|The Family Dog on The Great Highway, at 660 Great Highway, ca. 1969|
The Family Dog on The Great Highway, 660 Great Highway, San Francisco, CA
The Family Dog was a foundation stone in the rise of San Francisco rock, and it was in operation in various forms from Fall 1965 through the Summer of 1970. For sound historical reasons, most of the focus on the Family Dog has been on the original 4-person collective who organized the first San Francisco Dance Concerts in late 1965, and on their successor Chet Helms. Helms took over the Family Dog in early 1966, and after a brief partnership with Bill Graham at the Fillmore, promoted memorable concerts at the Avalon Ballroom from Spring 1966 through December 1968. The posters, music and foggy memories of the Avalon are what made the Family Dog a legendary 60s rock icon.
In the Summer of 1969, however, with San Francisco as one of the fulcrums of the rock music explosion, Chet Helms opened another venue. The Family Dog on The Great Highway, at 660 Great Highway, on the Western edge of San Francisco, was only open for 14 months and was not a success. Yet numerous interesting bands played there, and remarkable events took place, and they are only documented in a scattered form. This series of posts will undertake a systematic review of every musical event at the Family Dog on The Great Highway. In general, each post will represent a week of musical events at the venue, although that may vary slightly depending on the bookings.
If anyone has memories, reflections, insights, corrections or flashbacks about shows at the Family Dog on the Great Highway, please post them in the Comments.
|660 Great Highway in San Francisco in 1967, when it was the ModelCar Raceway, a slot car track|
The Edgewater Ballroom, 660 Great Highway, San Francisco, CA
As early as 1913, there were rides and concessions at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, near the Richmond District. By 1926, they had been consolidated as Playland-At-The-Beach. The Ocean Beach area included attractions such as the Sutro Baths and the Cliff House. The San Francisco Zoo was just south of Playland, having opened in the 1930s. One of the attractions at Playland was a restaurant called Topsy's Roost. The restaurant had closed in 1930, and the room became the Edgewater Ballroom. The Ballroom eventually closed, and Playland went into decline when its owner died in 1958. By the 1960s, the former Edgewater was a slot car raceway. In early 1969, Chet Helms took over the lease of the old Edgewater.
of the only photos of the interior of the Family Dog on The Great
Highway (from a Stephen Gaskin "Monday Night Class" ca. October 1969)|
The Family Dog On The Great Highway
The Great Highway was a four-lane road that ran along the Western edge of San Francisco, right next to Ocean Beach. Downtown San Francisco faced the Bay, but beyond Golden Gate Park was the Pacific Ocean. The aptly named Ocean Beach is dramatic and beautiful, but it is mostly windy and foggy. Much of the West Coast of San Francisco is not even a beach, but rocky cliffs. There are no roads in San Francisco West of the Great Highway, so "660 Great Highway" was ample for directions (for reference, it is near the intersection of Balboa Street and 48th Avenue). The tag-line "Edge Of The Western World" was not an exaggeration, at least in American terms.
The Family Dog on The Great Highway was smaller than the Bill Graham's old Fillmore Auditorium. It could hold up to 1500, but the official capacity was probably closer to 1000. Unlike the comparatively centrally located Fillmore West, the FDGH was far from downtown, far from the Peninsula suburbs, and not particularly easy to get to from the freeway. For East Bay or Marin residents, the Great Highway was a formidable trip. The little ballroom was very appealing, but if you didn't live way out in the Avenues, you had to drive. As a result, FDGH didn't get a huge number of casual drop-ins, and that didn't help its fortunes. Most of the locals referred to the venue as "Playland."
- For a complete list of Family Dog shows (including FDGH), see here
- For the previous entry (June 27-29, 1969 w/Barry "The Fish" Melton) see here
- For a summary and the link to the most recent entries in this series, see here
|A notice in the July 3, 1969 SF Examiner describes the upcoming weekend of shows at the Family Dog, as well as optimistic plans for a free concert at the venue |
For the July 4th weekend, The Family Dog booked acts that seem very attractive today. At the time, however, they weren't particularly well known. The more interesting notice is the description in the July 3 San Francisco Examiner (above) that "free rock concerts will be held tomorrow [Friday July 4] from 1 to 5 pm and a free-style kite fly will take place on the beach opposite." This intriguing proposition marks the Family Dog as very different from the Fillmore West. Nothing was free at Fillmore West, nor was there a beach opposite. At this time, the Sunset district (nearest to Playland) was full of families, and there would have been plenty of teenagers. Daly City, too, wasn't that far away, and there would have been plenty of teenagers there as well. A free concert and some fun on the beach is a unique way to build a rock scene, a sign of Chet Helms' perceptiveness at recognizing that 60s rock was as much about community as music.
