Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Night at the Fillmore

Peggy Ehrhart (Guest Blogger)

I moved to the Haight-Ashbury in January of 1967.
I had applied to the creative writing program at San Francisco State College and came to San Francisco half a year early because I had just broken up with a boyfriend. My apartment, for which I paid seventy-five dollars a month, was three blocks up the hill from Haight Street and one block over from Ashbury.

Shortly after I moved in, my neighbor, a Stanford dropout with a blond Afro, invited me to a concert at the Fillmore Auditorium.

Everyone by now is familiar with the poster art that grew out of Bill Graham’s Fillmore concerts. On these posters, swirling designs melt into undulating figures seemingly inspired by Hieronymous Bosch or the pre-Raphaelites, all rendered in eye-popping colors. And if you can actually make out the lettering--difficult because it too swirls and undulates--you realize that at one time or another, almost every significant blues, rock, or jazz musician played at the Fillmore--and often several on the same night.

The Fillmore experience itself was as mind-altering as the posters implied it would be. I realized immediately on stepping into the lobby that I had not dressed suitably for the occasion. I was wearing a navy-blue suit with broad white stripes, double-breasted, mini-skirted, and very Mod. I would have fit right in on the King’s Road in London. But this wasn’t London.

All around me--well, not literally around me because I was standing and they were lounging on the floor smoking marijuana--were people who looked like beings from another universe. Everyone had long hair, men and women, and most of the men had beards. None of the women wore makeup. If you recall the look of the early sixties--big hair, lots of eyeliner, even false eyelashes, you’ll realize how revolutionary a bare-scrubbed face and free-flowing hair would appear.

None of the clothing looked like anything you’d find at that time in a conventional store. Many women wore long skirts; both sexes wore wide-legged pants made of gauzy fabrics or velour, or jeans that looked like they’d seen years of hard living. A fringed leather vest might top off a ruffled shirt with long, funnel-shaped sleeves. A nearly transparent tunic might reveal that the wearer had sworn off bras. The color combinations were similar to those on the concert posters: orange, purple, chartreuse, swirling paisley designs, or Indian-inspired prints. And, yes, there were beads, strands and strands of them, all colors and shapes, on both sexes. Other smells competed with the smell of marijuana: incense--and patchouli oil, a flowery, spicy scent that eventually came to perfume nearly the entire city of San Francisco.

Beyond the lobby, the auditorium itself was dark, except for a few lights illuminating the band, and a remarkable phenomenon that I had never seen before or even imagined: a light show. A huge screen filled one wall, and on the screen blobs of color--red, yellow, blue, orange--separated and coalesced like giant amoebas. Light shows were in their infancy then, but somehow the light show, with shapes throbbing in time to the hypnotic rhythms produced by the band, seemed the perfect visual accompaniment to the music.

The music was like nothing I had ever heard before--songs that merged into one another with no beginning or end, riffs repeated again and again until they became wordless mantras, a dense, fuzzy guitar tone that seemed to reach into the soul. I eventually became quite familiar with the style during my time in San Francisco. It was acid rock, pioneered by Eric Clapton’s band Cream, but accessible to any group with electric guitars and big enough amps.

Writhing forms moved in the dark room. There might have been seats around the edges of the auditorium, but Fillmore concerts were actually dances, though people didn’t dance as couples. Anyone who wanted could launch him- or herself into the crowd and move as the spirit dictated, people do-si-doing as if engaged in a crazy psychedelic square dance. There was one distinctive style, though, that evoked a kind of Dionysian frolic: arms were thrust in the air, where they undulated like strands of seaweed in the ocean’s current, while hips swayed in one direction, upper body in the other.

I’m not sure most concert-goers showed up because of any particular band on the program. The experience itself was the attraction. In fact, I can’t remember who was playing that first night--or on any of my subsequent visits.

Peggy Ehrhart's memories of life in the Haight-Ashbury in the mid-sixties, especially the music, were inspired by the Summer of Love exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Peggy’s blues mystery, Sweet Man Is Gone, is due out from Five Star in 2008.

1 comment:

Sharon Wildwind said...

This really captures the wonderful, awe-ful (as in full of awe) experience of moving from those awful (as in gross) early sixties into the movement that was sweeping the country.

When I see kids dressed as "hippies" for Halloween, my first through it that they have no idea at all what they represent.