Chapter Two: Recall the Days That Still Are to Come
Page 30, middle; more on Alan Trist's background and on Kepler's:
Trist remembers, "I had just come over from Paris before I came to California I spent a few months hanging out on the Left Bank and going to Shakespeare & Company bookstore. So I went from Shakespeare & Company to Kepler's and it seemed to me to be two parts of the same thing. I'd been studying the symbolist poets in Paris Mallarmι and Rimbaud and Verlaine, as well as Henry Miller Nexus, Plexus books that were banned in other countries. I also was living right next door to the 'Beat Hotel,' near Place St. Michel, which was a place where Corso and various other Beats stayed when they came to Paris. The Beats were like half a generation older than us, and they would allow us younger denizens of the Left Bank to come up to their pot dens by the Seine for a glimpse of the tradition.
"So from that experience I came straight over to Palo Alto and I immediately saw the connection. The bohemian tradition, and what was going on in the Bay Area. The bohemian tradition had jumped the Atlantic and the American continent and landed squarely in San Francisco. I saw a continuity there that was very compelling when I walked into Kepler's.
"I was also fresh from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches in London, so I felt quite at home with the political vibe of the place."
Page 30, lower middle; more on Kepler's:
"Palo Alto always had a well-to-do liberal contingent, but not many activists," Ira Sandperl says. "In those days, Kepler and I were probably the most active radical pacifists, and we 'got it' all the time from people who didn't agree with us. It was only later in the movement, when the violent activists came, that they looked back on us with appreciation," he says with a hearty laugh. "Roy Kepler was the most extraordinary fellow I've ever met anywhere. I've never met a man so committed, with so much dignity and intelligence, who was also almost completely nonjudgmental. He got along with everybody, and that's one reason everybody hung out at Kepler's."
The area's most famous pacifist, however, was Joan Baez, who in 1960 was not long out of Palo Alto High School and already making a name for herself as a singer of both traditional folk songs and contemporary protest anthems. "She was absolutely marvelous," Sandperl says. "She was very young still, but from the day I knew her, which was from about the age of 15, she had this public poise that you could not believe. When we met I gave a talk at Palo Alto High School I had no idea that she sang or anything, but already it was clear that her fellow girl students mimicked everything she did; whether they knew it or not, I don't know. She'd wear a cut-off sweat shirt for a blouse and the next day everybody would have them on. She was very magnetic and totally delightful." And, needless to say, a great asset to the Peace Center and its activities. Whenever she was in town, which became more infrequent after she moved to the East Coast and as her popularity grew, she'd always stop in at Kepler's and the Peace Center.
Page 31; more Peninsula friends:
It was through good times at the Chateau and Kepler's that Garcia hooked up with a number of black bohemian types, too: Lester Hellums, a saxophonist whose nickname was Yellow Kid Wild, lived at the Chateau at one point, as did Lee Adams, who was an aspiring writer who claimed to have been an associate of John Coltrane's. Norm "Pogo" Fontaine was an East Palo Alto cat with deep roots in the jazz world, as well as an accomplished painter. Though he was in his mid-40s at the time, he hung comfortably in this mainly youthful party scene. In fact, his house, known as Pogo's Place, was another notorious party spot during this era. And then there was David McQueen, known to one and all as David X.
McQueen remembers, "I was in my early 40s, fresh from a divorce, working as a construction laborer during the week and playing 'beatnik' in North Beach on the weekends. My favorite running buddy was Lester Hellums, a fine jazz saxophonist who was completely fascinated by Coltrane. Lester knew all the jazz musicians in the Bay Area on a first name basis and used to jam with a lot of them. But Lester had a thing about Palo Alto he'd found his niche and refused to leave. He even turned down a job with Miles Davis because of his Palo Alto thing.
"Actually Ron McKernan was the first of the Dead crowd that I met, a little before I hooked up with Jerry. I was staying with a friend from East P.A. who, like me, was having wife problems. We had an old house on Ramona Street in downtown Palo Alto there was a one-block area in that part of Palo Alto where a few blacks lived; one block. Ron used to work at the gas station on the corner between the house we lived in and the mom and pop store where we bought our wine. Ron accosted me one day on one of my frequent wine runs: here was this young white kid with bad skin and he still had his baby fat, but he talked like a 60-year-old black blues man. 'Hey man, you the cat that's been havin' all them parties?' he said. 'I want to come over!' When I asked how old he was, he said, 'Damn that I play guitar and harmonica,' except he called it a 'harp' just like a young brother."
