"They could have been the next Rolling Stones," was the oft-quoted epitaph that producer David Rubinson gave the band after he washed his hands of them in 1972, after producing 20 Granite Creek, a reunion of sorts. Most critics and fans agreed that it wasn't up to snuff. After five albums and innumerable hassles, they simply weren't cutting it. The material had fallen off, the will to work simply wasn't there. It was a poor ending to a saga that would sputter on in lawsuits, periodic reunions and a slow deterioration to their fortunes, culminating with one member institutionalized and another living in a shanty by the side of I-5 outside San Diego.
More than any other San Francisco band, the Grape have suffered. Which is why tonight was doubly exceptional as a performance-after thirty years, they really are still here, still very good, still able to weave that immense sonic tapestry of strident and melodic guitars, all elaborately woven in seamless style and mesh so that the spectrum becomes reduced to them and virtually them only, drums and bass frequently adopting the 'pound and see' approach, watching Jerry Miller fly out, further and further, blues-rock riffing into layers of filigree that truly state that he hasn't diminished with the years at all. He was elegant, technically brilliant, and absolutely in tune with the music. And that characterized the band for the entire evening: they were polished, smooth, professional. This was not a throwaway gig, done to make a few bucks and split. Not a gig dreamed up by a promoter only. This was about a band who had been denied the spotlight for a great many years, and now had a chance to play. And play they did.
Melinda and I arrived at a little past eight, I think. The parking lot was mostly empty, so a great spot and quick final check of the tape recorder, securely strapped to my forearm, pull-over draped casually over it. A nice, baggy shirt bequeathed to me by my brother with loose enough sleeves, I was able to button it entirely over the tape recorder. It made for a nice state of tension as we sat in line, perfectly matching my anxiety over whether the Grape would be okay, whether this was going to be some ghastly travesty on stage, a thin and mean substitute for what had once been a vital, brilliant creative force.
I had resolved to tape the evening because I had a feeling it might be an historic occasion. Besides, I had no confidence of being able to shake out a tape from somewhere in the tape collectors community in time to write my impressions of the show, and a tape was the best way to guarantee a ready source of inspiration for recollection.
No hassles getting in, though, despite frequent warnings that we were all subject to search. The evening was going well already. At the top of the stairs - the Maritime is another second-story San Francisco dancehall, just like the Fillmore, the Fillmore West and the Avalon - there was a table with some monochrome posters and handbills; a xerox-quality print job on cheap purple cardstock for $5.00, and it struck me as ironic, since the Grape had complained so bitterly of poor and exploitative marketing ruining their image the first time around, thirty years ago. But it's fan art, and a souvenir, so I buy a handbill; something to put in a scrapbook and remember. If anything, the market for Sixties memorabilia has imbued all events with Sixties overtones with the same sense of fragility and impermanence, making instant collector's items of all of the ephemera associated with the events.
The dance-floor at the Maritime is spacious - it feels like about twice the size of the Fillmore, though that's an illusion. Part of the sense of spaciousness is provided by the stage being on the wide side of the rectangular room. And leaning against the stage I noticed what looked like an original grape cluster from that first spate of ill-omened promotion; an odd symbol for the evening, one lone physical remnant from those first heady days, when Moby Grape arrived with such a vengeance that it drove the band apart, not together, when together was something they hadn't been enough of yet, and which the excesses and stress of life on the road and in the studio would demand if they were to remain an effective unit. Which they didn't, and the obvious enthusiasm and unity in what we saw on stage tonight had a great deal of resonance for that reason, in part.
