Excerpt from “867-5309/Jenny:the song that saved me”–Hippies on Haight Street, the Avalon & Fillmore


We were gigging frequently at the Straight Theatre on Haight Street. One night we opened for the MC5, the infamous bad boys from Detroit. They were insanely loud, notes and lyrics indistinguishable in that cavernous hall. They were also wild men, up for anything. After the gig they came to our house, got quite stoned, and ended up driving their rental car off a steep Mill Valley hillside street and into one of our neighbor’s yards. Just another Saturday night.

The Straight Theater was kind of a second-tier Avalon Ballroom in an old neighborhood movie theater right in the heart of Haight-Ashbury. It’d been the Haight Movie Theater. It was a big old boomy room with most of the seats long-gone, replaced by a very dimly lit dance floor, and the crowds were often only dozens rather than hundreds, but it had a semi-legit vibe. There was a big P.A. and they had nice posters, like those done by Mouse and Griffin and other cool poster artists. The old movie projection booth high in the rafters where you went to get high was called the Yellow Submarine. You had to climb up a ladder to get in. From up there, bands on stage sounded like supersonic cat-and-dog fights inside a huge echo chamber. You couldn’t make out the notes too well, and it was very loud. I’ll always associate loud, wanky guitar solos with being in that room. There were some really bad guitar players back then. But, it was cool: Don’t Bogart that joint, my friend!

There were a lot of R. Crumb-like characters at the Straight. There was one guitar player, Joe T., who played solos on his miked-up acoustic while staring balefully out into the dark room, rocking back and forth on his heels like an insane wind-up toy on speed. It was kind of cool, but also edgy-crazy. Or actually crazy. At the end of a song, as the assembled handful splattered the dark, echoey chamber with light applause and few whoops, he deadpanned, “Thanks for the clap.”

Carlos Santana and Greg Rollie from the really cool Santana Blues Band were frequently around. At one gig, Carlos spent the entire set lying on stage with his head inside Mitch’s kick drum. Mellow, Carlos?

There were a lot of wackos trying to be rock stars. Many of them were con men, running a poseur game on anyone they could. One guy had penis pants. He had like an embroidered sock sewn on the front of his pants in which his unit was supposedly housed. This worked for him for about fifteen minutes of Haight-Ashbury fame. It was maddening when you saw one of these guys getting taken seriously. Sooner or later, the fakers were exposed for what they were and faded away. There were others who were good players and had the business part figured out, but we couldn’t stand them or their music because it seemed so calculated.

There was veiled aggression going on under the rhetorically correct banners of hippiedom. Love is the answer, man. Oh yeah, then why are you trying to screw me behind my back? Contracts sealed with drugs were offered and broken, managers were signed and dumped, players were hired and fired. We kept plugging away, fueled by the belief we had something special; that we’d heard the real call. Okay, so it was something unfinished, but we were a pure band, not one driven by the desire for commercial success. Maybe that’s why we weren’t making any money.

In order to play the Straight and some of the other clubs around town, we had to join the Musician’s Union. We went down to the Union Hall somewhere in the Tenderloin district—not a nice part of San Francisco unless you’re drawn to strip joints, whores, junkies, and armed robbers—and signed up. The guy who took our applications and our thirty-five bucks was right out of a noir gangster flick. He wore a pin-stripe suit with a boutonnière, had a pencil mustache and greased-back hair, and was named Vito or something like that. After we auditioned, which consisted of Mitch doing a drum roll with his hands on the guy’s desk, Vito said conspiratorially, “Hey guys, wanna see something really cool?”

“Uh, sure, man.”

Vito slid open the top drawer on his desk and revealed a shiny black pistol. Later, at a high school auditorium gig in Eureka, a “union rep” showed up and demanded traveling dues from us. We gave him twenty bucks and he stuck it in the pocket of his trench coat. He wrote us a receipt on a paper napkin. Not impressed, I never re-upped my union membership.

Many days we’d get all duded up in our hand-sewn bell-bottoms and cowboy shirts and acid beads, pile into our van, and drive to the city to go walking down Haight Street. Making eye contact with pretty hippie chicks was the game. There were a lot of young girls and freaky, long-haired guys and poncho-wearing street people. Music came out of hippie-pad windows. The latest far-out Fillmore and Avalon posters were up in the windows of the head shops. The Charlatans and Quicksilver Messenger Service. The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Canned Heat and The Doors. The sweet smell of incense, the disgusting stench of patchouli oil, and the enticing aroma of pot being smoked was in the air.

We got smiles and peace signs, and sometimes a flirty glance that led to conversation. “Hey, we’re playing at Muir Beach tonight; you should come out there with us. You can crash at our pad.” It was easy to meet girls; sometimes it even went somewhere.

She said, “Are you doing a thing with one particular old-lady right now?”

He answered, “Uh, no. And by the way, I can’t help notice that you really don’t need the bra you’re not wearing.”

