The architect’s name could’ve been, should’ve been, Nabisco. Everybody at San Francisco State made mockery of the buildings that dotted the nine-acre campus, all those pink and gray concrete kleenex boxes with fancy names like the Commons, the Education Building, the Library, the Gym.
The hippies gathered around a table in the Commons. At first just one table, just inside the front doors; then several, usually commandeered by George Hunter, a straw-blond, gap-toothed designer from L.A. who everyone remembers as the first longhair on campus, the first adult Beatlemaniac. He’d show up almost every day wearing some kind of western outfit or a tapered, vested Italian suit with pointy Beatle boots, and he’d hit the Tubs, a collection of surplus barracks turned into student government and snack huts. And he’d pump up the jukebox and snap his fingers and go into rock & roll convulsions. Then he’d head for the Commons, for his table, and spend the day talking with the other regulars about politics, anthropology, dreams and drugs. He didn’t talk much about music, though he would soon gather together a rock band called George & the Mainliners. That name was later replaced by the “Charlatans.” Hunter, they say, was the first hippie, the first dropout. Only he wasn’t a dropout. He was never enrolled at S.F. State.
Someone called them “the happy people.” They were sparks of life and color on a drab campus on the foggy side of town, a campus where all the old radicals looked uncannily like Karl Marx: Dan Hicks and Richie Olsen, later of the Charlatans; Rock Scully, the Grateful Dead; Peter Albin, Big Brother and the Holding Company; Jerry Slick, Great Society; Ernie Fosselius, the Final Solution; and Luria Castell and Chet Helms, the Family Dog.
Peter and Rodney Albin were involved in folk music as performers in groups and as organizers of festivals on campus. The one Rodney did in 1963 featured the Town Criers, with Marty Balin, and the Wildwood Boys, among them Jerry Garcia and George Hunter. Also scheduled, according to the campus daily, was a visiting folk shouter from Texas, “Janet Joplin,” who never showed.
Two years later Peter Albin was workshop director of a festival that featured Garcia at a banjo workshop and occasional student Dan Hicks opening a free concert for headliners Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers. You could just about trace the transition from folk to an adult, amalgamated kind of rock & roll at the festivals. Blues, old-time music, country and gospel all began to mix with Dylan’s protest lyrics, the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and, above all, electricity.
Peter and Rodney Albin lived at 1090 Page Street, just above Haight. Beginning in 1964 and until it was torn down in 1967, they rented out the 20 rooms on behalf of an uncle.
“1090,” said Rodney, “was one of the energy centers. It was like the Y of the Haight-Ashbury. It was known around the country. We rented out rooms for $15 to $50 a month, and there’d be 60 people there at any one time, ODing on one thing or another. Neal Cassady dropped in once or twice.”
But what most visitors remember about 1090 was the ballroom in the basement, paneled in hand-fitted redwood with beautiful molding all around, a parquet floor, stained-glass windows, a stage with an orchestra pit. Here, before the Charlatans and the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, before Luria and Ellen and the Family Dog at Longshoremen’s Hall, was the first ballroom.
“The minute the Byrds hit,” Rodney recalled, “everybody flashed: ‘Wow! Folk rock!'” And in the summer of 1965, the electricity bill at 1090 Page rose sharply. Dozens of musicians visited and jammed: Jerry Garcia, who’d switched from banjo to guitar only the year before; Gary Duncan and Greg Elmore, interested in putting a rock band together; Chet Helms, interested in learning guitar and joining a group.
Helms ended up managing the group that became Big Brother and the Holding Company and organizing free-form, 50¢ concerts at 1090. After about ten shows he turned full attention to Big Brother, while a couple of visitors to the jams — Luria Castell and Ellen Harmon — hit on the idea of putting on concert/dances. This first one, October 16th, 1965, featured the Jefferson Airplane and the Charlatans. And that takes us back to George Hunter.
Hunter was Mr. Jones’s opposite number. He — well, let Chet Helms tell it — “He’d walk into a room of people listening to classical music and without hesitation turn the dial to KYA [a teenyrock station] at full volume and grab some chick and start dancing.”
