Thursday, October 4, 2012

March 23, 1975: Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, CA: The SNACK Concert with Jerry Garcia And Friends (FM VIII)

The Grateful Dead had officially retired from performing after their five-night stand at Winterland in October, 1974, so it was quite a surprise when they appeared in concert and on the radio at Kezar Stadium on March 23, 1975. The band played entirely unheard new material, joined by guest keyboardists Merl Saunders and Ned Lagin, suggesting that rumors that they had not in fact broken up were actually true. The day's performance was actually billed as "Jerry Garcia And Friends," but it was generally perceived as a Grateful Dead show, and indeed, as most of it was released as a Grateful Dead bonus disc some time ago, it's fair to call it a Grateful Dead performance. However, the events and circumstances surrounding the event, including the radio broadcast, seem to have largely been overlooked. This post will consider the performance and broadcast of the Jerry Garcia And Friends set within the context of the SNACK Benefit concert on March 23, 1975, at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park.

SF SNACK: San Francisco Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks
In early 1975, the San Francisco school district announced that due to an unexpected budget shortfall, programs for the 1975/76 school year would have to be drastically cut throughout the city. The School Board released a plan that pretty much cut all arts and sports in every school. In today's environment, where Public School Teacher's unions are demonized in order to lower taxes for billionaires, it may seem strange that there was public outrage at this turn of events, but such a world existed then. Amidst all the outrage, Bill Graham decided to organize a benefit concert to provide funds to help the San Francisco Public Schools to provide extracurricular activities for its students. Hence the name: SF SNACK--San Francisco Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks.

Bill Graham, ahead of his time as always, grasped that large rock concerts were a dramatic instrument for calling attention to problems, and a dramatic instrument that was not only self-funding but could in turn raise meaningful amounts of money. He also recognized that the management of major bands in the area would benefit professionally from the publicity and exposure, and would for their part work for little more than expenses. In that sense, SNACK was very much the forerunner of international fundraisers like Live/Aid and Farm-Aid.

As it happened, while there was an intense glare of publicity about the School District's plight, magnified by the publicity for the concert, the benefit was conceived and directed by Bill Graham, rather than with the direct cooperation of the city or the district. The School District did not appreciate being made to look like chumps--which they pretty much did--and more rational voices pointed out that the six-figure sum that would likely be raised by SNACK was just a fraction of the several million dollars that the schools would have needed. There was some distinct grumbling that the benefit concert was really a publicity grab by Graham and the bands, who were using the crisis as a promotional tool.

In the end, shortly before the SNACK concert took place, the San Francisco School District announced that they did not, in fact, have a budget shortfall. There had essentially been an accounting error, and the projected funds available for the forthcoming year had thus been off by several million dollars. There was no crisis; arts and sports would not be cut. Thus the raison d'etre for the SNACK concert was neutralized about a week before the show. The city was probably pretty relieved, and if I recall the School District pretty much washed their hands of SNACK, at least according to the San Francisco Chronicle. It was too late to turn back, however, so the show went on as scheduled. By that time, it was just a rock promotion, albeit a very successful one. The proceeds of the concert, apparently about $200,000, were apparently donated to unnamed charities. Thus, on Sunday, March 23, 1975, some of the Bay Area's biggest working rock acts--plus a few out-of-town friends--gathered to play at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

The poster for the canceled Wild West Festival at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park, scheduled for August 22-24, 1969. The Grateful Dead were booked for Friday, August 22
Kezar Stadium, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Kezar Stadium had been built in Golden Gate Park in 1925. The stadium is located on the Eastern edge of the Park, on Stanyan and Frederick, a short walk from the Haight Ashbury district. In the 1920s, the area around Golden Gate Park was less populated, so building a stadium there was the equivalent of building one today on the outskirts of town. The stadium had a capacity of 59,000, so it was San Francisco's primary venue for events. All sorts of major sports attractions were held there in the 1930s and 40s.

The principal attraction at Kezar was football. High School and college football championships were held there from the 1920s onward, and Kezar was the home park for various local colleges, back when they all had football. The most famous tenant of Kezar, however, was the San Francisco 49ers, who used Kezar as their home field from 1946 through 1970. After the 49ers moved to Candlestick Park in 1971, many old time San Franciscans sniffily refused to attend 49ers games, at least until Joe Montana showed up. However, Kezar was an old-style stadium, with wooden benches, few amenities and an increasingly terrible parking situation, so it was no longer viable as a major sports venue.

