Friday, July 2, 2021

March 13, 1970 Gymnasium, Contra Costa Junior College, 26000 Mission Blvd, San Pablo, CA: Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Lost Horizons 1970 III)

The March 13, 1970 Berkeley Barb notes that Neil Young and Crazy Horse (plus Lamb) will be playing the Contra Costa Junior College Gym in San Pablo, CA that night

Recently I have been focusing my research on rock shows in the Bay Area in the early 1970s, focusing particularly on the lower tiers. With patience, I have done good research on the Matrix, the Keystone Berkeley, the Long Branch and a few other clubs. Yet I consistently come across tantalizing details of other venues, different untold stories and an insight into the unexplained. Without further information, I am often stuck with just the hint, not anything like the actual story.

My research method focuses on finding dates and venues where bands have performed, and constructing a narrative based on available sources. It sounds simple, but it reaps many benefits. Rather than assume what the motives and goals of different bands or promoters might be, I can let the evidence of actual performances tell me what is desired and what has resulted. The limits of this method, ultimately, are constrained by the limits of my available sources. From the 1960s and '70s, we don't always have that much evidence, so it can be hard to figure out the story. Not all old sources have been digitized, and in many cases a lot of shows were not advertised in any paper. If no local flyers were preserved, or there aren't other sources we can be left with very little.  

[Guess what: the internet is awesome, and thanks to Jesse and other internet scholars, we now know a lot more. See below for an update]

Lost Horizons, 1970
The Lost Horizons posts are a series of posts that I can't complete. In some cases I wish someone else would write the post, in other cases I'm hoping someone else has already written it, and in some others I am hoping for more information so I can try and take them on. There's no real connection between any of these topics, save for the device that there was a live performance in 1970 that intrigued my interest. My blogs have an explicitly rock and roll orientation, but my methodological approach veers off in different directions. Fernand Braudel, Reynar Banham, Marcy (emptywheel) Wheeler--it's still rock and roll to me. I'm hoping that the magic of the Internet and eternal Comment Threads will yield up information hitherto unknown to me. If you have any insights, corrections or entertaining speculation, please Comment.

The Berkeley Barb
The Berkeley Barb had been founded by Max Scherr in 1965. The weekly paper made a point of documenting the local counterculture. The readership was distinct from anyone subscribing to the local daily papers (the San Fransisco Chronicle or Examiner, the Oakland Tribune or the Berkeley Gazette). The Barb reported on protests, pot busts, sexual freedom and local rock shows. The ads were for organic foods, head shops or local crafts. The Barb was an alternative paper for an alternative audience. It was sold by hippies to other hippies for a dime or a quarter.  I don't know if the Berkeley Barb was the first such "underground" paper, but it was one of them, and it was a model for such papers all over the country.

By 1970, the Barb was being read all over the Bay Area. I don't know the exact details, but I believe that even outside of Berkeley the paper was available in Head Shops, espresso joints and other hip places throughout the Bay Area. At the back of every issue of the Barb was "Scenedrome," a summary of upcoming and ongoing events in the next week that might be of interest to its readers. While that would always include shows at Fillmore West, for example, it also included performers at Telegraph Avenue coffee shops, foreign movies, political meetings, self-help groups and all sorts of other gatherings. Getting listed in Scenedrome any week was free--someone just had to call the Barb by Tuesday at noon. So for hippie events that were on a shoestring, or just free, calling the Scenedrome was the cheapest way to get publicity. 

While Berkeley events had always been posted in Scenedrome every week since 1965, by 1970 it was plain that the rest of the Bay Area was paying attention as well. The Friday and Saturday listings in Scenedrome went well beyond Berkeley, a clear indicator that the Barb had a broader readership beyond central Berkeley. So we get tantalizing hints of what was going on around the Bay Area, without really knowing exactly what it was. Most of my notices below come from little more than the barest of listings in the appropriate issue of the Berkeley Barb, with occasional supplements from other sources.

March 13, 1970 Gym, Contra Costa College, San Pablo, CA: Neil Young and Crazy Horse/Lamb
If you research California rock history in the late 60s and early 70s, it's common to come across intermittent listings for shows at Junior Colleges. In those days, the newly-expanding Community College system in California (and similar ones in other states) had a stake in establishing their schools in their cities. The schools all had entertainment budgets, and saw one part of their mission as providing arts for their local area. When some hippies managed to get on to the "entertainment committee" (or whatever it might have been called), some good bands could get booked, the kind of promising band that would have been second or third on the bill at Fillmore West (see the appendix below for some known '69-70 shows at Contra Costa College).

But Friday, March 13, 1970 at the Contra Costa College gym was different. The headline act was no less than Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Young was one-quarter of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the hottest act in the country. CSNY had just released Deja Vu (on March 11), a legendary album that would shoot to #1. And even without his co-pilots, Neil Young was a major name. He had become a star in Buffalo Springfield, and his second solo album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere had been widely played on FM radio since its release in May, 1969. 

