Palo Alto, California, for a town of under 60,000, has a surprisingly high profile. Founded to accommodate Stanford University, the town has achieved renown as the incubator of Silicon Valley, The Grateful Dead and Google, just to name a few major icons. On the other hand, while Palo Alto deserves its place as an interesting matrix of ideas, South Bay residents know that much of Palo Alto's notoriety comes from the tendency of its residents to re-write history so that Palo Alto is at the center of every story. Palo Alto has a notoriously smug reputation (which, just to be clear, this Palo Alto native is quite proud of), looking down on the towns around it as insufficiently tasteful or cutting-edge.
Nothing illustrates Palo-centrism so clearly as the narrative of the early Grateful Dead. The story is regularly told of how Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter and others were struggling folk musicians and beatniks in Palo Alto, met Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters and formed The Warlocks, participated in the Acid Tests, changed their name to the Grateful Dead and moved to San Francisco to change the world. However, surprisingly few of the seminal events took place in Palo Alto proper, and many of the important places in early Grateful Dead history actually took place in Menlo Park, the town just North of Palo Alto. While I have relatively little to add to the story of the early Grateful Dead, I am going to retell the key events from the point of view of Menlo Park, with a chronology of important Grateful Dead pre-historical and historical events that took place in Menlo Park.
1961 Peninsula School, 920 Peninsula Way: Jerry and Bob
Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter's first paying gig as a folk duo in the South Bay was at Peninsula School in Menlo Park. Peninsula School, at 920 Peninsula Way, was founded in 1925 and is still there. Greil Marcus, John Dawson and me all went there, though not at the same time.
1961-65 Kepler's Books 935 El Camino Real
Roy Kepler founded his famous bookstore at 935 El Camino Real in 1955, and it was the first bookstore in the South Bay that allowed patrons to sit and read, drink coffee, hang out or play music, perfect for the budding bohemians who would become San Francisco's psychedelic rockers. All sorts of key events took place at Kepler's, such as Peter Albin (later in Big Brother) meeting Jerry Garcia for the first time, when Jerry was holding court in the back of Kepler's with a guitar. Jerry Garcia probably met his first wife (Sara Ruppenthal) here as well, though she was from Palo Alto.
Kepler's Books has since moved across the street (to 1010 El Camino Real). The site of the original store is currently a Leather Furniture Store.
1961-63 The Chateau 2100 Santa Cruz Avenue
Jerry Garcia, David Nelson, Bob Hunter and many others lived in a rambling house near the Southern end of Santa Cruz Avenue called "The Chateau." It was a true hangout, with dozens of rooms and a party in all of them. Most stories about hanging out with Jerry in the old days generally refer to The Chateau. For various reasons, some people think that The Chateau was in Palo Alto, but that was actually the purple house on Waverley Street (at Channing) where Jerry and Sara Garcia moved in 1965. The address, near Sand Hill Avenue and Sharon Heights, is now a subdivision (note: I had previously thought the address was 838 Santa Cruz, which had been published elsewhere, but better information has come to light).
1962-65 Ken Kesey's House on Perry Lane (updated)
Tom Wolfe immortalized Ken Kesey's house on Perry Lane in his book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. According to no less of an authority than the Archivist at the Palo Alto Historical Association, Kesey's Perry Lane house was on the site of today's current Perry Avenue. At the time, the area was in unincorporated San Mateo County, with a mailing addresses of Menlo Park, although it may have since been incorporated into Menlo Park. The houses that were associated with Kesey's activities have long since been torn down and replaced by newer structures, but the current Perry Avenue is the site of Perry Lane in Kesey mythology (I had thought for many years that the nearby Oak Creek Apartments were actually the site of Perry Lane, but the Archivist pointed out that were actually they were actually built on Stanford land in Palo Alto proper, before the original Perry Lane structures were torn down).
Update: Menlo Park's leading blog, InMenlo, has discovered the exact address of Kesey's cottage: 9 Perry Lane. The whole story is here, including an interview with Kesey's neighbor and friend (at 13 Perry).
The somewhat younger members of the future Grateful Dead used to go to Perry Lane parties, possibly uninvited. This led to both the introduction of the young Warlocks as the house band for Kesey's infamous "Acid Tests"--don't forget, LSD was legal in California until October 6, 1966--and the initial connection between Jerry Garcia and his future (second) wife, Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Adams.
Magoo's Pizza, 635 Santa Cruz Avenue
In 1965, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Pigpen and many others had a jug band, but the band had almost no gigs other than poorly paying ones at Palo Alto's only folk club, The Tangent. Pigpen urged Garcia to form an electric blues band, and the Warlocks were born. Garcia and Weir worked at a music store in Dowtown Palo Alto called Dana Morgan's (at 536 Ramona). Since the son of the owner (Dana Morgan Jr) was The Warlocks bass player, the band could borrow equipment from the store and practice there as well, with the grudging acquiescence of the owner.
However, there were no gigs to be had in Palo Alto. Thus the first Warlocks gig was in Menlo Park, at a pizza parlor in Menlo Park. Magoo's Pizza was either at 635 Santa Cruz Avenue or at 639, as near as I can determine. 635 Santa Cruz is a restaurant called The Left Bank, and 639 is a furniture store. Any Menlo Park residents who can shed some light on the original location of Magoo's are encouraged to Comment or email me.