Hunter split from Los Angeles in 1962 for the Haight-Ashbury. He was following friends — “A lot of the Reds I knew in L.A. came up here and went to State” — and he was dropping out of a job as a whiz-kid designer (age 19) in a construction firm specializing in high-rise buildings.
He is now a partner and chief designer of a new club still under construction on Union Street, a boulevard of boutiques, singles spots and generally upper-crust hip shops. The idea is a hot club, like the one Django Reinhardt played in Paris. And it all ties into Hunter’s musical — and stylistic — tendencies of ten years ago.
Facing page: a block party with the Dead on Haight Street At a coffee shop down the street, Hunter talked about the Charlatans. “The whole idea there was style, in the clothes and the music. We did a lot of tunes like ‘Sweet Sue,’ ‘Doctor Dan’ and ‘Somebody Stole My Gal,’ a lot of Twenties, a lot of ragtime. Nobody knew from Scott Joplin or anything like, that, but we really liked the stuff and that whole image.”
Michael Ferguson, the Charlatans’ pianist, an artist who ran the Magic Theater for Madmen Only on Divisadero Street, was another visualizer. His flat was filled with velvets, Victorian lamps, old rugs, mirrors, signs. And Dan Hicks, their drummer, was in fact a guitarist, a fan of swing music, a Django enthusiast and a star of the folk music club at State because he could play jazz and ragtime. His first two compositions clearly indicated his potential: “How Can I Miss You if You Won’t Go Away” and “Just Another Face in a Shroud.”
People remember that they dressed better than they ever played. “Well,” said Hunter, “I’m a designer and I got into the trip by, I guess, wanting to design a rock & roll group. At that time the only thing that was even close was the Beau Brummels. They were the first thing in the San Francisco area that gave anybody any notion of the new wave in rock & roll. And then the Byrds. And everybody seemed to be emulating the Beatles in basic style. We knew we could either be some imitation of an English group or we could be the great American rock & roll job.
“The nostalgia thing seemed to be on its way in; you could sense it was part of the whole acid thing — where people started to get concerned with what’s real, the awareness of all the plastic aspects of the late Sixties and wanting to move away from that. It meant people started appreciating handmade leather goods and all that kind of stuff.”
It was the Charlatans’ image that got them hired off the street, by Chan Laughlin from the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, in town to pick up supplies. He thought they might be the Byrds. And it was the image that got them into trouble with Bill Graham. There were, Hunter agreed, a few scenes.
Dan Hicks: “I really attribute it to the attitude George had, and Richie and [Michael] Wilhelm a little bit — kind of the Rolling Stones punk image. We’d show up late or something. I remember one gig, we were real late and Bill was yelling about how his band [Graham was managing Jefferson Airplane] makes a thousand dollars a second and he wouldn’t have that happen, and if you’re gonna do this you better deliver onstage. And we’d get up there and sound crappy.” Hicks, a sardonic masochist if there ever was one, smiled just slightly. “It would’ve been all right if we’d blown the place away,” he reasoned, “but we sounded shitty!”
Hicks thought the Charlatans were generally inconsistent. “It had a little to do with the fact that the leader didn’t play any instruments — he banged the tambourine, kind of played the autoharp, and at rehearsals he’d say things like, ‘Well, when we get to this place here, we’ll get … far out.’ “
Hunter admitted the Charlatans were no threat to the Beatles, the New Lost City Ramblers or anybody else. But then, he said, very few San Francisco musicians were. And when three Charlatans dropped out after a give-it-all-away contract signed without legal advice, some shufflng from one subsidiary label to another, and some abortive recording sessions, there finally appeared a Charlatans album, George Hunter was right in there. Not as a member; he’d split and set up his own advertising and graphics business. Hunter designed the album cover. “It sort of was like an outlet for all the frustration that everybody had experienced in the last four, five years, with not being able to get anywhere.”
Today, Dan Hicks is one of Hunter’s three business partners in the hot club; Mike Wilhelm performs solo at the Coffee Gallery in North Beach; Richie Olsen works on downtown streets as part of the Powell Street Jazz Band, and Michael Ferguson stays home in Alameda. He recently lost his sight, having long suffered from diabetes.
