Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Rock Garden, San Francisco, 4742 Mission Blvd March 21-May 2, 1967


Elsewhere I have been working through some of the permutations of a short-lived 60s San Francisco rock venue called The Rock Garden. In general, this venue is only known because a few Michael Woods posters from its month of psychedelic shows were published in Paul Grushkin's book Art Of Rock. I do not know the provenance of the posters or how they endured, but if they had not this venue would be even more obscure than it is currently. Thanks to some shrewd research by Ross and doggedly reviewing the Entertainment pages of the San Francisco Chronicle for 1967, I have pieced together some significant pieces of the story, which I am presenting here.

The Rock Garden was a former movie theater that had apparently been converted into a club presenting Latin music. At the time, Latin jazz was popular for dancing in San Francisco, but it was somewhat passe. 4742 Mission Boulevard (at Ocean) was in the Excelsior District, next to the Mission District but just about as far from downtown San Francisco as you could be. In many ways,  the community was more like the Peninsula suburbs nearby. I have to presume, however, that since it had a liquor license and an all-important dance permit, it was easier to convert into a rock club than a place with neither such approvals.

Apparently, a Merry Prankster named Lou Todd persuaded Dave Rapkin, a succesful North Beach club owner, to convert the Rock Garden into a premier rock club. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Latin Jazz had somewhat replaced Be-Bop as the entertainment of choice in North Beach, San Francisco's primary entertainment district.  By the mid-1960s, the North Beach scene on Broadway had been taken over by topless dancing. The whole topless thing is very hard to explain, but suffice to say it was rooted in Burlesque, and while the attraction was --duh--women dancing with their tops off, it was usually part of a sort of revue with bands, dancing, comedians and magic acts (with and without tops). Topless shows were considerably less graphic than strip clubs are today, but of course it was somewhat more innocent time. Going to a topless club was the equivalent of going to an R-Rated movie (which did not exist at the time): a racy thing for adults to do, but not shameful.


Rapkin's most successful club was called The Galaxie, on Broadway and Kearny. For much of 1965 and 1966, the club featured the band Stark Naked And The Car Thieves. They were actually from Indiana, where they had been called The Checkmates. How they ended up in San Francisco playing as Stark Naked And The Car Thieves is quite a story, but too long to tell here (the ad is from the February 11, 1966 San Mateo Times).


By 1967, Topless Clubs were starting to peak, although the newspapers were still full of ads for such clubs. The new gimmick seemed to be "amateur" topless dancers, and "amateur contests," somewhat hourly. I doubt the performers were true amateurs, even if the odd drunken patron must have participated (no doubt thankful now that YouTube had not been invented). In any case, there were fewer "name" Topless" performers. There were still bands, however. In the second ad (from the April 29, 1967 Chronicle) vocalist Rick Stevens leads a quartet; Stevens would go on to be lead singer for Oakland's Tower of Power during some of their finest moments (such as 1972's "You're Still A Young Man").

Rapken's other North Beach club was The Moulin Rouge, at 412 Broadway. Given that there were fewer ads for it, it must have been a notch lower on the food chain, since it was in walking distance of the Galaxie (the ad is from the Chronicle listings of April 2, 1967. Sharp-eyed readers will note that the address is 412 Broadway, and it would later become the "second" Matrix, then Soul Train, and then The Stone).

In early 1967, the Fillmore and The Avalon were booming, and psychedelic rock concerts were being put on all over the Bay Area, with various degrees of success. A shrewd club operator must have seen the financial opportunities in promoting rock concerts, and while it shared some trappings with the Fillmore, there were also some very different things about the Rock Garden.


The Rock Garden attempted to distinguish itself by printing diamond-shaped posters. The few surviving posters were apparently the only diamond-shaped posters known, at least in San Francisco (the one above is for the debut March 21-26 shows with Love, Big Brother and The Holding Company and The Citizens for Interplanetary Activity h/t Ross for the scans). However, there were a number of other critical distinctions between the Rock Garden and its competitors.