There were a few efforts to turn Kezar Stadium into a rock concert venue. The stadium had been used for a few political rallies and the like, which sometimes included music (Yellow Shark has a great precis of Country Joe And The Fish's contribution to a Kezar Rally on April 15, 1967), but the increasingly crowded neighborhoods surrounding the park offered nothing in the way of parking, and there were no nearby garages, either. In August, 1969, San Francisco nearly had its own Woodstock, the Wild West Festival, based at Kezar Stadium, but that poorly organized affair fell apart at the last second.

In 1973, Bill Graham Presents started presenting rock concerts at Kezar, correctly anticipating that rock music had grown beyond the confines of even the largest indoor arenas. The first such event, dubbed "A Day On The Green," was held at Kezar Stadium on May 26, 1973, and featured the Grateful Dead, Waylon Jennings and The New Riders of The Purple Sage. The show was well attended, but not sold out, and the atmosphere around the neighborhood was nice. In 1973, Kezar was still Home Field territory for the Grateful Dead.

Seven days later, Bill Graham Presents held the second and seemingly last rock concert at Kezar, with headliners Led Zeppelin (and among the opening acts was unsigned local band The Tubes, featuring Vince Welnick on keyboards). The June 2, 1973 show was packed to the rafters, and the sound system was pointed differently than it had been for the Dead, so the sound was audible all over the area, much to the dismay of the neighborhood. The sound issue was used by the city to pass an ordnance that effectively prevented any future rock concerts at Kezar. I suspect also that the sold out show caused a parking nightmare, and that amped up Led Zeppelin fans were less appealing to the locals than mellow Deadheads. Thus there was a permanent injunction against any future shows at Kezar.

I have written at some length about how Graham moved his Day On The Green shows to the larger and more accessible Oakland Coliseum Stadium, an arrangement that continued successfully throughout the balance of the century. When Graham proposed the SNACK concert, however, he needed a San Francisco site, so he persuaded the powers-that-be to make an exception to the rule and allow the concert to be held at Kezar. Graham was great at working the press, so the Mayor and the City Council had little choice, but the neighborhood would have been very much against the event, and it had to have been a tricky political situation. Once it turned out that the entire basis for SNACK was an accounting error, no political good will would be coming back to the City, so the chances of there ever being another major rock event at Kezar approached zero. SNACK was the last rock event at Kezar Stadium.

The Billing
The poster lists both the rock acts and the various celebrities that would be at the show. This too prefigures the Live/Aid concert, which, if you will recall, had a heavy Graham presence. Graham's basic idea was that between each set, some sort of luminary would come out and praise the need for arts or athletics in the schools.

The Celebrities:
Frankie Albert, John Brodie, Rosie Casals, Werner Erhard, Cedric Hardman, Willie Mays, Jesse Owens, Gene Washington, the Rev. A. Cecil Williams
Most of the celebrities were San Francisco athletes, with an emphasis on 49ers who had played at Kezar (Frankie Albert, John Brodie, Cedric Hardman, Gene Washington). Willie Mays was, of course, Willie Mays, and the recently-retired star of the San Francisco Giants. The Giants had never played in Kezar (they had played in Seals Stadium, over on 16th and Potrero, in 1958-59), but he was a San Francisco icon (according to, Mays got the biggest cheer of the day). Jesse Owens was a worldwide icon, but somehow Graham had persuaded him to appear, no doubt because Owens career was owed to sports programs in the public schools (in his case, in Ohio).

Rosie Casals (b. 1948) was a women's tennis champion who had learned to play on public courts in San Francisco. The Reverend Cecil Williams was the pastor of Glide Memorial Church in the City, and a well known person who lent credibility to anything he was associated with. As for that other name, Werner Erhard? The founder of Erhard Seminar Training (est)? Let's just say as little as possible.

There were also a few unbilled guests between sets as well. As I recall, the most famous of these was none other than Marlon Brando, who came out and made some remarks prior to Neil Young's set. Brando was perhaps the biggest active movie star in the world at the time, so in that sense it was a real coup by Graham to have him onstage. I do not know what, if any connection Brando had to San Francisco, Bill Graham or any of the causes, so I don't know how Graham persuaded Brando to appear--I will allow you to insert your own favorite variation on the obvious joke here.

