SAN JOSE, Calif. — Mike Katz and Crispin Kott want to take you on a trip through Bay Area music history.
If you’re game, all you have to do is pick up a copy of “Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area,” their cool new book detailing where Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick, Tupac Shakur and other music stars lived, walked and worked in the region. It also covers a number of notable nonlocals, from Bob Dylan to Sid Vicious, who spent time in the area. The tome follows “Rock and Roll Explorer Guide to New York City.”
We recently had the opportunity to chat with the two authors, who have both relocated to Northern California from the East Coast — and browse through 10 iconic Bay Area music destinations. Katz now calls Monterey home, while Kott lives in Oakland.
Q: How did the idea for the Explorer books come about?
Mike Katz (MK): I’ve always been fascinated by the history of cities, particularly what makes them culturally unique. I also spent several formative years in New Orleans, where you can visit the actual places where jazz emerged as a distinctly American form of creative expression. Standing in those places and touching those buildings had a profound effect. It’s a powerful experience, not unlike visiting where the Declaration of Independence was signed, or where Lee surrendered to Grant.
Many years later in New York, Crispin and I attended a panel discussion with the surviving members of the Velvet Underground and listened to Lou Reed recount the many unexpected places where he and the others met, worked and essentially re-created themselves. We had talked about writing a book about New York’s rock ‘n’ roll history, but this was a ‘eureka’ moment.
Q: Why did you decide to do the next book on the Bay Area?
Crispin Kott (CK): After New York we knew we either wanted to tackle the Bay Area or Los Angeles. We went with the Bay Area in part because there was so much more to the story than what happened in the second half of the ‘60s. All that is in here too, but the Haight-Ashbury scene wasn’t the beginning of rock music in the Bay Area, and it wasn’t the end, either.
Q: A lot of people know about the S.F. rock landmarks — Fillmore, Haight-Ashbury, etc. But how much rock history exists outside of the 415?
MK: Lots! Oakland’s Blues and R&B roots date back nearly a century, and Berkeley has an extremely diverse history encompassing folk, blues, rock, and R&B, as well as some pioneering record labels. San Jose, Santa Clara, Stanford, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and various other sites up and down the peninsula were both critical proving grounds and important performance locales for many important artists of the ’60s and beyond.
Q: The biggest city in the Bay Area is, of course, San Jose. Is there a lot of rock history to find in the land that gave us the Doobie Brothers?
MK: Yes indeed. The house that Tom Johnston lived in when he founded the Doobies was recently given historic status. Beyond that, San Jose can also boast the first gig by the Grateful Dead under that name, at one of Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests on December 4, 1965. That event was reportedly attended by Rolling Stones Keith Richards and Brian Jones following their own gig at the Civic Auditorium.
San Jose was a key location in the critically important folk music circuit of the mid-‘60s as well, attracting the young Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Janis Joplin, Paul Kantner, and Jorma Kaukonen.
Kantner was a student at San Jose State and worked with Kaukonen at Benner’s, a local music store. Jorma even made extra money teaching guitar lessons there for quite some time. There’s plenty more, but I can’t give it all away here.
Q: What were some of the biggest surprises that came about while doing this book?
CK: I was constantly surprised by how often single locations turned up in seemingly disparate scenes, or how they were touched by important music and nonmusical history. (For example) 330 Grove Street in San Francisco was in 1978 both where the LGBTQ rainbow flag was created and the site of a punk show featuring Dead Kennedys and Avengers. And several years before that it was the home of People’s Press, a crucial underground print shop. Unfortunately where that building once stood is part of a parking garage now. But it’s still fascinating to think about what used to be there.
Q: The title of the book says “Rock and Roll” but there’s actually a lot more than just that genre represented in this book, right?
MK: We make a conscious effort not to create unnecessary boundaries between perceived music genres. Musicians typically don’t, and those appellations are often marketing tools anyway. Following our “inclusion is better than exclusion” rule, for example, we describe blues and R&B in the Bay Area before the so-called Rock ‘n’ Roll Era (roughly 1955 and beyond), because to exclude those artists would rob them of their place in history as the progenitors for so much of which followed and be a gross distortion of history. In those days, blues, rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll were often considered variations of the same thing but for different audiences. The “classic rock” sound of the ’60s is different from the punk sound of later years, but they are part of the same musical continuum and we enthusiastically cover them both. We don’t cover hip-hop extensively, but we do write about Tupac Shakur because he is such a towering figure that has influenced musicians and fans across all demographics. We’ve even got Johnny Mathis in there because he’s one of the most popular singers of all time and is inescapable. He even went to the same high school as Marty Balin.
Q: Crispin, what’s your favorite piece of rock history that you learned from doing this book?
CK: Neal Schon confirmed a hilarious story about an incident with a fire extinguisher when Journey was recording “Infinity” at His Master’s Wheels in San Francisco. And Joel Gion of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s story about getting hired to work at the Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theater is great too.
Q: Same question to you, Mike.
MK: One dramatically unpleasant eye-opener I learned is that one can draw a direct line from the forced internment of Japanese Americans at the outbreak of World War II to the rise of the Fillmore Auditorium as the premier venue of the San Francisco sound of the ’60s.
The Black Americans that repopulated the district — one of the very few places that would rent to them — transformed it into an entertainment destination, and impresario Charles Sullivan established the Fillmore as its biggest and best venue in the early ‘50s. When “urban renewal” set in some time later, and many of the Black inhabitants of the area were forced elsewhere, audiences dwindled until Sullivan began to share the space with a young Bill Graham. Sullivan died under tragic circumstances not long after, and the transformation was complete.
Q: I would like to know each of your all-time favorite Bay Area music acts. Give your, let’s say, top 5. And bonus points if you rank them in order.
MK: Not in any order, because that would change on a regular basis: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, Etta James, Santana.
CK: In order: Grateful Dead, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Sly and the Family Stone, Green Day, Dead Kennedys. That’s as of right now and is subject to change, depending upon a variety of factors. Jefferson Airplane and Cool Ghouls are bubbling just under the top five.