Friday, June 24, 2011

Interstices of Grateful Dead Performance (July 19 & 21, 1974)

This is one of those hard-to-be-certain stories, but it's a good one, so I'm going to tell it here. Up until 1974, in California a least, only Jerry Garcia had iconic status, even among Deadheads. I heard this story just a year later, and even then I found it surprising.  Decide for yourself.

When I got to college in 1975, I discovered other, more advanced Deadheads than me, which was a very fine thing. My new compatriots were from Southern California, so in general we had different experiences, which he enjoyed sharing in copious detail. One of my friends (hi Mitch) had a weird, fascinating little story that stuck in my mind. He had seen the Grateful Dead at Selland Arena in Fresno on July 19, 1974, and then again two days later at the Hollywood Bowl (July 21).

My friend did not enjoy the Fresno Dead concert. The hall was unappealing, there wasn't much of a crowd, and my friend did not like their playing. Now, some years later, he admitted--after we had seen a stunning show at the very same Selland Arena on January 15, 1978--that the '74 Fresno show was probably pretty far out and he was simply too inexperienced to grasp that (tapes seem to bear him out--the show was waaay out there). The point was, in his own mind the Dead were tense and unhappy, although that may have been an illusion. The key issue in my friend's mind, however, was that Phil Lesh was not on stage for most of "US Blues." My friend was trying to fathom why Phil would leave the stage for that song. What could have been going on.?

Anyway, my friends went on to see the Grateful Dead at Hollywood Bowl on Sunday, July 21, just two days later. It was a daytime show, and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen opened for the Dead. During their set, my friend was wandering around the Hollywood Bowl, which was a large, sprawling place. In the back of the venue, who should he come upon but Phil Lesh, leaning against a wall watching Cody and the Airmen from near the back of the house. Nobody seemed to have noticed Phil, as he was completely unmolested, nursing his Heineken amidst the Deadheads.

My friend still couldn't believe it was Phil Lesh, so he went up to talk to him. "Hey, Phil" he said, "what happened in Fresno last night? You weren't even on stage for 'US Blues.'" Phil--for it did indeed appear to be him--rather grouchily said "f***in' Garcia--wouldn't even stop for a piss break." No other conversation seemed to be in the offing, so my friend left, contemplating this close encounter.

Did this really occur? Did Phil Lesh watch Commander Cody's set from the back of the Hollywood Bowl? Did Garcia refuse to allow a piss break prior to "US Blues"? Was this a common dispute? Was 'Phil' some sort of impostor? Did my friend simply have a dream, like Bobby Ewing, and repeat it to me the next year? Had there been an Internet, of course, this could have been Tweeted in real time, but instead we are left with this lowly blog post a scant 37 years later.

Friday, June 17, 2011

September 19, 1984 Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley, CA: Tom Constanten/Electric Guitar Quartet

I keep formidable notes, and I keep them forever, but even I don't make note of everything. On my typewritten list of "shows attended" (but not the earlier, handwritten one) I have an entry that reads

9/19/84 Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley TOM CONSTANTEN/Electric Guitar Quartet
formerly Epic West Ballroom TC: grand piano EGQ: +TC-el pi (one song)

Just to parse my own work for a moment, Constanten's name appears in capital letters because he was a recorded artist, and the Electric Guitar Quartet were not (this is one way that I distinguished local groups who opened shows from bands with an album that I had merely never heard of). I can tell by my notations that Constanten performed solo on grand piano (I would have listed other musicians), and also played electric piano on one song with the Electric Guitar Quartet.

The reference to Epic West Ballroom is an internal remark. Eight years earlier I had gone to the same venue when it was called the Epic West Ballroom. I had seen a later incarnation of Johnathan Richman and The Modern Lovers there on April 9, 1976 (they were awesome, by the way, and did both "New Teller" and "Roadrunner"), so my remark was an indication that I had been to the venue. There's no asterisk, however, so that means I didn't write down any other notes, so it's no surprise that I didn't find any. I actually remember this show somewhat clearly, so I'm putting this post down as a kind of marker for myself.

