Thursday, February 16, 2012

San Jose Civic Auditorium, 135 W. San Carlos Street, San Jose, CA: 1965-72

The San Jose Civic Auditorium, at 135 W. San Carlos Street, as it appeared in July 2011
The San Jose Civic Auditorium, at 135 W. San Carlos Street in the center of downtown San Jose, was not in and of itself a critically important venue in the history of the Grateful Dead. It was an important Bay Area venue, however, and seeing how the history of the band intersected with the venue gives an interesting perspective on the evolving status of the band. This post is a piece of site prosopography, focusing on snapshots of the different times that the San Jose Civic has played a role in the history of the Grateful Dead.

The San Jose Civic Auditorium
The San Jose Civic Auditorium was a Spanish Mission style structure built in 1934. It had a capacity of about 3000, and as such it was the biggest indoor venue in the South Bay for many years, throughout the 1960s and into the 70s. The Civic is located at West San Carlos Street and Market Street. Market Street is where San Jose street numbers shift from 'West' to 'East,' thus confounding decades of visitors. Numerous important civic buildings have always been located nearby; current neighbors include the Tech Museum and the McEnery Convention Center.

San Jose has always been a relatively large city in Northern California, but for many decades it paled in comparison to San Francisco, 60 miles to the North. San Jose was mainly a farm town, and although it was the major city in Santa Clara County, the pride of place in the county was always held by Palo Alto, home of Stanford University, just 18 miles nearer to San Francisco. Palo Alto and the other suburbs looked North to San Francisco, while San Jose seemed to be just a friendly, bland country cousin. From the 1950s onward, the orchards and farms in San Jose were slowly converted to suburbs, factories and offices, and San Jose grew in population and economic status, but no one really noticed until the late 1970s and the rise of Silicon Valley. There was a little bit of a funky bohemian folk scene around San Jose State College, and Jerry Garcia and others played a little coffee shop near there called The Off Stage, but all the cool people went to Palo Alto, if not San Francisco. 

December 4, 1965
On Saturday, December 4, 1965, the Rolling Stones were headlining the San Jose Civic Auditorium. At the time, the Rolling Stones' popularity was only eclipsed by The Beatles. While the Beatles were already too big to even play the San Jose Civic, no other groups were sized out of San Jose. Perhaps the Dave Clark Five was as big as the Stones, but no one save the Beatles were bigger. The Stones had numerous catchy hits on the radio, but they had a rocking dark side, too, and by AM standards, an edge that set them apart from the family friendly Beatles. To American radio listeners, the Stones were definitely celebrating black music, white guys playing music from the wrong side of the town, and the fact that they were successful suggested that other aspiring white rock musicians could do the same.

In November of 1965, The Merry Pranksters had gotten the idea that their Acid Tests should be open to the public, instead of just their friends. The problem was finding the right sort of adventurous people, willing to stay up all night and listen to weird music while ascending to a higher plane. This was all perfectly legal, of course, but there was no good reason to invite the police, so a normally advertised event was out of the question. The Pranksters' image of themselves encouraged them to be cryptical rather than direct. The Prankster logic was as follows: cool people liked the Rolling Stones, so the cool people not already known to the Pranksters would be found at the Rolling Stones concert at San Jose Civic.

The Rolling Stones concert at the San Jose Civic was the next-to-last show of the band's 3rd American tour, which had begun in October. On Friday, December 3 the Stones had played two shows at the Sacramento Civic Auditorium, and on Sunday (December 5) they would end their tour with a show at the relatively giant Sports Arena in Los Angeles. For Saturday night, however, the Stones were playing two shows at the San Jose Civic. I don't know what songs they played; shows weren't reviewed in those days, and the idea of someone taping the show was unfathomable. There were certainly a bunch of opening acts, although again I don't know who. Probably a few lucky local garage bands were on the bill, because they would work cheap. The Stones almost certainly played no longer than a half-an-hour for both the early and late shows. Their equipment would have been minimal by modern standards, and to modern ears the show would have sounded tinny and weak. No matter--the Stones were the coolest of the cool.

After the late show, which probably ended well before midnight, exiting fans found some scruffy looking people handing out flyers that said "Can You Pass The Acid Test?" The Acid Test was held at a private house, a rambling old Edwardian near downtown. The flyers included the address of the house, but no explanation of what was actually being promoted. Whether people took the flyer from a scruffy stranger, or saw it tacked up on a tree, only a few of them took up the offer. Nonetheless, those that found their way to the house found themselves flying on a plane they didn't even know they had boarded.

