Friday, May 27, 2011

Nicky Hopkins and His Giant Mirror

I discovered the Grateful Dead in 1972, and I was fortunate enough to see them a few times while I was in High School. Due, however, to being trapped in the suburbs with scant money and transport, I never managed to see Jerry Garcia with one of his own bands until I went to College in 1975 (knowing what I know now, I could have walked to at least a few shows, but I was not that sort of person at the time). The first two Garcia shows I saw were the Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins at the Concord Pavilion on October 17, 1975 and then again at Winterland on December 19 of the same year. Of course, I loved both shows, but the subject of the Garcia Band's music is a topic for a different post.

Over the years I have seen many rock shows by many groups, but the two Garcia/Hopkins shows featured an oddity that I have never seen repeated elsewhere. This first iteration of the Jerry Garcia Band was a quartet, with John Kahn on bass and Ron Tutt on drums joining Garcia and Hopkins on electric guitar and grand piano. Grand pianos were not unknown for major rock shows at the time, and Keith Godchaux, for one, had played  a full size Yamaha on stage with the Grateful Dead up until 1974. Hence it was not surprising to see a giant black grand piano onstage for Hopkins. What was surprising, however, was that the grand piano faced away from the other three musicians. Hopkins was not looking at the band members, but rather at a giant mirror, probably 3 feet by 3 feet, propped up on his piano like giant sheet music. Hopkins looked in the mirror while he played, staring at the reflections of Garcia, Kahn and Tutt, who in turn stared back at his reflection.

I hadn't been to that many rock concerts by Fall '75, and not all of them had grand pianos, but a few of them did. None of them faced backwards, and none of the piano players had a giant mirror to watch the band with. Who had I seen play grand piano on stage by Fall 1975? Keith, Chuck Leavell of the Allmans, Ian McLagan of Faces, Mark Naftalin, Commander Cody, Freddie Mercury of Queen (hey, they were good back then) and Richard Wright of Pink Floyd (I think he played a grand on some songs, anyway), and all in all that's a fair cross section of touring rock pianists. Still, conventional wisdom held that Nicky Hopkins was the best of the best rock pianists--a position I'm still willing to stand by--so I just figured that everything was different for him.

At the time, I thought that having a mirror for the pianist to see the band was weird. I didn't realize, however, that I would never see that again. I mean, it probably wasn't a good idea, but it was still an odd thing. Since the Jerry Garcia Band generated only the most perfunctory kind of press coverage, if any, I don't recall any serious discussion of it. Since Hopkins left under unhappy circumstances, no one wanted to talk about it afterward. I don't even know if he did it every show, but I saw him at the beginning and end (more or less) of his brief tenure, so I assume it was a permanent thing for his stint in the JGB. When I saw Hopkins years later playing in different ensembles, he faced the band like every other keyboard player, so I guess he gave up the experiment.

Hopkins was not in great personal shape in Fall 1975, so perhaps the experiment was not undertaken in a fully logical manner. Of course, my friends and I made all sorts of waggish jokes about why the band needed a 3 foot by 3 foot mirror on the road, but after a few years no one but me even understood the jokes anymore. I have a feeling that Hopkins only tried the mirror with the Garcia Band and then gave it up. Since he may have barely remembered it himself, he may have not had much to say about it, leaving it as one of those half-remembered things from Garcia shows long ago. Still, I saw them twice, so two half-memories equals a whole one--when I saw Nicky Hopkins play grand piano with the Jerry Garcia Band, he faced away from the band and looked at the rest of the group from a giant mirror. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Poster By Jim Parber

Jim Parber's poster for Moby Grape at the Merced Legion Hall, March 15, 1968
Above is a poster by Merced teenager Jim Parber for a show at the Merced Legion Hall, in Merced, CA on Friday, March 15, 1968, featuring Moby Grape and the Flamin' Groovies. The poster scan comes from an excellent website on the Merced music scene in the 1960s. What is it doing in a Grateful Dead blog?

