By Peder Jones
I was one of the many who came to the Polo Fields fifty years ago to gather with others to listen to music and poetry.
I left UC Santa Cruz early that morning with five friends in my 1959 Ford Galaxie convertible. (I’d bought the car from Joe Gillespie, an easy-listening KSFO disc jockey whose livelihood was being eroded by the music we were going to hear.) One passenger was Paul Mann, whom I was just getting to know. Paul was the lead singer for the Flowers of Evil, a Santa Cruz group often included in lists of psychedelic bands; today he is a professor of literature at Pomona College, and he and I remain close friends. Another was Steve Rees, a schoolmate through junior high and high school on the Peninsula, my roommate then, and my bandmate for the past twenty years. A third was Terry Murfree, a woman I’d met in Spanish class.
Paul and Terry had grown up in the western part of San Francisco. I had made many trips to the city during childhood, thanks to my grandfather Paul Eder, who had swum in the construction pond when the western part of Golden Gate Park was being developed. Steve and I also had made many trips to the city. So we all knew the place where we were going, but we had no idea what the event would be. (When I’d first heard that there would be a “b-in,” I tried to think of what the “b” could stand for; I knew about teach-ins and sit-ins, but not about any -ins starting with “b.”) According to word-of-mouth, our main source of event info in those days, it would be like the smoke-in that had happened in L.A. a month or so before. That certainly didn’t sound appealing, but we knew that the Airplane and the Dead would be playing and that the event would be free, so that was enough to justify gas money.
I parked along the Panhandle—we were very early—and we started walking westward. It was a beautiful sunny day, though not warm. We weren’t sure where in the park the event would be held so we just followed people. We became separated, but that wasn’t a big deal—we would regroup back at the car afterward, or not. After a good trudge Terry and I reached the Polo Fields, walked through a gap in a tottering cyclone fence, and sat ourselves down maybe fifteen feet from the front of the stage.
My strongest single memory of that day is of a small, curly-haired fellow seated just behind us who was wearing eyeglasses with two tiny American flags sticking up from the edges. He told us he was tripping; his eyes did not look great. I tried to make some conversation. He was happy we were there but was dealing with cosmic issues. During the long wait, we watched confusion on stage. Sound equipment—Fender gear—was shuffled; various people mounted and dismounted, as I remember it. Then a Digger appeared at the front of the stage carrying white bakery boxes and began passing them out into the crowd. One box reached us: it was full of white bread chicken sandwiches cut diagonally. I didn’t feel I should take one—I wasn’t a starving street person, after all (though I actually didn’t have cash to buy food after the event). But then it seemed culturally important to eat food offered by the Diggers, so I did, and I think Terry did, too.
I don’t remember any feelings of impatience waiting for the show to start. Those of us inside watched people continue to stream in, filling more and more of the vast field, and we (or at least I) felt giddy that so many thousands were coming to an event that wasn’t a sports contest and, in fact, wasn’t even organized. I believed—and continue to believe—that before the Be-In it was unheard of for tens of thousands of Americans to come together outdoors just to hear music. Steve and I had attended the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival, but that was an organized series of rather formal concerts that just happened to be held outdoors and was itself well out of the mainstream of American outdoor events.
Oddly, I don’t have clear memories of much of the music that day (in contrast to, for instance, the Fireside Folk Festival at the Greek Theater in the fall of 1966, for which I can fully describe every performer and recall many of the songs, or the San Francisco State event about a month earlier, of which I have similar, near total recall—e.g., Garcia in his striped shirt playing the organ). I do recall Timothy Leary’s speech midway through, during which I decided he was a dolt; Lenore Kandel’s brave but rather Globulus poems, which she recited with her toddler on stage; and especially Gary Snyder’s fabulous readings of brilliant, magnificent, challenging poems, including his “Smoky the Bear Sutra.” I remember him telling us that to be a poet, we had to “fuck the horny cock of the devil.” I didn’t think I could do that.
The music phenomenon most memorable was Dizzy Gillespie’s presence on stage. What a wonder to have one of the greatest musical performers of the century smiling at and encouraging our local guys, whom we thought were terrific and destined for national recognition but who were, after all, the people who gave music lessons to our friends at Dana Morgan Music in Palo Alto. The Dead were good—good enough to let new listeners know that they were doing something arresting—but nowhere near as great as they had been early in the fall on a Fillmore bill with the Airplane and Paul Butterfield. I’m not certain, but I think the Airplane played late in the afternoon, and that was our first chance to hear the band with Grace Slick. We’d heard them many times in the spring and summer and had heard Bill Graham introduce a pregnant Signe Andersen and then gesture to the rest of the band as “the proud fathers.” The Airplane sounded strong . . and then we left.
I think two of the original four passengers met us at the convertible. Terry kindly invited the three of us to her parents’ home in the Presidio for dinner, so I didn’t go hungry. Her father was an army doctor. I was uncertain whether to sound off about the war but fortunately only tossed out a mild question, which he handled with grace. Dinner was hot dogs and white bread. Seeing that, it hit me that army doctors did not get paid like other doctors, and yet did really important work.
Like many days in the year 1967, January 14 was revelatory in unexpected ways.
Peder Jones is a native of the Bay Area. He and his wife Nancy have lived in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset for 40 years. Peder has worked in educational publishing for 46 years, most notably as the founder and managing editor of Straight Line Editorial Development, Inc. He has also been a participating artist in the Fur Family, FLUXUS, ECBS, and BOXO, and blows the jug in the Loose Licks Jug Band.