The Trips Festival: First Large San Francisco Rock Gathering

A new, exciting, subversive, dangerous purple haze of music and music-based culture was enveloping Berkeley and San Francisco. The earliest warning signals came to me from Laura Allan, a beautiful and mysterious former surfer girl who was now onto something truly exotic and thrilling. She reported to an enthralled group of fellow Berkeley High students in early 1966 about the Trips Festival taking place at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco on January 21st through 23rd. Laura said that the event was an “acid test, “where the audience could drop LSD provided by the great Owsley himself. Writer Ken Kesey was there with his Merry Pranksters, offering a running commentary over the sound system.

The Trips Festival poster read: “the general tone of things has moved from the self-conscious Happening to a more JUBILANT occasion where the audience PARTICIPATES because it’s more fun to do so than not. Maybe this is the ROCK REVOLUTION.”

Local rock bands provided the music for the madness. Paul Fauerso of The Loading Zone told me, “The first place we played was at the Trips Festival. Those were the first big concerts where everyone realized that there were a lot freaks out there. We had to wade through the audience to set up, and it was packed. There were 2,000 people outside trying to get in.”

Peter Albin told me, “The Trips Festival was the first gig that people found out about Big Brother and the Holding Company. Outside of 1090 Page St. and the local theater, San Francisco rock band performances weren’t standardized. It was our first venue in a large hall.

“We thought that we were pretty good, but evidently nobody else did. Kesey was in control and took over, which really pissed off Chet Helms, our manager. We only did a couple of songs and Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs of the Merry Pranksters took over. They’re pushy bastards, but creative also. I think that Kesey thought that he had the right to do it because he was a famous writer. It was just his personality. I thought that we were pushed off too soon. But at the same time I agree that we were just starting out. We were not as rehearsed or professional as the people who followed us, and they played for a long time.”

One of the Trips Festival organizers, Alexandra Jacopetti Hart, told me, “When we started doing things in ‘64 we were at the birth of the phenomenon. My husband Roland and I thought that theater stuff would be the draw and was as important as everything else. We hired the Longshoreman’s Hall. We were all accustomed to small crowds, but we thought we’d see what we could do. What we were going to do was the performance piece, ‘Revelations.’ We thought it would be the pinnacle of the evening.

“Meanwhile, people were lining up to get tickets. Kesey set up a little acid-laced Kood Aid stand. We had a big crowd of people, none of who had been high in front of a big crowd of people. A number of people who didn’t know they were on acid, increased the climate, shall we say?

“We started the program with music as an in-between thing. Then we noticed that when music played, people were getting wild and stripping off clothes. We thought, if we do “Revelations,” we could get torn apart. So we thought, let’s just cut it from the program. It was the music that everyone could relate to that was a high that was a common denominator. It was safe, it was exciting. We realized that music was the way. But we realized that it wasn’t for us. We went to the woods to meditate.”

Roland Jacopetti told me, “After the Trips Festival, we met at Stuart Brand’s house. We were discussing how much money we ought to get. Bill Graham thought he should get $500. We said, ‘Could you leave the room, we want to discuss this?’ He came back and we said we wanted to give him $1000. He was delighted. We gave him the money. He counted it, and thought it was $500 short. He ran out the door into the night. Then he came back with a triumphant look on his face with a paper bag in his hand—the money had been coming in so fast at the door that he had been stashing it in his trunk.”

The Fillmore Auditorium

The Fillmore was always packed when we played. . . .From the stage, the scene looked like wall-to-wall joy.
— Mike Bloomfield

Shortly after the Trips Festival, Bill Graham sensed a lucrative opportunity and rented the Fillmore Auditorium for February 4th through the 6th. He announced the event, “The Jefferson Airplane with the Sights and Sounds of the Trips Festival.” After that succeeded, he began to hold regular shows at the Fillmore, and featured shows with especially popular bands at Winterland Auditorium, a bigger venue. Each show usually played Thursday through Sunday. Try-outs for local bands were held on Tuesday nights, and you could attend them and hear three bands for $1.00 or $1.50.