Merced, CA
Merced, CA is the county seat of Merced County, and has historically been a locus for the agricultural area around the city, so the city has been much more important than its modest size would have suggested. Merced is 130 miles Southeast of San Francisco by road. It is one of a series of centers of agricultural commerce up and down Highway 99, California's principal mid-state Highway prior to I-5. The major towns on Highway 99 make up the San Joaquin Valley, which has always been the agricultural center of California.

The city of Fresno is about an 60 miles south of Merced on Highway 99, while the city of Modesto is about 40 miles north of Merced, and Stockton is 30 miles further North (70 miles from Merced) and finally Sacramento 60 miles further (120 miles North of Merced). All of the Central California cities have always been essential economic engines for California, but they have always suffered an inferiority complex relative to San Francisco and the other Bay Area cities, which have in turn dismissed Central California residents as a bunch of rubes.

Whatever the Coast thought of Central California, there were teenagers there, and they had some idea what was happening in the City. Thus, San Francisco rock bands played regular weekend shows in the Highway 99 cities in the 60s, from Sacramento down to Fresno. The shows were an easy drive from the City (if you were a roadie) and offered a chance for the bands to quick up a pick payday on an unoccupied weekend. At one time or another, all the major San Francisco bands played those cities, and many of the Los Angeles-based bands like The Doors or Eric Burdon and The Animals took the opportunity to play as well. There was no Fillmore in any of these cities, so the bands played one-nighters at the Legion Halls or local ballrooms or auditoriums.

Although there was some distances between the San Joaquin Valley cities, Highway 99 is long and straight, and it wasn't so hard to go from town to town. Thus, if you lived in Merced, you probably could get to a show in Fresno (an hour South on 99) or Modesto (45 minutes North) without much trouble. As a result, teenagers in the San Joaquin Valley actually had a fair number of chances to see some hip California bands, and a lot of them have fond memories of that. There were some local heroes, too, bands like Crystal Syphon and Crazy Horse (not Neil Young's guys) who at least got to open at the Fillmore and Avalon a few times.  A good snapshot of the different opportunities and adventures for rock fans in the Valley in the 60s can be found in the Merced Music blog, which is well worth a good look.

The Jim Parber poster for the Merced Legion Hall show featuring Curly Cook's Hurdy Gurdy Band on June 13, 1968
Jim Parber
Jim Parber was a Merced teenager and an aspiring guitarist. It appears that the community of genuine hippies or would-be hippies was pretty small. Jim Parber did the posters for a number of Merced rock shows in the 60s, including the Moby Grape poster at the top of the post, and the Curly Cook poster just above. His posters were derivative of many of the great Fillmore and Avalon artists, but that is true of many rock posters of the time, and on the scale of things they were pretty good, particularly considering he was probably still in High School at the time.

Jim Parber was the son of John (Jack) Parber, a career Air Force officer. Castle Air Force Base was near Merced, and no doubt officer Parber (he eventually reached the rank of Colonel) was assigned there at some point. Where Parber (Sr) was actually assigned in the late 60s is uncertain, since Air Force officers could have been assigned anywhere in the World. Nonetheless the USAF association was probably the reason that Jim Parber was attending High School in Merced, even if his father may have been defending his country in some far flung outpost. Given that Parber knew someone well enough to get a chance to do the posters and was an aspiring musician, I have to assume he was a hip kid and saw all the Merced shows and probably at least some in Fresno and Modesto when the chances came, and perhaps at the Fillmore or Avalon when circumstances permitted.

Jim Parber became a professional musician, and apparently quite a good guitarist. Around 1976 or so, He was the lead guitarist for Lawrence Hammond and The Whiplash Band, when Hammond, formerly of the unique outfit Mad River, made a stab at more conventional country rock. Later, Parber played lead guitar for Billy C Farlow in the late 70s, when Farlow formed his own band after his departure from Commander Cody and The Lost Planet Airmen. Sadly, however, Parber fell prey to a particularly vicious form of cancer and became ill in 1979, eventually dying in 1991, fondly remembered by his friends, family and fellow musicians, as a nice guy and fine guitarist who passed on too young.

