Sep 8, 2013

May 18, 1968: Santa Clara Fairgrounds


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: boys who didn't look like they'd push a girl too far, 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. took time.
Finally the Youngbloods started to get to them with' Let's Get Together.' They're a trio now. Jerry Corbett has quit to do some record producing. Jesse said, "He got tired of running around playing rock band gigs." Then Crome Syrcus, a developing band, still not there. Some parts work, some don't. They ended with their ballet score from 'Astarte' from just didn't have anything to say in an outdoor rock concert. Then the 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. Tom Donahue announced that their new album is out this week and suggested that the Dead might play some numbers from it during their set. 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 gentle. 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. They're presently recording an LP for Columbia in L.A. They're good people and I hope they get home all right.

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 at each other like they were passing notes in a schoolroom. Their last number was 'Do You Want 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 actually..." 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, 23 May 1968 - reprinted in Rock & Roll Will Stand, ed. Greil Marcus, 1969)

40 minutes of Alligator:


  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:

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

  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.

  3. I found a more accurate copy of the article and made some corrections. Originally I took this from its book reprinting, but as usual, that edited out some of the "dated" band information.
    For instance, the original: "Tom Donahue announced that their new album is out this week."
    The reprint: "The MC announced that their new album would come out soon."

    It seems Donahue was misinformed! What's intriguing is that the Dead would frequently say their albums would be out earlier than they actually were, telling people the release dates were imminent when they might be months away. Maybe they didn't know themselves, or were just over-optimistic.

  4. A brief review of one of the Dead's shows at the Shrine this weekend, May 17-18, 1968:

    "Meanwhile, over at the Shrine Exposition Hall, the Grateful Dead pummelled several thousand persons with their long improvisational rock music in a show sponsored by the Pinnacle.
    The sound of the San Francisco sextet is heavily dependent on lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, whose brilliant playing makes it hard to realize that he is surrounded by routine musicians.
    They have two average drummers instead of one good one. Pigpen's organ is generally barely audible and his voice, the best in the group, is mediocre.
    Garcia, however, led the group through some exciting blues-based music which roused the Shrine crowd into fervid demonstrations of appreciation."
    (from the Los Angeles Times 5/20/68)

  5. According to the festival schedule, the Dead were slotted from 3-3:45 (even the big bands got 45-minute sets; the morning bands had 30 minutes). So the tape is the Dead's entire set.

    A festival review from the 5/20/68 San Francisco Examiner:

    by Philip Elwood

    Sixteen hours of the same thing gets to be an enervating experience even if one is a super-rock fan and many of the nation's outstanding rock groups are doing their thing for a gigantic audience of devotees.
    The Santa Clara County Fairgrounds includes a corner-lot area known as Family Park, where over the weekend a Northern California Folk-Rock Festival was held, produced by young Bob Blodgett and extensively promoted by Radio KYA.
    There is little doubt that the capacity of the flat, drab arena was reached both days, especially yesterday when listening and squatting space was at a premium even when the rains came, along with The Doors, at about six o'clock.
    The sound system was excellent and most of the groups performed splendidly. But the overall production was disgraceful, particularly considering the 28,000 tickets sold for a gross of close to $100,000.
    Refreshment facilities were abominable, relaxation was impossible on the hot, dirty field (no seats, folks), and the clumsy staging required lengthy pauses between each presentation, when a split-stage could easily have enabled each succeeding band to set up in advance.
    Yesterday's involvement of the Hell's Angels as a free-loading, swaggering stage guard, treated as Honored Guests (and announced as "our guardians") was wholly uncalled for and an obvious concession to intimidation.
    But sour grapes thus strewn, this observer still got great kicks out of all manner of performances. I was regularly surprised that the crowd (about two-thirds from the South Bay area, I'd say) was so passive at the end of magnificent presentations.
    The kids were pop-rockers and waited for the big-names. Saturday it was Janis Joplin with Big Brother that finally turned them to cheers (although the local "People" had gained some, earlier), and the Jefferson Airplane rode home with even more ecstatic enthusiasm.
    The Steve Miller Band was astonishing on Saturday, playing the most involved guitar and bass lines I have ever heard outside a multi-tracked recording.
    Yesterday, a relatively short-haired Jim Morrison, with The Doors, in his usual demagogic way worked the crowd to a screaming pitch.
    Mike Bloomfield and Buddy Miles in the Electric Flag, Jerry Garcia's guitar with the Grateful Dead, and the blues of Taj Mahal were also outstanding over the weekend.