Friday, November 26, 2021

September 6, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead (What Do We Know?) [FDGH IV]


This cryptical listing in the underground paper San Francisco Good Times, from Thursday, September 5, 1969, was the only published hint that the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane would play the Family Dog on The Great Highway during the weekend. It was probably announced on FM radio

On Saturday, September 6, 1969 the Family Dog had what must have been its biggest show in its history. We know it was good, too, because we have the tapes. It was very likely packed. The Jefferson Airplane, one of the biggest drawing acts in rock music at the time, played the Great Highway, supported by no less than their old pals the Grateful Dead. Yet there was only the faintest hint of pre-show publicity, and not a word about it afterwards. If the Airplane and the Dead had played an unscheduled show at the Fillmore West, you can bet that Bill Graham would have made sure everyone heard about it, so every rock fan knew that the Fillmore was Where It Was At. The Family Dog let this event slip by without a trace--if Owsley Stanley had not taped both acts, we would never have any idea that the show had even happened.

After a packed opening night with the Jefferson Airplane, back on June 13, the Family Dog had since found itself in difficult financial straits. The venue itself was very appealing. The bands that had played the Family Dog each weekend, by and large, had been really good bands. The groups weren't quite as high profile as the Fillmore West, and Bill Graham always got the first bite of any band on tour. But the quality of music at the Dog was high. The location, far from the center of the city and not near an easy freeway exit, made the venue difficult to find for suburban teens. In the era before MapQuest, simple directions made a big difference. The problem seems to have been that not enough Bay Area rock fans had made it a habit to check out who might be playing at the Family Dog, and consider it as an option. For rock fans, checking to see who was at Fillmore West was automatic, whether or not you ended up going.  But the Family Dog hadn't yet gotten into the minds of Bay Area rock concert fans.

August 1969 had a run of really good bands at the Family Dog, including the Dead on two separate weekends (August 2-3 and 28-30), Country Joe and The Fish (August 8-10), Mike Bloomfield (August 15-16) and a slew of bands on the Wild West "makeup" shows (August 22-24). If there was any time that rock fans were noticing the Dog, it would have been this month. In retrospect, however, we can see August 1969 as a high water mark for the Family Dog. Come September, things would fall apart for the balance of the year. Probably no week in the Family Dog's 14-month history sums up its contrarian history so well as the first week of September. 

Let's review the week of September 1-7, 1969 at the Family Dog on The Great Highway.

The Family Dog on The Great Highway, at 660 Great Highway, ca. 1969

The Family Dog on The Great Highway, 660 Great Highway, San Francisco, CA
The Family Dog was a foundation stone in the rise of San Francisco rock, and it was in operation in various forms from Fall 1965 through the Summer of 1970. For sound historical reasons, most of the focus on the Family Dog has been on the original 4-person collective who organized the first San Francisco Dance Concerts in late 1965, and on their successor Chet Helms. Helms took over the Family Dog in early 1966, and after a brief partnership with Bill Graham at the Fillmore, promoted memorable concerts at the Avalon Ballroom from Spring 1966 through December 1968. The posters, music and foggy memories of the Avalon are what made the Family Dog a legendary 60s rock icon.

In the Summer of 1969, however, with San Francisco as one of the fulcrums of the rock music explosion, Chet Helms opened another venue. The Family Dog on The Great Highway, at 660 Great Highway, on the Western edge of San Francisco, was only open for 14 months and was not a success. Yet numerous interesting bands played there, and remarkable events took place, and they are only documented in a scattered form.


