January 27, 2024

How Dead Is Chico? (Guest Post)

11/1/68 photos by Paul Atkins.

When I arrived in Chico, CA as a transfer from San Francisco State in 1989, it was clear this was a Dead-friendly town. It was the peak of the "Touchhead" era, and the place was packed with kids in kufis, eating organic and bumming smokes. The use of GD couplets in conversation had become an arcane art unto itself.

Me to young Chico Deadhead: "How did your date with Amy go yesterday?"

Deadhead: "Bruh, the bottle may have been dusty, but the liquor sure was clean."

I didn't know how deep those roots went until last year when I and a friend launched a Facebook group dedicated to Chico's music history (we expected 50 people; we got 2,300 and counting). From research and the stories of group members, some interesting links have come to light.

One of the first was that Pigpen's father, Phil McKernan, was a DJ at Chico's KHSL before moving to Berkeley's KRE, where his R&B and blues show influenced many future Bay Area players. This would have been about four years before Pigpen was born. From a 1941 radio-industry trade mag:

In the mid-1960s, Chico was a frequent stop for touring bands on their way to or from San Francisco. Like many Valley towns at the time, it had a Teen Center. These were much hipper spots than we might picture today. The Teen Centers and Vets’ Halls in Chico and its neighbor, Paradise, hosted bands on the cutting edge of garage-rock and pop, including the Yardbirds (1965); Chad & Jeremy (1965); Bonniwell’s Music Machine (1968); The Kingsmen (1965); The Standells (1967); Seattle’s The Wailers (1966); a post-Van Morrison Them (1967); The Ventures (1963); The Chantays (1964); and a proto version of the all-female Fanny called The Sveltes (1966,67). Chico also hosted bands from closer to home, some of which are now legendary among rare-60s collectors: The New Breed, The Lords, The Psy-Kicks, Zorba & the Greeks, The Tears, etc. (0)

One particularly early and interesting show in December 1966 was billed simply as “Freakout” with Quicksilver Messenger Service, Project Hope, and the Third Half; supplemented by “liquid visuals, light projections, and a crystal shower.” The conservative local paper relayed the promoters’ breathless prose: “The whole show […] will destroy your vision and unwind your mind simultaneously as you vibrate in the misty vortex of confusion – mesmerized by the totality of sights and sounds created by “Freakout.”

Notably, there were two versions of the flyer – one a homemade, proto-Fillmore mindbender borrowing from German expressionism:

- the other a version for the local papers that looked more like an announcement for a gospel revival under the ol’ brush arbor:

The term freakout was new, coined by Zappa for the Mothers’ first album that same year. An apparently young reporter at our local daily wanted to explain the term to readers, so he called up the man himself. Zappa, of course was happy to expound in Zappa fashion:

On a personal level 'freaking out' is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress and social etiquette in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole. It is not merely a medium of entertainment, but a state of being. Less perceptive individuals have referred to those who have chosen this way of thinking and feeling as 'freaks' - thus the term 'freaking out.'" (1)

When the Dead played Chico’s fairgrounds on 11/1/68 the elixir du jour happened to be nitrous oxide, which was generously shared with the locals. This caused many of the inexperienced to "revisit their lunches," including the singer of the opening band Gunge, who reportedly puked on Mickey's drum kit. The local consensus seems to be that the show was good, not great. On the other hand, most attendees I’ve spoken with don’t recall much from that day, for a variety of reasons. Big Brother & the Holding Company (with Janis) played Chico State the same year, and there were contemporary media reports they were booed off the stage; however attendees I’ve spoken with don’t recall that. (2)

In 1971, this ad appeared in Chico State’s student paper The Wildcat: 

However, the announcement was a little premature. The show never happened, and the student organization that ran the bookings was compelled to issue a public statement (today, it’s hard to imagine anyone apologizing for a show that “only” features War, Eric Burdon, and Cold Blood with Lydia Pense):

Accept our apologies. The Grateful Dead were our official choice and would be coming to Pioneer Week except for the fact that they don’t want to come, or can’t come, or some other reason. Conjecture has it that the measly audience at a concert they had in Chico two years ago kept them from accepting another Chico engagement. Sorry, folks. If negotiations had come through, as we thought they assuredly would, the Dead would be here. Instead, Cold Blood and Eric Burdon & War are coming, for sure. They are signed, and they will be here. (3)

Frequent GD-collaborator Dave Torbert of the New Riders visited Chico with Kingfish and Keith & Donna during the Dead’s ’75 hiatus (see pic), then spent his last years as a Chico resident, playing in several bands (including one I later drummed with). 