The Julia Morgan Theater
The Julia Morgan Theater, at 2640 College Avenue in Berkeley (at Derby St), was a Redwood building designed in 1908 as the St. John's Presbyterian Church by famed artist Julia Morgan. It has undergone various uses over the years, but the main room has been a performance space since at least the 1960s. It was briefly the Epic West Ballroom in the 1970s (it may have been the Center For World Music in the 1960s, I can't exactly recall) and it had various other names. Modern Lovers aside, who themselves were semi-acoustic (in a kinda rockin' way), any music presented at the venue tended to be classical, folk or chamber jazz, rather than loud electric music. By the 1980s, the room was called The Julia Morgan Theater, a name it has more or less retained to this day. It housed and houses various Berkeley artistic ensembles. It is a wonderful place to see a show, but parking is very difficult, so it helped to live in walking distance (I'm sure that's still true).

Tom Constanten
In the early 1980s, the Grateful Dead were sort of treated like a Coelacanth, particularly in the Bay Area. While most 60s rock artists who were still alive were around in some form, the Grateful Dead had been performing more or less continuously since back in the day. While they were sort of an institution, they were also taken for granted, and decidedly uncool. While the Dead were popular in the East, in the Bay Area they often played shows at 3000 seat venues like The Fox Warfield or Marin Vets in San Rafael. Granted, these shows sold out instantly by word-of-mouth, but the big runs at places like the Greek Theater or Oakland Auditorium had attendance buttressed by enthusiastic out-of-towners. There just weren't that many serious Deadheads in the Bay Area.

Casual indifference to the Grateful Dead was magnified when it came to performances by any of the individual band members. Jerry Garcia had performed constantly since 1969, and he mostly played clubs, albeit by the 80s the rather substantial Keystones. Bob Weir was not an unfamiliar performer with a variety of ensembles, Robert Hunter played around some, and most of us had seen the other members of the band in some configuration or other at some time. So seeing Dead members somewhere or another wasn't a big deal in its own right.

In 1984, however, Tom Constanten was still a complete mystery. As far as we had known, he had dropped off the face of the earth after leaving the Grateful Dead in 1970. We knew that he had sat in with them at Fillmore East in April 1971, and I had found the mysterious Touchstone album for 50 cents in a record store. Still, the Touchstone album dated him no later than '71, so there had been over a dozen years of silence. TC hadn't put out a record or been in a band, to our knowledge, so we knew nothing. Since he was billed at the Julia Morgan Theater, we were going. We had no idea what it would be like. Since parking on College Avenue was always a challenge, I drove to my friend's house and we walked over to the theater.

The Performance
At this time, the Julia Morgan Theater featured various kinds of performances, but none of them were rock music. Not surprisingly, the Theater was set up like a church, with many of the pews still intact. It was a beautiful building, and the acoustics were very nice. I recall vaguely that there was a printed program, like at a classical music performance. There was an OK crowd, about 100 people or so, most of them apparently Deadheads, but it was hard to be certain in Berkeley (where tenured faculty looked like Deadheads anyway).

I can't recall if there was any performer prior to TC, but I do recall him coming out looking surprisingly similar to the back cover of Live/Dead, if with somewhat grayer hair. He sat down at the grand piano and played a series of numbers. I don't recall if he said anything. I do recall that he played "Dark Star" and everyone briefly but respectfully burst into applause. I think he mostly played ragtime music. "Dark Star" and ragtime--you don't see a lot of concerts where that's the entire show. I am pretty sure that there were no other Grateful Dead-related numbers.

The Electric Guitar Quartet came out, and played their music. The deal seemed to be that one of the members had scored chamber music for electric guitars. It was mildly interesting, for about two minutes, but it went on a lot longer than that. At one point, TC joined them on the electric piano, and accompanied the quartet. It wasn't my thing.

