It was a gas
Chico’s purple haze of music and politics in 1968
The San Francisco music scene of the late 1960s—a perfect storm of psychedelics, rock ‘n’ roll and rebellion colored with paisley and tie-dye—is well-documented. But what of Chico? What music was flying through the air here 40 years ago?
Here, we take a closer look at the local music scene of the day—several years before storied groups such as Spark ‘n’ Cinder first roamed the Earth—as well as the social attitudes of Chico’s college-aged community.
Was Chico a hip satellite of San Francisco in 1968, getting a contact high off of the Haight-Ashbury psychedelic vibe through the osmosis of being merely 100 miles away? Or would its “turn on, tune in” era come a little later?
Politically, the general consensus is that by ‘68 there were clearly pockets of kids who gravitated to the revolutionary culture taking place in San Francisco but it would take until the early ‘70s until the patchouli-scented winds of change would fully envelop the Chico area.
But it also depends on who you ask.
Martin Henson, a “self-unemployed” prankster who graduated high school in Chico in ‘66 and still emulates some of the ‘60’s bohemian ways, said there was a distinct psychedelic scene in Chico, and LSD had a distinct presence in town. Henson said he and other folks, including Tim Hogan, older brother of the late Matt Hogan, had friends in the Bay Area they’d lure up to Chico with tales of a warm climate and joy of Bidwell Park.
According to Rick Foster, a 1968 Chico State grad who retired to Durango, Colo., after teaching political science in Idaho for 35 years, neither the Chico hippies nor the Chico straight folks made a huge amount of noise in ‘68.
“Chico was divided,” Foster wrote in an e-mail. “Often at noon there was political talk in front of the CAC (now the BMU) sponsored by one or another group opposed to the war. Occasionally hecklers showed up, but were pretty marginalized. Only small crowds stayed around for the anti-war discussions too so it was like only a few were committed on each side. Most students just were not that involved.
“There was a strong off-campus conservative influence that was very active. It seemed to be centered in Paradise, but had real influence in the Chico civic community as reflected in both local politics and the newspaper. On campus there was still an active Greek system and they tended to be either non-political or even hostile. Yet, in my memory, the divisions on campus were less intense than those between the vocal off-campus critics and the campus. I suspect administrators at the time really had to walk a tightrope.”
David Rothe, who began his tenure in the Chico State music department in January 1968, can vouch for that unit’s still-conservative nature at the time.
“High culture was virtually non-existent in Chico. Rock or even guitar were virtually unknown in the music department,” said Rothe, who just retired. “The Music Department was very conservative in those days. Everybody wore white shirts with skinny little ties.”
Rothe said the “hip crowd” began to show up in 1969 and 1970.
“They made an attempt to remove the flag from the front of the administration building as a war protest,” Rothe recalled. “The agriculture students and the veterans showed up to put an end to that protest. Curiously, the local issue which seemed to get everyone’s attention was the closure of First Street. The ‘Chico Fifteen’ staged a sit-in—to close First Street—and the National Guard was called in. As crowds gathered to observe this scene, members of the Chico State Band worked the crowd selling candy bars to support their ban tour to Victoria, Canada.”
Rothe also clearly remembers the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy during Rothe’s first semester on campus.
“As good anti-war Democrats my wife and I had canvassed the neighborhoods on his behalf,” he remembered.
Musically, several San Francisco acts that saturated that city with music and light shows at places like Winterland, the Fillmore and the Carousel Ballroom, did appear in Chico. Several other national acts passed through, as local acts then, as now, also thrived.
Pat Kopp, a San Francisco State theater guy who came to Chico State College in 1964, remembers (Chico State became a university in 1972). By 1968 Kopp was instrumental in presiding over the early days of Court Theatre, and as the college’s stage manager and chief lighting designer, he had a catbird’s seat to most of the big shows that came through town in that year.
Kopp, now 68, who retired as Chico State’s director of University Public Events in 2000, recalled Joan Baez’s December 1968 performance as being memorably terse. He said the young folk singer “got upset because someone took her picture. She shortchanged the audience, playing 20 or 25 minutes.”
Foster also attended Baez’s Vietnam War-era show in the North Gym.