We sat down in front of the stage, ten feet back or so on stage right, in front of the speaker stack; a good, clear signal for the first part of the evening, a lecture by Haight-Ashbury refugee and spokesman Stephen Gaskin. (I moved to the center of the floor for stereo recording when the Grape came on.) The slide show against the wall was an interesting, if occasionally discordant, addition to the pre-show show. Interspersed with the slides of the Haight, cityscapes, vistas, and the normal random grab bag of images that are useful for bombarding tripping and suggestible folks, were slides of dinosaur skeletons, and even of Chet Helms and the original Family Dog, with whom the Maritime Hall management recently had a falling out, leaving them now as simply 'The Maritime Hall Presents.' And Chet is back in his art gallery, having lent his name and imprimatur to the creation of a new hall, a new enterprise. It seems ironic, since in a sense, he did the same for Bill Graham thirty years before, with the same results. Some great images flashed on that wall throughout the evening, though: the front cover of the Berkeley Barb; various Straight Theater posters; 'I Like Ike' buttons; the nostalgia-mongery was complete.
By eight the place was comfortably full. Lots of space between people, all fanned out over the wide floor, but not a sparse crowd, either. The Grape was enough to pack a hall even now, despite the travails the name had suffered.
At a little past eight, a thin older hippie walked out and gave a long, twenty-odd minute introduction for Gaskin. I found out later he was the producer of the series, Reggie Williams, an original force in the Straight Theater on Haight Street, and the promoter of - or at least spokesman for - this series, the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Summer of Love.
Gaskin looked good. He came out thin and smiling, looking pretty much exactly as he does on the dust-jacket of his reissued memoirs Haight-Ashbury Flashbacks (Berkeley, Ronin Publishing, 1990). Whatever health regimen he follows, it works well. Dressed in a purple tie-dyed tee-shirt featuring a big heart in the center, he looked like the apotheosis of the smiling hippie elder, exactly who you wanted as a cool grandfather. He had a piece of paper at his feet with a list of topics to cover, it appeared, but other than looking down occasionally after a segment, he addressed the audience by himself, without a podium, and projected a captivating but not intimidating presence; like a hip graduate student addressing awe-struck undergraduates rather than an older, dominating professor. He also gracefully handled hecklers-"Moby Grape! Moby Grape!", an incessant cry, especially from this immense, drunk guy who was such a horrid, Ralph Steadman-like caricature I had to sketch him in my notes, after I made us move in order to make a better tape. Already a slave to the technology, to the recording angel.
But we find a good spot, and I'm all set up, microphone slipped up under my shirt and pinned to my lapel, just under the top button, and my finger is ready on the record button, and where is the damn level control, some slender little piece of gnurled plastic, where is it where is it where is it DAMMIT got it, and going -
Gaskin began speaking at around twenty past, and finished right at 10 p.m. He talked of his commune in Tennessee, and their activities, but the major thrust of his rap came at the end: that for years he had gone along with the outlawing of grass - his word for marijuana throughout the evening - but that now that meant going along with the fact that 500,000 people were locked up for it, some with very long mandatory sentences. And now it was necessary to speak out. Part of this stemmed from a central lesson he had learned from the weed, what I think of as classic psychedelic wisdom: "Don't ever bullshit yourself. Because what it does, it keeps you from going crazy."
After his speech, he took a few questions from the audience, most of which I couldn't hear. I think the first was about how to tell the difference between righteous and self-righteous, a classic hippie conundrum that directly addressed the thrust of his admonition to speak out. But most interesting was a question concerning what I gather was his three-way marriage ... and what he said was that each new partner made for a geometrically more complicated relationship, each new person made it exponentially harder; so three people was nine times as hard as two, four was sixteen times as hard, etc.
A good speech, and I liked the political thrust - it is proper to question one's silence when so many of your fellow humans are rotting in the slammer for the same activity as you enjoy and espouse. He didn't go far enough, though, I thought: he either failed to see, or simply didn't want to be, as strident as some of the rhetoric of the era that shaped him. But what he could have said was that by keeping quiet, those who smoke pot are colluding with a system that has targeted parts of the population and systematically terrorized them for beliefs and practices which are utterly harmless to society, except as a flaunt of their own hypocrisy and weird, repressive Puritanism.