We Built This City

Great song, great words sung by the Jefferson Starship’s great duo of Mickey Thomas and the legendary Grace Slick. Along with Otis Redding’s “Dock Of The Bay,” it’s become a song that’s totally identifiable as San Francisco-centric. Amazingly, it was actually co-written by Bernie Taupin (writes Elton John’s lyrics) and Peter Wolf from the J.Geils Band, and wasn’t intended to be an antem to San Francisco. Regardless of the origin, the song that originally appeared on 1985’s “Knee Deep In The Hoopla” album (yes album, 33 1/3 LP, not CD) was a total smash, and still gets the audience going when the 2009 version of the Starship performs.

Having grown up in the City during the birth of the hippie movement and arguably some of the best rock and roll ever, I’ve of course seen the Starship many times, as well as the original Jefferson Airplane. This will “date” me, but the first time I saw the Airplane was on my 16th birthday. Opening act Buffalo Springfield with Richie Furay, Steve Stills, Jim Messina, and Neil Young all in the same band, followed by the Airplane.

Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Marty Balin, Jack Cassady, Jorma Kaukonen, and original drummer Spencer Dryden … for $2.50 a ticket, at the University of San Francisco gym. Yikes what a show. Surrealistic Pillow had just been released, Grace Slick had recently left The Great Society and replaced original singer Signe Anderson. Today, Somebody To Love, White Rabbit, It’s No Secret … what a show. And what a way to turn 16. Being a normal California kid, I of course got my driver’s license that day, so I was able to drive my mom’s ’62 Valiant wagon to show, along with my band’s guitar player Tim, and our girlfriends.

We were spoiled rotten growing up in the City during this period. We knew it then, and never took it for granted. Where else on the planet did you have access to the music that we were so priveleged to grow up with? Free concerts in Golden Gate Park were a commonplace occurence, and a lineup with some combination of the Airplane, the Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sons of Chaplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop, Blue Cheer, and more … were not uncommon. Speedway Meadows or the Polo Field, most weekends, and occasionally even during the week. Great time to be a native!

Bill Graham was of course the father of modern concerts. I was fortunate enough to work for him for a ten year period, and can personally say he was a total professional, and a great guy … as long as you didn’t try to disrupt one of his shows. He wouldn’t hesitate to pull an unruly teenager out of line and deny them entrance, if they were making someone else’s life miserable. Behave or you’re going home. Graham started doing concerts as a way of promoting his pet project the “San Francisco Mime Troupe.” This quickly blossomed into fairly regular concerts, ultimately settling at the Fillmore Auditorium and Winterland, a couple blocks up Geary. Arguably the most important factor in making Bill Graham shows different and each one memorable in its own unique way, is the combination of acts on the bill for any given show.

You could see Miles Davis with a young Tony Williams on drums open up for The Who. Or the Staples Singers open for The Doors. Local bands like the Syndicate of Sound or Peter Wheat and the Breadmen could find themselves on a Fillmore poster with The Moody Blues. Watching musicians and bands “evolve” was also a unique treat. I recall a Winterland show that opened with The Nice (and a very young Keith Emerson, soon to be a third of Emerson, Lake and Palmer), The Vagrants with guitar player Leslie West (Mountain, Mississippi Queen), Procul Harum with both Robin Trower and Terry Reed on guitars, and headliners The Doors. I believe this was a $5.00 show.

The closing of Winterland show (pictured at right) was absolutely incredible. New Year’s Eve, December 31st 1978 was the final swan song at the crumbling, long past its prime hall that once served as the Ice Follies’ home base. Opening act NRPS, The Blues Brothers with most of the former “MG’s” from Booker T. and the MG’s as the backup band, and about four hours of the Grateful Dead. And at the end of the show, they served breakfast to the lucky 6000 attendees.

