Friday, August 14, 2015

Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Landmark Guide: Oakland

The Oakland Auditorium in 1917, two years after it was built
The Grateful Dead are correctly known as the archetypal San Francisco band. Their roots were in Palo Alto, even if nearby Menlo Park had just as much of a claim to them. As the Dead turned into a national act, a good claim could be made for Manhattan having made them giant, with some help from Jersey City and Brooklyn. As they toured the country year after year, certain venues became legendary: Boston Garden, Red Rocks or whatever your favorite stop might have been.

However, in the annals of Grateful Dead history, Oakland gets no love. This is unfair, since some of the most critical venues in the Grateful Dead's regular schedule were in Oakland. On top of that, the city's proximity to Marin and San Francisco meant that all sorts of oddball one-off events took place there as well. This post will try and raise the city's profile in Dead history by looking at the locations and histories of some places in Oakland that played a part in the band's story.

The Oakland Auditorium from the North and East, with Lake Merritt in the foreground, exact date of the picture unknown
Oakland Auditorium Arena, 10 Tenth Street (at Oak), Oakland, CA 94607
later known as: Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center
First Grateful Dead show: June 28, 1967
Last Grateful Dead show: February 7, 1989 (58 shows)
Also: Jerry Garcia Band (first Oct 31 '86, last Nov 11 '94-5 shows)

The history of the Grateful Dead in Oakland has to begin with the Oakland Auditorium, later known as the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium. The auditorium was built in 1915, and it was host to many performers over the years, including Elvis Presley and James Brown. The Dead even played there as far back as 1967 and 1971. However, starting in 1979, after Winterland had closed, the old Auditorium became the Grateful Dead's home court. In the early 80s, when the Dead seemed like dinosaurs and they were not yet iconic, seeing shows at 10th and Oak was like a gathering of the tribe, all the more important when we had no other way to meet. The New Year's runs were also a prime opportunity to get a taste of the Dead on the West Coast, so the impact of the Auditorium went far beyond the Bay Area.

The Dead simply sized out of the Kaiser in 1989, after "Touch Of Gray" made shows there unmanageable. The little vending scene on the lawn outside the arena, officially sanctioned by BGP, had simply gotten too large, and the demand for tickets was too great. By the time of the last Dead show at Kaiser, the Dead were already playing bigger places. Yet the Kaiser stands as the symbol of the Brent era, when the Dead were a self-sustaining artifact, defying logic and good sense.

After the Dead's departure, there wasn't really a good role for the building. A new, more efficient convention center was built downtown, and the Kaiser was in that place where it was always too big or too small, but never just right. After losing money for years, the building was finally closed by the Oakland. It is still standing, but no one can decide what to do with it. In June 2015, the Golden State Warriors victory parade ended at the Kaiser, and the little lawn outside the Auditorium was filled with far more people (and vendors) than were ever in Shakedown Street. The building awaits a miracle ticket for its redemption.

In 2015, the Golden State Warriors won the NBA title for the first time since Blues For Allah, and a huge crowd gathered outside the old Auditorium  (at left) for one last hurrah. By all reports, vending was rampant.

Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, 7000 Coliseum Way, Oakland, CA 94621
replaced by: Oracle Arena (re-opened 1997)
First Grateful Dead show: February 17, 1979
Last Grateful Dead show: February 26, 1995 (66 shows)
Also: Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, Dec 4 '88 (Bridge Concert), Jerry Garcia Band Oct 31 '92

Ask a veteran Deadhead, perhaps yourself: what building did the Grateful Dead play the most? Go ahead, look it up on Deadlists. The Fillmore East (43 shows)? The original Fillmore Auditorium (51)? Madison Square Garden (52)? The Philadelphia Spectrum (53)? Winterland (60)? 1545 Market Street, the location of both the Carousel Ballroom (16) and Fillmore West (46--total=62)?

What building did the Grateful Dead play most often? The answer turns out to be the mostly unloved Oakland Coliseum Arena, which the Grateful Dead played 66 times between 1979 and 1995. The Coliseum complex, with the indoor arena and the outdoor stadium, was built in 1966 to house the Oakland Raiders and tempt the (at the time) San Francisco Warriors and Kansas City Athletics. It did just that. No one really loved the Coliseum, but it had and has a spectacularly central location, right off Highway 880. It had its own BART stop, it was near the Airport, you could get there easily from every county, but it was just sort of--there.

As a result, the 15,000+-capacity Coliseum Arena was the prime spot for top rock acts in the Bay Area from the late 60s through the 90s. Initially, the Arena was too big for rock acts, but when bands like Cream, Blind Faith and the Rolling Stones had their most famous tours, the Coliseum was not only the biggest venue, but also the best located. Thus the roster of bands that have played the Coliseum Arena is like a Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction list. Even when Shoreline Amphitheatre came along in 1986 and superseded the Coliseum as the flagship Bay Area venue, the Coliseum still handled all the Fall and Winter shows, so everybody still played the venue regularly.

