The San Francisco scene started at the Red Dog Saloon, as much as you can say it started at any one place. Most of the elements were there: rock & roll, a sort of light show, the first psychedelic dance poster, the theatrical lifestyle and acid. Lots of acid. The best LSD in the world, in fact, the genuine Owsley.
When the Red Dog opened on June 29th, 1965, Owsley Stanley had been making LSD for about four months and the Berkeley contingent at the Red Dog knew him. Chandler Laughlin, the saloon’s entertainment director and manager of the resident rock band, remembers precisely the first night Owsley’s acid was available: March 5th. “It was the second night of the Fuck Rally at Cal,” he recalls. “Me and a Hell’s Angel named Gypsy and Neal Cassady and his old lady Ann Murphy and a bunch of other people drove down past the campus, where the students were shouting ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!,’ out to where Owsley was, picked up the acid and went on down to the Cabale Coffee House to hear the Chambers Brothers rock & roll.”
Even before Owsley, acid had been spreading fast in the Bay Area for about two years, though at the time nobody had any idea just how fast. Even though LSD was still legal, the scene still seemed to itself a tiny fringe movement, probably not much larger than the circle of acidheads one happened to know. It was a buttoned up sort of psychedelic scene, with self-conscious religious or therapeutic goals.
But already down around Stanford University a novelist named Ken Kesey had a scene where people took LSD for adventure, just to see what would happen. And Kesey was pushing the limits of what could happen. He had opened his acid parties to the most notorious outlaw motorcycle gang, the Hell’s Angels, to whom he had been introduced by a journalist named Hunter S. Thompson. Furthermore, the British-sparked rock & roll revival had been going on for more than a year, and one way or another a lot of people were picking up on the fact that instead of spending your trip on a prayer mat or staring at a Zen rock garden, you could dance.
At the time, anybody would have thought the scene in the Bay Area was Berkeley. The Free Speech Movement the year before had made headlines all over the world and there was still a lot of political ferment there. The Berkeley Barb, third oldest of the underground newspapers, was just starting.
But the artistic community was restless, caught between the austere late-Fifties avant-garde tradition, the late-beatnik experiments with “Events” and “Happenings” and the Pop Art dalliance with simple fun. The directors of Berkeley’s Open Theater were tired of conventional art presentations. At the San Francisco Tape Music Center, where Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick and others had been putting on New Music concerts for four years, codirector Ramon Sender felt the same way. The improvisational group called the Committee was reorganizing; the Mime Troupe was performing political satires in public parks.
By coincidence, the Tape Center was at the edge of a neglected San Francisco neighborhood known, from its principal intersection, as the Haight-Ashbury district. It was a quiet place, largely made up of retired Russians with a peaceful integration of blacks and Orientals. It happened to have the most convenient cheap housing for San Francisco State College students. Really cheap — $175 a month would get you two bottom floors of a beautiful Victorian mansion with four fireplaces and leather wallpaper. Like many obscure neighborhoods, it was the location of a discreet sprinkling of gay bars. It had attracted a few settlers from North Beach where media pressure and police harassment had closed down the Beat scene a few years before.
“For the most part, we were rejects from other towns,” remembers Rock Scully, a State College graduate student and integration-march organizer at the time. “We were pretty big swellheads who had stood out like sore thumbs and split. The Haight-Ashbury was a very beautiful place, the houses were nice and lent themselves well to us — the high ceilings, the gas jets that still worked.” In a setting of Victorian mouldings and scrollwork, in cheap rooms with stained-glass doors and window seats, a hip aesthetic developed around the art nouveau not-quite-antiques that were going cheap at secondhand stores. There were pads in the Haight entirely decorated in Victoriana, with gaslights instead of electric bulbs. In the same area as the Tape Center, on Divisadero Street, a tiny shop that opened in 1964 embodied the style. Magic Theater for Madmen Only was part art gallery, part hip artifact shop, part stash-box market, under surveillance as a dope-dealing operation; it established the pattern for later hip boutiques.
But the Haight was quiet, residential. There was no place to hang out in public but a donut shop or a laundromat — unless you wanted to go to a bar, and the dopers were self-righteous about booze. It was just a neighborhood where rather a lot of people were interested in art and getting high.