Colonel John Parber, USAF (Ret)
John Parber, Jim's father, was the commanding officer at Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato in the late 1980s. Given the timeline, I assume that as Col. Parber was near retirement and that as Hamilton was being fully decommissioned, he was a good choice to finally hand over the facility to civilian authority. Col. Parber retired in Novato. Around 1996, he received a phone call from a man who said "I'm Robert Weir of Mill Valley, and I've been doing some research, and I've run across some information that might be of considerable interest to you." Col. Parber replied "the only Robert Weir I know plays guitar for the Grateful Dead."

As Joel Selvin's remarkable 2004 SF Chronicle article details, Col. Parber turned out to be Bob Weir's birth father. In 1947, college student Parber had had a fling with a fellow student, who found herself pregnant, and without telling Parber snuck off San Francisco to have the baby and give it up for adoption (thus proving Oscar Wilde's famous adage "anyone who has disappeared is said to have been seen in San Francisco"). Weir was adopted, but all he knew about his birth mother was the false name she had given the hospital. When she called Weir in the 1980s, she knew the false name, so Weir knew she was genuine, and she let on to who Weir's father was. At the time, Weir did not contact Col. Parber. In 1996, with young daughters and a considerably changed personal landscape, Weir's wife persuaded him to make the call. Weir's family reunion with the Parbers was happy and productive for all--one wishes all such relationships between the adopted and their birth parents could go so well. The only missing participant was Jim Parber, who seems to not only have shared Weir's musical ability, but not surprisingly looked just like him as well (for a photo of Jim Parber in action in the 70s, see here).

The Grateful Dead in Merced and the San Joaquin Valley, 1969
The Grateful Dead are rumored to have played Merced on March 27, 1969. The date of this show is dubious, since it comes from a misdating of a circulating tape. The accurate date of the tape was actually March 28, 1969, at Modesto Junior College. A Thursday night show in Merced isn't that likely, but it isn't impossible. In any case, Modesto is only 45 minutes North of Merced. When the Grateful Dead played Modesto on Friday, March 28, do you think Jim Parber went? I do. A guy making posters for Merced shows wouldn't be missing out on a Fillmore band playing just up the road. Even if he had a hot date, he probably took her to see the Dead. Do you think Jim Parber's date might have said "hey, the guitarist looks like you, Jim?"

Since Joel Selvin revealed the amazing story of Bob Weir's birth and his guitarist half-brother, I have searched in vain for a show where Lawrence Hammond and The Whiplash Band opened for Kingfish, or a time that Jim Parber made a poster for a Grateful Dead show. So far, I have come up empty. Nonetheless, I think it highly likely that Jim Parber saw the Grateful Dead in Fresno or Stockton, even if it turns out that the band didn't play Merced. Given the random nature of adoption, it is not only remarkable that Bob Weir and his birth father ended up in the same County fifty years later, but the half-sibling most like Weir was following his path somewhat. Parber must have met some of the bands, as the scene was so small--did any members of Moby Grape see him and briefly wonder if Weir had a younger brother?

Friday, May 13, 2011

"So What" The Jerry Garcia Band: Keystone Palo Alto, Palo Alto, CA November 3, 1978

The last performance of the Keith and Donna iteration of the Jerry Garcia Band was at the Keystone Palo Alto on either November 3 or 4, 1978. The Jerry Site shows the November 4 date as questionable (the source was Dennis McNally's list, and he too had a question mark), so the last confirmed date for the Garcia Band with Keith and Donna was Saturday, November 3. We already know that Jerry Garcia had heard Brent Mydland play with Bob Weir the week before, and Garcia and Weir were contemplating replacing Keith and Donna with Brent in the Grateful Dead. The Dead had been unhappy with Keith and Donna for some time, particularly Keith's playing, but in typical Dead fashion the band never discussed it. According to fuzzy rumor, Garcia became unhappy with Keith in the Garcia Band at the end of 1978 over some non-musical issue, and did not schedule any more performances. Perhaps Garcia was figuring that with Brent on the horizon, the end was near anyway.

