Had the chance Sunday to sit over a long, leisurely coffee with an old and dear friend from my sweet youth. Renée LeBallister, known to many Bay Area concert goers in the late ’60s through the mid ’70s as “Renée the Dancer”, or even just “That Amazing Dancing Lady” was passing through, and made time to get together.
We covered a lot of ground over the course of a two and half hour visit, from the night a grumbling Bill Graham swept the stage for her before a Quicksilver Messenger Service set because Cipollina insisted “she dances or I don’t play” to what it meant for a little lost girl to find her chance to “live in the spaces between the music” and create a way to hold fast and reinvent herself.
I came to know her first when I worked for Chet Helms at his Family Dog venues. She enjoyed a slot on the Permanent Guest List, a unique phenomenon of all Chester’s events and facilities.
The common oral history about San Francisco’s music scene of that time is that Chet Helms “was a horrible businessman” while Graham was the guy who always knew how to make the bottom line run in the black. Which is true, as far as it goes, but doesn’t really tell the whole story.
There are reasons that underlay Bill Graham’s reputation as a tough taskmaster and master negotiator, many of them good and honorable, and I expect I’ll explore them in another post at some point. For now, suffice it to say we did indeed need someone like him to keep the collective ship afloat. And the music scene has held far less texture since his death. Or, as the Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner is said to have observed in conversation outside Graham’s memorial service: “Bill was an asshole, but he was our asshole.”
Ultimately, Chet Helms never really saw himself as a “concert promoter” in the Graham mold. Chester (who was, by the way, a preacher’s kid) always was focused on evangelizing for the transformative possibilities we all believed were inherent in the counter culture we were collectively engaged in inventing on the fly.
In that context, the Family Dog’s primary task was not to “entertain” or “put on a good show.” It was to provide the space, and the seed elements, to facilitate attendees/participants in creating an environment where unexpected, potentially spiritually uplifting, educational, and just plain ecstatic events might occur.
Chet relied on many tools to nurture that potential experience including immersive light shows, the best music he could book, what passed for state of the art audio systems in those days; all of it fostering an environment that strongly prioritized participation (especially dancing) over spectating. Really any and every piece he could dream up and toss into the stew that was “a night with the Dog.”
Now this is where the Permanent Guest List comes into play. Because one of the factors that Chet had determined contributed greatly to fostering the “vibe” he sought to create was seeding the crowd with folks who, in one way or another, added an element to the pageant (could be aural, visual, aromatic — any number of things). And he also looked for people who could function as catalyst, inspiring audience members to get more actively involved (for further reference, check any number of live Grateful Dead recordings in which Bob Weir implores: “Come on everybody, get up and dance. It won’t kill ya!”).
All of which, brings me back ’round to Renée. She fit the bill on both counts. Anyone who ever watched her on stage with The Dead, Quicksilver, or a number of other San Francisco bands will tell you, all these decades later, that they still recall her fluid and seamless connection with, and interpretation of, the music. Not to mention her trademark back bends that took her to an almost horizontal position from the waist up, while continuing to dance and move gracefully in a manner that seemed to defy the laws of physics. It could be a hypnotic, almost other-worldly thing to witness.
And yet, simultaneously, Renée was also able to encourage mere mortals to move their bodies as well. Like many of the musicians of the time her goal, whether she was on stage with a band or down on the floor with the crowd, was to affirm and inspire participation. She got a hell of a lot of people on their feet who, objectively, were whole orders of magnitude less graceful than she but who, nevertheless, had a hell of a good time “shakin’ that thang.”
After we closed the Family Dog on the Great Highway, I worked for Chet’s old partner Bob Cohen, who had a semi-thriving live sound reinforcement business by then, renting PA rigs and crews to bands and clubs as needed through much of the ’70s.
But after a time, Bob grew frustrated when, on a couple live recording jobs, he couldn’t communicate between the truck and crew inside the venue due to the fact there wasn’t an intercom and headset system capable of overcoming the sound pressure levels of live rock concerts. So, trained engineer that he was, Cohen invented his own system because he needed it. It featured sealed headphones so the on-stage and front of house crews could hear, and a noise-canceling mic so our talk back transmissions would be intelligible to him in the recording truck.
That system eventually became the original ClearCom product and Bob soon found himself out of the sound business, keeping his workers busy assembling headsets for sale.*
That was my signal to move on, I transitioned to a series of jobs in clubs and supporting small to mid level bands on gigs. I continued to run into Renée from time to time at events, but contact was sporadic.
Sometime around 1980 I moved down to Santa Cruz County and lost track of her completely, as I did many folks from my rock ‘n’ roll youth. It’s only been in the last decade or so, with the advent of Facebook, that I’ve reconnected with most friends, colleagues, and fellow cosmic warriors from those days.
And it was just a few years back that one of my dearest friends, still working and known in the circles where it matters as one of the best live sound guys in the Bay Area, told me Renée had relocated to Southern California and gave me her married name(!) so I could track her down.
Thus we got hooked up on The Facebook, did that quick two or three paragraph mini-biography private message thing that you do, and started following each other’s feeds. A couple years ago, she and Luther were passing through the area and stopped by for one of those somewhat stilted “getting to reknow you” visits.
But this trip up (they were in the area to support a daughter who is transferring from their local community college to Cal State Monterey Bay) we really had a chance to “set a spell,” comb back over our mutual inventories of bands, scenes, and and friends (living and dead), and compare notes about how each of us experienced that unique moment in space/time that was the San Francisco Music Scene in the Age of Hippie.
Looking back together from the vantage point of our current late season of life, with some understanding and perspective — and yes, some tender sympathy for those young, damaged kids who were trying to find themselves a better way — was a warm and mellow exercise.
At least for me, in light of my medical prospects, there’s a certain urgency to having these sort of conversations. But I think all of us in our age cohort, regardless of our health status or other factors, are pretty clear at this point that “leaving it for later” really means “it’s unlikely that’s actually going to happen.” We’ve all lost far too many people we love over the past five or ten years as the herd thins and we age out.
So it’s important for us to spend this time with each other when we can. Not just for nostalgia value, though that can certainly be pleasant enough at times. But to compare notes; to check each other’s recollections; to share experiences and lessons learned.
Just one example: Much as it’s comfortable for me to self-identify as “a good ally,” supportive and always the guy who can be relied upon, it truly is stunning at times to realize the stuff I missed; just completely didn’t see, thanks to my unconscious privilege and sense of entitlement as a cis white male.
Listening to some of Renée’s tales of what she had to endure as a single woman making her way in the very male dominated and macho structure of the music scene of that time was a real education for me. The assumptions that were automatically made about who she was in that world, why she was there and what she ought to be willing to do to secure her place in it were, frankly, appalling.
Like so many of the “flower children,” Renée was working to shake off the scars and traumas of a difficult, abusive upbringing. And some of the coping skills that partially formed kid had come up with to find her place in the world were, ultimately, unhealthy and didn’t serve her well.
But she also had a remarkable talent, the motivation to develop it into a unique and beautiful performance art, and the grace, wit, and intelligence to learn to apply it, finding for herself room to live in the space between the music.
And all of us who saw her dance, danced with her, or had the privilege to share a little time found ourselves and our lives the richer for it.
It was such a delight to hang with you yesterday, Renée. I do hope the universe aligns such that we have the chance to do it again. And if not, I truly treasure the reconnection regardless.
*After a few years, Cohen sold ClearCom to some corporate behemoth, netting enough money to ensure a life of comfortable retirement from that point forward. Sometimes, necessity is indeed a mother.