Now, here was Neil and Crazy Horse, playing in a Junior College gym in the tiny East Bay suburb of San Pablo. San Pablo (1970 population 21,461) was about 10 miles Northwest of Berkeley on Highway 80, but in a separate county (Berkeley and Oakland are in Alameda, while San Pablo is part of Contra Costa County). San Pablo isn't that far from Berkeley proper, but it's a world away in other senses. Conta Costa College had been founded in 1950. initially located at the shuttered Kaiser Shipyards in nearby Richmond. By 1957, it had moved inland to 26000 Mission Bell Drive in San Pablo. Around 1963-64, El Cerrito's John Fogerty was a student at Contra Costa JC, probably to avoid the draft, but he went on to join the California National Guard instead (props to Crispin Kott and Mike Katz's Rock and Roll Explorers Guide To San Francisco for that detail).

It's true that well-known bands sometimes used an under-publicized out-of-the-way booking to warm up for a tour, or for trying out new gear, new arrangements or new band members, out of the harsh spotlight. But that wasn't the case here. Neil Young and Crazy Horse had not only played together for over a year, in the previous month they had already played high profile shows in Cincinnati (Ludlow's Garage), Philadelphia (Electric Factory), Boston (Tea Party) and a weekend at Fillmore East. Since the Fillmore East shows on March 6 and 7 were not only recorded, but ultimately released (as part of Neil Young Archives), we can say for a fact that Neil and the Horse killed it there. Conta Costa College wasn't a warm-up gig--the band was as smoking hot as any band, ever. 

Neil Young had "gone solo" when Buffalo Springfield broke up in May, 1968. He had recorded his debut album, and then looked around for a more permanent backing group. He found a local group called The Rockets, kept three of their members and re-named them Crazy Horse. Guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina had been Young's backing group for Young's classic second album, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, credited to Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The album was released in May 1969 and received wide airplay on the increasing number of FM rock stations. Young and Crazy Horse had played a few Southern California shows in 1969, but then Neil joined Crosby, Stills and Nash. Come the Winter of 1970, Young and Crazy Horse added famed producer Jack Nitzsche on electric piano and went on tour. Since the Fillmore East shows were recorded, we know the band could absolutely bring it.

Why did Neil Young and Crazy Horse play a Friday night show at the Contra Costa College gym in San Pablo? They must have melted the place down. I can find no rationale for Neil Young playing the show, other than the fact that he's Neil. The next night, they played tiny San Marcos, CA, another unfathomable booking. There's only one Neil Young, and the Contra Costa College gym got him for a night. 

Neil Young and Crazy Horse (with Lamb) at the Women's Gym, Contra Costa Junior College, San Pablo, CA March 13, 1970 (thanks Tyler)

Update: Neil Young and Crazy Horse at Contra Costa College Women's Gym, March 13, 1970
Fellow scholar Tyler Wilcox found the poster. Another fellow scholar Jesse Jarnow found a backstage interview with Neil Young by San Francisco Chronicle critic Ralph Gleason (below). I assume it ran in the following Sunday Chronicle/Examiner (March 22).

Gleason's interview hints at a possible explanation for the presence of Young and Crazy Horse: Young tells Gleason that the band spent six hours filming in the studio. Could this have been for some kind of television special, such as at KQED-TV (San Francisco's PBS affiliate, Channel 9)? If so, that would be a kind of holy grail for Neil Young fans, pro-shot video of Crazy Horse from 1970. The fact that Young's manager, Elliot Roberts, is also backstage (Gleason mentions him) suggests that the Bay Area trip wasn't casual. I don't believe Young lived in La Honda in early 1970, so he would have been making a special trip North. It would make sense that if they spent a day filming, booking a gig would cover some expenses. We can only hope...

As if that weren't enough, it turns out that John Morthland reviewed the concert in Rolling Stone magazine. Here's the transcription:

A Statement Of A Single Man by John Morthland
Review of Contra Costa Junior College Gym show, March 13, 1970 (with Crazy Horse)

Everything about Neil Young's approach to music has become so highly personalized that when he performs, he seems at first to be oblivious of his audience. That impression is a superficial one, though, for his music demands rapt attention, and he quickly establishes such an intimate relationship to the audience that even a college gym seems like a cozy little club.

That's what he did here, at the Contra Costa Junior College gym, across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. And the word from other cities along this, their first tour together, is that wherever he and Crazy Horse went, they won over the crowds in no time. Young is finally getting the recognition he has deserved ever since those frustrating days with Buffalo Springfield.

Like a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert, a Neil Young concert begins with an acoustic set. Young plays acoustic in a hard, percussive manner, while still keeping intact his captivating melodies, like the tender "I Am A Child." He also does "Broken Arrow," the electronic collage from Buffalo Springfield Again, as a solo number now. And he closed out the acoustic set with "The Loner," on which he stretched out the lyrics in a Dylanesque manner: "Knohohoh when you see hiiiiimmm / Nuuuthiiiing can freeeee hiiiiimmm / Step aside / Open wide / It's the Lohohohohnerrrrr." it was as powerful a statement as a single man can make.

