Friday, July 29, 2011

December 31, 1977 Winterland: New Riders of The Purple Sage with Spencer Dryden

Marin County Line-The New Riders Of The Purple Sage (MCA Records 1977)
The Grateful Dead show at Winterland on December 31, 1977 was a great show, and it is usually remembered for the Grateful Dead starting their second set at 12:30 instead of midnight, because Bill Graham was over with Santana at the Cow Palace and he wanted to participate in the Grateful Dead's New Year's Eve celebration as well. While it has been famously reported that little flyers were handed out at the door that said (I paraphrase) "Good things come to those who wait. New Year's Eve will start at 12:30 tonight," those flyers were not handed out to everyone. Certainly I didn't get one, nor did anyone around me (about 60 feet back on the floor, Phil side-stage right), so we had no idea why the start of the set was delayed. But that's not the purpose of this post.

The New Riders Of The Purple Sage opened the show, and performed a fine set. The Riders had undergone a Renaissance of sorts, with new bassist Stephen Love and drummer Patrick Shanahan. Love had replaced Skip Battin, and Shanahan had replaced Spencer Dryden, who had become the band's manager. The New Riders had a pretty good new album, Marin County Line, their best album in some years. You don't have to take my word for it--in 2009 the New Riders released a Betty Board tape of the set as part of their archive series. I admit, I haven't gotten around to getting the cd, although I will eventually. But this too is not the purpose of the post.

There was certainly quite a party on the Winterland floor that night, so I assume the party backstage was pretty good, too, and probably better. However, because I'm me, I actually wrote down the fact that newly promoted New Riders manager Spencer Dryden sat in on drums that night. So for the only night that I'm aware of, the New Riders had two drummers. Since Dryden knew all the songs, he played more confidently than some friend who would have just been grooving along, so the Riders had a much more active Dead-style rhythm section than usual. The lively drumming made the Riders rock a little harder than usual, just what the doctor ordered for opening a New Year's Eve Dead concert at Winterland.

Noting the fact that I attended one of if not the only show where the New Riders played with two drummers is exactly the sort of trivia that this blog was intended for, and I would have posted it anyway. Nonetheless, in looking at all the promotional material for the album on the website, and various other places, nobody seems to have mentioned that Dryden sat in with the Riders that night. I have a feeling that everyone just forgot. Now, possibly its alluded to somewhere on the album, but I don't know that. In any case, even if it was announced from the stage (I no longer recall--I knew what Dryden looked like, so I didn't need to be told), it may not have been clear that Dryden sat in for the entire show. Dryden died in 2005, so he's not around to check in with--although of course for all we know, since it was New Year's Eve, he didn't remember either--but at least for the record I wanted to mark down that the Riders were six strong that night and the better for it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Warlocks Resumes, 1965 (pre Grateful Dead Employment)

The back alley behind 536 Bryant Street in Palo Alto in June 2009. On New Year's Eve 1963, Bob Weir heard banjo music coming from Dana Morgan Music at 536 Ramona, and found music teacher Jerry Garcia waiting for his banjo students. They agreed to form a jug band, and the Grateful Dead saga began.
It is an apocryphal rock-and-roll trope that real rockers don't want jobs. Keith Richard, the legend goes, only had non-musical employment once, as a Postal assistant at Christmas one year, and he was fired after three days for keeping a mouse in his pocket. Bruce Springsteen never had a job at all, as far as I know. Sometime in the late 80s, Jerry Garcia was asked in an interview if he was satisfied with his musical career, and whether he had achieved his professional goals, and Jerry said that his goal had been not to have a real job. From that point of view, his membership in the Grateful Dead had made his career a success "so far."

The Grateful Dead were a bunch of misfits, would be outlaws who did not feel comfortable in the paths that the "straight" world would have mapped out for them. The band members were an early wave of post-Beatniks who wanted something different from their life than the proverbial white picket fence and 2.2 children, commuting to the plant or the office 5 days a week. Indeed, with one exception the band members non-musical history only prepared them for being bohemians, so it is fortunate that the 60s came along when they did. This post will consider the educational and professional activities of the original members of the Grateful Dead prior to the formation of the Warlocks in May, 1965. It will not be a long post.

