Long ago, in late October of 1967, a group of us needed a break from Southern California and college, so we decided to take a road trip. We talked our friend DJ, a quirky but good- natured high school drop-out and the drug connection back in the day, into driving. We set out for the mecca of the counterculture, San Francisco.
We arrived at a house in Oakland, where three of our group had stayed the previous summer. This house was led by the patriarch, a hippie engineer and Allen Ginsberg look-alike. He and his wife raised their seven children in the counterculture lifestyle. After staying one night, we were puttering around the next afternoon when somebody saw an ad for a concert in San Francisco. With nothing better to do and not wanting to impose too much on our hosts, we opted for it.
Driving across the Bay Bridge and with no particular expectations, we arrived at the Winterland Ballroom, a skating and concert venue. Interestingly, three years prior in 1964, my Aunt Millie had taken my brother and me there to see the Ice Capades. (This was also the site of The Band’s last concert, chronicled in the 1976 movie “The Last Waltz”.)
This night, however, would be no Ice Capades, far from it. For tonight, we would see three of the premier psychedelic bands of the time: the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin), and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. 1967, as many know, was the year of “The Summer of Love”, when Haight-Ashbury was a focal point for hippies nationwide. You probably remember the song “When You’re Going to San Francisco” ….’be sure to wear a flower in your hair’ by Scott McKenzie.
DJ let the rest of us off and I remember vague plans to hook up after the show. We were just about to step into a Bill Graham production, a phenomenon that involved all the senses. Interestingly, a policeman standing next to the box office sold us our tickets for $2 each. We entered the venue and it felt as if we had passed into some sort of magic land. Hippies of all shapes and sizes, guys with either long hair to their waists or frizzed out like Noel Redding in Jimi Hendrix and the Experience’s first album—and everything around and in-between. Women with colorful, sometimes Victorian clothing, and both genders with headbands, hats, beads, you name it.
The experience was not just visual, it was also olfactory. A mixture of an incense and marijuana scent permeated the atmosphere. The combined effect seemed to somehow heighten one’s senses. You may not have felt stoned right away (at least not yet), but you did feel altered.
To the music! We came in during the middle of the Grateful Dead’s set. In fact, they were playing “Beat in on Down the Line”, side 1, cut 2 of their first album. They were spearheaded by co-founder, lead guitarist, songwriter, and iconic figure Jerry Garcia, affectionately known as “Captain Trips”. Although missing part of a finger due to a childhood accident, he was ranked 13th in a Rolling Stone magazine “100 Greatest Guitarists” poll. Dark and swarthy, this was the Jerry Garcia before a gray hair, facial hair, wire-framed glasses, and a paunchy stomach changed his physical appearance in later years.
Two of the band mates backing Garcia up were rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and keyboardist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. The Weir of 1967, with his cherubic, almost beautiful face, and long silky hair and sleek style, was counterpoint to Garcia and Pigpen. Pigpen, who died in 1973 from years of alcohol abuse, was a short, rough Hells Angel-looking character, who wore a variety of hats. He played keyboards and harmonica, and could really belt out the blues.
As we listened to the Dead complete their set, we were surrounded by a Bill Graham light show. Unlike standard stage lighting, which was generally static and non-interactive, it utilized liquid dyes, overhead projectors, color wheels, slide projection and 16mm film to produce not just a light show, but a live multi-sensory musical experience. I got to hear my favorite song by them, “Cold Rain and Snow”, also from their first album. They were great, and their set came to an end.
Then came a break, and we continued to take it all in. The lights dimmed and the next group came on stage, Big Brother and the Holding Company, who I knew little about. There was a woman fronting them—who would turn out to be Janis Joplin. And when they started, we were blown away! Raging guitars, a pounding beat, and then Janis! I worked my way to the front for this act. Although not attractive in a conventional sense, with her raw, powerful, uninhibited singing style and stage presence, she was sexy as hell!
But it wasn’t just Janis Joplin that made them memorable. I always thought the rest of the band got short-changed in the media. They were great, commanding, driving guitarists. Two of them, James Gurley and Sam Andrews, seemed to trade off leads and rhythm riffs seamlessly. I remember hearing “Light is Faster than Sound” and “Down on Me” from their first album, and “Piece of my Heart” from their second and more well-known album Cheap Thrills. Hearing and watching them was like witnessing a runaway freight train! My brother and I agree that although we have seen bands that were better, Big Brother had the single most electrifying live act, and that includes the Rolling Stones and the Doors.
Finally, their set ended, and then came the Quicksilver Messenger Service. Not as flashy as Big Brother and the Holding Company, they were nonetheless an excellent psychedelic rock band. They were anchored by a distinguished, smooth-sounding lead guitarist, John Cipollina. Their most well-known song, “Pride of Man”, would appear the following year.
Big Brother and Quicksilver did repeat sets—the Dead didn’t return that night. And when we exited the concert hall, DJ was nowhere to be seen! So, breaking up into groups, we had to hitchhike home—which thinking about it, was poetic justice. It turns out the hitchhiking back had its own escapades but I’ll save that for another post. I probably missed one or two days of college, but it was so worth it. To this day, almost 49 years later, the group who went still refer to it reverentially as THE Concert!