A REUNION AT WINTERLAND
Eric Burdon may talk about these "warm San Francisco nights," I thought as I drove in the high wind across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, but it sure ain't warm very often.
In the city, the wind blew scraps of paper along the Geary Street curb as we drove past the old Fillmore Auditorium at Fillmore and Geary where so much of it happened, and the Geary Temple alongside it, where Janis had rehearsed her band.
Here we are four years after it all began and it was still the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, and the prospect of both of them on the same bill had the kind of special edge to it that it always had. It was tradition now that the Dead and the Airplane inevitably played well together, and you knew when those two bands came out that all the original people, Haight Street refugees bedded down now in campers and in communes in Marin and Mt. Shasta and Santa Cruz and Sonoma, would, somehow, show up.
No parking alongside Winterland, natch. Just a line of cars we got caught in. A sedan stopped in front of us and out of it jumped Grace Slick, hair flying, to snatch the CLOSED sign from the entrance to the underground Winterland garage. Before she got back into the car, another sedan cut across traffic lanes to follow her. I blew my horn and then saw Jack Casady, gnome-like, bending over the steering wheel oblivious to me or anybody else, intent on making that turn, man! Grace got back into her car, drove down the ramp and Casady followed.
Too much! I though. Superstars in San Francisco just like anybody else. They're not superstars, though, I thought again. They're the Airplane and all the Airplane is is part of San Francisco, and even in other cities they say they don't get torn apart by the crowds and hassled like the superstars do.
I drove on past the ramp and onto the parking lot next door. As I was leaving Marty Balin drove up in a VW bus looking happy and wearing what will become a full beard if he lets it alone. It's halfway there now, at the place that gives him that two-weeks-vacation-in-Yosemite look.
We walked down the street to the front of Winterland past the usual panhandlers chanting the sacred chants of the street people - "Gotanysparechange!" "Sparechange!" "Sparechange!" "Gotadime?" and the rest. A tall man dripping buckskin fringe and tingling all over from bells was cavorting in the middle of the sidewalk, his beard bristling like some old color print of a devil's disciple as he hit on everybody who came along.
At the door the usual wrangle between a hippie and a rent-a-cop was going on. Nobody pays any attention any more. Big John was taking tickets, his solid black face immobile as he stared straight ahead and stuck out his big hands for the tickets. Inside the lobby was jammed and the rent-a-cops were busy trying to keep the kids moving. "Can't stand here! All right, move on!" It sounded like the Saturday night street scene downtown.
Winterland is an old building, a big three-story shell that occupies half a block and is made of concrete and steel and used to be the home of the Ice Follies. Hundreds of prize fights have been held there, and it was the place where Ken Kesey was going to have a dance on Halloween, and then mine the place with a lot of acid depth charges and delayed action bombs so that the following night, when Governor Pat Brown, Sammy Davis, Jr., and the rest of the big political show came in, they would get blasted out of their minds. Turn on the world! It didn't happen, of course, but that's another story.
Entering the ramp to go to the regular floor of the Winterland arena you have to pass through a concrete chute from the lobby to the arena. You emerge at the back of the arena, a series of rows of theater type seats on your level leading down to the dance floor (basketball court or whatever it is) with the actual stage way down on the right hand side near the end of the hall. Above the stage is a huge screen in sections which run for almost 100 feet hanging from the balcony behind the bandstand. At the far end the two-story curtains block off the dressing room area. The light show uses all the screen and the curtains sometimes, too.
The bandstand looks like an airplane carrier with huge theater type speakers at each end, like a pilot's house and some kind of a command post. It's very war-like in silhouette. The hall is dark. There are no lights except in the lobby and from the light show and over the exit doors.
On the floor in front of the bandstand - a floor bigger than a basketball court, really; a floor big enough for an indoor track almost - the audience was sitting, jammed so tight together that if one of them left to make the run to the head he might never be able to get back. Every seat downstairs was taken, except those directly behind the bandstand where you could hear but not see. The aisles were packed with people and a handful of rent-a-cops were struggling to keep a lane open in a kind of ritual recognition of the natural laws of fire hazard.
There were semi-comic aspects to it. The rent-a-cops in the lobby were sending the incoming patrons through the chute to the main floor of the arena where the other rent-a-cops were sending them back out. Finally, the crowd began to sift slowly up the narrow stairs to the balcony. Winterland's balcony is like the cliffs at Acapulco, the Palisades or the down-grade on a roller coaster. You gotta be able to stand heights. I mean straight life heights. If you are already high, well, that's another story, too. But stone sober, you are high in the air and the view is almost straight down.
In the front rows opposite the bandstand and the screen, Glenn McKay and the light show people were zipping back and forth behind their battery of equipment like a group of mad scientists wiring up the manufactured man to the stroboscopic device that would make him a living, breathing thing. I couldn't take it, so we went back down the stairs. "Man, one cat sends me in and that other pig sends me out!" one bearded longhaired youth was saying to another as they climbed up the stairs. "It's a bummer."
