Thursday, June 6, 2013

February 1973, unnamed bar, Stinson Beach, CA: Old And In The Way

One of my principal research enterprises has been tracking down lost dates and venues for the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia and other members of the band. Most of the time, the references are scattered and contradictory, and any recollections by band members range from vague to unavailable. This one is a little different, however, since it is based on a single data point. It is a very convincing data point, in that it was an interview with John Kahn about the founding of the bluegrass band Old And In The Way. By the very nature of the comment, however, it is very difficult to confirm.

In Blair Jackson's definitive 1999 analytical biography, Garcia: An American Life, he quotes Kahn on the founding of Old And In The Way:
"Old And In The Way was basically David Grisman's trip," John Kahn recalled. "There was no fiddle player in the group at first. It was me, Peter Rowan, Grisman and Jerry. We'd get together and play at Jerry's house in Stinson Beach, or my house in Forest Knolls, and then we started playing some real gigs informally, like at the bar in Stinson Beach. It was this tiny place and the audience was louder than the band. It was all these big hippies dancing with these big hiking boots and the big flaps bouncing up and down. They'd start clapping and you couldn't hear us at all. Even we couldn't hear us (p.240, emphasis added).
So it seems that for all my research into the roots of Old And In The Way, I missed the fact that they initially played some apparently casual performances at a bar in the tiny West Marin town of Stinson Beach.

David Grisman added a similar thought
"You know Jerry-if he thinks something is worth doing, he'll just take it out there right away, which is good," Grisman said. "He said, 'Let's play some gigs,' and he had the gigs lined up! We started playing in clubs and then he booked a tour. It was a real informal thing."
I have already discussed the timeline of the formation of Old And In The Way, and its relation to the group known now as "Muleskinner." I have even wrestled with the peculiar, murky subject of fiddler John Hartford's participation in Old And In The Way, itself very hard to define (I think Hartford played on the unreleased studio album, but never performed live with the band). For this post, I am going to go back to what I missed the first time: Old And In The Way's quiet debut at an unnamed bar in Stinson Beach.

The Formation Of Old And In The Way
I have an entire post on the lengthy backstory of how Peter Rowan and David Grisman came to be staying in Stinson Beach in 1972, just down the hill from Jerry Garcia, Mountain Girl and their little family. Although the Dead were busy touring in '72, Garcia found time to pick and hang out with Rowan and Grisman. Their bluegrass prowess rekindled Garcia's interest in playing the banjo. I don't think it was a coincidence that Garcia's renewed focus on the banjo came just after he completely dropped the pedal steel guitar. Since bluegrass has a traditional repertoire, it was easy for the little trio to play together, since they all knew the same material.

Garcia had nearly lost his other band in the Spring of 1972, when John Kahn and Merl Saunders had joined the Butterfield Blues Band. Fortunately for Garcia, financial issues soured Kahn and Saunders on Butterfield's group, and they returned to San Francisco, so Garcia could return to regular club shows with them. When the Grateful Dead weren't playing, the Garcia-Saunders group played numerous gigs throughout early 1973. I have to assume that much of the formation of Old And In The Way took place in January of 1973, as the Grateful Dead were not touring, and Garcia/Saunders just played local clubs. I assume that Garcia played with Rowan and Grisman during the day that January, before going out to club gigs with Merl Saunders in the evening. Of course, it's worth noting that Garcia would have spent at least some of his time in January 1973 rehearsing brand new material with the Grateful Dead, so he seems to have been particularly busy.

When Old And In The Way needed a bass player, Garcia asked Kahn to join the group. Although Kahn had never played bluegrass, I know from an old musical friend of Kahn's (drummer Bob Jones) that Kahn had always liked bluegrass and been interested in it. From Garcia's point of view, he would have been looking to include rather than exclude Kahn from any extracurricular activity, if only to insure that no one else poached his bass player. As for Grisman and Rowan, Kahn was a nice guy and a fine player, and if a condition of having Garcia in the band was that he brought his bass player, that was probably fair enough.

Stinson Beach, CA
Stinson Beach is in West Marin. From an aerial view of a Google Map, it seems not so far from the suburban Marin of San Rafael or even San Francisco. In fact, West Marin is separated from San Rafael and the other suburbs by a mountain range, and the only route to San Francisco is the twisty, windy and slow Highway 1. Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Stinson Beach was only accessible by boat, except for a difficult mountain trail. By the 1920s there were a few roads, and the area became a sort of resort. For the most part, however, Stinson Beach was just a tiny community where the principal industry was dairy farming.