One of the reasons that I am fairly sure there was a program--which would have been typical of a classical or world music performance at the Julia Morgan Theater--was that I was aware of the names of the members of the Electric Guitar Quartet. The one name that stuck in my mind was Ken Frankel. I later confirmed that this was indeed the same Ken Frankel who had played bluegrass with Jerry Garcia in the Black Mountain Boys, circa 1963. When Frankel moved to Boston for graduate school (I think he went to MIT), he joined a rock band called Ill Wind, who played all of the legendary Boston venues like the Tea Party and the Psychedelic Supermarket. They released an album, but didn't last much beyond the sixties. Somewhere in the very interesting Ill Wind website, I managed to find the links to the Electric Guitar Quartet.

Thanks to the miracle of the web, I now know that the Electric Guitar Quartet was the brainchild of Ken Frankel himself, who built the instruments specially for the ensemble. The Berkeley performance was the only appearance where TC joined the band, and according to the ever reliable Deaddisc, they performed a Mozart Sonata. It appears also that the EGQ had recorded a cassette, for sale only at performances, that featured a Constanten composition, but I don't recall it (in any case I wouldn't have gotten it).

And that was it. The whole thing was perhaps 90 minutes, and I went back to my friend's house, and then home. TC disappeared for another several years. Every once in a while, at a Dead show or something, people would be yakking about some old '69 tape or something, and I would say "I actually saw Constanten play piano in a little place in Berkeley, about '84," and people would be incredulous. Not jealous, particularly, but surprised, as if you said you were friends with a ghost.

Friday, June 10, 2011

March 18, 1973 Felt Forum, New York, NY: New Riders Of The Purple Sage & Special Friends

The Village Voice ad from February 15, 1973 for the March 18 NRPS show at the Felt Forum
On March 18, 1973, the New Riders Of The Purple Sage played The Felt Forum, the auditorium in the basement of Madison Square Garden. The show was broadcast in its entirety on WNEW-fm, New York City's leading rock station. Besides being a fine broadcast of the New Riders in their prime, the show featured numerous special guests. Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Donna Godchaux helped out on vocals on different songs, Jerry Garcia played electric guitar and banjo on a few numbers, Bob Weir sang a couple, and Keith Godchaux played grand piano for much of the show. The most memorable part of the performance, however, was when Garcia, Weir and Godchaux joined the New Riders and began the second set with a trio of gospel numbers: "Cold Jordan", "I Hear A Voice Calling" and "Swing Low". Garcia played banjo and Weir played acoustic guitar, the only instance of the two playing acoustic together on the East Coast between 1970 and 1980.

The Grateful Dead were playing three nights at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale in Long Island, but for whatever reasons (probably the New York Islanders) they were booked for March 15, 16 and 19 (Thursday, Friday and Monday), so they had the Sunday night off to hang out with the New Riders. It's remarkable enough that the Dead guested on a radio broadcast, but thanks to the great Its All The Streets You Crossed blog, we can now see that the Grateful Dead were all but advertised in the Village Voice. The ad above is from the February 22, 1973 edition of the Voice, a full month before the show, and the ad says "New Riders Of The Purple Sage & Special Friends." The message would be unmistakable: in rock talk, "Special Guests" means 'opening act who hasn't been booked yet', but "Special Friends" would imply extra people on stage. It wouldn't take a genius to note the Dead's performance dates on Long Island and see that they had the night off.

There were plenty of live FM performances in the 1970s, but relatively few of them featured guests, as the record company was paying for the band to be on the air (making up lost ad revenue for the station) and didn't want to share it with another company's act. In the case of the Dead, however, since they were bigger than the New Riders and had a unique relationship to them, Columbia would have been ecstatic to have the Dead join the New Riders on the FM broadcast throughout the entire Tri-State area. For the Dead, the significant factor here was that by Spring 1973 they had left Warner Brothers and were working for themselves, so they didn't have to concern themselves with whether their own record company "approved" of them appearing with their friends.

