Saturday, May 22, 2010

March 5, 1972 Winterland, San Francisco: Yogi Phlegm with Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh

Winterland, the one time ice palace at Post and Steiner in San Francisco, looms large in the history of rock and in the imagination of Deadheads. The 5400 capacity hall (built in 1928 as The New Dreamland Rink) was only used for the largest shows in the 1960s, those too large for the Fillmore (capacity 1500) or the Fillmore West (capacity 2500). As a result, Winterland hosted some of the most legendary rock shows of the 1960s. When the Fillmore West closed in July, 1971, Bill Graham Presents ultimately took over the lease on Winterland until the building itself was closed in 1978. Thus many of the most memorable acts of the 1970s played at Winterland as well, hosted by Bill Graham, and as a result the old arena became a sort of wormhole to the 1960s. Winterland was kind of a dump, truth be told, but bands had been playing there for so long that all its attributes had been assessed, so everybody sounded great. It was a dump, yes, but it was our dump.

On March 5, 1972 a benefit was held for the Indians at Alcatraz (another fascinating digression I can't get into here). The bill was Grateful Dead/New Riders of The Purple Sage/Yogi Phlegm. Although the show was a benefit, it was a Bill Graham Presents production. The Fillmore West had closed on July 4, 1971, and after his usual threats Graham had continued to produce shows in the Bay Area. In the late 1971/early 1972 period, BGP was putting on shows about every other weekend at Winterland. By mid-summer, there were shows almost every weekend. There were a number of interesting, if somewhat unrelated facts about the March 5, 1972 show that are worthy of consideration, so I will link them together here.

Yogi Phlegm with Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh
Although the Grateful Dead were still scrambling financially in 1972, they were bona fide rock stars by any standard. The Dead had been local heroes and underground sensations when the Haight Ashbury scene broke through in 1967, but that hadn't been accompanied by substantial record sales or radio play. By 1972, however, the Dead had had two successful albums (Workingman's Dead and American Beauty) that had received substantial airplay on FM radio stations across the country, and in September 1971 they had just released their live double lp (known colloquially as "Skull and Roses") which became their first gold album.

Self-effacing Jerry Garcia was the Dead's "frontman," however much he wanted to be just another band member. If his epic guitar skills were not reason enough, his thoughtful and articulate comments in many interviews combined with his genial demeanor to make him seem like a smart, friendly hippie who would be fun to hang out with and just happened to be a rock star. Garcia had released his first solo album in January 1972, and tracks like "Deal" and "The Wheel" received significant FM airplay as well. Although Garcia seemed to shy away from mansions and Hollywood, there was no way to deny the fact that in San Francisco or anywhere else "Jerry Garcia" was an event in himself.

Yogi Phlegm was the new name for the reconstituted Sons of Champlin. The Sons, a tremendous band from Marin who had never put the pieces together, had broken up in mid-1970 under complex circumstances in which the band members believed they did not have the rights to their band's name. When they reformed later in 1970, they had only 5 members and no horn section, and they were performing new, jazzier material that was less heavily arranged than their previous incarnation. Fans and promoters (particularly Bill Graham) hated the comical Yogi Phlegm name, and most referred to them as The Sons of Champlin anyway. The band, always ahead of its time, now played soulful rock music with wide-open Mahavishnu Orchestra-style instrumental passages that even San Francisco audiences were hardly ready for, so the group continued to struggle despite their talent.

With all this in mind, it is surprising indeed to find out that the March 5, 1972 benefit began with Bill Champlin and Bill Vitt of Yogi Phlegm playing with Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh. While Vitt played drums, Champlin sang and played Hammond organ for a couple of jammed out blues, including "Big Boss Man" and "How Blue Can You Get." Jerry Garcia was a rock star by any standard, and a major star in the firmament in San Francisco. Why was he opening his band's show at the biggest rock venue in San Francisco with some casual blues jamming with the opening act?

The story as far as I know it seems to have been that three members of Yogi Phlegm were stuck in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, on the way to Winterland. In the era before cell phones, there was no telling where they might have been and when they might arrive. Bill Graham liked to run a tight ship, and he had a complicated love/hate relationship with The Sons--he had always supported the band (in 1969 he loaned them money to buy a truck, for example), but he thought he knew what was best for them, too. Graham probably saw their booking on the bill as a courtesy, and wasn't going to delay the show because three members of the band (guitarist Terry Haggerty, pianist Geoff Palmer and bassist David Schallock) were missing in action. Supposedly Graham blew his stack and told Bill Champlin to find a guitar player and bassist and get on stage and start playing at the appointed time "or else."

