Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - If These Walls Could Talk

By Blair Jackson

I had a wonderful experience last weekend, when Regan and I took a whirlwind trip up to Portland, Ore. We had some Alaska Airlines flight certificates that were going to expire if we didn’t use them, and it seems as though a lot of our friends have been raving about how cool Portland is these days. It had been many years since either of us had been there. We were blessed with beautiful weather for our visit to the incomparable Japanese Garden and the Rose Garden and for the Bastille Day festival in Director Park, where we sipped champagne, ate perfect frites and swayed to a band that played Piaf and Django.

One of the highlights of our trip, though, was connected to the Grateful Dead. For years I’ve been curious about Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, site of a pair of excellent shows February 2 and 3, 1968, during the band’s famous Great Northwest trek with Quicksilver Messenger Service. Dan Healy recorded the Dead’s performances for possible inclusion on the band’s second album-in-progress, Anthem of the Sun, so they featured that material (“That’s It for the Other One,” “New Potato Caboose,” etc.), as well as very early versions of “Dark Star,” “China Cat,” and “The Eleven” (all joined together in a medley on 2/3). They also played first-album faves such as “Viola Lee Blues” and “Good Mornin’ Little Schoolgirl” and, on 2/2, one of the few surviving performances of a dreamy Phil Lesh tune called “Clementine,” sung by Garcia. (That appeared on the box set So Many Roads: 1965-1995, while a stand-alone “Dark Star” from the same night was on Road Trips Vol. 2, No. 2: Carousel 2/14/68, and the 2/2 “Schoolgirl” was part of the Bonus Disc for that release. Bits from those shows did turn up on Anthem of the Sun, though not differentiated from other performances in the sonic collage.)

The Northwest tour marked the beginning of the band’s most musically adventurous (and psychedelic) phase, which stretched through the first few months of 1969, after which country influences increasingly turned up in their music and steered it toward the mellower Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty era.

The Crystal Ballroom as a rock venue survived only until the fall of 1968 (this after operating in one form or another, more or less continuously, since it opened in 1914), and then was not used for the next 30 years. It was revived by the Northwest ale, wine and spirits maker McMenamins in 1997, and has been hosting rock dances (and other shows) ever since. Phil Lesh, who has always had a keen sense of Grateful Dead history, had his band booked into the venue January 28 and 29, 2008—around the 40th anniversary of the GD shows there. Nice! The Mickey Hart Band played there in May of this year. The circle is unbroken.

The night we arrived in Portland, a well-regarded Led Zeppelin tribute band called No Quarter was playing the Crystal Ballroom, but we decided to pass on that show. The next afternoon, however, we stopped by in the middle of the afternoon, hoping someone might take pity on a guy who was desperate to see the ballroom. We lucked out. A nice young fellow was working in the box office, dealing with a ticket snafu for that night’s concert by Ringo Starr at the McMenamins venue in nearby Edgefield (where Furthur is playing September 27-29). He cheerily agreed to give us a personal tour, walking us up to the third-floor ballroom, and offering a history lesson as we went. We noticed the “Cowboy Neal” verse of “The Other One” painted high on the four walls of the foyer outside the ballroom, and then we stepped inside…

Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, 7/15/12. Photo: BJ © 2012

I was immediately giddy, as I could practically feel the history of the place oozing from the walls and the ornate chandeliers. The legendary sprung wooden floor really does bounce to the step—I could easily imagine what it might be like bouncing with more than 1,000 people on it. (Official capacity is 1,500.) Large windows on one side of the ballroom let in the afternoon light; at night, those windows look out on a busy street in the now-hip Pearl District. I had no trouble imagining the five members of the Dead spread across the smallish stage in 1968, blowing minds with their weird and wonderful new music—after Quicksilver (and openers the P.H. Factor Jug Band) had already done their thing. From the small balcony (which is now a VIP section at most shows there), it was easy to picture Portland’s hippie community spinning and boogieing and stomping to two of San Francisco’s finest groups on a cold, perhaps rainy, night in early February 44 years ago.

After descending to street level in the same rickety elevator that bands have used to take their equipment up to the ballroom since its ’60s glory days, I walked back out onto the street feeling lighter than air—as though I’d been through something profound; as if something had hooked into my own Grateful Dead/rock ’n’ roll DNA.

I’ve had that feeling in many other places, too. When the Fillmore in San Francisco reopened as a rock club in the late 1980s, it was nearly impossible not to be completely overwhelmed by the history in the building (which I never went to in the ’60s). It helped that the lobby walls are covered floor to ceiling with photos and the giant third-floor bar is an incredible gallery of Fillmore posters. But even without the memorabilia, the place just seems to drip history. It’s no coincidence that during the Fillmore’s first few years back in operation, nearly every act I saw mentioned the vibe of the place and its illustrious past.

