Sunday, July 12, 2020

August 2, 1969 Baylands Athletic Center, Embarcadero Road East, Palo Alto, CA: Eleven Hours, Eleven Bands (Last Palo Alto Be-In)

The August 2, 1969 SF Chronicle lists "12 bands, 11am-11pm"

Palo Alto likes to see itself as one of the launching pads for 60s rock history, and it may not be wrong. The Beatles stayed in Palo Alto in 1965, and there was an Acid Test, and there was the Grateful Dead. So Palo Alto played its part. Unlike other small towns in the 60s, and even unlike most college towns, Palo Alto had a number of Be-Ins in the 60s. Most college towns had one, or sometimes two, and then gave it up. The City Of Palo Alto actually had six, from 1967 to '69.

The organizers of the Free Concerts were the constituents of the MidPeninsula Free University, or "Free You." Free You was an aggregation of intellectuals, artists and characters, who provided alternative educational opportunities in storefronts and people's homes. While Free You helped popularize the likes of "Underwater Basket Weaving"--thanks, Palo Alto--the model has been copied by University Extenion courses throughout the country, so they weren't wrong. Initially, however, the Free You freaks raised money by having free concerts and asking for donations.

The first Free You Be-In was at El Camino Park in Palo Alto on May 14,1967. El Camino Park, at 100 Alma Street, was Palo Alto's oldest park. The park had opened in 1914, and it was the Western edge of downtown, across from Stanford Shopping Center. The May Be-In was a big success, with a few local rock bands (like The Flowers) providing the entertainment,and since Palo Alto was a tolerant town, FreeYou received a permit for a second one.

The second Palo Alto Be-In was an all-timer--on July 2, 1967, local heroes the Grateful Dead returned to Palo Alto in triumph, and packed the park. Palo Alto was still Palo Alto, though, and FreeYou held a third Be-In on October 1, 1967, with the Steve Miller Band (including Boz Scaggs) on top.

By 1968, sleepy Palo Alto was inadvertently turning into a rock and roll town. There was a popular rock club, The Poppycock, just a few blocks from El Camino Park. The high school kids discovered that a downtown plaza was private property, and held their own mini-Be-Ins and free concerts. University Avenue was full of hippies on Friday and Saturday nights. Things were happening.

The July 3, 1969 Stanford Daily describes how local rock bands risked getting their equipment impounded if it exceeded 25 watts when performing at a scheduled July 4 Be-In at El Camino Park

Palo Alto: 1969
Palo Alto isn't most towns. In most towns, in 1969, the issue with free concerts would have been fear of hippies, long hair, rampant drug use, topless young women, and the dreaded fear of corrupting youth. Palo Alto parents were middle class and extremely progressive, however, the kind of people who had hated Joe McCarthy, liked Pete Seeger and wanted to ban the bomb. It was their own kids who had long hair, and by and large Palo Alto parents were dismissive of those criticisms.

What Palo Alto didn't like, however, was noise, and any big crowds associated with rock concerts. The apartment building at 101 Alma was finally successful in shutting down the Be-Ins on the basis of noise. In the Spring of 1969, Palo Alto City Council had passed an ordnance that limited the amplification of Be-Ins to 25 watts. So Palo Alto would approve a permit for a Be-In, but not a sound system. FreeYou got a permit for a July 4 Be-In, but no sound system. Bands did not want to risk a bust, so no Be-In happened.

Remember, however, most of Palo Alto wasn't opposed to FreeYou or even rock music, as long as it was quiet and uncrowded downtown. So Palo Alto offered a different city site for a Summer Be-In. The city allowed FreeYou to have a free concert at the new softball complex at the Baylands Athletic Center, near the Bay on the Eastern edge of town.

The softball field at Baylands Athletic Center as it looked in the 21st century

Baylands Athletic Center
Most Palo Altans think of the city as ending at the Bayshore Freeway (US101), but it's really not the case. In fact, the city extends East over the freeway, following Embarcadero Road all the way to San Francisco Bay. Just north of it, the extension of University Avenue was East Palo Alto, and the extension of Willow Road was East Menlo Park. "East Palo Alto" and "East Menlo Park" were just designations in the 1960s, as they were unincorporated land in the county next to Palo Alto (East Palo Alto is now an incorporated city within San Mateo County). Out on Embarcadero Road, past the Bayshore, Palo Alto had all sorts of things, an airport, a duck pond, a yacht harbor, a "waste disposal site" (which we called "the dump") and some other ununsed wetlands.

Palo Alto, being Palo Alto, had an idea way back in the 1940s that some of the little-used wetlands should be preserved. Parks were established in the Baylands as early as 1940. By the 1960s, there were serious efforts afoot to preserve the environment of the fragile bayland ecology. Still, Palo Alto had needs, and along with the airport and yacht harbor, Palo Alto built an athletic center, with a lighted softball field and a baseball diamond. The athletic facility (now with the address of 1900 Geer Road), was just on open land between the Bayshore Freeway and the bay itself.

Palo Alto had limited any Be-In at El Camino Park to 25 watts of power, which was effectively a denial of the permit. But in turn, the city offered up the softball diamond, complete with lights, for a 12-hour free concert. We can laugh at Palo Alto--I love to laugh at Palo Alto--but in 1969, what other city was offering up a city facility for free, with parking, bathrooms and lights, for a 12-hour free concert?

The August 1, 1969 Berkeley Tribe says "11am-11pm, free." The only address is "Embarcadero Rd East," which I assure you was sufficient. Once you got past the Post Office, there was nothing on Embarcadero Road save for the softball field.