Page 32, middle; more on Paul Speegle:
"Paul was also an incredible painter," says Laird Grant. "He would have set the art world on its ass by the '70s, the way he was going. He was majestic. He could make ghosts come out of oil paint. He was working on this amazing series of paintings called 'The Blind Prophet' series, which were these great, somber, Gothic pieces." One of his "Blind Prophet" paintings hung in the Peace Center for a while; later it graced the walls of the Grateful Dead's recording studio. During 1960 Speegle even had a show at a small gallery off an alley behind Beat poet Lawrence Ferlingetti's City Lights Books in North Beach.
Page 34, top; more on Barbara Meier's parents:
They had moved to Menlo Park from Oregon in 1950 when her father was accepted into the prestigious Stanford Writing Program, "and the whole time I was growing up my father was working on a novel," she says. That was never published, but another book he wrote was: Friend From Harlem, about a black jazz musician friend. Barbara's mother was a high-powered executive who worked for the Stanford Research Institute and translated Russian documents for the Rand Corporation, an ultra-right-wing think tank that was diametrically opposed to her own political views.
Page 36, lower middle; more on Hunter and Trist:
Barbara Meier remembers cutting school and going up to an old, abandoned estate in Atherton known as the Castle, and watching with amusement as Trist and Hunter mimicked Dylan Thomas in booming stentorian voices: "And death shall have no dominion!" they'd shout. "I feel like I saw Hunter cultivate that persona, which is still part of him," she says.
Page 36, bottom; more on the Beats and the Peninsula crowd:
Alan Trist remarks, "We grew up as the first generation born in the shadow of The Bomb, and then the next thing you read was 'Howl,' which laid it all out the depiction of the world as negative and self-destructive. So what are you going to do? You're 19, you're just growing up. The only thing you could do was say, 'OK, there's got to be a way out of this. There has to be a positive way out of this.' And that's the energy we seized upon. At that time we didn't have a coherent idea of what we were after, but I used to go around all excited 'Here's my plan. ...' 'Here's what we're gonna do. ...' 'It seems to me. ...' and no plan ever emerged from this, but it was like a mantra. It was all very positive, and looking forward."
"In my room at the Peace Center, or driving with Laird in Los Trancos Woods, or walking around with Alan in Palo Alto," says Willy Legate, "I often talked about 'this group of people,' working out my somewhat hazy notions about a 'New England Group' or similar collection of artists which had, as it were, 'chosen' to be born and brought together in one place.
"In the spring of '61 I'd started a long list of the 'mysteriously connected' people we knew; the social register. In late 1961, Alan and folks he knew started discussing an 'artists' identity for us. One day in the garage, Jerry sat up and said, 'You know what we are? We're beatniks!'" (Many years later, Garcia described himself and his friends during this period as "early hippies; beatniks with that kind of [hippie] consciousness.")
Page 38, middle; more on the early '60s folk music culture:
"You have to understand that folk music was considered subversive and leftist and anti-establishment in those days," notes Sara Ruppenthal, who was a player herself. "In music, as well as film and theater, people had been blacklisted for telling it like it was; lives had been ruined. These were repressive times. Folk music was definitely on the outside, and in championing and wanting to learn from the 'folk,' we rejected so-called popular music and the mindless commercial culture. There was a strong aspect of political protest, but also of being real, because folk songs came from the experience of real people living their lives.
"The Weavers and Pete Seeger were our heroes when I was in high school. Listening to them and singing the songs we learned from them were, like wearing black tights or sandals or not curling your hair, considered unacceptable things to do by most of the people around us, by what would be called the mainstream culture now. The Kingston Trio became America's darlings they were marketed in a way that brought folk music into the living rooms of America, probably because they gave a kind of rah-rah college-kid gloss to the songs that diluted their power as music of the folk, of the downtrodden, of protest. Until them, I don't think we could say that folk music was 'marketed.' The word probably didn't even exist then.