Most long-tenured Deadheads, myself included, have seen some Dead shows at the Arena. Some of them were pretty good, too. But they don't have the sense of place that the Oakland Auditorium had. Maybe it was the size, or the nondescript architecture of the building. Maybe it was just because I went to the Coliseum so many times, and have so many great memories, that the Dead are just one of many (Back in the early 80s, I saw 6'4 Adrian Dantley of the Utah Jazz drop 46 on the Warriors one night, mostly from the paint, and it was a thing to behold. Come to think of it, I saw Swen Nater do the same--don't get me started on Joe Barry Carroll's defense. Which just shows you that I don't even think of the Dead first at the Coliseum). There were actually a number of social connections between the Grateful Dead and the popular but usually underperforming Golden State Warriors. The most famous of these was the Dead's contributions to the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Team (captured in the movie The Other Dream Team).

After the 1996-97 NBA season, the Coliseum Arena was fully remodeled into a much larger configuration, and now can seat just over 20,000 for basketball. It is currently known as the Oracle Arena, and remains the home of the unexpectedly mighty Golden State Warriors.

Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Stadium, 7000 Coliseum Way, Oakland, CA 94621
now: Coliseum
First Grateful Dead show: June 8, 1974
Last Grateful Dead show: May 27, 1989 (5 shows)
Also: Bob Weir and Kingfish (June 29, 1975, opening for Doobie Bros/Eagles), and Nelson Mandela (June 30 '90, Mickey Hart part of drum procession)

The Oakland Coliseum Stadium shares a parking lot with the indoor basketball arena. It was part of the thrust for "multi-use" stadiums that were popular in the 1970s. As such, it housed both the Raiders (since 1966) and the A's (since 1968). Amazingly, it still does. What was once a gleaming new cement palace that was superior to cold Candlestick across the bay is now a rundown block that pales before PacBell Park or Levi's Stadium. The strange departure and return of the Raiders caused new centerfield bleachers (known colloquially as "Mt Davis") to be constructed, ruining the pleasant view of the Oakland hills. Nonetheless, the stadium perseveres, even if its tenants perpetually threaten to move.

The Coliseum Stadium was the primary spot for most of the huge outdoor rock shows in the Bay Area in the 20th century, save for the Beatles appearance at Candlestick (August 29 1966), which preceded the stadium. The few subsequent Candlestick rock concerts were only held there, grudgingly, because the A's or Raiders had prior bookings at the Coliseum,

The Dead played five shows at the Stadium, all pretty legendary. They headlined over The Beach Boys on June 8, 1974, they were double-billed with The Who on October 9-10, 1976, they played with Bob Dylan on July 24, 1987 and they headlined over John Fogerty (who was backed by Jerry and Bob, among others) on May 27, 1989. It's kind of like the A's: the Coliseum itself isn't that memorable, but what happened there remains etched in your mind long after you have departed.

Oakland Exposition Center, 9th and Fallon Streets, Oakland, CA 94607
I am pursuing some very tenuous leads to a Grateful Dead performance in early 1967 at the Oakland Exposition Center. The Exposition Center was at 9th and Fallon, and was an all-purpose civic auditorium, used for trade shows, roller derbies, midget car races and all sorts of other things. It was torn down for the California Museum, which opened in 1969. Since I can't confirm the show yet, I am only provisionally including this reference for completism, and of course hoping someone knows something.
This photo from the Dunsmuir House shows a costume event (set in the '20s), but that's not why its misleading. Although the estate looks beautiful here, the photo does not do it justice and the estate grounds are even more engaging.
Dunsmuir House And Gardens2960 Peralta Oaks Court, Oakland, CA 94605
August 18, 1985: Jerry Garcia and John Kahn/Ron Price

Dunsmuir House was built in 1878 by Alexander Dunsmuir. Later it was purchasedby Isaias Hellmann (1842-1920), one of the principal financial architects of Los Angeles, and from 1906 onwards, also the chairman of Wells Fargo Bank. Hellman's great-grandson was Warren Hellman, who among many other things was the founder of the wonderful Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. Isaias Hellman owned Dunsmuir House until his death in 1920, and afterwards the grounds were ultimately passed to the city of Oakland. Nestled in the Oakland foothills, calling Dunsmuir "beautiful" does the estate a disservice.

The City of Oakland has never been able to figure out what to do with the estate, other than rent it out for the occasional wedding. BGP briefly tried putting on concerts there. Jerry Garcia and John Kahn played a show on August 18, 1985, and they didn't play that well, but honestly, it didn't matter. The setting was so spectacular and the weather so perfect that Jerry and John were just sort of present. I'm sure the tape is lousy--so what, you should have been there. If you get invited to a wedding at the estate, go to it even if you don't like the bride and groom.

