Aug 5, 2014

October 1966: The San Francisco Sound


The Fillmore Auditorium, the gravitational center of the astonishing new San Francisco rock scene, at midnight on a Saturday night:
An enormous red globe of light gurgles liquidly on one thirty-five-foot-high wall, glowing like a hydrogen fireball. On another wall, infinitely complex green light globules flow into each other and pulsate explosively. On a third wall, moire patterns, giant eyeballs, de Kooning-like abstracts flash past in swift alternation next to an endlessly repeating film of one small boy after another eating jelly bread.
On the floor, two thousand people are watching, listening, and moving. None of them appear to be older than thirty. Many are “straight,” like the crew-cut blond boy in chinos and poplin jacket, whose brunette date wears a plaid skirt and knee socks. But most are “hippies,” part of the growing society within a society that centers around Berkeley and the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, and, though their tastes obviously tend toward the informal, the bizarre, and the flamboyant, none of them look alike. There are wide mod ties, wispy string ties, and one fellow with a solid aluminum tie. There are boys in silk frock coats, top hats, suede boots, red sweatshirts emblazoned with the zouave who decorates packages of Zig-Zag cigarette paper. There are girls in miniskirts and net stockings, capes and candy-striped pants, paisley socks and bare feet. A few people have adorned their faces with curlicues of phosphorescent paint. The beards range from the trimmed and Schweppesian to the full and piratical to the shaggy and rabbinical. The hair ranges from the merely long to the shoulder-length and beyond. Some people are sitting or standing, but most are dancing. They are not doing the frug, the monkey, or any other particular dance. They are just dancing – any way they like. And from the platform at the far end of the auditorium, electronically escalated through a two-hundred-watt amplification system, filling every corner and brain in the room, comes the San Francisco sound, played on this particular Saturday night by one of its principal purveyors, the Grateful Dead.
The Fillmore is the most important part of the San Francisco rock scene, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg. According to one estimate, there are some two hundred and fifty rock and roll bands in the San Francisco Bay area, and of these, in the judgment of at least one record company executive, perhaps forty are of professional quality. Rock and roll is growing all over the country, but here, where the growth is greater than anywhere else, there are differences.
For one thing, as the jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason puts it, “San Francisco bands are oriented toward playing for people. In Los Angeles, the pattern is for a group to practice and practice in a garage until it’s good enough to record.” There are plenty of places for bands to play for people. Rivaling (though never surpassing) the Fillmore in decibels, imaginative light shows, and general atmosphere is the somewhat smaller Avalon Ballroom, where a group of hippies who call themselves the Family Dog produce weekend dance concerts. Besides the Avalon and the Fillmore, big rock dances are held at California Hall and Longshoremen’s Hall in San Francisco, in college gyms, and in big rooms around the Bay Area – places like the San Leandro Rollerena and the San Bruno Armory. Then there are the pure rock clubs – the Matrix in San Francisco, the Jabberwock in Berkeley, the Arc in Sausalito – where people listen to rock and roll as if it were jazz, except that the music is too loud for casual chitchat. Finally, there are the endless go-go and dance clubs, at least one in every little suburban town and all of them hiring live rock music.
The scope of the rock scene in San Francisco sets it apart from other cities. But there are more important differences.
Rock and roll is a field which is subject to an enormous amount of manipulation. A few men – record company executives, radio station programmers, tour promoters, key disc jockeys – exert terrific power. And even when there is no hanky-panky, it is a chancy business. A radio program director who must choose one or two singles out of the two hundred or so sent him every week is bound to make arbitrary or whimsical choices sometimes. The record-buying public, like the television-watching public, by design or not, is frequently gulled into liking the worst kind of trash.
But in San Francisco, no one is pulling the strings. There are no shadowy fingers lurking in the background in sharkskin suits and smoked glasses. The discriminating, attentive audiences who attend the big rock-dance concerts have not been told to like the San Francisco sound, but they like it anyway. As a result, groups like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, neither of which has ever had a hit record, are able to earn upward of two thousand dollars for a weekend’s work.
Bill Graham, creator and manager of the Fillmore Auditorium, learned the hard way that San Francisco audiences can’t be fooled. In a moment of weakness last August, Graham booked a hokey group called Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, whose record, “Little Red Riding Hood,” was a big national hit at the time. “Only three hundred and eighty-seven people came, and I lost eighteen hundred dollars,” recalled Graham. “The people – my people – stayed away. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

