Sunday, November 1, 2009

February 1, 1966 Fillmore Auditorium Grateful Dead/Great Society/Loading Zone (audition-revised: was Jan 4)

My initial version of this post posited that the Grateful Dead Fillmore audition was on Tuesday, January 4, 1966. However, thanks to an eloquent argument in the comments from Ross, I have changed my view and believe the audition to have been on Tuesday February 1. I have  revised the post considerably as a result.

 In the 1960s, recording studio time was hard to come by,  and portable tape recorders were too lo-fi to effectively record amplified music. As a result, newly formed bands, or bands that were new to an area, had little choice but to audition for club owners. This ritual has been fairly unknown for some decades, as once quality cassette decks became available, even an unsophisticated band could make a tape of their rehearsal so that a club owner could at least know their basic sound. Bands from the 1960s, however, are rife with tales of dragging their equipment down to an empty club on an afternoon or an off night, playing for free so the club owner (or booking agent) could hear what they sounded like.

Bill Graham's Fillmore West and Fillmore East made a business of this, and almost every Tuesday night from late 1968 onwards was devoted to local bands, some newly formed or newly arrived in the area. This slice of Fillmore history is largely forgotten, although I have attempted to accumulate what little is known about those shows. Both Fillmores East and West were substantial venues, so the Tuesday night gigs were also low-key nights with actual audiences, if less of of the electricity of a weekend show. However, an Italian correspondent has recently reminded me of a little remembered reference to a much earlier Fillmore audition.

Soon after Jerry Garcia died, author Robert Greenfield put together an "Oral History" of Jerry Garcia's life (Dark Star, William Morrow Books, 1996). Greenfield threaded together numerous interviews with various people who knew Garcia and The Dead into a portrait of the guitarist and his times. The book was intended as more impressionistic than encyclopedic, as Blair Jackson's later work Garcia: An American Life (Penguin Books, 1999) provided the definitive history of Garcia and his place in American music. Ironically, as a result of Jackson's excellent work, less attention is now paid to Greenfield, and as a result I forgot one of the most interesting references.

Greenfield quotes past and future Garcia bandmate David Nelson about the transition of The Warlocks in 1965 into the Grateful Dead in 1966
I went up to their Tuesday night audition at the Fillmore. The other bands that were auditioning that same night were The Great Society and The Loading Zone. I remember I took acid that night, too. I walked in real early and nobody was even there. Bill Graham used to put a barrel of apples out. I saw the apples. I thought "Hmm. Probably for somebody private or something." I said "I'm hungry. I'll steal one anyway." So I took an apple and was just biting into it when Bill Graham walked in. I didn't know who he was. I thought "I hope he's just a janitor." I just started cooling it and then he walked by and I looked at him and nodded. He looked and nodded and then he did one of those Bill things. He stopped, did a slow double take and said "Who are you? Who are you with?" I said "Warlocks." I knew this would make him know I really was with them. Because this was the first night they were auditioning as The Grateful Dead (p.68-69).
I am not aware of any discussion of this Fillmore audition elsewhere. David Nelson is renowned as a man with an exceptional memory, so acid or no there is good reason to accept most of this story at face value. Of course, I have had to speculate on the date, and assuming that it was a Tuesday night, and considering the information provided by Ross in the comments (at Lost Live Dead), I think that February 1, 1966 is the most likely date.

Bill Graham first discovered the Fillmore Auditorium for the second Mime Troupe Benefit, which took place on December 10, 1965. The Jefferson Airplane and The Warlocks played the show, among others. Apparently Bill Kreutzmann, effectively the Warlocks manager, called The Mime Troupe and managed to get the Warlocks on the bill. The third and final Mime Troupe Benefit was at the Fillmore on January 14, 1966, featuring the Great Society, The Mystery Trend, The Grateful Dead and The Gentleman's Band. Once Graham discovered that the lease on the Fillmore was available starting February 1, he made a substantial effort to provide assurances that he was equipped to manage the building. Graham began his run of Fillmore productions on February 4-5-6 with Jefferson Airplane, Mystery Trend and Quicksilver.

Although Graham had been the business manager of The Mime Troupe, and had entertainment experience, he did not know the local bands on the scene. It makes sense he would hold an audition for potential performers, and Tuesday February 1 was the first day the venue would have been available to him. The Warlocks had played the first Fillmore Mime Troupe Benefit (December 10), and the Grateful Dead the second (January 14). However, Jerry Garcia has an oft-told story of having first met Bill Graham when Bill was trying to fix Jerry's guitar at The Trips Festival on January 22. This means that Graham and the Dead had had relatively little contact even though the band had played for him twice. Graham was hardly a rock fan at this point (he liked Latin Jazz), and by all evidence the Grateful Dead were a strange, ragged band in person, both musically and in the flesh.

The Great Society missed The Trips Festival because they had a poorly attended gig at The Gate Theater in Sausalito (poorly attended because the potential audience was at The Trips Festival). Nonetheless they appeared to have succeeded at their audition, since they played the second Fillmore weekend on February 12. Even the Great Society subsequently admitted they were not a very good band at the point, so one has to think that Grace Slick's natural star power went a long way in convincing Graham they were worth booking.

It is more problematic to judge the results of The Dead's audition. The Dead were probably in San Francisco because they had played the Matrix over the weekend (January 28-29), and joined in on an Acid Test early Sunday morning. However, other than David Nelson's quote 30 years after the fact, neither Bill Graham nor Jerry Garcia has ever mentioned this, despite numerous interviews over the years (nor has Lesh, Weir or anyone else). Given the tendency of both Graham and the Dead to recite stories from their storied past over and over (often in response to the same questions over and over), it seems surprising that this event was simply forgotten. I cannot help but think it was because the Dead did poorly at the audition, and given the subsequent comfortable history of Graham and the Dead, everybody involved just preferred to forget about it.

Soon after the Fillmore auditions, The Dead  moved South to Los Angeles with Owsley. Nonetheless, while Owsley was their patron, if Graham had offered the Dead some bookings in early February they very likely would have stayed in town, at least briefly. Thus it is hard not to conclude that Graham either did not offer the Dead a booking, or at least did not offer them a well paying enough one to stick around. The Grateful Dead did not in fact play the Fillmore again until June 3. Given that the band crawled back to San Francisco in April, dead broke and happy to be home, Graham must have been in no hurry to hire them, a fact presumably everyone involved prefers to forget.

The Loading Zone also appear to have not succeeded at the audition, and did not play the Fillmore until they opened for a Grateful Dead show on October 21, 1966. The Zone played with the Dead many times in 1966, not least at The Trips Festival, but this audition shows the connection went back farther than I realized. While Loading Zone did not play the Mime Troupe Benefit, they did play the smaller if similarly legendary Open Theater Benefit in Berkeley on the same night.

Although its known that The Warlocks auditioned various times, I know of no other instance where The Grateful Dead had to audition. Thanks to Ken Kesey, Owsley and fate, the band became legendary before most people had heard them, and they never lacked for an audience after this. Its appropriate that their only apparent audition was at Ground Zero for the San Francisco scene. The most remarkable aspect of the audition remains left to the imagination: the newly-christened Grateful Dead, playing in an unadorned Fillmore Auditorium, Grace Slick, David Nelson and a few others standing around, Bill Graham frowning in thought.

Cross posted on Lost Live Dead.

1 comment:

  1. I have placed a comment on this message at the other blog: