Friday, September 16, 2011

Summer 1965, The Top of The Tangent, 117 University Avenue, Palo Alto, CA: The Warlocks

117 University Avenue in Palo Alto, the site of The Top Of The Tangent, as it appeared in 2006. The restaurant Rudy's is on the ground floor, approximately where The Tangent pizza parlor was located
The performing history in The Warlocks is shrouded in myth and legend. Like many events from over 40 years ago, as stories get repeated over and over even the people who were present remember the stories and lose sight of their actual memories. Members of the Grateful Dead have been interviewed many times about their early days, but like many musicians they only had and have a performer's perspective. They may remember clearly how it felt and what it was like, but they hardly recall where or when they actually played. Dennis McNally and Blair Jackson did fantastic research in pinning down some facts about where the Warlocks actually played before they became famous, and in an earlier post I framed known facts about those venues in the context of the South Bay rock scene at the time. Only a few venues can actually be identified, and there is no certainty about the dates.

The outlines of the Warkocks saga are well established, however. The Warlocks first shows were at Magoo's Pizza Parlor, at 635 Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park, every Wednesday in May. Phil Lesh saw the final show, and accepted Jerry Garcia's invitation to replace Dana Morgan, Jr on bass guitar. Phil's first show was at Frenchy's, in Hayward (at 29097 Mission Blvd), on June 18, 1965. The band was not invited back. By the end of the Summer of 1965, the better rehearsed Warlocks had an agent, Al King, and he started booking them in some clubs on El Camino Real on the Peninsula, including the Cinnamon Tree, Big Al's Gashouse, The Fireside Room and ultimately the In Room in Belmont. The six-week stint at The In Room, on about the 800 block of Old County Road, made the Warlocks as a working band. They started to become regulars at Ken Kesey's events, and by the end of the year they were the Grateful Dead.

I have always been intrigued, however, by the fact that the Warlocks narrative has an empty space between the band getting rejected at Frenchy's in June and starting to find a little success on El Camino Real as the Summer ended and Fall began. While it's clear that the Warlocks were rehearsing during that time, no evidence had ever surfaced about any performances during this period. Recently, however, I had the pleasure to meet one of the very first Warlocks fans, and posed to the question to her as to where the Warlocks might have played during the Summer of 1965, and I received a logical and quite amazing answer: the Warlocks regularly played at The Top Of The Tangent throughout the Summer, the very same place that they had played in the previous year as Mother McRee's Uptown Jug Band.

The Internet being what it is, I'm not going to identify my eyewitness, although she may choose to identify herself in the Comments. She did not specifically request anonymity, but this is a blog, not a newspaper. Experienced scholars will probably suspect who it is in any case--suffice to say she is a Palo Alto High School graduate, class of 1966, and she saw the Warlocks at Magoo's, Frenchy's and many times thereafter. It turns out that no one had ever posed the question to her as to where the Warlocks had played in the Summer of 1965, so there was nothing secret or special about this information--it was just a question that had never been asked.

Rudy's Restaurant at 117 University Avenue in Palo Alto, as it appeared in June, 2011
The Top Of The Tangent, 117 University Avenue
The Tangent was a deli and pizza parlor at the very end of University Avenue in Downtown Palo Alto, near the train station. It was right on "The Circle," for those readers who know Palo Alto geography, and across the street from the Paris Theater, for those who recall 60s and 70s Palo Alto. The Tangent was at 117 University, two doors down from the building at 135 University that would become The Poppycock in 1967, Downtown Palo Alto's own little rock palace from 1967-71. The Tangent was owned by the Feldman family, and it was a typical local food joint. It also sold beer, a significant point in a city that did not allow bars downtown. Thus places like The Tangent were a little more of a hangout than you might think for the local bohemians, since there were no bars to lounge around in.

McNally reported (p.47) that The Top Of The Tangent was started by two doctors at Stanford hospital, Stu Goldstein and David Schoenstadt, who were looking for something interesting to do. The Top Of The Tangent was, as the name suggested, just a room above the pizza parlor, and it opened in January 1963. The room seated perhaps 75 people. While the Tangent kept regular restaurant hours, the Top Of The Tangent seems to have only been officially open for Wednesday night "hoot night," and on weekend evenings. Weekend admission was $1.50.

