Jack Bruce: "San Francisco! The first time we went there, that was pretty mind-expanding."
Ginger Baker: "I haven't recovered from San Francisco yet, we really had a ball."
Eric Clapton agreed: "The right place at the right time. There was definitely nothing else like it, and we fit in perfectly.... We loved it. It was like coming home. And we used to stay out in Sausalito, across the bay, and it was just what we wanted. I made tons of friends. People that seemed to have the same philosophy. It was the time of my life."
Clapton had fond memories of "the hippies in Sausalito, meeting the Grateful Dead, meeting Big Brother. All night long in Sausalito, where it was very hippy, these guys would be outside our window with bongos and congas..."
Cream's first near-brush with California came when their manager turned down an invitation to play at the Monterey Festival.
Clapton: "He didn't tell us that we'd been invited, which pissed me off. He told us after he turned them down, but he said, 'I have a reason for that. I want to break you in San Francisco independent of this festival, so that you have more of an impact.'"
Bruce: "Stigwood might take the credit, but he made terrible decisions. I expect we were asked to play all kinds of other big events that we never got to hear about... Instead, we were doing some terrible little gig somewhere.... We were too busy working to notice the places where we weren't working."
Cream was never an 'underground' band in the UK, kept apart from the new 'happening' scene, and didn't play at the psychedelic clubs there, instead staying on the normal club circuit. Their only shows in the US had been a "Murray the K Show" in NYC in spring '67, a ridiculous multi-band revue where they had to play five brief sets a day, starting at 10 am!
Bruce: "We started off with two songs, then they said, 'Sorry, you'll have to cut it to one.' Then they said, 'That song's too long, you'll have to cut it down a bit....' By the end, we were playing half a song a set."
However, they were thrilled at being in New York, soaking up the scene, going round and jamming with numerous musicians at the clubs. As Clapton said, "New York is incredible. I'd love to live there. Everybody is so much more hip to the music scene." They were especially struck by New York's first Human Be-In in Central Park, "20,000 people just having a good time," complete with dosed popcorn....
Back home, the band was unhappy at their lack of progress in the summer of '67, as they puttered around doing little UK gigs while the release of Disraeli Gears was delayed for months (the record company considered it 'psychedelic hogwash'). Clapton mentioned in June, "It's a big bring-down for me to be in this country at the moment. Everybody's obsessed with Jimi Hendrix... Honestly, we were getting on much better in the States. Sometimes I feel like cutting out on Britain for good." Jack Bruce agreed: "We've reached a bit of a strange state as a group. We're not sure exactly where we are going now." As Bruce said later, "It just wasn't really happening in England - we were stagnating."
Things were starting to look hopeless, when Bill Graham booked them at the Fillmore for a long run, from August 22 to September 3, 1967. This was quite a long stay for an unknown English band - apparently word had reached him of their live reputation; and Clapton would already have been a known name in the US. They were billed with a couple other electric blues acts, the Butterfield Blues Band and Electric Flag.
Bruce: "The place was crammed. I think we played there for ten days... We were blown away by the fact that people knew who we were." Most importantly, the Fillmore "had the best sound system we'd ever used up to that point, which was crucial."
"The Fillmore had a great PA, and a really good guy doing it called Charlie Button who did the sound for the Dead. It was great to hear the wonderful sound. That was when we first started doing the extended improvisations, which was new to the band. We usually played very short three, four, five-minute versions of the songs. Quite simply, we were fed up with doing that, and the audience was so great at the Fillmore. They were all so out of it, so laid-back, and would shout, 'Just play!' They wouldn't let us go. So we just started jamming, and that turned into what we became known for."
"We expected that it would be the same kind of thing [as England]: nobody knowing us or wanting to know us... We were very, very nervous because this was something really big for us, and it was almost the first time we had played to a full house (the others were festivals, with loads of bands, or else they were tiny pubs and clubs). But all these kids had actually come to see us, and it was the first time we'd had our own audience on that scale, and they were just shouting out things like 'play anything, just play, we love you' and stuff, and the whole thing ended with us just playing these incredibly long, improvised things."
"That was the influence San Francisco had on us... When we hit the Fillmore, we started to play those long improvisations... All the audiences were stoned out of their collective bonces. That was what they wanted us to do, they just encouraged us to do that, and it was very successful. It just sort of happened."