The Fillmore Auditorium, an old venue that at one time had hosted jazz and rhythm and blues groups for predominantly black audiences, was on the second floor of an old brick building at the corner of Fillmore and Geary Streets. You reached it by climbing up a long stairway. At the top was always a barrel of apples that said “Take one.” Walking inside was like entering a psychedelic fairy land. It would be fairly dark, lit with black lights at the back, lights shows projected behind the stage, strobe lights and a mirror ball. One wall featured a long bar. A balcony stood above the back of the hall, curving around the sides a bit. There was day-goo paint for people to daub on themselves and make designs on the floor.

Winterland provided less of a sensory overload, but it could pack in many more people. It had a main floor with a large stage in front, a dance area where people tended to sit on the floor rather than dance and some theater seats in the back. You also could sit in the balcony, where there were rows of seats.

You could get to both venues easily by bus — a boon before I had a driver’s license. The only problem was that I had to leave before the shows ended because the buses to Berkeley stopped running at midnight. I once went with a neighbor boy to the Fillmore. We missed the last bus to Berkeley. In our fifteen year-old brains it made sense not to call our parents and wake them up. We slept on a bench at the bus terminal until the first bus to Berkeley arrived. When I got home around 7:00 AM the following morning, I was greeted by a frantic mother who had waited up all night for me to return.

Bill Graham was a shrewd businessman, which clashed with some people’s philosophy that music should be free. Sometimes he was booed by audiences that thought he was a rip-off capitalist pig, clueless about the expenses involved in putting on such shows. However, Graham generously hosted many benefits, and was also quietly philanthropic.

Bill did not know a lot about rock music at first, being mostly a jazz fan. He was educated by the bands. Ron Barnett, manager of the Loading Zone told me, “We had a conga player who Bill liked. There were conga players playing in the parks and on the streets, and Bill thought there should be conga players in the rock bands. Bill would play tapes of the Loading Zone between sets of other bands until people started requesting us. He would always ask us, ‘Do you still have that conga player?’ At the Trips Festival. Big Brother and the Holding Company had to fight to get Bill to take off the conga players so that they could perform.”

Chris Johnson, who worked for Bill Graham after having organized benefits for the Delano farm workers at the Fillmore, told me, “Bill had some rough edges but he did a tremendous amount of good. He brought a sensibility and organization, and put on many benefits. He allowed whatever was reasonable. He was good to the bands. They would get paid if they worked for Bill. He would look around and see how stoned everyone was and say, ‘Someone has to be responsible.’

“The first concert I worked on with Bill was when the Farm Worker’s Union approached him and said we wanted to build a health clinic in the Central Valley. He said ‘great!’ Bill organized everything. with Santana before they were had a record, Martin Fierro’s band The Shades of Joy. Tongue and Groove and Michael Bloomfield’s band.

“If you couldn’t get the bands he would pull bands in. One week he had brought in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Then the wife of one of the band members overdosed and died. The band told Bill, ‘The show is cancelled.’ They had four sold-out nights at Winterland. I said, ‘What are you going to do Bill?’ He said, ‘Get someone else.’ He was so well respected that on two days’ notice he pulled together a bunch of bands to do four days of shows.

Ron Schaeffer, videographer for Bill Graham’c company told me, “Bill Graham gave back enormously to the community. He financed the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. He gave much more money anonymously to charities than he gave publicly. He would lend the Fillmore and Winterland for benefit concerts, and would line up the bands and produce the events for them.”

The Avalon Ballroom

At first, when Chet Helms, manager of Big Brother and the Holding Company became a concert organizer, he shared the Fillmore with Graham, holding his own shows there as well. He called his company “The Family Dog,” the name of a commune that had lost money holding early dances and had split for Mexico. The motto of the Family Dog, that appeared on posters, was “May the baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind.”

Chet Helms was much more laid-back and less of a businessman than Bill Graham. Early on, he felt that Bill had betrayed and cheated him out of booking The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. So he quit using the Fillmore and set up in the Avalon Ballroom.

