Sep 8, 2013

May 18, 1968: Santa Clara Fairgrounds

WHAT'LL YOU BOYS HAVE? SHE ASKED. RAW MEAT, THEY ANSWERED.

Saturday at Santa Clara Fairgrounds. Hot weather and a good sound system. About eight thousand people came to hear the rock bands.
There were a lot of long-haired people there, but the major part of the audience was made up of fifteen-to-seventeen-year-old white kids. Lots of short sleeves, some Bermuda shorts. Kids with straight faces held in anticipation, waiting for themselves, waiting for Stars, waiting to be turned on, waiting to be sent into combat, intent on what was happening but not used to bursting out. Kids who were used to being told, "Sit up straight and don't make faces." They had become the nice children their parents raised them to be, and now they were looking for something beyond that.
Last year they could have eased their changes with a transitional music like Herman's Hermits, the Monkees, or even the early Beatles, the boys who were willing to come in and meet the parents before a date. Now that kind of act is out, perhaps a victim of the general polarization of attitudes that is going on in America. Now there is a vacuum, a lack of in-betweens. These kids came from the Scouts, from Sunday School, mowing the lawn for chores and maybe getting a pony for Christmas. And they're going straight out of that world toward the world of Pigpen and Janis.
It's a big jump, and they were slow in getting involved in the music that day. They weren't dumb, they just hadn't been anyplace yet, and they rather shyly waited to be shown around. They were like the farmers who gathered in Ottawa, Illinois, in 1858 to hear the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. It was after that first debate that the New York Post reported: "All prairiedom has broken loose. It is astonishing how deep an interest in politics these people take."
The bands went through a slow and roundabout courtship with the audience, trying to turn them on. Here were all these hairy gang-bang bands all ready to whoop it up like they'd just driven the herd into Dodge City all the way from the Mexican border, and the crowd was like the schoolmarm who wonders if kissing with the tongue is ladylike. So...it took time.
Finally the Youngbloods started to get to them with Let's Get Together. Then Crome Syrcus, a developing band, still not there. Some parts work, some don't. Then Steve Miller Band, the first really hard band of the day, all tight and together, like watching a good middle-weight contender. They set the crowd up.

Next came the Grateful Dead. The emcee announced that their new album was coming out soon and suggested that the Dead might play some numbers from it during their set. Lead guitarist Jerry Garcia smiled benignly to himself. He said they'd do Alligator and they did, for about forty minutes. That was their set and it blew the place wide open.
Most bands hit a song fast, then stretch out for a while, ending up with a bang. The Dead go into a song slowly, tentatively, and build up an atmosphere until everyone is inside the music. Then they take off, exploring the figures over and over again with that super rhythm section. If you're outside it, it can be boring. But when they get to you, it's incredible and hypnotic, as if the music was happening inside you. At Santa Clara it blew everybody's mind. It was as though we were hearing for the first time in our lives, and we stood in a kind of trance, scarcely knowing that we were listening. The ending was very drawn-out, on purpose. From that incredible middle section they trailed off slowly into percussion sounds, then down to just cymbal noise, and from there to silence. When it was over we didn't clap much, we just stood there open-mouthed: Who was that Masked Man?

Then Big Brother and the Holding Company came on, completely out front, pouring everything into just that moment, as if there were no tomorrow, only right now. Raw power and excitement, the most intense band around. Yet they're all so gently. They look like they'd scare hell out of a waitress in a drive-in. ("What'll you boys have," she asked. "Raw meat," they answered.) And yet they'd be great with children.
And they're all so tasteful. They make their choices like old-time country musicians. Janis looks like a gramma and like a little girl, burning up in a white flame. While she was singing, the wind was blowing the cottonwood trees behind her, and the leaves were turning over, from green to grey-green and back, as though in time with the music.
And there on top of the bill, the Jefferson Airplane. What a complicated bunch! Cassady, Dryden and Jorma laying down their music, and Paul, Grace, and Marty Balin out in front doing some weird version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, making little remarks, gestures, giggles and faces like they were passing notes in a schoolroom. Their last number was Somebody to Love. They led up to it with an air of mixed boredom and relief, like, "Oh not this again," but when they got into it, they really got with it all, cheering up and smiling and bopping around.
The crowd reaction began with, "Oh wow! The Hit!" and then warmed up into, "Yes, I do want somebody to love..." Then the festival promoters and monitors started shooing away the fans who were standing on the stage: "All right, kids, maybe you want somebody to love, but right now, run along home." That all happened behind the Airplane, who were having a really good time by then. They finished, and we all ran along.

(by Sandy Darlington, from the San Francisco Express-Times, 1968 - reprinted in Rock & Roll Will Stand, ed. Greil Marcus, 1969)

40 minutes of Alligator: http://archive.org/details/gd1968-05-18.aud.jorma.gmb.sbeok.94591.flac16

2 comments:

  1. A fabulous description of the effect of the Dead! "The Dead go into a song slowly, tentatively, and build up an atmosphere until everyone is inside the music. Then they take off, exploring the figures over and over again with that super rhythm section. If you're outside it, it can be boring. But when they get to you, it's incredible and hypnotic, as if the music was happening inside you."

    I tried to find out more about the author, but only found out more about the newspaper: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco_Express_Times

    I also found a reference in a Greil Marcus book that refers to SD as "the late SD."

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  2. Yes, it was great to find such a rave review of one of our top 1968 tapes: "It blew everybody's mind. It was as though we were hearing for the first time in our lives, and we stood in a kind of trance, scarcely knowing that we were listening... When it was over we didn't clap much, we just stood there open-mouthed."

    Sandy Darlington was a music reviewer for the Express-Times; the book Rock & Roll Will Stand collects several of his reviews, but they were generally disappointing & say little about whatever music he's supposedly reviewing...kind of like Greil Marcus, he often writes fancifully about the culture at large & sometimes it's hard to tell just what he's writing about. He wrote a good history of Country Joe & the Fish, though.

    It's cute that the MC said the Dead would have a new album out soon & they might do some numbers from it... Anthem was still 2 months from release, and they'd been working on it for an unheard-of 8 months, and playing Alligator for almost a year.

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