When people talk about San Francisco as the epicenter of hippie culture in 1967, Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium is invariably mentioned as the scene’s musical focal point. A 1,000-capacity hall that was once a roller-skating rink, the Fillmore served as training grounds for bands like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company. By many accounts, the “San Francisco Sound” came from the Fillmore’s stage — and as young people came to San Francisco in droves, Graham’s shows were practically tourist attractions.
But the Fillmore wasn’t the only stage during the Summer of Love. Once the San Francisco Sound became mainstream, all kinds of new clubs popped up, providing gigs for groups who weren’t on that week’s bill at the Fillmore.
“There were so many dives that popped up out of nowhere, and because the [Grateful] Dead had done one show there, they were the new club on the map,” Flamin’ Groovies guitarist Cyril Jordan said.
Not all those places had an impact on the music, but the ones that did have stories worth telling. Here’s just a few.
The Avalon Ballroom
In 1966, when asked by the Mojo Navigator where would she would rather play — the Fillmore or the Avalon — Janis Joplin said the acoustics at the Avalon were better, and that the last time her band played the Fillmore, the audience members “weren’t really into the music” and “would walk around trying to pick each other up, sailors and all that…”
Those comments led to Joplin and Big Brother And The Holding Company being unofficially banned from Graham’s stage for about seven months. It didn’t matter — they were managed by Chet Helms, who also ran the Avalon, the hall with the better sound.
Tall, bearded, and with hair to his shoulders before it was a hippie standard, Helms was a messiah-like figure with a religious view of music that he was hell-bent on preaching. Helms was also Joplin’s earliest supporter, and he believed in her so much that he drove to Texas to bring her back with him to San Francisco — twice.
After putting on a few shows with a little help from Bill Graham, Helms broke out on his own and, while working with a local commune called the Family Dog, secured permits to rent the Avalon Ballroom, a former dance hall on Sutter. Helms had the phrase “May the baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind” painted above the entrance, and went on to book a series of concerts that focused not just on music but an entire experience.
“When you come to the Avalon, some of the time, you just get entertainment, but very often, you get a connection with people. In a sense, an oceanic experience of being unified with something larger than yourself, that is essentially ultimately regenerating and renewing and is what the word recreation means in its true sense,” Helms said during a 1998 interview.
From January 1966 to March of ’69, Helms booked bands of all stripes at the Avalon, including psychedelic rock pioneers like the 13th Floor Elevators and Captain Beefheart and almost-forgotten-by-then blues musicians like Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy. He gave Moby Grape and the Steve Miller Band their first big breaks, and — like the Fillmore — every show was advertised with eye-catching, multi-colored psychedelic posters that now go for hundreds of dollars. Ask anybody who was alive back then and they’ll tell you the Avalon wasn’t appropriating the hippie culture — it was the real deal. It’s why many call Helms the “father of the Summer of Love.”
But noise complaints brought the Avalon’s fun times to an end. Helms relocated Family Dog Productions to a space on the Great Highway, and other promoters who tried to book the hall afterward could never recreate the same vibe.
Today, the Regency Ballroom, a live music venue right next door, is often mistaken for the Avalon. In actuality, the old Avalon is now an office space — and, for a brief time, the shell of the Avalon served as living quarters for the cast of MTV’s The Real World.
The Matrix came to be after Marty Balin convinced three guys he met randomly at a bar to put up $3,000 each for a club he wanted to start. He then found a former pizza place in the Marina, signed a lease, and, before opening, enlisted some friends to paint a gigantic mural of the four horsemen on the wall.
Balin later said he opened the Matrix so he could start a band and have a place to play. That band turned out to be the Jefferson Airplane, and they were the first group to play the club. On opening night, a publicist convinced local jazz critic Ralph Gleason to come to the show. Gleason fell in love with the band that night, and not only did he dedicate an entire column in the San Francisco Chronicle to them, he would go onto be the group’s biggest cheerleader.
It wasn’t long before the place started packing in all the local eccentrics, who would be treated to early performances from the Doors, Grateful Dead and the Steve Miller Blues Band in an intimate setting (the club sat about 100 people). An early Matrix regular was gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who immortalized the club in his book, Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas.
One huge bonus for bands playing the Matrix was the high-quality recording setup used to capture performances. Almost every group’s set was put to tape, and recordings of Steppenwolf, Santana, the Great Society (Grace Slick’s first band) and the Velvet Underground were later released as live albums. But many tapes never saw the light of day, like the recording of fuzz-rock legends Blue Cheer, who played the club once as a six-piece. According to the band’s Leigh Stephens, the Matrix recording convinced the group that they needed to pare down to a trio.
“We listened to [our recording] back and three guys were playing the songs one way and the other three were somewhere else,” Stephens said.