By the 1960s, West Marin wasn't as isolated as it had been, thanks to the automobile and improved roads. However, the Western part of the county was mostly agricultural and kind of empty. Stinson Beach--named after its most prominent landowner back in the 1920s--had a presence as a local resort area, the kind of place where San Franciscans might rent a cabin and take a weekend. Although Western Marin and Sonoma have wildly beautiful coastlines and beaches, most normal people find the beaches to be strkingly windy and cold. Thus Stinson Beach was only really attractive to Northern Californians (and of course surfers) who thought that a cold, windy beach was a desirable vacation destination.

Californians are generally tolerant of newcomers, since there are are so few natives. Western Marin did not seem to object to an influx of hippie types in the late 1960s, since those hippies mostly wanted the same quiet, semi-rural life as the locals. Many San Franciscans had second homes in the area, and as long as they were detached and friendly, they fit in fine with the existing population. Western Marin was San Francisco's little secret--why share it? The residents of the town of Bolinas, not far from Stinson Beach, were famous for stealing all the road signs on Highway 1 that pointed to Bolinas, thus discouraging any casual tourists. This insularity was typical of Western Marin.

When Jerry Garcia and Mountain Girl moved to Stinson Beach in 1971, they weren't atypical of a lot of West Marin newcomers. Garcia had made a little money, but not that much--he had only made his first solo album for the $20,000 advance that allowed him to buy the house for Mountain Girl. Garcia didn't really commute in the normal sense of the word. The only useful way out of Stinson Beach was  South on forbidding Highway 1 to Highway 101. There you could turn right to the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, or left to San Rafael and North, and thence to Keystone Berkeley to the East. When Garcia was not on tour, which wasn't that often , he didn't have to roll out of bed at the crack of dawn and fight the fog, so his drive--in a Volvo Sportwagon, from what I know--was probably fairly pleasant.

All of the California Coast from San Luis Obispo to the Columbia River in Oregon feature a ragged cliff that drops steeply to the beach. Thus beach towns in Northern California tend to be somewhat isolated. Highway 1 runs North and South along the California coast. It is the only through road in Stinson Beach. I do not know Garcia's exact address (nor would I publish it if I did), but I know he lived on a little hill above town, a very typical arrangement in California coastal towns. Typically, there is a beach, and above it a road along the cliff above the beach--often Highway 1 itself, as at Stinson--and then some houses rising behind a matrix of little streets above the coastal road.

Garcia and Mounatin Girl lived above Stinson Beach in a house that had a sign that said "Sans Souci" outside (French for "Without Care"). Chris and Lorin Rowan and their producer David Grisman had a house lower down, nearer to Highway 1. Older brother Peter Rowan took to hanging out with his old friend and his younger brothers. Stinson Beach is a tiny place, and even if Garcia was on the road alot, there is no way they couldn't run into each other, and so they did. Bluegrass followed.

The story seemed to be that Garcia, Grisman and Rowan enjoyed playing bluegrass when the opportunity struck. Given Garcia's schedule, that can't have been too often. Grisman's remark suggests that the band fell together rather quickly as an actual band, and Garcia pulled the trigger on playing actual gigs very quickly. Here is a brief timeline of Garcia's availability for some stealth gigs in Stinson Beach:
  • Fall '72: Garcia, Grisman and Rowan play bluegrass in Stinson Beach when the opportunity arises
  • December '72-January 73: The Grateful Dead and Garcia play gigs only in California. Although Garcia gigs at night with the Dead and Garcia/Saunders, Kahn is invited to join, and the bluegrass quartet can practice during the day. 
  • January 12-February 6: Garcia/Saunders plays 15 nights during this stretch (out of 26 days).
  • February 9: The Grateful Dead play Maples Pavilion at Stanford
  • February 15-28: The Grateful Dead tour the Midwest
  • March 2: Old And In The Way make their public debut on KSAN in the afternoon, and then at the Lion's Share in San Anselmo that night.
Combining Kahn and Grisman's remarks points pretty clearly towards early February. The quartet probably started rehearsing in earnest at the end of January, and played a few times at a local bar in Stinson Beach in early February. When Garcia agreed to start playing, his manager Richard Loren--who was also good friends and former partners with Grisman--would have had two weeks to book shows at the Lion's Share, Homer's Warehouse and Keystone Berkeley in early March, before the Grateful Dead would go back out on tour.

If I am correct about the timeline, then the few weeks between gigs at the Stinson Beach bar and the first announced show at the Lion's Share was when they thought up the name. A local bluegrass quartet playing the bar in their town doesn't need a name. A band playing a club does. So the group must have settled on naming themselves after Grisman's song of the same name, probably on the spur of the moment. They could just as well have been the Midnight Moonlighters--not a terrible name, actually--but they surely never reflected on it.

