The Avalon, The Fillmore, Meatballs and Free Love

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? Well, we had our Meatball moment, though just like in Crumb’s cartoon, it soon rolled out the door.

It was a really exciting scene; a genuine “time and place,” but the good vibes faded away far too soon. The moment rapidly morphed into an aggressive, dark, mirror-image centered on the “rip-off” rather than Peace and Love. The angel shape-changed into a demon: Lucifer fell again, from enlightened hipster to low-life, meth-crazed biker. It was all over by 1970, but the Summer of Love would remain a transformational crossroad that would have an effect for the next generation and beyond. Though the forces of reaction still are powerfully tenacious, expectations for the future have evolved and retained a measure of the higher planes of possibility glimpsed by the flower-power people in ’67. Will humanity last long enough to see the seeds planted by that rare moment bear fruit? Will Meatball come again? Who can say?
At least I was temporarily free of those fuckin’ hard guys.

We dropped acid in Mill Valley, and once again Bruce Campbell drove everyone across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Avalon in his parents’ Citroen station wagon. We were all amazed when the car magically stopped at stop signs and red lights. As we came on, we waved at fellow long-hairs on the streets or in other cars. Hey, Freaks! We were really high by the time we got there, with that metallic acid feeling welling up in our throats and eyes, the cosmic electricity flowing in our veins. The Great Society with Grace Slick was playing. I watched them, hallucinating like crazy.

I’d heard they were good, that Grace was a cool singer, and I wanted to like them, I really did. I saw actual musical notation flowing out from the stage, like something out of Disney’s Fantasia. It was so beautiful. But then Grace’s grating, piercing voice and the twangly guitars became distorted and ugly, and suddenly very, very scary. The notes exploded on the hallucinated staves, like bombs. The red-blue molecular structures that made up my field of vision began to spin. It was an inescapable downward spiral, a twirling vortex, a wormhole to Hell. I turned to Mitch, who now looked like some sort of odd lizard being, and said, “I’m scared.” The sound of my own voice sank me at an impossible speed to a place I’d never been. My mind was blowing! I was flipping out! Now I knew what that meant.

I stumbled through the insanely babbling crowd of mad-hatters and cardboard cut-out, two-dimensional freaks. Somehow, I made my way up the balcony, looking for a place of refuge, but there was no place to hide from what was happening inside of me. I vomited, and the vomit was fire. From somewhere, my brother Lew and his friend Peter G. found me. They took me out of the Avalon to Peter’s Chevy Nomad. We headed toward Marin. Away from the insane, hell-like noise and looking-glass crowd I was calmer, but still deeply scared. The road seemed to roll up under the car like we were driving on a big, rotating metal drum. I didn’t know why the Nomad didn’t fly off into space.

I crawled from the back seat into the front. A feeling of ice cold seeped in my ass. It was beginning to freeze. My ass was freezing! I was going to die! Wait a minute, I’d knocked over a Coke bottle and it was pouring into my pants. I cracked up, and relaxed somewhat, much to the relief of Lew and Peter, who were no doubt mulling over whether they’d have to take me to the hospital. It was a course of action that might well land them in jail. They were on acid, too.
Instead, we drove all the way to the top of Mount Tam and watched the starry night go by and the dawn come up over the layered, purple, East Bay hills and the steel-gray bay. It was very beautiful. It was very fucked up.

(excerpted from “867-5309/Jenny,the song that saved me” Charles River Press. Autograpghed copies can be purchased directly from me by messaging me on Facebook “Alex Call” or emailing me at Alex call Author page on Facebook)

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4 Responses to The Avalon, The Fillmore, Meatballs and Free Love

  1. Very nice Alex, I too have many memories of those times, and man, even now that great Jeff Airplane song “Today” makes me light right up. Those guys could bring it.

  2. Peter Barker says:

    “The Dead’s secret was that they were the only band that made sense when you took acid.”
    Thanks Alex, you nailed it – again.

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