The hippie chicks were sloe-eyed, lithe, and so beautiful. I was mostly too shy to pull the trigger, but it happened sometimes.

The street people were all young; no one over thirty. Can’t trust anyone over thirty. The sidewalks were crowded; everybody was cruising, looking for action of some type. Guys whispered as they passed, “Lids? Acid?” We got fantastic greasy, meat-filled piroshki at a Ukrainian bakery we called Mama Khrushchev’s. The lady who made the piroshki looked just like Nikita Khrushchev with a bad wig, like a Monty Python character. Twenty cents each, they were the size of big burgers. Down the sidewalk came H.P. Lovecraft, a band from Chicago with huge, wigged-out hair and Sgt. Pepper outfits. What a scene, and not a single hard guy in sight. They’d been magically eliminated, banished from the hippie realm. Good riddance.

There were some future legends walking around. We saw Janis Joplin at free outdoor gigs in Golden Gate Park’s Panhandle. She was not very attractive, though she did have the hippie look in spades. In fact, she was an originator of the look: the long, wavy hair, love beads, antique flowered dresses, cool granny lace-up shoes, rose-colored John Lennon shades. Big Brother, her band, was the ultimate hippie band. They were real friendly guys and they looked perfect: skinny, with long, long hair, flower-child chic, everything. But boy, did they bend the wrong notes! It drove me (and others) nuts. But something cool happened when they got on stage. Somehow it all worked. The band was just right for Janis and she got better looking the more she screeched. Within a couple of songs, she was lookin’ good. By the time she got to Piece of My Heart, she was the best lookin’ babe you had seen in a long time and you wanted her. Weird, but that’s charisma for you. It was a drag when she left Big Brother for a “better” band. Management and their big-money suggestions: once the record deals start getting handed out, many so-called hippie musicians tossed their scruples and their peace, love, and groovy friendships under the nearest bus, fast. Something magical got lost there, and it wasn’t just the unique sound of Janis singing with Big Brother. It was the sound of the idealism of the sixties being strangled with a golden chain.

Jefferson Airplane was about the biggest band in the city. They were sort of folk-rock: nice, but not a real turn-on. They’d become more of a powerhouse when Jack Casady and Grace Slick joined the band. Still, they were never quite my quart of Brown Derby.

We saw the Grateful Dead around a lot. They were accessible. Remember, it was nominally a big hippie family at this point. We caught them at the Fillmore or Avalon every chance we got. The Dead’s secret was that they were the only band that made sense when you took acid. Jerry was the leader, the acid-trip hero, but I dug Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kruetzman, and Pig Pen. I loved their free-flowing sound. And Jerry bent mostly the right notes, by the way. At one free gig at the outdoor Greek amphitheater-style Mountain Theater on top of Mount Tamalpais, Weir mentioned our gig that night at Muir Beach. We were thrilled to have him say our band’s name over the P.A. The Dead were not at this point all the way into the forty-minute solos they’d become famous for. They were much tighter than most of the bands. But then they made their first album, which failed to catch their live vibe. It was a big disappointment for me. Then their solos got longer and longer, and besides, when we stopped taking acid, we didn’t go to see them as much. Because without acid, well, let’s just say they make more sense when you’re on acid and leave it at that. So those who might have wondered what those Deadheads with their Volkswagen busses with tie-dyed curtains were doing at those gigs for all those years, wonder no more.

We saw all the Bay Area bands, and many of the touring ones. The Fillmore and Avalon, of course, were the top venues. The Family Dog, a bunch of semi-business-minded hippies headed by Chet Helms, ran the Avalon Ballroom. It was a big old dance hall up a flight of stairs just off Van Ness Avenue above Polk Street in the city, near the porn shops and crime district called the Tenderloin, the same neighborhood that the Musician’s Union was in. The Tenderloin, home of hookers and transvestites, muggers, and heroin dealers: a nice wholesome location for our counter-culture revolution.

The ballroom held a thousand stoned hippies, maybe more. I was there, so of course I can’t remember. The stage was angled in one corner of the room. There was a plush-carpeted balcony area upstairs. Strobe lights flashed along the wall under which you could get lost in your trip and swing your beads around in the air. They magically changed color and location. Hippie chicks appeared in freeze-frame, their long hair flashing. The P.A. was huge compared to those bands played through just a few years earlier. When I saw the Ventures (Walk, Don’t Run), the Shantays (Pipeline), the Surfaris (Wipeout), and other bands at the Corte Madera Community center in 1964, the P.A. was just one microphone and one Voice of the Theater speaker on the side of the stage. The new venues had big bass speakers and treble horns. The drums and the amps were all miked up; there were monitor wedges across the stage. The lights were regulation theater stage and spotlights, mixed with a big, squishy projected light show by Bill Ham or some other stoned guy pulsing away above and behind the band and on the walls of the hall. Hard guys pushing each other around were not the show anymore. Now it was the band, man, and the lights. Band guys were stars now. Not just cool. Not tough. They were gods, written about in Rolling Stone, our new Bible. It was happening, man. Now I really wanted in, and I was so close.