Chet Helms described the Avalon Ballroom in “One More Saturday Night,” “It held about 1,200 people. Located at 1268 Sutter St. Part of the Avalon chain of ballrooms in the 1930s. A row of balconies around the top, sort of booths or boxes that were ornate and gilded. It had gilded columns, gilded mirrors, red-flocked wallpaper, a room with a fireplace. There was a puppet stage upstairs that was a duplicate of the ballroom and mirrored it. There was a bar set-up upstairs where we served food but no alcohol. There was a light show, a strobe, black lights, huge sheets of fluorescent paper that people tore up and made into elaborate designs. Chalks for people to paint their faces with, areas to sit down, an open dance floor.”

Peter Albin told me, “The Avalon didn’t last a long time, but I’m amazed by Chet’s adaptability that he was able to do that even though he was struggling. Graham was quite an industrious guy He’d get up early. That was his big deal. He’d hear about what Chet was going for, and he could wake up at six o’clock while Chet was just getting up at nine and phone the band. Because it was nine o’clock back east, he’d book the people and he’d put it in their contract that they couldn’t play elsewhere. I don’t think Chet insisted on that. A group could play somewhere in the Bay Area one night and San Francisco the next night. But I don’t think that it really affected his attendance at the Avalon.

“The Avalon was a great place with a spring dance floor, and drapery on the walls and the ceiling that helped the sound. We didn’t play at the Fillmore until way, way later because of the conflict between Graham and Chet Helms. At times when the whole ballroom scene was attacked by outside forces, legal forces in some cases, Graham and Helms got together and agreed upon things. One time the light show people tried to unionize. Graham was really against it. Chet was waffling, but he didn’t want to be held hostage by these people either. But at the same time he knew that they were artists and needed to have a say.

Chet Helms was a rebel since his Texas beginnings. Powell St. John told me, “I first met Chet Helms when he was seventeen. He was a tall, gangly kid from Fort Worth. He was strange even then. His family were missionaries — deeply religious people. Chet was an oddball. His parents rejected him. By 1962 Chet had hair over his shoulders, unusual in those days.

“On November 22, 1963 Chet decided to go to Mexico. He was on the road when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. When he got to Laredo they closed down the border. There was Chet with hair down over his shoulders. The police saw him and thought right away, ‘He must be the guy who shot Kennedy.’ So they busted him and put him in jail. They were getting ready to interrogate him and get a confession out of him, and then the word comes through that they’ve got this guy in Dallas that did it. So they just took Chet’s money and put him out at the north end of town and told him to go back to Austin.”

Peter Albin said, “Chet was an old radical guy. So was Graham. He was the one trying to raise money for the Mime Troupe, one of the more radical theater groups in San Francisco. They were constantly getting busted and he was trying constantly to get them out of jail. The generators were provided by Graham for a lot of the free concerts, but he didn’t want people to know that. He said, ‘Don’t tell anybody because I am going to be asked to do more things for free.’ The people who played in the park in the daytime would also play at the Fillmore and the Avalon at night. It was like advertising in a way. He was pretty shrewd. He was also extremely generous. A lot of people don’t know that, and he had the money to be generous, whereas Chet was always scuffling.”

Ellis Amburn, author of “Pearl: The Obsessions and Passions of Janis Joplin.” told me, “Chet had a resentment when people became successful around him. Chet had a streak of negativity in him that couldn’t be dealt with. I was having dinner at his house once, and I brought up something about Janis. He said, ‘Ellis, I’ve talked about Janis for a month. Why don’t we talk about me, and what defines me, like the time I saved a bunch of protesters in Amsterdam from being killed.’ There is something tremendously interesting and gutsy in a person like that, but also a kind of bitterness from not being famous enough for people to want to know more about you.”

Doug Green, a later business partner of Chet Helms, told me, “Chet Helms was very quiet and soft-spoken. Very well read, intellectual. In the kindness in his heart he wanted people to come together and have a consciousness expanding experience. Bill Graham was the warrior and the successful one. His insecurities did not allow him to allow competition, so he eradicated the competition. Graham made it difficult for Chet and Family Dog to continue his shows. Chet was very soft. I can’t sugar coat him; he had his insecurities, and sometimes he would lash out from that. I had empathy for him from those times. If Chet had a flaw, his insecurities would cause him to lash out at someone or be insecure that someone was going to take over what he was trying to do like Bill had done. That stayed with him the rest of his life. That overshadowed His phenomenal accomplishment of bringing people together.

