San Francisco Rock
The crowned king of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, once wrote, “Living in San Francisco in the ‘60s was like being in Paris in the twenties.” Indeed, from the period of 1966 into 1969, it seemed that the famed Bay Area had become a vibrant, evolving culture that wielded considerable influence over the rest of the country. Having absorbed the rock ‘n’ roll British assault from a few years before, the city was now guiding its own musicians in an entirely new direction. Gone, for the most part, were peppy, ‘boy-loves-girl’ ditties. The northern California pioneers of psychedelia began to lengthen the duration of a tune, experimenting with ‘groovier’ sounds and elongating its boundaries in jam sessions. The hits that poured forth from the area weighed in with a social conscience, both in advocation and protest. And one could pinpoint the ground zero for this new revolution in what is known as the Fillmore District in downtown San Francisco.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Fillmore Avenue was a haven for amateur, as well as established, jazz talent. The neighborhood demographically consisted of primarily African-American residents. For the proud neighbors of this area, the jazz king of their district was a man named Jimbo Edwards, who opened Jimbo’s Bob City on the corner of Buchanan and Post Streets. Some of the greatest names in jazz stopped in to perform or simply sit back and take in a show. Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong all dropped in. Of course, the club was not exclusive to African-American patrons. But only the so-called ‘hip’ Caucasian denizens of San Francisco ventured to clubs like Jimbo’s. Two guys that did check out that scene were Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady.
Kerouac became renowned as the Beatnik movement’s idol. His books chronicled the carefree, soul-searching sojourns of dissatisfied, rootless American hipsters. And Cassady was his lead character in the legendary book, “On The Road.” Together, they introduced the merits of jazz, existentialism, and marijuana to a nation of turtleneck-bedecked, chain-smoking, angst-filled followers. Cassady would go on to associate with a group renowned for its use of ‘harder’ drugs.
By the mid-50s, San Francisco’s music scene was expanding from jazz to other genres. Local resident Johnny Mathis, who had grown up most of his life on Post Street, took years of vocal lessons and was eventually signed by Columbia Records. He specialized in crooning romantic ballads that subsequently charted high on Billboard’s Top 100, including the moody nugget, “Misty.” He soon moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Folk music was getting a new jolt in the area as well. Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, and Dave Guard were all college students in 1957 when they decided to dust off traditional folk songs and give them a pop spin. Playing the North Beach scene in clubs like the Hungry i, and the Purple Onion, the group, which became the world-famous Kingston Trio, scored a number one hit in 1958 with “Tom Dooley.” Meanwhile, the Jersey-based quartet The Four Seasons would occasionally hold auditions for amateur musicians at the Bay Area’s Jack Tar Hotel in order to see prospective acts for their record label.
Before the domination of Starbucks, coffeehouses were the place to hear great music and be seen. San Francisco saw a glut of these clubs open throughout the early 1960s. Places like The Fox and the Hounds, Vesuvio’s Coffee House, The Coffee Gallery, The Coffee Confusion, and the Hungry i were all venues that one could go and hear the latest jazz or folk artists perform their songs. It was in some of these java-joints along Grant Street, most notably at the Coffee Gallery, that a woman named Janis Joplin was first heard wailing her heart out in the Bay Area.
Known as The Pearl, this dynamic vocalist from Port Arthur, Texas had honed her raspy singing style in Austin and Houston clubs. Her talented singing style seemed to always burst forth in a screech of insecurity and pain. Joplin was palpably aware of her rather homely looks, a feeling that was callously reinforced when she was voted Ugliest Man on campus at the University of Texas. Somehow, she was able to translate the slings and arrows into a fiery presentation. Rock promoter Bill Graham said in his autobiography, “Janis was a feel, an emotion, a spur. Janis was not a song. Janis was the first white singer of that era who sounded like she had come from the world of black blues. I don’t think men found her that attractive. I think men found her an awesome female. Not necessarily sexually but sensually. She aroused something in men. She aroused desire but was not the object of that desire.”
After she and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen performed together for a few years around town, Janis went back to Texas for a while. But she would eventually be coaxed back. And Kaukonen would move on to join a group being started by a folk artist who had just arrived from Los Angeles. A man named Marty Balin.
