Thursday, October 3, 2013

May 7-9, 1968, The Electric Circus, 23 St. Mark's Place, New York, NY: The Grateful Dead

The Grateful Dead first came to underground prominence in San Francisco, but their next conquest was Manhattan. Although the Grateful Dead did not sell a lot of records until 1970, and did not become a significant concert attraction until that time, Manhattan took a shine to them early. New York City Deadheads, from Brooklyn and Queens as well as Manhattan, were among the first to make visits by the Grateful Dead an occasion to attend every single show. San Franciscans could afford to be casual, because the Dead would always return home, but Manhattan seems to have been the first place where fans were determined to go to every single show in town. Thus it is no surprise that there were legendary 60s Dead shows from Manhattan, most notably at The Fillmore East, but also at the Cafe Au Go Go, in Central Park, and at Flushing Meadows, among other places.

Yet the Grateful Dead played six largely forgotten shows in three nights in Manhattan, on the weekend of May 7, 8 and 9, 1968. All six shows were likely packed, and yet the shows are thoroughly forgotten. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that no tapes endure from those shows, and in this century that often causes Dead shows to drift into the darkness. Yet given the number of people who must have attended the shows, it is surprising how little references there are to the shows at Manhattan's now largely forgotten Electric Circus. There is enough evidence to be certain that the shows occurred, and yet the Electric Circus has become invisible in the 60s Grateful Dead narrative, a very rare state for any Dead shows in Manhattan. This post will look at what can be retrieved from the Grateful Dead's weekend at the Electric Circus, and attempt to look at the club itself, in order to try and sketch a picture of what the Dead's show may have been like.

Outside The Electric Circus on October 31, 1967 (from the Village Voice)
The Grateful Dead, Spring 1968
In the Spring of 1968, the Grateful Dead were finishing recording Anthem Of The Sun. By April, they were working on the final mixdown, so they spent a week in Miami, working at Criteria Studios in Miami. It's not clear if they accomplished anything at Criteria, but they did play seven shows that week, six at Thee Image and one free one at Graynolds Park. This was followed by the Dead's debut at Philadelphia's Electric Factory on April 27 and 28, and then a swing up to New York. Since the Dead did not have shows until the next weekend at the Electric Circus, they found time to play free shows at Columbia University on Wednesday (May 3) and Central Park on Thursday (May 5). A band who came to town and played two high-profile free shows loomed large in hip New York City, and those events seemed to have completely overshadowed the Electric Circus shows.

Although the Dead probably got paid decently at the Electric Circus, it was not a first-tier venue. Sly had played there, but at the time Sly And The Family Stone would have been completely unknown on the East Coast. Often, the Electric Circus didn't even mention the names of their bands in their weekly ads in the Village Voice, so it may seem like a strange choice for the Dead to have played there. After all, the premier rock venue on the East Coast was only a few blocks away from 23 St. Marks Place--why didn't the Grateful Dead play the newly-opened Fillmore East, nearby at 105 2nd Avenue (at 6th Street)?

Touring rock bands generally book their shows 60 to 90 days in advance. Bill Graham had opened the Fillmore East on March 8, 1968. Back in early '68, the Grateful Dead and the other San Francisco rock bands were running the Carousel Ballroom, and they were one of Bill Graham's principal competitors back in San Francisco. The Dead would have booked their Eastern tour in February or March, and they weren't very likely to get a call from Bill Graham at the time. But there weren't a lot of good rock gigs in Manhattan in 1968, either, so the Dead found themselves playing two shows a night for three evenings at the Electric Circus.

The Grateful Dead debuted at the Fillmore East shortly after the Electric Circus shows, on June 14-15, 1968. By that time, the Dead's enterprise at the Carousel was doomed, and Bill Graham was on the verge of taking over the lease, soon to rename it the Fillmore West. Granted, the Dead's June Fillmore East shows would have to have been billed before the Carousel collapsed, but by April or May the writing would have been on the wall for the Carousel. In any case, with Summer coming on, even if the Carousel might have survived--some thought it would--Bill Graham and the Grateful Dead needed each other on the East Coast. Thus the legend of the Grateful Dead at Fillmore East has rightly been remembered as the Dead playing at their Eastern Division "Home Court," but the result has been that the Electric Circus was written out of the Dead's history. As Graham and the Dead became the only permanent institutions from San Francisco's 60s, both sides seemed to have preferred to forget the time they wouldn't play nice.