“Chet understood that it’s more than music and whoopee—it’s an opportunity to expand consciousness. The concerts are tribal gatherings. Chet always understood that and other promoters don’t. Many promoters are one step above a used car salesman. Chet set an example for what a promoter can be, to create something positive out of an event; that there was an opportunity and responsibility to create community, and that helped us manifest our spiritual ideals.”

Hanging at the Ballrooms

Of the two ballrooms, the Avalon was considered to be more cool. Peter Albin told me, “People liked to come to the Avalon because the attitude was so open. Janice made some comment in the small magazine, Mojo Navigator, that ‘All the hip people go to the Avalon. The sailors go to the Fillmore.’ That’s when Graham said ‘You’re not coming to my place for free any more!’ The Fillmore had more of a national reputation, whereas the Family Dog had more of a local reputation. If you lived in the Bay Area you knew that it was the hip place to go. But both places were good. ‘The Combination of the Two,’ that’s our song about Chet Helms and Bill Graham.”

Sam Andrews explained, “Combination of the Two”: “It’s about the Avalon and the Fillmore.” Chet is the spiritual side of life and Graham is the aggressive, hard, money side. I was wrestling with the idea at the time—you need both those things in life, the combination of the two. You have to be warm and sensitive and tuned in to the spirit, like Chet, while keeping it together on a physical level, like Bill.”

The ballrooms gave great value. An evening’s entertainment usually featured three different bands playing two sets each. Tickets cost first $2.50 and later $3.50. I saw an ad for the Fillmore in the City of San Francisco Oracle announcing that children could come in for free. Children — at a show that started at 9:00 PM?! If at least one reasonably good group was on the bill—and there were often two major bands—the ballrooms would be packed to the rafters. At the Fillmore, admission initially included a free psychedelic poster for next week’s concert. As you exited the hall you always received that apple, Graham’s trademark lagniappe.

Ben Fong-Torres commented, “Ultimately we knew that there was no way a band could survive and provide the kind of entertainment and vibes that people loved so much for free. And Bill Graham understood that. Of course he took advantage of it. Chet Helms understood it, took slightly less advantage of it, but he had the same payrolls, taxes, insurance and other things on him too. It wasn’t as if he had a free auditorium to play with. That’s why there was such a big difference between the two operations, one becoming an empire and the other that bit the dust years ago. “

David Mandel told me about going to the Avalon, “There was a big show at the Fillmore and I got there really late. It was me and a bunch of greasers standing outside the door and a big, burly guy said, ‘Sorry, we’re full, you can’t get in. Y’know what, there’s a new place.’ So we went to the Avalon and The Mothers of Invention were playing. It was the first time they’d ever played in the Bay Area. “Zappa came out on stage wearing a a pink tutu with a gauze top and tennis shoes. And of course he had that wild hair. They all were all pretty wild looking. They had the longest hair of anyone in those days. The audience was mainly young, single guys.

“The Mothers get on stage and they’re weird looking and some guy from the back of the crowd yells, ‘You’re fucking ugly!’ And Zappa, who had been standing with his back to us getting everyone tuned up whips around and says ‘Fuck you, asshole.’ And they loved him. They played incredible music. They had this gorgeous L.A. blonde beauty with them named Susie Cream Cheese who used to dance around the stage in her tutu.”

When Cream came to play at Winterland they were a sensation. Underground newspapers and radio stations talked about them endlessly and with great excitement. I watched their musical assault standing at the back of the Winterland balcony, the only place my boyfriend and I could find to park ourselves. We were stunned by their performance. As it turned out, much of that night was recorded for their album, Wheels of Fire, so we could listen to it again and again.