One sometime Haight resident was an actor turned folksinger named Marty Balin. Like everybody else in the Haight and Berkeley and Palo Alto he was listening to the Beatles. Like Bob Dylan, like the Los Angeles group that took the name the Byrds, like the New York group the Lovin’ Spoonful, he’d started thinking about breaking the first commandment of the folk music movement: thou shalt not “go commercial,” which above all meant playing rock & roll on electric guitars. Balin was part-owner of a folk-music coffeehouse called the Matrix, two and a half miles removed from the Haight on Fill-more Street: the perfect showcase for his idea. There were others “going electric” besides Balin and his Jefferson Airplane, like the band in Palo Alto that would take the name Grateful Dead and the future Quicksilver Messenger Service in Marin County.
To a psychedelic eye in the sky, the Bay Area would have looked like a maze of tiny puddles of acidheads, each ignorant of the others. The Red Dog Saloon was one place where people could get an inkling — from out in Nevada — of how big it was becoming.
The Red Dog was a sound commercial adventure, with its live entertainment and French cooking; at one time it was drawing 50 cars a night from Reno and Carson City. But the people who ran it were making a style out of it the way the Haight hippies were doing on their turf. ” ‘This is an old western town,’ we’d tell ourselves,” says Chan Laughlin. ” ‘And we’re more old western than anybody else. Just remember, when your feet hit the floor in the morning you’re in a grade B movie. This is that saloon down the street where the manager has his office under the stairs and all the gun hands sit around out front and periodically he comes out and motions a couple of them to ride away and rustle some cows. It’s that place, complete with fancy girls going around bending over tables and the music and people roaring and ordering more drinks and carrying on.’ ” One day somebody goosed their script along a little further by riding into the Red Dog on a horse.
The place had been conceived as a folk music club, but somebody’d heard of a rock & roll band in the Haight and they seemed pretty wild. The Charlatans, as they called themselves, had been organized as an art statement by a designer named George Hunter, who was a leading exemplar of the Haight-Ashbury Victorian hip trip, and they included Michael Ferguson, proprietor of Magic Theater for Madmen Only. So they became the Red Dog’s house band and moved straight into the Comstock Lode style. At one time they would come onstage carrying matched-caliber Winchester rifles and lean them against the amplifier before picking up their guitars. One week when money was short the club’s owner bought a load of rifles at a discount and paid everybody in Old West hardware. Art is art, sure — but a ripple of apprehension passed through the good burghers of Virginia City when they saw one of those strange young people walk down C Street with a double armload of rifles.
It wasn’t the only trouble the Red Dog scene was having. There were more and more people doing things like walking around at 4 a.m. giggling at rocks. The envious bartender down the street was spreading incredible rumors about drug use and underage girls. Once in a while some local cowboys would take exception to somebody’s Beatles-length hair and things got uncomfortable when some of the local teenagers got turned on to grass. The last straw came on September 1st when Laughlin and the Charlatans’ guitarist were busted for grass in Rodeo, California. The next day the owner fired the Charlatans; the day after that Ken Kesey showed up with a busful of his Merry Pranksters for a 24-hour party. The day after that, the owner padlocked the club.
It had lasted just over two months, an adventure seemingly outside of time.
But some were not reconciled to the end of the adventure — notably a group of people living in a bohemian enclave on Pine Street in San Francisco: Jack Towle, who had the reputation of having established ten dollars as the ceiling price of a lid of grass in San Francisco; an ex-Red Dog employee named Ellen Harmon; Alton Kelly, a collage artist who had helped build the Red Dog; and Luria Castell, a political activist who had dipped into a number of the local bohemias and the burgeoning Sunset Strip rock scene in L.A. as well.
They were living at a place called the Dog House in a curious no man’s land between the Fillmore black ghetto and the wealthy Pacific Heights district. There were half a dozen apartment houses full of heads and dealers in the neighborhood, not to mention the San Francisco Zen Temple. The Dog House apartment manager was Bill Ham, an artist who had been working with moving light projections — a “light box” designed by him had sat on the Red Dog stage behind the Charlatans.
For months Ham had been working on a different technique. He would manipulate liquid pigments in a glass dish over a spotlight, and the moving abstract paintings that resulted would be projected off an overhead mirror onto a screen. The usual evening’s entertainment for the half-dozen head houses on Pine Street was to go into Ham’s basement and watch the light painting in collaboration with a guitarist or flutist. By the end of ’65 Ham was doing public shows at the Tape Center.
