Friday, August 5, 2011

Soundcheck, Winterland, February 22 or 23, 1974: Jack Casady

I attended the Grateful Dead show at Winterland on February 22, 1974, but this post is not about something I witnessed. It apparently happened during the soundcheck, and it's not impossible that it happened on the soundcheck of the next day. The source of this is someone's comment on an Internet forum, which makes the truth value hard to determine. Nonetheless, this is such an odd little story that I find it convincing, and it raises some interesting questions, even if I can't be certain it occurred.

This blog is not my research blog (that's elsewhere), so you'll just have to accept that I read this somewhere in an Archive Forum comment thread or who knows where. In any case, some guy who was a teenager in San Francisco wrote about seeing the Grateful Dead's equipment trucks at Winterland in the afternoon during this run, so he and his friends simply walked through the loading dock and sat in the back rows to listen. I have assumed that this took place the first day of the run (Friday, February 22) but of course they could have been tweaking the system on any of the three days.

It may seem incredible to think that some teenage hippies could simply walk unnoticed into a Grateful Dead soundcheck but there is a distinct ring of truth to this, given that Winterland was the venue. Winterland (RIP), at Post and Steiner in San Francisco, was just a few blocks from the old Fillmore, was an ice rink that had been converted to auditorium use, and by the 1970s it was over 40 years old, a crumbling concrete dump in a sketchy part of town. Of course, the joint rocked like crazy and every band sounded 100 times better there. If you weren't good at Winterland, you weren't good. Everybody played classic gigs there: Hendrix, Springsteen, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, Peter Frampton, The Band, you name it.

Rock shows had been put on at Winterland since 1966, so despite the venue's acoustic "properties" San Francisco's finest sound engineers had had plenty of time to figure out how to make the room sing, and sing it did. Bill Graham Presents sound staff knew their stuff, and of course the Dead had played the room dozens of times, so the band and crew knew how to rattle the walls and keep it warm at the same time, a harder sonic feat than it sounds.

In the 1970s, however, Winterland was in a part of town that was not (as they say) a desirable neighborhood, and although it wasn't really a slum it wasn't a nice place. Once, in 1975, my friends and I were returning from a Tuesday night rock show at Winterland (it was Kiss--trust me, it's a long story) and when we got to our car, there was a guy hiding in it. He had broken in, and when he saw us coming, he ducked down. He was pretty surprised when it turned out that it was our car, but he cooly got out and when we said "what were you doing in our car?" he said "looking for something" and calmly walked away. Final score: Streetwise black dude:1, Slackjawed suburban teenagers: 0. The Winterland neighborhood was kind of between the largely African American Fillmore district (across Geary) and the more multi-ethnic Japantown, so the locals had little interest in the hippie rock bands that played the old ice palace.

As a result, if the Dead (or anyone) were soundchecking at Winterland on a Friday afternoon, very few of the locals were likely to be interested in the music. Any Winterland security would probably have noticed any locals, since skinny hippies were in short supply around that part of town. Thus if some hippies were there, and had the calm and luck to walk in and sit down quietly, its possible that they could have gotten away with it simply because so few people would have tried it and they might have looked like they belonged. So I'm inclined to believe the story about hippies just wandering in.

The Soundcheck
While it is well established that the Grateful Dead officially debuted the "Wall Of Sound" at the  Cow Palace in Daly City on March 23, 1974, in fact they had been working on parts of it for some time. The first pieces of the system went "on-line" (not that such a term was in use) at Maples Pavilion at Stanford on February 9, 1973. The February Winterland shows were apparently a final dry run of the Wall. While I don't have any idea about the technical differences between the February (Winterland) and March (Cow Palace) Wall Of Sound systems, I can vouch that the Grateful Dead's sound system was a huge wall looming behind the band, so the system was mostly or entirely complete.

Anyway, the interesting thing about the young hippie's description of wandering into the Winterland soundcheck was what he found there. The hippie and his friends had the couth to stay cool, and headed for the seats at the back of the floor, where they hoped to hunker down unnoticed. There was only one musician onstage, and that was Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady, thundering away on Phil Lesh's rig. When they got to the back of the arena, who was sitting there but Phil himself, listening to Jack shake the rafters.

Our protagonists seemed to have discerned that this was the debut of the new sound system, and Phil seems to have wanted to hear what it sounded like. You may recall that one of the design features of the system was a 32 foot high tower of bass cabinets, the better to approximate the actual 32 foot size of a bass note in the air. We forget that the Grateful Dead never got to "hear" the Grateful Dead the way we did, and from the point of view of pure sound that may have been particularly frustrating. I know what Phil's bass sounded like at Winterland, and so do thousands of other people, but Phil didn't.

Also, while we have all heard roadies plunking away at a soundcheck, that's not a true test of nuance and power. By definition, Phil Lesh couldn't sit at Winterland and hear Phil bring the thunder, but he could hear somebody bring it, and who better than Jack Casady? While Jack and Phil's bass styles aren't particularly alike, they share the qualities of power, musicianship and creativity, and Phil would have known what Jack sounded like in his normal configuration, so he could have compared it to his own rig. Since the Grateful Dead were heavily invested in the Wall Of Sound, both literally and figuratively, I find it utterly convincing that just once, Phil wanted to sit in the Grateful Dead's home court and listen to his own bass make it sounds, even if Phil wasn't the one playing it.

Did other members of the Grateful Dead ever sit in the arena during soundcheck and listen to someone else play their instruments? Given the band's commitment to sound, I would like to think Jerry and Bob did it at least once. Maybe they did it February 22, 1974, right before or after Phil...I wonder who their dopplegangers would have been? Jorma? Terry Haggerty? It's an interesting thing to contemplate, if unanswerable.

According to our storyteller, he and his friends were in the back listening raptly to Jack play the bass, sneaking peeks over at Phil who was listening intently himself, when they were discovered by Steve Parish. The boys were hustled out in short order, leaving me only to wonder. Given the excitement of the moment, they do not recall what Jack was playing, but I like to think it was the classic Hot Tuna song "Funky #7." I like the image of Winterland on an empty Friday afternoon, Phil Lesh getting to be a Deadhead of sorts, if just for a few minutes, while Jack Casady lays down a funky 7-beat riff on Phil's bass.

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