Sep 9, 2013

1967: The San Francisco Music Scene


...In the day of the North Beach beatnik, music was jazz and folk singing with soft guitar accompaniment, to be enjoyed with poetry reading, wine, and beer in coffee houses or with a pipeful of marijuana while supine in somebody's pad. Dancing was not the "in" thing to do, especially in public. Like the most sophisticated members of the bygone Edwardian set, who looked upon it as an attempt at something best accomplished in a boudoir, the North Beach beatniks eschewed dancing because they considered it "dry fucking."
With the advent of the Beatles - a second, third, and fourth coming of Christ to the young generation - the "in" music even for most beatniks became electrified, amplified, bouncy rock-and-roll that was definitely meant for motion. This was the kind of music that acid heads like Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were digging the most, and it was dance music. That meant a significant change for the beatnik scene that was becoming reincarnated in the Hashberry.
In communal houses and pads around the Hashberry, combinations of folk, pop, jazz, and blues musicians gathered to talk, smoke pot, and experiment with the basic patterns produced by the Beatles and Rolling Stones rock-and-roll bands. Somewhere along their rock-on-drug trips, they created a form of electric music that became known as "folk rock," or more esoterically, "San Francisco rock" and "Western rock." It was amplified as loudly as the human ear could tolerate - louder than some human ears could tolerate. It blasted, it socked you in the head, and it mimicked, poked fun, antagonized. The names of the folk rock bands were adapted from the mood: the Great Society, Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead.
Few music or social critics would deny that the hippie bands created a new sound. It is an amalgam of other musical forms, but the totality of it is different from the rock-and-roll that Elvis Presley, Fabian, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones used to play. In fact, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had to alter their old styles and imitate it in order to keep up with the change.
The primordial quality of the hippies' folk rock music, like their intellectuals' vision of the new society, is primitive. Melodies are simple, harmony consists of a few basic chords, drum beats are narrow throbs, and everything together is repetitious and hypnotic. Around the primitive quality, however, the amplifers, loudspeakers, tape recorders, electronic machines, and electrified musical instruments from guitars to oboes - yes, oboes, electric oboes - have woven a variety of effects.
The music is an outgrowth of Negro blues, rock-and-roll, country-western, and finally, ragas from India. Ragas are thematic note groupings with seventy-two parent scales, known as melas. Each raga is supposed to have its own character, color, and mood, according to the time of day, the season, or the occasion. It is then up to the musicians to improvise within these given forms. The main instruments used are: for melody, the sitar - a guitar-like instrument with twenty strings; the tamboura - a four- or five-stringed instrument that is used to maintain a continuous hypnotic drone; and the tabla - a pair of drums serving as tenor and bass. Sometime in 1966, the folk rock bands began using ragas and these three Indian instruments in their amalgated music forms or else imitated them with guitars, oboes, and other Western instruments. This development has led to the suggestion that hippie music be identified as raga rock.
Despite the primitive quality in most of the rock music, it is wrong to use the term "simple" as a generalization for all of the compositions and all of the hippie musicians. Several of the numbers that the Jefferson Airplane recorded on the RCA Victor album, Surrealistic Pillow, require close listening for an appreciation of all their effect. For example, take "Coming Back to Me," a sweet, lolling song somewhat in the style of seventeenth-century English folk music. After getting that much out of it, a repetition may produce the sensation of drifting into a dreamy meadowland. A third repetition, paying attention to the Baroque touch added by Grace Slick on recorder, can produce the image of a shepherd grazing his flocks.
You can also pick up the delineation of the hippie life style in the words of the songs, if you can hear them. For example, take "The Golden Road," on Warner Brothers' Grateful Dead album, celebrating the girls on Haight Street in the following paeon:
See that girl, barefoot (doeeyoumoo) / Whistlin' and a singin' /
She's a-carryin' on / Laughin' in her eyes, dancin' in her feet, /
She's a (neonwhirrwhirrmoo) / And she can live on the street.

