Post and Steiner

Fred explains that the building had originally been an ice rink. Above the back entrance a large advertisement is permanently painted touting a performance of the Ice Follies with a picture of Snoopy, the dog from the Peanuts cartoon, dancing in ecstasy. The paint is faded and festooned with cracks. Winterland was constructed in 1928, and over the years falls out of use until Bill Graham, the San Francisco music impresario, begins producing concerts there in the late sixties. In 1971 he converts the structure to a concert auditorium and weekly performances take the place of the music presented at the Fillmore West because of Winterland’s larger capacity.

When we arrive, there are about fifty people in line outside. The wind is brisk and cool, typically uncomfortable San Francisco weather. The folks in line are talking quietly and passing joints around. Fred breaks out his hash pipe. That makes me nervous and a bit paranoid. What if a cop sees us? There is a steady stream of traffic at the intersection. I notice the marquee, one of those old-fashioned types that requires someone to get on a ladder and insert black plastic letters into grooves that are backlit by translucent white light. PINK FLOYD is all that is listed. I expect a more sophisticated place, and that surprise continues when the doors open at 7 o’clock, and we enter. Security guards pat us down, looking for alcohol in bottles. They don’t seem to care about anyone carrying in pipes or joints. We pass through a set of open double doors and reach the main arena.

Fred leads us to the stage, and we sit on the floor twenty feet from the edge where we can get a clear view. I can see that Winterland isn’t designed for intimate musical performances—it’s cavernous. The stage is at the far end of the narrow side of the open floor. There are rows of seats surrounding the floor on the main level, and even more in the balcony—wooden seats that look uncomfortable. The band equipment is set up—a large drum kit with two bass drums, one painted with the word PINK and the other FLOYD, three slender microphone stands, an organ and electric piano to the right of the stage, and small guitar amplifiers on either side of the drum kit. A white screen hangs backstage and large public address speakers are stacked to the right and left sides of the stage. Music is playing—the Rolling Stones album, Sticky Fingers, released last April. The high ceiling is mottled with cracking plaster and a few dirty windows are illuminated by the fading, evening light.

The building looks as if it’s about to collapse. Acoustically it’s also a ruin, though I don’t know that yet. Over the next few months, I learn where the best seats for decent sound are located if the live mix is performed by an engineer who has not yet lost his hearing. During some performances I hear the music bounce off the back of the hall when the stage was set up at the far end—the decay is both physical and auditory. In some later concerts the stage is located on the right-hand side, parallel to the long side of the arena, and the first rows of the balcony provide a clear view and excellent sound. In other areas it’s like listening to the music in an enormous tin can, especially when bands are appropriately deafening, even when the place is packed. That night it is uniquely empty.

There are only about five hundred people in the auditorium. Some folks have brought blankets and soft rugs to sit on, and for some reason everyone is speaking in lowered voices. I chat with the folks sitting next to me and when they learn that I know nothing about Pink Floyd they smile and inform me that I am in for a “real trip.” I recognize the evidence that indicates that some members of the audience have taken LSD—dilated pupils. I feel calm. Fred’s hashish is having a placid effect.

The concert is scheduled to start at 8 o’clock, but the hour passes by, and no one appears. A half hour later a roadie comes onstage and apologizes for the late start and says that a film will be presented in the meantime. I’m grateful for this because the Rolling Stones are repeating endlessly, and I am weary of hearing “Brown Sugar.”

The house lights go down, and the film starts—Woody Allen’s debut, What’s Up Tiger Lily? I’ve never seen it before and it’s hilarious because he overdubbed new dialogue on a second-rate Japanese spy film so that the plot is a mystery search for the world’s best egg salad recipe.

The Emcee for the Evening

When I enter Winterland that night it’s saturated with concentrated smoke from thousands of hand-rolled joints. I’m already cooked before I arrive and more so afterward. Spliffs are passed around continually as part of that night’s festivities. It’s easy to think that we are on the verge of passing the California Marijuana Initiative—on the ballot of the first election to take place after the ratification of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution that has sanctioned 18-year old adults with the right to vote. The eventual Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, has promised to withdraw all American soldiers from Vietnam and to decriminalize marijuana, in addition to other liberal agenda items. George is my man. Tonight, anything seems possible. Maybe we can elect him and legalize marijuana at the same time.

The emcee for the evening is Wavy Gravy, a founding member of the First Church of Fun, a league of activist clowns who are steadfast in their commitment to ending the debacle in Vietnam through satire and comedy. Wavy’s actual name is Hugh Romney. His nickname was bestowed by the bluesman B.B. King. He started as a poet, joined Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, formed the collective known as the Hog Farm, and handled security at Woodstock. When asked how he intended to maintain order for the three days of the festival he stated that he would use “cream pies and seltzer bottles.” He is a poet, prankster, and fool—an admirable evolution of soul and spirit.