The music appeals to a broad range of people, but it is a definite part of the “hippie scene,” San Francisco’s new bohemianism. Unlike the sullen Beats of the fifties, who sat around in coffee houses complaining about how rotten and meaningless everything was, the hippies, much more numerous than the Beats ever were, accentuate the positive. They dress wildly, individualistically, colorfully – “ecstatically,” they would say. Like the Beats, they are dropouts from the conventional “status games,” but, unlike them, they have created their own happy lifestyles to drop into. “In a way,” says Jerry Garcia, twenty-four, lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead and one of the culture heroes of Haight-Ashbury, “we’re searching for respectability – not Ford or GM respectability, but the respectability of a community supporting itself financially and spiritually.”
Not many hippies have ever heard of Marshall McLuhan, and fewer have read him, but McLuhan’s analysis is useful in understanding them. The old “Gutenberg-era” values of privacy, prestige through money and job, and linear, cause-and-effect logical thinking are out the window. The hippies have embraced the new, “electric” tribal values of total involvement. They are for freedom and “honesty,” against categorization, even, in a sense, against language itself. “Maybe the tyranny of the written word is something that is going out,” muses Jerry Garcia. “Language is almost designed to be misunderstood.”
Psychedelic drugs such as marijuana and LSD are very important to the hippies. Through these drugs the hippie achieves the total involvement, sensory and emotional, that he seeks. On marijuana, he sees, hears, and feels colors and sounds more vividly. On LSD, his ego dissolves and is replaced by an abiding love and appreciation for all people and things. He becomes more existential than the existentialists, because his total immersion in the present is untainted by any sense of the absurdity of the future.
In the light of the hippies’ approach to life and sensibility, it is easy to understand why the most creative of them have turned to art forms that offer immediate sensory involvement: experimental films, colorful poster art, abstract light shows, and rock and roll. Unsurprisingly, the hippies have produced little in the way of good writing.
There is no such thing as a hippie who favors the war in Vietnam, but few hippies are political activists. They tend to think in moral and personal, not political, terms. When their lapel buttons are remotely political, they tend to relate political issues to personal ones, as in the slogans “Make Love Not War,” and “Keep California Green – Legalize Grass.” More often, though, their buttons say things like “Nirvana Now,” or simply, “Love.”
This is not to say, though, that hippies are uninterested in social change. They take the long view. Their approach is to create their own society of love and light and then wait for everybody else to join up.
Anger is uncommon among hippies. Last month, when California’s new law outlawing the possession of LSD went into effect, a group of Haight-Ashbury heads decided to stage a protest. But then they decided that a protest would be “too negative,” so they staged a celebration instead. It turned out to be a pleasant afternoon in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, with rock bands playing, children finger-painting on the ground, and people wandering among the trees with cans of beer. “Our attitude is strictly laissez-faire,” says Jerry Garcia. “Nobody throws rocks at the cops anymore, because we’re all human beings in this together.”
The hippies don’t even hate the undercover narcotics agents, whom they call “narcos” or “brain police.” A few weeks ago, one such agent, whose picture had appeared in the paper when he received a departmental honor, walked into the Fillmore in his customary hippie disguise. He was applauded.
The benevolent tolerance of the hippie world is obvious to anyone who has ever visited the Fillmore Auditorium on a Friday or Saturday night. Those who go in suits and ties, as many parents, journalists, curious citizens, and record company representatives have done, find absolutely no hostility whatsoever. No one jostles them and hisses, “Get out of our place, you square,” or some such. No one is made to feel that he is intruding. “We don’t want you to freak out,” Bill Graham says. “We want you to melt. A lot of people come in here like blocks of ice against the nasty beatniks. We want you to break down so your pores are open, so you’ll look, you’ll listen, you’ll enjoy.”
The breaking down begins as soon as you pay your admission price ($2.50 to $3.50, depending on the talent), walk up the wide, rather dingy staircase, and enter the lobby. The first things you see are a couple of big boxes with a hand-lettered sign on them: HAVE ONE…OR TWO. The boxes are filled with apples and lollipops. Graham gives away 2,376 apples and 2,160 lollipops every weekend. “If a guy walks in here worried about what kind of nutty scene he’s getting himself into and the first thing that happens to him is somebody gives him an apple,” says Graham, “he’s bound to loosen up a little.” The lobby’s walls are covered with signs (ONCE INSIDE, NO OUTSY-INSY), posters, and clippings about Lenny Bruce, Jasper Johns, and Pat Boone.
What the Fillmore does is to have so much going on that the visitor can vary the intensity and quality of his pleasure. It is next to impossible to be bored there. If the visitor gets fidgety listening to the music, he can dance. If he gets tired, he can watch the ever-changing, mesmerizing light show. Or he can look at the fantastic variety of people doing their fantastic free-form dances. Or he can retire to the relative quiet of the lobby for an apple and some browsing among the things posted on the wall. Or he can go upstairs for a hamburger and survey the scene from the balcony. If he feels like a nap, he can find a quiet patch of floor off in a corner somewhere and go to sleep. No one will mind.