“It was packed. I forget the opening act, but when Baez came out to sing she just sat on a stool at center court and alternately sang and talked,” Foster recalled. “Her talk was about political issues, mainly the war and attempts to protest against the war. That suited me, but it was clear that some people felt the balance between music and political talk was too skewed toward talk.”
Craig Strode, now 65, was already a musician when he came to Chico in 1964, and by 1968 he was playing six nights a week at the Silver Room at Third and Broadway, downtown. That club’s fate was sealed in a 1969 fire, he remembered.
Strode remembers seeing Johnny Cash in ‘68, just a few months after the Man in Black’s famous show at Folsom Prison.
“Somebody bought me a ticket,” Strode said. “I remember how excellent it was on ‘Ring of Fire'—he had two trumpets playing on that song. He had an excellent show and was in as good a voice as I’d heard since the ‘50s.”
Dan Casamajor, whose father, Gordon, was mayor of Chico in 1968, saw Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin in May 1968. The show drew some 4,500 people and came around the time the band was recording “Cheap Thrills,” which included the hits, “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain” and “Summertime.”
“I was virtually at the stage. Janis was clearly taking frequent nips at a pint of Southern Comfort that she had with her (violating the dry-campus rule).”[page]
The Silver Dollar Fairgrounds also hosted concerts. The Armory Building turned into the Chico Teen Center for regular gigs. Quicksilver Messenger Service played there in October 1968, along with all-female San Francisco band Ace of Cups, along with local band Cranberry Frost.
The Grateful Dead, already established in San Francisco, made their way up to Chico for a gig at the fairgrounds’ Armory on Nov. 1, 1968. Local bands Friends and Gunge, featuring frontman Martin Taylor, opened the show. About 40 minutes of pristine audio have survived. The show included a textbook version of the Dead’s best-known psychedelic musical exploration, “Dark Star,” as well as “Alligator,” “The Other One” and “We Bid You Good Night.”
As the recording winds down, bass player Phil Lesh gives the venue his blessing saying, “Thank you and come back next week; this is a good place.”
Other national acts also came to Chico in ‘68, including popular New Orleans trumpeter and bandleader Al Hirt, who in October subbed for an ill Louie Armstrong.
Long-time Chico jazz guitarist Eric Peter, who moved to Chico from Santa Cruz in 1966, caught the show as a 9-year-old. “It was in the North Gym, and I attended with my mom,” he said. “I remember sitting on the bleachers and the clarinetist’s name was Pee Wee. It must’ve been Pee Wee Russell, a famous New Orleans clarinet player.”
Lou Rawls appeared Jan. 18 in the North Gym: “Rawls is young but his voice has the sound of experience,” according to a Chico Enterprise-Record preview. Fresh off their Ed Sullivan appearance, The Fifth Dimension played the North Gym on Feb. 15, and pop group Harpers Bizarre brought its one hit, a remake of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” in April, and played “before one of the most enthusiastic crowds of the season,” the Chico State yearbook proclaimed.
Other ‘68 shows included beat poet/singer-songwriter Rod McKuen; The Romeros, a guitar quartet from Spain; New Christy Minstrels ("Green Green,” “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine"), a wholesome, folksy group that likely included John Denver, but which came to town after Kenny Rogers, Gene Clark and Barry McGuire had departed the outfit.
San Francisco darlings It’s A Beautiful Day ("White Bird") and one-man band Jesse Fuller played the South Gym (now Shurmer Gym), Cannonball Adderly’s quintet, which was voted “best combo” in the annual Playboy Jazz Poll of 1968 played University Auditorium (now Laxson Auditorium, named after Robert Laxson who died in 1968); and a “Rock Sunday” concert on College field featured Canned Heat, the Grassroots and Country Weather.
And on Dec. 17, 1968, LSD guru Timothy Leary spoke at the college. The 1969 Chico State yearbook quoted Leary, “Raising the hedonic level of Chico is not child’s play.”
Classically cultural performances also found the Chico State stage in 1968, with a concert by the Washington National Symphony Orchestra at University Auditorium in April. A visiting opera troupe came to town to perform “La Boheme” in January, and Chico State College Opera Workshop offered weeklong run of “Madame Butterfly” in February in Chico State’s then brand-new Performing Arts Center theater, now called Harlen Adams Theatre.