Back in front of the new club, Hunter stopped. He wanted to emphasize once more the importance of style. I mentioned the fairly direct line from his early drawings for Family Dog concerts to Avalon and Fillmore posters to current TV commercials for 7-Up; the line from Ferguson’s and Hunter’s furnishings to the restaurants, bars, boutiques, and even banks that today are outfitted in Victorian oak, marble, old rugs and velvet.
“It happens all the time,” he said. “And it’s a little hard to take sometimes. Especially if you’re not making out real well and you know there’s a lot of guys that are doing well on all the stuff that you and your friends put together because you liked it for what it was. All through history it’s the same story anyway. Just organic changes, and the only way to get them out there, to get that broad acceptance, is to have them be economically feasible.”
While the Charlatans spent the summer of 1965 attracting the first freaks to Nevada, the Byrds made it to San Francisco, to North Beach, to the Peppermint Tree, one of the few clubs that did not offer unclad bosoms as part of the evening’s entertainment. Down the block, Tom Donahue, who had given up KYA and checked out LSD, had opened Mother’s, generally acknowledged as the first psychedelic nightclub. It was designed, said Donahue, “as a giant womb.” Mother’s lasted only six weeks, but among its bookings was the first San Francisco appearance of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
Meanwhile, out on the Marina end of Fillmore Street, Marty Balin of the Town Criers was designing a club of his own, the Matrix, and forming a new group. He went through numerous players — the first drummer was a sergeant in the Marines — before settling on Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen, both folkies, on guitars; Jack Casady, bass; Skip Spence, drums, and Signe Toly, vocalist. Balin was a fan of Dylan, the Byrds and, like so many others, he’d fallen for the Beatles over A Hard Day’s Night.
The Matrix was a tiny room (“Matrix,” said Balin at the time, means “womb”) with a capacity of 104. It was in a residential district and neighbors soon began a long fight against the club.
But Balin’s dream came true. The Matrix opened in August 1965; he advertised the house band as “the sensational Jefferson Airplane” and, working on a stage designed especially for the Airplane, the group took off. And it was at that first weekend that a young model, the wife of an S.F. State film student, Grace Slick, watched Balin soar and thought maybe she, too, could sing. She and Jerry Slick soon formed the Great Society.
In his songs, his singing and his aspirations, Balin was the great romanticist. In 1968, he spoke with Ralph J. Gleason about what had happened. “Some guy asked me, ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘It’s a cliché. It’s love.’ It sounds stupid but that’s the only thing I can figure out. There really is this love thing.”
In 1971, Balin left, upset with the band’s slow pace in the studios, with its waste of money on studio time and drugs (which Kantner once shrugged off as “a business expense”).
Finally, last year, with Casady and Kaukonen gone, with encouragement from Kantner and with the enticing possibility that royalty money long held up by lawsuits might be freed, he wrote a song with Kantner, then joined the transformed Starship on a project-by-project basis.
“What do I get out of it?” he asked. “I’ll be glad to do their next album if they pay me for my work. I’ve known these people for ten years and they sign their lives away and I’m not into that. They say they won’t. You know, things change constantly.”
Nighttime in Novato is like being nowhere. This is Marin County at its quietest, and Steve Miller’s house is set high up in rancho deluxe territory. There is plenty of land here for the buying, and Miller, enriched by his 1974 hit, “The Joker,” intends to buy — and build. He’s just turned his patio into a plush new recording studio and he’s got plans for more. Steve Miller, half a year after a run-in with the law for piling an ex-girlfriend’s belongings into a fireplace and setting them ablaze — is happy. Loaded-with-money, filled-with-music, rested-from-the-road happy.
When I arrived, he was … stoking a fire, spreading the flames with a studded leather bellows. The fireplace serves as a room divider in a sprawling house. In the living area is a billiard table with authentically harsh, bare-bulb lighting; behind the fireplace, a modest kitchen and dining area. A guest room, an office and a darkroom are in a wing. The one-bedroom house occupies only a few acres but, Miller proudly announced, “I’m getting 40 acres of dairy land and I’m going to build another studio — a large studio, plus living room, plus a glass bedroom so I can look into the wilderness.”
When Miller first blew in from Chicago in 1966, he lived in a truck in Berkeley. He put a band together in four days over Thanksgiving, set up a communal house off Haight Street and got into business. That was his plan from the very beginning.