That night while Wavy wows the audience between acts, engaging in what he calls “delightfully altered elevated shenanigans,” I feel a freedom that dissipates all the weighty disquiet that I habitually carry with me. What I have been taught my whole life— the expectations of discovering a career and working like a drudge—has no attraction for me. There is something different about me that hasn’t revealed itself yet. I knew I have passion for words and music, but how can I make a living with those tools, unadmired as they are by the culture I’ve been born into?

Wavy blows up balloons and tosses them into the audience, tells mystical jokes, and leads us through a meditation based on hyperventilation—we fall down after that—all the while laughing and venting a holy field of hilarity that passes through the audience like a helium wind. It’s an open and uplifting celebration—more than a rock concert—a gathering of young people who are all rebelling against the powers of the world that want to snuff out all joy and make us the slaves of plutocrats.

Wavy is more than a clown—he is a hallowed being like the rest of us. The difference is that he knows he is a comic saint and I do not. I can see myself in that crowded and smoky building as if I am looking from above, one tiny head among many others, John Lennon glasses on my nose, a doobie in my mouth, clapping and laughing along with everyone else, feeling the power of the renewal that is always with us. The joy I feel that night sustains me. Years have passed, but the power is still there in my heart—emanating endlessly.

Let’s Sit in the Balcony Instead

Nothing has changed at the corner of Post and Steiner. It is still the grimy junction that I’m fond of—my place on Friday nights—this one initiating the party weekend that will extend to Halloween next Tuesday. That seems appropriate. The line is short but is spilling around the corner from the front entry doors as we approach from behind the arena on Pierce Street.

Bowie has been everywhere in the media ever since the tour started on September 22 in Cleveland. On October 20th and 21st the band plays two sold out nights at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Los Angeles is zany for Ziggy. KMET, the underground FM station known as “The Mighty Met,” airs the October 20th concert live. Bowie and the Spiders overwhelm L.A., leaving fans raving about what they had seen and heard.

But as I stand in line I wonder where all the hip San Francisco fans are hiding. Winterland should be crammed, but as we wait only a few people line up behind us. I ask Fred about that, but he shrugs his shoulders. By this time, he’s comfortable with the music and can’t deny its value, but he’s still nervous about the gender incongruity of the album. A couple of weeks earlier I buy a copy of Hunky Dory, Bowie’s previous album, because I enjoy the music. But I tease Fred with the cover—Bowie gazing upwards, a look of longing on his face, his hand pulling his hair up from his forehead effeminately. It’s a soft-focus photo like all the studio photography of movie stars given away as publicity pictures back in the Forties and Fifties.

I walk down to the corner and stand under the signpost. There’s a group of men clustered at the head of the line dressed as women. There are plenty of men in San Francisco who cross-dress. This is my first sighting. Not all of them are outfitted that way. Some are in full Ziggy regalia, complete with red hair and rooster haircuts—all of them colorful and loud.

The rest of the people in line are dressed in denim. It’s the post-hippie look, and I’m a member of that community. I saunter back down to where Fred and Gloria are holding our place in line. I try to look nonchalant.

“What’s going on up at the front of the line?” Fred asks.

“Oh, not much. People waiting as usual.” I keep my reply as deadpan as I can. I want to see the look on his face when he sees the guys at the front door. A few minutes later some additional costumed characters walk around the corner and take their places in line behind us. Fred, who’s been talking rapidly and holding forth on one thing or another, stops prattling and his voice halts. He averts his eyes, which are wide with disbelief, and leans against the wall as if he needs physical support from the shock. A few moments later he says, “I hope they open the doors soon. I’m getting cold,” in the same way a cat, after falling ineptly from a table, licks its paw as if to say, I meant to do that.

When the doors open the line flows in without any rushing or running. When I reach the main floor, I see there are only a couple of hundred people near the stage. I wonder if some folks were running fashionably late. Where is everybody? Perhaps there will be a larger crowd eventually. It’s the right time to get close to the stage and claim a space before the music starts. But as I begin walking Fred does not move. He’s frozen in place, looking at the milling group of alternate lifestyle folks with consternation as he holds hands with Gloria. I think for a moment that she might be the cause of his hesitation. She says a few words to him that I can’t hear—tries to take a step forward and pull him with her. He remains stationary. He shakes his head from side to side. He’s unwilling to join the crowd of cross-dressers.

The Ignition of Souls

As we cross over the suspension span after exiting the Yerba Buena tunnel the elevated seats of the vehicle provide an unobstructed view of the sun settling into the fog that engulfs the silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge. We park in the underground garage at the Japan Center and walk to Post and Steiner to join the line of ticket holders. The fog has rolled into the City and the marquee in front of the arena was alight. The neon letters WINTER are illuminated in red, but the third syllable is dark. Below, black plastic letters declare, “An Evening with Genesis.”