Balin, who grew up in Ohio, had spent some time strumming with a folk outfit known as the Town Criers. Having left them to check out the burgeoning folk scene in the Bay Area, Marty decided to open a nightclub, so that he could promote and play the kind of music he was yearning to branch off to, that of rock ‘n’ roll. A place called The Honeybucket club at 3138 Fillmore Street had been closed for some time, and with the backing of some investors, Marty purchased the small club for approximately $12,000. While relaxing at another establishment, the Drinking Gourd, Marty was approached by a musician with a guitar on his back. His name was Paul Kantner. Kantner had also been trying his hand at the folk circuit. The two saw eye-to-eye on forming a rock band, and Kantner recommended a guitarist he had known at Santa Clara University – Jorma Kaukonen. Rounding out the unit with a bass player and drummer, the new group got a female singer named Signe Anderson, whom they heard at the Drinking Gourd, to join them and augment Marty’s vocals. A friend of Kaukonen’s suggested a fake blues singer name for the group, Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane. By August 13, 1965, they’d dropped the ‘Blind Thomas’ part and performed on the opening night at Marty’s newly-christened nightclub, The Matrix. Local band The Mystery Trend also performed that evening. The San Francisco Rock revolution officially commenced.
Their set was lively and electric. San Francisco Chronicle writer Ralph Gleason was in the audience, and he wrote a scintillating piece about the new sounds beginning to burble to the surface in the Bay Area. Record label executives in Los Angeles and New York soon jumped on planes to hear for themselves. A bidding war eventually started. By December 1965, RCA Victor Records gave the Jefferson Airplane an advance of $25,000 to sign with them. An advance of this kind was unheard of in those days. The Airplane became the first of San Francisco’s legion of new rock artists to land a major label deal.
Having read the Gleason article, a young woman showed up to watch the band a few nights later. Born Grace Wing in Chicago, Illinois, the 25 year-old had grown up primarily in Palo Alto, California, about a half-hour’s drive south of San Francisco. She and her husband, a film student named Jerry Slick, decided she should quit her department store job, and together with Jerry’s brother, Darby, they would form a band as well. Settling on the name The Great Society, an allusion to President Lyndon Johnson’s description of the American people, the group picked up a saxophonist and bass player. Grace Slick sang lead vocals. The band began writing their own material, one song of which was titled “Somebody To Love.”
Another resident of Palo Alto was becoming more immersed in the blues-rock scene as well. Having been raised in the Bay Area by a father who was a jazz musician that played many of the ballrooms his son would later conquer, Jerry Garcia dabbled in a few folk group outfits as the 1960s arrived. After a car crash in 1961, he quit his vocational studies at art school and dove into the folk scene in Palo Alto full time. Proficient on the banjo, he soon crossed paths with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Dana Morgan, Jr., Bob Weir, and Bill Kreutzmann. Forming as a jug band ensemble, with Weir barely able to play guitar, the group soon became more proficient with a rock ‘jam’ type of sound. Naming themselves the Warlocks, they made their debut at Menlo Park in April 1965. Bassist Phil Lesh soon replaced Morgan. Rehearsing constantly in Palo Alto, the group became chummy with a psychedelic local band. Except that this local band did not play music. They were a bunch of drugged-out slackers, arguably the first hippies, known as the Merry Pranksters. Their leader was a fellow by the name of Ken Kesey.
Kesey, the author of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” had settled in the La Honda area with his jolly band of stoners and was heavily into sampling acid trips. Having been a volunteer guinea pig to the CIA for $20 a day to sample the then-legal drug LSD, Kesey was intent on spreading the mind-expanding experiences to both compliant and unsuspecting takers. Beatnik Neal Cassady had fallen in with the Pranksters, and together, they traveled the country in a bus called Further. By the end of 1965, Kesey decided to lead anyone who wished to sample their wares in what they termed Acid Tests. Basically they were mind-blowing parties filled with large tubs of LSD-laced Kool-aid and accompanied by the music of the now-very-improvisatory Warlocks.
When hallucinogenic drugs became the dominant sustenance of performers in the San Francisco music scene, the term ‘psychedelia’ finally was created to describe the symbiosis of narcotics and tunes. The early Acid Tests were cacophonous, unstructured “happenings.” The Pranksters’ LSD manufacturer, Owsley Stanley, was generating enough of the acid to make scads of money, and so he, in turn, supplied the Warlocks with equipment and tech support. Not many venues, let alone promoters, would back the motley group of high-as-a-kite musicians. But that all changed in January 1966, when a man named Bill Graham showed up in the Fillmore district.