The Music:
Doobie Brothers/Graham Central Station/Mimi Farina/Jefferson Starship/Jerry Garcia And Friends/ The Miracles/Joan Baez/Santana/Tower of Power/Neil Young
All of the billed performers had a significant Bay Area connection save for The Miracles. In the context of the benefit, it was important that acts with a largely African-American fan base, namely Graham Central Station, Tower Of Power and The Miracles, were a part of the SNACK show. If only white hippie rock acts had played the show, it would have struck a wrong note with the rather diverse San Francisco school district. In the perception of the time, I think Santana would have "counted" for a Hispanic act. 

Whether teenage African Americans and Hispanics were really listening to The Miracles and Santana is unknown to me, and beside the point. Since Graham had arranged the concert to support the school district, he had to have a diverse bill. At the time, Tower Of Power was perceived as a "soul" act in the Bay Area--a sort of code word for "appealing to non-white people"--even though the band had come up through the rock circuit and had many white members. With Tower, Graham Central Station, a popular R&B band that was led by ex-Sly And The Family Stone bassist Larry Graham, and Motown act The Miracles (who no longer featured Smokey Robinson) the R&B side of the equation was spoken for.

Joan Baez and her sister Mimi Farina were usually billed at major Bay Area benefits, and, similar to Rev. Cecil Williams, they lent an air of social credibility that was separate from their then-waning status as folk stars. At the time, Baez's best days seemed long behind her. Of course, just a month later, she would release her album Diamonds And Rust, which put her back on the charts, but no one knew that at the time. Neil Young, meanwhile, had moved to a ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains a few years prior, which was generally known, but SNACK was the first time he had appeared at one of these "only-in-San-Francisco" benefits that Bill Graham had made into part of rock history. It is worth noting that Neil Young's own legendary Bridge Concerts are to some extent built on the SNACK model pioneered by Graham, even if Neil has played so many gigs by now that he has probably sort of forgotten it himself. 

SNACK: Sunday, March 23, 1975
The SNACK Concert was heavily publicized in the days leading up to the concert. Much of the publicity, however, had to do with the politics surrounding the school board, leading up to the announcement that the entire crisis was simply a result of an accounting error. Bill Graham was regularly quoted, directly and indirectly, that all sorts of special guests were scheduled to appear. It was uncertain at the time whether those guests would be musicians or just 'celebrities.' There was no mention of the Grateful Dead playing. Everybody, including myself, assumed that 'Jerry Garcia And Friends' would be Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders.

As for me, I was a lowly High School student in the suburbs, lacking a car. My access to concerts depended on persuading friends with vehicles, or my cousin, to take me to something. In fact, I was pretty persuasive, so persuasive in fact that I went to concerts at Winterland both on the Friday before and the Sunday after the SNACK concert, but that obviated any chance of making a pitch to my friends for SNACK. Overall, however, I was not bothered, other than the general thing that I wanted to go to every single concert in the Bay Area regardless of who was playing. The only acts on the SNACK bill who appealed to me were Garcia and Neil Young. I correctly figured out that both would only have been playing about 45 minutes at most, and I didn't have a big Jones to deal with a stadium concert just to see short sets by Garcia/Saunders and a probably solo Neil. Well,--summing up High School in a nutshell--I was smart, but I was wrong.

In the Winter of 1975, there was almost no coverage of Jerry Garcia or the Grateful Dead. SF Chronicle rock critic Joel Selvin had a weekly column called "The Lively Arts" in the Sunday paper, and he sometimes mentioned the Dead, but it was a passing thing, just a sentence or two. Selvin had mentioned that the Dead were recording, but I for one wasn't convinced. Rolling Stone reported annually that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were recording a new album, and I still hadn't seen one. I didn't doubt Selvin's assertion that the Dead were doing something, but I had just assumed that it would be a long time, if ever, that we would ever see the Dead in concert again. Up until SNACK, there had never been a show billed as Jerry Garcia And Friends, so everyone made the logical assumption that this was just another name for Garcia/Saunders, perhaps with an extra guest of some kind. 

Shortly before the SNACK concert, it was announced that the show would be broadcast live on KIOI-fm (known as K101 for its place on the dial). KIOI was a sort of commercial rock station, well down the hipness scale from the mighty KSAN. This seemed appropriate, as most of the acts were pretty 'popular,' a somewhat loaded term in those days. I had a vague idea that I would tune into the radio broadcast some time during the day, to see what was up (this was before I had a tape deck, so that wasn't a factor). The SNACK show started at about 9:00am, very early for a rock show. I got up late in those days, so I was sitting around drinking coffee at about noon when a friend called (thank you Paul A) and said "the Grateful Dead are on the radio, you should probably turn it on."