Playing the blues circuit in Chicago with Barry Goldberg, he had worked for Nick Gravenites’s Mother Blues club. By the fall of ’66, Mike Bloom-field had visited San Francisco numerous times as part of the Butterfield Blues Band, and he and Gravenites both encouraged Miller to try San Francisco. “It was basically the only place in the country where you could go and play to an audience of 1500 or 2000 people, and not to a bunch of drunks in a bar, which is all we were doing.
“At first,” he said, “I didn’t really understand what was going on. I mean, I understood about the acid and the drugs and all that stuff” — Miller first dropped and took in Madison, Wisconsin, where he went to college with guitarist Boz Scaggs and drummer Tim Davis — “I couldn’t understand how the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service were playing to people, because at that time they weren’t very good bands. And when I heard Janis, I couldn’t understand that either. I came from a very competitive music scene. The first night I was here, I saw Butterfield play with the Airplane. Butterfield was incredible and the Airplane were, like, giving flowers to the first girl singer [Signe] ’cause she was leaving. It was a social trip, but they weren’t playing any music. But everybody loved them and stuff. They were a lousy band and I’m sure they’d admit it too. It took me awhile to realize that it was a social phenomenon, it was not really a musical trip.”
From the top, Miller knew what he wanted and how to get it. “I wasn’t into the real heavy-duty drug experience, the continually ongoing trip. I was more into getting a record contract, making music, traveling around the world and stuff.”
Living near the Haight, Miller’s band joined in the free park concerts. “It was kind of strange because the way the situation seemed to me … I would go see these guys, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and the Quicksilver Messenger Service — go over to their houses and there would be like thousands of dollars in guitars lying around, lots of dope and nobody could tune the instruments. And we played all the things in the park until it just got so competitive; there’d be like 40 bands just dying to get on the stage.”
By late ’66, the Airplane had signed with RCA, getting $25,000 up front; the Dead had gone to Warner Bros., and San Francisco was a certified recording phenomenon. Other bands signed smaller deals with smaller labels, doing mostly Charlatan routines — giving it all away. Blue Cheer with Mercury; Final Solution and Big Brother with Mainstream; Mystery Trend and the Sons of Champlin with Verve.
In late 1967, Capitol announced two signings: the Steve Miller Blues Band and Quicksilver. The news was astounding: a $50,000 advance to Miller plus a $10,000 bonus for one year and four one-year options that, if taken, would total $750,000 to Miller. The band would receive a royalty per album of 32¢, compared to the standard 12¢. Miller happily showed Quicksilver his band’s deal, and Quicksilver received a $40,000 advance and a $10,000 bonus, plus four options that could bring in as much as $100,000 each. No one in San Francisco — not to mention the rest of the country — considered such figures possible. But to Miller, they were nothing more than fair — for once.
Many of the San Francisco rock bands projected an air of indifference about business, seemingly content with a toke, a gig and another toke. They disdained such intricacies as contract negotiations, or at least openly gave that impression. It was hip not to care about money.
Steve Miller saw money as a tool. “If you want to go make an album in two weeks, that’s about the way it’s going to sound. We were in a perfect position. The record companies, typically not understanding anything about the music, were given instructions to go to San Francisco and sign those acts. ‘It’s the San Francisco Sound.’ They knew that we were one of the four popular groups and they figured if the Jefferson Airplane sold 100,000 albums and 125,000 singles, which was considered big stuff in those days, we probably would too. They wanted to sign the phenomena.”
Miller has been managing himself since 1970. Two years before that, he had pulled himself away from the rest of the scene. The turning point was the Monterey Pop Festival, August 1967. It is remembered as a watershed event: flowers in everybody’s hair, San Francisco shaking hands with Hollywood and meeting London, attracting New York record executives and dosing, acid rocking the music business as it had never been dosed and rocked before.