One of the only photos of the interior of the Family Dog on The Great Highway (from a Stephen Gaskin "Monday Night Class" ca. October 1969)

The Family Dog On The Great Highway
The Great Highway was a four-lane road that ran along the Western edge of San Francisco, right next to Ocean Beach. Downtown San Francisco faced the Bay, but beyond Golden Gate Park was the Pacific Ocean. The aptly named Ocean Beach is dramatic and beautiful, but it is mostly windy and foggy. Much of the West Coast of San Francisco is not even a beach, but rocky cliffs. There are no roads in San Francisco West of the Great Highway, so "660 Great Highway" was ample for directions (for reference, it is near the intersection of Balboa Street and 48th Avenue). The tag-line "Edge Of The Western World" was not an exaggeration, at least in American terms.

The Family Dog on The Great Highway was smaller than the Bill Graham's old Fillmore Auditorium. It could hold up to 1500, but the official capacity was probably closer to 1000. Unlike the comparatively centrally located Fillmore West, the FDGH was far from downtown, far from the Peninsula suburbs, and not particularly easy to get to from the freeway. For East Bay or Marin residents, the Great Highway was a formidable trip. The little ballroom was very appealing, but if you didn't live way out in the Avenues, you had to drive. As a result, FDGH didn't get a huge number of casual drop-ins, and that didn't help its fortunes. Most of the locals referred to the venue as "Playland."

The Grateful Dead were one of the few bands to consistently draw an audience to the Great Highway. While the Dead were not yet the irresistible attraction they would become in future decades, they had their own audience. The Dead's Bay Area audience--not yet even called Dead Heads--would make an effort to see them wherever they were. In contrast to most other bands, the more the Dead played the more fans wanted to see them, so there wasn't a concern about oversaturating their market with too many gigs. The distance and difficulty of getting to the Great Highway was not an impossible barrier, and the Dead shows seem to have drawn pretty well.

The Dead had played the weekend of August 2-3, and then returned on the weekend of August 29-30. On Thursday, August 28, the Dead had played an unannounced show that included a jam set with members of the Dead and Howard Wales. We only know of that show because Owsley taped it. Presumably it was mentioned on the radio on the day of the show, but if not for Owsley, the event would have slipped entirely under history's radar. The Dead would return the next weekend, sharing the room with the Jefferson Airplane. Save for Owsley, there seems to be no markers of this event. Rock venues, like all entertainment venues, depend as much on their reputation as a happening place as much as the events themselves. The Family Dog somehow failed to capitalize on their own underground cool.

The August 28 ad for the Family Dog on The Great Highway, promoting the Grateful Dead on the weekend of August 29-30, also included coming attractions for the week

September 1, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Monday Night class

Like any venue, the Family Dog was willing to rent the hall out during the week when there wasn't a booking. Bill Graham did the same at Fillmore West. Besides clearing a little cash, and providing workdays for a few staff members, these sort of events could remind patrons that the Family Dog was a happening concern, worth checking out. The Family Dog had an additional goal, which was making itself into a community nexus, rather than being exclusively a venue for high-profile rock bands. Yet the Dog was seemingly unable to convert their community efforts into enticing a paying audience on weekends.

Stephen Gaskin was a popular literature instructor at San Francisco State, whose campus was not too far down the road (at 19th Avenue and Holloway). Gaskin spoke about what we would now be called "Human Consciousness" or "Self-Help," but at the time he was called a "Hip Guru." I am no expert in this area, but I will say that Gaskin was neither a con artist nor interested in turning a profit, rare for those sort. His "Monday Night" class had been running since at least July. I don't know whether it was every Monday night or just some, but it was popular (the interior picture of the Dog, just above, is from one of his Monday night events). Admission was free, and Gaskin just lectured, although I think they took donations. 

You would think that Chet Helms would have found a way to entice San Francisco State students that were interested in Self-Actualization on Labor Day Monday to consider checking out rock shows on the weekend. On this weekend, however, the upcoming show was a secret, so the crowd would not have seen a poster at the door encouraging them to check out the weekend rock show. An opportunity lost.

September 2, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Theatre of The Absurd Costume Ball (Tuesday)
Other than the listing (above) on the Family Dog flyer, I have no idea about this event. It does seem clear that various theater and dance groups took advantage of the Family Dog space for various events, but I don't have any sense that the Dog was able to capitalize on it in any way.