It’s the only band on the bill. There are no juggling acts tonight—and I’m grateful. We make our way to the stage. A black curtain is hoisted behind the instruments and amplifiers. The stage set is modest, though atypical in that Phil Collin’s drum kit is in line with the other musicians rather than behind on a riser. Stools are set in front of the guitar amps on the left side of the stage. On the far right, next to the drums, is a set of keyboards: an ARP Pro soloist synthesizer atop a Hammond T-102 organ, at right angles to a M400 Mellotron and an RMI 368x Electra Piano. In the center of the stage is a single bass drum. Behind it is a large waist high white circle.

The enthusiasm for Genesis tonight is comparable to Pink Floyd two years earlier—mellow and thoughtful pre-concert conversation rather than obnoxious whooping and hollering. The laidback expectancy of a throng of college kids permeates the atmosphere without a random bouncing beachball anywhere in the auditorium. The effect foreshadows a dramatic theatrical presentation rather than a rock show and the character of the audience complements it—fueled with marijuana rather than motivated by alcohol.

When the house lights dim, the placid mood is replaced by a swift, visceral charge of energy that flares through the audience. This is the band’s first appearance in the Bay Area but is feels as if Genesis is coming home to a fervent San Francisco welcome. To the left of the stage Steve Hackett, hirsute and wearing black-rimmed spectacles, sits on a stool. Mike Rutherford adjusts the substantial double-necked Rickenbacker guitar and bass around his neck. Phil Collins, dressed in white overalls with no shirt, takes his place in his elaborate drum kit while Tony Banks sits on the keyboard bench and pauses before starting the introduction to “Watcher of the Skies.”

The crowd’s enthusiasm is swamped by the stately sound of mellotron string and brass tones blaring in full fortissimo. A purple florescent light materializes at the front-center of the stage. The introduction progresses. Peter Gabriel painstakingly walks from the shadows behind the band and halts in front of the white circle. Dressed in black, he wears a full cape that glistens with gold, blue, and green sequins. His black hair is shoulder length—a section above his forehead is shaved in a reverse widow’s peak outlandishly exposing his scalp.  A headband around his forehead accentuates the effect. White face paint reflects the eerie glow emanating from the light fixture on the floor. Blue makeup beneath his eyes sparkles as he stands like an immoveable statue. A pair of bat wings extends from either side of his head—a curious science-fiction-fantasy touch.

Utopia’s Here

I am conscious of a serene distortion of space and time—the ceiling appears to be breathing. The thought that the building has a soul pops into my head. The rundown dump that always seems to be inflated by an atmosphere of sound that keeps it from disintegrating is now a gently respirating vortex swelling with compassion.

There are not many people in the audience—like the Pink Floyd and Bowie shows. We are all gathered close to the stage—I stand there with my two friends— enwrapped in the satisfaction of the present moment. The opening lines to “International Feel” spontaneously come to mind— “Here we are again / the start of the end / but there’s more.”

The house lights dim. Todd walks on stage alone, dressed in a white, long-sleeved shirt painted with multi-colored circles and pyramids. He wears a similarly decorated pair of bell bottom trousers that are about eighteen inches wide. The outfit is ornamented with colored beads that reflect spangles of light. A Gibson SG electric guitar hangs from his shoulders. The instrument is painted with yellow stars, rainbows, flames—an angelic figure dances above the tone and volume control knobs. The overall effect—Elvis has taken a massive dose of acid and has teleported from the black hole of Las Vegas in 1969 to the post-Summer-of-Love weirdness of 1974. Todd has longer hair, is slimmer, and he’s likely about to lay down something far more mind-expanding than Viva Las Vegas. A smile materializes on my face like a piece of orange sugar candy glowing as brightly as the spotlights that illuminate the stage.

He says a few words of greeting—manipulates some switches on a stack of equipment next to him. The sound of an entire band surges from the stage—but he is the only musician in view. Songs flow by quickly—pop-oriented singles created by his commercial muse— “Hello, It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” and “A Dream Goes on Forever.”

Todd is far less frenzied than Ziggy Stardust despite the kaleidoscopic Elvis-spoof costume and the peculiar absence of anyone else onstage with him. We settle into the setlist as if we are listening to a virtual transistor radio broadcasting from the stage. In between numbers, he cracks sardonic jokes—comments on the Nixon impeachment hearings that began the day before—generates a laid-back ambiance that enfolds us like a cozy blanket.

I lose track of time—psilocybin does that. The set is one sustained song intermixed with Todd’s voice, guitar, and banter. The individual tunes naturally expand or shrink as the show progresses. The audience sings along as a spontaneous bond grows between us. Veiled within those tunes are traces and hints of the wilder musical ideas recorded on A Wizard, A True Star, and Todd.