This seems to be the time for these memories, so here goes:
The first time I saw the Dead was the first time anyone saw them, with that name in performance, December 10, 1965. I’d heard of the Warlocks, but not heard them. It was at the second San Francisco Mime Troupe benefit put on by Bill Graham, his first event at the Fillmore Auditorium, which he’d just discovered. “My” band, the one I “managed” (the Vipers, misreported as the VIPs in Ralph Gleason’s story), was there, as was Big Brother, Quicksilver, the Airplane, etc. When I read about the event in Herb Caen’s column I called Graham from the payphone in the house I lived in in Palo Alto (I was not intimidated, he was not yet famous) to volunteer. He said we can’t just have anybody, but invited us up to audition the afternoon of the event. There’s more to that story but that’s enough. Each band took a table, along one of the walls, with the dance floor in the middle. Ours was on the right, about half way back, I remember the angle. That night Bill Graham announced the Warlocks’ new name.
It’s good to have the internet to check things. I used to think this next event, which happened 8 days later, was before the Mime Troupe benefit: a Ken Kesey Acid Test (the fourth, according to the Wikipedia chronology) at the Big Beat in Palo Alto. (Tom Wolfe wrote about it, but he wasn’t there: When I got far enough in his book to know that I stopped reading.) A big dark room, the Dead on a stage at one end, an all-woman band, the Witches, on a stage at the other. Non-stop music. Witches and Warlocks. Light show on the walls. That’s how I remember it. I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid that night.
Not long after that, two more Acid Tests, both in January of 1966, one at the Fillmore (not yet firmly a Bill Graham venue), shut down early by the cops. I remember the Hell’s Angels, and ice cream, but that may be another event. I sat on the floor against the back wall, waiting for the friend who drove us there to lead me out. There’s a tape of this at Concert Vault labelled, incorrectly, as being at California Hall. Then there was Longshoremen’s Hall, the Trips Festival. I don’t remember as much as I’d like to, a lot of milling about, but I remember Pigpen and Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, a song whose lyrics perhaps don’t stand the test of time and cultural shift, but I know I listened hard.
For me, in fact, the Grateful Dead was Pigpen, Ron McKernan. Most Deadheads, born too late, never heard him live. He was the first of the dead Dead, 1973, a member of the so-called 27 club, which includes his friend Janis, and Jimi, Amy, Kurt, and Robert Johnson.
A year after the Fillmore events I was in a band, with some of the same people I’d “managed” earlier. I played blues harp, like PigPen. We played here and there, around the periphery of San Francisco, where we lived. I won’t mention what made the band implode, but I didn’t do it. Anyway, one place we played, perhaps near the end, was the Santa Venetia Armory, not far from where Philip K. Dick may have lived at the time. The Sopwith Camel was supposed to headline that night but they didn’t show up and neither did much audience. Something to do with an east coast snowstorm. Who did show up was the Dead, last minute substitute, we didn’t know until we got there. While we all milled around inside before the doors opened to the tiny audience my wife of the time got Pigpen to light her cigarette. This was a long time ago. For me the thing about that night was that I played blues harp on the same stage on the same night as one of my harp heroes. And that, I think, was also the last time I saw the Dead live.
The rest of my story, the bits I tell people now and then, though not necessarily all at the same time: when he was still in high school in Palo Alto Pigpen would come to the dorm I lived in at Stanford to listen to music down the hall with a guy I didn’t know well: Holy Modal Rounders, the Fabulous Wailers, stuff like that. I was told that story, and believe it. This one’s clearer: at the Matrix one night, a famous blues harpist, Little Walter I think (if so it was August 1966, before the Santa Venetia show) performed. The audience was small, perhaps only me and Pigpen, and Little Walter wasn’t happy with his backup band (one of the then famous SF bands, I don’t remember which one, and wouldn’t name them if I did), his own another band stuck at the other end of a plane flight in bad weather in Texas or some place. I sat behind Pigpen, a little to the left. We both paid attention.
Approximately a year after the Santa Venetia show our daughter, my only child, was born. We brought her to our home four blocks down Waller from the Dead’s house on Ashbury. We weren’t particularly quiet people in those days and we tried what we thought was a novel solution to the baby sleeping problem: we played the Dead’s first album in her room, she slept, we went about our business. This may have been my idea. When she was older she did the Deadhead thing, followed the band to concerts across the country, and met her future ex-husband, a story I know no more about than necessary. From this I got grandchildren, and for that I’m grateful.
And that’s it for me, my time in the 60s for today.