Saturday, July 1, 2017

Palo Alto Psychedelic Rock Shows 1965-66 (Palo Alto I)

The site of The Big Beat, at 998 San Antonio Road in Palo Alto, as it appeared in 2009. The contours of the building were probably largely unchanged since the building was the site of the Palo Alto Acid Test on December 18, 1965
Palo Alto, California, is only a town of about 60,000, about 35 miles South of San Francisco, and yet it looms large in the world, far out of proportion to its modest size. Palo Alto residents, like the residents of most small towns, think the world revolves around itself. The principal difference between Palo Alto and other towns is the tendency to invent or encourage institutions that redound to the importance of Palo Alto--Stanford University, Hewlett-Packard, The Stanford Shopping Center, Acid Tests, The Grateful Dead, Mapquest and Google, for example, just to name a few. All of these institutions re-write history in Palo-centric ways that reaffirms the town's importance. Residents of neighboring communities find Palo Altans self absorbed and self-important, which we probably are, but our next innovation will just reconfigure the past in a way that justifies our own narrative. And so it was with psychedelic rock and roll in the 1960s.

Palo Alto, by its own accounting, played a big part in 60s psychedelic rock and roll. The history of the Fillmore and The Avalon always begins with Ken Kesey at Stanford, and the parties and acid tests that followed. Of course, Kesey's cottage was really next door in Menlo Park, but that sort of detail never interfered with a Palo Alto story. At the same time, Jerry Garcia and other bohemians were hanging out in downtown Palo Alto, even if they often lived in Menlo Park themselves. Certainly, Jerry Garcia started playing live in Stanford and Palo Alto, and he took acid for the first time in Palo Alto, and by the end of 1965 Garcia was the lead guitarist in an electric blues band. The Warlocks--who debuted themselves in Menlo Park--became the Grateful Dead, and the house band of The Merry Pranksters, and Palo Alto's place in the rock revolution was secure.

Yet Palo Alto, as ground zero for the consciousness expansion of rock music, has a rather scattered history of rock and roll events. While some of this had to do with economics, some of it had to do with the very peculiar circumstances of Palo Alto and Stanford, which both favored and discouraged any kind of rock and roll underground. But this peculiarity is perfectly Palo Alto--a story that applies to no other town, which is just how Palo Alto likes it. This post will begin my series on the rock and history of the the second half of the 1960s in Palo Alto.

The Cabana Hotel, at 4290 El Camino Real in Palo Alto, soon after its opening in 1963. Part owner Doris Day said to her husband, "but Marty, it's Palo Alto." So true. Doris also referred to the fountain as having a statue of a Greek whore.
August 30-31, 1965 Cabana Hotel, Palo Alto, CA
The first and most important event in Palo Alto's rock and roll history was it's biggest, and to some extent it has never been topped. 60s rock and roll begins with The Beatles, and when the Beatles played the Cow Palace in San Francisco, they rather inexplicably chose to stay at a hotel in Palo Alto. The town has never gotten over it.

Palo Alto's Cabana Hotel, at 4290 El Camino Real, far South of downtown and the Stanford campus, was built in 1962. South Palo Alto was a casual suburban strip mall at the time, and the opulent hotel was garishly out of place. Conceived by entrepreneur Jay Sarno, with investors who included Doris Day's husband Martin Melcher (Doris was reputed to have said, "but Marty, it's Palo Alto? Who's going to stay at such a hotel in Palo Alto, and without gambling?"), the hotel became the model for the Caesar's Palace resort in Las Vegas. Apparently, Beatles manager Brian Epstein felt that staying in Palo Alto would be less difficult than staying in San Francisco, so for the nights of August 30-31, 1965, The Fab Four stayed at the Cabana in Palo Alto.

Things were different then. Apparently the Beatles only had two rooms (supposedly Ringo did not even spend the night, as he found a friend). Young women from all over the Bay Area persuaded their parents to let them go to the Cabana, and young men tried to dress like journalists in suits and ties, and they all tried to crash the hotel. Many of them succeeded. No other rock and roll event has ever affected Palo Alto so much. The Beatles' rooms are now a special suite.

A 2011 closeup of 998 San Antonio Road, the site of The Big Beat. If these walls could talk, they would probably have said, "I don't remember, man."
December 18, 1965 Big Beat Club, Palo Alto, CA Palo Alto Acid Test The Grateful Dead/The Witches
For most towns, it is hard to identify when the psychedelic rock and roll revolution hit the place. Palo Alto isn't like most towns. There's a date and an address. It was Saturday, December 18, 1965, at 998 San Antonio Road, at a club that had not yet opened called The Big Beat. Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters had an Acid Test--LSD was still legal--at an empty club near the Freeway. The Grateful Dead were there, and they met legendary acid chemist Owsley Stanley, and the world would never be the same. Only a few hundred people, if that, attended the event and partook of the Kool-Aid, but the world found about it from Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. More recently, David Browne's excellent book So Many Roads has an excellent chapter where eyewitnesses recall the event in great detail.