Jerry Garcia: Garcia had attended Balboa High School in San Francisco, but he dropped out around the 11th grade. After getting into some kind of scrape in 1959, a judge offered him the opportunity to join the Army instead of jail--a common enough choice at the time--and the 17-year old Jerry took the Army. Ironically, he was assigned to a base in San Francisco (at The Presidio), so opportunities to go AWOL were many and tempting. Garcia did discover country music in the Army. If he had been sent to a base in the South, he might have been a better soldier and learned about bluegrass more quickly, but it was not to be. Garcia was given a less-than-honorable discharge, but not a dishorable one (I think it was a General Discharge) in 1960. Not having an Honorable Discharge was a barrier to success in the early 1960s, when many males had served in the Armed Forces.

After his debut with Army buddy Robert Hunter as "Bob and Jerry" at Peninsula School, for which they were paid 5 dollars, Garcia played around folk clubs in various combinations. He did not earn a living from playing live music, or even much money, but he was actually paid. He also occasionally played electric bass with a band called The Zodiacs, who played Stanford Frat parties and the like. Bill Kreutzmann and Pigpen were occasional members of The Zodiacs as well.

Garcia also had a job of sorts doing the lighting at a Palo Alto theater group called Commedia Del Arte, around 1962. I think they were on Emerson Street (possibly on the site of the Aquarius Theater). I'm not sure Garcia actually got paid to do the lights, but he could have put it on his resume.

Garcia's principal source of income was as a music teacher at Dana Morgan Music on 536 Ramona Street in Palo Alto. Garcia gave guitar and banjo lessons to aspiring musicians, mostly teenagers, and probably taught mandolin and fiddle as well. Many people in the Palo Alto/Menlo Park area proudly recall that Garcia taught them guitar. The whole Grateful Dead saga began on New Years Eve 1963, when Bob Weir heard banjo music coming from the back of Dana Morgan's. Garcia was practicing, wondering why none of his students were showing up. Garcia told young Bobby that he was planning to form a jug band, and Weir said "I'm in," and so the story began.

In mid-1965, Garcia and Weir had borrowed equipment from Dana Morgan Music to start the Warlocks. When they pushed aside Dana Morgan Jr, the owner's son, as bassist, in favor of Phil Lesh, Morgan Sr demanded his instruments back and effectively fired Garcia and Weir (who by this time was a music teacher as well). Garcia and Weir moved their students over to Guitars Unlimited on El Camino Real in Menlo Park, and borrowed more equipment. When Garcia and Weir actually gave their final guitar lessons at Guitars Unlimited is unclear--probably late 1965.

Bob Weir: Bob Weir attended various High Schools, but did not graduate from any. I think he briefly attended Menlo-Atherton High School, and some private schools, but I'm not sure where. He seems to have met John Barlow in Prep School in the East. I have been told that his mother asked the future founder of Pacific Free High School (too long a story to go into) to "get him to stop playing that guitar and get him into something that will make him some money," but that did not happen.

When Jerry Garcia made his famous trip across country with Sandy Rothman in 1964, Weir apparently took over his students for a few months. Weir remained at Dana Morgan's, and moved on to Guitars Unlimited. Music Teaching music was (and is) a sort of freelance occupation, and fewer people claim Weir as a teacher than Garcia in the Bay Area.

Weir's only professional pre-Warlocks performances were with Mother McRee's Uptown Jug Band Champions, and it is debatable whether they actually got paid.

An ad for Swain's House Of Music at 451 University in downtown Palo Alto. The ad is from the March 7, 1967 issue of the Cubberley High School paper, The Catamount.
Bill Kreutzmann: Bill Kreutzmann actually graduated from Palo Alto High School in 1965. By that time, he was married and had a child, so while he was able to avoid the draft (as sole support of his family), college was seemingly out of the question. During High School, Kreutzmann had played drums with a pretty successful Palo Alto band called The Legends. The Legends played "R&B," which at the time meant mixing James Brown songs with rock songs, and sometimes played for racially mixed audiences in East Palo Alto as well as the Stanford fraternity circuit. Kreutzmann occasionally filled in as drummer for The Zodiacs.