The Warlocks first played Magoo's on Wednesday May 5, 1965, and they played every Wednesday in May. The club was packed with students from Menlo Atherton High School, thanks to shrewd campaigning by the group's first fans. However, despite the promising start to the young band, bassist Dana Morgan was not cutting it. Garcia's friend Phil Lesh saw the last Wednesday night gig (on May 26), and Garcia invited him to replace Morgan (Garcia had to teach Lesh to play bass, as Phil only played trumpet, piano and violin).
Guitars Unlimited, El Camino Real
Since Dana Morgan Jr had been fired from the Warlocks, the band was not welcome to use equipment from the store, nor were Garcia and Weir wanted as guitar instructors. Both Garcia and Weir got jobs at a music store called Guitars Unlimited on El Camino Real, right near Santa Cruz Avenue. Both of them brought their own guitar students with them, an attactive proposition even though Garcia in particular had what was perceived as a "menacing" demeanor. Of course, the band promptly borrowed equipment from Guitars Unlimited.
Throughout the balance of 1965, The Warlocks struggled with trying to make it like a normal South Bay band, mostly playing up and down the El Camino Real. Things started to change at the end of the year, however, as they began to play Kesey's Acid Tests. While the band played at the infamous Big Beat Acid Test in South Palo Alto, they still had not yet had a paying gig in Palo Alto. By 1966, things were developing at a rapid pace, and in February the newly-named Grateful Dead took off to Los Angeles with their patron Owsley Stanley, to help put on Acid Tests in Southern California. Of course, the band took all their equipment from Guitars Unlimited. Whether the band eventually paid for them is not clear.
The story of the Grateful Dead and Menlo Park ends in February 1966. The group did play a Be-In at Palo Alto's El Camino Park on June 24, 1967, which was an easy walk from Magoo's, Kepler's or Guitars Unlimited.
The Underground, El Camino Real May-June 1969
The story of Jerry Garcia and Menlo Park was not quite over, however. In April 1969, while on tour in Colorado, Garcia bought a pedal steel guitar. Looking for an opportunity to play the instrument, he discovered that old Los Altos pal John Dawson was performing his own songs at a Hofbrau in Menlo Park called The Underground, somewhere on El Camino Real in Menlo Park. Another old South Bay friend, David Nelson, without a band at the time, joined in playing electric guitar.
Dawson, Nelson and Garcia would go on to found the New Riders of The Purple Sage, although they would not be known by that name until August. The trio played most Wednesday nights at The Underground, however starting May 7 (probably May 14, May 21 and June 4 also, and possibly June 18). Their last gig at The Underground was probably June 25. It is a little-remarked fact that the first gigs of both the future Grateful Dead and the future New Riders took place within walking distance of each other in downtown Menlo Park.
Thanks to a Commenter, I know the approximate location of The Underground, but not precisely. It appears that 1029 El Camino Real would be the approximate location of The Underground. That is currently The Oak City Bar And Grill, but I do not know for a fact whether the buildings have been remodeled or if The Underground was at the same place.
Peninsula School, 920 Peninsula Way June 3 1969: Jerry Garcia and John Dawson
Outside of The Underground Hofbrau in Menlo Park, the first public gig of the future New Riders--at the time unnamed--was at Peninsula School. Dead biographer Dennis McNally alludes to this event, and by triangulating I can approximate the date, but it could be any weeknight around that time. Banjoist Peter Grant had probably joined the trio, and possibly other players as well.
I had moved on to Public School by this time, but a friend of mine, then aged 11, went to the school and recalled the show (although its possible he was recalling the 1970 show). He and his friend snuck into the equipment room and someone knocked on the door. Since they weren't supposed to be there, they refused to let the person in. He plaintively said "but you have to let me in, I'm Jerry Garcia." Scared of their Moms, however, they remained silent until Jerry left and they could sneak away. Many years later, my friend's Mom moved to The Oak Creek Apartments, but those sort of imaginary "coincidences" were common in the then-insular South Bay.
The New Riders would go on to play two more shows at Peninsula School, one around May 1970, and another on May 28, 1971. The May 28 show was odd because a very ill Jerry Garcia could not make the show, and The Riders played as a quartet.
The Grateful Dead saw themselves as a Palo Alto band, and rightly so. Without Palo Alto, there would have been no Grateful Dead. The cool parts of Menlo Park, like Kepler's or The Chateau, to some extent depended on being near to downtown Palo Alto while being cheaper. Nonetheless, without Menlo Park there wasn't necessarily a Grateful Dead either. Palo Alto has a right to be at the center of a lot of stories--Joan Baez, Stanford Shopping Center, Silicon Valley, The Homebrew Computer Club, Yahoo, Google and Facebook to name just a few--but it doesn't exist in a vacuum, however much we natives try and suck up all the air around us. There's a Grateful Dead walking tour of Menlo Park ready to be made, if someone could just find the addresses of the long-gone establishments.