It is a sign of Bill Champlin's status as a musician that in his moment of need Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh bailed him out by joining him on stage. Granted, the Sons and the Dead went way back, but its a unique thing indeed for the most famous member of the headlining band to appear with the opening act. Its even more singular in that they just had to fake it, like they were at the Lion's Share in San Anselmo (the musician's bar where they all hung out) instead of at Winterland. Of course, at least once Bill Graham had demanded the Dead go on stage without the late arriving Jerry Garcia (June 6, 1969, when Phil Lesh asked Wayne Ceballos of Aum to deputize for the first several numbers), so Jerry and Phil must have been pretty sympathetic to Champlin's plight, but its still pretty remarkable.

After the brief blues jam, the three Phlegm/Sons members appeared and Jerry and Phil stepped aside. According to the eyewitness on the Archive comments, they played a great set, not surprising given the excellent contemporary tapes of performances that circulate. The blues jam tape floats around as well, less remarkable for its substance than the fact that it happened at all. Only in San Francisco.

I have pieced the Yogi Phlegm-Garcia story together as best I can from various second-hand sources. Anyone with better information or corrections is encouraged to mention them in the Comments. 

Stage Alignment
Winterland looms large in the memory and legend of San Francisco and San Francisco rock fans, particularly Deadheads. I saw my first rock show at a Grateful Dead concert at Winterland in 1972 (for the record, the bus came by and I got on December 12, 1972). Entering the huge, dark arena and seeing the Dead's equipment rising to the ceiling around the stage was a dramatic prelude to what was about to come, and I'm sure my experience was shared by many. Although Winterland was old and run down, so many bands had played there that the sound and lights were all figured out, so every band sounded great in Winterland. Deadheads who never got to go to Winterland have seen the Closing Of Winterland dvd and numerous photos, so its easy to visualize the Dead's Winterland stage configuration.

However, another interesting thing about the March 5, 1972 Winterland show was that there was a completely different stage alignment. The "classic" Winterland stage alignment, and the only one I ever knew from December 1972 onwards, had the stage at the far end of the hall from the entrance, on the narrower Western end of the rectangle (towards Pierce, away from Steiner). The March show, however, had the stage on the North side (towards Sutter, away from Post). This completely re-orients the stage to the center of the long side of the rectangle. Many more people seated in the balcony would be much nearer the stage, and those standing on the floor would end up with a different sightline. I do not know how often this alignment was used, or what its purpose was. The Dead played a one-off show at Winterland on October 9, 1972, and the sideways config was used, but afterwards it was not repeated to my knowledge for any band.

Over the years I have tried to determine whether the sideways configuration was used in the 1960s or any other time prior to 1972. The person who originally told me about the '72 show (hi Tex) thought that it had been used that way "occasionally" before, but he wasn't sure. Given the number of famous 1960s rock shows held at Winterland by Bill Graham and others, I thought I could find a helpful photo, and I completely struck out. I don't just mean of a photo showing 1960s Winterland stage alignment--I mean any photos from Winterland rock shows in the 1960s, none, nada. It is odd how such a legendary hall remains so little documented.

In early 1972, the BGP organization had not yet fully transitioned to having shows at Winterland every weekend. The concern in those days was whether the 5400 capacity Winterland was too large to be filled on a weekly basis. I have to assume that the attempts to re-align the stage were part of some experiments by BGP people to improve the hall, although since we don't know what they were trying to improve (the sound? the load-out? stage management? the concession stands?) its hard to say why the experiment was dropped. Does anyone recall the stage configuration for 1960s Winterland shows?

Of course, by mid-1972 Bill Graham was putting on concerts at Winterland almost every weekend, and as the decade wore on it turned out that Winterland was too small, not too large. The last show was December 31, 1978, with the Grateful Dead at the farthest Western end of the hall. The building was torn down in 1985, and the site is a block of condominiums now. Every few years I drive by for some reason or another. Post and Steiner was the first address I learned in San Francisco (I lived in the suburbs) and I always have strangely mixed feelings when I see condos instead of a crumbling ice palace. The songs on the radio always sound better the nearer I get, though, and while its probably just my own nostalgia, it still fits--everybody sounds better at Winterland.