Balin’s share was eventually bought out by two of the other partners, and after a few different bookers, the club closed in 1972. Now, the building is an “ultralounge” concept, still called the Matrix, which is owned by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s company, the Plumpjack Group. For a short time it hosted live bands, but now only DJs provide the tunes.
(Bonus link: An interview with the singers of The Only Alternative and His Other Possibilities on the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive.)
Chet Helms used this large rental hall for a few shows, as did many activists raising funds for various causes — the end of marijuana prohibition, for instance, or sexual liberation. The Hells Angels also once held a party there, and Blue Cheer played “A Tribute to J. Edgar Hoover” (not a genuine celebration of the former head of the F.B.I.).
There are some heaven-sent lineups that happened at the California Hall — a fundraiser for the Sexual Freedom League is a standout, which featured the Doors, Captain Beefheart and the 13th Floor Elevators. But you won’t hear much about California Hall from those in the scene, as it simply wasn’t a great place to see shows. Housed inside a 1912 building, the hall itself didn’t have great acoustics. Its lack of soundproofing made it sound “boomy,” which you can hear in a live recording of Big Brother and the Holding Company.
“That was the worst gig in town,” Jordan said. “Everybody who played there sounded like shit. I remember bands playing their first show there and breaking up afterward.”
What the hall is remembered more for are non-musical activities. In 1965, the “Council on Religion and the Homosexual,” which brought together gay men and religious leaders, tried to host a Mardi Gras-themed drag party at the hall to raise funds. When police caught wind of the plans, they attempted to force the hall’s owners to shut it down. When that failed, officers stood outside the hall and took pictures of attendees in an attempt to intimidate them. Some of the ministers from the event held a press conference the next day and described the police as being like the Gestapo.
San Francisco Police attracted more bad press at California Hall decades later in 1984, when they held a graduation party for new recruits at the Rathskeller, a restaurant in the basement. During the party, a shy recruit was handcuffed to a chair and made to receive a blowjob from a prostitute.
Still, whenever a new music scene popped up in the city, as punk did in the ’80s, its bands would hold shows at the California Hall. U2 played there in 1981. The hall now houses fashion classes for the Academy of Art.
The Straight Theater
The Straight Theater holds the honor of being the only live venue actually located in the Haight-Ashbury during the neighborhood’s hippie heydays. Opened as the Haight Theater in 1910, it operated as the ‘hood’s main movie house until it closed in 1964, after two of its owners turned it into an experimental gay theater. For the crime of risqué decor and showing movies like Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda, the owners were run out of town by locals in a matter of weeks.
Two years later, in 1966, five hippie artists had the idea to buy the theater and turn it into a performing arts space. The Grateful Dead and Country Joe played fundraising concerts at the Avalon, and as many as 20 people supposedly invested in the theater.
But the neighborhood didn’t take kindly to the idea. It hadn’t been long since locals ran out the owners who’d showed a movie about a crossdresser, and now they had a hippie problem on their hands. A place for lovey-dovey hippie music was expected to make the neighborhood’s “problems” worse, and the San Francisco Police Department denied the Straight’s application for performance permits.
The buyers kept fighting. At a Permit Appeals board hearing, Dame Judith Anderson, considered one of the greatest classical stage actors of the 20th century, testified in support of the club. As the stepmom of one of the five buyers, Anderson told the board that there would be nothing wrong with hippies coming to the theater for rock ‘n’ roll, since they would be exposed to culture in the process — the owners had planned to host poetry readings and even Shakespeare. (Anderson was also clear that she wasn’t a fan of the “hippie cult,” citing their “sick faces and hideous behavior.”)
The owners won their permit, and by June of ’67, the Straight hosted shows for the Steve Miller Band, Clover (pre-Huey Lewis and the News) and the Grateful Dead, who in the beginning had to bill their concerts as “dancing lessons” because the owners didn’t yet have the proper permits.
True to Anderson’s testimony, the hall hosted a wide variety of entertainment, including film screenings like the 5am premiere of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. It’s also where Kenneth Anger had 1,500-feet of his famous film Lucifer Rising stolen after a multimedia event called “Equinox of the Gods.” The theft left Anger so distraught that he announced he was dead in the pages of the Village Voice.
The Straight also hosted quite a few “nude theater” events, one of which took place in the middle of a conference on runaway children. According to reports, with over 400 juveniles in attendance during a discussion on why teens run away from home, members of the Jane Lapiner Dance Group came on stage and began doing their thing, naked. Two officers accosted the performers but were stopped by the crowd. Other audience members then surrounded the dancers and escorted them off stage.
Though the theater held memorable shows, it always struggled for money. Within a year, it turned to fundraising concerts to keep the doors open. It shut down in 1969 and sat empty for over a decade before it was torn down. A Goodwill is now on Haight St. where the 1,400-seat Straight once stood.