The Omni, 4799 Shattuck Avenue, Oakland, CA
Ligure Hall was built in the 1930s at 48th St and Shattuck Avenue as an Italian-American social club. However, the Grove-Shafter Freeway changed the neighborhood, and many of the club members moved away. The hall was used for a few rock shows in the 1960s, but it never caught on. In 1985, the Hall was acquired by John Nady, who had made a fortune with wireless guitar pickups. He opened a rock nightclub called The Omni. The Omni featured many metal bands, as well as groups on their way down.

Nonetheless, on December 19, 1986 Go Ahead played The Omni. Go Ahead was a spin-off band that included Brent Mydland and Bill Kreutzmann (along with Alex Ligterwood, Jerry Cortez and David Margen). They had toured around a fair amount in 1986 when it wasn't clear at all that Garcia would return to action. By December, the Dead had already performed, but Go Ahead played their Omni date anyway. According to Joel Selvin, Garcia even showed up to hang out, although he did not play. A commenter on another post said
Jerry did show up at the Go Ahead concert with a lady friend from the Hog Farm and took a table right on the dancefloor -- it was amazing to come back to the ballroom from the bar before the show and find him sitting there. He was plainly in good spirits and was pleasant to people who went up and said hi but people gave him plenty of space -- a very hip crowd. And a great show. 
On Halloween, 1987, The Tubes played The Omni. The once-mighty Tubes were very much on the downslide, but Vince Welnick was still the keyboard player at the time. John Nady ended up purchasing The Stone around 1988, but The Stone closed in 1990 or so, and The Omni shut down in 1992. The building is now a private residence, only used for occasional public events.

Scottish Rites Temple, 1547 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, CA, 94612
July 3, 1991: AIDS Conference; Bob Weir

The Freemasons had established an organization in Oakland in 1883. They had had a number of buildings for their headquarters, but the current one was started in 1925 and finished in 1927. It is on the Northern side of Lake Merritt, near Grand Avenue, at 1547 Lakeside. Masonic Temples were a common feature of American cities in the early 20th century, and indeed many legendary psychedelic ballrooms were re-purposed Scottish Rites Temples, including the Avalon. The Oakland temple (the Masons are not a religion, but they call their meeting halls "temples") is still local headquarters for the Masons, but the building is available for rent as well.

On July 3, 1991, there was an Oakland AIDs conference, back when that was still a meaningful political act, as opposed to simply a medical colloquium. Bob Weir appeared at the conference, I believe performing a few songs solo as part of some opening or closing ceremony.

Owsley's House, 6024 Ascot Drive, Oakland, CA, 94611
The story and location of this house used to be a bit of a secret, but I guess now that it is part of the real estate pitch, it's fair to talk about it. Oakland first became a great city in 1869, when for geographical reasons it became the terminus of the first Transcontinental Railway. Trains all arrived in Oakland because they could not really arrive in San Francisco, so people and goods in great number went to Oakland before they crossed the bay, and the city thrived accordingly. The beautiful Oakland hills, relatively far from downtown, were for the wealthy estates of the Bay Area's rich.

The second major boost to Oakland came after the 1906 earthquake, when many San Francisco residents were evacuated to Oakland to avoid the raging fires. Many of them stayed, and so Oakland boomed again after 1906, along with San Francisco. Once the automobile was generally available, the Oakland hills became accessible to more than the super-wealthy. Of course, those who lived in the Oakland hills were still pretty well off, in that they had large properties with spectacular views that were only accessible by then-exotic automobiles, but the civilization of the Oakland hills was underway.

The arrival of the Bay Bridge changed the economic underpinning of Oakland, although that was muted somewhat by the explosion of shipbuilding during World War 2 (which itself was excellent for Bay Area music, by the way). The mid 1950s also saw the relative demise of rail transportation, in favor of trucks (and later jet planes), so that by the 1960s Oakland was somewhat fading in importance. As a result, houses in the Oakland hills were often available at surprisingly reasonable prices, if you didn't mind the windy roads and the distance from the freeway (I-580 had not yet been built).

