There is something both odd and wonderful about a group that is meant to be together. I don't know how these things happen but they do. It doesn't matter what type of group it is. It can be a football team, a start-up company or a rock and roll band. For some reason the magic is there from the start and subconsciously, everybody knows it. There is a confidence, a power that cannot be extinguished. For us, it was exactly that way. Sure, we were cocky, we were arrogant, and we were sometimes jerks ... but we had the power. We knew we could do anything! To this day I do not know why things happened so quickly for us. One day you're struggling in a band that nobody cares about. You set your crappy equipment up as the opening act at some podunk club, you play your set, a couple of drunks in the audience demand you to play "Louie Louie" or "Gloria", and then you slink off and watch the real acts perform. I HATED being the opening act for anybody. I loved playing music. But eagles must fly with eagles. And at that early stage of my music career, I think I was trying to fly with a group of skunks ... but they were really nice skunks that didn't really mean to stink. They were doing their very best to sprout wings and learn more than three chords. OK then. Here is one of my basic philosophies.
To be able to play music is a joy for the soul. To be able to perform it in front of other people is a rare and wonderful gift. It should be cherished and not abused. Drugs usually screwed music up. I know, I know, many people think it makes them better musicians. Many of our friends felt that way and would never have thought of performing straight. It really used to piss me off when I'd see a roadie holding up some guitar player by the back of his pants, hidden in the shadows, because he was so messed up he couldn't stand up on his own. Drugs screw with your timing. They distort your energy. They mess with your mind. They make your fingers slow and clumsy or way too fast. They can take that critical edge away that is so necessary for the show to go on. Sometimes, in the middle of a song, I just knew it suddenly had to go in another direction. With a look, with a word, with a gesture, the entire band could suddenly take a left turn and follow me to new heights. That was creativity..That was talent...that's what playing music was all about. On drugs, it was like a hook and ladder fire engine that turned left and the guy steering the back kept going straight. OH SHIT! LOOOOOOOK OUT!!!! Enough said.
Palm Trees and Shore Breezes at the Coconut Grove
There were three places we played on a regular basis that I will never forget. One of them I just visited a few weeks ago. I had not been there in 20 years. The Coconut Grove on the Boardwalk at Santa Cruz was a dream place to play. The room was hot, sweaty and packed with kids on a Saturday night. More than once the fire marshal would come through just before a show to sweep the place clean of all the extra bodies that had exceeded the occupancy level. They could only fit 500 folks and there were always more than 600. It was wall to wall people with big grins on their faces. After the fire marshal had gone, the place would swell back up even bigger than it was before. Nobody gave a damn! It was here one night that the song "I'm A Man" changed from a 4-minute song to a 10 minute one with the entire audience joining in to sing with us. I don't know how it happened, it just did! We never performed the short version again.
Arriving at a show hours before you went on was a feeling I could never get a handle on. I was always the last one to arrive. The group knew it was just something I needed to do. I never wanted to see the other groups performing before us. It distracted me. It stole my edge. I remember a couple of groups we played with and some of them had big hit records, their band members were vomiting back stage they were so scared before they went on. Give me a break! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING UP HERE IF YOU ARE SO SCARED? Get a grip! I remember one time at the San Jose Civic Auditorium, I was so late the band had already started into the first song without me. Walking through the lobby, I heard Marks' guitar notes ringing out as I walked through the crowd to the stage before grabbing the microphone and starting to sing. Everybody thought it was so cool and that we had planned it that way. Not true. I thought we went on stage half an hour later than we really did. I never cut it that close ever again. To this day, I can still see that big frown on Mark's face and the huge smile on Bill's and Sean's. During a show, it was not uncommon for me to lose five pounds in pure sweat. That much energy was expended in an hour. Best workout anybody could ever have.