When I was working on my Jerry biography—Garcia: An American Life—in the late ’90s, I enjoyed several incredible days searching out the various places he had lived (from information supplied by his family, friends, old telephone directories, birth and death certificates; you name it). I got goosebumps when one of Jerry’s cousins took me down a one-lane road through a forest in a wooded area near Santa Cruz to show me the little cabin where Jerry’s right middle finger was axed when he was 4, and the nearby swimming hole where he and his brother and their friends swam during the summers and, when Jerry was a teenager, practiced guitar with another cousin.

I found the charming little cottage in Palo Alto where Jerry and his first wife, Sara, lived in the early ’60s, and pictured him walking by the white picket fence as he headed out to Dana Morgan’s Music Shop to teach banjo and guitar. I tracked down the house in Larkspur where Jerry, Mountain Girl and Robert Hunter lived in the late ’60s, when the songwriting duo was turning out one golden nugget after another. (Not far away was Janis Joplin’s pad; another cool place).

A few years ago, on another discovery trip, I stood in awe as I watched a giant room full of Hondas up on lifts being worked on by mechanics. OK, I wasn’t actually looking at the Hondas. But the enormous service garage was the old Fillmore West on Market Street, and the bones of the room, so to speak, are unchanged. I went to the Fillmore West once during the summer of 1970, when I was on vacation with my family in San Francisco, and stepping back into that space instantly brought me back to that Steve Miller-Bo Diddley show 35 years earlier. Oh, to have been in that space on Feb. 27, 1969, night of the Live Dead “Dark Star” > “St. Stephen.”

What can I say—I’m a sucker for history. Whether it’s Edgar Allen Poe’s house in Baltimore, Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia, or 710 Ashbury in the Haight, I’m fascinated by where people I admire lived, worked and played. Places tell us so many things that books and magazine descriptions cannot. You know that expression: “If these walls could talk”? Well, they can, and they do!

Yet so many are gone—lost to the wrecking ball. I’m sorry most of you will never see Winterland or the Fillmore East. I’m disappointed I never saw the Menlo Park boarding house known as the Chateau—so central to the early ’60s Peninsula bohemian scene Jerry and Hunter were part of.

At least now I can cross the Crystal Ballroom off my list. Another piece of the puzzle has been put in place. (It also gave me an excuse to listen to the ’68 shows again while I wrote this.) But there are so many others I still want to visit someday—venues such as Alpine Valley, the Fox theaters in St. Louis and Atlanta, Woodstock, the Lyceum in London … Egypt! Can’t see ’em all, I guess. Where does the time go?

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Deadicated's picture
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Joined: Jun 4 2007
Serendipidousness

My bud and I are starting to build a terrible hunger and thirst after having completed the SF half marathon. So the structure feels better after a litle break - no cramps, etc. - so we head out from where we're staying on Powell. He wants a veggie sandwich from the Saigon Cafe on Larkin so we take O'Farrell west. Somethings goin' off in my head about O'Farrell. As we approach Larkin I see it - the marquis, Great American Music Hall!!! I ask my not-fond-of-the-Dead bud if we could check it out. Thumbs up. We get his sandwich and head back up. Semi-seedy neighborhood, but this was 11:00 AM. I peak in the window and it's dark. Ah, shucks, nobody's there. So I go to check the other side of the marquis and a guy pops out to get something from his car - yes, this is my chance to ask if I can "just check it out" for a second. I follow him in after he says OK and my jaw darops to the flo!!! You'd never in a million years believe how small this place is!!! While a few people mill about, I decide to get my bud's camara and proceed furtively to snap away. I come binging outta there and my bud has no clue as to my giddiness. I go into the whole Vault 1 spiel and how serendipidous his wanting a sandwich from the Saigon Cafe was (we were going to chill at Johnny Foley's) and that the 37th anni was just a pair of weeks away! I can hardly wait to listen to it this year!!! Question: what if the Dead had released this instead of Blues For Allah? And Terrapin Station - what if they'd released something live instead - sure worked with a couple earlier ones. And wasn't Steal Your Face just one disc shy of being ridiculous? Happy Tuesday.

Anna rRxia's picture
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Joined: Dec 25 2009
SF>Portland

Ehhh Corry, loved your history lesson but hate the SF>Portland drive. A day? Every time I do it it seems like 14 hours of going as fast as possible to get there.

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Joined: Jul 25 2011
if the trees could talk

I was just thinking that, dang, I haven't yet seen any of the great historic Dead venues. :( Then I remembered one great exception, and surely one of the greatest of them all- Golden Gate Park. Talk about a place positively dripping with Dead history. Everytime I visit it, it's a struggle to think of anything else. Of course the Panhandle, Kezar, and Lindley Meadow, but really anywhere in the whole damn park works for me. Just think of all the Sunshine Daydreaming that's gone on in that park from the Haight/Ashbury heyday until now. Hallowed grounds for sure. For me, any visit there is much more moving than a visit to the current Haight/Ashbury, which ain't so inspiring nowadays.

antonjo's picture
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Joined: Jun 4 2007
time machines, keen senses

Geez, I feel like I'm disturbing a mini-work of art following Strider's post (which, in addition to its eloquence and living memories, makes a nice square visually)....