The strange words in parentheses are the nearest approximation I can make to what I hear coming from the Dead, even with my ear smack against the phonograph speaker. For the other way they delineate the hippie style is to blast everything at top volume with amplifiers so that all other sounds of the world are wiped out.
The next generalization about the hippie music that's safe to make is that it depicts the philosophy of the New Community. Most of the philosophizing is taken up with odes to love, a reflection of alienated youth's desperate desire to gain affection from parents and tenderness from a dog-eat-dog, violent society. When Grace Slick of the Airplane sings "don't you need somebody to love," she also means: I need somebody to love; we need somebody to love.
Of course, the love gives way in the rock groups' songs, even as it does in their lives, to blatant sex - e.g., the Fugs' "Wet Dream Over You." But this again is part of the philosophy, to challenge the old order's moral structure in a loud, aggressive, blunt manner. No subjects, no words must be banned. Drugs, death, violence, war, race prejudice, sex, religion, and the President of the United States must all be discussed, challenged, pranked, and satirized with complete openness. Hence, Country Joe and the Fish use the word "fuck" on television and describe President Johnson as "a man insane" in the song "Superbird." The Fugs sing "kill, kill for peace" as part of what their leader, Ed Sanders, calls their "total assault on the culture."
Any critic who calls this a put-on does not know the hippie musicians, only their imitators. The members of the hippie folk-rock groups not only sing and play their philosophy, but they also live it.
In the first place, they all take drugs, as announced in some of their names - the Mind Benders, the Loading Zone, the Induction Center, the Weeds. In the second place, the musicians, like all other hippies, are dropouts. Almost every one of them has given up school or profession to become a folk-rock musician and live the life of a hippie.

The Grateful Dead, the original associates of Ken Kesey in producing the Acid Tests, are all high school and college dropouts living in a tribal setup like the Merry Pranksters. At the time that I met them, their house on Ashbury Street was shared with them by their girl friends, managers Danny Rifkin and Rock Scully, and several teen-age school dropouts using the place as a crash pad. The earth mother was Mountain Girl, now Jerry Garcia's mistress, but still bearing testimony to her former relationship with Ken Kesey with a blond-haired baby that he sired.
The Dead's music, when all other analyses are thrown in as qualifications, is primarily an imitation of Negro blues. The style of singing is guttural, down, and dirty; and the diction is that of Negro slang: "Ah luhv you, babuh." That, plus the fact that the music drowns out the words, is why middle-class white people have such a difficult time understanding what the Dead are singing. You have to be a Negro, hippie, or drug addict. And even that is no guarantee that you can pick up the words. The Dead's music is the very heart of acid rock - guitar, organ, and bass intertwined in a whirling, blurring, mind-shattering mass of Negro, hillbilly, and Indian music. Its basic purposes are to blow the mind and provide action sound for dancing, although sometimes Jerry Garcia's rapid runs on the guitar can be interesting as music.
"Captain Trips" he is called, a play on both his guitar runs and mind journeys on LSD. Dressed in a white-and-red striped hat, he reminds you of Ken Kesey, "Mr. Stars and Stripes." Both are pranksters. Both like to live in a tribal setup. Both have given funny nicknames to their people - bassist Phil Lesh is "Reddy Kilowatt," organist Ron McKernan "Pig Pen," and drummer Bill Sommers "Bill the Drummer." Both are basically scholarly men who have deliberately adopted the loose Negro style of life and slang. Both have taken their minds apart with drugs.
"I didn't need Timothy Leary or LSD to do it, either," Garcia told me. "Back in high school I was high on bennies, things like that. I never heard of Leary. Nobody in the Haight-Ashbury follows Leary. The people here would have done this thing without acid, without Leary. I would have been a member of some weird society wherever I went. Don't ask why. Don't try to analyze it, man. It just is, that's all. This is where we're at. This is our trip. We just don't dig that other way."
Garcia is one of the impossible people in the New Community for a writer to talk to, even one who is living with it. Because of his massive mop of curly black hair, he has been described in print as a "troll" and "a cross between Wanda Landowska and the Three Stooges." He and the Dead have been ridden by critics as musical illiterates and drug addicts leading flower children down the path of sin. So, he has taken to pure pranking when a journalist questions him. No writer is closer to the folk-rock bands than Ralph Gleason of the Chronicle. Yet, this is how Garcia described his music to Ralph:
"We're working with dynamics now. We've spent two years with loud, and we've spent six months with deafening." And so on.
It gets no better in the hippie press. Here is the way the Grateful Dead summed up their philosophy for the Underground Press:
Garcia: "I wake up automatically at 9 EVERY morning (except for sometimes when I wake up later or earlier), and gaze out the window at the flocks of geese flying north/south for the winter/summer and ask myself what does it all mean? I drink as much orange juice as I can get my dirty hands on because I know that it's gonna taste good. My boots don't fit me perfectly, so my little toe hurts. Sometimes I see someone that I think I recognize, and I say hello or smile or something like that. It's fun to shoot at strangers, while they're innocently passing the house, with the sonic blaster. Especially if they're pretty, heh. Philosophically, I have nothing to say... I like to play loud... If I had a rocket ship or some extraterrestrial friends, you'd never see me. I hope that humanity survives the incredibly stupid hassles that we've gotten ourselves into."
Last I saw of the Dead, officially, they were on television explaining their philosophy to dazed newsmen. Unofficially, they were going about their usual business of planning free benefits in which the toilets would be stopped up with money. For further analysis, await the new philosophical tome in the music sections of the national magazines.