We tried downstairs again and I pulled rank and spoke magic words like "CBS," "NBC," Rolling Stone, San Francisco Chronicle. Nobody paid any attention. Finally one of the rent-a-cops who has been there a long time recognized me and let us through and we slowly made our way to the area behind the band where we could sit down.
All this while the Grateful Dead were playing one of those groovy kinds of things they do which, if you walk in on it, it is hard to tell just which one is being played. They have a tendency to get into an extended thing in the middle and, if it is the right tempo, to go on with it a long, long time - sometimes too long a time - and it all sounds the same. Groovy and all that. But the same.
Two young cats sat behind us as the tune ended. They were short haired, wearing telon zip windbreakers, and one of them said, "I just got the new Youngbloods album, White Elephant." "You mean Elephant Mountain," the one said, and then they discussed how good it was. Up and down the aisles guys walked zapping fluorescent yo-yos up and down. The Dead went into "Cold Rain and Snow."
The Dead ended their set; Jerry Garcia stalked through the crowd carrying his guitar and looking taller than he looks on stage, his thick, short black beard glowing in the light from the light-show projectors for a moment and more light seeping through his bushy hair.
The Airplane came on slowly. Grace, Marty, Paul, Jorma. Spencer got on stage and I never even saw him. Two guys stopped in front of us. "Got a joint?" One of them said, "I come here straight, man." A girl on crutches was picked up and carried to a seat by a thin guy in blue jeans. The Airplane did "It's No Secret" and "Other Side of This Life" and then Paul stepped forward and sang "Fat Angel" and somebody said "that's nostalgia now. Isn't it great?" And they ended the set. The audience gave them a lot of applause but there was no encore. There hadn't been one for the Dead either.
Then Mongo came on and the insinuating rhythms of his Afro-Latin music filled the hall. When he strikes the skin heads he gets a sharp sound that cuts through anything ("skin on skin" he calls it). His piano player sits high on the stool and kicks the foot pedal and the bass player sways with the beat and the timbales player keeps breaking sticks. They went through their repertoire and the dancers on the side were really wailing, a number of Mongo freaks having come in specially for his Winterland debut.
Winterland is about three times the size of Fillmore West, and when Bill Graham has attractions like the Airplane and the Dead he moves over to Winterland to accommodate the crowd.
Some of the dancers were really wild, the kind you don't see at rock dances ordinarily. They do that Latin thing which goes back to New York and Havana and which is wild but more formal, certainly, than the free-form hippie dance that is the standard for the rock bands.
The crowd really loved Mongo. Whap! Whap! he went on the conga drum and the band burst into "Watermelon Man" which is now his theme, the horns wailing a riff against the lead. Then he ended the set and they screamed for more. They kept shouting and clapping and he went back on and did a long encore variation on "Watermelon Man" and then left the stage. It was a huge success for him and it was his debut to that audience.
The Dead came back on, their tribal community flowing with them until, like some huge horde of lemmings, they covered the stage. There are more people on stage when the Dead play than ever got there to embrace Mick Jagger. Bill Graham, who had been dancing while Mongo played, was back on stage grooving to the Dead. Marty Balin and Grace Slick came out from behind the curtains and sat down in back of the band in the empty row of chairs. The rent-a-cop looked at them and didn't shine his ever-lovin' light on them at all! Several people climbed through the rope and over the chairs and at least two got on stage. A stage hand rousted them and the rent-a-cop frog-marched one of them on out of the hall. As soon as he split, the crowd filled the backstage area, some getting on stage or on the stage steps, and dozens of others camping down on the stairs. When he came back he was ten minutes clearing them all away.
Sunshine and several other little tow-headed kids were on stage, and the Dead’s chicks were dancing like hippie go-go girls. They did a long set, “Anthem of the Sun” and “Alligator” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” (the old Gary Davis classic) and the drum solos and cherry bomb explosions made it wild. A guy walked along the aisle selling the fluorescent yo-yo’s for a dollar. Sinking into the chair behind me a long-haired buckskin type sighed out “Ahhhhhhhhm so stoned!!” and a man in long white robes walked slowly through the strobe light raising his hands as it flickered over him. Some of the dancers stood in one place moving up and down and raising their arms. Rock Scully, the Dead’s manager, went zooming off into the crowd dancing. You could see his eyes shining twenty feet away.
The Dead ended the set but the crowd wouldn't let them leave and they had to play an encore. If there's a fault with this great band it's that they have not really expanded their repertoire for concerts. They keep changing the structure of the things they do, but they come up with relatively few new numbers. Pig Pen no longer plays the organ. Tom Constanten does that while Pig stands behind a conga drum, an incongruous Western dude who wandered down to Havana still togged out from the rodeo. Humphrey Bogart late show flicks have characters like that sitting around in the background in Caribbean saloons.