[omitted paragraphs on Bill Graham's biography]

…In February of 1964, Graham [went] to work as business manager and producer of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a New Left theatre group which was (and is) raising the ire of the city fathers by performing bawdy commedia dell’arte in the public parks and producing an anti-everybody updated minstrel show called “Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel.” The rock dance scene was three weeks old when Graham got into it. The first dance, sponsored by the Family Dog and entitled “A Tribute to Dr. Strange,” had been held on October 16, 1965, at Longshoreman’s Hall near Fisherman’s Wharf. On November 6, Graham threw a rock benefit at the Mime Troupe’s Howard Street headquarters. Some three thousand people showed up to pack the room, whose official capacity was six hundred, and Graham had to soften up a police sergeant by blandly calling him “lieutenant” to keep him from closing the whole thing down.
Clearly a larger place was needed. Graham nosed around and found the Fillmore Auditorium, a run-down old ballroom at Fillmore Street and Geary Boulevard in the city’s biggest Negro ghetto. He rented it for sixty dollars, and on December 10 threw another wildly successful rock and roll benefit. Shortly thereafter, Graham and the Mime Troupe parted company, and Graham decided to go it alone. He went back to the Fillmore and found that eleven other promoters had already put in bids for it. Graham got forty-one prominent citizens to write letters to the auditorium’s owner, a haberdasher named Harry Shifs, and Shifs gave him a three-year lease at five hundred dollars a month. Graham isn’t a zillionare yet, but he’s making a comfortable living (he’ll probably take home well over fifty thousand dollars this year), and he is beginning to be regarded as a San Francisco institution, like the cable cars, Chinatown, and the topless. “The hippie community,” says Jerry Garcia, “has turned out to be something the man from Montgomery Street can point to with pride, in a left-handed way, and say ‘these are our boys.’”
It was not always so. Back in April, official San Francisco seemed determined to put Graham and the Fillmore out of business. First the police department turned down Graham’s application for a dance permit. The rock impresario took his case to the City Board of Permit Appeals. The police responded by producing a petition of complaint from twenty-eight local merchants.
Graham went through the ceiling. He charged that the police had collected the signatures by accusing Graham of being a “pusher” whose extravagance attracted “the bad element.” He went around to the merchants himself and got retractions from twenty-three of the twenty-eight, plus a statement of support from Rabbi Elliot Bernstein of the neighboring Congregation Beth Israel, who had earlier been heard to complain that hippies were urinating on his synagogue.
The appeals board turned Graham down anyway. At this point, when all seemed lost, the San Francisco Chronicle came to the rescue on April 21 with an editorial, “The Fillmore Auditorium Case,” and a cartoon of a blubbering police officer captioned, “They’re dancing with tears in my eyes.” “The official hostility is not yet satisfactorily explained,” opined the Chron. “The police say the dance halls attract disorderly crowds and generate fights – but have reported none at the Fillmore Auditorium since Graham took over.”
The police were groggy but still on their feet. An officer showed up in Graham’s office, waved the paper at him, and told him the editorial was a “personal affront.” The next evening, the police invaded the Fillmore and arrested Graham and fourteen under-eighteen patrons. The charge was violation of a city ordinance prohibiting minors from going unchaperoned to dance halls. The ordinance, passed in 1909 and unenforced for half a century, had been designed for an earlier, wilder San Francisco, when young girls ventured into the Barbary Coast at their peril.
The Chronicle struck back with another editorial, “Certain Questions About a Police Raid,” which asked, among other things, “Was the Friday night raid vindictive or punitive or the result of police prejudice against the neighborhood? We hope not.” Three weeks later, the City Board of Permit Appeals gave Graham his permit.
Since then, police interest in harassing the Fillmore has dropped to zero. Order is kept by seven private policemen, six male and one female, whom Graham calls “swinging cops who know what’s happening.” One of the joys of the Fillmore is to watch one of these policemen standing quietly in a corner, rocking back and forth to the music, or joking with a long-haired, bead-wearing hippie. But they do their job. “If one of my regulars comes around obviously smashed on pot or booze,” says Graham, “the cop’ll say, ‘Not tonight, man. Come back when you’re straighter.’ The kid’ll say, ‘Aw, come on,’ but he’ll go.” Very few police are needed, because the hippies will tell them if anyone is smoking pot, picking a fight, or otherwise misbehaving. “It’s not ‘cause they’re stoolies,” explains Graham. “It’s their scene, too. They know that if we get busted, they lose their scene.”
That the Chronicle defended the Fillmore so resoundingly was largely the doing of Ralph Gleason. Gleason and entertainment reporter John Wasserman had for months been treating the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom as places of serious artistic endeavor. “Some of the Chronicle’s editors who had teenage kid had been to the Fillmore to see for themselves,” recalls Gleason. “At the editorial meeting, the science editor and a sports columnist came along to urge a strong stand. They knew it wasn’t just that nut Gleason, and this made an impression.”
Bill Graham himself is a wiry man with light brown eyes, a perpetual five o’clock shadow, and black hair combed in to a modified version of old-style Presley rocker. He has a craggy face and a wide mouth that make him look a little like the late Lenny Bruce. He spends most of the day at the Fillmore in his tiny, cluttered office, which looks like the inside of a chimney. He is a gesticulating, nonstop, New York-accented talker. Sometimes his monologues take on the character of a rant. Sometimes he is unnecessarily curt. (“In my conversation,” he says, “the ‘fuck you’ replaces the ‘please.’”)
Graham can – and frequently does – talk for hours about the Fillmore and his role in it. His philosophy boils down to the following: “Art in America can only survive within the framework of a sound business structure.” He likes making money, but he prefers the challenge of creating a good scene. “If I were to say to you that I don’t give a damn about the dollar, I’d be lying,” he says. “But the dollar is second to the result. I have my orgasm at one in the morning when I go up to the balcony and see everyone having a good time.”
A lot of people dislike Graham for his toughness, but in his management of the Fillmore he has shown taste, imagination, and courage. He combined a dance-concert played by the Jefferson Airplane with a reading by Andrei Voznesensky, the Soviet poet. When he booked the Byrds, the well-known Los Angeles folk-rock group, he combined them with a production of LeRoi Jones’s play The Dutchman. Lenny Bruce made one of his last public appearances at the Fillmore on June 24 and 25.
Graham has run benefits at the Fillmore for such causes as SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee), the Delano grape strikers, the North Beach children’s nursery, the San Francisco Artist’s Liberation Front, and the Both/And, an experimental jazz nightclub. There was even, once, a wedding at the Fillmore. Between sets one Saturday night, a young man named Lee “Thunder Machine” Quanstrum married his blonde fiancee “Space Daisy” (many hippies affect comic-book-type nicknames), in a Unitarian (what else?) ceremony conducted on the bandstand. Graham later got a thank-you note from the couple. Here is its text: “Dear Bill, Thank you for making it possible for us to be married in the style to which we are accustomed.”
On the weekend following last month’s racial disturbances in San Francisco, when virtually every establishment in the Fillmore District was padlocked after dark, Graham brought off his dance-concerts on schedule. In doing so he went against the advice of his attorneys and many friends (and lost a pile of money), but he succeeded in proving that the Fillmore Auditorium could remain a place of peace and light despite the tribulations of the world outside.

