The Last Dance

In the 1940s and 50s recorded music was still young, radio broadcasts were just beginning to reach national audiences, and the quality of both was still a poor substitute for the original performance.

If you wanted to hear -- and better yet, dance to -- good music, the place to go was a dance hall. "Concerts" were limited to classical and symphonic music; meanwhile, dance halls and clubs were an essential part of emerging American culture. All over the country, dance halls were a focal point for social gatherings. Texas roadhouses were in full swing, while jazz and Latin dance halls and ballrooms accommodated thousands in New York, Chicago and other northern cities.

San Francisco in the 60s

Gene Anthony Postcard

Young people in the 1960s were still dancing and listening to music. They were also benefiting from the postwar industrial boom, and extra cash in their pockets meant extra freedom for the imagination and for creative and provocative ideas. As the rebellious and playful baby boomers came of age and went to college in the sixties, their energy, style, attitudes and sheer numbers gave them the power to leave an indelible mark on the decade.

Their disillusionment with the status quo caused many of them to drop out of society and create a counterculture. Thousands of them clustered around San Francisco intending to demonstrate to the world that love could replace war, sharing could replace greed, and community could supersede the individual. Forming their epicenter in Haight-Ashbury, these young visionaries strove for nothing less than a total transformation of America, which they demanded immediately.

Gene Anthony Photograph

Music and dance was an integral part of the lifestyle they created for themselves, and the music reflected a dizzying range of influences. The quest for spirituality led to an interest in Eastern religions and philosophies, and the search for answers about life also led to a renewed interest in astrology.

LSD use became prevalent. The LSD subculture differed from other drug cultures in that the idea of "mind expansion" had spiritual and intellectual connotations beyond the usual goal of getting wasted. Psychedelic drugs made inanimate objects seem to buzz with energy as if they were alive: colors glow, sounds linger and resonate.

Music greatly enhanced the psychedelic experience. Musicians evoked the LSD experience with circular structures, sustained or droning melodies, altered and effected instrumental sounds, reverb, echoes and tape delays that created a sense of space. Because of its emphasis on sounds that fire the imagination, psychedelic rock was the first genre to embrace technological advances in music making. Musicians began to incorporate the sounds of other cultures, including instruments like the sitar, the gamelan, and the didgeridoo, all of which produced tones conducive to meditating. Rock performers such as the Grateful Dead cultivated simple chord structures, massive amplification and much repetitive improvisation.

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The New Dance Hall Emerges: Bill Graham and the Family Dog

The Diggers photograph

The young people creating and immersing themselves in this culture needed places to gather and create a shared experience. Arriving on the scene to help them do so were two people who helped shape the future of rock music performance, Bill Graham and Chet Helms.

Graham was a transplanted New Yorker who had a passion for Latin dance halls as a young man in 1950s New York. In 1965, after staging two benefit concerts as the manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Graham decided to concentrate his efforts on the concert scene. By March 1966, Graham secured a three-year lease on the Fillmore Auditorium, which became a popular dance hall in the Western Addition. Two years later he opened the Fillmore East in New York.

Trips Festival Photograph

The Family Dog was a loose collective of free spirits who produced the Charlatans, the first psychedelic band, and then went on to put on rock dances in and around the San Francisco area. Chet Helms, manager of the band Big Brother and the Holding Company, took over the struggling operation in 1966 and secured a lease at the nearby Avalon Ballroom, where the Family Dog produced concerts more or less continually for the next five years.

These almost-nightly events at the Fillmores and the Avalon were far more than the concerts we know today; they were social gatherings with plenty of dance, music and light. Performances were often accompanied by light shows using slides, spotlights and bits of film, and audiences were encouraged to dance, wear make-up and flowing clothes, and pursue as many different stimuli as possible.

Chet Helms Vintage Print

Graham and Helms thought of these events as "Dance-Concerts"; in many ways they had more in common with their dance hall ancestors than with their modern concert progeny. Graham said he was, "...taking music and the newborn visual arts and making all of that available in a comfortable surrounding so it would be conducive to open expression. What I saw was that when all this truly worked, that space was magic."

The people came, and they came frequently. Said Graham, "The greatest compliment I was ever given came at The Fillmore. It was Cream and the Butterfield Blues Band. I just happened to go into the rest room during a break. I was standing at the middle urinal when two guys came in after me, one on either side...right out of the blue, one said, 'I forgot. Who's playing here tonight?' Without batting an eyelash, the other guy said, 'I don't know, man. What's the difference? It's the Fillmore.'"

It was an incredible time for live music. On many occasions these intimate venues played host to three or more artists on the same night, all of whom have since been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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The Scene Changes but the Dance Goes On

San Francisco Mime Troupe Photograph

The Human Be-In was held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. It was a "Gathering of the Tribes", a hip pow wow that, its organizers hoped, would unite mainstream activists with the more laid-back hippies. A successful and peaceful gathering, it drew 25,000 people as well as extensive media coverage that precipitated a massive migration of America's runaways, outcasts, and outlaws to Haight-Ashbury. By autumn, the Haight's population had grown from 15,000 to 75,000. The flood of new arrivals overwhelmed the neighborhood, with homeless teenagers sleeping everywhere and crime running rampant.

Human Be-In Photograph

As the youth movement was changing so was the nature of live rock music performance. The emergence of national tours, record distribution and promotion created huge demand for top echelon performers, leading them to play in arenas and stadiums that accommodated 20,000 to 80,000 people. It became financially challenging for the Fillmores and the Avalon to put concerts together. At the same time, the top acts and their management began to dictate with whom they would (and would not) appear with.

Timothy Leary Photograph

The Fillmores both closed in 1971, but the experiences they hosted were too valuable to be extinguished. Despite the growth in arena rock, smaller venues and dance halls have continued to thrive; they enable reactions between performer and audience that cannot be duplicated in massive settings. Other small venues, like San Francisco's Winterland and Warfield Theatre, continued to prosper throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. Even today's biggest acts need the audience connection that only a small venue can provide to stimulate their creativity, as evidenced by the Rolling Stones 2002 tour. And thankfully, the original Fillmore could not be kept down: it re-opened in the 1980s and is still hosting shows today.

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