Friday, April 10, 2009

Hippie-dippy posters at Denver Art Museum

I spent several hours Wednesday revisiting the past. Chris and I, along with 16-year-old daughter Annie and friend Brandon, toured the Denver Art Museum's psychedelic poster exhibit. I didn't actually see any of these original posters in their first incarnation on the streets of San Francisco. But I do remember most of the bands -- even saw a few of them in concert. The great thing about the poster exhibit was the stories behind the work. Rick Griffin, a guy who grew up in the Southern California surfing scene and then moved to San Francisco in the mid-sixties to discover LSD and rock. I remember his Griffin & Stoner comics in Surfer Magazine. Later, I tried to decipher Griffin's work in Zap Comix.

One of the oddest aspects of the exhibit was the wall devoted to work advertising concerts at The Family Dog on West Evans in Denver. Chet Helms, founder and purveyor of concerts at the Avalon Ballroom, decided to expand his psychedelic territory by opening another joint in Denver. I wondered why he chose Denver and not Portland or Seattle or L.A. According to the exhibit descriptions, the Denver cops were not happy about such a hippie-dippy venue place landing in their fair city. Denver cops of that era were not known for their tolerance. In fact, the force was just coming off the biggest scandal in its history. In 1961, 42 cops and former cops were indicted for burglary, embezzlement and other assorted crimes in the biggest such scandal in U.S. history. Over the years, Denver cops have been involved in a variety of nefarious schemes, including a massive snooping campaign aimed at anti-war and anti-nuke activists.

So, in 1967, the cops kept their eyes on the hippies and other nogoodniks. During its three short months, the Family Dog featured some of the big names: Grateful Dead, Blue Cheer, Mothers of Invention, even the Allmen Joy, who contributed to rock lore a few years later under the name Allman Brothers. The Family Dog's closure was due as much to hippie-era mismanagement as to police harassment. Besides, it was a long way from Market Street to Evans Avenue, both in miles and in culture. The museum narrative said that the closing of The Family Dog was the beginning of a long string of business setbacks for Chet Helms.

In San Francisco, the beat went on, even after the so-called Summer of Love was over and the Haight was claimed by addicts and hucksters.

Another interesting aspect of the exhibit was about a band I've never heard of: The Charlatans. Band members dressed in Old West garb and were known mainly for playing bars in Virginia City, Nevada. They came out of the mountains and into San Francisco and were thought to be "the first band to experiment with the fusion of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, folk, and jug band music that became known as the San Francisco Sound. Other bands on the scene included Blue Cheer, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane." That comes from the museum's descriptions. So, I've heard of all these other groups. But The Charlatans? And their Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch duds? As we now know, there were a lot of Wild West influences in the bands of the S.F. scene. Many of the exhibition's posters include images of cowboys and Indians -- mostly Indians, as the Native-American cultures were fascinating to hippies.

I'm now formulating an idea for an old-fashioned melodrama that combines the wild-and-wooly aspects of the Old West with the wooly-and-wild characteristics of the New West hippies.

Wish me luck.

Poster art: "Denver Splash" poster from 1967 advertising a concert by Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band and Solid Muldoon at The Family Dog, 1601 West Evans Street, Denver. Art by Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso.

1 comment:

God Bless Chet Helms said...

I was a musician in Denver at the time of the Family Dog. I played there as an opening act.

I knew Chet Helms. I knew Barry Fey (booked the local opening acts like 8th Penny Matter and helped open the hall).

As Jack Nicholson (as Jimmy Hoffa) said in the movie Hoffa (paraphrasing)

"You got the words, but you don't know the music."

Nice try - no cigar.