In her recent book Owsley And Me: My LSD Family, Rhoney Gissen describes the house at 6024 Ascot Drive in some detail. Originally it was rented by Ali Akbar Khan school of music. Rhoney writes
Indian music gave me clarity, so I drove to the Ali Akbar Khan School Of Music, situated in a beautiful Spanish-style multilevel house with arts-and-crafts detailing in the secluded hills of Oakland, southeast of Berkeley. While I was listening to a morning raga played by Khansahib with Vince Delgado on tabla, it occurred to me that this place would be perfect for Bear. With all the rooms and levels, he could live here with any member of the Grateful Dead family. Ramrod had already agreed to live with Bear when he moved [p166]
Since the School was moving at month's end, Owsley was intrigued enough to visit:
We walked around the house and there was a swimming pool and a separate entrance in the back. Stately trees reached beyond the third floor. We went back inside which was atop a long stairway from the front door.
"Look, Bear, I can stand at the top of the stair and see who's coming."
"Yes, but you can't see the front door from any of the windows." [p.167]
Bear eventually agrees, and Rhoney gets Bear to let Ali Akhbar Khan and his students to open for the Grateful Dead in Berkeley (at the Berkeley Community Theater on September 20, 1968) in return for letting Owsley take over the lease.
At the end of the Summer of 1968, when the Indian musicians moved out of the house in the Oakland hills, Bear moved in. Betty and Bob Matthews took the downstairs apartment, and Ramrod moved into the bedroom next to Bear's. Weir camped out in the living room. [p168]
It is part of the oddness of Owsley that when the Dead left the Haight to move to Marin, he moved to the secluded Oakland hills. In order to get to either the Dead's Novato warehouse or any of the San Francisco venues, Owsley had to take a long drive in his convertible sportscar (I believe a Porsche 356), but that was part of his mystery. According to an unreliable anonymous memoir I read, Owsley had business interests at a rug shop on Alcatraz Avenue in Berkeley, and perhaps he wanted to be nearby.

Owsley lived in the Ascot Drive house until his incarceration in July of 1970. The Ali Akbar Khan School of Music moved to San Rafael, and seems to be still going strong. The house at 6024 Ascot Drive, once the Acid King's secret hideaway, is now just another nice house with a lovely view and a colorful past.

The Arbor Villa Palm Trees on 9th Avenue between E. 24th and E. 28th Street are sort of near Lake Merritt, but are only included here because I wanted to use a picture of them. They have nothing to do with the Grateful Dead. They were planted in 1890, and originally lined the Eastern edge of Francis "Borax" Smith's estate.
Grateful Dead Historical Research Quadrangle
Aside from actual places where the Grateful Dead and its members have performed, like any phenomenon, there are odd little loci where certain aspects of Grateful Dead culture have thrived. One of those is Brooklyn, New York, where the Dead rarely played but was nonetheless critical to the rise of taping culture, but that is a topic for another book that someone else will be writing. However, from the 1980s onwards there has been some serious research into the nature and history of The Grateful Dead, and much of that research forms an approximate square around Lake Merritt.

Lake Merritt is a large tidal lagoon in the center of the city of Oakland. It was originally surrounded by wetlands, but by the late 19th century the inflow and outflow of water was carefully managed. Nonetheless, one of the many unique things about Oakland is that it has a huge (the circumference is 3.4 miles) wildlife refuge right next to downtown. The Oakland Auditorium anchors the Southwestern edge of the lake, and that alone would make it memorable in Dead history. However, the other three sides of the quadtangle have a place as well.

In the 1980s, the magazine Golden Road, produced by Blair Jackson and Regan McMahon, set the standard for Grateful Dead scholarship. It was the first publication that did serious, accurate journalism on the Dead while still having an enthusiasts' perspective, and it remains a touchstone for anyone interested in the band at the time and today. The Golden Road was produced on the Eastern edge of Lake Merritt, pretty near Leaning Tower Of Pizza.

Later in the 1980s, and into the 90s, before the Internet became a thing, David Gans' Deadhead Hour became syndicated nationwide. Thus any aspiring Dead fan could get cool tapes, and not need to meet a guy whose brother knew a guy who knew a dude who bought some reel-to-reels at a flea market (which is sort of how I got Providence Sep 15 '73, but that's a digression). Anyone with an FM radio and a patch cord could get a pretty cool Dead tape every week, and so the Grateful Dead slowly infiltrated the land, one suburban bedroom at a time. Deadhead Hour World Headquarters was (and remains) at the Northeastern corner of Lake Merritt.

Lost Live Dead remained just an idea for the 20th century, although the occasional whiff could be found in Golden Road or Deadbase VII. Nonetheless, a significant part of the research for the blog was done near the Northern part of Lake Merritt, on both sides of Highway 580. Now the Kaiser is closed, Golden Road is a memory, the Oakland Coliseum has long since been replaced, and Lost Live Dead is produced in virtual space, far to the East of Grand Avenue.

Oakland perseveres, however, its fortune made by being the terminus of the first Transcontinental railroad, and then narrowed by the Bay Bridge. Yet the city's importance in American history and Grateful Dead history remains undiminished by time. The Golden State Warriors bought a title back to Oakland in 2015, 40 years after their last one, and 26 years after any other Oakland team, so everything remains possible.

The Henry J. Kaiser Convention center ca. 2013, fenced off and unused, hoping for a Miracle Ticket [from Oakland Scene]