Clapton: "We were told by Bill Graham that we could play anything we liked for as long as we liked, even if this meant playing til dawn... We soon realized that no one could see us because they were projecting light shows onto the band, so that we were actually in the light show. It was very liberating. We could just play our hearts out, without inhibition, knowing that the audience was more into whatever scenery was being projected onto the screen behind us. I'm sure a good deal of them were out of their heads...but it didn't matter. They were listening, and that encouraged us to go places we'd never been before. We started doing extended solos, and were soon playing fewer and fewer songs, but for much longer. We'd go off in our own directions, then hit these coincidental points in the music when we would all arrive at the same conclusion...and we would jam on it for a little while and then go back into our own thing. I had never experienced anything like it. It had nothing to do with lyrics or ideas; it was much deeper, purely musical. We were at our peak during that period."
There's an exciting audience tape from their last Fillmore show on September 3 - among other songs, Sweet Wine now has a great freeform jam, and the Spoonful features an incredible droning-raga solo from Clapton (perhaps influenced by Michael Bloomfield's East/West solos).
Clapton was excited at first by SF audiences, saying that September: "In San Francisco there is more encouragement and less competition from musician to musician.... San Francisco has about the best audience anywhere... Every little note you play is being noticed, being devoured... You know you have to do it right."
But Cream shared a low estimate of the local music scene in San Francisco. As Ginger Baker said, "Maybe they were surprised to find out we could play our instruments? There are some very good groups out there - the Electric Flag and the Butterfield band."
Clapton had the same opinion: "As much as I saw of the bands that were killing them there - I mean Big Brother and the Jefferson Airplane - I was very unimpressed." The only thing he liked was Butterfield's blues band ("fantastic") and Electric Flag ("just the heaviest thing around, an incredible band"). (Bloomfield, in return, seems to have been quite frightened by Clapton's playing.)
Jack Bruce also disliked California bands: "They were crap. All those bands - none of them were any good, they were all so many weekend hippies. Not so much the Grateful Dead, I never saw the Dead at that time, but all those other bands....the Doors, crap."
Clapton mentions that even before he went to California, "I was actually pretty contemptuous of the West Coast rock & roll scene.... I thought they sounded pretty second-rate. I liked the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, and I had heard a great album by Moby Grape, but I had never seen them play live. Basically, I thought most of the so-called psychedelic stuff that people were talking about was pretty dull."
(Michael Bloomfield also had a harsh opinion of the local scene, saying in early 1968: "I think San Francisco music isn't good music, not good bands. They're amateur cats... I don't dig Good Morning Little Schoolgirl by the Grateful Dead. I don't Pigpen trying to sing blues; it don't sound like blues. It sounds like some white kid trying to sing blues. It drags me; they're not funky. They don't have a good beat....it's not the real shit and it's not even a good imitation. It's not even like the Stones. I don't dig the Airplane - I think they're a third-rate rock & roll band. I don't dig Country Joe & the Fish - I find them an abomination, a fraud perpetuated on people. I don't dig Big Brother - I dig Janis, but I think Big Brother is just a wretched, lame group of cats who she carries for no reason at all." It's worth noting that fellow Butterfield Band guitarist Elvin Bishop was much more positive about the Dead...)
Keep in mind that the members of Cream were 'grizzled veterans' of the UK club circuit - they'd been considered masters of their instruments back in '64 when folks like Jorma and Jerry were plunking away in acoustic coffeehouses - and as professionals, they may have been taken aback by the shambolic amateurism of San Francisco's psychedelic music. (Jack Bruce didn't like Pink Floyd, either, though Clapton did.)
In September '67, Clapton mentioned one surprise in San Francisco: "The first thing that hit me really hard was that the Grateful Dead were playing a lot of gigs for free. That very much moved me. I'd never heard of anyone doing that before."
Cream didn't see the Dead live, though. At some point Clapton heard the Dead's first album, but didn't have a positive reaction. "I don't think the quality of their music is as high as a lot of other good recording bands. People are more concerned with live music, maybe, than recording. If the Grateful Dead are one of the best, they're not doing a very good job on recording....they're not really my bag."
Of course, Clapton being a blues fanatic, he was going to be most impressed by the American blues bands - he seemed to have the idea that straight blues artists should be much more popular. "I was shocked at how many people weren't aware of what they had on their doorstep."