I rapidly turned on my little FM radio, moving the dial from 94.9 to 101.1, and heard the distinct sound of the Grateful Dead playing some very strange music. They played nothing I remotely recognized, nor anything that sounded like any previous Dead recording. I even had a vinyl bootleg or two by that time, and the music on K101 didn't sound anything like them, either. But I could hear Garcia's guitar, and I knew it was them. As I had predicted, the band only played about 40 minutes, but only the encore of "Johnny B. Goode" was familiar--the rest was completely strange.

What Were The Grateful Dead Thinking?

The Grateful Dead's appearance on the SNACK FM radio broadcast, in retrospect, stands as one of the most bizarre and in turn brilliant steps by the group. Of course, the band's choices were probably driven by no forethought whatsoever. Graham seems to have used his legendary persuasive powers to get the band to appear, and their compromise seems to have been that they had to billed as Jerry Garcia And Friends, rather than as the Dead. Since the show sold out anyway, the billing didn't matter, and Graham got to take credit for "getting the Dead back together," which wasn't really true, but it was how it seemed at the time. 

Knowing what we know now, it's plain the Dead were busy recording Blues For Allah, and played the material since it was all they really knew. Of course, they could have done "Not Fade Away">"Goin Down The Road" without effort or rehearsal, but one advantage to having billed themselves as Jerry Garcia and Friends was that there were no expectations and no obligations to play traditional crowd pleasers. In another sense, by appearing unexpectedly in concert and playing strange, challenging new music, the Grateful Dead not only confirmed the story that they had been playing together, but in distinct contrast to the likes of CSNY, showed that they had really been doing something while they were away. 

Of course, the Dead's appearance couldn't have happened if the Dead had not been independent of any record company. It would be incomprehensible to a record company like Warners or Columbia that one of their bands would appear on an FM broadcast at a major regional concert without using their own name--RCA, for example, would have flipped out if Jefferson Starship had been billed as "Paul Kantner And Friends." What would be the point of playing a largely unpaid gig otherwise?  As for the music itself, well, no record company would have really wanted the Dead to be working on "Blues For Allah" when they were hoping for the next "Uncle John's Band." 

Still, the idea that a major band would play parts of an unfinished album live on the radio would have made a 1975 record company apoplectic. Clinton Heylin's fascinating book Bootleg looks at the history of the vinyl bootleg industry, and record companies were frantically concerned with artist's new material being made available outside of official channels. Of course, the actual dollars and cents involved were miniscule, but the record companies were very alert to the threat of disintermediation, and managed to throttle the bootleg industry until the rise of Napster in the early 20th century. Rule #1, according to the record companies own agendas, was never to let anything new out before it could receive the full corporate marketing treatment, with accompanying profits.

The Grateful Dead defied all these rules by performing an instrumental version of "Blues For Allah" at SNACK. Of course, the lack of vocals and the strangeness of the material insured that it was not ripe fodder for bootleggers--I'm not aware of a vinyl boot of the broadcast, in any case. In a larger sense, the Dead's strange choice of material indicated to their fans that they were not only recording, they were still busily carving a unique path that no one expected. After the SNACK show and broadcast, strange as it was, Deadheads knew that the Grateful Dead were still in the game, even if the rules of that game were not yet known. When Jerry Garcia And Friends headlined a Winterland concert on June 17, 1975, everybody knew what it meant: it was just a matter of time.

The SNACK Concert

The SNACK Concert sold out, so obviously a lot of people attended the show, probably somewhere in the range of 50,000. However, I have never spoken to anyone who went. SNACK was a sort of "rock event," but not particularly a Grateful Dead event, since almost no one really knew the Dead would play. Reading the comments about the show on, it seems that many who attended were local high school kids, seeing bands that were probably generally popular. A number of people have commented there that SNACK was their first Dead show. Correspondingly, there are not many photos from the show, nor audience tapes, ticket stubs and the usual memorabilia. In that respect, SNACK only became important to Grateful Dead history after the fact. 

The rest of the SNACK concert and broadcast was pretty conventional, save for the very last act. After the Dead played, I listened to the broadcast all afternoon. DJs were hinting at a big event to end the show. When Marlon Brando said a few words just before Neil Young's set, I assumed that was it. Nonetheless, while I had assumed that Neil Young would play solo or with Crazy Horse, I was profoundly mistaken. I was pretty excited when Bill Graham announced that Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Levon Helm were playing with Neil Young, because I was a huge fan of The Band. However, after announcing Danko, a hoarse Graham said "on guitar, piano and vocals, Mr. Bob Dylan" I went nuts in my very own bedroom, along with the entire crowd at Kezar.