Over the years, I have not been a huge fan of the late '78 Garcia Band tapes, and thus had not paid too much attention to them. When I was researching the final days of Keith and Donna with the Dead, however, I had to focus on their last date with the JGB, and looked more closely at the November 3, 1978 show. I had dimly known that the band performed Miles Davis's classic "So What," but I had vaguely assumed that this was just a fin de siecle quote, like "Teddy Bear's Picnic" or the like. I did look at the setlist, however, and was astonished to see that "So What" was over 17 minutes long. A reliable Commenter said that the Nov 3 "So What" was supposedly one of Garcia's favorite JGB performances, making the demise of that lineup even stranger. It was worth my time, then, to at least check it out.

Although I do not normally make blanket statements about tapes, I have to say that the Keystone Palo Alto "So What" from November 3, 1978, is my single favorite performance by the Keith and Donna version of the Jerry Garcia Band. Granted, I have an unnatural favoritism for Miles Davis, and it's always exotic to hear seemingly "one time" performances, but despite being very late for the train, I could not believe that during what was probably the last performance of that lineup there was a fantastic, extended performance of a difficult song completely outside of the regular performing repertoire of the Jerry Garcia Band. The Garcia/Saunders group and The Legion Of Mary had a jazz component to them, best expressed in some great 1974 versions of Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance." The Keith And Donna variant, however, played no jazz tunes and no instrumentals (to my knowledge), and yet here they were at their tail end, with a vibrant version of a jazz classic that suggested an entirely different band.

The "Other" Jerry Garcia Band 1976-78
The Golden Road/Winter 1987

In John Kahn's first major interview, with Blair Jackson and Regan McMahon of The Golden Road (Winter 1987 issue), Kahn described a number of remarkable things about the history of his partnership with Jerry Garcia that have often been forgotten. In one remarkable sequence, Kahn described how the band rehearsed (clipped above):
Keith used to live over on Paradise Drive [in the Marin town of Corte Madera], so we used to play over there all the time. He had a room set up so we could just go in and play. Tutt was out of town a lot, but that was OK. You could practice without a drummer. Plus, Tutt was so good that there was nothing that we could come up with that he couldn't figure out right away. I lived in Mill Valley, and Jerry lived in Stinson Beach, so it was real easy for us to get together. Anyway, we had this scene where we would get together just about every night and play. We'd do just about everything. We had Dylan songbooks and we'd do stuff like play everything from Blonde On Blonde. Then we'd do all sorts of Beatles songs. It was great. Most of it never got past that room.
Ok. Just to recap so far: The Jerry Garcia Band got together almost every night in the 1976-77 period, when they were in town, often without a drummer, and played songs out of songbooks. I wonder how "Memphis Blues Again" sounded? Did they ever even think about recording any of this? Why, as it happens, yes. Kahn:
We had this trip where we'd call ourselves the Front Street Sheiks and we'd play dumb piano jazz and stuff like that. We did some recording down at the rehearsal place [what evolved into the Dead's studio] right after they got their 24-track. We'd be down there every night of the week playing these old songs like "All The Things You Are," and "Night In Tunisia, " things like that. Keith and Donna were always together, so Donna sang with us too.
So, at some point, 24-track tapes existed of most of the Jerry Garcia Band playing jazz standards and goodness knows what else, just having fun to see if the new equipment worked. The Garcia Band rehearsed in what became Le Club Front in mid-1977, so it sounds like they had moved from the Godchauxs Corte Madera home over to San Rafael. Did any of these tapes survive? Has anyone even heard a rumor of this material, even under another name?

I think the Jerry Garcia Band had played "So What" many times, if often without Ron Tutt. The relaxed confidence with which they move through the changes isn't just luck. Whether consciously or not, the JGB knew that Keystone Palo Alto was the end of the line, and for 17 minutes it was just one final time for the boys in the living room, swinging a Miles Davis tune like champs, because it was fun. A nice way to go out. Here's to hoping that some fragments of this alternative universe Garcia Band have survived into the 21st century.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Spring 1976, Lower Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley: Merl Saunders and Aunt Monk with Martin Fierro, Chris Hayes and Bill Vitt

When I was in High School, Jerry Garcia's extracurricular activities were a tantalizing mystery. I lacked money, a car and the right to go to bars, so when I saw ads for events like Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders at the Keystone Berkeley, I could only wonder what they were like. I absorbed what information I could, like the "Live At Keystone" double lp on Fantasy, or the occasional live broadcast on KSAN, but it was all largely a world I couldn't enter. The one time Garcia-Saunders actually played my town at a show I could attend (at El Camino Park in Palo Alto on June 8, 1975) I didn't go, for some high-schoolish reason--I think because none of my friends would go with me.

