The Matrix, 3138 Fillmore Street, San Francisco
The Matrix had been opened in August of 1965 in order to provide a place for the Jefferson Airplane to play. Marty Balin's father, Joe Buchwald, was one of the three backers. The Airplane rapidly graduated from the Matrix, of course, once they became famous, but in the mid-sixties the Matrix was the first club that encouraged hippie bands to play original music to hippie audiences. The Fillmore and the Avalon were the top of the scene, certainly, but both those venues were generally only open on weekends. Within the confines of the local scene, there weren't many other places to play. Hippies weren't welcome everywhere, and the North Beach clubs had mostly gone topless and preferred bands who simply played Top 40 music to accompany the dancers, and didn't pay well at that. For longhaired bands on the rise in 1966, The Matrix was one of the few available gigs, and all the new bands played there on the way up. The Grateful Dead, for example, had played the Matrix in January of 1966.
The Matrix seated about 100 people, tops, and served beer and pizza. Dancing was against the law, because of an archaic San Francisco ordnance involving "Dance Permits." As a result, fans went to the Matrix to sit and listen, so free-form blues jamming and other kinds of odd noodling was fine. The Matrix generally booked a band and a folksinger from Tuesday through Thursday, and two bands on Friday and Saturday. Sometimes, groups who were popular at the Fillmore or Avalon would play weeknights at the Matrix because it wouldn't conflict with paying weekend shows around Northern California. Whatever modest amount of money a band received for playing at the Matrix to 50 or 100 people, it was more than they would have gotten for rehearsing, as in 1966 there were pretty much no weeknight club dates for long-haired bands.
The Matrix Tapes
The operators of the Matrix, particularly manager/co-owner Peter Abrams, had the foresight to recognize early on that special music was happening in San Francisco, and he began to tape every show at the Matrix starting in mid-1966. Unfortunately, however, tapes of every show were not retained. Recording tape was expensive, as was storage space, so only the "best" tapes were kept, and the balance was taped over. This wasn't charity--the idea was that when the bands became famous, early live tapes of their performances would be very valuable. While the recordings at the Matrix weren't exactly state of the art, in many cases soundboard tapes from the Matrix are the earliest and most primal record of San Francisco rock music.
There are tapes from the Matrix circulating from numerous artists. A few have even been turned into legitimate releases over the years, by The Doors, The Velvet Underground, The Great Society, The Sparrow and Sandy Bull, among others. However, practice at the Matrix was to tape every set of a performer and then to keep either a compilation of best performances, or a tape of the "best" set. One frustrating result is that Matrix tape labels are only generally correct, not specifically. The 1966 Grateful Dead tapes, for example, probably originally said something like "Grateful Dead-November 66" without any specific explanation. I will leave the tape parsing to sharper ears than mine, but the surviving Grateful Dead Matrix tapes, usually dated November 29 and December 1, 1966, likely can not be dated more specifically than that. They are likely complete sets from some nights, with some other songs spliced in, but we can't know for certain without other evidence. This type of selection was true of all surviving Matrix tapes from every band, not just the Grateful Dead.
There are considerably fewer Matrix tapes in existence than is generally believed. Because of confusion over the Matrix's tendency to make compilations, the ravages of time and wishful thinking, many tapes have circulated under a variety of dates. Since it was known that the Matrix taped everything, it was plausible to hope that everything was preserved, but that was not the case. The Matrix had good relationships with the various bands, for the most part, so I doubt that there are Grateful Dead or Jerry Garcia tapes that were made at the Matrix that were not known to the Grateful Dead Vault, even if the Matrix owners held the originals. My interest is not in the dating of each November '66 Matrix tape, but in speculating on why the Grateful Dead even played the Matrix at all at that time.
Why Would The Grateful Dead Play The Matrix In November 1966?
The Grateful Dead played The Matrix in January 1966, when they were nobodies. They did not play there again until November 1966, and the Grateful Dead proper did not play there again. Jerry Garcia, on the other hand, seemed to use the Matrix as his private clubhouse from 1968 onwards, dropping by at jam sessions and playing with various casual ensembles like Jerry Garcia and Friends, Mickey Hart And The Hartbeats, a bluegrass band and David Crosby (aka "David And The Dorks"). Clearly the band was welcome at any time, as were most San Francisco groups. Why November of '66?
For once I am not going to make my usual argument and say that the Grateful Dead were scrambling for cash, and would take any paying gig. If that were true, then the Dead would likely have played the Matrix more than just one time, as there were no other weekday gigs to be had in the Bay Area during the 1966-68 period. For one thing, the Matrix was a tiny place, and I doubt that the Dead's relatively huge sound system even fit in the place, much less on the stage. I don't know how much bands got paid at The Matrix, but it wasn't much, and the Dead were starting to accumulate crew members, and they would need gas for the truck and so on, so a Matrix gig may have been barely break even, if that. It just seems to me that if the Dead could make money at the Matrix, they would have played there regularly in 1966-67.
