Legendary Longshoreman's Hall "Dr. Strange" Dance of
arrival, the Airplane had confined their performances almost exclusively
to the Matrix, with one exception. The club had been designed
with them in mind, they were able to fill the room to capacity
each time they played (which wasn't that difficult as the legal
limit was under 300more often than not there would be twice
as many bodies crammed inside), and they liked the place. The
band was able to rehearse there during the week without having
to set up and take down its equipment each time. Being the house
band was ideal for them.
But as the Airplane's reputation spread, there was more of a demand
for their services and, like any new band, they needed all the
work they could get. The most pivotal of the first outside gigs
was undoubtedly the one that took place October 16th at Longshoreman's
Hall, at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, dubbed by its comic-book-loving
promoters "A Tribute to Dr. Strange." Also featuring
the Charlatans, the Marbles and the Great Society, the event was
presented by a four-person collective calling itself the Family
Dog, who took their name in honor of Harmon's recently deceased
pooch and lived together in a communal house on Pine Street. It
was billed as a Rock 'n' Roll Dance and Concert.
Airplane lineup at the time of the Dr. Strange dance: l. to.
r. Jorma Kaukonen, Bob Harvey, Marty Balin, Signe Anderson,
Paul Kantner, Skip Spence
was that last part that hit home with the Airplane. Their music
was meant to be danced to, and this nonsense about no dancing
being allowed at the Matrix was awfully frustrating.
Sazer: When people tried to start dancing, the police would
stop them. You're not allowed to dance in San Francisco, unless
you're in a hotel or the place has a special dance permit. And
for a very liberal town, this was the craziest law I'd ever heard
of in my life.
Buchwald: Marty was always the one who instigated, "C'mon
up and dance." He'd work
the crowd up into a frenzy and then they'd all rush forward to
the stage and that's when all that commotion started.
Kelley: We threw six or seven dances before we even knew we
had to have a permit. The city tried to shut it down but once
it was happening there was no shutting it down.
photo of Longshoreman's Hall, San Francisco
Gleason agreed that San Franciscans should be able to dance to
rock and roll. He had mentioned the lack of dancing at the Matrix
in his very first Chronicle column on the band. So when the Family
Dog membersa young woman named Luria Castell, accompanied
by two friends, Ellen Harmon and Alton Kelleycame to see
him in October about putting on a dance concert, Gleason was all
ears. He said he'd help any way he could.
Castell had been a political activist and had recently returned
from L.A., where she'd enjoyed dancing to the Lovin' Spoonful
in a discotheque, wondering why San Francisco couldn't have the
same. Harmon had come to the city from Detroit, quit her straight
job and lived in a tree. And Kelley was an artist from Connecticut,
into exploring the possibilities of day-glo paint and collage
and experimenting with new art forms. The fourth Family Dog member,
Jack Towle, didn't come to that initial meeting.
"San Francisco can be the new Liverpool," Castell told
Gleason right off the bat. She proceeded to outline the plan of
this decidedly unbusinesslike troupe, to reunite dancing and rock
and roll in San Francisco. In his 1969 book, The Jefferson Airplane
And The San Francisco Sound, Gleason wrote, "There was a
reason that they picked San Francisco in which to start and it
wasn't just because they all happened to be there at the time."
Those reasons, among others, were that New York was too large
and Los Angeles was "super-uptite plastic America."
But mostly, it was because San Francisco was San Francisco, and
that was where it had to happen.
Neither the Family Dog nor Jefferson Airplane were operating in
a vacuum. An undercurrent had been bubbling toward the surface
for some time in San Francisco, but one group of young renegades
from straight society was not always aware of the other. Rock
groups were forming all over the place, more of them, it seemed
, every day. Same for politically active groups, protesting social
conditions and our nation's policies abroad. Artists were experimenting
with new graphic forms and previously unexplored media such as
light. New advances in electronics offered previously unimagined
directions in which the music could go. Castell, Harmon and Kelley
ran this all down to Gleason, how they wanted to bring it all
together. They told him about the dance they were planning for
Longshoreman's Hall. Gleason said he'd be there.
Permits were secured, bands were enlisted, handbills were drawn
by Kelley and printed by Joe Buchwald, and the word went out.
When Gleason arrived at the hall, he couldn't believe what he
was seeing. Everyone approaching the hall, Gleason wrote in his
book, appeared to be going to a costume party. He described men
dressed as characters out of the Old West, long-haired girls in
longer dresses. There were "riverboat gamblers" and
"mining camp desperados," black leather and brown buckskin.
Inside, the scene was even more colorful. The crowd, Gleason reported,
danced wildly all night as the bands played. The light show, although
primitive by later standards, pulsated to the beat of the music.
"It was orgiastic and spontaneous and completely free-form,"
Gleason wrote. He described the happy coexistence of hippies wearing
buttons for peace and political types wearing buttons touting
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). What also
impressed Gleason was that the Family Dog, the promoters, were
out there dancing with the rest of them. This was unheard of at
traditional dance events!
In the beginning, when we first started playing, the audience
was mostly sitting down, because that's what audiences were trained
to do then. But then audiences began to realize, "Hey, we
don't have to sit down. It's rock and roll, for Chrissakes."
I remember long lines of people, holding hands, dancing to the
music. I mean, 20, 30 people sometimes, going around in a circle.
They'd get caught up in the energy of the music, and the excitement.
There was so much freedom. This was not like school dancesthat
was a whole different story, everything was regulated.
Longshoreman's was the foreshadowing of the psychedelic dance
concerts. But it was more than just music and dance. It felt like
belonging, like family. It was my last gig with the band. I knew
I was going and it felt so bad.
Before the dances, we were just the band at a party, because we
weren't connecting with an audience, even at the Matrix. And the
party was often much more interesting. I mean, there was a structure
there of a stage, and an audience. But, quickly, that wall broke
down almost instantaneously.