When I went to college, Jerry stopped playing with Merl and began the Jerry Garcia Band with Nicky Hopkins. I was lucky enough to see them, twice (Oct 17 and Dec 19 '75), but of course no explanation was ever given for changing band members, or for that matter changing the band name. We could read the paper, and see that Merl Saunders was still playing around, using the name Aunt Monk. There was some mention of his band members in Joel Selvin's SF Chronicle column, as Tony Saunders seemed to have taken over on bass for John Kahn, while Chris Hayes had the unfortunate job of "replacing" Jerry Garcia on guitar, and someone else was on drums (I think it was Larry Van). Tony Saunders may have still only been a teenager, and Chris Hayes wasn't much older. His older sister Bonnie Hayes led a popular club act in the Bay Area (Bonnie Hayes and The Wild Combo), but his playing was unknown to me. I still had no money and wasn't 21, so even when Merl Saunders played around, I couldn't go. I had no idea what the band sounded like without Garcia.

Lower Sproul Plaza as it appeared in March, 2010. The stage for free concerts in the 1970s was just off camera to the right, in front of Zellerbach Auditorium. Pauley Ballroom and The Bear's Lair are off camera to the left. Visible is Eshleman Hall, looking South with Bancroft Street in the background.
Lower Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley
Sproul Plaza was the main quad on the UC Berkeley campus, and had been for many decades. In the 60s, it was the site of many seminal protests and riots revolving around the Free Speech Movement and a series of Anti-War protests. Lower Sproul was constructed some time in the mid-60s, an adjunct to the main quadrangle, bracketed by the Student Union building which included the Bear's Lair and Pauley Ballroom on one side, while Zellerbach Auditorium was on the opposite side (the view above looks South towards Eshleman Hall. In this view, Pauley is to the left and Zellerbach to the right).

When I was in college in the late 70s, almost every Friday there was a free rock concert in Lower Sproul at noon in the Fall and Spring Quarters. Sometimes there were shows on other days as well. I often had class at 12:30 on Fridays, but I saw a half hour of a lot of interesting bands. The groups who played were usually headlining at Keystone Berkeley or opening at Winterland that weekend, so they weren't nobodies.

My older sister rather cynically, and as it turned out correctly, pointed out to me that the primary purpose of allowing rock bands on Fridays was because the administration wanted to drown out any protests. This turned out to be true. A full volume rock band on Lower Sproul made it impossible to hear any speakers at the inevitable demonstrations held on Fridays, and many times I saw this happen. This was an instructive lesson on how institutions co-opt participants for their own ends, but that wasn't my concern at the time.

One Friday morning in Spring, 1976, probably around March or April, one of my friends somehow found out that the scheduled band for Lower Sproul that day was Merl Saunders. I assume he was promoting his You Can Leave Your Hat On album, but I wasn't aware of that at the time. My little clump of Deadhead pals were really excited. We all repeated to ourselves "Jerry will never show up, he left the band" while secretly intoning "please please please just this time please." Instead of just wandering past Lower Sproul on our way to class, we all made plans to arrive early and sit down in front of the stage (y'know, just in case).

For those readers who know the UC Berkeley campus, the bands played on a mobile stage that they would set up in front of the lobby of Zellerbach Auditorium (I think they got power from Zellerbach), with an appropriate little sound system. Our backs would be to Pauley Ballroom and The Bear's Lair. Since Lower Sproul was bracketed by buildings, it had a sort of natural bowl effect, and the sound wasn't bad at all for an outdoor show. Usually a hundred or so fans of a band would be up close, a hundred or so intrigued passers-by would hang out, and hundreds more would wander through on their way to or from class or the library. Today, we were part of the hundred fans who were going to be up close.