He somehow got the mistaken idea that local bands were unaware of the blues, and that Cream's blues-based repertoire was quite new to these audiences. "There weren't many bands doing what Cream did... Even though there were the Grateful Dead, and the Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and all that, they were kind of playing pop music. They weren't relating to their roots too well. They were trying to get away from it all. What we were doing, basically, was bringing their music back home and showing it to them for the first time." (Hearing Cream's version of the "blues", it's hard to know what he's talking about!)
At the same time, he was quite impressed by American radio. "You could be in a car and tune the radio to a country music station, a jazz station, a rock station, a blues station, or an oldies rock station. The categorization was so wide, there seemed to be room for anyone... When I came home, it seemed in England there wasn't really room for more than one person to be popular at a time." (Jack Bruce was also surprised to hear FM stations playing entire albums - "that was great, that was a nice thing to do.")
As a result of their Fillmore experience, Cream's sets changed - rather than playing short sets of blues covers & some original pop songs, now they played just a few old songs with 10-20 minute jams everywhere. The songs themselves were now irrelevant. (Tapes of their American tour show the jams becoming ever lengthier and more explosive after the Fillmore run.)
Clapton said in October '67: "We don't do anything straight. We're into music much more now, as much as jazz musicians are. There are no arrangements, except for arrival and departure points. Sometimes, we just play free for half an hour."
Baker (also that October): "We are getting further out in playing different things every night. We even did the same number twice some nights, and the versions were so different we got away with it."
Clapton: "The idea is to get so far away from the original line that you're playing something that's never been heard before."
One thing Cream prided themselves on was that, as Bruce said, "Any instrument could be the lead instrument." They were not playing jams in the 'psychedelic' sense, but more as virtuosos, all of them taking simultaneous leads. The idea was to bring an improvisational jazz sensibility into loud rock music. Clapton himself was not so much into jazz; but Baker and Bruce both came from jazz backgrounds and considered live Cream to be a jazz band. "We just didn't tell Eric!"
Clapton spoke recently about the jazz influence: "The atmosphere and spontaneity, the creativity of it, was what we drew from when we got onstage in Cream, a lot of [our] freeform stuff, although it was still pretty limited in its tonality. Everything I was playing was only coming from the blues scale, and moving out of blues & rock phrasing. But the intention was to try and escape that. A lot of that came out of the listening I did to early Coltrane."
To a Dead-attuned listener, Cream shows were quite noisy, even by the standards of '68 Dead - full of shouting, power chords, heavy rock songs. Cream liked to keep the music at a deafening high pitch, rarely slackening the intense onslaught for quiet moments. Although they were fans of Chicago blues, their blues covers tended to be unrecognizable. Their jams may seem static compared to the Dead's, in that there's not much direction, no progression of moods, no transitions between songs, little feeling of a cosmic journey culminating in a climax, and absolutely no spaciness - there's just straight-out jamming, then suddenly an unrelated song reappears.
The Dead at the time, though (late '67), were not yet so utterly different in their approach, and were still working out their own improvisational techniques. Their shows of that year are full of energy, even frantic, and they're happy to turn up the noise, though they're friendlier at heart than Cream. They were also turning blues covers into a new kind of rock music, with emphasis on the instrumental interplay. There is a definite kinship between, say, their Viola Lee Blues and Cream's I'm So Glad. (The one song both bands had in common, Sittin' on Top of the World, shared no resemblance! But it's so easy to imagine what a Dead Spoonful might have been like with Pigpen...)
The Dead started jamming from a different perspective - as skilled amateurs, learning their instruments together, trying to fuse band & audience in a transportational acid-fried music, encouraged by other like-minded bands around them. Highly ambitious, in those days they always had a goal of what the music should be like, and were constantly self-improving. Cream was more aloof, torn by bickering and loss of harmony, and somewhat lacking in goals - they were lucky to find a sympathetic producer in the studio; but onstage, once they got tired of the new improv-heavy format, they were stuck and had no idea how to change or get out, except to quit.
Cream had a huge impact on people who saw them. Today, when they're considered "classic rock" predecessors to even noisier bands like Led Zeppelin, it's easy to forget that their first audiences were blown away by a kind of playing they'd never seen before - even in a city that already had its share of jam-bands. (Cream attracted a much bigger audience in their few months of US touring, and more tapers in the audience, than the Dead had in their first four years!)
