Friday, December 14, 2012

Russian River To McHenry Library (via Tennessee)

A poster for the 1967 premier of Robert Nelson's film The Great Blondino

In 2008, the Grateful Dead organization offered up their historical material to University libraries. The primary contenders were Stanford University and the University of California at Santa Cruz. Although Stanford might seem like an obvious choice for a Grateful Dead archive, given the campus' proximity to Palo Alto and Menlo Park, UCSC won the prize. In 2012, the Grateful Dead Archive had it's grand opening at the McHenry Library on the campus. Choosing the UCSC Banana Slugs over the Stanford Indians was a surprise to many, including me, but it turns out that the Grateful Dead Archive may have been destined for McHenry Library all along.

In 1968, a 7-minute film featuring the Grateful Dead was released, directed by one Robert Nelson. Unimaginatively titled Grateful Dead, it featured music from the first album, carefully synced to footage of the band playing, canoeing and goofing around in an idyllic rural setting. This was no home movie--Nelson was a professional, if 'underground' filmmaker, the music was properly mixed and the whole enterprise was probably financed by Warner Brothers as a promotional exercise.

The footage was shot around late May 1967, at the family ranch of a friend of the band, John Carl Warnecke Jr. The Grateful Dead spent a week or two rehearsing, looning around and generally enjoying the area. As it happens, however, the family patriarch, John Carl Warnecke (Sr), was a nationally famous architect. Among other commissions, he had designed the eternal flame at the gravesite of John F. Kennedy, a family friend. In 1967, Warnecke was working on another commission: the new McHenry Library building at UC Santa Cruz. So the Grateful Dead spent time in 1967 at the family ranch of the man who designed the building that would house the Grateful Dead Archive forty years later.

<iframe width="420" height="315" src="" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>

The Robert Nelson Grateful Dead film, from May 1967 [click the link if the YouTube embed does not display]

The Grateful Dead And Robert Nelson
By May, 1967, members of the Grateful Dead knew that their comfortable life in the hippie paradise of Haight Ashbury was soon to be finished. The press was predicting a massive influx of teenagers during the impending "Summer Of Love." Their was already a bus tour through Haight Ashbury that presented hippies like zoo animals, and the tour included a drive by of 710 Ashbury, as if the Grateful Dead were prized orangutans. They had their first national tours coming up in June and August, too, so they weren't just going to be local heroes, either.

Robert Nelson was an independent, underground filmmaker, then a very precarious sort of existence. Along with a few other such filmmakers, Nelson lived in the obscure community of Canyon, near Berkeley but extremely difficult to get to from there, or anywhere. The little community was not even a town, and only existed because of a by-then unused railroad tunnel. The area had a general store with a post office, a lot of redwood trees and some very windy roads. Outsiders were not encouraged. The Canyon crowd was a few years older than the Berkeley hippies, but relations were generally good. On July 16, 1967, for example Country Joe And The Fish and The Youngbloods held a benefit for the Canyon community center. Yet the poster had to include a map of the area, since it was so difficult to get to.

Nelson (1930-2012) had been trained as an artist at the San Francisco Art Institute, but when he turned to making films in the early 60s, he was completely untrained and thus thoroughly experimental. He had many connections to the San Francisco rock scene. One of his most famous short films "Oh Dem Watermelons" (1965), had originally been intended to be shown at the intermission of the infamous San Francisco Mime Troupe show "Civil Rights In A Cracker Barrel," but the film developed a following of its own. Nelson had also participated in the January 1966 Trips Festival. On the weekend of March 11-12 1966, a concert was held at the Fillmore Auditorium to raise funds for Nelson's film The Great Blondino (which was premiered later in 1967), featuring The Great Society, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Family Tree, The Mystery Trend and others. These  disparate events were not unconnected--the business manager of the SF Mime Troupe in 1965, and by the next year Graham held the lease on the Fillmore.

I am not precisely certain how Robert Nelson came to be making a film for the Grateful Dead, but the connection would not have been random. They had plenty of interlocking relationships, and Canyon was not so far from the Russian River. I am making an assumption about Warner Brothers having financed the film, but it seems likely. Short promotional films for new bands were actually pretty common up until the mid-60s, so persuading Warners that it would help them. In any case, movies like A Hard Day's Night and Charlie Is My Darling were pretty cool, so there was a valid tradition of popular rock bands making hip little films.

John Carl Warnecke Jr
John Carl Warnecke Jr (1947-2003) had become a friend of the Grateful Dead around 1966. How exactly he came to befriend the band isn't certain, but the Dead were a hip, happening band back in the day, and not hard to find if you looked to meet them. According to his family's description, "in the mid-1960s, he befriended members of a fledgling band known as the Grateful Dead and became their promotion road manager from 1966 to 1968, handling bookings and advance work."

My assessment of Warnecke's role is that his family was describing a more informal version of some business arrangements that would not formally identified until some years later. Rosie McGee's very interesting book Dancing With The Dead (2012) does a good job of explaining the peculiar economic setup of the Grateful Dead in the early days. A lot of people worked for little or nothing in return for access to the band, and in parallel they tried to create opportunities for themselves. The Dead didn't really have "advance men" in the formal sense back then, but friends of the band would do various things to facilitate concerts, like putting up posters. In turn, if Warnecke was able to find bookings for the band, tradition (and California law) would have allowed him to take up to 10% of the fee, so he would have had an opportunity to create a little business.

