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.

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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.


  1. a wonderful coincidence of sites!


  2. Here's a bit more on the Russian River story, from an interview I did with Bob Weir in July of 1984:

    While we were working up "Alligator," a friend of ours, John Warnecke... His father had a cabin on the Russian River. It was late spring. We packed up and went to that place and worked up a few songs, among them the first few strains of "The Other One" [the "he had to die" part] and "Alligator," and one or two others. Most particularly "The Other One" and "Alligator." "Caution" we had been playing for a while.

    We had a little sort of a stage, a platform that I guess was for a tent, on a bluff over the river. We set up all our equipment, and you couldn't see it from down on the river, which was about 30 feet below, because of the bushes and foliage.

    We'd been watching the canoers come down the river for several days. We had one of the feedback scenarios that you hear in "Caution," where everybody just opens fire with all the electronic weirdness that we had at our disposal at the time. We had all our PA gear set up so it was facing down at the river.

    First off... I had a bullfrog croak that I could do through a microphone that sounded fairly convincing. If you put it through the entire PA and everything we had, it sounded like a 40-foot bullfrog. So we'd wait for the canoers to get right underneath us and then I'd open up with the bullfrog. We'd have them diving out of the canoes.

    Pretty soon we'd just open fire with everything. We'd wait til they got right underneath us and then, "Ready, aim, fire!" and we'd blast them with sonic weirdness of a hellacious sort.

    It was about a week and a half we spent up there....

  3. If Warnecke Sr. was anywhere near the ranch in late May '67, I suppose he couldn't have missed the Dead, particularly the noise! You can imagine the relief when they finally departed for New York...

    This is a little article about Nelson's experimental film:
    It's not really trustworthy, since I notice some glaring errors in their Dead research, and they're clueless about the audio track, but it does suggest that the band met Nelson through Bill Graham, and "the band was interested in having a montage projected onto the wall of the Fillmore Auditorium as a precursor to their shows," and that might have been the purpose of the film.
    Nelson apparently filmed in a few locations, including perhaps a live show (or at least a 'staged' one). What interests me most about it is the audio - the songs (taken off the first album) are cut-up quite disorientingly, so it's by no means a "straight" representation of the band's music. Indeed, it's aggressively psychedelic...
    It's possible the film circulates with different soundtracks, too. One youtube commenter recalls a different soundtrack (the article also notes that different "mixes" of Nelson's films were released), and another says:
    "This is the original version of the film from 1967, with a soundtrack made by the filmmaker, collaged from a 1/4" copy of the first album that the band gave him. A year later, they asked him to create a revised soundtrack using the new album (Anthem of the Sun), which he did, but reluctantly, as the original picture had been edited TO the first soundtrack very tightly."

    A few months later, the Dead headed back to the Russian River, this time staying at Rio Nido for a couple gigs in early September - not that far from the Warnecke ranch, I think. It must have been quite a creative spot - Alligator was born in May, and Dark Star in September.

  4. Forgot to mention that Phil also talks about their stay at the ranch in his book (p.100) -
    "In May of '67 we decided to take up an offer made to us by John Warnecke, a friend of Billy's from high school, who had invited us to his dad's summer place up on the Russian River to hang out." He goes into some detail about the place.

  5. thanks for the great quotes, LIA. I was sure there was a complicated backstory to the Nelson film, but I didn't know what it was or where to find it. And I had a vague idea that there was a Warnecke/Kreutzmann connection, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I think Warnecke Jr went to prep school in Arizona, so he might have met Bill there.

  6. Sandy Troy interviewed Robert Nelson in 1992 and gives this account in "Captain Trips" p 181-182.

    "...Robert Nelson, who had met Lesh when they were both involved with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Nelson, who had received a grant from the Belgium Film Archive, thought the GD would make an interesting subject for an experimental movie he wanted to produce, utilizing a montage of close-ups and wide-angle shots, color and black-and white images, slow- and fast-motion sequences, in-focus and out-of-focus pictures, and single and double exposures to re-create the psychedelic experience. To make up the body of the movie, Nelson used concert footage plus candid shots of the band at the heliport in Sausalito and canoeing on the Russian River in Rio Nido. The visuals worked well with the pieces of GD music used for the soundtrack.

    "Nelson retained the rights to the film, but never did anything commercially with it. Some years later he sold the movie to the band. Nelson recounted, "I was in financial trouble and I needed money, so I decided to sell the rights to the movie. I called Garcia up and asked him if he wanted to buy my film. I didn't really know what it was worth or how much to ask for it, so I just came up with the figure of $11,000. Garcia said, 'No problem, man.' At that point I didn't know whether I asked too much or too little for the film. When the check came in the mail a few weeks later I discovered Jerry had sent me $15,000. Now that's what I call class!""

