Nov 3, 2017

December 31, 1969: Boston Tea Party


In a sort of premature fourth anniversary celebration, the Grateful Dead recreated some of the atmosphere of the San Francisco Trips Festival of January 21-23, 1966 at the Boston Tea Party last week.
The Trips Festival was the begetter of all the "mixed media" dance halls which dot the country today. Without the Trips Festival, there might never have been a Boston Tea Party.
What happened at the historic Trips Festival? Well, such previously "underground" phenomena as lights shows, acid heads and the Grateful Dead came above board for the whole world to see.
The best-attended and most important event of the Trips Festival was the climactic "Acid Test" - an entertainment which, it was advertised, would simulate the LSD experience without LSD. Hundreds of youth cult members showed up for the Acid Test. The Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company supplied the rock. The inside of San Francisco's Longshoreman's Hall erupted with sweeping, dazzling lights. The model for the Tea Party was born.
(Everything to be seen at the Tea Party on New Year's Eve was a direct descendant of the Acid Test. The wall behind the band was bursting with gaseous, exploding galaxies, vibrant suns, flickering dots and spastic paramecia; every facet of the curving walls was covered with projections of comic strips, nudes, old etchings, portraits of the marijuana weed and photos of Boston; two movie projectors showed sporadic clips of Looney Toons, Spencer Tracy's "Boy's Town," and Olivier's "Othello."  And, of course, the Dead were there.)
But the Acid Test differed from the Tea Party show in a couple of important ways. First of all, most of the Acid Test customers showed up stoned out of their minds on acid. Secondly, the Acid Test was one of the first great surges of youthful togetherness; it was the opening of a frontier and it seemed to have infinite possibilities.
Jerry Garcia, the Dead's beatifically cheerful leader, once described the Acid Test experience: "Thousands of people, man, all helplessly stoned, all finding themselves in a roomful of other thousands of people, none of whom any of them were afraid of. It was magic, far out, beautiful magic."
But the Acid Tests, which fostered the group consciousness of the Haight-Ashbury, soon became an institution and began to lose their ecstatic energy.
Garcia once summed up the whole process of atrophy: "The Acid Tests have come down to playing in a hall and having a light show. You sit down and watch and of course the lights are behind the band so you can see the band AND the lights. It's watching television, loud, large television. That form, so rigid, started as a misapprehension anyway. Like Bill Graham, he was at the Trips Festival, and all he saw was a light show and a band. Take the two and you got a formula. It is stuck, man, hasn't blown a mind in years. It was a sensitive trip and it's been lost."
Within two weeks after the Trips Festival, rock impresario Bill Graham had turned the Acid Test formula into Fillmore West. The Haight-Ashbury flourished for a while as an open neighborhood of love and cooperation. But then the tourist hippies, who wore the clothes and took the drugs but didn't appreciate the spirit of the community, began to crowd out the true believers like the Grateful Dead.
Naturally the Dead share a deep nostalgia for those halcyon days back at the Haight.
In fact, the seven Dead, the oldest of whom is 29, sometimes reminisce like octogenarians.
"It was really a good life," said Bill Kreutzmann, one of the group's two drummers, as he spread out on a bench after the Dead's first set on New Year's Eve. "Hangin' out with boss people, going around seeing different light shows, different arts that people were creating, different musicians, all kinds of stuff. We worked and rehearsed as frequently as possible - at the Straight Theatre in the Haight and at the Fillmore. Those were great days for me, although they seem as though they were a long way away."
On the other side of the room, Phil Lesh (bassist) and Bob Weir (rhythm guitarist) were recalling their New Year's Eve four years ago. The Dead had been driving up to Oregon in Ken Kesey's magic bus. (Half golden boy, half guru, Kesey had formed a group called the Merry Pranksters who made a famous consciousness expanding tour of the U.S. in a garishly painted bus.) The bus had broken down halfway up to Oregon and the whole group had been forced to pile into a U-haul. Neal Cassady, the legendary beat raconteur, had talked a blue streak.
"Was he great?" asked an awed Easterner.
"Are you kidding?" answered Lesh. "He was the greatest."
Despite the look of Paradise Lost that the group carries about with them, their music provides a link to past social glories. And their music is, if anything, better than ever. Their songs average twenty minutes and sometimes go on for up to forty. Despite the wall of feedback and volume which their music throws up, it can be hypnotic; it draws the audience in with constantly repeated phrases. Garcia, bobbing from the waist like a joke-store duck perpetually dipping its beak in a glass of water, spins out lovely melodic fragments over and over. The rest of the band take the path he points to.
The Dead's sound is a kaleidoscope of its members' styles. At one end of the spectrum is Tom Constanten, former student of Stockhausen and Boulez, who used to specialize in Debussy and now plays organ for the Dead. He maintains that in some ways rock is more taxing than classical. "There's no room for fooling around in rock," he said. "I've heard Sviatoslav Richter run all over the place in the course of a concerto. In a rock band you can't take those freedoms. The rhythms have to be incredibly close."
On the other end of the spectrum is Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, veteran of Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions. In the midst of the Dead's complexity, he still plays jugband-like tambourine and congas.
It was the Dead's music that gave much panache to the New Year's Eve celebration at the Tea Party, and gave us Easterners a little taste of what the Trips Festival must have been like.
And the Grateful Dead, with a bit of swagger, seem to see themselves as guardians of the good old days. In 1968, they tried to bring back some of the original excitement of the Acid Tests by leasing the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco and running it according to their own psychedelic lights. The Airplane were in on the operation too. It proved a disaster.
With the exception of Constanten, the Dead have now abandoned the city and live scattered about Marin Country. They often get together in each other's country homes and jam with other groups. Which other groups? "Man, we jam with EVERYBODY," said Garcia, declining to get specific.
A Hollywood director wants to make a commedia dell'arte Western with them. On New Year's Eve, the group stood in a circle and formally debated the offer. Finally, Garcia the leader said "Forget that. I wanna go home and make a record next month."
You can expect a new Grateful Dead album soon.