Cream had an enormous influence on the local bands, and the free-form, improvisatory way of playing of the local bands influenced them. According to Disraeli Gears: Cream, Bill Graham encouraged Cream to do long improvisations. “Go ahead and play and do it your way,” he told them. “If you want to play ‘Spoonful’ from night until dawn, do it.” Eric Clapton, in turn, was impressed by the free concerts bands gave in Golden Gate Park.

Unknown bands could get a big break playing at the ballrooms. Powell St. John of Mother Earth told me, “We got our big break when we were playing the Matrix one weekend and Steve Miller phoned up who said, ‘I’m supposed to play the Fillmore tonight and can’t make it. Could you guys fill in for me?’ We played that gig and Graham invited us back, and then we got to play the Avalon — and there we were, an established band playing those venues in San Francisco in 1968, when everything was going on. As I look back at it and think about trying to do all those thing now, I realize what a real stroke of luck all of that was.”

Paul Fauerso of The Loading Zone told me, “ Chet Helms was a folk-rock guy and Bill Graham was a hard-core jazz and blues fan. We were a rhythm and blues group—you’ll be shocked by all the Loading Zone concerts there were. We opened for Lightin’ Hopkins the night his mother died. He drank a fifth of Jack Daniels and did his set. We opened for Sam and Dave. We played our hearts out to impress Sam and Dave. Sam said, ‘You guys are pretty good. If you keep on doin’ what you’re doing, you’re going to be baaaad!’”

The smell of pot smoke permeated the ballrooms. Drugs were rampant. Chris Johnson told me, “I was at a Grateful Dead show in 1971 in Winterland on the infamous night when Owsley got onstage and announced he was going to pass out a bunch of water. It was laced with very strong LSD, and people went nuts. People were running around in the street with their clothes off. That led Bill to make a decision to close down the Fillmore West.”

Antonia Cipollina told me about hearing her brother with the Quicksilver Messenger Service at the ballrooms as a young teenager. “Going to the Fillmore and Avalon was my only basic freedom. I could never go to a show without my parents. My father was protective of me because of the groupies. My parents went to every show. Dad would wear a suit and mom wore her hair in a bouffant do. Dad would have tissue sticking out of his ears and stand in front of John. People wondered it he was a narc walking around! The other bands loved my father. I went backstage with my parents. Jimi Hendrix was quiet, shy, polite backstage, very charming to my parents. Very reserved. I think our parents were in denial about the drugs. Every once in awhile they’d say, ‘We got high just from the cloud that came from the floor below.’ Maybe that’s why they were always hungry after the concerts at 4 A.M. Then we would go to Hippo Hamburgers to eat.”

Brother Mario’s backstage experiences were more piquant, including receiving his first drink from none other than Janis Joplin. “People were doing stuff to get reactions out of me. Girls would lift their tops at me sometimes. When I was ten Mom and Dad had taken me to the Fillmore. There was a dressing room to the side of the stage. Janis was in it. She was drinking out of a bottle and she said, “Do you want some?” And I said, “Yes, please,” and she handed it to me.”

Although they loom so large in legend and memory, the Fillmore and the Avalon lasted only until 1968. Graham decided to move operations out of the Fillmore following the riots in the Fillmore district after Martin Luther King’s assassination. He felt that he could no longer keep the white kids who attended his shows safe. However, the night after he closed the Fillmore, Graham took over the Carousel Ballroom. He re-named it Fillmore West, and held concerts there until 1971.

When the Avalon’s lease was up for renewal in 1968 its the dance permit was revoked. People flocked to support Chet Helms in appealing the decision. Bill Graham and Mayor Alioto spoke out for him. The Beatles sent him a cable and a print of their new film, Magical Mystery Tour, to use for a fund raiser. Helms appealed the decision three times, and was turned down each time. He was forced to close the ballroom. Helms went on to rent a venue at the old amusement park, Playland-at-the-Beach on the Great Highway, across from Ocean Beach. However, out of the way and virtually impossible to reach by public transportation, and it failed.

Fillmore West closed in 1971. Winterland closed on New Years’ Eve, 1978-79. The building was demolished in 1985 to make way for apartments. While the ballrooms lasted, they were pure magic.