smoke cigarettes."

Hyde named his only son after the director; Peckinpah was young Hyde's godfather. Now 19, Sam Hyde is currently studying film in New York, and has already interned on a few movies -- one of which, Flirting With Disaster, has a plot that sounds uncannily like the elder Hyde's own story.

"It's apparently a comedy about some aging counterculture people in New Mexico that have an LSD lab in the basement," Don Hyde says, marveling at the coincidence. "It's a farce. I think a federal agent gets dosed -- all kinds of stuff -- and it comes out OK in the end."

About his own not-so-farcical case, Hyde says, "It's like a bad movie. ... I have my down moments, but you have to start laughing at it at some point."

"These guys, Gingrich and Buchanan, these guys who say they're going to stamp out the last vestiges of the counterculture -- they're serious. It's not just some kind of rhetoric."

The robust, white-mustached Osterhoudt, sitting behind a semicircular desk in his elegant law office in a private residence just off Haight Street, says it's fair to say his client is no angel.

"I'm sure he's known many people who've used LSD," he agrees. "I'm sure he's not a neophyte. But we're talking about really large-scale distribution, where there should be massive profits. We see no evidence of that that's been provided by the government."

Hyde, he says, "obviously did not have anything to do with the sale of LSD on the 4th of September 1990, or with Gaither's trip through the airport, because nobody even contends that he knew Gaither." In fact, Hyde says he's never even been in Kentucky. Still, he faces two charges: one count of conspiracy, and another implicating him in Gaither's airport transaction. In theory, the latter is what Osterhoudt calls an "agency liability": "Each conspirator is an agent," he explains.

"I have to believe that he'll be exonerated," Osterhoudt says. "I don't know how the government's ever going to show -- even if they can make their case that Don gave this guy something -- that it wound up there [at the Covington airport]. But we're not resting on that."

Though Hyde defers specific questions to his lawyer, he'll eagerly address the larger social issues that affect his case. "I think it's very much like the McCarthy era," he says. "I've got a lot of old friends, in their late 70s and early 80s, who were in the Communist Party in the '30s." Though they later renounced communism, he says, they still experienced resistance in Hollywood. "It seems very much like that."

"I think that's what Tom felt. He could've written me a check, but he wanted to do more than that," says Hyde, who faces a pretrial hearing in Kentucky in March.

"Most people don't have the kind of backing that I'm getting," he says. "I mean, Bill Osterhoudt's a great lawyer, and I got him for a $3,000 retainer. That's all the money I had."

"I'm very lucky. If I didn't have people like that behind me, I'd be chalk dust by now.

About The Author

James Sullivan

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