However, since the Dead were performing elsewhere, their contract with the Nassau promoter, whom I believe was Bill Graham, would have prevented them from being mentioned by name. Also, since the name "Grateful Dead" was not formally invoked, the band members could show up and perform on whichever or whatever songs they felt like. Knowing what we know today, Garcia must have had his banjo with him because he was probably practicing constantly, trying to get up to speed for Old And In The Way, which had just begun to play in the Bay Area. It's a great touch that he used it to perform with the Riders--I think March 18, 1973 was almost the only time he played banjo on stage with them (Garcia did play banjo briefly at a unique show at The Matrix on July 7, 1970). Besides the mini-acoustic set, Garcia played banjo on "Henry" as well as electric guitar on "Glendale Train," obviously just having the kind of fun he couldn't have if the marquee had said "tonight: NRPS with Jerry Garcia."
The Village Voice ad from February 15, 1973 for upcoming Capitol Theater shows
Pity poor John Scher. In New York at the time, Ron Delsener promoted shows North of the Hudson River (New York City proper) and John Scher generally promoted shows South of it (in New Jersey). Scher's principal venue was the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ. Scher had booked the New Riders at the Capitol for Friday, March 23, 1973, five days after the Felt Forum show. The New York City (Tri-State) metro area is so large that the Passaic show would have drawn a different crowd than the Felt Forum show, even though they were only 20 miles away from each other.

However, with the Dead having made a surprise guest appearance at the Felt Forum show, the buzz would have been in the air, so everybody in New Jersey must have assumed that the Dead were going to drop in at Passaic, too. Never mind if that's a rational judgment: I guarantee you everybody standing in line for the show that night had heard about New York (probably in a greatly exaggerated fashion) and was fully expecting Jerry and the boys to make an appearance. Anyone on the Deadheads mailing list could have seen that the Dead were booked for Utica on March 22 and the Spectrum March 24, so it would have seemed perfectly plausible.

The 1973 New Riders were a great live band, and I'm sure they put on a terrific show at the Capitol, but the audience was probably still let down. It must have been tough for the Riders to rock through their best songs while a crowd of Jersey Deadheads (plus some Philadelphia lunatics) shouted "Jerrrry!"

Friday, June 3, 2011

Who Was Curly Jim? (Me And My Uncle)

Curly Jim on the steps of 710 Ashbury
"Me And My Uncle" was the most-performed song in the history of the Grateful Dead, as they performed it over 600 times. They first performed the song in 1966, and performed it through 1995. This post will contemplate the odd symmetry between the odd history of the song itself and the accidental way that Bob Weir learned the song.

"Me And My Uncle"
"Me And My Uncle" was written by John Phillips, best known as the head songwriter and Svengali of the huge hit group The Mamas And The Papas. Phillips wrote, arranged  and performed such classic sixties hits for the Mamas and The Papas as "Monday, Monday" and "California Dreamin.'"  Phillips also wrote the infamously bad "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)." Phillips, along with his producer Lou Adler, was instrumental in organizing the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, so whether or not you liked his hits he was an important 60s pop star. So no one was more surprised than me to see the songwriting credit on "Me And My Uncle" for John Phillips on the 1972 "Skull And Roses" Grateful Dead live album, and I can't have been alone. Many years later, in the liner notes to one of his solo albums, the strange saga of how John Phillips wrote a cowboy song was recalled (referenced here)
John often used to tell the story behind "Me And My Uncle." Years ago he began receiving publishing royalties from a song on a Judy Collins record [The Judy Collins Concert, released October 1964] with which he was unfamiliar. It was titled "Me And My Uncle." He called Judy to let her know of the mistake because he hadn't written any such song. She laughed and told him that about a year before, in Arizona after one of her concerts, they had a 'Tequila' night back at the hotel with Stephen Stills, Neil Young and a few others. They were running a blank cassette and John proceeded to write "Me And My Uncle" on the spot. The next day, John woke up to the tequila sunrise with no recollection of the songwriting incident. Judy kept the cassette from that evening and then, without informing John, recorded the song for her own record. Over the years the song was recorded by several people, and eventually became a standard of the Grateful Dead. John used to joke that, little by little, with each royalty check, the memory of writing the song would come back to him. 
In one sense, "Me And My Uncle" is no different than many other Grateful Dead cover versions, like "Going Down The Road" or "Deep Elem Blues," songs with misty beginnings that have been learned and passed on by a variety of musicians over time. The only difference appears to be that the author of "Me And My Uncle" was a well-known pop star whose career was well documented, so the provenance of the song could be properly unraveled after a while.