'Pushing Too Hard' at the Continental Roller Rink
The Continental Roller Rink in San Jose was my second favorite place to perform. There were two stages, one on each end of the roller rink. It was here one night that my old fraternity buddies opened the evening for us in a band that at the moment was kinda strange. They were clean cut, they did not have long hair - the true badge of rebellion - and they wore white furry Cossack hats on their heads. Granted, they were good musicians but nobody paid much attention to them. They should have. One year later, with the hats gone, we all watched them on Ed Sullivan playing their hit "Suzie Q". It was here one night we had a whipped cream pie fight with the 'Other Side'. The promoters had set the whole thing up and we thought it was a great idea. IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: NEVER hold a pie fight on a hardwood floor. With Jell-O and whipped cream on it, it suddenly turns into greased glass! And, of course, remember that the aerial dynamics of an aluminum foil pie plate, top heavy with Jell-O, makes anyone in the audience a potential target also. And, of course, once hit, the audience feels obliged to rush the pie tables and join in! Hello CHAOS! The most bizarre result, however, were all the people who went home with whipped cream in their hair. The roller rink was probably 80 degrees in temperature, and there was no place to wash this stuff out of your hair. Talk about a great mousse! The looks we got from other motorists at red lights were beyond belief. They wouldn't have looked any more surprised if Jabba the Hut had just stepped out of their shower back home.....
Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco
My favorite place of all to play, however, was the old Fillmore Auditorium. Located in the run-down heart of the San Francisco Tenderloin, it was where music born in garages reached out and touched the heavens. The weekend before we were to play there for the first time, I remember standing in a long line waiting to get in. Down the line comes this guy, short, stocky and very swarthy, checking everybody for booze. Drugs were fine; liquor in breakable bottles was out. As he came up to us, we told him we were the Watchband and we were playing there the next weekend. Suddenly his gruff demeanor changed into a big broad smile. Taking us by the arms, he cut a swathe through the crowds and led us directly inside. This was our first meeting with Bill Graham. How do I describe the Fillmore? It was dark, it was warm, and it was like a living womb. It was the strangest place on the planet. Liquid light shows powered by secret mixtures of food coloring, water and cooking oil undulated all over the walls like giant amoebas devouring everything in their paths. On stage, The Dead warbled on and on and on to the delight of the heavily sedated crowd. Gracie sat in the dressing room charming the pants off of just about any man who walked in while Paul just glared at her. Carlos sat there intensely playing the same riffs over and over again as he warmed up his fingers. Janice laughed and smiled and drank straight from the bottle. That weekend, a band played I will never forget. What in the world IS THIS MUSIC? After the show, they were selling their new album in the lobby and when I walked up to the singer, I couldn't get within 5 feet of him..He STUNK SO BAD! Hello soap and water. I'd like to introduce you to Frank Zappa....
That Saturday night, while the rest of the guys were mingling with the crowd, I found myself upstairs in the dressing room, staring out the window at the hookers on Fillmore Street below. I was absolutely fascinated watching them pick up men, getting into cars and driving off. Some returned in less than ten minutes. They MUST have been good!
HOW THINGS MIGHT HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT:
That first night we played at the Fillmore, two strange things happened. First, one-hour before we were to go on stage, the local musicians union sent a representative to tell Bill the bad news! He was paying the CWB too much for non-scale musicians. We could not go on stage unless there was a paid union musician up there with us. Bill LOST IT! I've never heard so many swear words in my entire life strung together so eloquently without a hint of breathing. Somewhere out there, drifting through outer space, those words still exist. Someday, some alien civilization is going to stumble upon them and the future of our planet may hang in the balance. But, what I love to this day, was his solution to the problem. In a calm but firm voice, he said, "Fine! In exactly 45 minutes, I want a union TUBA PLAYER to be here on stage with this group to perform all their songs. Nothing else will do so you better get on it or get out of here!" And, the tuba player showed up! He sat during the entire show at the side of the stage never blowing into his mouthpiece. Man, I was hoping he would play the harmonica part to "Mystic Eyes" with me .... Oh well.
The other thing I remember about that night was that Bill came up to the dressing room after the show and asked us if he could be our manager. He was thinking of opening up a Fillmore East and along with his other two bands, the Dead and the Airplane, the three of us would shuttle back and forth across the country to play. Who knew? Exactly four days earlier we had signed with Ron Roupe who had caught one of our shows at the San Jose Civic Auditorium. To this day, I can only shake my head wondering how things might have been different if we had signed with Bill Graham. Isn't it amazing how just four days can make all the difference in your life?