This pic is Dave with the JGB in 1982, filling in for an ill John Kahn. Those flashy moon boots he's wearing belonged to guitarist Steve Cooley, who's been playing locally since the mid-1960s. Dave died suddenly from a heart condition in 1982.

Here’s one example of what could be many illustrating the GD's deep influence on local players. Prairie Biscuit was a great, longhair-country band that played local honky-tonks and even did a national tour in places that were not known to welcome the hirsute. Most of their material is straight country, but check out the lead track from their 1979 private-press LP and see if you note any familiar themes and tones. It makes a great drinking game (and if you want to extend it, try the demos from Elvis Costello's pre-fame pub rock band "Flip City").

Information has recently surfaced that Chico may be the site of the first GD cover song ever committed to tape (outside of the band's home turf). A group of 15-year-olds called The Souls recorded this version of "Cold Rain and Snow" in the summer of 1967 - just a couple of months after the release of the Dead's first album. (4) They recorded it in a band member's living room, on a reel deck owned by an older brother. The singer, Kurt Kearnes, was recovering from strep throat at the time, but since it was the only time the recorder was available, they gave it a shot:

The recent discovery of The Souls’ tape also opened up some interesting questions in that the band recalls learning the chords to "Morning Dew" (which they played in their live set) before the first album was released. They remember learning the song directly from Jerry off the side of the stage at a Chico gig around '66-'67. As far as the record is concerned, the only GD show in Chico was 11/1/68, so if an earlier show can be confirmed it would be a new addition.

Souls vocalist Kurt Kearnes - whose solid recollection of local music events has been very helpful in our Facebook group’s research - recalls at least two(!) Dead shows in Chico prior to ’68 and thinks that one of them may have been with Quicksilver Messenger Service. This show hasn't been confirmed so far, but we’re still searching. The Chico Teen Center ran its show ads in the local daily fairly consistently, but I haven’t found anything on the Dead. (5) (The daily Enterprise-Record was very conservative at that time, so it’s not unthinkable they may have refused to print a name like “The Grateful Dead,” which was much more shocking in 1966-67 than to our modern ears that have grown used to it.)

On that theory, I found a few dates advertised only as “DANCE!” but none that correspond to open dates on either the Dead or QMS calendars. (6) The research continues…