Like most of the bohemians on Pine Street, like the nascent scene in the Haight, the Dog House was mostly supporting itself by dealing. But the border kept getting hotter and more heads kept getting busted and the Dog House crowd started casting around for alternate employment. Somehow the “dog” part stuck — maybe it was because there were lots of dogs running around the Dog House, maybe it was because Ellen’s dog had just gotten run over, maybe it was because they’d all recently tripped out on the idea of running a pet cemetery as an income scam. Take your pick of stories. They were now the Family Dog and they were going to put on dances.
They borrowed money and looked for a hall. From her days with Fair Play for Cuba Committee and other radical causes, Luria knew of one called Longshoremen’s Hall, a modernistic, dome-shaped union hall near Fisherman’s Wharf. Ralph J. Gleason, the San Francisco Chronicle jazz columnist who had already gone out on a limb to praise the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Jefferson Airplane, gave them a mention in his column; a few posters went up in strategic spots around the Bay Area, advertising “A Tribute to Dr. Strange” for October 16th.
October 16th, 1965, was also scheduled for the biggest antiwar march to date, from the University of California campus to the Oakland Army Induction Center. It was an impressively large demonstration and it was also the end of a dream. After Ken Kesey had turned the Hell’s Angels on to acid, they’d started hanging around Telegraph Avenue. But when the chips were down and Sonny Barger, the president of the large Oakland chapter, decided to oppose the peace marchers, the Angels formed ranks behind him and the imagined shock troops of the revolution forcibly halted the march at the Oakland border. For one day in American history, Stewart Brand observed, nobody knew who the good guys were.
That night hundreds of people — some of them direct from the march and even a few Angels — converged on the peculiar dome-shaped building near Fisherman’s Wharf where the city’s premiere rock band, Marty Balin’s Jefferson Airplane, was sharing the bill with the legendary Charlatans and Bill Ham’s exotic show of flowing colored lights. Nobody was quite prepared for it. The people who weren’t stoned on acid looked stoned. Allen Ginsberg could be seen wandering around in his white hospital-orderly suit, staring around with a look of amazement. There were all these… crazy … people … wearing Haight-Ashbury Victorian clothes, cowboy ? Indian costumes, slinky antique gowns, paisley prints, spacesuits, with paint on their faces and feathers in their hair, dancing, dancing.
It was like this. If you thought something interesting might be going on at a rock dance named for a magician in Marvel Comics who could travel between dimensions by mind power, you were liable to find it was just what you’d always wanted but never realized it.
Say no more. A lot of little puddles had started running together.
A week later the Family Dog put on another dance named for a cartoon character, “A Tribute to Sparkle Plenty,” headlining the Lovin’ Spoonful. Word had spread and more people came. The Kesey seance band, for the moment nameless, came in to marvel after an afternoon of tripping; Phil Lesh accosted Luria Castell and confided, “Lady, what this seance needs is us!” The Beat poet Michael McClure, who’d been living in the Haight for four years, remembers “this vibrant scene, people really allowing themselves to be themselves — to be Jean Harlow or Billy the Kid or Napoleon or Jesus. I was used to seeing intense self-expression in poetry, or in someone’s painting. Here were people acting it out in their bodies — really bright, really real.
“But I didn’t see people jumping around aimlessly or pointlessly. I saw the whole thing organized — organized from each individual point. Whitehead said that at every point in the universe, the universe is its own organ of self-experience. I saw these individuals as highly organized points of self-experience, which is the experience of everything.” It seemed to take a historical moment to digest this phenomenon, which was not only an experience of incredible exuberance but a reinforcement of the generation’s sense of uniqueness, a more decisive one than even radical politics had been. Two weeks later the Dog put on “A Tribute to Ming the Merciless” with a crazy musician they’d heard about from the Sunset Strip scene named Frank Zappa. It was their third dance and the Family Dog was not a money-making institution; in fact, they were broke. Inexperienced wasn’t the word — they’d never gotten a dance permit, hadn’t even known you needed one.