I'll be quoting some audience reactions at the end, but for now I'll mention that many new listeners were so amazed they came back repeatedly to see Cream as often as they could. One fan remembers, "Most of the audience there that night was local people who had seen Cream the night before, perhaps even the previous weekend as well. This was in San Francisco - these were people who saw the best bands in the world, and they were really excited. The charged atmosphere at a Cream concert was unique in my experience."
Another witness of the first Fillmore run: "The Bay Area bands who were hot at the time were (including the sacred Dead) a joke in comparison. I heard them, I think, for 3 or 4 nights in a row, caught all the sets, and each night was better than the last. You could almost see the guys hit their stride as the nights went on, getting tighter and tighter and more experimental at the same time."
As Blair Jackson says, "The group's long, noisy, distorted jams made most bands sound positively mousy in comparison, and there's no question that the Dead and the Airplane were impressed by the volume and intensity of Cream's live assault."
Jorma Kaukonen: "When I saw Cream for the first time, I thought they were the most incredible performing band I had ever seen in my life. That might still be true. As a guitar player, I wanted to be able to do stuff like that." Seeing Cream inspired the Airplane to delve further into long improvisations. As Jorma says, "It was a growth period. I was starting to use multiple amplifiers. There were different kinds of fuzztones and the wah-wah pedal....you hear a wah-wah and you're thinking Cream."
Marty Balin: "We'd been playing the songs the same way for about a year, and then one night Jorma just took off. He started playing amazingly, just real free. We realized that once everybody knew the arrangement you could just take off like that... Pretty soon we got to a place where the music was playing us, we weren't playing it."
Jack Casady: "Probably the single most important event was when Eric Clapton came over with Cream and played the Fillmore. That and Jimi Hendrix electrified every musician as far as playing in a rock band that would just peel paint off the walls. Everybody got louder and harder and tougher after that."
(Of course, the Airplane had already been getting heavier with things like the feedback-drenched Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil before they saw Cream.)
Owsley also went to lots of Cream's shows. Clapton: "He showed up at all our gigs... We did a lot of acid, took a lot of trips.... I don't know how many times we tried to play while using acid, but there were a few... I don't really know how I got through it, because I didn't know if my hands were working, what the guitar was, or even what it was made of..."
Even Jerry Garcia was impressed by the power-trio format: "Me and Jack Casady and Mickey were gonna form a power trio one day... We actually got together one afternoon... We ended up with a tape that was about two and a half hours.... We could kick some ass...but it just sort of petered out."
Cream themselves were very surprised by their enthusiastic American reception.
Clapton said during the tour: "We seem to be a lot more popular here than I had imagined. I heard that we'd been heard of through the underground thing. Yet I really didn't imagine that we'd be this popular, or that we'd be accepted as readily as we were, because an American band like Butterfield can go to England now, and just die at all the places."
Bruce said in January '68: "It amazes me how well known we are [in America]. It is an underground thing." He had plans for the next album - "If the record company will let us, we'd like to make it a double album...one would contain the tracks we are working on now, the other would be an album recorded live at the Fillmore."
Soon after Cream left the Fillmore in September '67, they decided to record a live album there. They'd wanted to record a live album for some time, realizing that their studio recordings were never going to capture their live power; and they all agreed they played best at the Fillmore.
Bruce: "Cream was like two bands: there was a studio band, where we had the ability to overdub, and there was the live band. Some of the things worked very well live, but some things were very difficult to realize live with only three people." There was a huge gap between studio Cream and live Cream. In the studio they got to experiment with strange little songs, but didn't do the extended improvisations they'd become known for; and on the stage, they virtually ignored all the new songs they were recording, sticking mostly to a few jammed-out tunes they'd been doing since '66.
Cream played another 10-day run at the Fillmore & Winterland at the beginning of March '68, recording several shows for their next album. Unfortunately, by March '68 they were already burning out - on top of which they may have 'played it safe' when being recorded.
Bruce: "The best of Cream live was never captured on record. We were at our peak when we did our first big American tour [but by the recording] we had slipped over the peak." "It was pretty representative of the band on an average night, but not on one of the nights when we really took off - like the very early Fillmore gigs."