In addition to their social and artistic role in presenting the new bohemianism and the new music of San Francisco, the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom have pioneered an essentially new art form, the big light show. Light displays in conjunction with rock music have been used before, and are being used now in other cities (as at the Cheetah in New York). But these efforts have been comparably primitive. The light shows that go with – and in a sense are part of – the San Francisco sound are unique in scope, brilliance, and technique.
The Fillmore’s light man, a twenty-nine-year-old painter named Tony Martin, has led in working out the new methods, both at the Fillmore and at the Tape Music Center of Mills College, Oakland, where his experiments are financed under a two-hundred-thousand-dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Martin uses a wide variety of equipment to produce his extravaganzas: slide projectors and slides, both conventional (photographs of things like trees and statues of Marc Antony) and handmade (patterns painted directly onto the transparency); movies of every description, including the endlessly repeating type, which are accomplished by running a circular strip of film through a projector bicycle-chain style; colored, flashing footlights, which project elongated, el Greco-like silhouettes of the musicians onto the screen behind them; ordinary theatrical gels and spotlights; and all these in combination.
The most impressive part of the light shows are the bubbling, pulsating, exploding liquid projections, and the technology of these is strikingly simple. The basic piece of equipment is an overhead projector, the kind that college lecturers use to show maps and diagrams to their students. Using a shallow glass dish (actually the crystal of a large clock), the artist mixes vegetable color and water, oil, alcohol, and glycerin. The possibilities are nearly infinite. By tilting the glass, the artist can make the patterns ebb and flow. By raising and lowering the glass, he can squeeze explosions of light in and out of existence. By putting his hand between the light source and the mirrors which project to the screens, he can vary the intensity of the light or block it off entirely. Even the artist’s cigarette smoke adds a subtle touch.
The other main offshoot of the San Francisco sound has been the poster art used to advertise the dance-concerts. The poster style, originated by Wes Wilson, twenty-nine, who does the Fillmore’s posters, eschews conventional type faces, no matter how unusual. Lettering, photographs, drawings, and abstract design are woven into a continuous whole, with the words undulating around each other or around photographs or drawings. In their ingenuity and use of distorted lettering, the posters recall their French and German forebears of the 1880s and 1890s. Wilson’s posters are coveted by collectors, professional and amateur. The Oakland Art Commission has a complete collection, which it plans to display in its new museum. Graham gives away three thousand posters a week to his patrons at the Fillmore, but even that fails to satisfy the demand. One day last summer Graham put up a hundred and fifty posters along Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue and then stopped at the Forum for a cup of coffee. By the time he got up to go back to his car, only three of them were left.