(by Timothy Crouse, from the Boston Herald Traveler, 11 January 1970)

Thanks to Dave Davis.

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1 comment:

  1. A remarkable article. Lots to observe:

    - Crouse had reviewed the Dead's 12/29 show at the Tea Party, and found himself so impressed he went back on 12/31 to see them again and talk to them between sets so he could write a longer article! (And the Herald ran it, too.)
    - As with many 1970 articles, there's a strong nostalgia for the golden days of 1966, so long ago, when the world was young and everything was possible. (Or to put it another way, back in '66 the doors of perception had been open, and now they were being closed.) The Dead shared that feeling - Crouse notices their "look of Paradise Lost," and it's observable in their interviews, like here when Kreutzmann laments that those great days "seem as though they were a long way away." Crouse suggests that the Dead "see themselves as guardians of the good old days," keeping the true spirit of the Acid Tests alive and bringing it around the country.
    - Crouse did his homework: he gives a secondhand account of the Trips Festival and briefly covers the last few years in San Francisco, and quotes Garcia from the Rolling Stone article a few months earlier. Boston seems to be some backwards province in comparison: the Dead "gave us Easterners a little taste of what the Trips Festival must have been like," "awed Easterners" ask them about the giants who strode the earth back then, and the Tea Party is merely a pale copy of what was done best in San Francisco.
    - Crouse sees the Acid Tests as the origin of "today's" dance halls (lights, bands, drugs) - no Trips Festival, no Tea Party - although the combination may actually have been pretty widespread in '66. But he does have a point in comparing the scene at the Tea Party to the 'big bang' of a few years earlier that started it all - and in a larger sense, it's still a valid point, since culturally speaking we still live in the sixties today.
    - He's able to get a few brief comments from some of the Dead. Garcia just says, "We jam with EVERYBODY" without naming anyone, probably impatient to get back to playing. Great description of Garcia bobbing onstage, in the days when Garcia still bobbed while he played.
    - Phil on Cassady: "He was the greatest." The New Year's Eve '65 ride through an Oregon blizzard left quite an impression on Phil, and he wrote about it in his book - Pigpen also described the ride at length in an interview. (By the way, though secondhand and years later, this bit might confirm that the Portland Acid Test was on New Year's day.)
    - It's funny to hear Constanten say, "There's no room for fooling around in rock." One reason the Dead were dissatisfied with him was that he wouldn't loosen up onstage, chained to a strict rhythm without any swing - and here he protests that "in a rock band you can't take those freedoms," he has to stick closely to the rhythm!
    - There's a short but accurate description of the music, with "hypnotic...constantly repeated phrases" and Garcia's "lovely melodic fragments" leading the band. The "wall of feedback and volume" doesn't really come across on tape, though many early reviewers remarked on how loud the Dead were. And Crouse exaggerates when he says "their songs average twenty minutes"! But some of the jams on the 30th-31st went on for quite a while, and no doubt he lost all track of time...
    - The Western they were debating was Zachariah, which they'd agreed to be in and had written Mason's Children for. (Country Joe & the Fish would take their place, after the film was rewritten.) I don't know if it was really right then, backstage in Boston, when they decided not to be in the film, but perhaps it was... Garcia was in a hurry to make an album (they would start recording in February). Note that he's unambiguously "the leader," ending the debate when he says "forget that."