Sunday, September 19, 2010

MFU Be-In, El Camino Park, Palo Alto 9/29/68

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
Not to be dissuaded by this experience, and with the Stanford Summer Rock show under my belt, I somehow convinced my folks to let me ride my bike to the Be-In held on September 29, 1968. This time, undeterred by uncomfortable family members, I stayed pretty much the whole day and, camera in hand, got to document a very memorable day of music. The event was nonetheless somewhat of a culture shock for me. I think it was the first time I saw such widespread consumption of pot and even alcohol, and there were also a few audience members letting their freak flags fly, so to speak. Paradoxically, it was also quite a family event, as demonstrated by the many young children hanging out on and near the stage. I guess I approached all of this with the eye of a cultural anthropologist and focused on the music. For this show, the stage was set up at the north end of the field, and you can see from the photos that the P.A. and onstage sound reinforcement was very primitive relative to what you see at a typical rock show today.

 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
Following Freedom Highway was another San Francisco group, Phoenix, whose lineup, carefully documented at the Chicken on a Unicycle website. At the time of the Be-In, Phoenix was a six piece, consisting of guitarists Stan Muther and Warren Phillips, drummers Tom Hart and Ed Levin, multi-instrumentalist Thomas Dotzler, and bassist Jef Jaisun.  Unlike Freedom Highway, no recorded music from Phoenix has ever been commercially released or, to my knowledge, distributed among collectors, but I recall their improvisations being much more extravagant, and Jaisun and Levin’s bare shirts and Phillips’ and Muther’s posturing and proto-head banging could have served as physical (but definitely not musical) models for many heavy metal bands.  As documented in the Chicken on a Unicycle Family Tree,  Phoenix experienced some cross-pollination of personnel with another band, Mount Rushmore, which at one time included Dotzler, Phillips, and Levin. Mount Rushmore released two albums, now available on a single CD High on//1969, but none of the Phoenix members play on them (although they apparently featured a number of Phillips-penned tunes).  Jaisun left Phoenix in late 1968,  scored a cult hit with his witty solo single “Friendly Neighborhood Narco Agent,” and is now a respected blues and jazz photographer. Phoenix continued for another year through a number of additional personnel changes, breaking up at the beginning of 1970.

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
Both of these bands were received enthusiastically and, as can be seen from the photos, attracted a large number of very young kids on and near the stage. However, the audience really resonated with the next group, Frumious Bandersnatch. Although they never performed much outside of the Bay Area, and only released one EP during their initial tenure as a band, Frumious Bandersnatch’s members are familiar to many for their subsequent musical endeavors.  Most of the band did stints in the Steve Miller Band, and bassist Ross Valory and early member George Tickner were in the original lineup of Journey.  At the time of the Be-In, Frumious Bandersnatch was in its best known and most stable lineup comprising guitarists David Denny, Bobby Winkleman, and Jimmy Warner, bassist Valory, and drummer Jack King. With their three guitar attack, soaring harmonies, dynamic stage presence, and crisp songwriting, Frumious Bandersnatch deserved a bigger spot in rock history than they have received. One audience member who was mightily impressed by Frumious Bandersnatch was Steve Miller, who by 1970 had recruited 4/5 of the band (Valory, King, Winkleman, and Denny) to shore up his own group when his ‘classic’ lineup gradually splintered during the next year or so. Today a surprising amount of Frumious Bandersnatch material is available on CD, including their original EP (on a compilation called  The Berkeley EPs: Nuggets From the Golden State),  a disc of studio recordings called A Young Man's Song, a privately released set of additional studio outtakes featuring a trio of Warner, Winkleman, and bassist Jack Notestein, and a fine 2008 reunion disc, Flight of the Frumious Banderstatchthat is available on CD Baby. They even have a Myspace Page. Finally, meticulously researched family trees for both Frumious Bandersnatch and the Steve Miller Band can be found on Bruno Ceriotti's fine San Francisco Sound website.

Tim Davis and Steve Miller 9/29/68
Photo: M. Parrish
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.
Dancers, El Camino Park 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. 

14 comments:

Jerry Garcia's Middle Finger said...