First of all, the Excelsior District is very far from downtown San Francisco, so far that most San Franciscans who do not live there have never been there. Not only is it a fair distance, there are some substantial hills between it and downtown. Since the 1970s, BART has serviced that area of town (at the Glen Park Station) but in the 1960s it would have been a very long bus ride, not conducive to late night celebrating. The club was much nearer to the Peninsula suburbs. However, a peculiarity of San Francisco geography was that most visitors took the freeway straight downtown, and had as little idea about the Excelsior as any who lived outside the district. In any case, if you lived in Burlingame or San Mateo, it was no harder to drive to the Fillmore than to the Rock Garden, even if you knew where it was. As a result of its location, the Rock Garden was largely inaccessible to the Haight Ashbury and Berkeley hippies who made up a big part of regular Fillmore and Avalon attendance.

The other big difference between the Rock Garden and the Fillmore and Avalon was that the Rock Garden served drinks. Bars are very profitable, but a significant percentage of the rock audience at this time was under 18 or under 21, and the Rock Garden's bar would prevent them from entering (18-year olds were allowed in some circumstances in California, but the main point is still the same). Also, drinking was considered "square" by the hippies, and most of them could barely scrape together the money for a Fillmore ticket, much less have 20 bucks to drop on drinks all night.

The Rock Garden was open for 6 nights a week, from Tuesday to Sunday, with regular display ads in the Chronicle (the one at the top is from the opening weekend) and fancy posters, trying to entice patrons from all over the Bay Area to come to the Rock Garden any time for a great evening. This was a great idea---about 10 years early. The rock audience was definitely getting older and heading to the suburbs, but that would not reach fruition until some years later (in San Francisco it was a club called The Old Waldorf).

The other interesting twist was that Dave Rapkin hired local engineering whiz Charlie Butten to design a state-of-the-art sound system. Some years later, in Rolling Stone, Butten explained

 Charlie determined to use the stage to enclose the speakers - literally build them below the musicians!

"The stage was eight by 16 by three feet high," said Charlie, smiling puckishly. "And I was building a folded four-throated 16-cycle exponential horn into it. We got the bass speaker done, but then Todd left and Rapkin wouldn't let us go any further. He said the sound was too muddy, which, of course, it was because there was nothing to go with it.

"The bass stopped at 100 cycles and the highs didn't go below 500. And I think some of the musicians complained that it hurt.
The Prankster connection seems to have provided a direct line to top-of-the-line bands. Big Brother and The Holding Company were managed by a former Prankster (Julius Karpen), and Love (whom you will note is actually billed above Big Brother) were a very hip LA band (Citizens For Interplanetary Activity were Charlie Butten's housemates). The second week was even more impressive, with the Grateful Dead on board for the week of March 28-April 2 (perversely described as April 28-March 2 on the poster).

Jerry Garcia had grown up on Harrington Street, in the Excelsior, and had probably gone to the venue when it was a movie theater. His brother Tiff helped prepare the theater for rock bands, too. Most memorably, Jerry Garcia's mother, who still lived nearby, saw her son perform for the first time in years. Ralph Gleason of the Chronicle attended opening night, and while positive, implicitly warned that the drinking-age only plan won't work.


Besides an implicit crack about the location ("2 miles due north of San Luis Obispo") Gleason says (in the March 29, 1967 Chronicle)
The club is low, dark and somewhat stiff but has a big-time sound system with speakers under the bandstand and once they drop the booze and get set for youth, it should be a big success.

The third week featured less popular groups, although they resonate some more today. Steve Miller Blues Band was locally popular, but a long way from National prominence. The Orkustra featured future Its A Beautiful Day violinist David LaFlamme (and future Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil on guitar) but they too were little known. The Steve Miller/Only Alternatives/Orkustra billing was featured from Tuesday April 4 through Sunday April 9. The discovery of this ad has caused me to wonder whether there was a diamond shaped poster for this event as well.

The fourth week of operation featured the Buffalo Springfield, supported again by The Orkustra. The Springfield were a fine live band, and while apparently there were problems in the band at this time, since the problems were expressed by fiery guitar dueling between Neil Young and Stephen Stills, that may have been a good thing.

Trouble seems to have set in by the fifth week. According to Butten, the sound system had exceeded Dave Rapkin's budget, so while the awesome understage bass cabinets were complete, the rest of the PA was unfinished, which cannot have been ideal. Also, for the first month of operation, the Rock Garden had substantial ads three times a week in the San Francisco Chronicle (some reproduced here). By the fifth week, however, I could only find a single smaller ad for the bill featuring Country Joe and The Fish. I do not know whether there was ever a poster for the event.