6 comments:

  1. March 5, 1972 was a Sunday. The Allman Brothers and Albert King played Friday and Saturday, March 3 and 4. I have to think the sideways configuration was used for the Allmans too, as I doubt they would rebuild the stage overnight.

    October 9, 1972 was also a Sunday, and there were Winterland shows from Wednesday October 4 thru 8, so I have to assume they used the sideways config as well (for the record Santana played October 4-6, the J. Geils show on the 7th was canceled and Kris Kristofferson played Saturday Oct 8).

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  2. The first show I saw at Winterland was 10/24/69 with the Airplane, Dead, Sons, and Doug Kershaw (backed by Commander Cody and the LPA). The stage setup was the sideways one that was used through most of 1972. I didn't go to Winterland in 1970, but the two Dead shows I saw in 1971 (3/24 and 12/31) had the more conventional setup. All of the shows I saw in 1972 up to and including 10/9/69 had the sideways configuration. This was particularly memorable for the June Stones shows, where the balcony opposite the stage offered very good sightlines without the crush on the floor. From the 12/72 Dead shows to the hall's closing, the stage was fixed at the western end.

    At 3/5/72, Bill Graham did allude to the missing triad of Yogi Phlgemers being late, and the audience reaction to the 15 minutes or so of Garcia-Lesh-Champlin-Vitt was predictably ecstatic, although the recording reveals it as a rough and ready jam. Clearly Garcia and Lesh were capable of treading their way through "Big Boss Man."

    Another memorable part of the evening was Wavy Gravy doing stage announcements from the stage lying prone in a full body cast. Because Yogi Phlegm and the New Riders played extra long sets, the Dead had to cut their second set very short to meet curfew.

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  3. Michael, these are very interesting comments. It does make sense that the stage would be constructed in a certain place (if taken down for the Ice Follies) and stay there for a long period of time. Its particularly interesting to think that it was sideways in 1969, the long way in '70 and '71, then sideways for much of '72, and then permanently at the (long) Western end.

    I wonder what the motives were? Certainly the more attractive set of balcony seats had to be a consideration, but there must have been other factors that caused the reversion to the Western set-up.

    One idea I had was that the sideways setup was more attractive from a theatrical perspective, but the stage door (for the equipment load-in/load-out) was oriented to the rear. Once the shows start happening every weekend, the efficient load-ins might have been a deciding factor.

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  4. Corry - I believe that the load-in consideration could certainly have been a facto. Since the garage entrance were accessed through the Pierce street side, it would require less distance to haul equipment with the stage at that end. Another factor may well have been backstage privacy. The backstage areas, so vividly portrayed in the Grateful Dead movie, were also close Pierce street and accessed from that side of the hall (remember the guy who did woodwork for Weir in the GD movie?). When the stage was in the wide configuration, there was a gauntlet that the musicians had to pass through where they were accessible to the audience. My college girlfriend actually chatted up Garcia there on 10/9/72 (I was in our seats - if only I had known!). Anyway, the long hall setup was both more convenient and more private for the musicians, which probably became more important as rock became more of a big business and the distance between musician and performer became more pronounced.

    A final factor may have been simple economics. With the stage at the end, I suspect Graham could cram that many more people into the old hall. What a great place Winterland was, warts and all.

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  5. 3/5/72 was my first show. We got there late due to car trouble, and the full Sons band was already playing (I think I remember "Poppa Can Play").

    I don't think there is much to be made of big-time Rock Star Jerry sitting in with he opening act. He was a musician who loved to play; the Sons were friends and neighbors; there was a need for music at that moment.

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  6. David, I agree with you that to Jerry and Phil, sitting in with the Sons was not a big deal. They were friends and neighbors in need, plus it was fun.

    However, the fact is, Nobody Ever Does That. Rock history is full of stories of bands who were playing a big show when Somebody Couldn't Play--stories of the rock star headliner bailing them out are few and far between. The only one I can think of is only a rumor--when the lead guitarist for the Irish band Eire Apparent (Henry McCullough) was busted for weed in Vancouver in Feb '68, the headliner--one James Marshall Hendrix--supposedly played all his lead parts off stage, but that has never been definitively confirmed.

    In any case, Jerry and Phil's motives were sincere and casual--that's the rare part.

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