Most of the official live Cream recordings come from the Winterland shows on March 8-10. (As it turned out, their selection for the Wheels of Fire live album was diabolical, one side entirely taken up by harmonica & drum solos - perhaps a combination of LP time limits & band politics - but more songs were released on a couple 'posthumous' live albums. Unfortunately, the unreleased shows were then burned up in a vault fire.) There was even a BBC film crew filming some of the San Francisco shows - a few snippets were used in the "All My Loving" rock documentary, but all outtakes of course were junked by the BBC.
From March 10 '68, here's a picture of Clapton & Garcia, taken in Sausalito:
Cream and the Dead played one show together after Cream's Winterland run - March 11, 1968, in Sacramento. Here's the poster:
Apparently, Tom Constanten (on leave from the air force) also joined the Dead for this show! The Dead opened for Cream (being much less popular at the time), so they may have played a shortened set. Their setlist is said to be: Cryptical>Other One>Cryptical>New Potato Caboose>Born Cross-Eyed>Caution Jam. McNally says in his bio, "After a brilliant Dead set, Cream came out to top them and attacked their instruments so hard they blew out their speakers; the Dead had to lend them equipment to get through the show."
This must have been quite an evening - listen to Cream's Winterland recordings of March 8-10, and the Dead's shows of March 16/17, and you can imagine the noisy night in Sacramento!
There's a story that after Garcia and Hart saw Cream, Hart said, "This is the best band in the world!" Garcia replied, "They are tonight."
I don't know what Cream made of the Dead, though I remember seeing a comment by Clapton that they spent a long time struggling to get a good sound....
There was an interview (which I can't find now) where Clapton said the Dead had a lot of skill but no idea what to do with it - a common complaint in those days. On the other hand, as an older guy in '97 he said, "I would have loved to have played with them actually. That would have been great fun, just to pick up some of that vibe and figure it out."
Later on, of course, the Dead became an institution, inspiring a whole jam-band scene. Cream are perhaps more often remembered as early burnouts on the road to heavy metal, or as a brief bright spot in Clapton's checkered career. So it may be worth gathering a few quotes from people who saw them at the time, to understand why they were an instant success in the US and Wheels of Fire became one of the biggest albums of '68. (Remember that when they were recording shows, Clapton had to turn down his volume for the microphones to cope, which seriously changed the band's sound on the live albums.)
"I was immobilized. I couldn't believe the power of their music. It was revelatory, thunderous and overwhelming."
"Eric was a revelation, as was the band as a whole. Nobody had ever graced that stage with such power and musicianship and originality. Eric especially created spellbinding solos that seemed to ebb and flow - his tone, touch and sheer inventiveness took your breath away."
"At the end, I was completely drained of emotion. It didn't seem humanly possible for anyone to play that well, with such intensity, technical clarity, lyricism, and emotion. It was the closest thing in my life that approached a religious experience. I have never again heard anything that sounded so good, or which drilled right through you, as Clapton's SG played through Marshall stacks."
"I was grabbed by the sheer sound pressure, like being pinned up against the wall by volume, and the sound of Clapton's guitar. He was playing an SG, and he made a sound I had never heard before, like a cross between a violin and a guitar."
"Cream was very loud. I was astonished at the volume. I had the Fresh Cream album, and had read articles about what Cream did 'live', and I just had to go. I was still not prepared. They were astonishing, and completely different from any other band I had heard. They just roared. I just recall being flat-out blown away by the intensity of the whole show. The atmosphere before the show was electric with anticipation--everybody was so excited, in a state of high suspense, just waiting for Cream to start. Everyone expected something incredible to happen when Cream took the stage, and they got it."
"I will never forget the awesome power and thrilling musical high of that performance. My reaction was one of shock, first of all just hearing a guitar that massive and loud to the extent of almost vibrating your spinal column! Clapton's notes absolutely resonated through your entire body and when he hit those high register notes, they had a sound that has never been reproduced by any recording. They soared high in the air, and when he would bend a high note, it felt as if you were flying it was so intense."
"I was overwhelmed, by the power/volume and force they projected. Eric played so LOUD, I could barely hear anything else. After we left the concert arena all of us were in awe. For weeks after the show all we did was play Wheels of Fire and reflect on what we had witnessed."
These stories, and lots more, can be found at the best Cream website: http://gpatt.customer.netspace.net.au/cream/contents.htm