Merl Saunders and Aunt Monk's 1976 Fantasy LP You Can Leave Your Hat On
Merl Saunders and Aunt Monk
Sproul Plaza shows were generally without fanfare. Someone, usually a college radio station dj, would announce the band, and off they would go. I don't even recall if Merl Saunders was actually announced at all, which in and of itself wouldn't have been surprising. I'm fairly certain that Merl began the show by introducing the band: Martin Fierro on tenor sax, Chris Hayes on guitar and Bill Vitt on drums. Saunders introduced Bill Vitt as "an old friend" or something like that, so in the context it seemed like Vitt was just making a guest appearance. In any case, we knew that Vitt had long since moved on from the Garcia-Saunders band, and yet here he was. Bill Vitt wasn't that big a deal, and yet to me, here was a name I had seen on the back of albums and in nightclub ads, and here he was in the flesh. I felt like I was in college, not some sleepy suburban high school. It was great.

I don't recall the numbers that Merl played, but I do recall that most or all of the numbers were tracks that we were familiar with from various Garcia/Saunders or Legion Of Mary tapes. I'm pretty sure they did "You Can Leave Your Hat On" and "Boogie On, Reggae Woman, " but in any case it was songs along those lines; familiar, but 'Merl songs' instead of 'Jerry songs.' Because I was naive, I initially didn't understand why there wasn't a bass player. It took a little bit of time to realize that Merl was covering bass with the foot pedals on his organ, so he was singing, playing organ and playing bass all at the same time.

Although none of us would say it out loud, we were initially let down because Jerry wasn't there, just as our rational minds had insisted. This must have happened to Merl throughout his career. Here was the thing, though--Merl and the band were absolutely smoking. Merl laid down an awesome groove on the organ, Bill Vitt had plenty of room to stretch out on the drums, and Chris Hayes laid down a nice groove himself on the guitar. Hayes sounded more like Weir than Garcia, although that was the only real grounds I had for comparison--now I realize that Hayes was trying to sound like Kenny Burrell or Larry Carlton, but he played nice jazzy chords and clean licks, keeping it moving the whole time. Fierro isn't really an exceptional soloist, but this was groove music and he had a nice tone. The place was jumping, and it was noon and on one was drinking beer--they must have really got it going on when the lights were low.

I watched the whole hour and was late to class, or skipped it (I retroactively apologize to all the college professors out there). The whole show was a revelation, in more ways than one. Whenever I had listened to Garcia-Saunders, all I had heard was Jerry, Jerry, Jerry. Without him, however, it turned out that Merl and his crew were terrific musicians who were really fun to listen to. Bill Vitt was an awesome drummer, and I was stunned at Merl's ability to play bass and organ at the same time. I didn't think that Merl Saunders and Aunt Monk were the Next Big Thing, or anything like that, but it was a reminder that I had to listen to the music that was actually played rather than thinking about my own expectations, and I have tried to keep that in mind ever since.

Aftermath
Chris Hayes went on to join Huey Lewis and The News in 1979 and became a big rock star. Merl Saunders (1934-2008) and Martin Fierro (1943-2008) had lengthy careers, but they are no longer with us. Bill Vitt, it turns out, released an album in 2008.

Sometime in the 21st century, I was at the Davis-Bynum Winery in Sonoma, and I was chatting with the wine salesman behind the desk. As I was leaving, he handed me his card and it said "Bill Vitt." I asked "Are you the guy etc etc" and he was. As I left, I remembered the Sproul show, and I didn't want to let it go unremarked. I do know that all artists appreciate people who enjoy their work, so I went back in to tell him how much I had enjoyed this Friday afternoon, by this time over 25 years previously. Vitt, who couldn't have been nicer, recalled the show--or pretended to anyway, but I think he really did--and said that Merl had called him the day before and told him just to show up. That means Vitt was laying it down with no rehearsal whatsoever, another sign of what great musicians were in the band, even without their famous friend.