The same night as “Ming the Merciless,” November 6th, there had been another show in town that had done quite well. The San Francisco Mime Troupe, recently busted for performing in the park without a permit, had put on a benefit called “Appeal I.” It featured, along with jazz, folk music and Allen Ginsberg, two of the acts that were playing Longshore that night: the Airplane (the Mime Troupe loft was the Airplane’s rehearsal hall) and Frank Zappa’s Mothers. Hundreds of people had to be turned away. The show was put on by the Mime Troupe’s business manager, himself an ex-actor, Bill Graham.
The discouraged Dog tried to interest Graham in teaming up with them but without success. Luria by this time had moved into a place in the Haight, managed by a guy named Danny Rifkin, where Luria’s acquaintance Rock Scully was also living. Rock and Danny helped her put on a fourth dance, which actually netted $1500. Meanwhile, on December 10th, Bill Graham had put on “Appeal II” for the Mime Troupe in a large hall in the Fillmore district, the original Fillmore Auditorium.
With the considerable boost of the public gatherings at these dances, the psychedelic scene — still quite legal — started going more public. On January 3rd, 1966, two brothers named Ron and Jay Thelin opened a shop on Haight Street they called the Psychedelic Shop to sell books, records, roach clips and an ever-shifting variety of things they felt were related to the psychedelic experience. Meanwhile Ken Kesey’s Acid Test parties had expanded in successive weeks from wild gatherings with the Angels at Kesey’s home in the depths of the San Francisco Peninsula to a private home in San Jose, a bar in Palo Alto, the Muir Beach Lodge in Marin County (where the Grateful Dead made the acquaintance of their future patron, the accomplished chemist Owsley Stanley) and to an Acid Test at the Fillmore on January 8th. The Family Dog was throwing a dance at California Hall the same night and there was an attempt to coordinate the two affairs — a single-ticket price that would get you into both places and a bus that ran between the two.
Scully and Rifkin phased out of the Dog and into the Grateful Dead scene at this point, on the introduction of the Dead’s new friend, Owsley. The rest of the original Family Dog people split to Mexico in despair and the business was left in the hands of Kelly, who was doing poster art for the shows; George Hunter, founder of the Charlatans; Stanley Mouse (Miller), a “hot-rod surrealist” from Detroit who’d made a name for himself painting monsters on T-shirts at car shows; and Chet Helms, a friend who’d been putting together a band out of public jam sessions at the Albin Brothers’ place at 1090 Page Street in the Haight.
Meantime, a really big event was in the works and publicity had already started. On New Year’s Eve afternoon there had been a small parade through Montgomery Street, San Francisco’s financial district, cheering on the office workers who were following the tradition of throwing their old calendars out of the windows. The parade was Ramon Sender of the Tape Center, Ben and Rain Jacopetti from Open Theater, and a biologist who’d gotten interested in Indians, Stewart Brand. “Be aware that you’re in a parade,” they told everyone they met, “and you’ll be as beautiful as what you do.”
Ken Kesey had given Brand the idea of putting on a three-day Trips Festival to gather avant garde and psychedelic arts into a show at Longshoremen’s Hall. It would feature Kesey’s Acid Test, of course. The Acid Tests were pushing the limit. A week after the “Be a Parade” parade, Brand ran into Neal Cassady — the legendary beatnik pillhead, nonstop rapper, manic madman of Jack Kerouac novels — at the Fillmore Acid Test, standing in the balcony of the Fillmore Auditorium looking down at the welter of self-interfaced microphones and TV circuits, the Grateful Dead playing at one end of the hall and Kesey’s own Psychedelic Symphony playing at the other. Brand had never seen Cassady so serene. “Total chaos going on on the floor, right? People wailing on Ron Boise’s thunder sculpture, taking their shoes off and counting their toes, and television cameras pointing at each other and general weirdness. And he’s just sort of nodding. Then he says, ‘Looks like your publicity for the Trips Festival is going pretty well.’ “
Along with the Acid Test the Trips Festival was going to feature Brand’s own multimedia slide-projection show, “America Needs Indians”; plays from the Open Theater; rock and jazz groups from Berkeley; Don Buchla from the Tape Center with his synthesizer; filmmakers, light shows, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and Chet Helms’s band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.
The festival was scheduled for the 21st through 23rd of January. On the 17th, Ken Kesey was found guilty of possession of marijuana and sentenced to six months in jail. Two days after that, he was busted on the roof of Stewart Brand’s apartment house with Carolyn Adams, known to fellow Acid Testers as Mountain Gi