Sound Check

The tape is cued and ready to roll at the beginning of the beginning. The volume is set. The transmitter is online, and all the radios are tuned in, waiting to receive the story.

Hello, and welcome to the broadcast.

Listen to me, friends: music is made of time. It can be wound forward and backward, played again and again as a favored song. It is an incarnate spirit that calls us to heed the miracle of consciousness. When we listen closely it releases the rhythm that never stops pulsing, the harmony that sings in multiple voices, and the melody that liberates energy and divinity. The elements of music wend their way through our timelines: the events, the life changes, the losses and gains, the love, and the forks in the road.

Back when these reels of tape were recorded, the music demanded to be heard in a time of change and eruption—of love and death. It was our accompaniment as we traveled on an endless river while the sun rose and fell, and the moonlight lapped the bottomless water. We stood on deck while the wheels of the steamboat churned the stream. Our vinyl records rotated on turntables, revealing the music that was embedded in the grooves on Side A and Side B. The songs have never stopped. They still loop perpetually.

They are echoes in the time stream, sailor’s tales of travel without words, dancing spirits of Maya, faded visions of love, shows that never ended. Our hair stood on end as we walked through psychic fire, our path lit by a trimmed and burning lamp. A man from the stars landed amid the young dudes, while something behind the door waited. There were silver trimmed rose petals and diamond nights, a silent death, oak trees, a breeze through parched grass in the lingering summer, and guardian blue eyes watching carefully. Would we ever learn? We were babes in Toyland. During amazing journeys, we could see the city lights and the darkness at the edge of town merging with the fog, waiting patiently for dawn.

All of it, every note, every guitar lick, every screaming voice of joy and epiphany, every drum, organ, piano, synthesizer or saxophone solo, flourished at the corner of Post and Steiner, in the City by the Bay, after the stars of psychedelic alteration rained down and soaked into the fertile ground of a new season. The streets were no longer filled with flowers. The hippies had headed to the hills. There were shadows in the alleys and suffering in the streets, but we believed those seeds would sprout someday and burst with redemption. They blossomed then. They still bloom today. They always will. The music never ceases. It is the song, the concord, and the heartbeat of the cosmos. We are breath. We are thought. Music is the spirit of the depths.  

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.