June 21, 1968
For most of the latter 60s, the hip venue in Santa Clara County was the Continental Ballroom, at 1600 Martin Street in Santa Clara. Although the Continental was used by different promoters, and had a complex yet vague history, it was definitely the psychedelic destination of choice in the South Bay. San Jose and Santa Clara County actually had a thriving 60s rock scene, featuring great groups like the Chocolate Watch Band, but most of them never broke out nationally like the San Francisco bands. Just about all of the San Francisco bands played the Continental on various occasions, which was a 1000-1500 capacity room similar in size to the Fillmore (South Bay 80s New Wavers may recall the Continental in its incarnation as One Step Beyond). The Grateful Dead played the Continental Ballroom a number of times, but in the 60s the San Jose Civic was simply too big for them.

On Friday, June 21, 1968, James C. Pagni promoted a concert at the San Jose Civic featuring the Grateful Dead and The Mothers Of Invention. By 60s standards, the Dead and the Mothers had pretty different audiences. Both of them could headline the Fillmore, but neither group yet had the heft for a crowd of 3000 at the Civic. Clearly, the plan was that fans of both groups would come to the concert, and that would be enough to make the concert profitable. It was not to be. Due to lagging ticket sales, the concert was canceled. The Grateful Dead (as well as the Mothers) were already infamous legends, but they were not yet a big concert draw, even less than half an hour from their historic birthplace.

July 1, 1972
By 1972, the Grateful Dead already had three hit albums under their belt, and were a popular concert attraction nationwide. The 60s San Jose rock scene had died out, however, subsumed under San Francisco, and the Continental Ballroom was no longer an active venue. As a result, there were few major rock concerts in San Jose or anywhere in the South Bay. However, Jerry Garcia had started his own informal group with Merl Saunders and John Kahn. Mostly the aggregation played a few nightclubs in San Francisco and Berkeley, but with no viable South Bay nightclubs, they played the occasional concert date in Santa Clara County.

The Garcia/Saunders Santa Clara County debut had been at a 'jazz' concert at Frost Amphitheater in Stanford, on October 3, 1971. This is not as inappropriate as it may sound today. Garcia/Saunders played more instrumentals than vocals in those days, and the vocal numbers were bluesy covers, so they could legitimately be considered a jazz group, an important issue for allowing them to be booked at Stanford at the time. The second big concert for the Garcia/Saunders group was at the San Jose Civic Auditorium on July 1, 1972.

A lot had changed since 1968. Now, a group featuring Jerry Garcia, without any kind of record, and not even sharing the bill with a co-headliner, could appear at the San Jose Civic. We do know of one eyewitness to the show, but I don't know how well the show sold, or who the promoter might have been. I do know that there were few if any rock shows at the Civic during this period, and so this seems to have been a new venture. Our eyewitness does recall a two-set show and Tom Fogerty on rhythm guitar.

Whether by accident or design, the July 1, 1972 show was also the first time that a Jerry Garcia band was used to field test a venue for the Grateful Dead. Since the Grateful Dead would play the venue seven weeks later, the crew must have learned a few lessons from having played a show there. At the very least, Garcia and any crew members must have determined that it was a musically acceptable venue for the band.

A closer view of the entrance to the San Jose Civic Auditorium (July 2011)
August 20, 1972
On Sunday, August 20, 1972, the Grateful Dead finally headlined at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. Less than seven years earlier, they had been part of a guerrilla group of subversives passing out flyers after a concert there; now they were the attraction itself. Although San Jose's population ensured that they bought a fair share of tickets to Bay Area concerts, major attractions rarely played the South Bay in the early 70s. Yet here were the Dead, headlining at the San Jose Civic, the city''s largest indoor venue.

Although the show must have been booked well in advance, the advertising strategy was not typical. The Grateful Dead's big San Francisco booking for the Summer of 1972 was at the Berkeley Community Theater. The Dead were booked for four shows in August, Monday thru Friday (excepting Wednesday), from August 21 through August 25. I dimly recall that three shows were advertised first, and the Monday show was advertised last, but I am no longer certain. In any case, I distinctly recall that the Berkeley shows were advertised in the Chronicle and sold out (or close to it) before the San Jose show was announced.

I don't recall any newspaper advertisements for the San Jose Civic show, although it's possible. I do recall that the show was heavily advertised on AM radio, a sign that the Dead had crossed over somewhat. At the time, relatively few people had FM radios in their car, so even the hippest listeners (amongst whom 14 year old me desperately wanted to be) often listened to KFRC, KYA or KLIV because there were no other choices. I clearly recall with amazement hearing ads for the San Jose Civic Grateful Dead show in my parents' car, probably on the San Jose station, KLIV (1590). I am pretty certain that the show was advertised as a "Festival Seating" show, but I can no longer be certain (for reserved seat shows, the San Jose Civic just used folding chairs, so there was no configuration problem).