Nonetheless, there seems to have been only one other folk club downtown, a coffee shop called St. Michael's Alley (at 436 University, now a Peet's), and plenty of folk musicians to go around, so The Top Of The Tangent thrived in a quiet sort of way. All of the South Bay folk musicians played The Top Of The Tangent, and they booked touring folk musicians as well, although not particularly famous ones. While old Palo Altans used the names "Tangent" and "Top Of The Tangent" interchangeably, strictly speaking musicians performed at the Top Of The Tangent, and The Tangent was the deli/pizza parlor.

Mother McRee's Uptown Jug Band champions was formed by Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir in mid-1964, and it featured numerous members, including Ron McKernan and David Nelson. Jug Bands were very popular around 1964, building on the popularity of The Jim Kweskin Jug Band in particular. Garcia and others had seen the Kweskin band in Berkeley, probably at the Cabale in February of 1964. Some Stanford students recorded Mother McRee's at the Top Of The Tangent in 1964 for Stanford radio station KZSU-fm, and the tape was ultimately released as a cd. Once the jug band fad was over, however, Mother McRee's found themselves at loose ends, and Pigpen made the immortal suggestion that they could become an electric blues band.

According to my correspondent, the Warlocks spent the Summer of 1965 rehearsing. Her job, among others, was to write down the lyrics to songs that the band was learning, mostly Rolling Stones songs. The Warlocks went down and set up their equipment at The Top Of The Tangent and played various times simply to practice playing in public. Most of them had been going down there to play every week or so for some time, and in Jerry's case for years, so really this was no change. Although The Top Of The Tangent was a folk club, there was no specific prohibition against electric music, and in any case in 1965 blues was considered "folk" music so it wasn't really out of place.

The same few people who saw Mother McRee's saw The Warlocks. I don't think the shows were advertised in any way. It's even possible that the shows weren't even authorized, exactly. I have some reason to think that The Top Of The Tangent was always accessible from the pizza parlor itself, even if nothing was going on. Mountain Girl has told the story of going to The Tangent after work in 1963 or so and hearing banjo music from upstairs. Further investigation found a very determined man with dark, curly hair obsessively practicing the banjo.

My source doesn't recall how often The Warlocks played The Top Of The Tangent, but it was several times. The band may have simply invited themselves there on nights when nothing else was scheduled, perhaps on Wednesday hoot nights, and since they were mostly regulars anyway, they attracted no special attention. Thus by the time the Warlocks had an opportunity to perform to a slightly wider audience, the band had already had a series of public rehearsals in a comfortable space that they knew well. The Top Of The Tangent has always been cited as a source for the foundation of the Grateful Dead, but it's amazing to find out that the very same room played a much larger role in the band's founding than I had originally thought.

The Tangent-Aftermath
The Top Of The Tangent was a folk club, and folk clubs were fairly passe by 1966. By the end of 1967, Palo Alto had it's own rock club, The Poppycock, just two doors down from The Tangent. Although The Poppycock wasn't large by rock standards, probably holding somewhere between 300 and 500 patrons, it dwarfed The Top Of The Tangent. Nonetheless, the Tangent itself remained open, and in doing newspaper research I have seen bookings at least as late as 1969. I have a feeling that the upstairs room remained part of the restaurant, and was used occasionally for various folk or theater performances.

Around 1969, The Tangent became home for a weekly local songwriters "collective," started by an engineer named Chris Lunn. The events were basically "open mike" nights, a continuation of the Hoot Night folk tradition. The best of these songwriters played around Bay Area clubs under the name "Palo Alto Folk And Blues Collective." Ultimately Lunn moved to Tacoma, WA, for professional reasons, and continued his weekly songwriting workshops. Eventually it became well known under the name Victory Music, and it appears to be thriving to this day. The longest standing member of the collective was San Jose native Jim Page (no, a different Jim Page) whom some Deadheads may recognize for a song about "Going Down To Eugene" to see the Grateful Dead.

The door to the upstairs office of MindTribe, at 119 University Avenue in Palo Alto, likely in the same space as The Top Of The Tangent
117 and 119 University Avenue Today
I think The Tangent, or The Top Of The Tangent, anyway, changed it's name to The Trip Room in 1970 or '71. However, there was a large fire that burned down The Poppycock building in 1972 (which by this time was a jazz club called In Your Ear), and I have to think the Tangent building was damaged too. Thus the current building must not be the same as it was back then. Downstairs, at 117 University is a restaurant called Rudy's, which has a reputation as one of Palo Alto's last "regular" joints where you can get a burger and a beer instead of the more typical exotica (e.g. Croatian-Italian-Asian Fusion) that Palo Alto is now famous for.