In 1939, Graham’s mom put her young son on a transport train out of Germany. Being of Russian-Jewish descent, she knew that this identity which her son also bore would soon be caught in the calamity that was about to occur in the land of the rising Reich. She perished in a concentration camp, and Bill caught a ship for New York. Raised by adoptive parents in the Bronx, he learned at an early age to fend for himself. At age 30, he moved to San Francisco and began promoting a Mime Troupe. His knack for organization and a sincere love for artistry led to his name being considered when Kesey and his Pranksters wanted to hold an Acid Test in the heart of San Francisco.
For this particular three-day “Trips Festival,” beginning on January 21, 1966, Graham rented out the Longshoreman’s Hall at 400 North Point Street. Scheduled to appear were The Warlocks, who had just renamed their group. “We were at Phil’s (Lesh’s) house one day,” Jerry told Rolling Stone magazine. “He had a big Oxford Dictionary, I opened it up and the first thing I saw was ‘The Grateful Dead.’ It said that on the page and it was so astonishing. It was truly weird, a truly weird moment. I didn’t like it really, I just found it to be really powerful…We sort of became the Grateful Dead because we heard there was another band called Warlocks.”
Graham got his first taste of handling the hippie-dippy crowds that would soon flood his own venues. A guy dressed as a clown, named Wavy Gravy, would walk about the room, calming those patrons who were freaking out having a bad trip. Ron Boise, the Prankster’s sculptor, erected a ‘Thunder Machine’ in the center of the floor that had metallic figures emulating sex acts all over it. Kesey was in a full-fledged astronaut’s suit, letting Hell’s Angels bikers in the back entrance for free. Graham was becoming unhinged. “The first time I ever saw Bill was when the Acid Test moved to the Trips Festival at Longshoreman’s Hall,” Garcia related in Graham’s book. “And here’s this guy running around with a clipboard, you know. I mean, in the midst of total insanity. I mean, total, wall-to-wall, gonzo lunacy. Everybody in the place is high but Bill.” Graham had to plead and coax the Dead to perform that weekend. “We were used to Acid Tests,” Garcia continued, “where sometimes we’d play and sometimes wouldn’t. Sometimes we would get up on stage, play for about five minutes, and all freak out. And leave. You know? That was the beauty of it. People weren’t coming to see the Grateful Dead. So we didn’t feel compelled to perform.”
Music did trickle out of the Dead’s amps during the festival and also from their co-headliners, Big Brother & The Holding Company. This local band had been holed up since the summer in bassist Peter Albin’s uncle’s mansion at 1090 Paige Street in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Along with Sam Andrew, James Gurley and Chuck Jones, the band members drew up lists of potential names for their group. Their manager, Chet Helms, selected two monikers off their list, and thus, ‘Big Brother’ & ‘The Holding Company’ was conjoined. They had played their first gig at the Open Theater in nearby Berkeley and soon were signed to a Chicago record label named Mainstream. One of their biggest draws was found in their lead singer, Janis Joplin.
Having been close to marriage back in Texas, Janis was suddenly coaxed by a Chet Helms’ emissary to return to the Bay Area and join the band he managed. Chet soon bought and ran the Avalon Ballroom at the corner of Sutter and Van Ness, and Big Brother & the Holding Company was the unofficial house band. His primary competition was none other than Bill Graham. Having leaped into the rock foray full-time, Graham opened The Fillmore Auditorium at 1805 Geary Street with an inaugural concert on December 10, 1965. Jefferson Airplane topped the bill, along with The Great Society and The Mystery Trend. Bill was intent on creating a comfortable venue for both the established and the new acts to break bread in. The Fillmore operated five nights out of the week and Fridays and Saturdays were always sellouts. It became the place to go on weekend nights, regardless of who was playing.
Local bands sprang up practically overnight:
- The Charlatans had seen the Mystery Trend perform during the Matrix club’s opening night and were inspired to form their own band. Spending a lot of their time with Kesey and his Pranksters, The Charlatans were widely considered to be one of the first bands to perform at Graham’s Fillmore on acid. They certainly weren’t the last.
- The Mojo Men were a Miami group that had relocated to the Bay Area in 1965 and played many gigs with the town’s headliners. They opened for the Rolling Stones during their first concert in San Francisco at the Civic Auditorium.