None of these things, however – the lights, the friendliness, the posters, the Avalon and Fillmore “scenes” – could exist without the music.
The San Francisco sound is played by a profusion of groups whose impressionistic, tongue-in-cheek names reflect their determination to make a new kind of music. Generally acknowledged as the best of the San Francisco groups are the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. The other prominent bands include the Quicksilver Messenger Service, the 13th Floor Elevator, the Sopwith Camel, Country Joe and the Fish, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Moby Grape, the Loading Zone, the Mystery Trend, the Wildflower, William Penn, the Harbinger Complex, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, the Chocolate Watch Band, and the Sir Douglas Quintet. There is even a group called the Five Year Plan, which played its most recent (and perhaps only) gig at the annual picnic of the People’s World, the West Coast Communist weekly.
The San Francisco sound is a very hard-driving folk-rock with strong blues and electronic influences. A San Francisco band usually consists of three electric guitars (lead, rhythm, bass), drums, and voices. Frequently another instrument (harmonic, electric organ, fiddle) is added. An equally important part of the instrumentation is the electronic amplifying equipment and its accoutrements – microphones, speakers, amplifiers, pickups, tape loops, echo-makers, and reverberators. This equipment can create an energy level that is astonishing. The Fillmore Auditorium’s sound system develops enough power to run a small radio station and ten times as much as the biggest home stereo equipment. The sound comes out at roughly a hundred decibels and sometimes ventures as high as a hundred and ten, only ten decibels under the pain level. In this situation the electronic equipment becomes part of the machinery of music, not simply a way of making it audible to people in the back of the room.
Elements of the music have been floating around for years. It’s rock dance-music, so the beat is always firmly there: a very basic thump thump thump underpinning the whole thing, a walloping electric bass and drum booming away. The drummers play out of a straight rock and roll bag, except that some of the best of them explode into intricate showers of rhythm that suggest they have been listening to the music of India. The guitarists chug-chug rock style, drone folk-style, twang country-style, and wail rhythm-and-blues style, but they too are increasingly falling into sitar-like improvisations of great color and intensity. Most of them own several Ravi Shankar records. The best guitarists are capable of extended jazzish statements. Instead of wrapping it all up in a three-minute, hit-recordable package, a San Francisco rock group is likely to devote fifteen or twenty minutes to a single number.
The influences which touch the San Francisco sound cover a big slice of the musical spectrum. The Beatles are a stronger influence than ever now that they have ventured into raga-rock and electronic sound processing, and even those San Francisco musicians not directly indebted to the Beatles musically are grateful to them for using their charisma to create a public taste for experimental rock and roll. Another immediate strand of influence is pure folk-rock – the lyrical, harmonic kind popularized by the Byrds, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and the We Five (itself a San Francisco group), and the growling, shouting kind popularized by Bob Dylan. Certain kinds of modern classical music have also been influential. Some of the San Francisco build their sound to a level of pure white noise, an aspect of the music that John Cage would appreciate. But the most important influence on the San Francisco sound is the blues. At the Fillmore and the Avalon, blues bands more often than not appear on the same bill with San Francisco rock bands. Chicago’s Paul Butterfield Blues Band and New York’s Blues Project have appeared frequently in San Francisco, and their blend of folk-rock and blues has become part of the San Francisco sound. An older generation of blues singers has exerted considerable influence as well. In the past month alone, three very great blues singers – Muddy Waters, Big Mama Willie Mae Thornton, and Lightnin’ Hopkins – have played dance-concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium.
All these strains have been synthesized into a unique sound that is San Francisco’s own. Ralph Gleason argues that “it is the first generation of white American musicians who aren’t trying to be Negroes. They admire Negro musicians like Otis Redding but aren’t interested in imitating them. They are producing something that cannot be dismissed as merely an imitation of any other kind of music.”

The most popular of the San Francisco groups is the Jefferson Airplane.
The Jefferson Airplane is further in a purer folk-rock direction than the other San Francisco groups. Its group vocalizings use folk-style harmony and have a lyricism generally lacking in the San Francisco sound.
The Airplane was organized two years ago by its lead singer, Marty Balin, twenty-three, and the group’s main asset is still Balin’s strong, clear alto voice. Balin slurs his sibilants, a fortunate speech defect which only adds to the liquid quality of his voice. Broad-shouldered, heavy-browed, and handsome, Balin writes most of the Airplane’s material. Like most other San Francisco groups, the Airplane performs largely original material. When it performs other songs (such as “Midnight Hour” and “Tobacco Road,” which have become standards among San Francisco rock groups), it uses original arrangements.
The Airplane’s five other members include one girl, a slim, lovely brunette named Grace Slick, whose huge, deep blue eyes flash under her bangs. Her throaty contralto and strong vibrato add depth to the group’s sound.
When the Jefferson Airplane plays at the Fillmore Auditorium, their set begins with a recording of a jet plane taking off. The sound builds from a low rumble; at the moment it reaches the screaming pinnacle of acceleration, the Airplane launches into its first number. Somehow they manage to maintain the excitement, creating a rolling, building head of steam with each song. They have a joyous sound even though nearly everything they play is in a minor mode. On a song like “My Best Friend,” Marty Balin and Grace Slick stare deep into each other’s eyes as they sing, and the electricity crackles.
“The Airplane has style,” says Ralph Gleason, “and all the people who really make it have got that.” And, indeed, it seems more than likely that the Airplane will “really make it.” RCA Victor signed them up with a fat twenty-five-thousand-dollar advance. Last week they were in Los Angeles recording their second album. And on January 1 they will appear on television’s Bell Telephone Hour in a segment taped at the Fillmore.
In preparation for the success its members fully expect, the Jefferson Airplane is polishing itself up and working hard on new material. But they retain a San Franciscan disdain for crass commercialism. “Sure, we’re tightening up,” says Skip Spence, twenty-four, the Airplane’s drummer. “But we’re still not showtime U.S.A. Like we don’t all dress the same. One guy’ll wear a suit and another guy’ll look like he just slept under a train.”
They have played in Chicago, Los Angeles, and points in between, but they prefer San Francisco. “It’s quiet here,” says Jack Casady, twenty-two, the bass guitar player, a dandyish dresser whose nose and pouty mouth are the only parts of his face visible under a Beatles-esque mop of fine hair. “There’s no big hassle. The audiences are more demanding here, and you get everybody, from high society to beatniks.”
“The thing about San Francisco,” adds Marty Balin, “is that everything that happens in the scene is run by the people on the scene. No outside sharpies, no big businessmen.”
“The competition here is all friendly,” puts in rhythm guitarist and singer Paul Kantner, twenty-four, who looks like a shaggy blond S.J. Perelman without the mustache. “None of that sneaky cutthroat stuff you get in commercial scenes.”
“----,” concludes Jorma Ludwik Kaukonen, twenty-five, who is tall and angular and has shoulder-length, wavy brown hair. He is quiet but is an exceptionally skillful lead guitarist.
The Jefferson Airplane has invaded territory previously untouched by rock and roll. They played the usually purist Monterey Jazz Festival this summer. More recently (October 19) they performed at the San Francisco Opera Guild’s “Fol de Rol,” an annual fund-raiser which is also one of the city’s most important society events of the season. The Airplane appeared on the same program with members of the San Francisco Opera, who sang pompous versions of 'Bess, You Is My Woman Now,' 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly,' and other favorites. Not all the gowned ladies and tuxedoed gentlemen who filled the Civic Auditorium appreciated the intrusion of hard-driving folk-rock - some even hissed - but the Junior Leaguers and their husbands were enthusiastic.

