Friday, November 14, 2014

Grateful Dead Contribution To The Space Program (Avalon Ballroom 1966)

The iconic Kelly/Mouse poster for the Avalon Ballroom concerts of September 16-17, 1966, featuring the Grateful Dead and the Oxford Circle
We tend to assume that the Internet is a sort of permanent repository, with the Cloud somehow synonymous with the Firmament itself, so that things once there will be there forever. In reality, that is not the case. When the broadband Internet became easily accessible at the end of the 20th Century, all sorts of fascinating material appeared there, but all of it is not necessarily there today. As a result, some pieces of history that were easily accessible are far less so now. In the spirit of preservation, this post will recognize the Grateful Dead's unexpected contribution to NASA and the Space Program--no, not the search for a Dark Star--but it will depend mostly on my memory. There are sure to be omissions and errors, so anyone with corrections, insights or links should be sure to include them in the Comments.

Modern rock concert history began in early 1966. After the success of the Family Dog dances in late 1965, and Trips Festival at Longshoreman's Hall in January 1966, Bill Graham and Chet Helms partnered up to provide the "Sights and Sounds Of The Trip Festival", as a February 1966 poster for a Bill Graham produced Jefferson Airplane concert put it. Thus the modern rock concert industry was born. All we see today at the local arena stems from this genesis.

Yet Bill Graham and Chet Helms, though perfectly matched, were an inherently uneasy partnership. Within six weeks, they had parted company. On April 22, 1966, Helms opened up a competitor to the Fillmore, the legendary Avalon Ballroom at 1268 Sutter Street. Although the Fillmore remained hugely popular, the Avalon instantly grabbed the attention of the hippest of the underground, and the bands preferred to play the Avalon, even if Graham's Fillmore operation actually paid better. The tension between the popular, profitable Fillmore and the hip, artistic Avalon was what gave San Francisco its dynamic cachet. While the Fillmore may have capitalized on various innovations at the Avalon, the twin success meant that playing San Francisco was a viable proposition for the newly-formed psychedelic San Francisco programs.

Still---everyone knows the story of the Beats, LSD, the Fillmore, the Avalon, the Dead and the Airplane, and all that came after. Where does NASA fit into this?

The first Family Dog concerts at the Avalon Ballroom were April 22-23, 1966, featuring The Blues Project and The Great Society. Grace Slick was a member of The Great Society at the time.

Bob Cohen and The Avalon
Chet Helms' original deal with Bill Graham was that they would alternate weekend promotions at the Fillmore Auditorium, while sharing what would now be called "creative capital." Graham ran his shows professionally and knew how to make them pay, but he knew nothing about rock music nor the community coming to the shows. Helms was a visionary, who recognized that rock music would thrive in what would now be called a "performing environment." Each Helms show had a theme, with staging and lights to match, and the poster promoted the theme of the show. Since no one had actually heard of the bands--they mostly hadn't recorded anything--such innovations were critical.

According to legend, it was Chet Helms who knew to book the mighty Paul Butterfield Blues Band in February 1966--Graham had no idea. Yet when Graham saw how the band went over, he woke up early and called Butterfield's manager (Albert Grossman) and made an exclusive deal for the next several months, thus cutting Helms out of potentially lucrative bookings. Helms promptly took steps to leave the Fillmore to Graham, and found his own unused big band ballroom. The Avalon Ballroom on Sutter and Van Ness had been relatively dormant for many years, but it wasn't far from either downtown or the Haight-Ashbury, so Helms opened his own psychedelic palace.

Helms had the insight and connections to the rock bands, and he was good at finding themes and artists to render them. He couldn't do everything, though. Helms' key partner at the Avalon Ballroom was one Bob Cohen. Cohen had somehow learned something about audio technology, I believe in the Air Force. In the late 50s and early 60s, with the draft omnipresent yet no wars looming, many young men chose to enlist in the service of their choice rather than suffer through the grunt duty of infantry as an Army GI. The Air Force had a reputation as a place where there were a lot of interesting electronics happening, and many famous and infamous 60s sound technicians had Air Force backgrounds (Augustus Owsley Stanley III, just to name one, was in the Air Force in the '50s, as were Mickey Hart and Tom Constanten somewhat later).

Bob Cohen put together the sound system at the Avalon, and I believe that the Avalon was the first Bay Area venue with a house system truly equipped for loud, psychedelic rock. Among Cohen's many innovations were putting a sound man out in the crowd with a mixing board. We take this for granted today--a high school play has a house sound man now--but it was basically unknown prior to the Avalon.