- Sopwith Camel, formed after lead singer Peter Kraemer met guitarist/pianist Terry MacNeil at Polk Street’s Big Little Bookstore, drew the distinction of being the second local band to be signed by a major record label after the Jefferson Airplane, and they scored a top 30 hit with “Hello Hello.”
- Former guitarist/drummer with the Airplane, Skip Spence, initiated Moby Grape, landing them a deal with Columbia Records. A half dozen of their singles were on the charts circa 1966, but many radio stations pulled them from the playlist after three members of the group were found having sex with underage girls.
- When folksinger/protester Country Joe dropped his Instant Action Jug Band and went electric with The Fish, they made their debut at Graham’s Fillmore.
- For a guy who’d played with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, you’d think Steve Miller would have established a lucrative career from the outset, but when the guitar virtuoso finally moved to San Francisco in late ’66, he only had $5 to his name. He spent it on a Fillmore show featuring one of his idols, Chicago bluesman Paul Butterfield. Shortly thereafter, he opened for Butterfield at the Avalon with the debut of his Steve Miller Blues Band. A versatile musician Steve had met in Texas was also incorporated into his group. A future hitmaker in his own right by the name of Boz Scaggs.
- Fixtures on the San Francisco club scene since 1965, acid-rock maestros Quicksilver Messenger Service didn’t sign with a record label until late 1967. For their second album, the in-concert recording released as “Happy Trails,” the band showed off its snooze-inducing tendency to jam by putting a 25-minute version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” on the entire first side of the LP.
- Jazz-funk stalwarts of the Bay Area, Tower of Power, originally formed as the Motowns over in Oakland. Once Bill Graham got into music publishing, he was sure to sign them to his San Francisco Records.
- Another musician across the Bay in Vallejo, California named Sylvester Stewart, gravitated to San Fran as a DJ, then worked as a writer/producer/artist for local label Autumn Records. He worked a few sessions with the Great Society, then broke out with his brother Freddie and a gaggle of musicians in his own funk band, Sly and The Family Stone. The group garnered a hit song initially with “Dance To The Music” before Sly picked up and relocated to Los Angeles.
Even though Bill Graham was only charging a few bucks per show at the time, it may have been too steep a price to pay for one avid fan. As legend has it, when Eric Clapton played the Fillmore, a young kid just out of high school named Carlos Santana, tried to climb in the second-story window, but was confronted by Graham. The proud musician from Tijuana, who had braved the seedy denizens of Revolucion Boulevard, playing all night in strip clubs, was now living in San Francisco, washing dishes at the Tick Tock Restaurant on Third Street. After convincing Graham to hear him play his guitar, the rock promoter was so impressed that he began booking the Carlos Santana Blues Band for his Fillmore Auditorium — the only time Graham had allowed a group to headline without having an album in release.
When The Beatles decided to end their days of touring, their last gig was on August 29, 1966 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. It seemed appropriate that one musical sensation was completing their noted style of presentation in the city where performers were already carrying a newly-lit torch to guide the way for rock ‘n’ roll.
On October 15th of that year, Signe Anderson, pregnant with child, decided to leave the Jefferson Airplane and move to Oregon to raise her kid. The group’s Paul Kantner had felt Grace Slick with the Great Society was a talent they should have tapped from the start, so when the opportunity arose, the group’s managers “bought” Slick away from her record contract with the Society for a mere $750. She brought with her two songs that her previous group had recorded but not released — ones that would eventually prove to be monster hits for the Jefferson Airplane. “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.” “When Grace joined them, it changed,” Jerry Garcia said in Bill Graham’s biography. “Grace was already one of the big superstars of the Bay Area, even with the Great Society. It was obvious she was hot. Because she really had great presence. On stage, she had that scary magnetism, that power. You could tell she was happening.”
She made her debut with the Airplane at the Fillmore on October 16th. “I gave the audience a smile and silent look that said, ‘I know I’m new, I know you’re used to Signe, but I’m here now,” Grace wrote in her autobiography. “In a certain way, it felt natural to be there, and I tried to look like I belonged, like I had the situation handled. Of course, inside I was a nervous wreck.” She was more than accepted. The Airplane’s second album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” featuring Grace’s vocals, went gold and to number 3 on the Billboard chart. Feeling like a big family, the band soon bought a house at 2400 Fulton Street to be their group headquarters.