Bars In Stinson Beach
Stinson Beach was and is the sort of town where no one would make a fuss about a local celebrity in their midst. There weren't many businesses in Stinson Beach, so while I don't think Garcia went to the grocery store much,  people still must have bumped into Jerry buying gas or cigarettes back in the day. Garcia was a San Francisco celebrity, as his picture had been published in the Chronicle often enough, and he was very distinctive, so people must have known. Yet the locals must have enjoyed ignoring him, and I'm sure Garcia liked it, too.

Kahn's phrase "at the bar in Stinson Beach" is telling as well. Back then, and possibly still, Stinson Beach was the type of town where you could say to a friend "I'll see you tonight at the bar," and the friend wouldn't ask "which bar?" In a tiny beach town, there aren't that many place to go, and the hippies all surely went to the same one. Also, use permits often stay in effect for decades, so though establishments may change their name, they may remain a bar and restaurant for a long time. Thus, it's not impossible that "the bar in Stinson Beach" where Old And In The Way debuted is still there. Without further information, I can't know where they played. However, to give you the flavor of Stinson Beach, I have identified two plausible places, one of them still open.

A poster for the New Tweedy Brothers booking at the bar Farallon East, at 3785 Highway 1 in Stinson Beach, on the weekend of September 9-11, 1966
Farallon East, 3785 Highway 1
The New Tweedy Brothers were a band from Oregon who temporarily relocated to the Bay Area in 1966. An otherwise obscure poster was immortalized in Paul Grushkin's book The Art Of Rock, featuring a gig the Tweedys played at a joint in Stinson Beach. A leading historical site tells us
Skip Lacaze recalls "Farallon East had for many years been the "Surf Club," a bar and restaurant with a sort of dinner club feel at one end (red banquettes and dim lighting), a family-style dining room at the other end, and a main room with a long bar, a shuffleboard table, and a dance floor. The owner, Friday, tended the bar all day in the 50s and early 60s. It was used to house a military unit during WWII (Coast Guard or Navy) and was supposed to be haunted by an enlisted man murdered by a mess boy with a butcher knife. It was also called the Red Whale for a while - after it was Farallon East, I think. I vaguely remember that there was some friction with some of the locals after rumours circulated that the Red Whale was owned by gays or was seeking a gay audience." 
The restaurant was eventually demolished and the new office for the Stinson Beach County Water District was built on the site. Their address is 3785 Shoreline Highway, so the restaurant probably used 3785 Highway 1. There was no mail delivery in town, so some people were sloppy with street addresses. Note that "The Farallons" are uninhabited islands 25 miles off the Marin coast.

The Sand Dollar, 3458 Shoreline Highway (Highway 1)
The Sand Dollar has a colorful history in its own right, and it's still there:
The Sand Dollar Restuarant was built in 1921 in Tiburon as three barges. The Barges were floated into Stinson Beach and fused together to form the historic restaurant you can come visit today.
Temptingly, the site mentions "Bluegrass on Sundays, so perhaps there is a tradition.

In any case, whether it was one of these two bars or some other tiny dive, there must have been a bar where the hippies hung out. They all probably recognized Garcia, and Rowan and Grisman too, for that matter. They'd probably seen them around town. But local musicians had probably always played the local bar, so in one way it was no different. Just like their fellows in Bolinas, however, the last thing the locals wanted to do was to let a newspaper or Rolling Stone know that Jerry Garcia sometimes played bluegrass at the bar. Then you'd have pushy hipsters from San Francisco or who-knows-where, and who wanted that? So no one seems to have mentioned it.

But I think it happened. I take Kahn at his word. They played a few times at "the bar" in Stinson Beach for the local hippies, and then became a "real band." I think enough of the tiny crowd must have known who Jerry Garcia was, and knew what they were hearing. They just haven't said anything about it. West Marin is a kind of paradise, if you're ok with wind, so a lot of people never leave. I think some of the people who saw Old And In The Way are still in Stinson Beach, just a little older and greyer. They are probably hanging out at the Starbucks now, rather than the bar, and their doctor insists they have to have skinny decaf frappucinos, but they are still there.

If we went to the Stinson Beach Starbucks and asked the old hippies if they ever saw Jerry Garcia play in a bluegrass band in a bar in Stinson Beach, most of them would say, "I wish" or just "no." But I think some of them did, and they just aren't talking about it.