Crazy Horse - guitarist Dan Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot, drummer Ralph Molina, and electric pianist Jack Nitzsche - joined for the rest of the set. Crazy Horse is a strong band that gives Young all the support he needs. They opened with "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," did a new one, and then went into "Down By The River."

That was the one the crowd had been waiting for, the one they knew best. With Crazy Horse rolling along steadily behind him, Young displayed amazing virtuosity. Pacing the stage in his patched blue jeans, his head jerking up and down with the music, he picked guitar lines seemingly out of nowhere, piling them up one staccato note on top of another, never once letting you forget those lyrics. "I shot my baby!"

Between songs he charmed the audience with stories about near-accidents and observations on grass, his voice taking on the inflections of the fall guy in a comedy team. They responded by applauding each song with the first few chords, even the new ones that they didn't recognize.

The set clamed down slightly with another new song, "Wondering," and Whitten's "Come On Baby, Let's Go Downtown." (A whole album of songs written by Crazy Horse members is in the works.) Then it started building again with "Cinnamon Girl," which won a standing ovation even though it wasn't the last song. "Cowgirl In The Sand," Young's most romantic and most fully realized performance thus far, was the finale, and it gave Young another vehicle for long screaming improvisations.

Part of Young's power rests in his imagery, which, while sometimes strange, is almost always rich and evocative. Another asset is his high quivering voice, which is also unique. He seems most at ease with Crazy Horse, and they in turn fit his style better than any of the other bands he's worked with. On this night they could do no wrong anyhow, and, on leaving the gym, I noticed that most everyone was going home happy. It's easy to see why.

I'm not aware of Crazy Horse shows beginning with an acoustic set, but perhaps I'm just poorly informed. In any case, we can figure out the setlist, and I'm surprised the gym didn't catch fire.

Pre-GPS directions to Contra Costa College in San Pablo, CA from Berkeley and San Francisco (remember not to take the San Rafael Bridge turnoff!)

For those of you who are still wondering about the location of Contra Costa College, Tyler has solved that, too. The back of the poster has directions.

Appendix: 1969-70 Rock Shows at Contra Costa College, San Pablo, CA
My research has turned up some interesting rock shows at Contra Costa College. The list isn't definitive. Comments welcome.

April 18, 1969 Gym, Contra Costa College, San Pablo, CA: Santana (Friday)
Santana was a very popular Bay Area band at this point in 1969, but their first album had not yet been released (although it probably was largely complete by this time).

October 25, 1969 Gym, Contra Costa College, San Pablo Shag/Womb/Purple Earthquake (Saturday)
Purple Earthquake was a band from Berkeley High. They would evolve into Earth Quake in the early 1970s. I believe Womb had previously been called Birth.

November 7, 1969 [gym], Contra Costa College, Richmond, CA: Cold Blood/Sanpaku/Little John (Friday)
This listing was from the SF Chronicle, and put the college in Richmond, showing how East Bay suburbs were all the same to San Francisco and Berkeley. Contra Costa College had been in Richmond, but was now next door in San Pablo. To city people, the distinctions made little difference. Cold Blood and Sanpaku were both booked by Bill Graham's Millard Agency.

March 6, 1970 Gym, Contra Costa College, San Pablo, CA: Cold Blood/Elvin Bishop Group/Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen (Friday)
The Elvin Bishop Group, like Cold Blood, were also booked by Bill Graham's Millard Agency, who thrived on bringing Fillmore bands to the suburbs. Cody and the Airmen had established themselves in the East Bay

March 13, 1970 Gym, Contra Costa College, San Pablo, CA: Neil Young and Crazy Horse/Lamb (Friday)
Opening act Lamb was the songwriting duo of pianist Barbara Mauritz and guitarist Bob Swanson. Mauritz was the primary vocalist, but they were a writing partnership. By early 1970, the pair had added a rhythm section. Lamb would go on to record three rock-oriented albums. Their first was A Sign Of Change, for Bill Graham's Fillmore label, distributed by CBS. Lamb, too, was booked by the Millard Agency.

April 17, 1970  Gym, Contra Costa College, San Pablo, CA: Quicksilver Messenger Service/AB Skhy/Beggars Opera (Friday)
The Spring '70 Quicksilver lineup featured the legendary quartet (Cippolina, Duncan, Freiberg, Elmore), along with pianist Nicky Hopkins, but the band was fronted by singer Dino Valenti. Opinion about Valenti varied--he helped restore Quicksilver to prominence with songs like "Fresh Air," but most fans preferred the guitars over his dominating vocal style. AB Skhy was a band that had relocated from the Midwest, led by guitarist Dennis Geyer, and they would release two albums on MGM. Beggar's Opera was a local Contra Costa Band.

November 20, 1970 Gym, Contra Costa College, San Pablo, CA: Boz Scaggs/Beggars Opera/One (Friday)
Boz Scaggs had released an excellent debut album on Atlantic in 1969, but he didn't really have a following outside of the Bay Area. The oddly-named One was a band on the Jefferson Airplane's Grunt label (an RCA Imprint). One did release an album, featuring a Bolinas resident who identified himself as "Reality D Blipcrotch." Live performances, and historical details about the group (and Mr. Blipcrotch), are scant.