Francine Azzaria (Frankie Weir)
One lasting impact of the Electric Circus shows was having Francine "Frankie" Azzaria get on the bus with the band. Frankie ended up moving in with Bob Weir in the 70s, taking his last name, and she was very much a part of the family. She worked in the Dead's Travel Agency in the early 70s, and she also sang in the obscure band James And The Mercedes, who opened for Kingfish a few times around 1975. McNally describes her arrival into the band's orbit:
Frankie [Azzaria] was the woman Weir had in mind when singing "Sugar Magnolia"...Funny, bawdy, a high-energy dancer, Frankie had been a finalist on American Bandstand and worked at the Peppermint Lounge in New York, then on the TV shows Hullabaloo and Shindig. Following her first Grateful Dead show in 1968, she ended the night at a jam with Mickey. Afterward, she and Mickey walked around Washington Square. and Hart persuaded her to run away with the Grateful Dead. They had not kissed, or even touched. She went home to bed, and was awakened the next morning by Ram Rod, Jackson and Hagen, who were there to pick and give her a ride in the truck to the next show, in Virginia..."[they said] 'Hey look lady, you're either coming or you're not'...I got into the truck and we drove away." (McNally p.359)
The last show of the Eastern tour was in Virginia Beach on May 11, so Frankie's meeting with Mickey Hart clearly was at the Electric Circus. Wherever the jam was that Mickey attended, Washington Square was over in the West Village (at 5th Avenue), so all the geography fits. Of course, Frankie left with Hart, yet she ended up with Weir, but then, it was the 60s.
A publicity photo from The Electric Circus
The Electric Circus--What Was It?
Given the paucity of detail for what should I have been a high profile memory, I have attempted to reconstruct a little of the history of the Electric Circus, in an effort to consider what the event must have been like. My principal source for the first rock incarnations of 23 St. Marks Place owe a lot to Richie Unterberger's excellent White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day (2009: Jawbone Press). My principal source for information about The Electric Circus itself is the indispensable blog for New York 60s venues, It's All The Streets You Crossed.

April 1-30, 1966, The Dom, New York, NY: The Exploding Plastic Inevitable with The Velvet Underground
The Dom had been a Polish hall, and "Dom" means "home" in Polish, so the building was known as The Dom. The Dom had a long history, which I won't go into here. In early 1966, however, the first floor ballroom in The Dom was rented by Andy Warhol's crew, for a unique sort of "environment" called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The event included an elaborate light show, performance art and music by an unknown band called The Velvet Underground. Although The Exploding Plastic Inevitable grew out of the same cultural firmament that had created The Trips Festival, in many ways it was quite the opposite, edgy and self-conscious where The Trips Festival and The Fillmore were relaxed and liberating.

In any case, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable took New York by storm. The Velvet Underground, themselves a unique and fascinating group, became the new underground Greenwich Village rock sensation, long before they had even recorded. After the April engagement, the EPI performance, with the Velvet Underground, went on to tour various places, most famously with The Mothers Of Invention. The West Coast was not really ready for them (although the "feud" between Lou Reed and Frank Zappa was probably invented for the press), and the tour was not a success. By the time The Velvet Underground had returned to New York, however, expecting to return to The Dom, they found that Warhol had lost control of the building.

An ad from the March 30, 1967 Village Voice, for what appears to be the last shows at The Balloon Farm
The Balloon Farm
According to Richie Unterberger, 23 St. Marks Place had been taken over by Bob Dylan's manager Albert Grossman. The always-shrewd Grossman, no doubt having noticed how well the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were doing at the Fillmore, seems to have looked to start his own venue. Apparently, the Balloon Farm was at the same address as The Dom, but on the second floor rather than the first. "The Dom" remained as the name of the restaurant on the first floor.