For Miller, it was his last acid trip. In Monterey that memorable weekend, “All I saw was just a lot of ugly, tired, egotistical people. The Smothers Brothers were screwing around with the audience, telling them the Beatles were outside, and 8,000 people knocked down a fence. The Buffalo Springfield, I saw Stephen Stills and all those cats go through their ego shit to get up on that stage in front of those people. I watched them pull Janis back out and watched her howl and growl and piss and moan, and watched people react to that. I watched guys making the movie deal backstage. I watched all the biz and I watched Jimi Hendrix take lighter fluid and pour it on his guitar. I saw how fucked up on drugs he was before he started playing. He was half out of his head on speed and junk and acid all at once. And I just sort of thought that it was all going to end. It was real ugly and nasty. I just sort of slid out the back door and kept moving.”
Miller is content to stay away from the San Francisco music social circles. If there is in fact a circle, outside the still tight Dead-Starship connection, with David Crosby, Graham Nash and a person or two from Quicksilver. “It seems to be pretty n.uch gone, it’s not like a real energy. It’s like a bunch of people who made bread in whatever way they did and held onto what they could, and they’re doing personally what they want to do. I haven’t talked to any of those people, man, in years.
“I haven’t seen Jerry Garcia in four years. The last time I saw Chet, he was working for the post office, I think. The last time I ran into one of the guys in the Jefferson Airplane, I walked up to him and said, ‘Hi, man, haven’t seen you in a while,’ and he didn’t know who I was. His old lady thought I wanted his autograph.”
He must go through this riff all the time, to all the record executives, he’s got it down so good: 55 working bands, 25 around the corner, ready to record … “I think there’s gonna be a lot of acts pop out of San Francisco in the next year or so. Jesse Colin Young is gonna be an enormous star … Ronnie Montrose … Elvin Bishop, I think, is right on the threshold. He’s the third-largest-selling act on Capricorn right now … Graham Central Station should pop. I think Boz Scaggs could be one of the major stars in America if he just got himself a manager. Quicksilver’s together. They made a reunion album and it’s selling. I think we can get them back together and on the road. I think the Sons are an enormous band and haven’t really cost anybody a whole lot of money. And Van Morrison … he’s just a giant.
“See, the one thing San Francisco offers that no other city offers is a tremendous amount of places to play, and we still have this feeling of camaraderie which they don’t have anyplace else. I think the music scene in San Francisco has its life ahead of it — I don’t think it’s behind it at all.”
The speaker is one of San Francisco’s first dope lawyers, Brian Rohan, 39. Ten years ago, he was just “a young drunk,” as he himself remembers — and an ambitious attorney who wound up working for one of the city’s grand old radicals, Vincent Hallinan. Suddenly, in 1965, there were all these freaks dropping by, asking for legal help — they’d invariably been busted for possession — and Rohan and another young attorney, Michael Stepanian, took the cases.
Among Rohan’s first clients was an old acquaintance — well, it was someone he’d heard of, anyway — named Ken Kesey. “I went to the University of Oregon in 1958 and the first time I ever saw him was on Good Friday. He was nailed to a cross in front of one of the sorority houses … He was acting out his version of the Crucifixion.” Rohan represented Kesey after his San Jose bust.
Rohan and Stepanian were good with the DAs, getting most possession-for-sales busts knocked down to simple possession, turning felonies into misdemeanors, and the clients streamed in. But there was no money, so Rohan set up the Haight-Ashbury Legal Organization (HALO); Bill Graham helped organize a benefit, all the big bands played and the Dead even chipped in office space in their house at 710 Ashbury.
Rohan, quite naturally, began to get requests for advice from rock musicians, and he began to represent bands, helping make the Dead’s deal with Warner Bros, and Quicksilver’s with Capitol. “This was the hottest period in San Francisco,” he said, “and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.” He went on to dabble in concert production, acting as an adviser and a chief moneylender to Chet Helms and forming a partnership with Graham and David Rubinson in FM Productions.
So it makes sense that Rohan does full-blown cheers for the San Francisco music biz at the drop of a cassette. He has a percentage of it. But he argues a pretty persuasive case for the contributions San Franciscans have made: the late Tom Donahue, who modernized FM radio with KMPX, then KSAN; the late Ralph J. Gleason, who put his respectability on the line and stood up for the scene and its people; Bill Graham, who’s proven to be the best concert producer in the country; Glenn MacKay, Bill Ham, Jerry Abrams and all the other light artists who enlivened the early late shows; Wes Wilson, Rick Griffin, Al Kelly, Victor Moscoso and the late Robert Fried, the poster artists; and, of course, all the musicians and even the sloppy would-be musicians and the dope dealers who financed integral parts of the scene and all the hangers-out who became managers … They all helped make San Francisco the kind of city that could attract people like Mike Bloomfield, Steve Miller and Nick Gravenites from Chicago; Janis, Chet, Boz, Sir Doug and Mother Earth from Texas and the Midwest; Dino Valenti and the Youngbloods from New York; George Hunter, Country Joe, Ellen Harmon and all the others from L.A., Seattle, Detroit and everywhere else.
