Wednesday, December 22, 2010

December 3, 1966: 658 Escondido Drive, Stanford, CA: "A Happening In The Wilburness" with Big Brother and The Holding Company

( a clipping from the entertainment listings of the Berkeley Barb on December 2, 1966)

Stanford University, founded in 1891 by railroad magnate Leland Stanford, was always a unique institution. However, its current status as a sort of West Coast Ivy, where the children of (smart) Presidents attend alongside other future world leaders, even as new industries are invented in dorm rooms, is a rather more recent development. When founder Leland Stanford died in 1893, the University remained on somewhat shaky financial ground until the mid-1950s. The University was always land rich and cash poor, and as a result a more interesting place than it probably is these days. The finances of Stanford changed dramatically in the 1950s, but the University still remained interesting enough in the 1960s. It was not a coincidence that Ken Kesey started the LSD revolution near Stanford, at Perry Lane in Menlo Park,  in the early '60s.

I have reason to believe that the "Happening" listed above in the Berkeley Barb was the last gasp of an older, looser Stanford, mixed in with some 1960s troublemaking, but I am unable to find a reliable eyewitness. Thus, I am using this post to marshal what little evidence I can uncover in the hopes that some reader will Flash Back and find this post and give us clues to what really happened. I can say, however, that there were quite a few interesting rock events in Stanford in the Fall of 1966, yet after this event, Stanford all but eliminated rock music shows. There was one outdoor rock concert in 1967, and one other very interesting event, and two more in 1968, but Stanford seems to have been resolutely against rock music events on campus after Fall 1966.

Did something happen that unsettled the Administration? Could it have been an all-day, acid fueled, multi-building party culminating with Janis Joplin and Big Brother and The Holding Company playing the Wilbur Hall Dormitory Dining Commons? God, I hope so.

"Happening In The Wilburness"
An old Big Brother list mentions a December, 1966 event under the heading "A Happening In The Wilburness." Ross discovered the Barb listing (above, from December 2, 1966) and I am confident this was the same event. Rather than listing the event as a concert, the Barb calls it a "Happening:"
HAPPENING: Big Brother & the Holding Company, lights, film, poetry, jazz, sculpting, experiments; Wilbur Hall, Stanford U.. all day? $1.50
Some reasonable speculation suggests the outline of this event. Wilbur Hall was built after World War 2 to handle the incoming volume of students. The "Hall" was actually a complex of 8 residential houses and a central dining commons. It currently houses 707 students, and the grounds cover a substantial area. The Stanford campus has always been sprawling, since its inception, but in the mid-60s the location of Wilbur Hall would have been less developed, as there were considerably fewer labs, classrooms and other buildings on campus (the mailing address is 658 Escondido, but the actual location of the Dining Commons is on Bowdoin Lane, off Campus Drive).

Since there were no less than nine available buildings, plus some open space, the implication seems to be that different activities took place in different parts of the grounds, presumably culminating with a Big Brother concert in the Dining Commons. I have to assume "The Wilburness" was a student nickname for the grounds as a whole. Crowded as the Stanford campus is today, Wilbur Hall would have been more isolated at the time and the name may have been fairly appropriate.

A "Happening" was a 60s term for what would loosely be termed either "Performance Art" or a "Festival" today. I have to assume that the event was at the end of the Fall Quarter, and some insurrectionist students had gotten permission to hold a "Fall Dance" or something, and turned it into a full-on sixties event. I believe the key word here is "experiments," which I think is code for an Acid Test, but I will explain my reasoning subsequently.

Although Stanford was not nearly as urban as Berkeley, the campus had its share of interesting rock events in the Fall of 1966. The Cryptical Development blog has an excellent post on some 1966 and '67 ads for events in the Stanford Daily, including performances by the Grateful Dead, Butterfield Blues Band and Jefferson Airplane. After that Fall, however, as the post shows, Stanford rock events abruptly ceased. There was an outdoor rock concert in May 1967 at the Frost Amphitheater, and a Summer rock concert at Frost in July 1968, but Stanford seems to have simply declared a moratorium on such events. Why? Surely many of the Stanford students wanted to see all the Fillmore bands, who would have been happy to play there on an available Friday night.

Here's what I think happened, although I cannot find proof. Some students got access to some sort of funds for a "Fall Dance" and asked to have a sort of "Festival" at the Wilbur Hall grounds. They probably emphasized art, poetry and jazz to the Administration, who blithely said yes. LSD was legal up until October 6, 1966, and the Kesey crowd was well connected to the Stanford campus. I think the "Experiments" alluded to was a code for an Acid Test--what else would they be experimenting on?--and madness reigned all day and all night on the Wilbur Hall grounds. Why else would the students be very vague to the Barb about the length of the event?