September 3, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Latin Night (Wednesday)
There had been a substantial Latin Jazz scene in San Francisco in the 1950s and '60s. Indeed, San Mateo's Cal Tjader had been an essential founder in the genre. Once Broadway in North Beach went topless, however, Latin Jazz went into decline in the city. Still, there was an existing scene, probably focused on "older" (although still under 40) fans. I doubt there would have been much synergy between the Latin Jazz crowd and the weekend psychedelic Dog shows, although renting out the venue for a night was still a good thing for the bottom line.

An ad from the Thursday, September 4 SF Examiner promotes the Carnival Ball and coronation of "Playland Girl '69"

September 4, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Carnival Coronation Ball for Miss Playland 1969 w/Devil's Kitchen/Flying Circus (Thursday)
Playland-At-The-Beach was an amusement park, if an out-of-date one, and the Sunset District in those days was basically a suburb. So it's no surprise to find out that Playland apparently had an annual Beauty Pageant. It had probably run throughout the Summer. It is a telling irony that I am able to discern far more information about a weeknight local Beauty Pageant at Playland than any of the rock concerts by bands who remain popular decades after they were performing.

Devil's Kitchen were a band from Carbondale, IL, that had relocated to the Bay Area and became a sort of "house band" at the Family Dog. Brett Champlin (a distant cousin of Bill) played keyboards and sang, Robbie Stokes played guitar, Bob Laughton was on bass and Steve Sweigart was on drums. They played bluesy rock and roll. According to Brett Champlin, Devil's Kitchen were just another dance band at this show, providing music after the pageant was complete. The Metropolitan Sound Company was a soul band from Oakland, playing original soul music with a Hendrix touch, and the bands probably would have alternated. While the ticket rather enticingly says "Dress Optional," I take that to mean that guests were not obligated to dress formally, rather than at all. 

Based on the Examiner ad (above), it seems that Metropolitan Sound Co was replaced by the Mill Valley band Flying Circus. Flying Circus had existed since 1966, albeit with many personnel changes, and currently featured lead guitarist Bob McFee. He was the brother of Clover lead guitarist John McFee (many years later in the Doobie Brothers and Southern Pacific), and the two bands shared equipment and a rehearsal hall. As far as I can tell, Flying Circus played the kind of funky country rock typical of future Marin County bands. Brett Champlin only vaguely recalled the event, since he still had the complimentary ticket, so it was probably just another night for a working band. 

The SF Chronicle of Friday, September 6, 1969 reported Judith Vacek's election as Miss Playland '69

Given the paucity of information about rock shows at the Family Dog, it's notable that not only was there an ad in the Examiner for the Coronation Ball, we even know who won. The Friday SF Chronicle reported:
Judith Vacek shoots a good game of pool, measures a classic 36-26-36 and is "Playland Girl '69."
The 20-year old Tiburon girl was officially crowned as the Queen Of Playland At The Beach Thursday. The contest was conducted all summer and decided by popular vote of the public.
Miss Vacek, who aspires to be an airline stewardess, received a 1970 Ford Maverick that went along with her new title.

So, Judith Vacek won a Ford Maverick, was a babe, and shot a good game of pool. Wherever she is today, I hope that the Maverick served her well, that she had a nice life, and that she kept her pool game sharp. Yet the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead played the Family Dog over the weekend, and we only know about Judith. 

Let's set our modern hats aside and think about the Miss Playland Coronation Ball from 1969. It was some sort of "election." Apparently the different contestants invited their family and friends to submit votes and then come and cheer and vote for them. Now, let's be real here--what was rock and roll about in 1969 (and probably every other year)? Did all of the Miss Playland contestants get free tickets to the Family Dog? If not, why not? If you were a teenage boy rock and roller in 1969--long haired or not--and knew that beauty pageant contestants might be showing up at the venue on Friday night, wouldn't you be there? More importantly, wouldn't the venue want to shout to the newspapers that all the contestants (and their sisters!) were given free tickets all weekend? Now, maybe they did get free tickets--Judith Vacek could have driven her friends in her new Maverick--but the whole point would have been to publicize it. Yet somehow the Family Dog missed this equation.

