The Palo Alto/Stanford/Menlo Park region has always been an intellectual incubator and, particularly during the 1950s through the 1970s, it was also notable for concentrating a critical mass of free thinking bohemians that, ultimately, changed the nature of the world we inhabit in profound ways. From 1966 until its demise in 1971, one of the most visible manifestations of this energy in the community was the Midpeninsula Free University. As the name would suggest, offerings by the MFU were free, and essentially anyone could offer a course, but it also attracted its share of Stanford professors and others to its open-ended ranks. The university had its own publication, the Free You and a strong populist political manifesto. There used to be a fine web site, compiled by MFU lawyer Jim Wolpman, documenting the history of the MFU, but it seems to have disappeared. There is a decent Wikipedia entry here.
From1967 through 1968, it held its own Dionysian gatherings, with free music and plenty of speeches, in El Camino Park, a slim plot of greenery wedged between El Camino Real and the Southern Pacific tracks just opposite Stanford Shopping Center. The first MFU Be-In, held on or around 6/24/67, featured the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Anonymous Artists of America. An eyewitness account can be found here.
My entire family and I made a very brief appearance at a Be-In held in the summer of 1968, probably the one on 6/23/68 advertised here, and featuring, among others, The Sons of Champlin and Charlie Musselwhite. At any rate, we parked at Stanford Shopping Center, walked across the street, and were confronted with a seething mass of people with no easy way to get close enough to the stage to even determine who was playing. The scene was too much for my family, and I don’t think we stayed more than ten minutes.
|MFU Be In 9/29/68 Photo: M. Parrish|
Like the Frost shows, the rosters of artists at these events tended to be pretty fluid, so you could never be sure quite who would actually perform. The posters for the September Be-In promised Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Youngbloods but, unless either played in the gathering darkness after I left, they were no-shows. However, Quicksilver manager Ron Polte’s stable was well represented by two fine groups that, regrettably, did not make much of a commercial impact at the time, Freedom Highway and Phoenix.
Freedom Highway was a San Francisco band dating from the earliest days of the confluence of musicians that ultimately gave birth to the ballroom scene. According to guitarist Richi Ray Harris, they were regulars at Rodney Albin’s jam sessions at 1090 Page Street in 1966, where they were heard by Bill Graham, who offered them a gig at the Fillmore opening for the Buffalo Springfield and the Steve Miller Band (April 28-30, 1967). They also came under Polte’s management wing early on, and often shared bills with other West Pole (Polte’s management company name) artists like Quicksilver, the Ace of Cups, and Phoenix.
|Freedom Highway 9/29/68 (From Left: Scott Inglis, Gary Phillipet, |
Bruce Brymer, and Richi Ray Harris) Photo: M. Parrish
For most of 1968, Freedom Highway consisted of guitarist Ray, second guitarist Gary Phillipet, drummer Bruce Brymer, and bassist Scott Inglis. I remember a high energy set with plenty of interplay between the two guitarists but, in the absence of any recorded material for comparison at the time, can’t provide a lot more information beyond this photograph. Miraculously, a Freedom Highway LP (now on CD) was released in Germany in 2002 and is available now on CDBaby. This disc, recorded in Freedom Highway’s house in 1968 and 1969 by engineers Bruce Walford and Paul Stubbelbine, reveals a sound that references both Quicksilver and Moby Grape, featuring memorable melodies, nice harmony singing, and relatively concise performances relative to some of the indulgences of the era. In 1969, Inglis was replaced on bass by David Shallock, who had worked with the Sons and subsequently played in the post-Janis Big Brother before returning to the Sons in both their seventies and 90’s-21st century incarnations.
|Phoenix 9/29/68 (From left - Ed Levin, Jef Jaisun, |
Stan Muther) Photo: M. Parrish
|Phoenix 9/29/68 (from left: Tom Hart, Thomas Dotzler,|
and Jef Jaisun) Photo: M. Parrish
|Dotzler, Hart, and a fan 9/29/68. Photo: M. Parrish|
|Bobby Winkleman and Ross Valory 9/29/68|
Photo: M. Parrish
|Jack King, David Denny, and an athletic Jimmy|
Warner 9/29/68. Photo: M. Parrish
Over the summer of 1968, the MFU ran afoul of the Palo Alto City Council over the noise generated by the Be-Ins. Although the sound system’s power was minimal compared to arena sound reinforcement today, there were sufficient complaints from residents nearby that the MFU’s permit was pulled in July. The council decision was appealed in court and ultimately overturned, but the September event turned out to be the last of the El Camino Park Be-Ins. Needless to say, they went out with quite a bang.
Miller was the last act I caught, and I suspect his was probably the last band to play, as he was still on and darkness was approaching when I left around 7 PM. Although the five piece Steve Miller Band comprising Miller, keyboardist Jim Peterman, bassist Lonnie Turner, drummer Tim Davis and guitarist Boz Scaggs did not break up until later in 1968, Miller played that afternoon in a trio configuration with just Turner and Davis. Perhaps for that reason, the music he played was more blues based than what I expected based on his ethereal first two Capitol albums Children of the Future and Sailor. I remember for sure that he played "Mercury Blues" and "Your Old Lady," both of which appeared on the wonderful (but regrettably out of print) soundtrack to the 1968 film Revolution. Miller had played the night before at the Fillmore West, filling in for Michael Bloomfield for the live Super Session gig that came out as The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. As documented in Al Kooper’s liner notes from the album, another guest guitarist that evening was Carlos Santana, and Miller apparently invited Santana down to Palo Alto the next afternoon to sit in for part of his set. Since I had heard the still unrecorded Santana a few weeks before, I knew what to expect, and the two played off each other with aplomb. Unfortunately, I ran out of film earlier in Miller’s set, so I did not get to document their collaboration photographically.
|Tim Davis and Steve Miller 9/29/68|
Photo: M. Parrish