Just what this article needs: another goddamned cheerleader.
Was there actually a “San Francisco Sound”? Did “St. Stephen,” “Blind Man,” “Section 43,” “White Rabbit” and “Let’s Get Together” remind of one another? Were the Charlatans, the Electric Flag, Mother Earth, Moby Grape, Lee Michaels and Blue Cheer all out of one bag? There was more a scene, and shared attitudes by those in the scene, than any common sound. The music was borrowed and open-ended, based on Chicago blues but accepting of folk, country, swing, old-timey jazz and even Indian strains.
Tunes were extended far beyond the accepted three minutes as set by Top 30 radio; they were more for dancing than for listening. Most groups were at a loss in the studios. There was a conscious antipop stance. The biggest hypes were conceived out of town, as with Columbia Records’ Moby Grape promotion package and the simultaneous release of five singles from their first album. Homegrown campaigns were also put down. Grace Slick was still with Great Society when the Bay Area was suddenly littered with bumper stickers advising: Jefferson Airplane Loves You. “We were going to put one out,” said Slick, “that said Great Society Doesn’t Care Much for You at All.”
The audiences seemed to trust the tastes of the promoters, so that Los Angeles groups like Love and the Doors and European acts like Procol Harum and Them were embraced equally with the local bands and a parade of blues and R&B artists: Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Bo Diddley, B.B. and Albert King, Martha and the Vandellas, Otis Redding… The taste, in 1966, excluded jazz and solo artists.
Early on, when it was still house bands and core crazies, the line between on-and offstage performers was at best a perforated one. Wherever you looked, there was a show. John Cipollina jumped onto the stage at the first Longshoremen’s Hall dance and looked out. “My eyes hurt,” he remembered. “There were all these people out there, as far as the eye could see.” And there was all this music.
Most of the bands had an image, some of them sought. But one of the most important bands was known simply as the good old Grateful Dead. They were from the street — 710 Ashbury, in fact — and of the street. On weekends, Jerry Garcia remembers, “The Gray Line tours came by. ‘Here are the Grateful Dead …’ We’d all wave and shit.” And through the years, they have remained the good old Grateful Dead. “One of the things about us,” said Garcia, “was that we never had that glamour flash that the Airplane had or Moby Grape or whatever. They were always sort of glamorous and sellable and we never had that thing, that glossy image. They would see Pigpen and — just forget it.”
Jerry Garcia once made 25¢ for a night’s work at the Boar’s Head in San Carlos (proprietors: Peter and Rodney Albin) and no one remembers hearing a complaint. Today, sitting at the old Pacific High Recording studios (now His Master’s Wheel) around the block from the old Fillmore West, he is considering the fact that it’s been ten years of the good old Grateful Dead. “It seems like hundreds of years — and it also seems like not too much time at all. Some things haven’t changed at all really, and the world has changed.” The Dead became San Francisco’s largest rock & roll family, made gold records, had their own record company, lost Pigpen, got ripped by one manager — drummer Mickey Hart’s father — spun off into a half-dozen different bands, took a leave of absence … and some things haven’t changed at all.
Garcia on business: “My role in the Grateful Dead’s business gestalt is that I represent ethics if I represent anything. It has to do with how the Grateful Dead idea fits into business. I’ve learned about it because of the experiences of getting burned and so forth, so I know how business functions, but I’m not into it. I don’t really care, and if it were still the sort of situation where I was getting five bucks a week, I’d still be doing just what I’m doing.
“We were just interested in getting crazy. That’s what it was with the Acid Test. We dropped out, essentially, from what would have been a normal career in music, in that whole club thing. We just said, ‘This is awful, this eats it.'”