Still, those people who have never been to Ocean Beach might not realize the limitations here. The world thinks of beautiful people relaxing on sunny California beaches, but that's a Southern California trope. The Bay Area isn't like that, really, and Ocean Beach really isn't like that. I have posted the Examiner weather report for July 4, 1969. While inland--which to a true San Franciscan, starts at Berkeley--will have highs in the upper 80s to low 90s, the coast will have no such weather. It predicts "Fair through Saturday except patchy fog and low clouds near coast this afternoon...[high temperatures will be] in the mid-60s..Northwest wind 10 to 20 mph becoming westerly 12 to 25 mph Saturday afternoon."
So July 4 weather at Ocean Beach will never get higher than 60ish, with fog into the afternoon, and windy. Great for kite flying, but not bikini weather. Of course, every day at Ocean Beach has always been like this, and every local teenager would have known it. But that's why the free concert will be indoors, because it will be too cold to hang out on the beach for long, even in July. Of course, we have no idea who might have played on Friday afternoon. My guess would be local bands like Devil's Kitchen, as the Flying Burrito Brothers weren't going to be playing any lunchtime gigs. I'm not aware of Helms trying this idea again, so it must not have worked. Building audiences through free concerts was a proven San Francisco tradition, but the unique location of Ocean Beach made that hard to pull off.
|A rare print ad for the Family Dog. The SF Good Times (July 3 '69) advertises the upcoming Big Mama/Flying Burritos/Cleanliness and Godliness triple bill over the holiday weekend|
As for the regular concerts, Big Mama Thornton (1926-1984) had been a popular and important blues singer since the early 1950s. She originally recorded “Hound Dog” in 1952, years before Elvis Presley, and her 1968 version of “Ball And Chain” was a huge influence on Janis Joplin, who did the more famous cover version. However, Thornton’s popular records did not lead to her own financial success, and despite being a fine performer she was notoriously difficult to work with. Big Mama had played a number of weekends at the Fillmore in 1966, including opening for both the Jefferson Airplane (October 1966) and the Grateful Dead (December 1966). Unlike many blues artists who played the Fillmore, she had not reappeared. There's no explanation as to why she hadn't been seen at rock venues since.
Big Mama was booked at the Family Dog this weekend, and she would play a week at the Poppycock in Palo Alto in October 1969. From today's perspective, Big Mama Thornton seems like a very interesting performer, and no doubt she was, but in 1969, to the mostly teenage audience, she would have just seemed old (of course, in 1969 she would have been just 42).
The Flying Burrito Brothers had just released their now-legendary debut album The Gilded Palace Of Sin in February of 1969. The initial Burritos lineup had been fronted by Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, supported by pedal steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow, bassist Chris Etheridge and ex-Byrd drummer Michael Clarke. Although the Burritos are legends today, and rightly so, they were initially a sloppy and under-rehearsed live band. The group had played the Avalon in April, opening for the Grateful Dead (Chet Helms was not running it at the time), and the sound of Sneaky Pete Kleinow over Owsley's sound system inspired Jerry Garcia to buy himself a pedal steel guitar the very next week. So there's no doubt about the impact of the Burritos on those who listened.
The fact was, however, that country rock wasn't yet popular. A few major acts like Bob Dylan (Nashville Skyline) or The Byrds (Sweetheart Of The Rodeo) had succeeded with countrified albums, but in general hippies saw country music as antithetical to their values. No one really bought Gilded Palace Of Sin until many years later, when the world caught up to it. We know what the Burritos sounded like back then (their April Avalon shows were released, and a Seattle show in July '69 can be obtained), and for all its sloppiness, it's country rock in its seminal form. Unfortunately, San Francisco hippies weren't ready for that. I doubt many of them showed up at the Family Dog to see the Flying Burrito Brothers, even though in retrospect they might have regretted missing them.
Berkeley's Cleanliness And Godliness Skiffle Band opened the shows. The CGSB had formed out of the same community of musicians that had given rise to Country Joe and The Fish. Initially, the CGSB did actually play skiffle music, which was a sort of New Orleans Jug Band style. By 1969, they were playing a sort of swinging country rock, no longer acoustic but not fully electrified either. They released one album in 1968 on Vanguard, The Cleanliness And Godliness Skiffle Band's Greatest Hits (back when such a title for a debut album was still clever).
The CGSB had been playing around Berkeley since 1966, but they hadn't gotten beyond local success. They would fade away in early 1970. Infamously, the CGSB were the primary musicians for an album called The Masked Marauders. In October 1969, two Rolling Stone writers would write an obviously fake review of a "Supergroup" album called Masked Marauders. When people started calling record stores, they rushed into a Berkeley studio, and the CGSB and some friends mimicked the review, recording songs like the touching "I Can't Get No Nookie." A strange legacy for a band.
For a link to the next post (July 7, 1969 with Joan Baez), see here