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?
is the name most people use for Alexandra Palace. I saw the Dead there in '74. As I recall, the sound was not that bad, but the place was only really suitable as a venue on account of its size. The Dead were well aware of the potential acoustic hazards of the place in advance and had decided to try and replicate a San Francisco dance hall experince for their shows. They hung many large tie-dyed and generally psychedelic banners and the like from the (exposed) roof trusses which not only added to the atmosphere of the event but undoubtedly improved the acoustics. Naturally, the impressive "Wall of Sound" fitted in there with no problems! There were two long, open halls next to each other, both utterly devoid of user-friendly features such as seats. The Dead played in one hall, while the adjacent hall hosted a few people playing frisbee - indoor frisbee throwing is a thing to behold due to the absence of wind! My memories of the show I saw are generally all positive, though I was somewhat underwhelmed by the rendition of "Seastones" between the first and second sets - but I must admit to having one too many space cakes which could have affected my judgement somewhat. Sadly that was the last time I ever got to see the Dead in action but I treasure the memories of Ally Pally and the Bickershaw climatic event in '72 (no frisbees there as I recall!).
You are correct LBC. It became the Rainbow in 1971.
Badger, is The Rainbow the venue that the Finsbury Park Astoria became? If so you can add The Beatles to the list of acts that played there. Not a bad record.
I live on the other side of the world from all these places but when I was in Amsterdam a few years ago I found myself standing in front of the Concertgebouw. Not quite as intimate as the Crystal Ballroom but the place of some amazing rock music in the late 60s and early 70s - The Dead, The Who, Pink Floyd come to mind.
While holidaying in San Francisco last year I had trouble explaining to my girlfriend why I was so excited to be passing a car dealership on the bus....
Great piece Blair. I will do a little exploring when I am in Portland for Furthur at the end of September.
As for the Dead's London venues:
The Lyceum is still there and is a wonderful place…the Lion King musical has been running there for years. I did not see the Dead there, nor the famous Bob Marley live album show (now if everyone who said they had been there was there it would have a capacity of 50,000 not 2,000). But I did see the Clash there and listened for echoes of Dark Star (well both bands played ‘I Fought the Law’).
Empire Pool Wembley/Wembley Arena is a characterless echoey barn. Not worth visiting unless you need to.
Alexandra Palace must be the GD’s most spectacular London venue. A huge, historic building on top of a hill in North London surrounded by parkland. The world's first public broadcasts of television were made from there in 1936! Well worth a visit just to see the building and the amazing views over London. I never saw a gig there, but the sound is supposed to be terrible (apparently it was pretty bad for the Dead’s shows in 1974).
But perhaps the most ghosts of London rock live in the Rainbow….a beautiful theatre with a desert oasis theme and star spangled ceiling where everyone who was anyone played. Every time I walked in there I stared around in amazement and thought of all that had taken place in that room This was the place where Hendrix first set fire to his guitar, where Zappa famously was pushed off stage and broke his leg ( a week or so after the legendary Smoke on the Water incident in Montreux...now that was an unlucky tour), where Clapton’s famed Rainbow Concert took place, where Floyd previewed DSOTM, where parts of Van the Man’s Too Late to Stop Now were recorded etc etc. My most memorable experiences included the Little Feat ‘Waiting for Columbus’ shows, many roots reggae shows (Culture, Spear, Prince Far-I in their prime), the Ramones and of course the Grateful Dead during both 1981 runs.
The Rainbow is now a Church, owned by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. I do not know if they have tried to exorcise it from all the Devil music that went on in there. Apparently they have restored the auditorium, so maybe there is a chance to sneak in and see….you may have to accept a little preaching though.
Great read as always, Blair! What amazes me when I see some of these early venues is how tiny and intimate they are. I didn't hop on the bus until '78 (Syracuse show was my first) and in upstate NY at that time, venues held maybe 6,000-10,000 people -- Binghamton, Syracuse, Cornell, Utica, Buffalo, Rochester. Of course, by the '90s when my choice was Soldier Field or nothing, those old venues looked awful good. But places like the Fillmores, Avalon, etc. were positively perfect, with great acoustics, to boot.
I'm sure somewhere is a guy who thought in 1966, "I have to see Jerry at the Avalon Ballroom with 500 others now? I remember when he gave me guitar lessons in my basement!" lol
Always loved to see the historical aspects of the band, Went by 710 after my first NYE run in '83 and after seeing some Greek shows at Berkeley, had to visit the stage when it was unoccupied. Sat right in the Post-83 Jerry spot and puffed a big one so for '87, '88 and '89 plus the Jerry Band shows later on, I could boast that I sat where Jer is standing and smoked a bowl.
Calveras was a hoot after seein' the '87 outing and then Furthur in 2010 what memeories. ahh
Well back to reality and another jammin' show from Cubensis at the Golden Sails.
Great article! I'm a real sucker for this kind of stuff, too. It's usually one of the very first things I think about when visiting a city for the first time. For me, every place the Dead played until 76 or so, is like sacred ground. I wish there were some guidebook for finding those old venues, or if they're gone, at least where they used to be.
...is gone! Just a doorway with a plaque under some apartments or condos, I gather. Or maybe a bank? Sorry, not sure. Someone fill us in!
I have been fortunate in the past year to visit three places I have seen the Dead before, some many years ago. I saw Furthur at Bethel Woods a year ago (couldn't make this week's show; darn!) and it was the first time i had returned to Bethel since I took in the three days of fun and music with Max Yasgur (and the Dead for the first time) three days before my 18th birthday in August 1969. The museum is a trip (I ran into Kadlecik) and seeing "the field" again was surprisingly emotional for me. Two months ago, I visited NYC and walked by the old Fillmore East. Couldn't go in, but I saw many shows there, including 2/11/70 with Allman Bros and Fleetwood Mac. Alpine Valley was one of my favorites--nothing like 35,000 deadheads singing Uncle John's Band in the summer sun. Tonight is the Vibes in Bridgeport, CT, only 90 minutes away, but I cannot go. I know it will be a blast as our tribe continues marching onward, uplifted by the spirit and sound of our musical heros and their friends. This music ain't ever gonna end. What's perhaps the most fulfilling part of all of it for me is to see young kids contunuing to jump on the bus 50 years after it pulled out of the station. Come and join the party -- every day!