Friday, July 1, 2011

October 30, 1980, St. Michael's Alley, Palo Alto, CA: Robert Hunter

436 University Avenue in Palo Alto, the former site of St. Michael's Alley
Robert Hunter got his start as a performer in 1961, along with Jerry Garcia. According to legend, they played graduation (for 8th graders) at Peninsula School in Menlo Park, and received 5 dollars. While they supposedly planned to frame it to memorialize their first payment as professional musicians, according to Hunter they soon spent it on cigarettes. Hunter was part of various bluegrass and old-time ensembles with Jerry Garcia and David Nelson in 1962 and '63, but as Garcia and Nelson were far superior pickers, Hunter focused more on writing as the other two moved ahead musically. Hunter scuffled around Palo Alto, taking various odd jobs such as participating in a scientific experiment where he was paid to take LSD. Less dramatically, Hunter also had a job washing dishes at Palo Alto's first "beatnik" coffee house, St. Michael's Alley.

St. Michael's Alley was opened on April 1, 1959 by owner Vernon Gates, at 436 University Avenue (near Kipling Street). Downtown Palo Alto had all but died by the late 1950s, as Stanford Shopping Center, just across the railroad tracks, had taken all the business. However, that made downtown rents cheap, and a lot of would-be bohemians who couldn't quite manage either Stanford University of North Beach were available to patronize the joint. However, while the place was popular, many of the customers simply nursed a cup of coffee all day, so the shop was only a break-even proposition. Still, just like the European coffee houses that owner Gates had seen in Innsbruck, Austria, St. Michael's Alley featured folk, jazz and classical music as well as plays and poetry readings to go along with the coffee.

When Palo Alto High School alumnae Joan Baez returned to Palo Alto in the early 1960s as a famous folkie, she hung out at St. Michael's Alley. She apparently performed there, too, albeit probably somewhat informally (Gates recalls that nobody bought anything while she sang). A then not-famous folkie named Jerry Garcia also played there, although it's uncertain when or in what configurations. Since St. Michael's Alley wasn't a bar (it did serve beer in bottles), teenagers as well as adults could hang out there, and since there were no bars in Dowtown Palo Alto, there was no reason for adult bohemians not to hang out there. Thus St. Michael's Alley was Dowtown's only hipster joint throughout the early 60s, where college students, layabouts and wannabe folkies mingled, wearing dark clothes and smoking many cigarettes.

Not all of Palo Alto was enthralled with Bohemia, however, and in 1964 there was a pot bust at St. Michael's Alley. A Woodside High School girl was arrested for trying to sell to her classmates. How a pot bust came to actually pass is anybody's guess, but it does have the ring of the police trying to put pressure on an establishment they didn't approve of. After the pot bust--in 1964, pot was still the Evil Weed--many parents apparently forbade their teenagers from going to St. Micheal's Alley. In June, 1965, the Palo Alto police arrested four "alleged frequenters" of St. Michael's Alley on drug charges, and the club rapidly went downhill.

Other regular patrons stayed away, too, perhaps out of fear, and business rapidly declined. Many of the people who worked around Stanford University had security clearances for Defense Industry work, and they could not risk even the most casual drug arrest. Gates tried putting on more music, but it was too late. He did audition the Warlocks sometime in mid-1965, but he rejected them as being "terrible." St. Michael's Alley closed in early 1966.

Robert Hunter
When Robert Hunter first started releasing albums and performing in the mid-1970s, in many ways it was if McGannahan Skjellyfetti had come to life. Prior to his appearances with the band Roadhog from 1975 onwards, there had hardly been a photo of him, yet as the 70s wore on he became a nightclub regular around the Bay Area as well as in Grateful Dead strongholds in the Northeast. I have attempted to document the performing histories of both Roadhog and the very excellent group that Hunter joined afterwards, Comfort. After 1978, however, when Hunter left Comfort he took to performing with bassist Larry Klein (not Joni Mitchell's husband, but a fine player nonetheless), and this too was an excellent performing combo. By the end of the 1970s, Hunter was confident enough of his own playing that he took to performing as a solo artist. By and large he has performed as a solo artist ever since, with occasional exceptions.

