Thursday, April 14, 2011

285 UCB Campus Drive, Boulder, CO: Macky Auditorium November 23, 1975: Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins

(an April 2011 photo of Macky Auditorium on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Construction on the 2000 seat venue was begun in 1910, although it was not completed until 1923)

Boulder, Colorado is the best American city without an ocean, and is in the top rank in any case. With perfect air that other parts of the country have to pay to simulate with air conditioning, the Rocky Mountains looming in the background and a perfect mountain stream running through downtown, it's not surprising that Boulder has been a preferred destination for emigrants and tourists for some decades now. For 100 years or so, the principal "industry" of Boulder was the University of Colorado at Boulder, the flagship of the CU system, founded in 1877.

Why, then, does Boulder have almost no meaningful 60s rock history? One 60s band came out of Boulder, the excellent Zephyr, featuring Tommy Bolin and Candy Givens, but even they say that they were the only band in Boulder. Denver has a very interesting rock history rock history in the 60s, if not a satisfactory one. Chet Helms opened a branch of the Family Dog in Denver, in an effort to compete effectively with Bill Graham. It was a very clever idea, providing touring bands with a paying show partway to San Francisco. However, the Denver Sheriff, with the support of the political establishment, harassed the Family Dog into closing, and Denver's role in the 60s rock scene was to some extent superseded by Salt Lake City, of all places.

Why, then, was there no rock scene in Boulder in the 60s? If the heat was on in Denver, why didn't bands play Boulder? While Boulder was not a big town--it still isn't--why wasn't it an incubator for bands to get it together, in preparation for heading to Denver and then the rest of the country? The Macky Auditorium, completed in 1923, was a 2000 seat venue that could have accommodated the touring bands of the day, and yet there seem to have been no meaningful rock concerts there until the Jerry Garcia Band (with Nicky Hopkins) on November 23, 1975. While there seem to have been regular concerts after 1975, I can find no record of anything remotely hip before that.

While only a few "college towns" like Berkeley and Cambridge were substantial enough cities to sustain a music scene on their own, college towns generally played an important role in music from the 60s onward. A modest town with a big University generally couldn't have its own Fillmore, but there was usually a folk club and a popular dive bar for the local talent. As the 60s wore on, bands like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane or The Doors might come through and play the gym or the main auditorium, with the local heroes as the opening act. The students became fans for life, even more so if a band played for free one afternoon, and especially so if the College Dean banned all rock concerts after some legendary blow out. This narrative was particularly true of college towns in striking range of California, so there are lots of fond, if fuzzy, 60s memories in places like Palo Alto, CA or Eugene, OR.

The Grateful Dead, always the pioneers, did play the University of Colorado Student Union on Sunday, April 13, 1969. However, this unique event seems to have been a "throw-in," after the Dead had played shows at the University of Arizona (Friday April 11) and University of Utah (Saturday, April 12). The band was on their way to Omaha (Tuesday April 15) and then Purdue University (Friday April 18), so playing the no-doubt tiny Student Union was probably just gigging for gas money. When the Dead put out a few successful albums in the early 70s, why didn't the band play the Macky at CU? The Dead were playing theaters and gyms up and down the East Coast, so why weren't they headlining at the Macky?

Other than far too limited Grateful Dead activity (limited by the standards of the Dead's relentless touring, anyway), all my research into Boulder bands, venues or concerts in the late 60s and early 70s turned up a dry hole. While its true there have been demographic changes since the 60s, in that undergraduate enrollment at CU-Boulder has nearly doubled (15,000>29,000), and the population of the town has increased by 1/3 since 1970 (66,000>100,000), that has largely been true of many towns with flagship state Universities, and that didn't stop those towns from having it going on in the 60s.Why not Boulder?

Why Not Boulder?
It turns out that "Dry Hole" was the correct metaphor. While Colorado lifted prohibition in 1933, along with the rest of the country, the town of Boulder did not. The city of Boulder did not allow the purchase of alcohol until 1967, and the first bar in the city did not open until the Boulderado Hotel obtained a liquor license in 1969. As a result, 1960s Boulder was a very different town economically than most other major college towns.

Sophisticated archival research is my preferred mode of inquiry, but it's very difficult to uncover something that is not present--you can't read a review of a show that did not take place. Conveniently, however, one night in The Boulderado, Boulder's first luxury hotel (built 1909), I had a very informative conversation with a worldly Boulder resident named Phil, who was born and raised in Boulder, lived and worked many places, and had returned to Boulder in semi-retirement (if I were a country songwriter, his story might make a good song, but I'm not).

In 1960s Boulder, there were no bars, only places that sold 3.2% beer. A post-prohibition Colorado law defined anything with less than 3.2% alcohol as "non-alcoholic," and brewers rapidly figured out they could brew weak beer and skirt the law. This eventually became codified into practice, and watery beer was available for adults, but stronger beer, wine or mixed drinks fell under a different set of laws. While the rest of Colorado came out of Prohibition in a somewhat typical fashion (although the 3.2% beer thing turns out to a surprisingly critical to the rise of Colorado microbrews, but that is too tangential even for this blog), the city of Boulder limited its residents to the purchase of 3.2% beer. It wasn't illegal for adults to drink or possess alcohol, but they couldn't buy it in Boulder.

As a result, the city of Boulder was quite a sleepy place. All the good restaurants were outside of town, since otherwise they couldn't have served wine with dinner. There was no night life, because there were no bars. The adult men all belonged to private clubs--Phil's father often went to the Elks Club, across the street from the Boulderado, because he could get a drink there. Private clubs, however, cannot get a license for live music that allows outsiders, so none of those clubs could serve as a venue.

