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."


  1. I was at "A Happening in the Wilburness" and saw Big Brother there. I had forgotten the name of the event, but Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrew remembered and reminded me in an email several years back. The email was entitled "The only way WE could get into Stanford." I recall that this even was in early '67, but sounds like I was wrong.

  2. I was there sat outside during the band break watching people use a sledge hammer on a car and sat with Janis on the curb she was drinking her southern comfort there were a lot of people on LSD there great show