Once Hunter started performing as a duo or solo in 1978, he also began regularly playing Grateful Dead songs in his set. One fascinating thing about Hunter's setlists at the time was that he played Dead songs that had not been heard by Deadheads in some time, such as "China Cat Sunflower" and "The Eleven." He also took to performing songs he had just written, some of which would turn up in Grateful Dead sets later. Hunter had been performing "Touch Of Gray" since at least Fall 1980, for example, long before Garcia added a more complicated melody and made it into a Grateful Dead classic. Thus seeing Hunter live in the 1978-81 period was a chance for those interested in the songwriting side of the Dead to hear some older and newer songs that were not part of the Dead's repertoire. As Brent Mydland gained more confidence, more and more songs were welcomed into or back to the Grateful Dead's concerts, so Hunter's sets may seem less singular than they do today, but if you take the time to compare his sets to contemporary Dead setlists, you will see how intriguing it was to see or hear him at the time.

The Return Of St. Michael's Alley
In 1973, Vernon Gates opened a restaurant in Palo Alto called St. Michael's Alley. This time, the venue was on 800 Emerson Street (at Homer Avenue). This was about six blocks from the old St. Michael's Alley. The second time around, St. Michael's Alley was a relatively upscale restaurant rather than a coffee shop. While Palo Alto was less Bohemian in 1973, plenty of people still remembered the old joint. Ironically enough, according to Gates, many of the same patrons returned, but by this time they had jobs and kids, and were more willing to go out and spend a little money on dinner (and a babysitter, no doubt) rather than spend the whole afternoon nursing a cup of coffee. St. Michael's Alley led a wave of restaurants in Downtown Palo Alto that thrived as Silicon Valley thrived, and Palo Alto started to evolve away from being just an open-minded college town with a few good bookstores.

Nonetheless, on occasion St. Michael's Alley still had performers, just like the old days. I believe, though I am not certain, that performers tended to be on weeknights after the main dinner hour, when more people would have been at the bar than eating. In any case, it came to pass on Thursday, October 30, 1980 that former St. Michael's Alley dishwasher Robert Hunter came to be performing at the new St. Michael's Alley. Thanks to Robert Hunter's recent willingness to allow his tapes to circulate on the Archive, we can hear the performance.

Since the recording is easily accessible, I won't make any effort to go through it song by song. The most remarkable thing about the show, however, is hearing a completely relaxed Robert Hunter bantering with the crowd and taking requests, clearly with people he knows. By Fall 1980, songs like "Black Peter" and "Bird Song" had crept back into the Grateful Dead's repertoire ("Bird Song" having just surfaced a month earlier at the Fox-Warfield acoustic sets), but "St. Stephen" and "The Eleven" had not been performed by the Grateful Dead in a decade (nor were they ever bracketed by "Althea" and "Friend Of The Devil"). Hunter played a variety of new songs, too, and while "Day Job" and "Touch Of Gray" are familiar to us now, at the time one could only guess whether the Dead might perform them. Uniquely, at least to my ears, Hunter begins his song "Cruel White Water" in Palo Alto with some verses that are a modified version of Blondie's song "Heart Of Glass." "Heart Of Glass" had been a huge hit earlier in the year, and it is surprising to hear Hunter quote from contemporary pop music.

A lot of water had gone under the bridge since 1965, but 15 years was not impossibly long, so there seems to have been enough of the old Palo Alto around to bring out some friends for him. Certainly it would have surprised owner Vernon Gates in 1965 to think that his dishwasher would be performing in an upscale version of his coffee shop a decade and a half later. Of course, it would have surprised Gates even more to know that the sloppy band of recalcitrants he had rejected would be playing Radio City Music Hall that very same night, singing many songs co-written by the dishwasher in question. Gates sold St. Michael's Alley in 1994 and retired, although the name is used by a restaurant nearby (on 140 Homer Avenue), now several steps removed from dishwashers, banjo players and pot busts from a long ago Palo Alto.

9 comments:

  1. A belated question for a very amusing post -
    You mention that Gates auditioned the Warlocks in mid-1965 and found them "terrible." Where did you read this?

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  2. The link is very obscure, I thought I had included it in the post
    http://www.paloaltohistory.com/st-michaels-alley.php

    I only pieced together later that Garcia and Hunter actually met at St. Michael's Alley in 1960 or so, making it an even more important place than I had even considered

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  3. Ah, I see what happened - the link in your post is wrong (misstyped?) and is a dead end.
    Great page, though - describing St Michael's Alley, "the world of pseudo-sophistication," a hangout for "narcotics users and homosexuals"! No wonder it went down.