It may seem that hippie pyschedelic rock bands would not have needed bars, but in fact the opposite is the case. However much 60s bands liked playing free concerts and all night rave ups, the ecosystem of music requires paying gigs. If there aren't a few bars to provide steady work, you don't have working musicians, certainly not any drummers, and as a result you have no bands. It may also seem that coffee shops and folk music would be immune to an absence of bars, but the reality is that the opposite was the case. While it's true that the 60s Folk Scare started in coffee shops, so that high schoolers could get involved, coffee shops thrive in districts where there are bars. After all, what would be the point of meeting a pretty girl and bonding over Pete Seeger songs if you couldn't invite her across the street for a beer? Even Berkeley's Freight and Salvage (opened 1968), the first venue not to allow smoking, was across the street from the Albatross Pub.

The seemingly obvious parallel to 60s Boulder would seem to be Palo Alto, a town that Boulder generally aspires to be. Palo Alto had strange liquor laws, stemming from it's founding as the college town for Stanford University in 1875. In the 1960s, despite a profusion of Acid Tests and the like, there were still no bars in downtown Palo Alto, because of an old law (supported by most downtown area residents) that no liquor could be sold within 1 1/2 miles of the Stanford Campus. Yet Downtown Palo Alto was a bohemian enclave of folk clubs in the early 1960s, and Jerry Garcia was only the most famous of the early folkies hanging around Downtown looking to make music.  Why did sleepy Palo Alto--and trust me, it was sleepy--have a nascent little folk and rock scene, and Boulder seemingly have none?

One simple difference between Boulder and downtown Palo Alto's liquor laws was that Palo Alto allowed beer and wine to be sold at restaurants. Thus nightclubs (like St. Michael's Alley, The Top Of The Tangent or The Poppycock) could set themselves up as restaurants and at least sell beer. Furthermore, there could at least be restaurants downtown, which while they did not cater to young hippie musicians, at least created a downtown that provided some potential employment for their girlfriends. Boulder's restrictions had neither of these ameliorating factors.

The most important difference, however, was that despite downtown Palo Alto's restrictive liquor laws, it was a relatively tiny blip on a very busy suburban Peninsular strip from San Francisco to San Jose. Even within the city limits of Palo Alto, much less all the neighboring towns, there were bars, nightlife and music gigs. While the bands that formed in Palo Alto couldn't find a paying booking in downtown Palo Alto, there was no lack of employment in the bars, coffee shops and pizza parlors on the El Camino Real strip. El Camino (an extension of Mission Blvd in San Francisco) ran from The City all the way to San Jose, and parts of it were within walking distance of downtown Palo Alto. Thus downtown Palo Alto's isolation affected the town itself, but did not have much impact on the area just around it.

Boulder's metropolitan circumstances were very different. A Boulder County resident explained to me that in the late 1960s, the city of Boulder started buying up all the land around the city. Effectively, the city created a 7-mile wide Greenbelt around itself, but at 1960s prices. In this way, Boulder was far ahead of Palo Alto (oh, if Palo Alto had only bought up Menlo Park and Mountain View in 1966...). What this meant, however, was that while downtown Boulder was sleepy, there were no nearby towns to pick up the overflow. You could walk from downtown Palo Alto to downtown Menlo Park, which helps explain while the Palo Alto-born Grateful Dead actually got their professional start in Menlo Park. The nearest towns to Boulder were 10 or more miles away, as they are today, so Boulder was isolated by choice and not just geography.

Certainly the University of Colorado was full of students, probably about 15,000 undergraduates or so. However, CU is up on a hill above the town (mind you, a "hill" in the Rockies would be called a "mountain" in some parts of the country). While presumably the students enjoyed 3.2 beer in great quantities, any serious socializing or interesting dates probably required a car anyway, and if you had a car, why go to sleepy, dry Boulder when you could go to a bar in another town? You're in the car anyway--why not drive to where it's more fun?

Boulder Now
Now, of course, Boulder is Mile High Palo Alto. There are nice restuarants, lots of bars, some converted movie theaters that make great rock venues, and bands play the Macky Auditorium, the CU Events Center (gym) and even Folsom Field, if the bands are big enough to fill up a football stadium. Boulder's population has stabilized, since the city owns all the pristine land around it (Palo Alto's population has been the same since the 1970s), and as a result of the natural advantages of Colorado and the boom in Denver, Boulder is a desirable happening place to live, musically or otherwise, if you can afford it. The University of Colorado has joined the Pac-10, so Boulder is now rightly on a par with Berkeley, Palo Alto, Eugene or Westwood, and it certainly belongs there. Yet a look into Boulder's vacant rock history from the 1960s shows that Boulder has transformed itself into something very different than it was in the past.

I could be wrong about this. Maybe Zephyr was just the only Boulder band that made it out. None of the economic pointers suggest that, however, and I think that Boulder did not have an interesting 60s music history because the economic conditions did not support it. However much the creativity and desire of individual musicians is essential to making music, if the material conditions for a successful music scene are not in place, it will be no accident when there are no memorable bands or concerts to recall. Of course, as always, I will be delighted if if any long time or long ago Boulderites can prove me wrong, and tell me about a secret history of Boulder venues and musicians, but I think that Boulder's very virtues were foundational in insuring that its 60s music history was largely silent.