Kreutzmann also gave drum lessons at Swain's House Of Music, a competitor of Dana Morgan's. Swain's was at 451 University (near Waverley) just a few blocks over from Dana Morgan's.

Ron "Pigpen" McKernan: Pigpen had been expelled from Palo Alto High School in 1964 or '65, for some transgression or series of transgressions. Pigpen apparently had a job as a janitor at Swain's, but he did not give music lessons.

Phil Lesh: Unlike the other Warlocks, Phil Lesh bordered on the respectable. He had graduated from Berkeley High School in 1958, and attended the College Of San Mateo. CSM was a junior college with an excellent music program that included an excellent big band. Lesh played trumpet in the CSM band (Santana's Mike Shrieve was the CSM big band drummer some years later). Ultimately Lesh transferred to UC Berkeley in about 1961. Although University of California admissions were structured to favor California residents and junior college transfers, the fact that Lesh got into UC Berkeley means he had to have been a diligent and successful student. Lesh met Tom Constanten at Berkeley, and the two of them also studied with Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland The connection to Mills was probably through the UC music program (although Mills is a Woman's College, male students are admitted to its graduate programs, and there has always been reciprocity between UC and Mills classes). Phil also did some work at KPFA in Berkeley, which (similar to Jerry's stint as a lighting director) would not have been paid, but would have counted as work experience.

Phil dropped out of UC Berkeley about 1962. Unlike the other Warlocks, he had a variety of actual jobs. He worked at a Casino in Las Vegas with Constanten, and he drove a Post Office truck as well. Lesh has recalled hearing "Subterranean Homesick Blues" while driving the truck. Although the USPS was a "straight" job that required a uniform, many beatnik-types liked the work since it often involved being on your own most of the day, and Phil seems to have been no exception. Lesh, to my knowledge, never received a dime for a musical performance prior to performing with the Warlocks at Magoo's Pizza in Menlo Park. He had performed with school jazz ensembles, but those were not (by definition) paying gigs.

The Pacific Coast Stock Exchange building at 300 Pine St in San Francisco. Phil Lesh worked there briefly in the early 1960s as a board marker for Dean Witter.
While dropping out of UC Berkeley made Lesh a "dropout" along with the rest of the Warlocks, he was the only band member to have had to consciously avoid the middle class. Phil has occasionally alluded to various jobs he held between 1958 and 1965 in one interview or another. For a variety of reasons, Phil's most interesting brush with another path was alluded to in an extensive interview with Blair Jackson in The Golden Road. Phil said that through his father he got a job as a "board marker" for Dean Witter at the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange.

A board marker put up qoutes for the stock trading on the floor of the old P-Coast (board markers were the equities equivalents of MQTOs, for those readers for whom that has meaning). Working on the trading floor, Phil would have had to have worn a tie, thus being the only member of the Dead to have had to worn a tie for employment. Phil's presence on the P-Coast was fascinating to me personally, because at the time I read the interview, I too was working on the Pacific Stock Exchange, albeit on the infinitely more exciting Options Floor around the block.

The P-Coast Equities Floor in the early 1960s had a reputation as a stifling place. When I told my options compatriots that Phil Lesh had apparently worked on the Equities Floor twenty-odd years earlier, their attitude was that it was no surprise that he left, the implication being that if Phil had worked on the Options Floor (which opened only in 1976) he might have stayed. While that is unlikely on the face of it, the Equities Floor had its roots in the 19th Century and showed it, so it's no surprise that Phil found it unrewarding. If he had discovered all the risk and reward of options trading, maybe David Freiberg would have ended up as the Warlocks bass player. To answer the question no doubt foremost in everybody's mind, I think Phil would have been a frontspreader rather than a backspreader.

Even in the mid 1980s, I knew some old Equities brokers who had come over to the brave new world of Options. Of course none of them would have remembered the name of any board marker, ever, much less one who only worked there briefly, so it was futile to ask. There were probably a bunch of skinny kids in ties and ill-fitting jackets, many with glasses, and to think that just a few years later one of them would be headlining major performances under strange psychedelic conditions was too much to comprehend. Of course, the old Pacific Coast Stock Exchange building is now an Equinox Fitness Club, and that too was impossible to imagine at the time. Sic Transit Gloria Psychedelia.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Warlocks At Palo Alto High School (Not!)