The campus cops probably wondered why no one smelled like whisky, but they must have figured something was up. A full volume concert by Big Brother and The Holding Company must have finished off the evening and the University's patience, because rock music would not be performed at night on the Stanford campus for a very long time.

I can't prove any of this. If any old Stanford students are having odd flashbacks right now, please Comment.

"The Experimental Group"
Palo Alto and Stanford had an interesting bohemian runup to 1966. Ken Kesey had come to Stanford on a writing fellowship in the early 1960s, and his merry bunch got their start just off campus on Perry Lane. Jerry Garcia and other bohemian folkies lived near downtown, as tolerant Palo Alto was unbothered by bearded, draft-dodging ne'er-do-wells. Palo Alto even had it's own Acid Test on December 18, 1965 (and the building is still there). While Kesey went on the lam, and the Dead moved to San Francisco, there was still a modest core of like minded lunatics in Palo Alto and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The principal core of hip late 60s Palo Alto was the Mid Peninsula Free University (MFU), who began in 1967 in an attempt to provide an educational alternative to Stanford. The MFU story is too long to tell here, but MFU was instrumental in making sure there were free concerts in Palo Alto throughout 1967 and '68, in contravention to less liberal towns. On their now inaccessible website, the MFU founders were associated with some mysterious entity called "The Experimental Group," seemingly an ad-hoc Stanford organization. Who were they?

My one whiff of information about "The Experimental Group" is this mysterious poster (h/t Ross)

The poster advertised a "Psychedelic Celebrations Workshop" on Monday, April 10, 1967 at 8:00 pm. The event featured The Magic Theatre, The New Delhi River Band and the Medway Forest Indians. The event seems to have been at 'Experiment Building--Stanford University."  Let's parse what we can about this flyer.

The New Delhi River Band and The Magic Theatre were the "house band" and light show at The Barn, in Scotts Valley. At this time, The Barn had just been closed by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's department. Both NDRB and Magic Theatre lived in Palo Alto, and two of the principals of The Magic Theatre were both former Stanford art students (they were different than the later Berkeley theater troupe of the same name, however). Since the Barn was closed and the band and light show were in town, this has the look of an ad-hoc student event using some local talent.

Where was the Experiment Building? To my knowledge, there was no such building at Stanford. Although I grew up in Palo Alto, I recognize that there may have been something called that, so here are my speculations:

  • There was a lot of new building on campus at the time, and this may have been a temporary name for a building
  • This may have been a student nickname for a building that really went by another name

Either or both of these speculations seem reasonable. However, if the building named Experiment (why a noun not an adjective, by the way?) was new or colloquial, why are there no directions? It doesn't say "Experiment Building, on Pampas off Serra St." Wherever the "Experiment Building" was, anyone seeing the poster was supposed to know where it was. Anyone who couldn't figure it out--like Campus Administration--wasn't supposed to know. I have a feeling there was a newly constructed or underused new building that was used temporarily as a playhouse by some enterprising students, and this flyer gave just enough information for those who needed to know it.

The Medway Forest Indians are even more mysterious, and likely another code. The Medway Forest seems to be in London, Ontario, Canada, and I'm hard pressed to say whether there was actually any Tribe associated with the Forest. It seems more probable that this was some bogus student group that sounded plausible, like UC Berkeley's "Pretentious Folk Front."

I believe there is a different, more crudely drawn flyer for a similar event, possibly for sometime in November, 1966, but I can't find the flyer right now. I think the April 10, 1967 event with NDRB was an Acid Test disguised as a 'Psychedelic Celebration,' and on the Stanford Campus at least the code word was "Experiment," since I presume even square administrators had learned about "Acid Tests." This leads me back to thinking that the Wilbur Hall listing that promised "Experiments" was a clear shout out those in the know to leave all of Saturday afternoon and evening free for "A Day In The Wilburness."

Friday, December 3, 2010

March 5, 1970: Freight and Salvage, Berkeley, CA: Peter Rowan and Richard Greene

(the panel from Thursday, March 5, 1970, for the Freight and Salvage calendar from March 1970)

Time, as Steve Miller informs us, keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future. It is thus easy to look back and lose sight of the context of historical artifacts. The specific panel above is from the March 1970 performance calendar for Berkeley's Freight and Salvage club. The Freight opened in July 1968, and despite (or because of) being run by long-haired hippies, it was thoroughly committed to traditional forms of music in all its diversity. Each calendar featured a few dozen miniature panels for each performance (the March 1970 Freight calendar can be seen in its entirety here), and they serve as journals for the psychedelic artwork current at the time, yet they are overlooked because of their tiny size and because "folk" music is not as officially "psychedelic" as rock music from the same period.

