Sunday, December 4, 2011

December 4, 1965: Rolling Stones, San Jose Civic Auditorium, San Jose, CA

The San Jose Civic Auditorium at 135 W. San Carlos Street in San Jose, July 2011
The Beatles were the harbinger of modern rock and roll, updating what Elvis Presley had begun. However, mid-60s British Invasion music was still presented as an entertainment rather than an art, much less a call to higher consciousness. There was a lot of great music played by British Invasion bands in the early 60s, but it was still trapped as "fun for the kids." By the time the Fillmore came along to change the rock industry, rock music in general and rock concerts in particular had become serious matters. They were serious art and serious fun, a direct transmission from artist to audience, seemingly unmediated by the trappings of industry. This wasn't really true, of course, as there is always an economic portion to any artistic presentation, but fans certainly felt that rock concerts were authentic vehicles for communication from an artist. Conveniently, the exact crossroads of rock music as entertainment for kids and rock music as an artistic presentation of a higher consciousness can be precisely located: the San Jose Civic Auditorium at 135 W. San Carlos Street in downtown San Jose, California, on December 4, 1965.

On Saturday, December 4, 1965, the Rolling Stones were headlining the San Jose Civic Auditorium, a 3000 seat venue built in 1934. It was the biggest venue in the South Bay. The Rolling Stones' popularity was only eclipsed by The Beatles. While the Beatles were already too big to even play the San Jose Civic, no other groups were sized out of San Jose. Perhaps the Dave Clark Five was as big as the Stones, but no one save the Beatles were bigger. The Stones had numerous catchy hits on the radio, but they had a rocking dark side, too, by AM standards, an edge that set them apart from the family friendly Beatles. To American radio listeners, the Stones were definitely celebrating black music, white guys playing music from the wrong side of the town, and the fact that they were successful suggested that other aspiring white rock musicians could do the same.

During 1965, a secret group of adventurers in the South Bay had been experimenting with a perfectly legal product called LSD-25. LSD gave the users up to twelve hours of dreamlike hallucinations and expanded consciousness. This intrepid bunch had started holding a series of parties called "Acid Tests" in which everyone attending would ingest some LSD-25, and numerous entertainments were provided not for "fun" but in order to expand the experience of the users. Along with strobe lights, live microphones and other amusements, there was a "house band" who performed, just as dosed as the audience. They played whatever they played, for minutes or hours as the circumstances seemed to demand or as they were able. Partygoers found the music electrifying in more ways than one, even if they could hardly recall it afterwards. The Acid Tests were run by a group more or less headed by novelist Ken Kesey, and they called themselves the Merry Pranksters. The house band had been named The Warlocks, but for various reasons by the time of the Acid Tests they had changed their names to The Grateful Dead

All of these goings on were made famous by Tom Wolfe in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In November, The Merry Pranksters had gotten the idea that the Acid Tests should be open to the public, instead of just their friends. The problem was finding the right sort of adventurous people, willing to stay up all night and listen to weird music while ascending to a higher plane. This was all perfectly legal, of course, but there was no good reason to invite the police, so a normally advertised event was out of the question. The Pranksters image of themselves encouraged them to be cryptical rather than direct. The Prankster logic was as follows: cool people liked the Rolling Stones, so the cool people not already known to the Pranksters would be found at the Rolling Stones concert at San Jose Civic.

The Rolling Stones concert at the San Jose Civic was the next-to-last show of the band's 3rd American tour, which had begun in October. On Friday, December 3 the Stones had played two shows at the Sacramento Civic Auditorium, and on Sunday (December 5) they would end their tour with a show at the relatively giant Sports Arena in Los Angeles. For Saturday night, however, the Stones were playing two shows at the San Jose Civic. I don't know what they played; shows weren't reviewed in those days, and the idea of someone taping the show was unfathomable. There were certainly a bunch of opening acts, although again I don't know who. Probably a few lucky local garage bands were on the bill, because they would work cheap. The Stones almost certainly played no longer than a half-an-hour for both the early and late shows. Their equipment would have been minimal by modern standards, and to modern ears the show would have sounded tinny and weak. No matter--the Stones were the coolest of the cool.

After the late show, which probably ended well before midnight, exiting fans found some scruffy looking people handing out flyers that said "Can You Pass The Acid Test?" The Acid Test was held at a private house, a rambling old Edwardian near downtown. The flyers included the address of the house, but no explanation of what was actually being promoted. Whether people took the flyer from a scruffy stranger, or saw it tacked up on a tree, only a few of them took up the offer. Nonetheless, those that found their way to the house found themselves flying on a plane they didn't even know they had boarded.

The Acid Test was a roaring success, so successful that it couldn't be contained in a house.  It moved to Muir Beach, and then a nightclub in Palo Alto, and finally a place called "The Fillmore Auditorium" in San Francisco. By February, two promoters were putting on shows at the Fillmore that simulated acid tests, even if no acid was provided, and the modern rock concert was born. But a few adventurous people in downtown San Jose had already started the trip three months earlier, outside of the San Jose Civic Auditorium.