Mar 23, 2013

October 31, 1966: California Hall, SF


"Sell the sizzle, not the steak," Elmer "Fat Boy" Wheeler's deep religious principle, is acutely tuned to the basic elements in American life.
For a week now, Ken Kesey, the Robin Hood of LSD, has been selling the sizzle of a Halloween "Graduation" party, from which the acid heads were supposed to move on to new plateaus. As a salesman and space grabber, Kesey ranks with Dexter Fellows, P.T. Barnum's flack.
But somewhere along the line, something went wrong. Over the weekend numerous people who were involved in Kesey's project as lieutenants or other functionaries, had second thoughts. Kesey's in-group is called The Merry Pranksters.
More and more people remembered that the Pranksters' motto is "Never Trust a Prankster." And in the event, they didn't trust Ken Kesey.
That's what happened. When the lieutenants voted "No confidence" Kesey was way out there in the blue, riding on a smile like Willy Loman, with no one smiling back.
Once the support faded - and great pressure was brought to bear to keep the support in line, with lawyers laying down their reputations like collateral - Kesey couldn't get Winterland for his frolic and ended up in a warehouse with less than a couple of hundred people instead of the thousands he expected to pay $2.50 each to hear and to see him. The Robin Hood trip was in trouble.

Where the people went Monday night was California Hall, which was jammed all night long even though the six witches and Mimi Farina never did appear. Or maybe the witches did. It was hard to tell. They COULD have been there. It was quite an assembly. A theatrical costume house could have outfitted a regimental ball at Prince Charlie's court from the clothes at the dance.
The Quick and the Dead played for dancing. The Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead, that is, and they filled the hall with the wailing of guitars and the beat of the drums all night long. At midnight when Death was supposed to ride through the hall, a lanky, dark man with long stringy black hair and an opulent red brocade Louis XIV jacket climbed into a rickety old wheelchair and was pushed through the crowd by another man wearing a huge pumpkin for a headdress. Girls screamed in mock terror. A small boy cried fretfully in the lounge, but he'd been frightened by a reveler in a bear's costume, not by Death.
It was somewhat anti-climactic when Death left the wheelchair to do his Dance. He appeared to be out of his elements and could only prance around lamely. But the hall was filled with others who added new dimensions to free form dancing.
The girl in the net pants (just net, that's all) and the girl in the diaphanous gauze dress won the prizes for exotica. And the man with the split face, half coal black and half chalk white, impressed everyone.

The Quicksilver Messenger Service gave Death's wheelchair ride a wildly rhythmic accompaniment (the Bo Diddley riff at maximum volume) and the Grateful Dead did "Viola Lee Blues" and "The LSD Millionare" as though were playing for all time. [sic]
Earlier in the evening, numerous people had arrived at Winterland to find it closed (it was Winterland's withdrawal that cooled the Kesey plot) and had gone on to California Hall. During the evening, some cruised the alley where Kesey's party was in progress and returned to report little happening. At the end of the night the sign "Acid Test Graduation Tickets Not Honored Here" was still up alongside the box office and it symbolized what happened. A vote of "No confidence" had been registered and when they stop smiling back at you, even Elmer Wheeler's credo is useless. The only thing that can save you then, is the steak. The sizzle is not enough.

(by Ralph Gleason, from the "On The Town" column, SF Chronicle, November 2 1966)

Thanks to Corry at Lost Live Dead

1 comment:

  1. I detect a very hostile tone towards Ken Kesey here. Clearly something had soured Ralph Gleason on Kesey's trips since January '66 - probably due to Kesey's legal escapades.

    McNally's book goes into a lot of detail on the Winterland Acid Graduation cancellation, page 168.

    Mimi Farina was to be a special guest at the California Hall "Dance of Death Costume Ball," but apparently did not show up.

    Gleason gives some useful setlist details - QMS were playing one of their Bo Diddley riffs at midnight. (I gather they were the opening band, so perhaps the show had a late start?)
    The Dead played Viola Lee and Alice D. Millionaire. There are a couple of interesting things to note about this -
    a) Gleason knew the title "LSD Millionaire." Since it's nowhere in the song, which normally would be titled something like "No Time To Cry," the Dead must have made a stage announcement, or told him.
    b) the Chronicle headline about Owsley the "LSD Millionaire" had appeared at the beginning of October; now by the end of the month, they've already attached the title to a new song. (Probably at random.)

    There is no tape of this show, although a tape on the Archive pretends to be from a Winterland "Acid Test Graduation Jam" -
    It's non-Dead, misdated, actual musicians & location unknown, and probably no Prankster connection - still fun to hear, though.