Nonetheless, our detailed analysis of the founding of the Freight and Salvage reveals a number of surprising details about rock history. As we have detailed at length in our early history of the Freight and Salvage, the club served a variety of social and musical functions in late '60s Berkeley. One of those functions was to provide an outlet for musicians in rock bands to play the traditional music that had initially inspired them. Many of the rock musicians of the late 60s and early 70s had gotten started in music by playing bluegrass, blues or folk music in folk clubs; Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin and Jorma Kaukonen were among the most prominent of those in the Bay Area. Yet many other band members around the Bay Area had similar stories.

The group Seatrain was based in Marin County, but its roots were on the East Coast. A few members of the Blues Project (bassist Andy Kulberg and drummer Roy Blumenfield) had moved from East to West, and after completing some contractual obligations (the Blues Project album Planned Obsolescence) formed the group Sea Train. After an initial album, they elided their name to Seatrain, and added East Coast pal Peter Rowan on guitar and vocals, along with the Californian Richard Greene on violin. Greene and Rowan had played together in Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, and Greene had wide experience in various ensembles, including recording with the Gary Burton Quartet (on the 1969 lp Throb). Rowan had been in Earth Opera with David Grisman, who recorded two albums for Elektra, but the band had exploded mid-tour in California in 1969.

By late 1969, Peter Rowan was working with Seatrain in Marin. Rowan, Richard Greene and various other members of Seatrain regularly played acoustic shows at the Freight and Salvage in late 1969 and early 1970 (we have extensively documented the the 1968-69 Freight here). Whether they played "acoustic Seatrain," bluegrass or other original material isn't entirely clear, but the little panel on the March  1970 calendar gives an intriguing clue. The March 5 listing says "Peter Rowan--alias Panama Red." Other listings at the Freight from around that time advertise "Panama Red and Richard Greene," and yet others list Rowan, Greene and other members of Seatrain by name.

Peter Rowan first bubbled out into rock consciousness as the writer of "Panama Red," the title track of the October 1973 New Riders of The Purple Sage album of the same name. Lucky Deadheads in the Bay Area who had seen Rowan play with Jerry Garcia and David Grisman in their bluegrass band Old And In The Way, or heard various local FM broadcasts, knew that Old And In The Way had been doing their version of "Panama Red" as well (both OAITW and the Riders also did Rowan's "Lonesome LA Cowboy"). I have discussed the early, misty origins of Old And In The Way elsewhere, but suffice to say it isn't hard to guess where the New Riders heard the song. The Riders catchy country rock version of the song received regular airplay both on rock stations like KSAN and soon afterwards on the groundbreaking "psychedelic country" station KFAT, out of Gilroy, CA.

"Panama Red" was a perfect mid-70s rock song, catchy and hummable, naughty enough to guarantee no AM airplay, but coded enough to escape the notice of imaginary authority figures (as if High School principals were analyzing rock lyrics). Indeed, as Panama Red itself was replaced by more potent forms of THC, the song itself became a paean to a more carefree era. When the Old And In The Way version was finally released on their 1975 album, the imprimatur of Jerry Garcia assured the song's immortality. Rowan became a popular alternative country rock figure, and new songs like "Free Mexican Airforce" became staples on KFAT. Rowan has had a diverse and successful career ever since, and he continues to tour and record.

It's easy to be nostalgic about Peter Rowan, "Panama Red" and days gone by--I certainly am--but a closer look at the evidence introduces a slightly different twist to the narrative. The Freight and Salvage poster frame celebrating Peter Rowan as Panama Red excerpted above is from March, 1970--a full three years before Old And In The Way and the New Riders started performing the song. Not only had Rowan probably already written the song by 1970, but apparently "Panama Red" was already some sort of performing alter ego for him. "Panama Red" seemed racy and coded enough for 1973, but the song may have been written as early as 1969, when it would have been downright subversive.

Seatrain recorded a number of albums for Capitol, but Peter Rowan had left the group by 1972. I have to assume that Capitol had rejected "Panama Red," or that the band refused to even consider showing it to them. By 1973, Rowan didn't even have a band, so letting the New Riders sing his catchiest song must have been a relief to Rowan, even if he may have been professionally frustrated. Yet it's intriguing to think that the catchiest weed song of 1973, a sort of early Anglo narcocorrido, had been too hot to handle for some years. It's also funny to think that the Freight and Salvage, often chastised back in the day for being too quiet and too serious (people couldn't even smoke!), was the only venue where Rowan's songwriting gems may have revealed themselves, as a true folk tradition in the making.

Although many fine folk artists have played the Freight every month since it's inception (see for yourself), a closer look shows the implicit rock links to the Berkeley folk scene. A few groups who would become Fillmore West and Winterland regulars are already playing there, such as Commander Cody and Joy Of Cooking, and more serious scholars may recognize some connections to the likes of the Diggers and Owsley Stanley. Rowan was a former member of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, and certainly earned his credentials as a folk musician many years before, but he too was another Freight musician who would make "folk" a part of rock music yet to come.