While various nascent psychedelic bands played The Balloon Farm, the Velvets actually played every weekend between September 16 and October 16, 1966, further confirming their legendary status in Greenwich Village. The Balloon Farm never really caught on, and it ground to a halt by April 1, 1967. Nonetheless, the East Village was clearly still where the action was, just as it had been during the Folk Boom, because it was so accessible by subway and rail from both the city and the surrounding suburbs.

An ad for the opening of the Electric Circus, from the June 29, 1967 Village Voice
The Electric Circus
Sometime in the Spring of 1967, the lease on 23 St. Marks Place was transferred to Jerry Brandt, a former William Morris agent turned impresario. Brandt attempted to merge the innovations of Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable with the Trips Festival inspirations of the Fillmore. It was completely over the top, of course, but that is New York's stock in trade. San Francisco was very hip in the middle of 1967, so there was a definite nod to the city at the beginning. For the first several weeks of the Electric Circus, refugees from the Bay Area's Renaissance Faires juggled and promenaded for the souped-up masses.

The Electric Circus was mainly a nightclub, open 7 nights a week. There were bands every night, but mostly a house band played for at least a week, and possibly weeks, at a time. The Circus had taken over both the 1st and 2nd floor ballrooms of 23 St. Marks, so it encompassed both prior incarnations, as The Dom had been on the 1st floor, and The Balloon Farm on the 2nd. Still, there were periodically name bands, such as Sly And The Family Stone, who played the club on the weekend of August 29-31, 1967.

Nonetheless, initially at least, The Electric Circus was a popular nightclub in New York. I discovered an obscure but fascinating book, self-published in 1988, called Crying Out Loud. Author Sean Hutchinson had been the bass player in a late 60s band called Far Cry, who released one album on Vanguard Apostolic Records in 1969.  Among the many fascinating insights into the fringes of the late 60s rock industry are some vivid descriptions of Far Cry's stint as the house band at the Electric Circus. He sets the scene:
Midway down St. Mark's Place [E. 8th St],  against a backdrop of leather shops, boutiques, head stores and other psychedelic squalor stood the Electric Circus, which was the site of Far Cry's new nightly job. Outside, faded flower children went to seed against the dirty pavement. Inside, in a black, womblike, chamber, the big beat pounded out, wrapped in a multi-media, strobelit, amplified frenzy.
On hot summer nights the Electric Circus would thunder until the wee hours, hosting a thousand hyperactive teenagers from the Bronx or New Jersey. They, it seemed, could dance for hours, tireless in the swelter of drugs and heat (p.140).

Are these teenagers from the Bronx or New Jersey? Given the bright light of the room, I suspect that this photo was somewhat staged for the cameras
Far Cry played The Electric Circus for much of the Summer of '69. Hutchinson:
On weekends, the place was like the stockyards. By early evening the street outside would be teeming with a waiting throng, all dressed in suitable hippie attire. Boots and bell bottom jeans with army surplus jackets proved to be a popular mode at that time--one that was suitable, with variations, for both male and female. Few women wore skirts or dresses those days; functionality was in, while femininity, with all its sexist connotations, was out.
At nine pm, The Electric Circus would open, and from then on until closing some five hours later the room would be filled to the bursting point. Packed in shoulder to shoulder, the crowd continued to boogie despite the congestion, wriggling in the semi-darkness with sweaty and determined fervor. At the back of the cavernous hall was a sort of grotto, walls upholstered with small upholstered cells, and while they were hardly comfortable, these spots were just the place to catch one's breath, grope with one's partner, or simply swallow a few pep pills before rejoining the fray.
All night long the din was incessant, live music instantly supplanted by recorded offerings; to the band members it appeared that the crowd did not bother to distinguish between the two. Four shows a night was hard work, but such was the musician's crucible, and we hammered our hardest with every set.
By two A.M. the revels would be ended in exhaustion. The band would play a final barrage while the audience stumbled out, shell shocked with ears ringing...The Electric Circus was silent at last. The "Ultimate Legal Entertainment Experience" was over for another evening (pp.140-141).