The Warnecke family had a ranch in Healdsburg, in Sonoma County on the Russian River. I doubt it was any kind of working ranch, more likely just a country retreat for the family. In any case, Warnecke seems to have invited not only the Grateful Dead but their extended family an opportunity to spend a week or two there at the end of May,1967. Since we know that the Grateful Dead went to New York for a June 1, 1967 engagement at the Cafe Au Go Go, their sojourn in Sonoma could not have lasted long, but it left lasting impressions, captured by Nelson. McNally describes it:
[The Grateful Dead] had a platform over the riverbank where they set up their instruments, a campfire and a mix of tent and cabins. It was a reflective and spiritual moment. An avant-garde filmmaker, Robert Nelson, had expressed interest in working with them, and during their time on the river he made a ten-minute film, most memorably when they fooled around in a canoe (p.195).
Relaxing on the river, McNally reports that the band worked up a new song, "Alligator," using lyrics old friend Robert Hunter had mailed to them, and merging them with an existing song. There are no alligators on the Russian River, as far as I know, but when Pigpen sang
Sailin down the river in an old canoe,
A bunch of bugs and an old tennis shoe.
Out of the river all ugly and green,
Came the biggest old alligator that Ive ever seen!
Perhaps some members of the band saw the alligators anyway (thanks to David Gans, who included a piece of a Bob Weir interview in the Comments, we know that canoes were an essential feature of the Grateful Dead's experience on the Russian River).

John Carl Warnecke Jr's father, John Carl Warnecke (1919-2010), was a San Francisco-based architect who designed many well-known buildings. Warnecke had gone to Stanford in the 1940s, where he had made the acquaintance of John F. Kennedy, who was studying there at the time. As a result, Warnecke became friends with John and Jacqueline Kennedy. At Jacqueline Kennedy's request, Warnecke designed the Eternal Flame at JFK's grave.

In early 1968, the younger Warnecke, a committed peace activist as well as a music fan, went to work on the California campaign of Robert F. Kennedy, widely perceived by many young people as the best hope for ending the Vietnam War (Eugene McCarthy was considered unelectable, whereas a Kennedy always had a genuine chance at the Presidency). Once Warnecke was working for RFK, his association with the Grateful Dead seems to have been put aside. After the terrible tragedy of RFK's assassination in June 1968, Warnecke ended up moving to Nashville, TN, to work at the Nashville Tennesseean newspaper. Tennesseean editor John Siegenthaler had been impressed by Warnecke's work on the campaign, and hired him to work in Nashville.

While working at the Tennessean, Warnecke befriended another young reporter, Albert Gore, Jr. In the 2000 Presidential campaign, it seems that Warnecke was directly or indirectly responsible for the shocking--shocking, I tell you, just shocking--allegation that Gore smoked marijuana regularly in the 1960s (light a match if you remember Douglas Ginsburg, the Supreme Court nominee whose 1987 candidacy was derailed because of the revelation that he had smoked the evil weed). In any case, as far as I know, Warnecke's connection to the Grateful Dead remained under the radar at the time.

The entrance to McHenry Library at UC Santa Cruz, home of the Grateful Dead Archive (photo M. Fernwood)
UCSC and The McHenry Library
The University of California at Santa Cruz, like the Grateful Dead, had been conceived in the early 1960s and came to life in Fall 1965, on land donated by the Cowell family, which had hitherto been known as the Cowell Ranch. The McHenry Library was named after the founding chancellor, Dean E. McHenry. John Carl Warnecke Sr was selected as the architect for the library building. The senior Warnecke had been an early proponent of "contextual architecture," creating buildings that were coherent with their settings, and the McHenry Library building is both stately and appropriate, sitting atop a hill in a Redwood forest, embellishing it without dominating it. The McHenry Library, built in 1968, was the future home of the Grateful Dead Archive.

Some research at the UCSC Library digital collections site--appropriately enough--shows drawings for the McHenry Library by John Carl Warnecke (Sr) dating back to 1966. From this, we can deduce that the senior Warnecke was already engaged in designing the future home of the Grateful Dead archives at the time the band stayed at his ranch. McHenry Library was completed in 1968, so the design work must have been well underway by the time the Grateful Dead stayed at the Warnecke ranch.

One question this poses, of course, is whether the senior Warnecke was even aware that the Grateful Dead stayed at his ranch. I assume the ranch was fair-sized, and since his son was an adult, his parents would not be needed to supervise him if he "had friends over." In any case, it appears that the Dead family sort of 'camped out.' Even if the senior Warneckes were even at the ranch at the time, the esteemed architect may have had little idea of the impending invasion of giant green lizards happening down by the river.

John Carl Warnecke Jr died in 2003, at age 56, after a variety of health problems. He was fondly remembered by his family and friends. John Warnecke Sr live until 2010, living over 90 years. The junior Warnecke must have been excited enough that his friends had stayed at his family ranch, written a great song and had that stay memorialized in a film. He would have been more thrilled to know that the band's archive would end up housed in a building designed by his father. It's a long and winding road from the Russian River and the Warnecke Ranc to the McHenry Libary at the former Cowell Ranch, but the Grateful Dead's canoe made it there in the end after all.