Jerry Garcia is really a remarkable musician. No one I can think of, with the possible exception in recent years of Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel, has had such an individual sound in his guitar playing. Garcia is paradoxical. His sound is butter-soft and mellow but it cuts through. It is a question, I think, of where he pitches it. But you can always hear him. Phil Lesh's bass reminds me of Paul Desmond in one of those long dialogues with Brubeck or maybe Miles Davis in musical conversation with Tony Williams. Lesh and Garcia weave over, under, upside down through the blanket of bubbling feeling that the rest of the band creates, and Jerry's voice dominates the vocal sound of the band. It's getting better too, and when he does "Death Don't Have No Mercy" sometimes it becomes a truly impressive instrument.
The Dead did their encore and it was already two o’clock. Closing time. In California, night clubs, bars and dance halls close early. City laws and county laws and state laws form a network of restrictions, and the dance hall laws in Frisco say two A.M. and that's it. So Bill Graham went to the microphone and said, “It’s two A.M. and the law says we must close. You are all now at a private party!” And he locked the doors. There were several thousand people waiting and they screamed their approval just as willingly as they would have put him down for being a money grubber in another situation.
So the Airplane came on after the Dead’s set and their encore. And they did it. They really did it up! Got it on or whatever you want to say. I mean they played!
As they straggled to the stand (informality and a non-structured image has always been the Airplane's thing) I had the premonition they would have a good set. They started with "Other Side of This Life" and then went on and on, the crowd screaming and applauding and the pool of dancers on the side waving their arms in the strobe light like the bacchanale at the end of the world. Bill Thompson stood on stage - he's been with them from the beginning as a friend, road manager and now manager - transfixed. David Freiberg of the Quicksilver Messenger Service sat on a folding chair behind the speakers leaning forward watching the band.
Marty and Grace's voices went soaring out into the huge hall, coiling around one another, swelling and retreating, sliding up and down the scale, ringing out the notes and the sounds like they were two electric guitars soloing in a mad exchange. The night before I had seen Make Love in London, that pseudo-psychedelic flick with Pink Floyd which is only important for the interview with Mick, and I thought how ridiculous to try to put on film 6,000 miles away what it is like here. And then I saw the film cameramen again, from KQED-TV and Jerry Slick, Grace's husband, who is making a flick on the Airplane. They were crouching and creeping all over switching lights on and off to shoot the audience, their faces packed up to the lip of the stage, the arms reaching over it and waving.
Paul and Grace and Marty sang a song. I never did get the name, and they didn't remember the next day. But at one point the voices went into a long string of eighth notes, syllable by syllable, as they hammered out the words. "We could be together and tear down the walls...walk down the street and what do you hear? A revolution!" Marty sang. (It was "Paul's Revolution Song" I learned later. Words by Marty and tune by Paul.) Jorma's guitar snapped and snarled and then buzzed and rang out. Paul sang "In Time" and I thought how mellow and full his voice sounded, and the lines from "Pooneil" echoed through the hall. "Will the moon still shine in the sky, when I die...?" Grace and Paul did a country-ish song, "The Farm," written by Gary Blackman, like Thompson with them from the beginning, and Jorma did an incredible solo, with the wah-wah pedal and Jack Casady's bass working together like giant pistons in some science fiction flick pumping in perfect synch. Grace did "White Rabbit" and the crowd screamed and Grace's voice went out over them like a bird flying.
The crowd wouldn't stop when the band did. A guy walked down the aisle snapping his fingers and swaying. "The music's over" somebody said to him and he smiled and said "It'll start again." He was right, it did. They had to go back on, there was no other choice. Jorma started it, Spencer cracking behind him and both of them riding on Jack's bass like two surf boards on the crest. A voice from the balcony screamed "ooooooooooh!" in one of the split second silences.
Then suddenly it was over. Everybody stood there. I looked at my watch and it was four A.M. I couldn't believe it. Four A.M. and thousands still on the floor and wanting to stay. Casady came off stage smiling. "Sure was weird up there tonight," he said and added, "It's better'n playing in the basement!" Marty smiled and said, "It felt better up there tonight than it has in six months."
Three days later the FM radios began announcing that the Airplane and the Dead would play in the park in the afternoon free, and they did, sending out their sounds from giant speakers over the polo field where the great Be-In was held in January 1967 (not ten years ago as everybody seems to think!). Out in the sunlight the people looked happy and wild and strangely beautiful as they always do, and even though the wind blew the sound in puffs away from the speakers and made it hard to hear the bands unless you were right up close, it was a beautiful day and I decided that more than anything else what these bands have is a feeling in a truly spiritual way. They make you feel good.
As we left the park that evening and the bands were still playing, I thought of what a young man had said to me at four o'clock in the morning at Winterland three days before when it was all over. “Why can’t it be like this everywhere?” he said with tears – literally – in his eyes. I looked at him and said I wished I knew the answer.
Why not? Why not? Why not, indeed.
(by Ralph Gleason, from Rolling Stone, July 12 1969)