There is a different entrance to the stairs to the second floor of Rudy's, and the door is marked 119 University. I have to think that the area of the offices of 119 University are roughly the same as The Top Of The Tangent, where The Warlocks were born and took some of their earliest steps. Earlier this year, the sign on the door shows it to be the offices of a company called MindTribe. MindTribe is a technology consultancy whose mission is "to develop successful products that expand the realm of human possibility."

If I'm correct, Mindtribe is not the first organization at the site whose mission was to expand the realm of human possibility. Right on cue, a look at their website tells us that just recently (August 25), Mindtribe moved to San Francisco (near Market & Third), so perhaps the aura of that corner of University Avenue at The Circle retains some surprisingly powerful Mojo.


7 comments:

  1. Very interesting, and unexpected!

    You would've thought, if the Warlocks were regulars at the Tangent, that someone would have mentioned it before now. And as the Top of the Tangent was a folk club, it's all the more surprising that an electric blues-rock outfit playing Stones covers would be welcome playing there! (In the same month, mind you, that Dylan was booed at Newport.)
    As the Warlocks members were mostly Tangent familiars, perhaps this spared them some audience boos or management disfavor...

    I wonder if you posed your informant any other questions....?

    On a tangent - I should look this up before asking as it's probably already been answered - but why was it the Warlocks stopped playing at Magoo's? By Phil's & Jerry's accounts, the place was packed at the early Warlocks shows. Even given a couple weeks off for the Warlocks to rehearse with a new bass player, it seems odd to me that they wouldn't come back.
    Was it too small for a frantic audience? Were the owners annoyed by the noisy crowd? (Phil remembers being told not to dance...) Did the place become deserted during the summer months? Did the band decide to try to aim higher than the local high-school crowd?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think the fact of the Warlocks not playing the Tangent was never mentioned before because no one has asked much about what the Warlocks were doing in the Summer of 65. Your question about Magoo's is a good one--why didn't they return there, or why haven't we heard about anyone else playing there?

    From what I know of the South Bay, I have to suspect that if it was a noisy scene, other residents or the cops had a problem. Complaints about improper permits is an easy way to shut down new venues. Granted, Magoo's mainly attracted students from nearby Menlo Atherton HS and Menlo School, but its not like they all disappeared on June 1.

    I wonder who made the booking in the first place? Who had the connection to Magoo's? Maybe it was Dana Morgan Jr, and that's why they couldn't return.

    There will be other tidbits about early Warlocks days in posts to come.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I checked Phil's book, and he says, "Magoo's, unfortunately, had discontinued live music because people just wouldn't stop dancing!"

    I'm not sure if Magoo's was the kind of place where a new band needed a "booking," or if just a chat with the manager would suffice. Garcia remembered, "We said, 'Hey can we play in here on Wednesday night? We won't bother anybody. Just let us set up in the corner.'"
    Given the high-school crowd, perhaps it was Weir's circle of friends who suggested Magoo's...

    Looking forward to further Warlocks scoops!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Here's a note I received from a member of The Impressions:
    "I must correct you to keep history straight. Big Al's Gas House was located in Belmont (San Mateo) on South El Camino Real. It was directly across the street from The Belmont Theater (Now a tile store).

    Big Al's is now M&M Motor Masters Automotive, 4399 S. El Camino Real, Belmont CA 94403. You can Google map it to see what it looks like now."
    This is incorrect as I've (slipnut) found a ashtray with the actual address, 4335 El Camino Real, Palo Alto.

    "I played there regularly. Because I was under 21, my father built a slated wall built between the bar and the stage to satisfy the ABC. Here's a little known fact. When The Worlocks first played there they opened for my band The Impressions. Why? Because at the time we were the house band :>)

    Best,

    Rich"

    ReplyDelete
  5. The Mid Peninsula Free University took over the defunct Tangent. The new setup was called The Full Circle. It was a coop that was financed by many at Stanford. It opened in early 1970, was an instant success. Music was played upstairs by The Rhythm Dukes and St Jacques etc. When Regan closed the insane asylums the former patients started to hang out at the Full Circle. It soon lost its business and income.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Starlight, thank you so much for closing this peculiar loop. I had seen a picture of a band (Blue Mountain Eagle) at The Full Circle, and I had thought it might be the same place. I had no idea about the Free You connection, however. Fascinating, thank you so much.

      Delete
  6. Also upstairs in 1971 to 72 was the office for Air War Vote. collecting CA voter signatures for a statewide initiative to stop funding airwar in VietNam war.

    ReplyDelete