Palo Alto's only rock venue in 1966 was The Big Beat. Although it had hosted the Palo Alto Acid Test before it opened, it was far from downtown and the Stanford campus, and mostly featured a cover band (the ad is from the Stanford Daily of December 2, 1966)
The Big Beat was in the far Southeastern corner of Palo Alto. When it officially opened in early 1966, the club's location actually made it more accessible to people who lived in Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Cupertino rather than Palo Alto. One of many oddities of Palo Alto was that there were no bars downtown, so there was nowhere for Stanford students to drink. This was no accident, as founder Leland Stanford had insisted that Palo Alto serve no liquor as a condition of funding the University. By the 1960s, downtown restaurants near campus served beer and wine, but downtown was still dormant. Other parts of Palo Alto had bars and nightlife, but they weren't near campus. Their clientele often came from towns just south, which was why the Big Beat was located in the far southern corner of the town.

Since The Big Beat served beer, no one under 21 could come--well, except for 18 year old girls on dates, but that's a digression--, and since you needed a car to get there, it wasn't appealing to the downtown bohemians who were Jerry Garcia's old pals. If they were getting into a car, they were more likely to go to San Francisco or the Santa Cruz Mountains than South Palo Alto. The Big Beat was open from 1966 to early 1968, and probably did OK for a while, but it was rapidly outdated. Local combos playing covers were not nearly as hip as underground bands playing their own stuff at the Fillmore, and the Big Beat faded away without fanfare. Otherwise, just about all the meaningful Palo Alto rock and roll in 1966 was at Stanford University.

January 25, 1966 Downstairs Grill Room, Tressider Memorial Union, Stanford University: Lovin' Spoonful
Stanford had always been land-rich yet cash poor, so for its first 60 years of existence, the University was a somewhat threadbare institution for the sons of would-be gentlemen. By 1955, however, Stanford had figured out how to capitalize on its land, and one of the first outdoor malls, the Stanford Shopping Center, was built on its property. Along with the industrial park that would incubate Silicon Valley, Stanford's economic status rose dramatically, and it's academic and cultural profile rose accordingly.

Like all colleges and universities back in the day, Stanford had an entertainment budget for students. Early in the Winter Quarter of 1966, Stanford scored perhaps the hippest band in America at the time. Although the Lovin' Spoonful are now shrugged off as just another oldies act, their late '65 hits like "Do You Believe In Magic" lit up the radio. The Spoonful had headlined the very first Family Dog Dance in October 1965, so they were as cool as could be. The Tressider Student Union was at the center of campus, so this would have been a happening event.

Shortly after this, there was a confirmed  appearance at Tressider by the Butterfield Blues Band, although I haven't been able to pin down the date. I assume this was some sort of show during the time the band had its epic engagement at the Fillmore Auditorium (February 25-27, 1966). At a time when new folk rock bands were just figuring out electric instruments, the Butterfield Blues Band were polished masters. Any Stanford students who wanted to hip in Winter '66 got a good dose right on campus. The Butterfield show was alluded to in the Stanford Daily, and eyewitnesses recalled it as well.

An ad for the Lovin Spoonful at Tressider Union Deck, from the May 13, 1966 Stanford Daily
May 19, 1966 Tresidder Memorial Union Deck, Stanford:  Lovin Spoonful
At the end of Spring Quarter, the Lovin Spoonful returned. Now they were playing outdoors on the back of Tressider, at an outdoor deck which today has long since been turned into another extension of the building. This time, not only were the Spoonful playing a bigger room, but tickets were $2.00 instead of $1.50. They were still piling up hit after hit ("You Didn't Have To Be So Nice," "Daydream," and "Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind") and were bigger than ever. An eyewitness, then in the 6th grade, reported a warm day and a great show. The Spoonful headlined at Berkeley's Greek Theater on Saturday night, two days later, at the time a huge venue for a rock band. The Spoonful were definitely a coming thing.