August 2, 1969 Baylands Athletic Center, Palo Alto, CA; Sunbear/Underwood Jug Band/ Western Addition/ United Circus Band/Divine Madness/ Magic/Cide Minder/Happy Now/ Blu/ Kidd Africa/ Schon & Ice

Who were the bands?
Sunbear, Underwood Jug Band, United Circus Band, Magic, Happy Now and Blu are unknown to me. I assure you, if a late 60s Peninsula band is obscure to me, they are awfully obscure.

Western Addition was some kind of R&B band with a horn section, probably playing covers. Their lead singer, however, was the fabulously talented Wendy Haas. Haas was from nearby Atherton, and had been in an all-girl garage band called the Freudian Slips. The Slips played the lower end of the Fillmore circuit, and got their picture in Life magazine, and then broke up when some of the members went to college (Haas said "we weren't very tight"). Haas knew Michael Shrieve, however, and got connected to the Santana axis, which is how she ended up singing in the wonderful group Azteca. She also worked with the Santana band and others. Haas was the lead singer for Western Addition.

I recognize the name Divine Madness. I think they were a San Jose-area band.

Cide Minder is likely Sideminder, a Monterey County band (maybe they changed their spelling, or it's a transcription error). Sideminder was popular in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, and occasionally made forays into the Bay Area. It was a sound practice at the time to play a free concert if you could, in the hopes that the locals would then pay to see you at a club (in this case, The Poppycock).

KiddAfrica is a familiar name from various billings, but I don't know anything about the band or singer.

Schon is very likely San Mateo's own guitar sensation, Neal Schon. At the time, Schon would have been 15 years old. What isn't clear is whether he had his own band, or he was sitting in with Ice.

Ice were booked by the WestPole agency, who booked Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sons Of Champlin and many other Bay Area acts. WestPole director Ron Polte was extremely shrewd about building a following from the ground up. The Sons, for example, had played a million gigs all over the Bay Area, but by the time their album was released in 1969 they had a solid following all over the region. Ice was a tier below the Sons, and I don't actually know anything about them besides their WestPole affiliation, but Polte was shrewd about using free concerts to build audiences.

The August 2 weather report for the Santa Clara Valley, published in the August 1 Examiner

What Happened?
The free concert at The Baylands Athletic Center in Palo Alto on August 2, 1969 was fairly well publicized, for an event with no "name" bands. So what happened?

No one knows. There were absolutely no reports from afterwards, I've never heard of anyone who went, no one mentions it on Facebook, no band members recall it in their memoirs. There is no trace of the event (and I actually look for these things). The weather forecast (above, from the previous day's SF Examiner) was "mostly fair," so that wouldn't have been a problem.

My guess is that Be-Ins were a downtown phenomenon, with a lot of hippies walking to the event, maybe going to or from a coffee shop or pizza joint before or after. Getting in a car to drive across the freeway for some no-name bands just wasn't attractive. I think the 1969 Palo Alto Be-In was thinly attended and unmemorable, so--execpt for me--it became lost to history.

An ad for a rock concert at the Baylands Athletic Center in Palo Alto, on Sunday, November 15, 1970, featuring Big Brother, AUM, Tower of Power and Nevada.
Never Again?
It's easy to say that the Be-In must have been such a debacle that there was never a concert at the Baylands again. To some extent, that's true. The Baylands Athletic Center had just opened in Summer 1969, and by the next Summer, any Saturday would have found the softball field booked solid with determined players. Good luck ever getting them to accept they should lose Saturday games to a rock concert, when the Fillmore West was just up the highway. Not to mention, a crowd would wreck the outfield grass, and that would never be an acceptable outcome.

For a minute, though, let's think about it. The Baylands was safely separated from residential Palo Alto by a freeway, which in turn gave tremendous access to the site for the entire Peninsula. Parking was abundant, the facility was preexisting, with bathrooms and concession stands. Even in August, being right next to the Bay means there is inevitably a cooling ocean breeze. OK, there's a slight issue of the fact that it was built on landfill, and every once in a while you might smell the rotting waste. But really, it's a rock concert, the whole crowd is going to be burning some fat ones, what are you really going to smell?

November 15, 1970 Baylands Athletic Center, Palo Alto, CA: Big Brother and The Holding Company/AUM/Tower Of Power/Nevada Palo Alto Jaycees Benefit
And it can't have been that terribleof an idea, anyway, since the Baylands Athletic Center was used for a concert the very next year. It was a benefit, sponsored by the Palo Alto Jaycees Youth Advisory Council. Knowing Palo Alto, this was probably a scheme to "keep the kids out of trouble." It was held on a Sunday afternoon from 11am-4pm. Remember, also, that the weather is balmy in Palo Alto, even in November. Maybe people had to wear a sweater, since it was probably windy, but a daytime concert in November is plausible in the Bay Area.

Sure, Janis had left Big Brother, but they were still a name. AUM, a power trio, were a good band who had played around, and of course the great Tower Of Power was up and coming. It was probably a pretty good show. Note that Big Brother's name is taped over Boz Scaggs, so there must have been some changes, so maybe it wasn't going as well as hoped. Still, I know nothing about this event, either, other than the poster. In any case, it was well after softball season, so there wouldn't been a conflict with any games, nor would they have had to worry about wrecking the turf. The header "AUTUMNAL 2" hints that maybe there was an earlier event as well. Still, I can find no trace of a Baylands concert after 1970.

Despite only having apparent failures as events, the blueprint for a concert at the Baylands Athletic Center seems to be a perfect model for a suburban concert venue. And so it was. On June 29, 1986 the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, just 4 miles South of the Baylands Athletic Center, debuted as the Penisnula's premier concert venue. OK, it wasn't free, but it had every other benefit of the Baylands Athletic Center, and no interference from softball bookings. So the Baylands event was a failure, but the seeds of success were embedded within it.

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