During this period, the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco began to explode. Both the music and the promise of peace, love & drugs beckoned stilted and dissatisfied youth from all across America to make the trek west. It was the Age of Aquarius, and if you were over 30, you just weren’t “with it.” Musicians, poets, philosophers, and artists sat on curbs or kicked back on the grass, lazily bonding with their fellow enlightened nomads. Many of the bands used fantastic artists in the area like Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso, Wes Wilson, and cult comic designer Robert Crumb to design their handbills, posters and album cover images.
All the while, Ken Kesey was conducting many mini-Trips Festivals around the District. LSD crept into daily existence. Many people were dosed without their knowledge, (sometimes Pranksters would dab drops of acid on door handles), only to fly off on a mind trip against their will. Bill Graham was one of those “victims.” It had become a competition to dose him amongst the Grateful Dead and the Merry Pranksters. They finally laced every Coke can in a cooler that Graham drank from one day. Sure enough, he started gulping one of the soft drinks down. The straight-arrow Graham suddenly became possessed and hopped up onstage with the Dead, playing kettledrum and gong like a madman for the next four hours. Paranoia spread about the Pranksters methods over the months ahead, and shortly after their Acid Test Graduation at a warehouse on Sixth Street, Kesey and his merry hooligans moved north to Oregon.
The Summer of Love 1967 saw Haight-Ashbury busting at the seams. The Grateful Dead had already moved into an old Victorian mansion at 710 Ashbury Street. The parties and foot traffic through their house never seemed to stop. The mood of the community was definitely communal. The press corps from around the globe descended on the famous cross streets to interview the thousands of dropouts about “flower power.” Tour buses wended their way slowly through the crowds on what travel agencies billed as the “Hippie Hop.” Flyers were handed out and protest rallies about the Vietnam War were a normally-scheduled occurrence. The more radical elements of protest, however, were voiced across the Bay on the Berkeley campus. Underneath the peace symbols, darkness lurked here and there. Haight-Ashbury gave birth to a disenchanted guy named Charles Manson. Biker gangs like the Sons of Hawaii, the Gypsy Jokers, and most noticeably, the Hells Angels, flocked to the area to sometimes take advantage of the “handout” nature of the community.
Along with the Fillmore, the Avalon and the Longshoreman’s Hall, the Straight Theatre at Haight and Cole, the California Hall on Polk Street, Sokol Hall at 739 Page Street, the Rock Garden at 4742 Mission Street, The Fire House at 3767 Sacramento Street, and the Winterland, a former ice rink located at Post and Steiner, all booked top names on their establishment’s bills. Bill Graham’s business was so good that he opened a venue in New York called the Fillmore East. Over on Market and Van Ness, downtown at the edge of the Tenderloin District, stood a former 1930s venue owned by the League of Irish Voters called the Carousel Ballroom. Trying to get a piece of the promotion pie, the Dead, the Airplane, Quicksilver, Big Brother, and the Hell’s Angels all chipped into a cooperative agreement to run the place. Janis Joplin was the only one of the partners who was against the idea. “It’s like turning over the Bank of America to a bunch of six year olds. I give you guys six months at best,” she told them. “A bunch of hippies high on acid running a business – my Lord!”
By 1968, Bill Graham was having trouble getting kids to come to his San Francisco Fillmore auditorium. Crime in the district jacked up, and racial tensions after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. were palpable. Graham was looking for another venue. After about 13 weekends of running the Carousel in the “red,” the music collective decided to drop their deal. That’s when Graham swooped in and bought the establishment. He shuttered his old place and renamed the Carousel the Fillmore West.
Larger and more accommodating than the original Fillmore, Graham set out to book one of the area’s newest sensations, a band called Creedence Clearwater Revival. Having formed as a high school band in El Cerrito, a suburb of San Francisco, John Fogerty, his brother Tom, bassist Stu Cook, and drummer Doug “Cosmo” Clifford, eventually played clubs and bars, mostly in the North Beach area, under the name Tommy Fogerty & the Blue Velvets. Over in Berkeley, they signed on to Fantasy Records with the British-sounding name The Golliwogs. John and Clifford were drafted into the Army for a few months in 1966. When they reformed and renamed themselves Creedence Clearwater Revival, the band suddenly drew more success with their single “Suzy Q.” Soon thereafter, in the summer of 1968, the group was booked into the bigger venues like the Avalon and Graham’s Fillmore West.