The Lovin' Spoonful, with great songs, huge hits and a nice live act, should have ridden into the Fillmores on a white horse and become monstrously popular. Sometime in 1966 or 67, however, possibly during this weekend, the Spoonful got busted for weed in San Francisco. Spoonful guitarist Zal Yanovsky, afraid of being deported back to Canada, snitched on his dealer, who was the manager of the San Francisco theater group The Committee. The Spoonful were thus ostracized from the San Francisco underground, and were never booked at the Fillmore or the Avalon. While this may have been just a casual inconvenience to their booking agent, the fact that they never played the Fillmore  insured that the Spoonful was remembered as just an old hit single act, and not the underground sensation they truly were.

Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was the band's debut album, released on RCA in December 1965
May 22, 1966 Cabana Hotel, Palo Alto  Jefferson Airplane/others  
Peninsula Volunteers “Step N Time” Gala
The Cabana Hotel, as the Peninsula's most glamorous, was a regular venue for high school proms and debutante balls. Thus it was the site of a charity fashion show on Sunday, May 22. No doubt in an effort to be hip, San Francisco's most prominent rock band The Jefferson Airplane were the headline entertainers. The Airplane had released their successful debut album, and had had a little hit with "It's No Secret," but they were not yet what they would become. Their female lead singer was Signe Anderson, a fine singer, but no Grace Slick.

Another local band was also on the bill, and both bands played around the swimming pool. The local band opened the show, and one of its members reported that the PA was so inadequate that the Airplane borrowed the opening band's equipment, too. Another eyewitness, David Biasotti (the future guitarist of the semi-legendary band Maxfield Parrish), reported that the Airplane simply played instrumentals for much of the show, perhaps as a protest. At the end of the show, drummer Skip Spence threw his sticks in the air and announced he was leaving the band, although Biasotti may be the only one who recalled that (Spence would move on to help found the great Moby Grape).

The approximate site of The Outfit, ca. 2011, on Homer Lane in Palo Alto, behind Town And Country Village shopping center, across the railroad tracks. It is now a parking lot for the Palo Alto Medical Center.
June ?, 1966 The Outfit, Palo Alto, CA The Outfit
There were a very small number of proto-hippie bohemians in Palo Alto at this time. One eyewitness told me that in total, they were just "a few dozen, plus the Kesey people" (this has been informally confirmed by others). The "scene," such as it was, revolved around two crumbling Edwardian houses near downtown. One was on Channing Avenue, and the other was on Waverley Street, near Forest. Jerry Garcia had lived in the Waverley Street house until the Grateful Dead had moved to Los Angeles with Owsley in February 1966. The remaining crew entertained themselves as best they could.

Some people in the Channing house got the idea that they should have their own joint, and the infamous Willy Legate found an old warehouse near Homer Lane, just across the railroad tracks on Alma (now a medical center parking lot). They named their club "The Outfit," and figured that they would have a band and a light show also called The Outfit. A carpenter named Bill Shuman made a little stage, and the gang had a sort of party. It wasn't publicized, because that would attract cops, but it happened. It was a sort of Acid Test--remember, LSD was still legal--and Neal Cassidy even showed up.

For entertainment, there was an ad hoc band with guitarist Pete Schulzbach and singer John Tomasi, who were members of a local group called The Bethlehem Exit, and guitarist David Nelson, an old bluegrass pal of Jerry Garcia. The trio played some rambling electric blues while the light show pulsed. A number of local bohemians showed up, but the idea of The Outfit wasn't sustainable. There wasn't another event.

October 6, 1966  Basketball Pavilion, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA Jefferson Airplane/Paul Butterfield Blues Band
By the time Stanford students returned to school for the Fall Quarter of 1966, a lot had happened. The peculiar little "Acid Tests" started by Ken Kesey had become a very big deal indeed, so big that LSD itself was declared illegal in California on October 6. Two underground ballrooms in San Francisco, the Fillmore and the Avalon, were both putting on shows every weekend which were the talk of teenagers and college students in every town of the Bay Area. To memorialize the illegality of LSD, the Grateful Dead and Big Brother had played for free on October 6 in the Panhandle, near Golden Gate Park, and every longhair in the region had showed up. along with then-fugitive Kesey himself. They all had no idea that they numbered in the thousands.

The Butterfield band, who had played Tressider a few quarters ago, were now booked as headliners for three weekends at the giant Winterland arena, joined by the Dead and the Airplane. On this Thursday night, as a prelude to a weekend featuring Butterfield, the Airplane and the Dead, just the Airplane and Butterfield played the Stanford basketball Pavilion. Before NCAA Basketball became a proverbial ‘big deal’, the Stanford basketball team played in a 1200 seat auditorium built in 1921, on the corner of Serra and Galvez. The gym was just a few short miles from the Perry Lane house where Kesey’s LSD quest began. 