“It was the first full big stage opera we did in Harlen Adams Theatre,” Kopp said. “Gwen Curatillo, came up from San Francisco as a guest artist and three or four or five years later, she became the head of the opera workshop here. She is still around.”
Renowned local photographer and art history professor Ira Latour took advantage of the situation when one of his famous contemporaries, Ansel Adams, showed an exhibit at Chico State in March 1968. The byproduct of that visit, “An Interview with Ansel Adams, Orville Goldner, and Ira Latour,” by John Heatherington, was broadcast on public television years later.
Regarding local bands of the day, the names may have changed but in 1968, as now, the Chico area had a vibrant local music scene.
Some of the groups appearing “at the many college activities that thrived on live, ‘with-it’ music,” according to the 1968 Chico State yearbook, included the Cranberry Frost, Sandoz Bluz, Gentle Rain, Joyful Morning, Gunge, Cornflake and the Wild Oats, the Bluegrass Salesman and the Charlie Haynes Quartet. Bob Seals, who’s still active locally with the ambient ensemble Seckund Naychur, had a group called the Subzero Band back in ‘68.
Kurt Kearns, now a 56-year-old Paradise resident, was part of the scene in ‘68, as a guitarist of Rosey Bones, which tended toward the sounds of The Who, Small Faces and Humble Pie. But Kearns said “the band” in those days was the short-lived Boy Blues, featuring lead singer Mark Cipolla, who went on to appear on the Ghostbusters soundtrack and write a song for metal vixen and former Runaway Lita Ford.
Cipolla and Bob Brien “were the Glimmer Twins of Northern California,” Kearns said. “They were the first guys who wrote really interesting material.
Local hot spots for live music included The Cross at upper Bidwell Park, and weekly shows at One-Mile in lower Bidwell Park, which were actually the predecessors to the long running Friday Night Concerts at City Plaza.
Now a local realtor, Kelly Lydon moved to town in 1964 and was entrenched in the local music scene by 1968, often playing college functions as a member of the Sandoz Bluz Band. For those who Jimi Hendrix would call “experienced,” Sandoz was well known as the pharmaceutical company that produced and marketed LSD as a psychiatric drug, before it became illegal in 1966.
At various times Sandoz Bluz, which featured plenty of original material, included Ron Balch, the late Marty Moser and Steve Taylor (son of Moriss Taylor). They played a Tuesday night gig at the Fillmore in San Francisco, said Lydon, who has a recording of the show.
Dan Casamajor was a recognized singer-songwriter who started out at the Upstairs Coffeehouse (on Second Street between Main and Broadway) in 1967. “I grew enough that my dad financed a private-label LP in 1969. I still have about 30 left.”
Nowadays, Casamajor can be seen most Thursdays mixing sound for Chico’s long-running open mic night at Has Beans.
And, of course, there was Charlie Robinson, who came to town from Auburn in 1951 and has been playing guitar ever since. In 1968 he was a dynamic member of the local music scene, playing rock, country and jazz six nights a week and teaching music at the old Valley Music Shop in Oroville.
A self-professed “hippie hick,” Robinson remembers playing in those days at such oft-forgotten Chico haunts as Canal Street Pizza (near First and Main streets) and Nellie’s (now the site of Monk’s Winery), as well as the Bluegum Lodge in Willows. But he has particular memories of the Brazen Onager.
“We used to call it ‘The Brass Ass,'” Robinson said. “It used to be kind of the meeting place we’d go after gigs. I was playing a lot of country. I’d get done at 2 a.m., come down and play all-night jazz until 10 the next morning.”
Now 74, Robinson still keeps an active schedule, playing and teaching music.
Funny how the more things seem to have changed in the past 40 years, they’ve also stayed the same. Sure, the population of Chico and its university have doubled, but garage bands still play garage rock (one of the town’s hottest groups, Candy Apple, has a definite ‘60s vibe), jazz players continue to find new ways to play the standards, and many of the singer-songwriters still strum and sing for peace and tolerance.
Classical music has survived, as both the Paradise Symphony and North State Symphony remain, and while the activists in ‘68 lobbied to end the war and demand equal rights for blacks, today’s progressives are lobbying to end war and demand equal marriage rights for all couples in love.
Bill DeBlonk contributed research to this article.