Every member of the Jefferson Airplane wears his or her hair long, but compared to the Grateful Dead, the Airplane looks like the freckle-faced kid next door.
The Dead, nearly as popular as the Plane, play a purer version of the San Francisco sound. Their music is harder, reedier, eerier, and hoarser. They are five very strange-looking young men. Jerry Garcia – nicknamed “Captain Trips” – is husky and leather-jacketed. He has frizzy hair, like Nancy of Nancy and Sluggo, a homely face, and a gentle smile. Bob Weir, nineteen, the rhythm guitarist, is ethereal and graceful, with light brown locks that wave gently down to his shoulders. Drummer Bill Sommers, twenty-one, and bass guitarist Phil Lesh, twenty-six, have Prince Valiant haircuts, black and blond respectively. Ron McKernan, twenty-one, the organist and lead singer, is commonly known as “Pig-Pen.” He has a build like W.C. Fields, a Jerry Collona mustache, and very long, curly hair, which he holds in place Apache-style with a headband. He always wears a black leather vest over a horizontally striped Polo shirt.
Because of the prominent role that LSD plays in their lives and art, the Grateful Dead’s music has been called “acid-rock.” It’s an appropriate tag; during the first months of their existence, the Dead were bankrolled by Owsley Stanley, who is said to have made more than a million dollars manufacturing and selling tiny, eggshell-blue capsules of LSD. Indeed, the name “Grateful Dead” is sometimes interpreted as a reference to the death of the ego under LSD. The Dead do not object to this interpretation, but Jerry Garcia says that in fact he found the name one day when he was leafing through the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary. It refers to a family of medieval ballads. Since adopting the name the Dead claim to have found a reference to it in the Egyptian Book of the Dead: “In the land of darkness, the voices of evil are dispelled by the ship of the sun, which is drawn across the heavens by the grateful dead.”
The Grateful Dead may not make it big commercially; they might be too freaky. But Warner Brothers is about to sign them for a record contract.
“I don’t think the live sound, the live excitement, can be recorded,” says Jerry Garcia. “Rather than trying to turn the living room or the car radio into the Fillmore Auditorium, we’ll use the resources of the recording studio – overtracking things, using other instruments.”
Garcia acknowledges the importance of LSD to the Dead’s development, but he denies that the group is especially drug-oriented. “Consciousness-expanding drugs are a part of the way of life of the community in which we choose to live,” he says. “We don’t construct our music to be drug music. The way we prefer to play is straight – relaxed and in a good mood. It’s always better when something’s natural rather than artificial or chemical or whatever.”
The Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the literally thousands of other groups that are following in their footsteps or branching out on their own, the lights, the art, the dances: all of it adds up to a sound and a scene that is unique.
It is a sound and a scene that supports not one, but two, newspapers: the weekly Mojo Navigator-R&R News and the bi-weekly Deadly Excess, whose title comes from John Lennon’s pun on the London Daily Express.
It is a sound and a scene that might sweep the country. Or it might not. San Francisco is a very special kind of city, and things happen here that could never happen anywhere else. If it doesn’t, perhaps it will be because, in the words of one Los Angeles record company executive, “these San Francisco groups refuse to co-operate” – meaning they won’t make the basic changes in their music that this Angeleno believes are the key to commercial success. But if the San Francisco sound does become the American sound, and the San Francisco scene the American scene, it will be more than just another musical fad. It will mean that the new way of life that is developing in this city is becoming, in some sense, the way of life of the young men and women of the land. 

