Wednesday, September 28, 2011

August 17, 1966 Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA: Jefferson Airplane (and a new PA)

A promotional photo from the August 10, 1966, San Francisco Chronicle, advertising the Grateful Dead's weekend appearance on August 12 & 13

August 17, 1966 Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Mimi Farina with The Only Alternative and His Other Possibility/Quicksilver Messenger Service "A Psychedelic Fashion Show" Presented by The Mod Hatter

On Wednesday, August 17, 1966 the Fillmore had a rare midweek event, a psychedelic fashion show curated by The Mod Hatter, a hip Marin boutique. This wasn't totally unprecedented, as the Mod Hatter had held a fashion show at the Fillmore before. That June 26 event was headlined by The Great Society, with former model Grace Slick no doubt the main attraction. The event appears to have been by invitation only, although I suspect the invitations weren't hard to come by. The lettering on the invitation makes it look like Mimi Farina was the planned attraction, and the more popular Jefferson Airplane were only added at the last second. Nonetheless, I think this unheralded event was a very important one for the history of rock concerts, but the reason for its importance lies in the Grateful Dead performance the weekend before.

One of the defining contributions of the Fillmore and the Avalon to rock concerts was the seemingly foundational assumption that a true rock concert had great live sound. Both the Avalon and all three Fillmores--the Auditorium, West and East--were revered by touring musicians for their great house sound systems. However, I don't think the original Fillmore had great house sound until August 17, 1966. After that time, the Fillmore and all its successors were state of the art, and by setting the standard for live performance the Fillmore lifted up all its competitors as well. The reason I am confident of the date was that sometime in August, Bill Graham purchased the sound system that Owsley Stanley had designed for the Grateful Dead and had it installed in the Fillmore. Although I can find no confirmation of the date of purchase, it only makes sense that Owsley would bring in the system with the band, and then leave it there.

Thus the Wednesday night fashion show would have been more than just a party. It also would have been a test run for Graham's staff to try out the new sound system. The Young Rascals and Quicksilver were headlining the weekend show, and no doubt the crew would have wanted to get the bugs out of Owsley's notorious complex system. Although I know nothing about the music at the Fashion Show itself, I do know that the Fillmore had a sterling reputation for its sound system that only grew throughout the years, so the BGP crew must have figured out how to take advantage of Owsley's handiwork pretty quickly.

The First Owsley Sound System
The story of Owsley is shrouded in myth and tall tales, the majority of them created or spread by Owsley himself. In February 1966, Owsley Stanley had agreed to be the patron of the Grateful Dead's music, and he took them to Los Angeles where they put on a series of "Acid Tests" in conjunction with various Southern California crazies like Hugh (Wavy Gravy) Romney. From the proceeds of his various commercial activities, Owsley purchased the Grateful Dead their own public address system. At the time, the largest speaker available was called a "Voice Of The Theater" speaker, used for large auditoriums. Owsley reputedly went to a Bay Area music store and purchased every Voice Of The Theater speaker and wired them together. The speakers had been designed so that a single unit would provide enough sound for an auditorium, but that was insufficient for Owsley. He bought a bunch of them and wired them all up in some crazy fashion.

Thus the Grateful Dead were among the very first rock bands to actually travel with a full size public address system, louder than anyone else's at the time. Owsley was a genius, of course, and a visionary, but practicality was never his strong suit. The equipment that Owsley had purchased was designed to be installed in a theater, not hurled in the back of a panel truck and driven hundreds of miles, only to be rolled out and wired together. Apparently, many of the practical considerations of modern rock touring, like reinforced cables or easy connectors, had not yet been invented, and many things had to be done by laborious means. While no member of the Grateful Dead second guessed the sound of Owsley's system, it was furiously impractical to take on the road. According to Dennis McNally and Blair Jackson's Grateful Dead chronology The Illustrated Trip, Owsley sold the sound system to Bill Graham in August of 1966.

At the Fillmore, the sound system remained in place, so the complexities of setting it up were merely a one-time affair. Owsley purchased the Grateful Dead a new, more portable system, apparently equally fabulous sounding but more manageable on the road. Owsley's first sound system stayed in one place, wowing touring bands from afar as they came to play the Fillmore, just as Bob Cohen's system did over at the Avalon, and elevating the experience of rock concerts in general.

The Mod Hatter Fashion Show
The Mod Hatter was a hip fashion boutique in Mill Valley. The Wednesday night show was a private party, which is why there are invitations but no poster. As a result of being a party, the show was neither advertised in the paper (to my knowledge) nor reviewed, so nothing is known about it. The invitation has Mimi Farina and The Only Alternative in large letters, with "Jefferson Airplane" hand printed in an empty space. Quicksilver Messenger Service, then just an underground band, are listed in tiny print at the bottom of the invite.

