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…
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?