"So Joan Baez's success was a singular phenomenon," Sara continues. "To protest inequality and cruelty, to be principled, and to be popular and successful it's hard to understand now how utterly unusual that was." Baez became so popular that she made the cover of Time in 1962.
Page 38, middle; more on Marshall Leicester:
The son of an eminent chemist who ran in Stanford circles, Leicester had listened to the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and Marais & Miranda while growing up in the '50s, had taught himself guitar out of Pete Seeger's How to Play Folk Guitar book, and later learned to play the banjo as well, if not better. "I went like a shot from the Kingston Trio to what at the time I thought was the most authentic stuff I could get: I was very much into the old Riverside collection of popular English and Scottish ballads by Ewan McColl and A.L. Lloyd that Kenny Goldstein [produced] for Riverside in the late '50s," Leceister says. "I'd never heard anything like that in my life. At first I thought it was awful, but I compulsively couldn't stop listening to it and it was a real education in traditional singing. And of course the New Lost City Ramblers were connected to Yale Tom Paley had taught there for a while and John Cohen was a graduate student in the art school, so two of them were actually in New Haven. Those guys provided the channel for that kind of music.
"For me, it was about looking for different kinds of voices and sounds. It wasn't about the content at all, but the style that made the difference," Leicester continues. "That sense that you were in touch somehow with something that had some rooting that wasn't as bland and homogenized as the kind of music you grew up hearing. And of course I exclude '50s rock 'n' roll , which was sort of everybody's secret in a way, but you didn't really believe that that stuff made any difference. Part of folk music's appeal to me and many others was that, yes, there is something out there that resists commercial pressure that represents people playing music that is somehow authentic and more in touch with real people's lives and emotions. There were and always will be people who really want to play music that doesn't sound like what you hear on the Top 40 station that hasn't been homogenized for mass consumption. I didn't understand that music that didn't sound 'pretty' could be beautiful until I had spent some time learning to listen to this kind of stuff.
"I think one of the things that was happening in the early '60s is that people were looking for different ways to think about things and that partly had to do with different sounds."
Page 39, top; more on the New Lost City Ramblers:
Joining Seeger in the Ramblers were Tom Paley, a City College of New York- and Yale-educated college math teacher and photographer who had been moving in New York folk circles for a while, and John Cohen, another Yalie with deep roots in the East Coast folk scene who also had made his own music-collecting trips in the South. (Cohen's older brother, Mike, had played in an old-timey music group called The Shantyboys right after World War II; very unusual for its day in the Northeast.)
The three formed the New Lost City Ramblers (named after an early string band) in 1958, and by year's end they had released an album on Folkways that consisted entirely of songs originally recorded between 1925 and 1935 by groups like Gid Tanner's Skillet Lickers, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers, Red Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers and the Dallas String band. All three were talented and versatile pickers and singers who made every effort to capture the feeling of their original sources. Their repertoire spanned nearly every rural song form imaginable ageless folk ballads, hunting songs, political tunes, talking blues, instrumental breakdowns, love laments, historical sagas, guitar rags and reels, and even some proto-bluegrass.
By mid-1961, the Ramblers had performed at the Newport Folk Festival twice, released two more albums Songs of the Depression and New Lost City Ramblers, Volume II and toured extensively, mainly playing college campuses and urban coffee houses. In 1960, they played the Berkeley Folk Festival, a gig that is still talked about in West Coast string band music circles.
"Mike Seeger was really one of the first people to bring bluegrass and these other forms of music to city audiences," says Eric Thompson. "He was simultaneously producing records of old-time music played by himself, and albums like American Banjo Scruggs Style and Mountain Music Bluegrass Style for Folkways. He made the first Country Gentlemen album for Folkways. So he was embracing both and presenting it as all part of the same thing. It was really all old-time acoustic Southern country music."
Page 39, bottom; more on David Nelson's background:
"When you start playing music young, it's the adults' world," Nelson says. "I found it interesting and I liked watching the teacher play, but then when I was about 12 I begged to stop the lessons. Then later, when rock 'n' roll happened, it never occurred to me to play."