Cohen was also an innovator in providing monitor systems for bands. In the early days of rock, guitarists played through their amplifiers, and singers sang through microphones connected to some sort of 'house' PA system, and it often sounded terrible. Cohen improved the situation by providing a house system of amplifiers that both reinforced the guitars and provided sound for the singers. By mixing the vocals from the center of the floor, the sound was probably pretty good by modern standards. By ancient standards, it was probably incredible, which may account for the ecstatic responses of people who went to see bands at the Avalon in the early days, as they could actually hear the musicians play and sing.

However, though Cohen may have been the first to insure that rock crowds could always hear the bands, the bands themselves could hardly hear themselves. Cohen typically mixed the sound from out in the crowd, but he also had the idea to put amplifiers on stage for the band so that they could hear themselves. He then added a soundman on stage, to mix the monitor sound for the band, so they could more or less hear what they were putting out. Cohen even had an in-house intercom system, so he could talk to his monitor guy on stage and the lighting director overhead, to keep everything coordinated. I expect the intercom technology was standard for the Air Force, but it was new stuff in the entertainment industry.

No doubt there were other, similar experiments in different parts of the country, but the Avalon was the first major venue where the hall sound was designed for loud rock, and suitable equipment was in place so that the audience and bands could really hear what was being laid down. No wonder everyone from 1966 remembers the Avalon.

The Grateful Dead played their first Family Dog show at the Avalon on May 28, 1966, along with The Leaves and The Grassroots (they did not play on Friday May 27--in between "Graeful" and "Dead" on the poster, it says "SAT ONLY")

Enter The Grateful Dead
Bob Cohen's sound system at the Avalon Ballroom was ahead of its time. The audience could hear the band clearly, the band could hear themselves, and that only made it better. Combined with the light show and Chet Helms' artistic concept of a complete environment, the Avalon pretty much defined the rock concert experience that we know today. All the local bands, most of them unknown outside of San Francisco, were hot to play the Avalon. The Grateful Dead were no exception.

The Grateful Dead's first show at the Avalon was on May 19, 1966. This show was not actually a Family Dog show, but rather a benefit for the Straight Theater. It is strange to think that the Avalon was hosting a benefit for the Straight, which was trying to open as a competitor, but such was 1966 San Francisco. The Dead's first proper Family Dog show was on May 28, 1966, paired with The Leaves and The Grass Roots. The Dead came back two weeks later, to play Friday and Saturday, June 10 and 11, 1966, with the Quicksilver Messenger Service and Oregon's New Tweedy Brothers.

According to a web post on Bob Cohen's own site, which appears to have since been deleted, Cohen's new system of having a soundman on stage to mix the band while he mixed the sound in the house ran into a problem. Unlike every other band at the time, the Dead had their own sound reinforcement system, financed and built by Owsley and his assistant Tim Scully. By modern standards, the stacks of amplifiers used by the Dead were probably not that big, but in 1966 they were new beasts entirely.

The 1966 Grateful Dead were loud, louder than anyone had ever heard. Now, I don't think the Dead were louder than Blue Cheer, Lee Michaels, Grand Funk, Deep Purple and all that would come after them, but for '66 they blew people's ears out. No one had ever heard anything like it. That included Bob Cohen.

There were two big problems with the Dead at the Avalon. The first was that their stack of amplifiers was so high, it blocked the screens where the light show was displayed. This problem was solved rather easily by putting white sheets over the amp stack, so the light show could simply project onto that. If anything, this looked even better, so everybody was satisfied. Somewhat informally, this also started a tradition for the Dead of decorating their sound system as part of the stage set, although ultimately that would have happened anyway. I have always assumed that the Dead played the Avalon in May with their big stacks, and came back in June with the white sheets.

The Grateful Dead returned to the Avalon on the weekend of August 19-20, 1966, after playing on May 28 and June 10-11. My estimate is that Bob Cohen solved his biggest problem with the Dead by the time of these shows.
The Other Problem
However, the other problem was harder to solve. The Dead were shockingly loud by 1966 standards, because no other band had their own sound system. The guitarists in other bands played through their own amps, but they didn't have electronic geniuses (and troublemakers) like Owsley and Scully providing a tower of top-of-the-line audio equipment to pump out the sound even further. This caused a different problem for Bob Cohen.

At the Avalon, Cohen had worked out the basics of what we now take for granted about rock and roll presentation--stage monitor, house mixer and light show, all electronically linked by an intercom. We take this for granted now without thinking about it, but it all came from Cohen. However, the Dead upended the equation--they were so loud that Cohen could not communicate with his monitor man nor his lighting director. All communication was drowned out by the Grateful Dead's electric thunder.

Cohen must have seen the future, however. Rock and roll was getting louder, not quieter, and the Dead's noisy amp stack was just the shape of things to come. You know how when you're at the Airport news stand and you see the big headphone set that says "Noise Canceling Headphones"? And you buy them, and put them on, and you can listen to your iPod in peace on the plane without being drowned out by jet engines or the chatty jerk in the seat in front of you? Aren't they great? Bob Cohen invented those, too, so he could talk on the intercom to his crew while the Dead were playing "Caution" or something, with Owsley's sound system turned up to 11.