The Grateful Dead's first six months of existence as The Warlocks is shrouded in charming mystery. Since there has been relatively little documentation of their performances, myth and legend have free reign. It is a truism of every Bay Area High School that some aging graduate will swear that the Warlocks or the Grateful Dead played their school "back in the day." Alumni from a few High Schools--Awalt in Los Altos and Campolindo in Moraga--can state truthfully that the Grateful Dead played a dance at their gym, but for other schools it's just a story. However, since the Warlocks history is hard to document, its harder debunk the persistent stories about the Warlocks having played a given school.

One of the most persistent myths over the years has been that the Warlocks played Palo Alto High School. I normally don't take the time to debunk misinformation, but a couple of factors make the Palo Alto High myth a little different:
  • a fake poster circulates widely, claiming to advertise the Warlocks playing Palo Alto High School on New Year's Eve, 1964, and
  • Bill Kreutzmann, Pigpen and me all went to Paly
However, a recent non-coincidental meeting with a member of the Palo Alto High School class of '66 has confirmed my assumption that the Warlocks never played there. While it is impossible to prove a negative, since anything is possible, I am now confident enough to go on record as debunking the myth that the Warlocks ever played Paly.

The "New Year's Eve 64" Poster
Some company of unknown provenance marketed commemorative "boxing-style" posters of old rock concerts, usually sold through record stores. These circulate on eBay for appropriately low prices. In most cases, these posters listed famous events like Altamont with the location and the bands. I never found them attractive, but people are free to put up what they want on their dorm room wall. However, the one poster of that series that always irritated me (so much so that I refuse to link to it--google it yourself) was a poster featuring an iconic 1966 Herb Greene photo of the Grateful Dead, supposedly advertising a show on December 31,1964 at Palo Alto High School by The Warlocks.

For anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the Grateful Dead's history, the poster was self-evidently ridiculous: the Grateful Dead had not even formed in 1964, a 1966 photo of the Dead would not be used to advertise a Warlocks show, and so on. Nonetheless, as a graduate of Paly (class of '75) it was particularly galling to see this poster staring at me from so many record stores.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe, Palo Alto High School, September 19, 1965
The Mime Troupe performed at Palo Alto High School on September 19, 1965, probably at the school theater. I have seen this date floated around as a Warlocks show at Paly. However, although Bill Graham was the Mime Troupe's manager at this time, he had no connection to the Bay Area rock underground yet, so this too is a false trail.

The Bill Kreutzmann Connection
Bill Kreutzmann graduated from Palo Alto High School in June, 1965, shortly after the Warlocks formed. This was generally known around Palo Alto in the 1970s, and was generally offered as "proof" that the Dead or the Warlocks must have played Palo Alto High School. Famously, the 1969 Paly High graduation featured Santana, so it seemed plausible that in the misty days of yore, the Warlocks must have played some dance or other.

While Kreutzmann was at Paly, he mainly played in a band called The Legends. He also played occasionally in a group called The Zodiacs fronted by a guitarist named Troy Weidenheimer. That band mostly played Stanford fraternity dances (at places like Searsville Lake, for any of you who remember it). Weidenheimer was a manager at Dana Morgan Music, where Jerry Garcia worked, and while The Zodiacs played what was called "R&B" in those days (essentially modified blues), they were unique in that they did not play songs, per se. Weidenheimer simply called out a beat and a key, and soloed for a while while the frat boys boogied. The band had no set membership, but Kreutzmann sometimes played drums and Pigpen sometimes played harmonica. Jerry Garcia was a sometime bass player, and he has admitted to being profoundly influenced by Weidenheimer's approach to performing.

The Legends, meanwhile, were a more typical R&B outfit of the early 60s, playing songs by The Coasters and James Brown as well as old rock and roll classics. A San Jose musician from that era (a member of the group Sweet Smoke) told me that Palo Alto bands like The Legends played to more mixed audiences and thus had a more soulful sound than the surf oriented bands that played the San Jose area. The community next to Palo Alto was called East Palo Alto, which was not a town but actually an unincorporated part of a different County (San Mateo rather than Santa Clara). East Palo Alto was largely undeveloped and had the only substantial African American community in the South Bay. There were actual "juke joints" in East Palo Alto, and Pigpen at least, hung out there, even if few other white teenagers did. Thus Palo Alto, surprising as it may seem today, had a bit more diversity than some of the surrounding suburban towns.