Curly Jim
In Blair Jackson's groundbreaking 80s magazine The Golden Road, he published a number of fine articles about the sources of Grateful Dead cover versions. Blair uncovered the basics of the John Phillips>Judy Collins connection, and included the interesting detail that Bob Weir said he "learned the song from a hippie named Curly Jim." Blair assumed, and I certainly concurred, that Curly Jim had to be James "Curley" Cooke, a Madison, WI musician who had moved to San Francisco in late 1966 to join the initial incarnation of The Steve Miller Band. Presumably, Curley Cooke had learned the song off the Judy Collins album and taught it to Weir. This tiny piece of the Grateful Dead puzzle appeared to have been solved, and the Curley Cooke>Bob Weir connection became a settled piece of Grateful Dead lore (Cooke, now a popular player in the Puget Sound, WA area, recently passed away at the age of 66).

Recently, however, while researching another slice of 60s Bay Area rock history, I had a lengthy email exchange with a knowledgeable person who had known Curley Cooke as well as members of the extended Grateful Dead family. When I mentioned in passing that Weir had probably learned "Me And My Uncle" from "a hippie named Curly Jim," and that I assumed it to be Curley Cooke, she in turn let me in on a remarkable fact, namely that "Curly Jim" and "Curley Cooke" were different people. She emailed Curley Cooke, who denied having taught Weir the song, so that left the "other" Curly Jim. Even more remarkably, my correspondent recognized Curly Jim in a well-known photo of the Grateful Dead's "family" on the steps of 710 Ashbury (I believe taken by Gene Sculati), and stripped his photo out for me.

I have included the crop of Curly Jim, whoever he was, at the top of the post. He seems to have been the hippie who taught Bob Weir "Me And My Uncle." Presumably he learned it from the 1964 Judy Collins album, but he could have learned it from someone else, in the folk tradition. Who was he? What was his last name? Since he was a musician, did he ever record or was he in a band? Did he teach Bob Weir any other songs? Yet another piece of 'settled' Grateful Dead history has become unsettled on closer inspection.

Update: thanks to an intrepid Commenter, I am now pretty sure that "Curly Jim" was someone from Texas or thereabouts named James Staralow. Among other things, Staralow was the first manager of those other pioneers of psychedelia, Austin, TX's own 13th Floor Elevators. I think Staralow was their manager in late '65 or so, and it seems he ended up in San Francisco in mid-66. I had no idea that there was just one degree of separation between the Dead and the Elevators. I wonder if Staralow had any contact with the Elevators when they moved to the Bay Area for a few months in late 1966?

On top of that, Staralow also apparently co-wrote the song "Blind John," which appeared on Mickey Hart's Rolling Thunder album. He used the Nom Du Rock of C.J. Stetson. I had always assumed that C.J. Stetson was a pseudonym for a group effort, but I was incorrect. It does appear that Staralow went on to open a club outside of Santa Fe in the early 70s, but I think he is no longer with us. Still, "Curly Jim", aka Jim Staralow, aka CJ Stetson, seems to have been the one who taught Bob Weir the song that the Grateful Dead played the most.