In high school in the late '50s, Nelson was swept away by rock 'n' roll and R&B and the adjunct hot rod culture (he drove a '51 Ford convertible with the words "Midnight Flyer" painted on the side), but in senior year he fell in love with playing the guitar: "Peter [Albin] came to my art class one day at Carlmont and said, 'My brother went to Mexico and got a guitaryou want to come over and learn how to play it?' I thought, 'My god, why didn't I think of that myself?' This is like 1960. I was 16 or 17. So I went over there every day I could and pumped Rodney for chords and picking styles.
"Rodney's also the one who took me down and introduced me to the Kepler's crowd the beatniks and folk singers. The whole atmosphere of the era was more literary than musical at that point, so you read Kerouac and Ginsberg and Henry Miller, and Kepler's was a natural place to gravitate. I went through this period of transformation from the rock 'n' roll hood days to this new, more intelligent thing. I was really worried I was going to be called a pseudointellectual, so I voraciously devoured everything I could, and I wanted to go to S.F. as much as I could. Me and Art Evanson, a friend of mine who was also learning guitar, used to go up there to this place in North Beach by the old Spaghetti Factory called La Bodega, where they had these Flamenco singers and dancers doing the real shit; I loved that. Then, after I graduated, I decided to go to art school at CCAC [California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland], and I'd go up to Berkeley and spend all my money at Record City, Moe's Books, Lundberg Music. I was busily learning music, and the New Lost City Ramblers were a real hip source because they drew from so many different sources themselves."
Page 40, lower middle; more on the Boar's Head:
In July of '61, Garcia and Marshall Leicester played a show at the Boar's Head that was taped on a reel-to-reel recorder by Rodney Albin; it's one of just a handful from the pre-Dead days that has survived. (Years ago Willy Legate organized that performance and a few others from '61-'64 onto a series of six cassettes that were dubbed "Primordial Writhing, Vols. 1-12.") On the tape, Garcia plays guitar and Leicester plays banjo on a handful of folk standards, including "Darling Corey," "Wildwood Flower" and "Jesse James." It was all very relaxed and informal; really just a hint of what was to come from them over the next couple of years as they developed as players. Jerry also spent hours studying and learning how to play Child ballads (songs collected by the 19th century British folklorist John Child), which his friend Danya Veltfort used to copy out of books in the library for him.
Page 42, upper middle; more on Alan Trist's departure:
Arriving that fall at Cambridge, Trist says, "The contrast [between that school and the Palo Alto scene] could not have been more extreme. It's the sort of stiff-upper-lip aristocracy, the establishment. But I immediately fell in with a bunch of poets and English reprobates.
"I came back using all these words like 'love' and 'soul' and 'dig,' all these words from the American vernacular the black vernacular really, and people did look at me with very curious expressions. I took back the feeling that I had experienced something very powerful that my contemporaries in England had not. It set me apart, and it did for years." Trist rejoins the story a few years up the road.
Page 43, bottom; more on Phil Lesh's college days:
But he fell in with a crowd of brilliant and interesting people who were not very academically inclined, to say the least: Bobby Petersen was a poet and hipster who turned Lesh on to pot; Hank Harrison was an aspiring writer, who served a short stretch in the pokey in '61 for possession of some seeds and stems; John Winter, a.k.a. "John the Cool," later became Phil's connection to the Chateau crowd. His second year at CSM, Phil wrote a pair of original compositions for the jazz band, an experience that opened up a new world to him: "That was the first real flash that I had of having ideas and writing them down." Shortly after that he began setting Ginsberg's 'Howl' to music, but he never finished it because "my life was falling apart. I had to leave school after the semester was finished. There was no money, and I didn't have a job for the summer."
This led to one of Phil's greatest early adventures: hitchhiking to Calgary to work in the oil fields. He only made it as far as Spokane, Washington, before learning that the job in Alberta didn't exist. So he rode in a boxcar from Spokane to Seattle 36 hours and borrowed money from some friends of his parents to take a Greyhound back to the Bay Area: "My parents picked me up, and boy, did I catch shit then! They made me get a job in a bank and I worked there just long enough for school to be starting again in San Mateo."
During the '60-'61 school year, Phil reconnected with Bobby Petersen who "turned me on to so much that you can't encompass all of it," he said. He got a menial job working for Dean Whitter, the stock investment firm, to make some money, and he dropped the trumpet completely because he decided that what he really wanted to do was become a composer "with a capital C," as he put it.