The Legends had been a popular band in Palo Alto for some time. Kreutzmann had replaced one Nick Hammer as drummer. Other members included Howie Schonberger, "Byron" (last name unknown) and bassist Bob Kelley. I believe the band had a lead singer, although exactly who it was remains uncertain to me. Apparently the group performed Bobby Blue Bland's "Turn On Your Lovelight," but so did almost every other R&B band from the early 60s. Robert Kelley actually went on to some local fame as the founder of the acclaimed South Bay theatrical troupe TheatreWorks. When I was in High School, I actually knew Bob Kelley a little bit, as he directed an excellent theater group called Youth Workshop. He was a relaxed, cool guy, at least to a 14 year old. Of course, it never remotely occurred to me to ask him "were you ever in a band with any of the guys in the Grateful Dead?" and he never mentioned it.

Palo Alto High School 1964-66
Although the town of Palo Alto was liberal and tolerant, it was still the rather dull hotbed of social rest that it remains today. Would be bohemians were tolerated more than elsewhere, but not exactly encouraged. The class of '66 graduate I met was very bored by Palo Alto and Paly High, and couldn't wait to leave. Throughout the Fall of 65, she found Paly so dull that most lunchtimes she walked over to eat with Phil Lesh and his girlfriend, who lived nearby, so when she says "if The Warlocks played Paly, I would have known," I take that as definitive. Nonetheless, she made a couple of critical points.

First of all, she said that most of the bands who played dances, for money, were pretty well established, and the Warlocks were very much on the fringes in the Fall of '65. Most of the local bands who actually played Paly played for free at lunchtime, in the central quad. She was pretty sure that Kreutzmann and the Legends had played a lunchtime show at Paly, but at the time they would have played (between 1964 and '65) she would not have known Kreutzmann well so she doesn't have a specific memory. Nonetheless, it made perfect sense to her that a band featuring a Paly student would play the High School at lunch.

This of course begged the question of whether the Warlocks might have played for free at lunch. The Paly graduate had a long lost but very critical piece of information: although Pigpen had attended Paly, which was widely known in my day (his much younger brother had as well), she observed that Pigpen was actually expelled. I had known the not-surprising fact that Pigpen had not graduated Paly, but I had not known that he was expelled. She made the point that expelled students were not allowed on campus, so the Warlocks would not have been allowed to play even if Pigpen wanted to perform there, which he probably didn't. It wouldn't have taken much to get expelled from Paly in those days--no doubt any number of Pigpen's normal habits (except reading) might have caused his forced departure.

No one cares much about where the Warlocks didn't play, but I feel satisfied putting this issue to rest. I doubt people paid much attention to the bogus poster in the first place, but I take some satisfaction in the fact that not only did the Warlocks not play Paly, they would not have been allowed to play there in any case, due to some transgression or other by Pig. Palo Alto High School has many famous graduates (49ers coach Jim Harbaugh being the most recent), but Pigpen must be our most legendary non-graduate, and unquestionably the most famous expelled student.

Friday, July 8, 2011

December 31, 1974: Stanford Music Hall, Palo Alto, CA: Kingfish/Osiris

The interior of Palo Alto's Stanford Theater as it looks in this century
When the Grateful Dead went on a performing hiatus after October, 1974, Deadheads were left in limbo. Although Jerry Garcia continued to perform regularly, there was little coverage of the band in the local papers, so no one had any idea of the band members plans or expectations. By the same token, even Jerry Garcia's performances rarely received any coverage at all, so many events occurred in a sort of vacuum limited to whoever attended them. If no account of an event can be found or recalled, they remain largely a mystery. One such event took place on New Year's Eve, 1974, when Kingfish and Osiris played the Stanford Music Hall in Palo Alto. This post will contemplate what little can be recalled or determined about this event.