    Does anyone know anything about "Super Spread with sound track by the GD" other than it was one of the Robert Nelson films on the poster?

  7. "Super Spread" is a 12 and a half minute film of some light shows (I think by Ben Van Meter) with, as it says, a Grateful Dead soundtrack taken I recall from a live show. It was made in late 1966 and in the early part of 1967 and played the local film societies (e.g. Berkeley Cinematheque and the Canyon Cinema co-operative) and played colleges on both coasts in the Autumn of 1967. At some point in the 1990s there was an attempt made to re-edit the film and Nelson was on a lecture circuit four or five years ago and this re-edit was one of the films shown. Ross

  8. I was very curious about this as well. The interesting question I would have, given the date, would be "what live show was it taken from?" We can see above that the "World Premiere" of the film was April 13, 1967, so given the difficulties of editing even a short film back in the day, it must have been a pretty early Dead show.

    Of course Nelson probably spliced up the original tape--sic transit gloria psychedelia and all that.

  9. I thought there had to be an interview with Nelson about the GD film somewhere...

    From what little info I can find, "Super Spread" is generally dated 66-67, so it may have been months in the making. I have many doubts as to whether Nelson would have used a live Dead show as the soundtrack...then again, if he had used their first album, he would've had one month to put the soundtrack together for this premiere.
    (But it's possible that it used audio from the concert footage we briefly see in his "Grateful Dead" short from the next month - that film may have been months in the making, as well; indeed, it must have followed "Super Spread" immediately, and may have been inspired by it.)

    The most extensive description I could find, in the book "Exploding Eye," is that it's "a 13-minute multi-screen light-show film, with an original soundtrack by the Grateful Dead." (Now that "original soundtrack" sounds even MORE intriguing!)

    At any rate, it's a very rare, unseen film today.
    This page notes: "The complete original track survives, but the picture only survives in the form of about half of a print. Nelson remembers selling one print somewhere in Europe (maybe Sweden, he thought), but I haven't had any luck finding it yet."

    And this page also indicates one reason old Robert Nelson films might be hard to procure, since he frequently re-edited or destroyed them!

    Then again, the film has been shown as recently as 2008 (in some form) - for instance this page notes a showing of some older Nelson films that he re-edited and didn't destroy - Super Spread is among a bunch of films included in "a reel of fragments: the abandoned remnants of failed re-edits."

  10. By the way - it's a shame the "recent comments" sidebar no longer works.
    There is a way to still show recent comments, using a Blogger Feed - as these instructions show:
    It doesn't look as good as the old format, but I think it's better than nothing!

  11. yeah, the failure of the "Recent Comments" gadget is very dismaying. It makes it a lot harder for people other than me to see what has been Commented upon.

  12. Another fix for the missing comments is to go to "Add Gadgets", then "More Gadgets" then search on a gadget called "Top Comments" and add that.

  13. I canoed the Russian River out of Guerneville a little this past summer, Rio Nido is right down the road. Of course, couldn't get Alligator out of my head the whole time.

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  15. I thought that I may have a copy of "Super Spread" but it seems not. I did come across copies of various films by Nelson Canyon Cinema cohort Ben Van Meter and his film "Be" was filmed and use a soundtrack from January 14, 1967 (Grateful Dead (Schoolgirl) and QMS) so it could be Nelson used those recordings for "Super Spread". Additionally, BVM's "Acid Mantra" has a great deal of footage and some audio from the Fillmore from 66 and 67 so there could be more from there. All conjecture of course.

  16. Looks like the master Audio Reels are being sold on eBay ......Now.

  17. I was trying to find more info on John Warnecke's role as Dead manager, but couldn't turn up anything more substantive than the brief quote you have here. It's generally just briefly mentioned in retrospective news articles, with Warnecke himself the only source. Phil's book just says he was "a friend of Billy's from high school," and Weir just said he was "a friend of ours;" and they apparently didn't stay at his ranch again, even when playing at Rio Nido in September '67.

    I think there may be a couple possibilities....As you suggest, he may have inflated his role in later years; and at the time he may just have been a friend of the band.
    Then again, we know that people's "roles" in the Dead family were often very fuzzy, and multiple managers floated around without anyone quite knowing what they were managing. Someone could easily come and go, finding a few bookings or doing a little promotion, or helping out in some other way. Maybe Warnecke did something along these lines, maybe not. I think if he'd been any kind of road manager, it would be mentioned somewhere; McNally's pretty good on details like that.
    It would be nice to know more precisely what Warnecke's relationship to the Dead was, but I suspect we may not find out.

  18. Pigpen was asked about Robert Nelson's Dead film and "The Great Blondino" in this interview:

    Not much was revealed, though Pigpen has a little anecdote about the shooting of the Dead film.

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  21. Pictures of McHenry Library and the GD Archive

  22. More pictures of McHenry Library and the GD Archive