Bob Dylan's appearance with Neil Young at SNACK was Dylan's first appearance on a live FM radio broadcast, and one of the very few he would do in his career. At the time, it was electrifying. Of course, the set was brief and very strange. After songs by Neil Young, Levon Helm and Rick Danko, Bob stepped up for his very first ever live performance of "I Want You." However, Bob's vocal mic failed, and his voice was only faintly audible only through (I assume) the drum mics. It was very frustrating. A friend of mine had a scar on his knee for years, from where he kicked his kitchen table when he realized what was happening.

The informal band played another round of songs by Neil, and Rick and Levon (sharing vocals on "The Weight"), and eventually they played "Knocking On Heaven's Door." Dylan, mysteriously, changed the lyrics to something like "Knocking On The Dragon's Door," among other incomprehensible vocals. Finally, the ensemble ended the 40-minute set by doing "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," with lead vocals by Dylan and Danko. The electric presence of Bob Dylan, then a true figure of mystery and delight, overwhelmed all coverage of SNACK. Dylan had appeared several hours after the Grateful Dead, so the possible implications of the Grateful Dead's return to performing were only remarked upon as an afterthought in ensuing coverage.

SNACK: Aftermath

  • There was never another concert in Kezar Stadium. The old stadium was torn down in 1989, replaced by a modern facility that was one-sixth the size.
  • 1975 was the year that turned San Francisco against events in Golden Gate Park. After SNACK, there was a stealthy free concert by Jefferson Starship (May 16 '75) and a less stealthy one by the Dead (Sep 28 '75), but after that year the neighborhood  and the City were dead set against any Dead sets. Bill Graham's death, ironically, broke the logjam.
  • There was a bad feeling about SNACK, because it was based on an accounting error. It was only many years later that fans and journalists started to appreciate the scope of the event. It didn't hurt that the Grateful Dead, Neil Young and Marlon Brando had only become bigger than ever in the ensuing decades.
  • SNACK was Bill Graham's blueprint for Live/Aid, Farm-Aid and the 1989 Earthquake Benefit, which in turn were the blueprints for Neil Young's Bridge Concerts at Shoreline Amphitheater. Modern technology and a greater appreciation for the promotional value of appearing in benefit concerts made all of those events more effective than SNACK, but SNACK was the first of its breed.
  • The Grateful Dead completed and released Blues For Allah later in 1975. No other major rock band ever played such strange, unrecorded music on a regional FM broadcast, but it did the band no lasting harm.
Appendix: Set Details, SF SNACK Concert, Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, CA March 23, 1975
Jerry Garcia And Friends
Jerry Garcia-lead guitar
Bob Weir-guitar, vocals
Merl Saunders-organ
Ned Lagin-electric piano
Keith Godchaux-piano
Phil Lesh-bass
Bill Kreutzmann-drums
Mickey Hart-drums
Donna Godchaux-vocals
Blues For Allah>
  Stronger Than Dirt>
  Stronger Than Dirt>
  Blues For Allah
Johnny B. Goode

The entire set was broadcast on KIOI-fm (101.1), and later released as a bonus disc that was only available as a premium for those who pre-ordered the Beyond Description box. David Crosby had rehearsed with the Dead, and was supposed to perform with them, but was called away at the last minute for a personal emergency. Bill Graham announced each player by name and instrument, although he inadvertently overlooked Ned Lagin, and then said "The Grateful Dead And Their Friends." Graham apologized to Lagin afterwards for skipping him.

Neil Young
Neil Young-guitar, piano, harmonica, vocals
Bob Dylan-guitar, piano, harmonica, vocals 
Tim Drummond-guitar
Ben Keith-pedal steel guitar
Garth Hudson-organ, piano
Rick Danko-bass, vocals
Levon Helm-drums
Are You Ready For The Country?  [lead vocal-Neil]
Ain't That A Lot Of Love [Levon]
Looking For A Love [Neil]
Lovin' You (Has Made My Life Sweeter Than Ever) [Rick]
I Want You [Bob]
The Weight [Levon and Rick]
Helpless> [Neil]
  Knockin' On Heaven's Door [Bob]
Will The Circle Be Unbroken [Bob and Rick]

K101 djs make various comments throughout the tapes. Old time Bay Area residents may be amused to realize that one of them was James Gabbert, later famous as the owner and host of KOFY-TV (Channel 20). The Neil Young set can be heard at Wolfgang's Vault.