This Chronicle ad for Country Joe and The Fish (on Sunday April 16, for April 18-23) was all I could find for show publicity, a distinct sign that the promoter had cut back. A remark in the Berkeley Barb two weeks later by Fish manager ED Denson, alluding to untrustworthy promoters, suggests that either the gig was canceled or the band did not receive promised money. The next week, only small display ads promote Larry Younger and The Epics.

Larry Younger and The Epics were a dance band from Erie, PA (later to become Orange Colored Sky), probably quite professional but very different from the underground legends who had populated the club the previous month. According to soundman Butten, "the place went back to Latin music and Rapkin put the bass speakers into one of his Broadway joints."  The dissatisfaction of Country Joe and The Fish, the drop off in advertising and the smaller scale groups all suggested that the psychedelic Rock Garden experiment was over, and indeed by the end of the month the Rock Garden was advertising "Dance: Rock-Swing-Latin."

The story of The Rock Garden itself was not over--in some ways it had just begun. It briefly returned to a more conventional supper club arrangement, probably featuring Latin jazz. It then evolved into a sort of soul club under the name The Ghetto Club, where along with a nearby joint called The Nite Life (at 101Olmstead, near San Bruno Avenue) San Franicisco's Latin Rock explosion had its first ignition, with groups like The Aliens and Abel and The Prophets.

The current, or most recent, tenant at 4742 Mission Blvd is the El Tapatio Nightclub. The Rock Garden itself is only slightly more than a memory, a month long grand experiment that failed, ahead of its time and misguided at the same time.


View Latin Rock San Francisco 1969 in a larger map

9 comments:

  1. Another fine post!

    About the Dead's appearance - I used a little quote from Garcia's mother in one of my posts, about an early audience tape:
    "One thing clear in this tape is how different Garcia sounds in 'room recordings' versus the soundboard - he just jumps out and seems to be using the theater echo - as he put it, 'I aim notes for the room that I'm in.' On audience tapes like this, he almost sounds like a horn-player more than a guitarist. When his mother went to see the band in March '67, the first thing she asked him was, 'How do you get the guitar to sound like a horn like that?'"

    It would be interesting to know if she saw the Dead jam with Charles Lloyd's group - or if that happened in any case? Perhaps Lloyd by himself might've joined them, as he did at the Be-In - Garcia at least was quite enthused by the idea of more collaboration.

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  2. I've been in touch with a Gerry Gill (aka hargrave) (now sadly recently passed away). He used to DJ and MC at the Rock Garden. Gerry was from the UK and variously a songwriter, producer and studio owner.

    He remembered introducing The Dead, Springfield, Love, Sly Stone and Big Brother.

    He recalls the club was only open for about 7 weeks as it wasn't making any money.

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    1. My uncle Dave owned that place. My mom was the bookkeeper and it was open for a very long time. Great place and though I wasn't 21 when he owned it, they allowed minors 18-20 years old in but we had to sit in a separate section that didn't serve liquor.

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    2. Carol, this is very interesting. Do you know if The Rock Garden served drinks while they were presenting Fillmore rock bands in 1967? That was pretty rare at the time.

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    3. Carol,I met your uncle a couple of times over the years.I was close friends with Art Norack who owned Basin Street West,The El Cid,and the Peppermint Tree.
      He wanted to have me play drums to records.I auditioned for him and got the job,but talked him( and myself out of a job)out of it.He said he had seen it somewhere,and was sure it would succeed.Thankfully,I talked him out of it!

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  3. This is a fascinating post, thanks for it. I used to live not far from Mission and Ocean (I had the same phone prefix 586- as The Rock Garden), but it was years after the club's rock period. Now I live in North Beach so the coverage of the scene here is equally fascinating.

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  4. Carol,
    Your Uncle Dave is Dave Rapken? He also owned Mr. D's and Moulin Rouge, both at 412 Broadway. Can you give us some more info on him? Did he know Lee Harvey Oswald?

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  5. Carol, sorry, did he know Jack Ruby? Was Ruby involved in the clubs that your Uncle Dave owned?

    I found this:
    Jack Ruby, who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, had a connection to 412 Broadway in San Francisco. On July 27, 1963 Ruby called San Francisco, EX 7-6488, for 3 minutes from the Carousel Club (this is the owner of the Moulin Rouge 412-B Broadway, Dave Rapken)(7)

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  6. I went to the Rock Garden once.The bill:Buffalo Springfield,Moby Grape and the Doors.Nobody showed up to see these three great bands!

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