The most well-remembered communal pad where the new sound was created was at 1090 Page Street in the Hashberry. Oftentimes, the New Community's budding musicians would find food and shelter there when they were broke, and they would join a gathering clan playing and taking drugs in the garage below the house. Friends and neighbors began dropping in to listen to the sound - might as well, couldn't concentrate on anything else if you lived anywhere within a block of it - and the Hashberry had its first free rock concerts.
One of the familiar figures on the Page Street garage scene was Chet Helms, a twenty-two-year-old dropout from Baptist theological school. Like many of the musicians' and beatniks' connections in the Haight-Ashbury, Helms lived the beat life style. Long before most of them let their hair grow out, he had long blond Jesus tresses flowing down his shoulders and a scraggly beard and moustache.
But Helms was not so doggedly noncommercial as the new breed of beat, making music and fun. He suggested that the folk-rock bands charge admission to the garage. (His version of the story is that he [wanted] it to discourage more people from coming because the place was getting too crowded.) When even larger crowds came to the garage, Helms organized a folk-rock concert and dance at the Longshoremen's Hall in October of 1965. Several hundred youngsters came to the hall, some with long hair and dressed in beatnik garb, others straight. Obviously, money was to be made from the new folk-rock scene. All that Helms needed was an organization with some capital and a dance hall.
With an engineer from New York, Bob Cohen, Helms put together the Family Dog, named after a tiny spaniel pooch that lived with him and his friends in one of the communal pads. Then, he approached another New Yorker, Bill Graham, owner of the Fillmore Auditorium and producer-director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, about working together to make folk-rock dance concerts a big happening on the neobeatnik scene. Graham had already put on his own folk-rock concerts in November and December of 1965, using the Fugs, the Great Society, and the Jefferson Airplane to do several benefit performances for the Mime Troupe. Its actors and actresses had been busted for "obscene performances in public places" under a recently enacted California antipornography law. Around four thousand people showed up for the second benefit performance in the Fillmore Auditorium, waiting in a long line around the block outside or finally being turned away because the capacity of the place is only fifteen hundred at a time. Then, in the first month of 1966, Graham collaborated with Kesey for the Trips Festival in creating a "total environment" performance. This meant that movie projectors, strobes, tape recorders, and amplifiers were used to bombard every creaky floorboard and every cobwebbed corner of the old Fillmore Auditorium with music, electronic blips and bleeps, flashing lights, and moving pictures of amoebas, holy men, Indians, and other symbols of the acid head's world.
When Helms told Graham about the success of the Family Dog and suggested a sort of merger of these New World business ventures, Graham was indifferent. He was on the verge of resigning from the Mime Troupe over "political differences," and he was not sold on the future of folk rock (it killed him at first to admit it after he made a million dollars from it, but then he started taking a Socratic irony in recalling his original mood). So, Helms asked if the Family Dog could rent the hall, and Graham agreed.
Later, Helms and Graham parted company, and Helms opened up his own business in the Avalon Ballroom at Sutter and Van Ness streets, staffed entirely by people with long hair and beards.
"The Family Dog is the largest brain trust in the world," Helms likes to say in interviews. "We are roughly arranged around a sort of organic tribal structure in the sense that people who are natural organizers are generally the leaders," and since he and Bob Cohen did the organizing, there is no doubt left about who he means.
"Helms is definitely an organizer," I was told by Grace Slick, who knew him in the formative rock days when he was peddling dope. "Instead of running a bank, he runs the Avalon and the Family Dog, that's all."
Helms drifted into the Hashberry from Texas when he was twenty-one, leaving behind him a broken future that was supposed to have led to the Baptist ministry. He wound up on drugs instead of religion, but he kept on wearing a deacon's frock coat. Neither that nor his long blond Jesus tresses had anything to do with hippies; there was no such thing as hippies then. Helms, like so many hippie men, was obsessed with a Jesus self-image. When he picked the motto for the Family Dog, it was the following graffito that he took from the wall of a men's room:
May the Baby Jesus Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Mind
Later, he became enraged over Ramparts' cover story on the hippies, in which the motto was deliberately reversed to: open your mouth and shut your mind.
Evening at the Avalon provides plenty of the ear-splitting sound characteristic of the hippie band. Continuously changing light projections of liquid colors and protoplastic forms bathe the dancers. Their luminiscent, striped, and dotted clothes glow eerily amid the flashing lights. Symbols, concentric circles, and pictures of Indians and Oriental priests are beamed onto the walls.
Suddenly, the fast, screaming music dies down to a soft love song and then gives way to a mournful Indian dirge. The light show changes. On one wall there is a picture of Buddha and on another a picture of Christ on the cross. Several hundred of the youngsters on the dance floor join hands. They sway back and forth in a trancelike state. They keep it up until the musicians come on again with another fast, loud set and the lights begin blipping all over the cavernous dance hall. Once more, the Avalon is a sea of maddening motion and deafening sound.
Bill Graham at the Fillmore kept on with the Jefferson Airplane and other folk rock groups and made his million with them. The Fillmore remained the same place and Graham remained the same man: blunt, unpretentious, obsessed with man's need for hard work and honesty. The Fillmore is as dingy as it has always been. The floor is still dirty and creaky, and the plaster on the walls is still cracking. One of the cracks is covered with a blown-up photo of Ronald Reagan dressed in a cowboy suit, looking tough as he points a gun in his left hand; under the photo is the caption: "Thanks for the votes, suckers." There are also anti-Vietnam posters, an anti-LBJ cartoon, and a picture of Graham, wearing a suit and tie, in a cage held by a female labeled "S.F. Society," with the serpent of Eden for her headband and dollar-signs for her earrings; the caption is: "So, I sold out, so what?"
At the Fillmore's nighttime rock-dance concerts, where Graham still insists on supervising everything personally, the confrontations between him and the hippies who come into the place have become legend. Knowing that he is wealthy, some of the school dropouts ask him: "Hey, man, got a dime? Got a quarter? I wanna get into the dance."
Graham turns on them: "Do you have a penny?"
"Well, I asked you first."
"I know you asked me first, but do you have a penny?"
"Well, hell, man..."
But Graham is gone to raise hell with four young hippies breaking up the line formation at the window. "Get in line!" he yells at them. "All these other people are in line. You think you're any better? Get in the line. You like to touch people. Here's your chance. Stay in line, like good flower children."
"Hey, Mr. Graham," they say. "Come on now, where's your love?"
"Fuck love," Graham says. "Get in line!"
I interviewed Graham in his cubbyhole office amid the usual chaos - secretary beside him clacking away on her typewriter, messages strewn all over his desk, telephone ringing continuously with calls from Time, Newsweek, and promoters from New York to Brazil. Posters announcing various folk-rock dance concerts covered almost every inch of the wall. His skinny legs bounced nervously, and his lips worked up and down as he tried to answer phones, direct his staff, make new appointments, read messages, and talk to me all at once.
"The first folk-rock dances were held right here, before Kesey or Helms came in this place," he said. "I mean, you want to talk about Acid Tests, Trips Festivals, hippies, dates, purposes - it's all a crock of shit. The dance concerts were put on as benefits, and then they were put on for people to have fun. What is Trips Festivals? People dancing and having fun, that's all. These things were never exclusively for people with long hair or beards freaking out on the floor. They were for anybody. A guy with a tuxedo could come in here with a half-naked blonde bitch, and they could wiggle their butts all over the floor and do their thing, and nobody would give a damn. Let 'em groove.
"Now, of course, there are certain laws we have to abide by or we're out of business. I mean, I had this thing going with the cops: you let us be loose, don't be uptight about the way people dress or act, let 'em do their thing, and I'll make sure nothing happens here to make trouble for you."
Out of the Fillmore and the Avalon came vibrations shooting across the country, drawing school and job dropouts to San Francisco. Hitchhiking or driving in imitations of Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus, they headed for where the action was - the Avalon and Fillmore like two giant magnets, with LSD and folk rock their energy fields....

(by Burton Wolfe, from The Hippies, 1968, as excerpted in The Age of Rock, ed. Jonathan Eisen, 1969)

1 comment:

  1. Burton Wolfe was clearly an outsider from the scene; this is one of those sociological reports that tells us as much about the observer as the observed.
    His account of the Dead is hilariously biased, for instance in the brief line he quotes from Garcia's long, thoughtful interview with Gleason. (My guess is Garcia didn't respond so well to Wolfe's questions, given that he's called 'impossible to talk to' and quoted, "Don't ask why, don't try to analyze it, man.")
    And of course, "you have to be a Negro, hippie, or drug addict" to understand the Dead's singing!
    His summary of the Dead's music as "an imitation of Negro blues" is not quite so far-fetched - if he'd seen a show in mid-'67, Pigpen would have dominated and the setlist may have included Lovelight, Alligator, Schoolgirl, Viola Lee, and other blues/R&B covers as well. (He quotes a bit of Schoolgirl as an example of the Dead's "Negro diction.")

    Wolfe mentions seeing the Dead on TV "explaining their philosophy to dazed newsmen" - this was probably the visit with the Dead in the Hippie Temptation show, July 1967:

    Wolfe's obsession with the loudness of the new music reminds me of this guy: