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…
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?
1967-68 and arguably 1969 are easily the most psychedelic years of GD. Perhaps not the most mature or well-played, but the times just swept them up to their peak, bar none.
Adventurous is another matter. I feel 1973-74 are the most adventurous years but there is room for valid disagreement there. Not on the psychedelia though, imho...
The band's most musically adventurous and psychedelic phase was fall 1971-74
Just an FYI. The Orpheum Boston was not formally the Boston Music Hall. The Music Hall is now the Wang Center and it is located several blocks down from the Orpheum. Both are great venues.
Hey Now Eagle!
Well, you would be correct in saying that the place has become more "corporate", however, it still holds it magic, at least in my opinion. For a while, they stopped allowing coolers in, and for a while they had a "Beer Garden" (a fenced in area) where you had to buy their beer du jour and you had to consume it before leaving the garden. They also for a while had a very Gestapo like security staff that would grab people and hussle them out for the only reason was that they got caught with "combustibles". Very much of a bummer. HOWEVER, they recently relaxed the security and it's a more comfortable place to see a show.
The adjacent State Park has become a difficult place to party now. Because of the amount of trash that was being dumped around that beautiful place, they cracked down really hard on people coming in. They had Park Police & local Police searching cars for coolers containing alcohol and anyone caught with it would have to dump the contents. If you were lucky enough to escape detection, you had to put your adult beverage of choice in a plastic cup. If they caught you with an open container, they'd make you dump it. That being said, it is still THE venue for seeing a show.
I have been to the Greek Theatre for the 1989 run of shows (the last at the hallowed venue) as well the 2005 Jerry tribute show; Red Rocks for probably over 30 shows and, likewise, all of the GD shows at SPAC 83, 84, 85 and 88 (as well as "The Dead in '03). In my humble opinion SPAC rivals, if not surpasses, the hallowed mecca's also known as the Greek and Red Rocks. I know . . . bold statement.
The boys always played SPAC in June (solstice time). The amphitheater is at one end of rectagularly shaped state park w/ giant pines surrounding and soaring above the amphitheater, w/ a beautifu,l good-sized, rushing creek/gorge to one side of the amphitheater w/ a pedestrian bridge from the parking lot over the gorge which leads into the amphitheater. The state park w/in which the amphitheater is located has all these beautiful gardens, lawns and brick tasteful looking building w/ potico's and such and then more forest . . . and I could go on and on and on. Seemed like Eden -- everything was cool and very little security/cops back in the day (until the dark element of the scene needed to rush the gates etc. and give the scene the black eye we all know about).
I believe everyone (and I mean everyone) who saw a show at SPAC got lost at least once at the place (and probably for the better! ;-), because the amphitheater lawn backs up to and then levels out into the giant state park into which one naturally wanders after the show naturally believing "out" is 180 degrees opposite from the stage -- but alas! Out is to the left and right; not the rear. To the rear leads out into the state park and the mindless forest where one may become lost but is always found between which all sorts of crazy, synchronsitics happenings of all sorts, shapes, sizes and colors occur.
Run, don't walk, to check out SPAC. That being said, when I saw the "Dead" there in '03, it apeared that the venue had taken on a corporate aura a la so many sterile amphitheaters these days -- e.g. Jones beach, the innumerable Verizon amphtheaters, etc., but the state park, gorge/creek and mindless forest I believe remain in tact -- dunno -- it's been 11 years since I've been there. Hope so.
Check it, Blair, and please report back that the mindless forest remains in tact, magical and full of our once lost minds!
Hey now Eagle!
The mindless forest that is adjascent to SPAC is the Saratoga State Park, and I too have been mystified by it many times. I saw all 4 SPAC GD shows (83, 84, 85 & 88) and each time I wandered though the pine forest that abuts the SPAC grounds. They truly are magnificent! I've have more than a few trippy moments in those woods. I got accused on being a narc by a wierded out, tripping dude (man, that was a harsh accusation!), I'm stumbled across a very good friend on mine sitting under some pines with another dude who happened to the playing a mandolin, had someone come up to me and say "we have reason to believe you are under the influence................of Rock N Roll!", plus many, many more. The 84' show was on the day of my High School graduation. So many great memories. This is the venue that I call home.
Blair, if you ever get a chance to come east (and I don't know that you ever do), I implore you to come visit SPAC, even if it's just to say that you've been there and done that. It could potentially become one of your favorite outdoor venues. Anyone who's ever been there will tell you it's a great place to see a show!
Great post, Blair! I do love seeing shows at historic venues, and since I moved to Boston 10 years ago, the Orpheum is one of my favorite places to see music (Furthur, Phil and Friends w/ Jackie Greene, Ben Harper). Formerly the Boston Music Hall and site of the spectacular 11/30 and 12/2/73 shows on DP 14, the Orpheum is a beautiful looking and sounding theater right across from the Boston Common. I also had lots of good times at Red Rocks when I used to live in CO, including an Allman Bros. show in '95. Looking out over Denver when the sun goes down and the city lights come on is a sublime experience.
I saw the 2008 Phil & Friends shows at the Crystal Ballroom and absolutley loved the joint --gorgeous, classy and yes -- dripping with history. They sure did pack 'em in that place both nights. First night, P&F's opened w/ the same 4 or 5 tunes the GD had done 40 years earlier.
If walls could talk, I wish forests could as well -- especially the "mindless forest" at Saratoga (that's what my buddies and I refer to it as well -- June, 1984 just before the show, blazing electric, skipping through waist high ferns surrounded by monsterous pines, stopping to pee w/ (apparently) no else around, along comes a totoally "out there" 'head. Not knowing what to say, I ask him if he's got any weed (don't know why -- I didn't even want any!) -- "yep," he replies and starts dumping handfulls in my hands, wallet, shirt pocket . . . my buddies come along and does the same to them -- buds overflowing to the point where they are spilling all over the fern covered forest ground as light raindrops make it throught the setting sun and tall pines . . . and as soon as the guy appeared, no sooner did he disappear. Love the "mindless forest." (Glad it doesn't speak, though ;-) -- I guesss I just did for it!
Only look at this picture of the Fillmore East today if you have a strong stomach:
I went out for a walk one night a few months back, as a business traveler in Portland, and came upon the Crystal. Cool neon, I knew what I had found, my first ballroom era artifact. In 1990 or so, I came upon the Stanley in Jersey City and all that beautiful copper on the marquee, I was amazed to see that the theater still looked fine.