Inside at the Electric Circus

Far Cry wasn't that great a band, but they played wild, free-form type music: a reviewer suggests "imagine Blood Sweat & Tears locked in a closet with Captain Beefheart and John Cipollina." So primal 1968 Grateful Dead, with a raging "Alligator>Caution" jam, would probably have fit right in with the Electric Circus. Back in '68, some places weren't ready for the Grateful Dead, their feedback, extended jamming and their careening sense of musical danger. Greenwich Village was ready, however, since musical madness seemed to be on the menu every weekend regardless of who was booked.

One commenter on the Archive does seem to have seen the Dead at The Electric Circus, and he had an amusing memory
Of note--footnote--to historians: The Electric Circus had an unofficial policy of letting people in free if they were barefoot. Sort of a hip statement. We found a spot under a stoop where we would hide ours--until one night after a Hendrix show they were gone. Well worth the loss of a cheap pair of sneakers, however.
A recent online article had some interesting memories from musicians who played the Electric Circus. The most interesting comment comes from avant-garde composer Morton Subotnick
Don Buchla designed the whole sound system. The sub-woofers were huge, they were actually attached to the floor so you could feel the vibration of the sub-woofer. And of course people were moving, so once everybody moved together with that, it was pretty impressive.
Don Buchla was a legendary California synthesizer pioneer, intimately connected to Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Buchla, for example, built the sound system for the Prankster's famous bus. I wonder if the Dead hitched up their sound system to Buchla's PA? You'd have to think Phil Lesh would have enjoyed playing through giant sub-woofers located in the floor, and the crowd would surely have felt every Phil-bomb.

It may be that many of the people attending had little idea who was actually playing, nor did they actually care. In any case, The Electric Circus rarely booked name bands, and with the Fillmore East just a few blocks away, there was no way the Dead were going to play there again. New York is fashionable, and things happen fast, but they end fast too. The Electric Circus had a pretty good run, but it faded away around 1971. Jerry Brandt had sold the club around 1969--I'm not sure to who--and went on to manage a singer named Jobriath (google him yourself), and then opened a club called The Erotic Circus, which I think became Plato's Retreat, another legendary club well outside the subject matter of this blog.

The Afterlife Of The Electric Circus
The Electric Circus had its moment, and then New York moved on. Nobody thought about it much for the next few decades. I only thought about it when I tried to figure it out as a rock venue, which turns out to have been only a slight part of its legacy. Yet one characteristic of New York is that it is full of writers and artists who lend their talents to enshrining the city they know in their own imaginations. 

Lacking a tape of the Grateful Dead's 1968 Electric Circus shows, we can only imagine what their performances might have been like. But we have some help, something to play a soundtrack over. The Electric Circus seems to have been memorialized on screen at least twice. In the 1968 Clint Eastwood movie Coogan's Bluff, where a rural Arizona detective has to recapture a fugitive in New York, Eastwood looks for a suspect's girlfriend in a hip New York nightclub.  The film's Pigeon Toed Orange Peel Club was shot at The Electric Circus. See for yourself on YouTube (by the way, the white guy called "Omega" is supposedly future New Rider bassist Skip Battin).

For a more modern version, in Season 6 of Mad Men, some characters go the Electric Circus.

Although it's hard to be certain about filmed recreations, it does suggest that even if the Dead played well at The Electric Circus, it may not have mattered that much to the patrons. Of course, that may very well suggest that the band was free to play whatever they wanted, and the music may have been really special, even if no one was in a state to remember it. 

After 1971, 23 St. Mark's Place was too small to be a rock concert venue. Supposedly the building was relatively intact, if somewhat run down, until about 2002, when it was substantially remodeled. It looks nice today, although it is just a typical condo/apartment development, with retail and restaurants on the ground floor. There's no hint of the Velvet Underground, The Grateful Dead and thousands of teenagers from around the Tri-City area, rocking it out until the early morning hours.
23 St Marks Place, New York, NY, the former site of The Electric Circus, in May 2013