It’s worth noting, as an aside, that my obsession with music dovetailed nicely with my co-occurring fascination with radio. Once again, the happy accident of growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s and ’60s exposed me to some of the most wonderful stations and air talent in the history of broadcasting.
I’ll return to this later, because the unique and intersecting subcultures of broadcasting are another area where I was privileged to enjoy several decades of involvement that enriched me in ways beyond my wildest adolescent flights of fantasy. But, for the moment, let’s stay focused on the music, the musicians, and the scene in which it flourished.
As I touched on in Part I, music can play many roles for those open to it. Several approaches seem most suited to stimulate and challenge the intellect, be that through political and literary lyric themes, or the complex constructions of much modern jazz, classical compositions and yes, even some improvisational rock explorations.
Other music best serves to inspire emotional response of various sorts. That may be the lush and juicy love songs that serve as the sound track to so many romantic explorations, the exhilarating party themes that get rooms full of people on their feet dancing, the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes wry life stories rolled out in much blues and country, the pride and inspiration engendered by anthemic declarations or cherished cultural heritage music (be it Celtic, African High Life, sea chanteys, gamelan music, or any of a hundred other “outside the commercial mainstream” genres that each hold their own unique truth), or the transcendence of liturgical compositions and hymns.
Of course, there’s plenty of intersection, overlap, and multi-function stuff in play as well.
I’m just scratching the surface here; my point is that music can, and often does, play a significant role in what defines us as humans.
The place and time in which I began my transformation from childhood toward adulthood positioned me perfectly to satisfy my longing to get closer to that special space.
I was so young; in some ways I still could not know what I didn’t know, but I was acutely aware of my lack of specific skills. However, the ceremony requires more than the shaman to work its magick. And I was able to find a toehold as San Francisco (for reasons beyond the scope of our current discussion) made its transition from one of the country’s premier jazz towns to the epicenter of a massive existential pivot in the shape and scope of rock music and its place in the broader cultural context.
My first “job” in the music business? I figured out that I could hang out around the corner on Cole Street, outside the stage door of the Straight Theater on the afternoon of a show, help load in band equipment from vans and trucks to the stage, and earn myself “free admission” to that night’s concert.
It was a small thing, but proved to be my foot in the door. That led to a semi-paying regular gig for a few weeks taking care of the dressing room for actors in an experimental play the theater mounted for a month or two.
A couple things happened as a result of this. First, I had the opportunity to be present, as “staff,” not just “audience,” at several events that eventually took on semi-legendary status in certain circles.
One such that comes to mind was the night I found myself “peaking” in the balcony when Neal Cassady joined the Grateful Dead for an extemporaneous stream of consciousness ramble while the band vamped behind him. Frankly, in my — ahem — altered condition, Neal’s exposition seemed to go on for hours, or perhaps months. I gather (based at least in part on this recorded fragment) that the objective elapsed time was somewhere around 20 or 30 minutes. So, that was a thing that happened.
Another was the night we hosted the American premiere of the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour film. The band had donated the loan of a print which was flown in from England for screening to benefit striking air talent and engineers at KMPX, the precursor to the legendary KSAN, and radio giant Tom Donahue’s initial foray into programming what came to be known as “underground radio” on the then neglected FM band of the broadcast dial.
In retrospect, a number of exceptionally unusual things happened in and around the Straight. But, perhaps equally important for me, my face became a “known individual” to a number of crew and musicians around town.
That made the transition pretty smooth when I fell in with the cleaning crew over at the Family Dog’s Avalon Ballroom. It had soon become clear, even to a rank rookie like me, that the Straight (interesting as the scene might be) was never going to become a stable venue, so employment prospects were shaky at best. At that point, the Avalon and the Fillmore Auditorium, Bill Graham’s venue, pretty much dominated the scene.
Of course, not much was required to get by in those days. Survival consisted of a few folks getting together and figuring out how to hustle up sixty or seventy bucks a month to rent a flat, scraping together enough food to keep going, and managing one way or another (often by “making little ones out of big ones” and engaging in a little retail activity) to keep the flow going in order to maintain our heads.
So, once again, my initial “foot in the door” at the Avalon consisted of working for free. The paid cleanup crew enjoyed the option of placing folks on the guest list (Chet was always pretty damned loose with the guest list; there were reasons which I expect we’ll discuss in the fullness of time) and I became a regular “guest” in exchange for being a reliable extra pair of hands after the show when it was time to sweep and mop.
That led to a “promotion” up to full membership on the paid cleaning crew, as more senior swampers either moved up or moved on. Hanging on to the edges as “staff”, I was able to stay with the Family Dog during the transition period after the Avalon closed and before Chet acquired the old Beach Pavilion venue out on the Great Highway. During that interregnum the Dog mostly subsisted on mail order poster sales, along with a modicum of band management and one-off gigs in various venues. But I was able to stick with the circus and ride the momentum out to the beach, where it became an “all hands on deck” effort, involving probably a couple dozen of us, maybe more, as paid staff and well over a hundred volunteers who pitched in to get the hall up and running while earning themselves some future show passes.
I’ll fill out more of that part of the story in the next installment.