An ad for the Osiris/Kingfish show at the Stanford Music Hall on New Year's Eve 1974, courtesy of Scott Bell.
Prior to the Grateful Dead's hiatus, Bob Weir was all but completely unseen in Bay Area nightclubs. Jerry Garcia performed regularly, of course, and Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh had performed occasionally with him. Even Pigpen was booked at a nightclub once, although I have no idea if he actually played. Weir, however, had not even made casual guest appearances around the Bay Area prior to 1974. Nonetheless, at the end of 1974 he began sitting in with the group Kingfish, and by year's end he had become a regular member of the band.

I have detailed Weir's performance history with Kingfish at some length, so I will only briefly summarize it here. Weir's childhood friend Matthew Kelly had formed the group in early 1974 along with former New Riders bassist Dave Torbert. Torbert and Kelly had played together in various groups prior to Torbert's joining the New Riders in 1970. The other members were drummer Chris Herold (a fellow traveler in various late 60s bands with Torbert and Kelly), guitarist Robbie Hoddinott and pianist Mick Ward. Ward died in an unfortunate auto accident and Kingfish was left wanting, but when Weir became available, his unique guitar style filled the hole created by Ward's piano playing. By the end of 1974, Kingfish had begun to play regularly around the Bay Area, with Weir and Torbert's name recognition as a draw.

The Stanford Music Hall
The Stanford Theater, at 221 University Avenue in Palo Alto (between Ramona and Emerson), had been downtown Palo Alto's oldest movie theater. Built in 1925, it had fallen prey to competition from numerous other theaters and a sort of rundown feel that one associates with 40 year old buildings. I had been there many times as a child to see one thing or another, but as the 70s wore on it increasingly showed second run films or other lesser features. Sometime in late 1974, some operators got the idea that Palo Alto needed a rock concert venue, and the Stanford Theater was renamed The Stanford Music Hall. Although the curtain was lifted on the stage, and no doubt some modern electronics were installed, there was otherwise very little changed in the building. I did see a show at the Stanford Music Hall in September 1975, but I believe the '74 New Year's Eve show was the first rock concert there, and the first time that the name "Music Hall" was assigned to the building.

For a reason I have not been able to determine, advertisements for the Stanford Music Hall used the address of 167 University. This address would have been half a block away (on the Emerson side of University), so it must have been a mailing address. I am a Palo Alto native, and recall the theater clearly, so there is no chance I am mistaking the Stanford Music Hall for something other than the renamed Stanford Theater. As I recall, the "Music Hall" intermittently showed movies during the period it was a rock venue, anyway--I distinctly recall seeing a rare theatrical showing of Neil Young's movie Journey Thru The Past there (don't rent it, really), and it was preceded by a short feature of Grand Funk Railroad playing their hit "We're An American Band," complete with a brief appearance by producer Todd Rundgren.

Kevin "Micky" McKernan, on stage in the mid-70s, possibly at the Keystone Berkeley. Photo thanks to and courtesy of Osiris guitarist Scott Bell.
Around December of 1974, I recall seeing flyers for the Kingfish/Osiris show on telephone poles and the like around Palo Alto. I distinctly remember being nonplussed at the idea that the sleepy old Stanford Theater being renamed as a Music Hall, but I was in favor of any new rock venues that weren't bars. The flyers weren't anything special, but I wish I had one today. I do recall, however, that the flyers said that the opening act, Osiris, feaured Kevin McKernan. Locals knew that Kevin McKernan was Pigpen's considerably younger brother. This was kind of a Palo Alto thing--once Kevin rode by me on his ten-speed bike, and a friend said "look, it's Pigpen's younger brother," and it was like somebody from the cover of Live/Dead was going by.

Flyer for the October 31, 1974 show at USF Gym
Very recently I have been in touch with someone who was a childhood friend of Kevin McKernan. Among many other interesting insights, this correspondent said that Jerry Garcia in particular took a proprietary interest in Kevin's career. Garcia had invited Kevin (and my correspondent) to the Old And In The Way show at Homer's Warehouse in Palo Alto on July 8, 1973, and made a point of including Kevin in the backstage scene, such as it was. Kevin McKernan was the lead singer of Osiris, and the other members were Scott Bell, Kevin Moore, Sam Sheets and Al Day. Who played what isn't clear to me, but they had a conventional rock band set up (lead guitar, bass, drums and either another guitar or a keyboard (update: thanks to Scott Bell, I now have it clear: "Kevin Moore- lead, Keith Moore-Bass, Scott Bell-Rhythm guitar, Alan Day and John Handy Jr. on drums, and Kevin McKernan on B3 ( known as Micky to band members)...Soon after Keith and John Handy Jr. left and Sam Sheats came on bass bringing Paul Costa with him on drums").

