Music

Band from Dylanland: Big Pink in Quake City

“From the strength of their personal decency and dedication, the musicians summoned up an oceanic passion, a commitment to the true experience of their materials that short-circuited the hair on the back of one’s neck”

by

“Big Pink in Quake City: Respite for the Restless”

SAN FRANCISCO — Darling Dolly Dane, a rachitic teenie waif from the wilds of Petaluma (“Egg Basket of the West”), was rattling off her semi-pro panhandler’s hype at the intersection of Post and Steiner, while up the block at Winterland, the reclusive band from Big Pink was making ready to strike up some sweet country funk, and rock mojo-domo Bill Graham, after his own emotionally hemophiliac fashion, was sidling up to the mound to strike o-u-t OUT.

“Don’t be a tacky cunt, hon,” Darling Dolly coaxed a sailor in the stream of ticket-holders pressing toward the entrance. “Do me some good with your spare change.”

Dear, darling Darlin Doll she wasn’t alone — the tribal rock hounds and stone guerrilla hippies of the Bay Area had turned out in force for the occasion. Flapping along the sidewalks, preening and shrilling, they soared into the cavernous recesses of the old ice-skating rink-turned-rock ballroom like flocks of bright, demented birds.

The mood of expectancy ran high; “This will be a stoning thing,” a mustachioed kid from Berkeley promised his chick in sepulchral tones.

Promises, promises. From the outset, The Event that had been broadsided for weeks in advance as sure to hang heavy, heavy over our collective long-haired heads turned out to be — with a brief respite to be noted — merely onerous.

The spooky vibes began in the lobby. Poker-faced security guards — a lot of them, all looking like Tac Squad reservists — swarmed through the foyer and along the hall’s aisles, barking at people to move along, seemingly at whim. After being shooed away a couple of times, I managed to buy a coke at the refreshment stand and started working my way through the crush toward the stage, where the house sound system reared up out of the darkness like a massive and sinister radar installation. The Ace of Cups, a local all-femme group who occasionally generate an ambience of pure physical fun because they’re such fetching chicks to look at, played listlessly. The acoustical reference in the room was muddier than Vic and Sade on an Atwater-Kent table model.

I ran into one of the Family Dog people, an acquaintance from Texas, and we watched silently as the Sons of Champlin, another local group, set up onstage. They would play an overlong and uncharacteristically lackwit set. After the first couple of numbers, the crowd stirred restlessly; the smell of burning weed was stronger than a ten-minute egg.

A kid in a smudgy, buttonless tunic, his face pocked with scabies pimples, wandered through the crowd, obviously stoned. He kept running his fingers through the flame of a lighted candle and mumbling what must have started out as a chant. A half-hour later, when I caught sight of him a second time, his hands were black and literally smoking.

My friend groaned; “Jesus, that dude must’ve been shooting up the Chronicle Sporting Green for days. He’s gonna wake up in the morning — some morning — and feel everything but good.”

After the Sons had bowed off to polite but disinterested applause, there was a lengthy delay of a type that telegraphed to the audience: Something Has Gone Stone Wrong. Then Bill Graham popped up at the mike, earnest, thin-skinned, a-stammer, attempting to apologize for the apology he was about to tender —

“Fuck you!” someone yelled distinctly from the balcony.

Graham winced as if he’d been slapped, but, gathering his aplomb about him with the equanimity of a wino wrapping up for the night in a bundle of Moral Rearmament pamphlets, he bore grimly on to relate that Robbie Robertson, the band’s lead guitarist, had been ill with the flu for two days, and was having a little trouble getting together, but if the audience would only be patient, the whole band’d be there, Graham guaranteed it —

“A 15 minute delay at the latest,” he promised, and scuttled off the stage into the shadows.

Promises, promises. We waited — 30 minutes, an hour, ultimately an hour and a half. A few in the crowd waited merely for the chance to red-ass Graham when he worked up the nerve to reappear; others were determined to dig the young musical gunfighters from Woodstock at any cost, even if they had to invade Robertson’s hotel room and give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Finally, straggling onstage one by one, the members of the band assembled, Robertson assisted to his place by a man named Ralph Gleason later identified as the guitarists’s personal hypnotist. At last they were on.

The respite mentioned earlier lasted 35 minutes. The band from Dylan Country played only seven songs, only two of these new, but it’s not inconceivable to me that during that brief session, a few hearts and heads and lives might have been turned around for the better. The band’s sound and stance were flawless. From the strength of their personal decency and dedication, the musicians summoned up an oceanic passion, a commitment to the true experience of their materials that short-circuited the hair on the back of one’s neck. For a little better than a half-hour, the band didn’t redeem the morbid vibes that had been going down all evening, but simply transcended them.

Then, in a wink, the players were gone, and the howl for an encore went up. “Come back to the raft a’gin, Huck honey!” a male voice boomed from the floor. A volley of boos greeted Graham as he worked his way back to the mike. He stood visibly shaken in the rain of catcalls and curses until the yelling and stomping gradually subsided.

“Well,” he drawled pouty, “there must be a lot of tourists here tonight, because San Francisco people just don’t act that way —”

The crowd groaned in unison, a long-drawn-out wail of derision and contempt that must have chilled Graham’s deep soul, for he stepped back from the mike, his mouth working silently. “TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, GRAHAM!” somebody cried from the press of bodies at the edge of the bandstand.

In small eddies and surges, the audience began to disperse. “The band got it together,” I heard a college girl saying philosophically, “but Bill Graham kind of bombed, didn’t he.” Outside Darling Dolly Dane collared my friend and me at the corner. “Don’t be a tacky cunt,” she began, but he put a quarter in her palm and gently closed her palm and gently closed her bony little fingers around it in a ball. “Take a load off, Fanny,” he told her gravely, and we strolled on, somewhat armed against the night’s chill.  ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 11, 2020

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