If the teen movement in the 1950s, which helped to shock-start the rock ‘n’ roll movement, was about establishing independence from parents, the teen movement of the 1960s, which fueled musical experimentation, was about discovering the life values and self-identity which give meaning to the cultural autonomy.
This shift from seeking independence to discovering identity can be seen in the musical movements of 1965. African-Americans in the urban north and rural south were creating musical paths of discovery by way of gospel based Motown and soul music. Expatriates from the folk movement in New York and Los Angeles were blending voices and acoustic/electric instruments to create commercially viable songs of protest and personal angst.
But in San Francisco, a city steeped in non-traditionalism, a musical movement was gaining momentum based on a more passive, egalitarian lifestyle. San Francisco in the late ‘50s had been one of the hubs of the beat lifestyle, complete with coffeehouses, poetry readings and subversive philosophy. The seeds of the bohemian existential movement reincarnated a decade later in the writings of acid guru and author Ken Kesey (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and others. Kesey promoted the use of a legal psychoactive drug called LSD, which he first experienced as part of a Stanford test group. Kesey felt that through the use of hallucinogens such as LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide or simply “acid”) and marijuana people might be able to break through the conformity of culture, shed the overwhelming materialism that was shackling America and restructure society. The path towards permanent change in the world, they preached, lay not in placards and protests, but pills and pot.
The Acid Tests, hosted by Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters, were occasional opportunities for a group of folk musicians turned blues enthusiasts to provide lengthy improvisations to assist the drug induced group euphoria. At these communal gatherings of heightened sensorial acuity, the music of the Grateful Dead was the perfect complement to the occasion. The extended jam sessions that were the typical fare for these events became known as “psychedelic rock” or “acid rock”. Jerry Garcia, the most known figure of the Grateful Dead, would later call it simply “blues with a great deal of weirdness”.
The concept of improvisation has been a crucial part of music making for centuries. Classical musicians such as Mozart and Bach used it at the harpsichord and pipe organ, and jazz musicians like Armstrong and Parker used it to build pyrotechnic displays on the trumpet and saxophone. In the same way, Garcia, Phil Lesh and others in the Dead utilized the concept of musical autonomy within a loose harmonic framework to create songs that were over an hour in length. Like a film score by Danny Elfman or a symphonic poem by Richard Strauss, the music was accompaniment to another activity. In this case, it was the liquid light shows, the burning incense and the acid trips.
The popularity of acid trips and other communal gatherings eventually outgrew the backyards, barns, small halls and larger venues like the Fillmore Ballroom. In January 1967, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park hosted the first outdoor concert/gathering called the “First Human Be-in”. The Grateful Dead, or the Dead as they were becoming known, were one of the bands providing free music for the psychedelic happening.
The traditional logic of commercial rock ‘n’ roll would state that an artist’s popularity and reputation is built on the hit songs they create in the studio hits and the frequency of AM radio airplay given to those singles. Neither the Grateful Dead nor their fans were comfortable, however, with the confining structure of a 3-minute pop-rock song. The long improvisations, which showed the influence of their country, folk and blues backgrounds and was at the heart of their music, couldn’t be limited to one side of a 45 r.p.m. record.
Record producers attempted to cash in on the popularity of the 1967 psychedelic, hippie movement by signing the Dead to a recording contract and then squeezing their creativity into the confines of a 9-song LP album. Only on the final 10-minute cut, Viola Lee Blues, were the band allowed to stretch into their comfort zone.
While recording their second and third albums, both of which were mediocre commercial successes, the band accrued over $100,000 in extra studio costs. They were able to record their first album, The Grateful Dead, in 3 days, but the second album took them 6 months. In order to repay the debt to the record company, the band recorded their fourth album at a Dead concert.
The resulting double album, which they entitled Live Dead (1970), was recorded for a fraction of the earlier three and allowed them the freedom to play what they knew –extensive improvisations. The first side of Live Dead, in fact, is one cut – “Dark Star” and shows the Dead at their creative best. Utilizing a Latin musical structure known as a “montuno,” the band alternates for most of the song between two chords, with each member having the freedom to rhythmically or melodically craft their own invention. After over twenty minutes, harmonized vocals (perhaps the only part of the song actually “rehearsed”) bring the work, and Side 1, to an end.
Finally the Dead were allowed to create records in the fashion that was most natural to them: the live concert. While fans of the band, affectionately called Deadheads, avidly bought records, the extended boogies were too avant-garde to gain AM radio airplay. The uninterrupted airplay needed to play Grateful Dead songs was available on FM stations. FM deejays and program directors were far less Top 40 oriented than their AM counterparts and were willing to give airplay to bands like the Dead and in later years, Led Zeppelin and others.
The popularity of the Grateful Dead was furthered by their appearance at two of the most famous outdoor concerts of the ‘60s: the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. Altamont in December 1969 was another story completely.
The Grateful Dead, “New Speedway Boogie”, 1970, written to commemorate the disaster of Altamont, Dec. 1969
The psychedelic rock movement of San Francisco offered several other bands of distinction. Jefferson Airplane, fronted by singer Grace Slick, was the most commercially successful of the ‘67 bands. “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love” (dubbed by some the unofficial anthem of the ’67 Summer of Love) and “White Rabbit” both made it to the Top 10 on the charts even though some radio stations banned “White Rabbit” because of its openly pro-drugs lyrics. Jefferson Airplane played both Woodstock and Altamont in ’69 before going through decades of breakups and makeups.
Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit”, Woodstock, 1969
Janis Joplin brought her blues infused intensity to San Francisco and became the front person for Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1967. Her rendition of “A Piece of My Heart” at the Monterey Pop Festival stopped the show. Within two years her popularity overshadowed that of the rest of the band and they parted ways. Janis, nicknamed “Pearl” died of an accidental heroin overdose in her Hollywood hotel in October 1970. The album Pearl was released posthumously the next year and saw “Me and Bobbie Magee” go to #1 on the charts. One of the tracks on Pearl was released without the vocals she never lived to record, it was entitled “Buried Alive in the Blues”.
Other San Francisco bands of the era included Country Joe and the Fish and the Quicksilver Messenger Service, who, like the Dead, built their sound around extended blues improvisations.
A San Diego psychedelic blues hard-rock band named Iron Butterfly gained chart attention and airplay on progressive FM radio stations with its 17-minute “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (2 and ½ minutes were a drum solo). The classic song, together with Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” were the three most critically and commercially successful extended rock works of ’67 and ’68.
Moody Blues, “Nights in White Satin”, 1967
Also appearing on the San Francisco music scene in 1967 was a young Mexican born guitarist with a feel for blues, improvisations and Latin rhythms. His band was first called the Santana Blues Band but the talented guitarist shortened it later to simply Santana. Carlos Santana, influenced by the mariachi music his father performed in Mexico and the blues records by Muddy Waters, played Woodstock in ’69 and had several hits in the early ‘70s including “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va”. His longevity in the music industry is demonstrated by the fact that he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, usually a sign of the end of a career. Two years later, at the 2000 Grammy Awards, his album “Supernatural” won 8 Grammys. His life philosophy which comes out in his music, interviews, speeches and CD liner notes, is more reflective of a personal spirituality and desire for world unity rather than a dependence on psychedelic drugs. In this, the free-flowing music of San Francisco 1967 lives on.
Santana, “Evil Ways’, Woodstock, August, 1969