Chet Helms, the head dog of the Family Dog, was a tall, skinny, gentle guy with long hair and beard and wire-rimmed glasses. He could usually be found near the top of the stairs, arms folded across his chest, welcoming people and talking with his buddies. He gave off a peaceful vibe, and the Avalon was definitely more of a hippie place than the Fillmore.

The Fillmore Auditorium was right on the edge of a tough black neighborhood called, simply, the Fillmore. It was a similar hall to the Avalon, maybe a bit larger, but not by much. Both places had an air of faded glory about them: gilded balconies, carpeted hallways, long bars in the annexes. They must have been WWII-era dance halls. The Fillmore’s stage was at the far end of the room. There was a balcony that ran three quarters of the way around the hall, and a room off the balcony where you could catch a breather and tell your compadres how stoned you were. One night we all scared the shit out of each other by talking about the size of the universe and how tiny and alone we were in it. At a time like that, when you and your stoned posse are looking at the edge of a space you are not prepared to gaze fully into, there is nothing else to do but listen to Otis Redding or Van Morrison or Cream.

Greeting you at the top of the stairs when you went in was the one and only Bill Graham. Bill was a compact, tough-looking guy, with shortish dark hair. He had a New York vibe; cool but passionate, formidable, like your older brother. You got the feeling that he’d kick your ass if you got out of line, so you didn’t get out of line. But there was also a feeling that he’d shield you from bad shit, like if the cops came in, as they sometimes did. He probably paid them off. At the end of the night, Bill handed out apples to everyone and told us to be cool as we took our stoned selves out into the San Francisco night. We’d see the dawn come up before we came down.

All the big bands played those venues: Cream, Them with Van Morrison, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Charlatans, Otis Redding, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver, Love, Steve Miller, Buffalo Springfield, Captain Beefheart, Blue Cheer, Canned Heat, Mother Earth, Charlie Musselwhite, the Electric Flag, Moby Grape, the Charlatans, the Youngbloods, Janis Joplin and Big Brother, Taj Mahal, and too many others to remember. When Bill Graham moved the Fillmore to Fillmore West and then to Winterland, a cavernous hall that held 5,000, the shows got even bigger: Jimi Hendrix, Albert Collins, B.B. King, Fleetwood Mac. It was the dawn of the huge concert era.

Bands we really dug were Taj Mahal, with Jesse Edwin Davis on guitar, and Moby Grape, a sensational band—the best in the city, though their career went crazy haywire after two albums. Sadly, a couple of band members became drug casualties and were committed to institutions. The Steve Miller Blues Band with Boz Skaggs and Curly Cook was awesome. They held down a club in the marina called the Matrix for awhile and then Miller went on to big-time stardom. Boz followed later. Carlos Santana with his Santana Blues Band was already doing what would make him a mainstay for the next forty years. On the other hand, the Great Society with Grace Slick made me go on a bad acid trip with their music, and Blue Cheer and the Oxford Circle were just plain so loud and so bad I couldn’t take it. Sorry, guys: you sucked. I was more into the blues- and country-influenced stuff. I liked to rock out, but I didn’t like aggressive, ugly hard-rock.

No hard guys, no hard rock.

For a while there, I thought hard guys were on their way out. At last the myth of progress was a reality. The world was coming to its senses after a long bloody history featuring mainly a lot of hard guys: hard guys in animal skins, hard guys in togas, hard guys in Nazi uniforms, hard guys in white sheets, hard guys on Main Street Anywhere USA. In terms of evolution, hard guys were once necessary; someone had to protect the village and raid neighboring tribes for cattle and women. But the world had become one gigantic village. Slowly, inexorably, people were coming to realize that hard guys aren’t the solution, they’re the problem. For a brief moment in the sixties, this realization seemed to be coming home to roost on the rooftops, cooing and fluffing its wings.

From the summer of ’66 to the end of ’68, there was a real feeling among us hippies of a movement, a common counter-culture. R. Crumb had a great cartoon that summed it up: A cosmic meatball falls out of the sky and bonks one person on the head, then another, and then another, and so forth. Each of those bonked, from a busty, hot Crumb chick to a scientist to a pimply, bike-riding kid to an Air Force general, or whoever the Crumb characters were, achieved a measure of enlightenment of some kind. Finally, the meatball rolled out of sight. The script read: Will Meatball ever come again? Who can say?

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2 Responses to Excerpt from “867-5309/Jenny:the song that saved me”–Hippies on Haight Street, the Avalon & Fillmore

  1. westsla says:

    After reading your excerpts, I find it oddly strange with moments of out right scary how your beautiful vivid detail takes me on a familiar road that I’ve never been. I can’t wait to take the trip from beginning to end. Excellent, Alex!

  2. alexcall says:

    Thanks! that’s a great endorsement..I appreciate it…I wish the book was coming out now!

    best, Alex

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