According to my correspondent, Garcia made sure that Kevin McKernan's band Osiris had good equipment, apparently including some PA Cabinets that the Dead were no longer using. Garcia also made sure that Osiris got some gigs with various Dead spinoff bands that were playing around the Bay Area in late 1974. Osiris opened for the Garcia/Saunders group at USF Gym on Halloween, 1974, and they also opened for the Keith And Donna band at the Keystone Berkeley on June 14, 1975. Apparently, however, despite a level of talent and access to good equipment and some music connections, Kevin McKernan's downward spiral into too many excesses did not allow Osiris to capitalize on those possibilities. Kevin McKernan died too soon, apparently in the early 90s.

December 31, 1974
I would have loved to see Kingfish on New Year's Eve, and indeed I could have walked there. For all I know my parents would have let me go. Of course, I was of the age where it was more important to do whatever my friends were doing, so I did that instead, whatever it was, rather than see Bob Weir. I don't recall New Year's Eve 1974-75, and I certainly didn't meet a future or even prospective girlfriend that night, so in retrospect I should have gone to see Bob Weir, but my mind didn't work that way at the time.

Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia had played The Tangent in downtown Palo Alto in the 1964-65 period, at 117 University, and then moved on to greater things. The Grateful Dead had played a free Be-In near downtown, at El Camino Park, on June 24, 1967. However, while Garcia had played a few shows in downtown Palo Alto with the New Riders Of The Purple Sage in 1969, at The Poppycock (at 135 University), Weir had not had a paying gig in downtown Palo Alto since Mother McRee's Uptown Jug Band Champions had played two blocks away at The Top Of The Tangent. Weir had grown up nearby, and he had probably been to the Stanford Theater at least once as a child. However, since I didn't go and didn't know anyone who did, I have no idea if Weir made any reference to his own past, or if he even noticed that he was a block from where he first met Jerry Garcia, at Dana Morgan Music, on Ramona Street.

I asked around school, however, and one person (the same guy who had recognized Kevin McKernan on his bike) knew someone who had gone . I was dying to know what Kingfish sounded like and what they had played--they had never been reviewed in the paper, and I had no idea whether they played original material, blues songs or samba music--but no such hearsay was forthcoming. My friend's one third or fourth hand insight was that seeing Osiris was eerie because Kevin McKernan seemed to be an absolute clone of his older brother. Whoever the original source of that story was, keep in mind that in 1974 there were still plenty of people around Palo Alto who had seen the Dead back in the day, and indeed may have known Pigpen personally, so this was not necessarily a subjective judgement.  Since Osiris faded away before I ever got a chance to see them, I was left with only this tantalizing bit of reflected analysis, never to be subjected to direct assessment.

I finally saw Kingfish, some months later. In fact, I saw them at the Stanford Music Hall, in September 1975 (probably Saturday, September 6). They were great. While some Deadheads sniff at the sameness of Kingfish live tapes, they were a terrific live rock band if you were there in person.

Hayward Daily Review, January 23, 1976
The Stanford Music Hall struggled on intermittently as a venue. Shows were put on as late as January 1976 (misdated in the Art Of Rock book as 1975), but by that time I was in college at Berkeley and didn't care about sleepy little Palo Alto. The rock venue venture soon died out, and the theater went into a further decline. Remarkably, in 1987 it was purchased by David Packard (of Hewlett Packard fame), himself a Palo Alto native, and restored to its former glory, a nice fate that we should all aspire to.

The New Year's Eve Kingfish/Osiris show remains largely a mystery. It definitely occurred, but I can find out nothing about it, particularly in relation to any uniquely Palo Alto features that it may have had. Like many events in the Grateful Dead universe, it shines just beyond visual range, with only the tiniest light beyond the horizon to mark its presence.
The Stanford Theater (nee Music Hall) at 221 University Avenue in Palo Alto, in June 2011

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.