by Charles Mohnike 


(0) Chico's Teen Center launched in the early '60s and initially didn't buy many ads, but the paper would often mention their dances and the band name in short articles. By the mid-'60s they advertised pretty consistently, with most ads listing the band. There were many local bands who headlined the center, but didn't necessarily get an ad (while some did: The Boy Blues, for example, were probably the biggest local band in that era, and were always advertised.) Around '68, the term "teen center" was losing its cool, so the center rebranded as "STP" for a short time, before closing somewhere around '69-70. 
Teen Center events were not always hosted at the Armory but sometimes moved to other buildings, and usually required a "teen card" for admission. (Shows without age restrictions were pretty rare.) Different promoters could also book the Armory for various events - for instance the 12/10/66 "Freakout" was presented by Delta Sigma Phi, and the Dead's 11/1/68 show by Waterhole.
There were other venues for touring rock bands in Chico as well - for example, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators played at the Vet's Hall with The Boy Blues sometime in '66 or '67. (The date is unknown - some ads list the local band there, but not the Elevators.)
(1) See also the 12/7/66 Chico State Wildcat, "'Freakout' Defies Classification" - "It involves a strange blend of lighting and special visual and sound effects with a traditional rock dance combo." QMS would play the Teen Center again on October 11, 1968, with the Ace of Cups and local band Cranberry Frost.
(2) Janis Joplin & Big Brother played for the annual Ghost Town dance at Chico State on May 1, 1968, along with Cranberry Frost and Jay Magram. The Wildcat reported, "An estimated 4,500 people attended as the San Francisco group turned College Field into a 'surrealistic stadium.'"
For more on the 1968 music scene in Chico and the conservative climate at the time, see https://www.newsreview.com/chico/content/it-was-a-gas/694453/ 
(3) 3/24/71 Chico State Wildcat. The Cold Blood/War concert took place on April 28, however the 4/30/71 Wildcat unhappily reported that the concert "was stopped early due to problems with the audience... The concert held generally a mood of anxiety and hostility," people were injured by flying bottles, and the power was cut mid-show.
(4) Chico had one record store in '67, where the Souls bought the first Dead album. The store was more likely to carry Perry Como or Doris Day LPs than the Grateful Dead, but perhaps stocked the Dead since it was a Warner Bros. album.
(5) The Teen Center didn't buy ad space for all of its shows - only those they considered big names, and known touring acts - and bands from San Francisco who were then unknown outside of the Bay may not have been considered ad-worthy. Dances at the Teen Center were generally on Fridays or Saturdays, but sometimes all the information we have is an ad saying "Friday! Dance!" 
(6) Several people swear they saw the Dead in Chico multiple times before the '68 show. As one put it, "the Dead were like the house band here - it got to where people were sick of them." There are a handful of open dates in fall '66/spring '67 where the Dead & QMS could both have played in Chico, in theory.


  1. Well this is fucking fascinating man

  2. This is really well written and researched, as is typical of everything Charles posts on the Chico Old School Music Scene group on Facebook. Allow me to add a few additional thoughts and factoids:

    Butte County, which is in rural Northern California, became home to a number of hippie families during the early '70s, as the Haight scene crashed and the "back to the land" thing happened. There were a number of them growing weed and organic vegetable in the woods and canyons around Chico, and some of the families had bands, such as the Butte Creek Family band, that were influenced by the GD and covered some of their tunes.

    I've often heard rumors that the Grateful Dead played a show at "the Cross," which was an area near the entrance of Upper Bidwell Park just outside of Chico, some time in the '60s. It's just an open space along a sloping hillside where somebody constructed a big cross out of welded pipe, and for a while it was a place where kids went to party. (Think of the "party at the Moontower" from the movie Dazed and Confused.) Local bands sometimes hauled generators out there and played free shows during the late '60s. It may seem unlikely that a band of the Dead's status would decide to play there, but there are people who swear it happened.

    One last thing: the Garcia Band played Chico State's Laxson Auditorium in March 1982, and there are some videos of this online. My recollection is that this was an extremely stormy, rainy night, and Garcia arrived late due to flooding on some of the roads between Chico and the Bay Area. Dave Torbert replaces John Kahn on bass for the first set, and I believe this was because Kahn also had some problems getting up to Chico. I can attest that despite the late start, a good time was had by all.

  3. This was a fascinating read, great job Charles

  4. Lenny Hart's idea for the Grateful Dead to star in a psychedelic western musical is pure genius. Imagining the Dead as rock & roll cowboy outlaws and creating songs for the movie feels like a perfect blend of their innovative spirit with a classic American genre. It's a missed opportunity that would have brought their groundbreaking music to a whole new medium.

  5. I would like to think that even if I had vomited from too much nitrous at the Silver Dollar Faire on Nov. 1, 1968, that I would still have had an incredible time. What exists on tape does not lie and the truth is that the show was fantastic. What is certainly false is the claim that the Dead were Chico’s “house band” and they played there so often that the residents grew tired of hearing them. That is the kind of high comedy that you can only get from old hippies, the same ones who were at Altamont and who “remember” hanging out around a big campfire after the concert passing a bottle of whiskey around and singing songs with Jerry and Jim Morrison.

    1. But it's funny to think of people in the '60s saying, "Ugh, not the Dead again...yawn..."