Up until 1972, I don't believe the Grateful Dead had played more than two shows in a row at Winterland, which would have theoretically equaled 10,800 tickets (although probably more in practice). Four shows in Berkeley would have equaled 14,000 tickets, and Bill Graham Presents may not have been certain of the Dead's drawing power yet. The Berkeley shows sold out very quickly, however, and Graham and the Dead never looked back when it came to booking multiple shows for the Dead in the Bay Area.

However, I don't know how the San Jose Grateful Dead show did financially. We have a fun tape, so we know the band played well. As it happened, the band's little odyssey with the San Jose Civic ended in August of 1972. The city of San Jose and Santa Clara County in general became more and more important to the Bay Area concert market, but the San Jose Civic itself became too small and too old, and the Grateful Dead never played there again.

Aftermath: South Bay
The South Bay became a more important rock market as the concert industry expanded and Santa Clara County became more affluent. First, Stanford University grudgingly started to allow rock concerts, either at the Maples Pavilion basketball arena or at Frost Amphitheater (capacity 6900). The Dead played a famous show at Maples on February 9, 1973, and ultimately played a decade of memorable shows at Frost from 1982-89. The Keystone Palo Alto had opened in 1977 (taking over a place called Sophie's), so the Jerry Garcia Band and other major club attractions had a place to play. Finally, when the Grateful Dead had simply sized out of any Stanford venues, Bill Graham Presents opened the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, between San Jose and Palo Alto. Shoreline became the Grateful Dead's final home court.

Aftermath: San Jose
The San Jose Civic Auditorium was a charming but aging venue. In 1975, the city opened the San Jose Center For Performing Arts just around the corner. The modern, seated arena was the home for the San Jose Symphony and also hosted may rock concerts. The Grateful Dead nor any of its spinoffs ever played there, as the 3000 seat venue was already too small. The San Jose Civic was still used, but mostly for concerts that had schedule conflicts with SJCPA or were simply deemed too 'rowdy' for the tony Perfoming Arts Center. Events at the Civic were intermittent. I personally saw the great Welsh rock group Man at the Civic in August, 1976, opening for Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow (who gave the worst rock performance I have ever seen) and in the mid-80s, I also saw Ted Nugent there (who may have given the second worst rock performance).

The Grateful Dead's last performance in San Jose proper was at Spartan Stadium on April 22, 1979. This was Brent Mydland's debut with the Dead, and a subject worthy of a post of its own. Spartan Stadium is the relatively modest football facility for San Jose State, a few miles from the Civic. Its football capacity at the time was around 18,000. I am on record elsewhere as saying that the Dead played terribly that day, but that too is another topic.

The San Jose Civic Auditorium had been the city and county's premier venue since its construction in 1934 until the early 70s. The Grateful Dead, born in the same county, had gone from supplicants hanging around outside to the headline act. When Santa Clara County moved past the San Jose Civic Auditorium, the Dead were moving right along with it, and the building is an afterthought in their history. Nonetheless, a recent visit confirms that the newly refurbished San Jose Civic Auditorium is a glorious building from times gone by, a charming WPA Palace amidst a high tech wonderland.


  1. It may be worth adding as a footnote that the Dead also played at San Jose State College in 1969 - the New Riders paved the way on Oct 17, and the Dead followed on Oct 31, playing the Halloween Dance at the tiny Student Union ballroom, as noted in your tour itinerary.

    It's telling that (other than the Santa Clara Fairgrounds show on May 18 1968) this little show was the Dead's only appearance in that area from 68 to 72, unless I missed someplace.

    I found one eyewitness description of the Rolling Stones show on December 4 1965:
    It doesn't mention what the opening bands were, but there were two shows at 7 and 9:30, and the Stones played about 12 songs - probably a half-hour or less! (The Beatles also did 12-song sets.)

  2. Thanks for this. 1600 martin is now a bingo hall. I've played there a few times and it's funny to think of it as a music venue with a bunch of kids having a good time, as apposed to the tense and surprisingly competitive world of bingo that it's now become.

    San Jose hasn't change that much. It's always going to be the sleepy inbred cousin of SF.

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  4. saw Jerry Band at the san jose Event center in the early 90s.i was at the 79 spartan show .also the stones played san jose civic twice in 65 ,once in early may that same year then again dec 4

  5. The Dead played a three-show run at Winterland Oct 24-26, 1969, of course. The 25th was my first.