I don't know the exact timing of Cohen's invention. I have always assumed that when the Dead played the Avalon in May and June of 1966, it must have taken Cohen a little while to figure out the solution. I assume that, if Cohen had the Air Force background that I recall, there may have been some existing technology to piggy-back on top of, but even so it must have taken a little while to figure out, and then rig up the crew. However, the Grateful Dead were back at the Avalon on August 19-20, 1966, and I'll bet Cohen had his newly-invented noise canceling headphones up and running by then.

Space-The Final Frontier
Bob Cohen founded a company called Clear-Com, which seems to have provided intercom systems that were geared to loud rock concert environments. As rock concerts got bigger and louder, with more and more crew distributed over larger arenas, Cohen's innovations were particularly critical. According to my memory of Cohen's now deleted web pages, however, that Cohen sold his patent for Noise Canceling Headphones to NASA. Regardless of whether the sale was directly to NASA, or whether it was some indirect relationship, NASA was one of the few businesses for whom a noisy version of "Caution" was not that loud. They had a critical need for noise cancelling headphones, and per the legend Cohen was the provider of the patent. And all because the Grateful Dead were too loud for Cohen to hear his crew on the house intercom.

The album cover for Vintage Dead, released in 1970 on Sunflower Records, an MGM subsidiary. The album featured tracks from an uncertain 1966 Avalon show. For fans in the 70s who had never seen the band back in the day, it was the first whiff of what the early Dead had sounded like.

The Avalon closed in December 1968. Chet Helms went on to numerous other concert ventures, but Cohen seems to have focused on Clear-Com and the technology side of the business. Although he did little studio work that I'm aware of, Cohen did produce the first, fantastic album for Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen for ABC/Paramount in 1971 (Lost In The Ozone). Wonderful as that record was, however, it was all the more remarkable given that, according to the Airmen, Cohen didn't like country music that much.

Cohen fortunately had shown the foresight to tape the performers at the Avalon. Around about 1970, he approached various record companies about doing a series of albums made up of recordings from the early days of the Avalon. Since Cohen had recorded these bands before they had contracts, the rights to these recordings would be open to negotiation. Cohen made some sort of deal with MGM Records for some Grateful Dead recordings, but somehow the entire deal went south. Cohen angrily withdrew his tapes. However, MGM used a dub of Cohen's tape and released the albums Vintage Dead and Historic Dead anyway, in 1970 and '71, on the MGM subsidiary label Sunflower.

Although Vintage Dead and Historic Dead were the first 1966 Grateful Dead that was heard by anyone who wasn't there, and revelatory when they were released, they were still frustrating albums. I don't quite know if the Dead were originally on board with the project or not. I do know that Rock Scully apparently went to a meeting with MGM execs with a huge electromagnet in his pocket, in the hopes of ruining the dubbed tape, but it didn't work. Cohen was so disgusted by the whole experience that he actually destroyed the original tapes, presumably to prevent MGM from getting possession through a lawsuit. This would explain why the complete tapes of the Vintage/Historic Dead lps have never surfaced--they're gone. We don't even really know if the tapes were from September 16-17, 1966-that was just the poster used on the Vintage Dead lp, and given MGM's history that's hardly a confirmation (the best guess seems to be Avalon shows on December 23-24, 1966).

The cover to the 1996 Sundazed cd Oxford Circle Live At The Avalon 1966, a wonderful album made from Bob Cohen's tapes
Cohen seems to have focused on Clear-Com, and finally retired in 1998, leaving Clear-Com to thrive without him. Last I heard, Bob Cohen lives in the hills of Oakland, perhaps near the house on Ascot Drive where Owsley and his cohorts used to plan to reorganize the world. Supposedly he has a basement full of tapes from the Avalon, clean and epic and one of a kind. Before you get too excited, remember that Cohen has said that at various times the members of the Dead crew interfered with his efforts to tape the Dead, so I don't necessarily think he has any long-lost Dead tapes.

But if you're interested in the Avalon itself, well--that's a different matter. In 1996, there was an amazing cd release of an Avalon show by a band called The Oxford Circle, and they absolutely rocked. Blasting through a first of its kind sound system, with the light show blazing, and the 60s in full flower, it wouldn't have mattered that they were a relatively unknown band from Davis, CA. In that sense, Bob Cohen is what we all hope to find, not just an innovator, but one who documents his best work. If you're up on Skyline Boulevard, and you can hear a fuzzy guitar emanating from somewhere, maybe it's not some imitation, but an actual window into the past as it once was.