September 5, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Malachi/Rubber Duck (mime) and a jam with members of 3 groups we're not allowed to name
We only have the faintest hint of what might have happened on Friday night. The San Francisco Good Times had a cryptical ad (above). Malachi was a sort of moody guitarist, and Rubber Duck was a mime (Joe McCord) working with a rock band playing improvised music. But that wasn't the appealing part (well, unless you thought Beauty Pageant contestants would be there). The ad said, temptingly, "a jam with members of 3 groups that we're not allowed to name." 

Literally, we know nothing else about Friday night--not even if it happened.


September 6, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA: Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead
(Saturday)
We have two great tapes from Saturday, September 6: one by the Jefferson Airplane, and one by the Grateful Dead. Notwithstanding that they were both recorded by Owsley Stanley himself, famous for (among many other things) accurate dating on tape boxes, internal evidence fits as well. At the end of the Grateful Dead tape, Jerry Garcia says "coming up next, Jefferson Airplane." At the end of the Airplane tape, Garcia jams with the Airplane. So it looks pretty definitive: whatever else happened on the weekend, the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane played the Family Dog on the Great Highway on Saturday night.

So why do we know nothing? It's understandable that contracts or other issues may have prevented some advance publicity. In any case, it wouldn't have affected attendance. Jefferson Airplane were one of the most popular live rock bands in the country, much less in San Francisco. Their most recent album, Bless Its Pointed Little Head, recorded at Fillmores East and West, and released in February 1969, had been a huge hit. The Grateful Dead were a popular local band, by any standard. The place was going to be packed. But why didn't Chet Helms make sure the world knew? Bill Graham would have, and that's why the Fillmores are legendary today,--because Bill constantly reminded us. Chet could have done the same, and yet he didn't.

When I speculated about this show many years later, I did get one tantalizing clue from an unknown Commenter:

Yes, I was there that night, working for the light show company that did the show. Both bands were there and traded sets, then both bands took to the stages at either end of the ballroom and jammed together until 2 a.m.

The syntax is a bit confusing here, but the eyewitness suggests the Dead and the Airplane were on separate stages at opposite ends of the venue. Uniquely, the Family Dog had two stages, and they were known to use both to enable quick set changes. It's fascinating to think of the Dead and the Airplane sharing a venue, but on different stages. Yet we only have the barest of clues, memories almost slipped beyond the horizon.


Ralph Gleason's column from the August 27, 1969 SF Chronicle

September 7, 1969 Hyde Park, London, England Crosby, Stills and Nash/Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead/Joni Mitchell
(canceled)
As if San Francisco's Wild West Festival fiasco wasn't enough, just a few days later (August 27) Ralph Gleason had announced (above) plans for the Grateful Dead to join Crosby Stills and Nash, The Jefferson Airplane and Joni Mitchell to play a free concert in London for a Granada TV Special. Gleason:

The Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills and Nash (now a Bay Area band: they're moving here) and Joni Mitchell will be presented in a free concert in London's Hyde Park on September 7. 

The groups, with some additions to be announced, will be flying over directly from San Francisco. The show is being put on for filming for a Granada TV program and there's a possibility that there will be other concerts in Europe later.

Of course, none of this happened. Various major bands had played free concerts in Hyde Park during this summer (including Blind Faith and the Rolling Stones), so this idea wasn't as far-fetched as it sounds. Among many other byproducts of this plan, Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully flew to London and made contact with the Rolling Stones, which indirectly lead to the unfortunate Altamont debacle. Scully describes the whole story in his autobiography. Whatever the reality quotient might have been, the unfulfilled plan left the Airplane and the Dead free on this weekend, so they seem to have chosen to play the Family Dog instead. I assume the show was announced on KSAN. Once the word was out, any Airplane show was going to be packed, much less one shared with the Dead.