There's another reason I find the November '66 booking odd, and that is the fact that the Grateful Dead were going to be headlining the Fillmore on the weekend of December 9-11, less than two weeks from the Matrix show. I do not know the exact structure of Bill Graham's contracts at the time, but I know in subsequent years his contracts prevented bands from advertising shows within two weeks or a certain number of miles from the Fillmore. I don't know Graham's 1966 protocol, but I can't imagine that he would want his headliners to play a nightclub show 10 days before headlining. The Grateful Dead were an underground sensation in San Francisco in 1966, but they weren't a sellout act. I know that the Dead were playing UC Berkeley on December 2 (at Pauley Ballroom), so Graham's contract couldn't be completely restrictive.
I know that some out-of-town bands who were opening at the Fillmore would play weeknight gigs at the Matrix, so Graham wasn't unsympathetic to the Matrix, but I can't find an instance of a 1966 headliner playing The Matrixso close to a Fillmore date. I have to think Graham formally or informally didn't allow his headline bands to advertise shows in San Francisco a few weeks before a Fillmore show, and that makes the Matrix show all the more mystifying. I would assert that if the Grateful Dead were playing four nights at The Matrix under their own name 10 days before headlining the Fillmore, it was with Graham's tacit or explicit permission, and the reason couldn't exclusively be a quick payday.
The Grateful Dead's Recording Contract
According to Dennis McNally, Joe Smith of Warner Brothers Records agreed to a contract with the Grateful Dead in October of 1966, although it was not completed and signed until some modifications in December 1966. The actual recording of the first album did not commence until January 1967. Thus, at the very least, we know the Grateful Dead had to be thinking about recording their debut album, since they knew it was imminent. The standard thing to do at the time was for new acts to record every single number in their live repertoire, in a straight run through without embellishment. The thinking was that not only could songs be considered for the album, but even songs that were not going to be used might have good ideas for arrangements, tempos, harmonies and other details that could be used on original material. Also, most bands had rarely or never heard themselves play, since "home recording" was not really possible for electric bands.
We know that the Grateful Dead had some live recordings and studio demos from mid-1966, but the band must have known that they had improved enormously since then. The Grateful Dead also had a relatively large repertoire for a new band, and no money, so spending days in the studio recording demos was not plausible. The obvious solution must have been to record one of their live shows, but that was not so easy in 1966. The Dead didn't have recording gear, or much anyway, and it would have cost money to hire an engineer and equipment. The Matrix might have seemed like a perfect compromise. The club was already set up to record everything, and all the Dead had to do was show up. If they got paid a little bit, it would defray expenses, which was better than paying out. Look at the list of songs that survive from the Matrix tape, regardless of what date or dates the tapes might be from [per Deadlists]:
"Nov 29 '66"
Me And My Uncle [3:47] ; Same Thing [11:35] ; Stealin' [2:51] ; Big Boy Pete [2:46] ; One Kind Favor [5:05] ; Early Morning Rain [2:15] ; Cold Rain And Snow [3:04] ; Viola Lee Blues [10:23]
Down So Long [3:29] ; Something On Your Mind [4:36] ; Lindy [2:48] ; Good Morning Little Schoolgirl [10:06] ; I Just Want To Make Love To You (1) [3:18]
"Dec 1 '66"
Minglewood Blues [3:36] ; Betty And Dupree [5:01] ; Next Time You See Me [3:39] ; I Know You Rider [3:58] ; Big Boss Man [3:51] ; One Kind Favor [5:23] ; Alice D. Millionaire [2:48] ; Cream Puff War [9:11]
You Don't Love Me [4:15] ; Beat It On Down The Line [2:29] ; It Hurts Me Too [4:34] ; On The Road Again [2:26] ; Yonder's Wall (1) [#4:01] ; My Own Fault [6:59] ; Down So Long [3:30] ; Cold Rain And Snow [2:56] ; Viola Lee Blues [15:02]
Deep Elem Blues [#4:49] ; Something On Your Mind [5:04] ; Big Boy Pete [3:04] ; Death Don't Have No Mercy [9:41] ; Lindy [2:59] ; Dancin' In The Street [11:14] ; Me And My Uncle (2) [4:11]
I can't prove any of this, but all the pieces seem to be in place.
- The Matrix tape is a compilation, as are all Matrix tapes, but the compilation seems designed to include every working number in their repertoire
- The Matrix is one of the few places that could plausibly be used to record four nights of performance designed not to entertain the crowd but to go across their entire songbook
- Bill Graham would have been supportive of the Dead getting signed, and might have been amenable to letting them use the Matrix as a recording venue, even at some slight risk to their headline shows in December
- And rather more trivially, it might explain the weird false start on "Me And My Uncle," where the band stops and starts over. It would make more sense if the group was treating the shows like a demo session
I have always wondered why the Dead never recorded any studio demos in late 1966 that showed the breadth of their material, as was standard practice at the time. It may have been, however, that they had already done the recording at The Matrix prior to the final signing of the Warners contract in December, and they may have already had a tape for producer Dave Hassinger to listen to. If I'm correct, than we may have a rare snapshot of the Grateful Dead's entire repertoire at a single moment in time, itself an all but unseen commodity.