Even though they were a part of the San Francisco ‘scene’ and harbored the same strong political ideologies as their peers, the Revival never really was mixed in with all the psychedelia. “It was an actual effort on our part,” John Fogerty explained in Rolling Stone magazine. “Musically we happened to like a little bit different kind of music than groups like the Dead and the Jefferson Airplane did. Our musical love was soul music – Stax and all that. We tended to play a lot of shorter, upbeat numbers, because we considered ourselves a dance band. And the Dead and the Airplane played slower, drawn-out numbers – music that sounded good when you were stoned. I personally was not into drugs at all.”
After hits like “Proud Mary” and “Bad Moon Rising” cemented their legend, Creedence Clearwater Revival pretty much dissolved by the early 1970s. By the summer of 1968, the ‘feel-good’ vibe of the San Francisco scene was also dissolving. More and more innocent waifs arriving from parts unknown were being preyed upon by street-wise criminals. The commercialization of the Haight-Ashbury district was such that being a hippie or dropout had lost its initial charm. It was more of a nasty free-for-all. By 1969, the Grateful Dead members were tired of the communal living in the area. Each of them drifted north, across the Golden Gate Bridge, to find homes of their own in the artist-friendly, laidback environs of Marin County. They actually craved what Jerry Garcia phrased as a more “normal” existence.
The magic seemed to dissipate by the time the Rolling Stones rolled into town in December 1969 for their free concert out at the Altamont Speedway. With Marty Balin getting smashed in the face and a concert-goer being stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels, the remaining luster of the communal experience that the music once brought seemed to be tarnishing at decade’s end. Columnist Ralph Gleason summed up the disillusionment of the Altamont experience in the San Francisco Chronicle: “In 24 hours, we created all the problems of our society in one place: congestion, violence, and dehumanization. The name of the game is money, power, and ego.”
Bill Graham forged on for a few more years before first closing the Fillmore East in New York in 1971 and then the Fillmore West shortly thereafter. He continued to manage select shows over at the Winterland, in particular the Rolling Stones during their 1972 tour. Graham concerned himself more with benefits and big event proceedings. In 1975, he gathered some of the best names in the business, like Dylan, the Dead, the Doobie Brothers, Santana, and Neil Young, to appear at Kozar Stadium near Golden Gate Park to benefit extracurricular activities for local school programs. For Thanksgiving 1976, he completely decked-out the Winterland with tables and chairs, velvet curtains and fine dining for a farewell performance of the Band. Director Martin Scorsese filmed the event, which featured legends like Clapton, Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, and Neil Young, for the movie “The Last Waltz.”
Psychedelic rock had smoothly blended into what we now refer to as classic rock. These had been rock’s golden years and much of it took place in the City by the Bay. As they had before, the British signaled a new direction in rock by the mid-70s with an angrier, more pungent exhibition of protest in the form of punk. This attitude would be later carried on in Bay Area bands, most notably Green Day. But the magic that spawned a musical revolution in San Francisco had pretty much vanished. It is appropriate that the leaders of punk, the Sex Pistols, performed their last concert at the Winterland in 1978. A few months later, the establishment closed its doors for the last time.
“After Winterland, San Francisco changed,” Bill Graham said in his bio. “The communal aspect of going to shows disappeared.” Grace Slick put the mood of her heyday in perspective in her own autobiography. “There (were) no metal detectors, no security guards, no backstage passes, no VIPs at all. Everybody is ‘us.” That scenario, of course, was irreparably altered as more people looked at rock with dollar signs in their eyes.
The distinctive passing of San Francisco’s grand rock era is perhaps best noted in the recollections of Bob Barsotti, the former house manager at the Winterland. “There was always this scene outside. We would sell two thousand tickets a night at the door. People would just show up to see what was going on. There were probably a hundred fifty to two hundred people who went to every single show. Didn’t matter who it was or when it was. Weeknight. Weekend. Four in a row. They were there. Every night. That doesn’t happen in any of our places anymore…The ideals that made Winterland work don’t exist anymore. The camaraderie at the concerts. It’s entertainment now and a business and a commodity that people pay for. When they do, they expect certain things in return. It’s not like they’re all joining in on something anymore.”
© 2000 Ned Truslow