...at the Lion's Share (San Anselmo) tomorrow night Sir Douglas Quintet, Shades of Joy...The Jefferson Airplane and Osceola will be at the Family Dog this weekend...at The Rehearsal tonight and tomorrow night John Antle, Jim BrittonBuried at the end of Gleason's usual lengthy recitation of upcoming rock. jazz and folk shows in the Bay Area in the coming days is a reference to a Jefferson Airplane show at Chet Helm's Family Dog, presumably on January 30 and 31, 1970 (Friday and Saturday).
As far as lists go, this Jefferson Airplane show is a new one for me. Without question, the best list for Family Dog shows is Ross's list, and I see no sign of it here, and the various Jefferson Airplane lists that circulate do not include it. From that perspective, its always great to add another show in the interests of accuracy. However, there are a number of aspects to this booking that make it all the more curious, with respect to both the Family Dog and the Airplane.
Family Dog, January 1970
The Family Dog's history is complex and obscure after it was forced out of the Avalon Ballroom in December 1968. Noise complaints generated a review of the venue's city issued Dance Permit, itself a strange anachronism. Helms complained in subsequent years that he could have simply paid off the police and gotten around the review but he refused to do so (there is good reason to believe this account). However, the Family Dog's finances were always tenuous after the failed effort to open another branch in Denver in late 1967, so the battle over the Dance Permit may have given Helms a chance to rethink his business.
The Family Dog On The Great Highway opened on June 13, 1969 with the Jefferson Airplane. The site was at the former Edgewater Ballroom, part of the Playland At The Beach complex. Despite the dominance of the Fillmore West, many fine bands played the smaller FDGH in the Summer of 1969. However, after a "strike" involving Light Show operators in August, 1969, the Family Dog was once again in dire financial straits. While the Family Dog continued to put on shows in their ballroom throughout the balance of 1969, the fine posters advertising the events were rarely produced, and based on contemporary newspapers advertising and promotion seemed somewhat haphazard.
Ross and I, among others, have relentlessly trolled through old flyers, Berkeley underground papers and various daily newspapers of the time, and yet we are still struggling to come up with a complete list of shows. Thus it is remarkable to find a Family Dog show in January 1970 featuring the Airplane, probably the most successful band to ever play the Dog. This "lost" Airplane show suggests that Chet Helms had found a new source of finance to re-invigorate his enterprise.
By the end of 1969, The Family Dog On The Great Highway was producing regular shows, but headliners were mostly local club bands like Osceola or Cleveland Wrecking Company. A few old Avalon stalwarts (like Canned Heat on December 12-14) headlined some shows there, but that very well may have been as much a favor to Helms as anything else. The bills in the previous month had been
- December 26-28, 1969: Lonnie Mack/Osceola/AB Skhy
- January 1-3, 1970: Osceola/Cleveland Wrecking Company/Devil's Kitchen
- January 4, 1970: Osceola/Cleveland Wrecking Company/Mendelbaum/Phoenix
- January 11-13, 1970 Chambers Brothers and Friends
Of these groups, only the Chambers Brothers and Lonnie Mack had a national profile, and the Chambers Brothers were past their commercial prime, and in any case old regulars from the Avalon. Many of the other groups were fine bands, but they were all regulars at The Matrix rather than Fillmore West, and FDGH seemed to be a Western extension of the SF club scene.
In contrast, the Airplane show presaged an exciting month:
- January 30-31, 1970: Jefferson Airplane/Osceola
- February 4, 1970: NET TV Special, "A Night At The Family Dog" Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Santana/Kimberly (invited audience, broadcast in April 1970)
- February 6-7, 1970: Quicksilver Messenger Service/Freedom Highway/Mike Seeger
- February 13-14, 1970: Steve Miller Band/Elvin Bishop Group
- February 20-21, 1970: Big Brother and The Holding Company with Nick Gravenites/Cat Mother and The All Night Newsboys (Cat Mother replaced Rhythm Dukes)
- February 28-March 1, 1970: Grateful Dead/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
- March 6-8, 1970: Lee Michaels/Rhythm Dukes with Jerry Miller and Bill Champlin/Robert Savage
- March 13-15, 1970: Country Joe and The Fish/Joy Of Cooking
- March 20-22, 1970: Big Brother and The Holding Company/Kaleidoscope/Devil's Kitchen
- March 27-29, 1970: Youngbloods/Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen/Jeffrey Cain
- April 3-5, 1970: Eric Burdon and War/Ballin' Jack
Although many old friends seemed to be returning for Helms, all of these groups were working bands who could not readily have given up weekends for free, so their had to be some expectation of a payday. In Stephen Gaskin's 1980 book Haight Ashbury Flashbacks he alludes to attending meetings with Chet Helms at the home of some potential backer, so we know that Helms was working to find a new partner. Bill Graham (of all people) has alluded to loaning money to help Helms, but I think that was in the late '69 period. Based on the sudden improvement in bookings from January 30 to April 3, along with actual posters (which cost money), Helms clearly found someone as a silent partner. Their very silence suggests either a rich hippie or downtown businessman who preferred to not to advertise his investment, or a partner in a "business" that shunned publicity.