To embellish Phil's keen sense of GD history, a friend of mine who was at those Phil shows (hanging out with Mountain Girl, to boot) saw the band's paper set list after one the nights.......and Clementine was on it! They ended up not performing it, alas, but it was in Phil's mind..... Sadly, I didn't hear those shows were happening till a month after they sold out. But I did catch Billy there a year later for the fabulous BK3's set in Feb '09....a few hours after McCoy Tyner at the Arlene Schnitzer Hall ~ formerly the Paramount Theater ~ that same day.

In my era, both the Crystal and the Schnitzer/Paramount are sonically hit 'n miss, to be honest. The latter generally has better acoustics for classical & jazz shows than rock (though Elvis & the Imposters sure made it smile a few months ago). Not that I wouldn't have LOVED to have caught the good ol' GD there in '72, you understand.... (And you do have to love that bouncy floor at the Crystal...!)

Heralding from Baltimore originally, I'm shamefaced to confess I've never been inside the Poe house (nor the Booth house in my native Harford County...reportedly haunted birthplace of Edwin & J.W.). But I've looked at them. Same with Anne Frank's and Dante's houses.....oh, the ghosts, at least of the imagination.....

If I had a "home" venue for the Dead, it would have to be Hampton Coliseum. Not bursting with architectural character like these old theaters ~ but what moments, and what memories.

Strider 88's picture
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Joined: Jun 20 2007
The Time Machine

This is a great subject. Thinking of "all the years combined", I also fondly remember the Paramount Theater in Portland, Oregon (40 years ago last night), Red Rocks, Telluride, Yale Bowl, the original Compton Terrace in Tempe, Az.,and without a doubt the Fillmore East,and Winterland. When I was visiting with friends during the October 74 run we would cruise by the old Mars Hotel. Jack Kerouac stayed there sometimes. In the Grateful Dead movie it shows the wrecking ball knocking down the Mars. Kinda flashed on the old movie "The Time Machine" based on H.G.Wells novel of the same name. From the "Morlocks" to the Warlocks. And the music of the Grateful Dead indeed transcends time and space.

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Adding to Corry's history...

It should also be noted that the Family Dog put on shows at the Crystal Ballroom during 1968...

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Joined: Dec 3 2007
Unseen Fillmore/Crystal connection

It's generally known that the original Fillmore auditorium largely presented African-American R&B and blues acts in the early 60s, before Bill Graham took it over in February 1966. The Fillmore Auditorium was in a largely African-American neighborhood (also called The Fillmore), so its not surprising that the venue mostly presented acts like Little Richard and Ike & Tina Turner. The promoter of the Fillmore in those days was an African American entrepreneur named Charles Sullivan, who largely retired when Graham took over his lease--indeed, that's why the lease was available.

What's more obscure was that Sullivan also promoted shows at the Crystal Ballroom from about 1961-65. The same bands that played The Fillmore would play the Crystal the weekend before or after. The Crystal was in the African American part of Portland at the time. However, when the 405 freeway went through part of Portland, it kind of ruined the commerce of that neighborhood, and Sullivan stopped promoting R&B shows at the Crystal at the end of 1965. The Crystal was dark throughout 1966, until Whitey Davis and Mike Magaurn (sp?) took it over in early 1967.

When the Crystal started up as a hippie ballroom in 1967, the biggest acts who played there did so because it was a day's drive from San Francisco or Seattle (if you're a roadie, that is). So history repeated itself, in a way, in that the Crystal and the Fillmore were linked venues throughout the 1960s, first through Charles Sullivan and somewhat more informally through all the bands on the "Fillmore circuit."

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Joined: Sep 18 2007
Boston Music Hall

Thanks for the clarification, Chas. After doing a little research, it seems that the history of the Boston Music Hall is kind of complicated. What is now the Orpheum was built on the site of the original Boston Music Hall in 1852, while what is now the Wang Center was built in the 1920s and was renamed the Boston Music Hall in the '60s. Either way, and as you point out, both are great places to see shows!

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Joined: Sep 11 2007
not just another Hub suburb adventure

Englishtown, Meadowlands, first-ever shows at MSG, yes indeed east coast tour fever was rising again in late winter of '79. Then came the Spring tour, and a show at the Forum in Billerica. A freaking classic night, I thought maybe the whole crowd was dosed.

shwack's picture
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Joined: Apr 12 2008
Bahstin Gahdin

Hey All, "If I only had my way, I would tear this old Building down" Boston Garden, a Venue of sports dynasties Razed in 1997. First event at the Garden: Bruins Vs. Canadians, 1928. I counted a total of 24 performances by the Dead at the Garden between 1970-1990, more than any other band. Not suprising I guess. The place was infamous for sketchy electrical systems, large concrete pillars i.e.obstructed view, and no ac...

shwack in nh

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