    Per McNally, it seems they first met when working with the Commedia Dell'arte theater in March '61; but it was in St Michael's Alley a few days later that they started talking. (McNally writes that St Michael's offered "chess, a lovely and aloof young woman singing esoteric folk songs, and instant coffee sold from an elaborate brass pot." Now it also offered Garcia, Hunter & friends chattering to each other all day!)
    It turns out that Garcia was dating a girl named Diane who'd formerly been with Hunter...

    From their 1991 interview with Blair Jackson -

    Q: Where did you guys actually meet?
    HUNTER: The Commedia Theater in Palo Alto. You were going with an old girlfriend of mine -
    GARCIA: Diane! Yeah, that's right.

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  4. PS - the page doesn't seem to mention an audition at all, only that Gates "kicked them out and told them to go home and practice."
    But it doesn't say WHEN, it just says they were "an early incarnation of the Dead." Given the size & nature of the place, I wonder whether a rock band would want to play in there - or whether Gates would have even considered it at that point (with the police hanging round the place in mid-65) - so I wonder if it was actually McCree's or one of Garcia's smaller bluegrass outfits. For that matter, much could have been lost in the reporting, and Gates could have been referring to just Garcia & Hunter or some such duo.

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  5. It's great to see you guys piecing together more of this early stuff. It's not an era I know well, so I am learning at the feet of the masters!

    I need to read this post. In the meantime, you know what would be a coup? Learning that Garcia's acoustic playing overlapped with his return to electric in '65. (I have no notion that that was true, but I am just sayin'.) I am coming to love nonlinearity, and the perception that he literally substituted electric for acoustic in 1965 --never the 'twain shall meet, so far as public performances go, until ca. late '68 when he did maybe Mountains of the Moon and/or Rosemary on an acoustic, right?-- is one of the last great "clean breaks" out there.

    In a way, it'd obscure things in ways I don't like for my own narrative purposes, but it sure would be neat.

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  6. As far as I know, it really was a clean break in 1965. If for no other reason than that band rehearsals must have taken up most of the available playing time - with no practical reason to play acoustic (he couldn't use it in a Warlocks show, especially given the sound equipment of the time), it would become a 'spare-time' instrument. Garcia has said that the Warlocks initially took up all of his time - he was booked solid, so there were no 'sidebands' for some years.

    What ties in with this post, though, is that the return of the acoustic guitar comes when Robert Hunter starts writing songs for Aoxomoxoa. Once Hunter & Garcia started putting songs together in late 1968, it tended to be on acoustic.
    (To be nitpicky, sometimes he did use acoustic in the studio in '67 for a different texture, as on Golden Road or Dark Star.)

    The real missing thread is Garcia's banjo-playing. Dropping from public sight in 1965 and re-emerging in 1973, nonetheless there's that High Country show from '69, and also Terry Nails' memory of Garcia playing banjo with acoustic Weir around that time. (And doesn't he play it on that Port Chester apology ad, too?) So he definitely didn't just lay aside the banjo for 8 years.

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  7. The March '67 interview with Garcia that was published in Golden Road (1) and that circulates in audio has Jerry saying that he has been working on electrifying his banjo and wanted to play it that way.

    (1) Groenke, Randy, and Mike Cramer. 1985 [1967]. One Afternoon Long Ago: A Previously Unpublished Interview With Jerry Garcia, 1967. Golden Road 7 (Summer): 24-28.

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  8. One factor about Garcia playing instruments other than electric guitar from late '65 until March '68 might have to do with his presumably cramped living arrangements. When he was living with numerous other people (in Palo Alto, LA or 710 Ashbury) he would hardly have had room for other possessions. Even when he moved into a little flat with Mountain Girl and her daughter in '67, I can't think there was much room. Garcia's acoustic instruments were probably at the rehearsal space.

    I think Garcia kept his banjo nearer to him than his acoustic guitar, and he may not have really had room for both. Once he moves to a house in Larkspur in '68, with a little more room, than a few other instruments start to surface: acoustic guitar, banjo and then the pedal steel. Notwithstanding that Garcia was focused on learning the electric guitar from 65-68, he may not have had easy access to other instruments in a house full of people.

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  9. Hmm...how much room could a couple guitars take up? This was a guy who was known in the early '60s for practicing all day & barely going anywhere without a guitar in hand. I find it hard to imagine him being separated from one of his instruments for long, let alone leaving them at the rehearsal space!
    I've seen a couple pics circa 66/67 where he has that banjo.

    In the GD Gear book, Blair Jackson notes that the Martin acoustic guitar Garcia played in 1969 was the same one he'd bought back in 1962.
    (He did buy a new banjo sometime before '73.)

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