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.