Garcia, a dropout from high school, a discharge from the Army, got into a little guitar (a “folk strum-sing trip”), met Bob Hunter, fresh out of the National Guard, and they lived out of two cars on a lot in east Palo Alto. Hunter, interested in writing novels at that time, went off into Scientology in L.A. Garcia got married, became a guitar teacher and, with his wife, Sarah, began making the Bay Area folk club circuit, from Berkeley through North Beach down to San Jose, the same roads being traveled by Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen, John Cipollina, David Freiberg.
“So everybody had been smoking pot, maybe getting a little psilocybin or something. And right about ’64, the first LSD really hit the street — bam!” And Garcia turned from banjo to guitar and rock & roll. “The instrument stopped being flexible. LSD, it made me want to hear longer sounds and be freer musically. Plus the thing about being loud was great.”
Volume was also a weapon for the group, which began as the Warlocks. Their first regular gig was a straight nightclub in Belmont, but by then they were tiring of five-sets-a-night club work. They began to stretch their songs out and cranked up the volume with each succeeding gig, driving customers out, while in the back a head or two would be grinning, laughing at some private joke. At their highest decibel count, the Warlocks attracted the attention of Ken Kesey and friends and they were invited to play a house party in San Jose that was essentially the first Acid Test ever. They then hopped onto Kesey’s bus to L.A. for more tests.
Robert Hunter, meantime, had gravitated back to the Bay Area, and when the Warlocks, now the Dead, returned ten weeks later “they were all changed,” said Hunter. “There was a gleam in everyone’s eyes.” The Dead took up residence at 710 Ashbury and Hunter floated off again — to New Mexico, “where I got into being an artist on Canyon Road. I never sold a thing but I did portraits for ten dollars.” Hunter finally turned to writing song lyrics and sent a couple of complex first efforts — “Alligator” and “China Cat” — to his old buddy. When he got back to San Francisco, he discovered the Dead doing two-hour versions of “Alligator,” ready to have him on as lyricist-in-residence.
It was Hunter who told of drummer Mickey Hart’s father’s death last year. In spring of 1970 when he was accused of misusing Dead money, he gave the band $10,000 and disappeared. He was found a year later, baptizing Jesus freaks in San Diego as Reverend Lenny B. Hart. The Dead busted him and charged him with embezzlement.
Just before their troubles with Hart, most of the Dead were busted for possession in New Orleans, their first since their famous Ashbury raid of 1967. And there was pressure from Warner Bros, for an album.
The result was a change in musical direction to a simple, harmonic, country sound on an album called Working-man’s Dead, recorded in an astounding nine days at Pacific High. “The studio,” said Hunter, “was where we could escape it all. It was just the next group of songs,” he said, but admitted, “It was a radical departure. We’d done the rock, the acid — we remembered our folk tradition, our roots.”
Country Joe and the Fish were perhaps the most acidic and political of the first bands; they broke up and reformed the most often, and now Country Joe and his main Fish — Barry Melton — are back — without the acid and the politics but definitely re-formed.
In 1964, McDonald came to San Francisco from L.A., and he came with a purpose: “I came to become a folk-singer with the beatniks in San Francisco,” he said matter-of-factly. Joe is sober-looking, neat, short hair swept back, dressed casual/clean. “Somewhere I’d read and saw cartoons about beatniks playing bongo drums, and I remember driving into San Francisco and it was just huge; I was completely disoriented and didn’t know what to do. And I found out there weren’t that many beatniks in San Francisco and went over to Berkeley, and I wound up on that show on KPFA [Midnight Special, a live hoot] and decided, this is the place for me.”
McDonald formed a jug band and made the rounds of coffeehouses and bars; he worked on a music magazine, Rag Baby, and one of his earliest compositions, “I Feel like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” was included in a talking issue. He met Barry Melton, then 17, outside the Berkeley Folk Festival. Neither could afford admission and they began playing together, plotting a musical career. Melton was living in San Francisco and going to State. He was friends with Peter Albin.
Joe and Barry began gathering Fish, and in the fall of ’65 Joe cut an EP record (four songs at 33 1/3 rpm on a seven-inch disc) at a four-track studio in Berkeley at a cost of $500. The record, a pioneering feat at that time, sold 8000 copies in two years. McDonald, meantime, performed for political causes around Berkeley.