Built in 1916, the Charles Van Damme was a steamboat that shuttled commuters from Richmond to San Rafael for over 20 years. After being decommissioned and stripped of its parts, the old ferry sat landlocked on Sausalito’s waterfront, in the middle of the town’s thriving houseboat community, still sporting its paddlewheel.
Infamous North Bay restaurateur Juanita Musson housed her late-night diner Juanita’s Galley there for three years before taking her famous clientele and irreverent hijinks to Sonoma Valley. Fred “Marti” Martinez and Frank McGinnis then bought the Van Damme, cleaned up the boat’s interior, and by 1965 they had turned it into a plush after-hours nightclub. The Ark was born.
Despite never charging a cover and paying the bands with food — breakfast, usually, since the shows either started or ended at 2am — many seminal groups came to play the Ark. Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Charlatans, and the West Coast Pop Experimental Band played there often, and in attendance would sometimes be stars like David Crosby, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. Even Otis Redding came down to the club when he was living in a Sausalito houseboat and writing his hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
But the Ark’s biggest contribution to Bay Area music was serving as the incubator for Moby Grape, the band that could’ve ruled the world were it not for bad luck and a host of issues, drugs among them. Moby Grape played their first shows at the Ark and used the boat as a rehearsal space in the daytime. Neil Young and Stephen Stills occasionally jammed with the band on stage, and Young would later say that his song “Mr. Soul” was simply a melding of two Moby Grape tracks.
Another band that became an Ark favorite was the Sparrow, a Canadian band featuring a singer named John Kay. After the Sparrow broke up, Kay moved to Los Angeles and started Steppenwolf, the riff-tastic rockers behind the rebel anthem “Born to Be Wild.”
In 1968, during one of its 2-6am weekend shows, someone set fire to the Ark. Subsequent repairs forced the club to shut down for a little while, but the owners tried to keep it going for a few months more until closing it for good. When asked why decades later, Martinez said that the muddy lot where the Ark sat clashed with the club’s fancier vibe, keeping it from fulfilling its potential, so they moved on. (Martinez then started the classy waterfront restaurant Ondine.)
For years after its time as the Ark, the Charles Van Damme would serve as a center for the local houseboat community. Bands like the Redlegs would play and use the cover charges to help keep up the deteriorating boat. In the early ’80s it was condemned by local authorities, and after an unsuccessful attempt to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for restoration, it was bulldozed. Locals didn’t make the demolition easy, as dozens laid in front of the bulldozers and were arrested.
The site where the Ark once stood is now just a dirt lot, and local houseboat activists continue to care for its paddlewheel.
As San Francisco was becoming a breeding ground for psychedelic rock, Berkeley was still enjoying its reputation as part of the folk circuit. Throughout the ’60s, folk musicians flocked to Berkeley from around the country to clubs like the Blind Lemon, Steppenwolf and the Cabale, and for over a decade it hosted the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, a major event for the genre.
Many of Berkeley’s folk venues were short-lived. Among the shortest-lived but most beloved was the Jabberwock, a former jazz club on Telegraph Avenue. Bill Ehlert, a.k.a. the “Jolly Blue Giant,” bought the place in 1965, and Cal students and local musicians regularly packed the place for bills that read today like a Roots Music Hall of Fame; John Fahey, Doc Watson, Skip James and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott are just a few legends that graced its stage.
A roots-music aficionado from Los Angeles named Joe McDonald lived next to the Jabberwock and was a regular, playing in the house “pickup” group, the Instant Action Jug Band, with a guitarist named Barry Melton. McDonald, Melton and a few others would end up recording a song McDonald wrote in a matter of minutes called “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.” Released on an EP, the song — a satire-laden protest of the Vietnam War — became a regional hit, so McDonald and Melton began playing at the Jabberwock as Country Joe McDonald and the Fish. Three years later, they’d play “Fixin’-To-Die” at Woodstock, with a cheer heard ’round the world.
The bands that developed in the Jabberwock seemed to embrace a dark sense of humor with their Americana. Another notable song from the Jabberwock’s scene was “Friendly Neighborhood Narco Agent” by Berkeley Barb writer Jef Jaison. Inspired by a pot dealer who ripped off some undercover police officers at a Berkeley pizza shop by selling them a large quantity of Jasmine tea for hundreds of dollars, it became of a staple on Dr. Demento’s legendary comedy music show.
The Jabberwock closed in 1967 when Ehlert couldn’t afford to bring the club up to code. Doc Watson played its final show, and the club was immortalized by Jaison in the Berkeley Barb. By 1969, the corner of Telegraph and Russell where the Jabberwock once stood was a barren lot.
Special thanks to Ross Hannan for expertise and connections. Hannan and Corry Arnold created the Chicken on a Unicycle website, a one-stop source for information on the Bay Area’s live music scene during the ’60s.