Wow. Just wow. cryptdev, that is a wonderful post and the photos are fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing!

Corry342 said...

Do you have any confirmation that the June 24, 1967 Be-In with the Dead and Big Brother was actually an MFU event? I've never been able to figure out who sponsored the event, but the MFU doesn't actually take credit for it on their website (and I think they would if they had organized it).

The pictures are indeed amazing.

cryptdev said...

JGMF:

Thanks for the kind words. It's nice to get this stuff out there.

cryptdev said...

Corry:

I thought this was confirmed on the MFU web site, which is apparently down now. Barring such confirmation, my assumption was that all El Camino Park "Be-Ins" were sponsored by the MFU. Can anyone confirm this?

Eric said...

Great stuff.
With each rap Michael, you're getting into more obscure Bay Area history...which is crazy good in my book.

Thanks for doing this.

Corry342 said...

Well, the MFU site likes to imply that they were responsible for all the Be-Ins, but were they? And in their lengthy (and not entirely chronologically accurate) history of the Be-Ins, why did the author forget to mention the one with the Dead and Big Brother?

The MFU site didn't mention a Be-In on June 24, 1967, or anything resembling that date, nor any event with two of SF's most famous bands.I can't help but think there was another organizational group for the first and best known Be-In.

Paul said...

I saw Phoenix as a warm up act for the Dead at Playland in August '69. I think with all the changes in the line up, they had lost a little something. They were fun, however, and I'd be interested to hear some of them from any incarnation.

Another great post Michael. The photos alone are worth the look.

cryptdev said...

Eric:

Thanks for your comments. I am continually fascinated by the way the bay area has served as an incubator for so many cultural, artistic, and technological innovations, and it is amazing how all of those creative threads weave together.

cryptdev said...

Corry:

I'm going to try to dig deeper to find out who sponsored the '67 Dead/Big Brother Be-In. As you know, getting confirmation of some of these basic facts can represent quite a quest sometimes!

cryptdev said...

Paul:

I'm envious that you saw Phoenix with the Dead (and that you got to go to the Family Dog on the Great Highway!). Although Phoenix was probably down to a single drummer when you saw them, they were about the only bay area band other than the Dead I can think of that had two drummers at one point.

Billy said...

I have the poster for this show.

hrayovac said...

Unbelievabe photo of Freedom Highway..I should say, believable because I know that's me, Gary, Scott and Bruce...me playing the 1952 Les Paul (that guitar probably is worth 10 grand and up today, depending).
I blew up a Vox "Super Beatle" amp onstage at Avalon Ballroom with that guitar because the pickups were so hot. If the person who started this page and/or took the photo could contact me, I'd appreciate it very much, hrayovac@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

The reason Phoenix had such a revolving door cast was the reason for their name. The band always seemed to rise from the ashes of the previous Lineup... For a while anyway. Luv, BluzKat

Redwoodhippie said...

The MFU history site by Jim Wolpman is up http://midpeninsulafreeu.com/


Jim Wolpman, who by the way was our MFU attorney, says: "...January 1967, the first Human Be In was held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The idea caught hold and on May 14th the Free University held a “Mother’s Day Be-In,” followed in July by a “Registration Be-In and Mary Poppins Umbrella Festival,” both with local bands and speakers." Jim's reference to the July event is probably actually the June 24, 1967 Be-In. In the Fall 1967 class catalog a "BEFORE THE FALL" Be-In is announced with detail of the planned performers. I will scan the page and post it at: facebook.com/redwoodhippie. The text says: "Blue Cheer, The Steve Miller Blues Band, The Anonymous Artists of America, The New Delhi River Band, The Solid State, The Congress of Wonders will perform, and Ira Sandperl will speak." I was the printer at the MFU in 1968 and it was my impression that we were the only people putting on Be-In's in Palo Alto’s El Camino Park. In the spring of 1968 Jim states we had another smaller Be-In. I also recall we had a Be-In a few months prior to the Sept 1968 one that required help from the ACLU so that was probably the June 23, 1968 Be-In. In 1969 we held at least two concerts in the Stanford University Frost Ampitheater.