September 7, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA:? (Sunday)
Who else performed at the Family Dog this weekend? Honestly, we don't know. Malachi (John Morgan Newbern) a sort of troubadour guitarist, and "Rubber Duck" (Joe McCord), a mime backed by improvising musicians, were listed as performing Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Did they? Who knows? Thanks to Mr Owsley, however, we have yet another intriguing detail. It's worth remembering that Owsley was particularly scrupulous about noting the date correctly on the boxes of his tape reels (earning the undying appreciation of rock prosopographers everywhere). 

There is a 28-minute board tape from the Family Dog, dated September 7, 1969. The performers seem to consist of Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, drummer Joey Covington and another drummer (presumably Hart or Kreutzmann, but we don't know). They perform some rock and roll oldies (see the setlist below), and Joey Covington (future drummer for the Jefferson Airplane) sings a few. A crowd member calls for the old surf tune "Wipeout" and the players respond with the drum solo. A note on the box implies that Jerry Garcia may have joined the two drummers, briefly, on some drums. 

So there appears to have been a jam on Sunday. Probably some band equipment was left there from the night before, on purpose. Did Malachi or Rubber Duck play? Did the Dead/Airplane players do any other music? It seems likely that Jorma, Jack and Joey would have done their full electric thing, as that was what they were doing around the Bay Area. But we don't know. There was some kind of crowd--someone called for "Wipe Out"--but no eyewitnesses have surfaced. Once again, with their most famous performers in residence, the Family Dog made sure that no one found out what happened on Sunday night. For the Family Dog on The Great Highway, it was all a long, slow ride downhill from here.

Appendix: Setlists

Grateful Dead, September 6, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl [11:48];[0:13] ;
Doin' That Rag [6:28];[0:09] ;
He Was A Friend Of Mine [12:24];[0:06]%[0:16] ;
Big Boy Pete [3:09] >
Good Lovin' [3:55];[0:53] ;
It's All Over Now [4:04] [Total Time 47:00]

Jefferson Airplane, September 6, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA

Grace Slick-vocals
Marty Balin-vocals
Jorma Kaukonen-lead guitar, vocals
Paul Kantner-rhythm guitar, vocals
Jack Casady-bass
Spencer Dryden-drums
#plus-Jerry Garcia-guitar, Mickey Hart-drums, {unknown}-congas

[0:10] ; Ballad of You, Me & Pooneil > Starship [15:13] ; [0:20] ;
Good Shepherd [6:30] ; [0:12] ;
We Can Be Together [6:46]
% Somebody To Love [3:55] ; [0:05] ;
The Farm [2:53] ; [0:17] ;
Crown Of Creation [3:05] ; [0:08] ;
Come Back Baby [5:34] ; [0:12] %
Wooden Ships [5:38] > Go Ride The Music [0:35]
% Volunteers [#2:22] >
  Drums [1:54] >
  #Jam [25:27]  [Total time 1:20:12]

Garcia and Hart participate in the Jam following Volunteers, as well as an unidentified conga player. This Jam passes includes a Darkness Darkness Jam.

Jam, September 7, 1969 Family Dog on The Great Highway, San Francisco, CA

Peggy Sue [3:26] %
That'll Be The Day [3:20] %
Johnny B. Goode [3:44] %
Baby What You Want Me To Do [4:54]%[0:46] ;
Wipe Out Drums [0:16] >
Wipe Out Jam [3:54] >
Big Railroad Blues [1:16] %
Louie Louie [3:02] >
Twist & Shout [1:36] >
Blue Moon [1:29] [Total Time 28:49]

        Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Joey Covington, {additional drummer}