(by Hendrik Hertzberg, unpublished file for Newsweek, October 28, 1966)

The complete article was printed in Hertzberg's book of essays, Politics: Observations & Arguments 1966-2004.

* * * 

The article was rewritten and condensed to one page for printing in Newsweek. Here is the printed article: 


Until recently it was an underground sound, the personal and private expression of the hippies, the new Bohemians who have flocked to permissive San Francisco. Today, aboveboard, the San Francisco Sound is the newest adventure in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a raw, unpolished, freewheeling, vital and compelling sound. And it’s loud. In Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium a tidal wave of overdriven, electronic sound penetrates the farthest corner, thunders off the walls and sets the vast floor vibrating.
With the emergence of the sound, San Francisco has become the Liverpool of the West, spawning some 1,500 bands. True hippies, long-haired, unkempt, psychedelic, the groups have adopted whimsical irreverent names – the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Sopwith “Camel,” the 13th Floor Elevator, Country Joe & the Fish, and the Loading Zone.
Every weekend in such immense halls as the Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom, and college auditoriums like the Pauley Ballroom at Berkeley, the music assaults the ears; strobe lights, pulsating to the beat, blind the eyes and sear the nerves. Psychedelic projections slither across the walls in protoplasmic blobs, restlessly changing shape, color and size. Two or three thousand young people jam the floor, many in “ecstatic” dress – men with shoulder-length locks and one earring, cowboy outfits, frock coats, high hats; women in deliberately tatty evening gowns, rescued from some attic, embellished by a tiara and sneakers. Arab kaftans are worn by both sexes, who also affect bead necklaces, the high sign of LSD initiation.
Some of the crowd crouch close to the bandstand where the sound is most ear-splitting, listening as raptly as if Horowitz were playing Mozart. The majority (including a sprinkling of young mothers with infants asleep on their shoulders) dance, dropping their inhibitions like Salome her veils, inventing odd but apparently satisfying gyrations, the whole scene a dance-happening. “People are getting more into the nitty-gritty of emotional and personal life,” says 22-year-old guitarist Peter Albin. “They’re expressing themselves through physical movement and this creates a real bond between the musicians and the audience.”
The San Francisco Sound reflects this. It is a cheerful synthesis of Beatles and blues, folk and country, liberally sprinkled with Indian Raga. Most popular of the groups is Jefferson Airplane, led by 23-year-old Marty Balin. Balin’s clear, soft voice leads the group toward melodic folk-style harmonies in such songs as “My Best Friend,” included in their second RCA album to be released in January. The Grateful Dead, second in popularity, are blues-oriented, and so far unrecorded. Their hard, hoarse, screeching sound is pure San Francisco. “I don’t believe the live sound, the live excitement, can be recorded,” says 24-year-old lead guitarist Jerry Garcia.
One significant characteristic of the San Francisco songs is the length, often fifteen minutes or longer, ample time to build thunderous climax upon climax; to change the throbbing tempos, and within a single number to pass through the land of the blues, the folk, the country and anywhere else freewheeling invention beckons. Mostly untrained, the top groups boast skilled and intuitive musicians in whom a depth of genuine feeling and expressive originality is unmistakable.
The homespun texture, the spontaneity, the freedom of the San Francisco sound appeal forcefully to the hippie culture. Who are the hippies? NEWSWEEK’s Hendrik Hertzberg asked a number of them what they did. Typical answers included, “I just try to love everybody, man,” or “I take a lot of acid” [LSD], or “I don’t know, I try to keep open to all the beautiful things.” Tall, thin Chet Helms, the bearded 24-year-old patriarch who runs the Avalon Ballroom, says that San Francisco has become the focus of “a ‘now consciousness,’ instrumented by the growing of psychedelic chemicals as a tool for expression.”
Meanwhile more and more record companies are tempting the San Francisco groups, more and more clubs across the country are opening wide their doors. But so far the San Francisco Sound prefers the warmth of its hippies. “When we play out of town,” says 23-year-old John Cipollina, lead guitarist of the Quicksilver Messenger Service, “the out-of-towners have to be turned on to our message of freedom. The people out here are really open and the musicians are open. There’s a big love thing going around, you know.”

(by Hendrik Hertzberg, from Newsweek, December 19, 1966)

The Newsweek article has a couple pictures: a picture of the Airplane playing at the Fillmore, captioned: “A big love thing going around.” And a picture of the Dead glowering on the street, captioned: “A mixed bag.”


