Thursday, January 21, 2010

August 20, 1969 El Roach, Ballard, WA (updated)

Earlier I had written two posts about the Grateful Dead's performance at the Aqua Theatre in Seattle, WA on August 21 , 1969. The Aqua Theatre was scheduled for August 20 and rained out, and the three acts on the bill, The Grateful Dead, The New Riders of The Purple Sage and San Paku, all performed the next night. During the August 21 show, the Dead were joined by a flute player, which most sources have generally listed as Charles Lloyd. Much as I love Charles Lloyd, I have always found his presence in Seattle in 1969 unlikely. I posited that the guest flute player might have been a member of the opening group San Paku.

Fortunately, the former road manager of San Paku saw the post and helped resolve the mystery. Apparently, San Paku reed man Gary Larkey was indeed the guest flautist with the Grateful Dead. More importantly, Larkey recalls the name of the Seattle club where the Dead made a guest appearance: Larkey recalled it as The Roach, but following Ross's insightful research in the Comments, I am assuming it was an apparently notorious establishment called El Roach, in Ballard, a suburb just Northwest of Seattle. The exact address was 5419 Ballard Avenue NW, between 24th NW and 25th NW Avenue (not precisely McNally's "15th Street," but not far off). The tavern was a regular music venue just 2.8 miles from the site of the Aqua Theatre, so it seems like a perfect fit.

Anyone from Seattle who can weigh in with more information about El Roach are eagerly welcomed in the Comments.

I am looking forward to more memories from the Grateful Dead's surprise guest appearance in Seattle, but this seemed interesting enough to post immediately.

update: intrepid fellow scholar Jesse (@Bourgwick) found a contemporary ad for El Roach in The Helix, Seatlle's underground paper.
A contemporary ad for El Roach, from The Helix, Seattle's underground paper (thanks Jesse). I wonder if the New Loiter Blues Band recalls getting bumped?

5419 Ballard Avenue, Seattle, WA Today
Intrepid reader and photojournalist Ron was gracious enough to go the outdoor clothing outlet called Kavu that now occupies the former site of El Roach and photograph the site. He also pointed out that the town of Ballard was merged into Seattle proper in1907, so Seattle is more like a District than an actual municipality.  Here are Ron's great photos--granted, there has been some upgrading of the facility from a dive bar to a clothing store, but note the size of the place. Imagine the 1969 Grateful Dead (and the New Riders and Sanpaku) jammed onto a tiny stage in the back, blowing the house down...
This is a front view.

Here is a rear view. Ron observed that the rear of a building always undergoes fewer changes than the front, and this is probably pretty close to how 5419 Ballard Avenue looked in 1969.

This photo is from the inside of Kavu, and appears to be from the front of the site looking backwards. The stage was presumably against the huge windows, which I suspect were not there at the time. Any old Ballardites who recall anything (anything at all) are encouraged to weigh in on the Comments.

Update: Here is an additional photo, from the front on the opposite side

Thanks to Ron for taking these photos (on January 29, 2010). In the strangest of places if you look at it right...


  1. I will take a shot at the Roach possibly being the "El Roach" at 5419 Ballard Avenue NW - which is in Ballard - a suburb of Seattle.

  2. Ballard used to be a separate town but it was incorporated into Seattle in ca. 1910.

  3. I live in Ballard, which is just northwest of Seattle proper. It was incorporated into Seattle in 1907, and 5419 Ballard Ave NW is now an outdoor clothing outlet called Kavu World. I'll have to stop by and try and visualize the Grateful Dead playing in the corner of what was then a gritty logger's and fisherman's dive bar...

  4. Rd, any chance you could take a photo of the site currently, so I could publish it on the blog? You could email me through the blog.

    Thanks so much for your comments about Ballard and Kingfish.


  5. Apparently, El Roach was a biker bar, in a scary part of town where cab drivers never went at night.

  6. The relieving arches over the back door and small window look to be original to the building which would mean the door and window placements are also original. I'm not sure about the one over the larger window from this picture. I'd need a better photo.

  7. Sorry, I don't need a better picture. The brickwork around the larger window is original - there are no half bricks; the window was framed in alternating headers and stretches. It was quite likely the freight entrance for the building. Now how that worked for the placement of a stage is anybody's guess.

  8. And I should have said it may well have always been a window.

  9. Paul, your analysis is great! I've got one more photo, but its just a front view from the opposite side (from the right side rather than the left). I'll ad it if you think it would tell you more.

    Thanks, Corry

  10. I have posted the last of Ron's photos, a front view from the other side.

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  12. I played in the house band at the El Roach in the summer of '70 or '71 (can't remember). Hummingbird was the band with Jim Dugal (singer), Hans Ibsen (lead guitar), myself Jim Tucker (rhythm guitar) along with a drummer and bass (forgot their names). Chris owned the bar.

    The El Roach was Hippie / biker bar (The 3rd Rail and another biker group) and was a very crazy place. Oh, god, the things that happened in the basement...............

    Canned Heat, the Dead came to jam after Eagles concerts and it was the summer of paraquat, sprayed on weed by the gov.
    Smoking in the alley out back, puked from the bandstand all the way into the bathroom.

    When the big groups came to jam we gladly gave them our instruments and sat back for an incredible experience.

    Don't have any pictures from that time but Fred Ziegler (a poet I met at Seattle Comm. College came with some friends and shot a bunch. Any one know how to access his archive (deceased) them maybe there's a record.

    Would love to hear from others from then
    but seems most are dead.

  13. Dear god , not Fred Zieler but Fred Zeidac (sp)

  14. Jim, thanks for adding these great memories. You don't recall hanging out with a band called Sanpaku, who were touring with the Dead in 69 when they went to El Roach? They were my source for this.

  15. Did Danny O'Keefe ever play there?

  16. Did Danny O'Keefe ever play there?

  17. Ballard is northwest of Seattle, not southwest

  18. I was 19 when I met the owner of the El Roach
    Before I knew it I was checking ID at the door and pouring Logay flips. The Floating Bridge is the band I remember most.

    1. You must have been busy pouring whenever I entered as my non-existent ID was never checked. I liked "The Floating Bridge". Also saw them at The Walrus and The Library after I turned 21.

  19. You might try checking with the University of Washington Special Collections and Archives. They have a vast photo collection going back to the 1800's. It's possible they may have neighborhood photos collections. Perhaps they have Ballard, showing El Roach back in the day. I know they have neighborhood collections like one for the International District. I helped digitize part of it as a student. Just a thought. Good luck.