An eyewitness reported that Mike Bloomfield played Jorma’s Guild instead of his customary Fender, and various people also report Jerry Garcia attending the show. The Pavilion was superseded as the basketball venue by the nearby Maples Pavilion in Spring 1969, but it remains in use. It is now known as Burnham Pavilion

October 14, 1966 Tressider Memorial Union Deck, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA  Grateful Dead 
The Grateful Dead finally got their chance at Stanford a week later. Although the Dead had left Palo Alto for underground success earlier in the year, they still hadn't played back in Palo Alto, because there was nowhere for them to play in town. However, with Big Mama Thornton joining the Airplane and Buttefield at Fillmore this weekend, the Dead were free to play over at Stanford. After the Grateful Dead show on Friday, October 14, there was never another concert at the Tressider Deck again. Damn, it must have been fun.

November?, 1966 Experimental Building, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA New Delhi River Band
We have a poorly scanned handbill for an event at Stanford on April 10, 1967. My two eyewitnesses were very vague (I wonder why?), but both thought that there were two events, one in the fall and one in the Spring. The event or events, whether one or two, were some sort of "happening" put on by The Experimental Group

The Experimental Group, sometimes known just as The Experiment, was a group of Stanford students and faculty who were interested in reforming education in various progressive ways. They would eventually merge with a similarly minded civilian group called The Mid Peninsula Free University (known locally as Free U). That story is peripheral to this one, except that The Experiment and MPFU put on a number of free rock events in Stanford and Palo Alto. The 1967 handbill locates the event at "The Experimental Building." I'm not even clear where "The Experimental Building" was, although I think it was one of the then-new buildings near Serra and El Camino Real. 

The New Delhi River Band were Palo Alto’s second psychedelic blues band. The NDRB was an outgrowth of The Outfit, which had opened and closed in June. At this time, the band lived on Channing Avenue and featured Jerry Garcia’s old pal, and future New Rider, David Nelson on guitar, along with bassist Dave Torbert, from Redwood City, and also a future New Rider. Lead singer John Tomasi and lead guitarist Peter Schulzbach were from a Cupertino  band called Bethlehem Exit, and drummer Chris Herold rounded out the group.  Although no tapes survive of the group, they apparently aspired to sound somewhat like the Butterfield Blues Band. 

By this time, the NDRB were already the “house band” at The Barn, a psychedelic outpost in the tiny town of Scotts Valley, about 37 miles southwards, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Barn was a self-contained mini-Fillmore, the remarkable story of which we have detailed elsewhere.   The late Russell (Rusty) Towle, the band’s roommate, soundman and sometime Light Show man recalled the Stanford event in a personal email, and thinks it may have been two nights rather than one, although he couldn't recall if they were on consecutive nights or not (for the time, that was still a pretty clear memory). At this time, proto-hippies were trying to distinguish “Fillmore” type events from regular teen dances.

A 2011 aerial view (from Hoover Tower) of the Wilbur Hall Commons area at the Wilbur Hall dorms on the Stanford University campus.
December 2, 1966 Wilbur Hall Dorm, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA Big Brother & The Holding Company/San Andreas Fault Finders “A Happening In The Wilburness” 
Wilbur Hall, at 658 Escondido Drive on the Stanford campus, was the anchor of a quartet of dormitories. At the time, and perhaps still, Wilbur housed mostly freshmen. I believe Wilbur Hall was the dining commons and admin offices for all four dorms. Based on an obscure flyer, some sort of end-of-term event was held that featured no less than Janis Joplin and Big Brother. No such thing seems to have happened again.
An ad from the December 2, 1966 Stanford Daily (thanks Cleuci!)

Update: Correspondent Cleuci found an ad and some articles in the Stanford Daily. The Avalon Light Show was there (with Gary Ewing), the Chloe Scott Dancers, two bands--it never happened again. 

Remarkably, the Janis Joplin appearance was not the hippest bit of 60s rock trivia associated with Wilbur. Back in May 1961, the lounge of Arroyo Hall (one of the Wilbur dorms) featured a folk night with "Bob and Jerry," the first paid professional performance of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. Whoever was a freshman that night in Arroyo lounge can now say "so when did you first see Jerry?" and know that he cannot ever lose.

Rock in Palo Alto after 1966
Psychedelic rock bands had come from Palo Alto in 1965, and some had even returned. But just about all the rock shows in 1966 were at Stanford University. However, after 1966, there were almost no significant rock shows at Stanford for the next several years. A Fall quarter with the Airplane, the Dead, some sort of Experimental Event and Big Brother seemed to be enough for Stanford. For 1967, the action would move away from campus and across El Camino Real to Palo Alto itself, and we shall start to see that in the next installment.