Page 44, bottom; Suzy Wood talks about the drugs of the day:
"I remember Laird Grant and Jerry and one other person in the kitchen at The Chateau and I was writing a paper for school. Bob Hunter was going to help me, because he was going to be a writer, after all. So I got some Dexedrine and I talked for three days straight, while they were in the kitchen taking their Romlar. They'd get their bottle of pills and divide them up and they'd take whatever handful they had. I burst into tears because I thought they were all going to die. They didn't, of course, but they did have a really hard time figuring out how to make a peanut butter sandwich. They had a loaf of French bread and a brand new jar of Skippy peanut butter and it took them forever to figure it out. It must have been 45 minutes for them to figure it out."
Page 46, upper-middle; more on the Peninsula acoustic music scene:
Generally speaking, the acoustic music community in the early '60s was friendly and close-knit, with players freely exchanging techniques they'd learned and records they'd heard with each other. One of the best sources on the Peninsula for rare string band music in that era was a banjo player named Brooks Adams Otis, whose father was a well-known classics professor at Stanford. A bluegrass and old-timey fan at a time when there were precious few in the Bay Area, as well as the first player on the Peninsula to master Earl Scruggs' banjo style, Brooks had attended Columbia University in the late '50s and become friends with Mike Seeger and other figures in the East Coast string band scene. And he'd been in the Army with Roland White, founder of the Kentucky Colonels, who turned him on to a lot of music. Brooks was also hooked into a community of serious record collectors, including Bob Pinson (now archivist at Nashville's Country Music Library) and Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, which has put out dozens of records of acoustic music of every stripe over the past quarter century. Between them, they had hundreds of rare 78 records from the '20s, '30s and '40s by mainly obscure pickers who had so far eluded the reissue mavens at labels like Folkways and Riverside. So between the tapes that Brooks got from Mike Seeger's travels through the South, and the massive collections of 78s at his disposal, he and his friend Eric Thompson were able to compile a series of tapes that they then shared with their friends, Garcia included.
"There were all the pleasures of being an initiate and being involved with something that nobody else knew about and finding records that were extremely rare," Brooks Otis says. "Now, if you want to learn the banjo you have your choice of 60 videos and a million books; it's all documented. Whereas in those days, I remember trying to learn how to play the banjo and having a hard time finding people and then being completely amazed by the techniques I was hearing: 'God, how did he do that? Is he really crossing over with his thumb? So that's the secret!' It was like that. I would say that the sort of person who is now very interested in or performs some of the more bizarre forms of alternative music would be analogous to the way we felt about blues and bluegrass in those days."
Page 46, lower-middle; Marsh Leicester on banjo playing:
"The claw-hammer style and the kind of frailing styles that are behind [old-timey] are melodic and chord-based, because you're not playing a line all the time; you're fitting the tune into a kind of basic rhythmic pattern. The basic rhythmic pattern that underlies Scruggs style is there all right, but it's much more the production of a line. What you have to do is figure out how to keep your three fingers moving all the time in an orderly way and still play the melody. And you have to learn to play fast and loud, which is also difficult, and then you have to learn how to fit in with four other instruments. Everyone has to sort of learn what the rules are for how instruments interact with one another. It takes a while just to learn how it works, and then to where you can actually do it. It's music that has to be rehearsed in a way that old timey music doesn't require. In that world it's easier for people to get together and play what they play. I don't want to exaggerate the differences, because to play either of them well is very demanding.
"The difference I think you could say is like the difference between New Orleans jazz and Dixieland. One's an ensemble style, the other is a solo-oriented style which has a lot of worked-out counterpoint, and recessive and dominant moments where instruments are in the foreground or background. And then, of course, there's harmony singing, which is also something that isn't done [in old-timey] with the kind of precision and working out that it's done in bluegrass. I would say that bluegrass is a more overtly disciplined way to play the same general body of music, although Bill Monroe says there's more jazz in bluegrass now than there used to be.
"In those days we were doing old-timey [banjo] picking and frailing mostly. In listening to tapes of those days, Jerry's a very interesting frailer he really had a lot of bounce. I'm more of a connoisseur of that kind of picking now than I used to be, although it's what I was trying to do in those days."