Mimi Farina was Joan Baez's younger sister, and while she had a lovely voice and was stunning looking, she was much shyer than her more famous sibling. At the time, she was sort of a "guest singer" with The Only Alternative band, but this effort to be a rock singer never really suited her. Nonetheless, it was clear that the Mod Hatter needed a stylish young woman topping the bill, and Mimi fit that requirement very nicely, even if she herself may have had second thoughts. Obviously, once Signe Anderson and Jefferson Airplane were available, that meant two young women at the top of the bill, and some of the pressure may have been off both of them.

I'm sure this event was only partially a rock show. Rather than all three bands playing double sets, they probably all played single sets, interrupted by some sort of fashion shows. Indeed, with the Fillmore filled with fashion models, it must have been a pretty interesting night. If I am correct about the timeline, and Owsley had left his sound system intact on Saturday August 13, I have to think he would have dropped by as a technical adviser for the Fashion Show on Wednesday. Let's see: new sound system, Jefferson Airplane, fashion models, Quicksilver, Owsley and the future of rock music--an interesting night indeed.

Rock Concert Sound
Chet Helms's partner at the Avalon was soundman Bob Cohen, a true legend in his own right. The Avalon was always famous for having spectacular sound, so the Fillmore would have had to match it. No specific names are associated with the sound systems at the Fillmore and Fillmore West, so I think Graham had a series of technicians or consultants. While I think Graham made an effort from the beginning to make the Fillmore into a quality experience, with no Bob Cohen as a partner he needed outside expertise, and I think Owsley was the first of those. Of course, Graham's in-house staff must have started modifying the equipment immediately, so it may have strayed quite far from Owsley's original concept.

Nonetheless, the San Francisco ballrooms established the blueprint for the rock concert experience up to this very day. No rock concert goer today would expect any less than exceptional sound, loud as can be but clear as a bell, where any distortion is intended and not just an unfortunate byproduct. That's not to say we always get what we want as listeners, of course, but we know what we are supposed to get. So if I'm right, August 17, 1966 at the Fillmore marked the night that rock's most famous auditorium got a state of the art sound system and kept it that way, setting the standard for rock concert sound forever after.


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  2. I believe that this was the first performance by The Only Alternative and His Other Possibilities at a San Francisco venue. They had been resident at Prince Charley's Inn in Tiburon during August and had appeared at one of the Muir Beach shows that were then pretty regular and often used as "auditions" for elsewhere.

  3. It was at the Vancouver shows at the end of July 1966 that the Dead finally had enough of Owsley's sound system - the band considered the trip a disaster, and Lesh remembered the first Vancouver show as "one of the worst performances I can remember."
    Lesh continues, "Everyone was grumbling about the sound problems we'd had, and about the fact that Bear was still on a control trip. We were all getting a little tired of...muddy sound compounded by interminable delays while Bear tuned the system... Bear, for his part, was reaching his limit with our constant grousing; he was ready to turn us loose and return to his alchemical work... We talked it over and agreed to part amicably, but not before Bear...offered to buy us all new stage equipment."

    McNally agrees in all the details. Anyway, what interests me here is the question of when Dan Healy's first show with the Dead was. Healy was already a studio engineer, and was appalled by the state of the Dead's PA system when he first saw them. "The PA for rock & roll shows was almost nonexistent; it was just terrible... When the bands played you could barely tell the system was on. You could never really hear or understand the vocals."
    Healy tells the story:
    "I originally met the Grateful Dead via John Cipollina at a Quicksilver gig at the Fillmore, where the Dead were opening... It was during the Dead's set that we showed up, and the music had just stopped. There was no such thing as 'spare equipment' for the band in those days. Oftentimes, if an amp died, it could stop the whole show. I think in this case it was Phil's amp that died... So Cipollina basically shoved me up there, and I fiddled a little with Phil's amp, and it started to work. At the end of the show, Phil and Garcia walked up to me and said 'Hey thanks man' and all that, and we introduced ourselves...
    I remember making some crack to Phil and Garcia about how the sound system really sucked, and Garcia sort of challenged me... I said, 'All right, you're on.' The next time they were going to play was about two weeks later, also at the Fillmore..." Healy rented sound equipment from a few companies and patched up a new system for the Dead, which worked: "It was a horrible-looking monstrosity, but when the gig came, you could hear the singing."

    The interesting question for me is - when was this?
    McNally's book places it as "shortly after Bear's departure," but the Illustrated Trip places it in June 1966.
    The Dead played at the Fillmore with Quicksilver on June 3-4 (opening), and on Sept 4 (headlining). Either date raises questions - if in June, where was Bear while Healy did all this tinkering; or if in September, what had happened to this state-of-the-art sound system you wrote about?

    Other sources also point to the June date, for instance Skeleton Key: "By the time the Dead played at the Fillmore again about a month later [July 3], Healy had put together an impressive system, one that sounded much better than any other rock concert sound system in use at that time."
    Which then raises the possibility that the great sound system that the Fillmore inherited may have been more Healy's work than Bear's....though I'm sure either would take credit for it!