|436 University Avenue in Palo Alto, the former site of 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.
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.