“We were totally snobbed out by San Francisco community cultural politics,” said McDonald. “It had nothing to do with living in Berkeley. San Francisco had it — they had Bill Graham, they had Chet Helms, they had LSD, they had light shows, they did everything and they got all the credit for it. We tried hard, we tried harder than anybody. We put out the definitive psychedelic record that was ever made.” A pause here to remember the precious “I love you”s Joe cooed on “Grace,” the subtle chant of “L-S-D” under “Bass Strings.”
McDonald continued: “We made the first political rock & roll of the decade. The first psychedelic instrumentals, we were at the first be-ins, took the first light show to New York, took the first psychedelic music to London. And we outbenefited anybody, and what did we get for it? Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
And all — said Joe — because the Fish weren’t willing to commute to be part of the scene. “It was too far for us to go. How were we going to get all the way over to Mill Valley to hang out and take a whole lot of LSD?” A rhetorical question if there ever was one. “As a result, we stayed over here and took a whole lot of LSD and became sort of a separate little thing. But all the writing, the machine that made rock & roll famous, was over there.”
Guitarist Barry Melton, a lighter, more jovial sort, broke in: “Also, San Francisco had the mystical vibe, which was represented by the Oracle, whereas politics was beneath discussion. In Berkeley, politics was on an exalted level, represented by the Barb.”
“But politics,” McDonald continued, “went over to San Francisco and zammo! It hit it, and when it did, the Airplane came up with ‘Up against the wall motherfucker.’ Well, la-dee-fucking-DA! We were saying it, and we were saying it when we were saying it.”
It was not that the Fish didn’t do well; combining well-written love songs with the group’s penchant for comedy and satire — that carried over into acid commercials, board games and onstage choreography — the Fish were in the forefront … at least outside San Francisco. But the group began to break up seasonally, changing personnel — “People couldn’t cut it at certain points” is how Joe explained it. “We had a lot of professional problems.” Finally in 1970 they broke up for the sixth and last time. “Hippies make strange musicians,” Joe said then. “They won’t accept leadership. I was trying to be the leader of a hippie rock & roll band … and that in itself is a contradiction of terms.
“The fantasy of right-on communism solving the world’s problems,” he’d decided, “was just as wrong as LSD solving the world’s problems, and as we grew up we discovered the world was real big and everyone had a right to express their opinions about this or that. I think everyone who survived is humbled now and realizes that you’re not such hot shit just ’cause you have an opinion.”
McDonald is not at all proud of his opinions.
“I wrote a song called ‘Playing with Fire,’ and in the Sixties we were really playing with fire. There were people who just took it literally. They got strung out on drugs and killed themselves and other people … VD is rampant because of this great promiscuity riff, ‘free love’ and ‘make revolution’ really got out of hand, and every band out of San Francisco in the Sixties was responsible in some way for promoting an image which was really unfair, because the things that were available to us — money, protection, living in a kind of insular society — weren’t available to the average working-class young person, and they took hard knocks. I feel bad about some of the stuff I did, telling people anything was okay. I don’t do that anymore out of respect to the problems halfway houses and free clinics have.
“In the past two years in my personal life, I’ve come to be straight, unstoned, I’ve stopped drinking. I’ve discovered I shouldn’t take drugs and try to be a superhippie.”
One has to wonder why he’s performing again, as a Fish. “It’s a financial thing,” he said. “Barry and I enjoy playing together and I don’t see why we shouldn’t.”
Who exactly the Fish are is still open. Outside of Joe and Barry, the only sure bet is Bruce Barthol, the original bassist. “We’ll decide,” said Joe. “Our main concern is to make the best music and do the best show possible. It’ll be fun for us, so it’ll be up and good, which was Country Joe and the Fish in the beginning. We’re gonna try and make it 1976 and 1968 at the same time.”
… And even though I
know that you and I
could never find the kind of love we wanted together
Alone I find myself missing you … —”Janis”
(“Janis” by Joe McDonald, © 1967, Joyful Wisdom Publishing)
Country Joe lived with Janis Joplin for a few months in the Haight in early 1967. They met at the Avalon where