The other interesting event in the January/February 1970 period has to do with the Grateful Dead. While the Grateful Dead were frantically touring the country, trying to pay pack the debts they owed to Warner Brothers Records, their manager Lenny Hart was hatching a plan to merge the Grateful Dead operations with the Family Dog, and move Dead headquarters from Marin County to the San Francisco Dog. Musically and culturally, this was a very interesting idea, and if the Dead had had their own concert facility starting in February 1970, with an experienced booker like Chet Helms running it while they toured, San Francisco rock history might have taken some very interesting turns indeed.
The only problem with the Dead/Dog merger was that Lenny Hart was not an honest businessman. By the middle of February, the Grateful Dead would realize that he was absconding with their money and fire him, a difficult thing even though he was drummer Mickey Hart's father. In the end, Lenny was found to have taken $155,000 from the Dead, a huge sum for 1970, effectively bankrupting the band. The Dead were forced to tour endlessly just to make ends meet, and as a result made an entire generation of Northeastern college students lifelong Deadheads.
According to Dead biographer Dennis McNally, however, Chet Helms sniffed out Hart's perfidy while the Dead were on the road, sometime in the January-February period. Helms had a reputation as keeping sloppy back-of-an-envelope records, but he wasn't a con man. When Helms asked to see the Dead's account books and Lenny Hart refused, Helms called off the merger (the Dead were in Oregon, Hawaii, New Orleans or St. Louis).
A con man like Lenny Hart would not have wanted to merge with the Family Dog unless their were assets he could co-opt. In late 1969 the Family Dog was apparently even more broke than the Dead--and that's saying a lot--yet Lenny found the Dead's arrangements fine. Presumably having stripped their assets bare, he needed another target, and Lenny's eagerness to merge with the Dog suggests some deep pockets to pick. Helms was enough of a businessman to call off the merger and promote the Dog for one last hurrah in February and March. However, the distant location of The Great Highway and the rising costs of the rock market doomed the Dog in any case, and it only lasted through August of 1970.
Jefferson Airplane, January 1970
The activities of Jefferson Airplane in January 1970 are quite murky, and the discovery of this January 30-31, 1970 show adds a little clarity, though not much. The Airplane had released their hugely successful Volunteers album in November 1969, and they were bigger than ever. Existing 1970 Airplane chronologies put them in Hawaii from January 22-26 with the Grateful Dead, but this unlikely event did not take place (the Dead played two nights with local bands in support). In fact, it appears the band only played twice in December (Altamont on Dec 6 and Winterland on New Year's Eve) and one more time at the Family Dog, playing an abbreviated set at the NET special on February 4, 1970. The NET show appears to have been Spencer Dryden's last performance with the Jefferson Airplane.
Thus if the Family Dog Airplane shows on January 30-31 really happened, they would be the last complete concerts by the "classic" Airplane (Grace, Paul, Marty, Jorma, Jack, Spencer). Since the activities of the Family Dog in this period are always murky, and we only have Ralph Gleason's single reference to go on, its hard to say for certain whether the shows occurred or not. A couple of speculative points worthy of consideration:
- The Jefferson Airplane had played at least one "stealth" concert at the Family Dog before, on September 6, 1969, when they played with the Grateful Dead (and Owsley thoughtfully taped it).
- Although we put the Airplane today in the same category as the Dead or Country Joe and The Fish, in 1970 they were one of the biggest draws in rock and could easily have sold out the Family Dog on the basis of word-of-mouth alone. Thus the absence of a flyer is not in itself significant.
- On the other hand, the San Francisco rock scene was very much like High School, and the Airplane were not part of Chet Helms's "set." They only played the Avalon one weekend (July 22-23, 1966), and while they did play the Denver Dog (November 7-8, 1967) they did not have the long history of regular shows with Helms that some of the other bands did. This fact is another suggestion that the Airplane's show was part of a business arrangement rather than a personal favor.
- Even more oddly, the Airplane were not planning a tour and the drummer was about to quit. They had less of an incentive to play a stealth show than they might have at other times.
Still, given the run of shows that followed the weekend of January 30-31, 1970, there is every reason to think that Jefferson Airplane made the shows. Since the show was hardly publicized--it didn't have to be--it never got reviewed, and no flyer or poster survives, but a few thousand people likely heard the last stand of the classic Jefferson Airplane at the edge of the continent in the San Francisco fog.