  1. I find this article fascinating for a couple of reasons. Aside from being a good, extensive look at the SF music scene in October '66, I think it's also one of the first times the Dead were mentioned in the national media. (More east-coast publications were turning their attention to SF music around this time - for instance, Gene Sculatti's "San Francisco Bay Rock" in Crawdaddy, November '66, and Richard Goldstein's "San Francisco Bray" in the Village Voice in early '67, both written after visits to San Francisco)
    I'm also struck by the discrepancy between the full original essay, and what was actually printed. Almost nothing was used - it was completely rewritten, with only a couple sentences in both pieces - and more quotes from musicians were used in the Newsweek article, so it was not just a simple edit. Presumably Hertzberg had a lot of research material to draw from.
    It may have been common practice for writers at Newsweek to write long pieces that would then be cut down & redone for the magazine. For instance, Michael Lydon was also a music journalist at Newsweek at that time. His book Flashbacks includes an extensive Lennon-McCartney interview from 1966 ("Newsweek's music editors used the following piece as a research file, but it's never before been published as is") and a 17-page review of the 1967 Monterey festival ("I sent it to New York, where the editors boiled it down to ten paragraphs").

    Another thing that struck me is that the full essay culminates with the Grateful Dead, as kind of the "purest" endpoint of the San Francisco sound - and Jerry Garcia, labeled a "culture hero," is quoted throughout with various observations. While this seems natural from our perspective, for someone writing in October '66 to do this is remarkable.
    The supposed Egyptian Book of the Dead line is quoted (in a slightly different version), I think for the first time - someone "discovered" this quote sometime in '66, and it would be used in ads for the band in winter '67. It was not an actual quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, but apparently the band believed it was. At any rate, Hertzberg was interested enough in the band's name to mention various interpretations - the original "medieval ballad" angle, the "death of the ego under LSD," and the Egyptian religious connotation.
    Hertzberg suspects they're "too freaky" to make it commercially, but he knows they're signing a record contract with Warners. Garcia points out that they don't want to just record their live act, saying that can't be done, but want to "use the resources of the recording studio – overtracking things, using other instruments.” When they recorded their first album they'd be too rushed to really do this and basically played the tracks live, one reason that album disappointed them. (And obviously they kept quiet about the summer '66 Scorpio Records single to this writer!)
    Garcia also "denies that the group is especially drug-oriented" and says that the Dead are not strictly "drug music - the way we prefer to play is straight." Whether true or not, this points to an early divide between the band's perception of itself, and the public image of the Dead as an LSD band or "acid-rock" band. Garcia's position would always be that the Dead's music was not for the freak crowd only, but should include 'straights' as well - similar to Bill Graham's line here: "We don't want you to freak out. We want you to melt."

  2. In the published article, the Dead are boiled down to two sentences - they're blues-oriented, unrecorded, and perhaps can't be recorded - the implication being that they're too far-out with their "hard, hoarse, screeching sound" and their 15-minute songs, compared to the more popular Airplane's "melodic folk-style harmonies."

    Though the Dead are prominent, the Airplane get the most praise - in the full essay the Airplane's live show gets an ecstatic paragraph, but the Dead's show is not described at all (although the essay starts out with a typical Fillmore scene during a Dead show). This is somewhat disappointing from my point of view, but I think Hertzberg obliquely describes the Dead when summarizing the 'San Francisco sound,' noting the influence of Indian & modern classical music, among other strands - "The best guitarists are capable of extended jazzish statements...are increasingly falling into sitar-like improvisations of great color and their sound to a level of pure white noise, [which] John Cage would appreciate...likely to devote fifteen or twenty minutes to a single number...ample time to build thunderous climax upon climax; to change the throbbing tempos, and within a single number to pass through the land of the blues, the folk, the country and anywhere else freewheeling invention beckons."

    Hertzberg seems to have stayed in San Francisco at least a couple weeks to research the article. He describes the Love Pageant Rally on October 6, and the Airplane's show on October 19; the Dead played a couple weekends at the Fillmore that month. Grace Slick joined the Airplane mid-month, and they were about to start recording Surrealistic Pillow.

  3. Hendrik Hertzberg here. Thanks for digging this up.

    About a year ago, I wrote about my interlude as a reporter in the San Francisco bureau of Newsweek:

    The article Newsweek actually published was written by Hubert Saal, the magazine’s then music editor and critic. He drew from my "file" as well as from various news clips and phone calls. He was a talented fellow, but he didn’t have much of a feel for this particular story.

    Also, as I explain in the blog item, the picture of Jefferson Airplane that I took and Newsweek published was not a picture of Jefferson Airplane.

    1. Hey, that was fast. Thanks for the informative link.
      I hadn't known you were going to shows in SF for months in '66. It's also useful to read about the process by which a long correspondent's "file" would be turned into a story. Even though the wording was different, the Newsweek story followed your original writing closely enough (and adding extra quotes) that I'd wondered if you'd done the cutting & rewriting yourself - now I know it was an editor.
      Funny about the picture, I didn't spot that. But hey, you got named in the story too!

  4. I noticed that skip spence is quoted in the full october,1966 piece and mentioned as the airplane's drummer, but that is incorrect. He was fired around may of '66 and replaced by spencer dryden. It is almost certain that spence's quote had to come from an interview done earlier in the year.