Two shows come to mind from the old Carousel Ballroom, before it was transposed into “Fillmore West.” The Yardbirds, always a favorite, went through a few guitarist changes. Original lead axman Eric “Slowhand” Clapton was replaced by Jeff Beck and his unorthodox style of attacking a Fender Telecaster. Original bassist Paul Samwell-Smith was temporarily replaced by young studio guitar player Jimmy Page, to try out his hand at producing. Smith returned, and for a brief period produced the lineup we saw at Carousel, with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page playing twin lead guitars. Oh my.

Another show at the Carousel featured Country Joe and the Fish as the headliners, opening act Taj Mahal, and a little known band from England called Led Zeppelin. Their first album hadn’t been released, but San Francisco was privvy to a few tracks on pioneer FM stations KSAN and KMPX, compliments of the great DJ Tom Donahue. From the opening chords of Communications Breakdown and young Robert Plant with his back(side) to the audience, you knew this was going to be memorable.

There have been so many memorable shows in the Bay Area over the years. Memorable, one of a kind concerts. The Last Waltz, which was The Band’s first retirement party, held on Thanksgiving of 1976 at Winterland. The Who and The Grateful Dead for a weekend of “Days on the Green” in Oakland in ’76. A week of Bob Dylan at the Orpheum Theater. A week of The Tubes at the Palace of Fine Arts. Two nights of Paul McCartney and Wings Over America at The Cow Palace, also in ’76. The Rolling Stones (with guest Tina Turner), J. Geils, and George Thorogood and the Destroyers at Candlestick Park in ’81. The Who, The Clash, and T. Bone Burnett at the Oakland Colisseum.

And the proverbial good news is that the music scene has survived in the City. Bill Graham was tragically killed on a stormy night, following a concert at the Concord Pavillion (ironically, I opted to go to a show at the Berkeley Community Theater that night – Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and The Indigo Girls). Bill Graham Presents has been swallowed up by the giant LiveNation concert machine, but the shows still go on. I’ve gotten picky about where I want to spend my concert dollars (because it takes a LOT of them to get into a show these days), but in the last few months I’ve seen Alanis Morissette, Matchbox 20, a fantastic Rush show (my favorite), and just last night … The Pretenders at The Fillmore.

It felt like I’d come full circle, going to a show at The Fillmore in 2009. It had been about 20 years since I’d been there – the last show being an evening of Todd Rundgren, which I went to with my friend Lisa. Prairie Prince (from the Tubes) on drums, and most of the Utopia band – great show. But the Pretenders last night was very special. I hated the crowd and standing on the floor for several hours, but we ended up about 20 feet from Chrissie Hynde, and she was awesome.

Walking around the Fillmore is a trip through a time capsule. Virtually every poster ever produced line the walls of the up and downstairs open areas. Amazing pieces of art compliments of Randy Tuten, Rick Griffin and Kelly-Mouse. They used to give you a “big” poster for that night’s concert, and a smaller handbill for upcoming shows, at each show. We took this for granted, kept them for awhile, and most people usually tossed them. Today, Wolfgang’s Vault gets hundreds or even thousands of dollars for pristine examples.
So Bernie Taupin and Peter Wolf’s words, even though they weren’t originally intended to become an anthem to San Francisco, have certainly served as such. We Built This City On Rock And Roll means so much to those of us who grew up here, as well as transplants from around the country and the world, and five decades of shows that I defy any city in the world to top.
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5 comments so far

  1. Pierce on

    Great post! I have an award for you – come by and grab it!Tinahttp://www.tinaculbertson.blogspot.com

  2. Gayathri on

    nice post

  3. C.G. the Foodie on

    Awesome post! I had visitors from out of state recently and I played “We Built This City” when I took them out to Treasure Island for a view of the city at night.

  4. TINTIN on

    Very informative blog there…keep it up!

  5. Coconut Girl Connie on

    Wow, I am sorry that I took so long to look at your blog. Almost memory overload for me. I was a teeny-bopper-hippy wanna be in Hawaii experiencing the era vicariously through people like you that decided to live in Hawaii for a while…now I have to pull out my Graham posters and reminisce!


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