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Years later, their trail of notes still enthralls fans

At the corner of Jack Kerouac Alley sits the vintage 1948 Vesuvio Cafe.
At the corner of Jack Kerouac Alley sits the vintage 1948 Vesuvio Cafe. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Steve Morse
Globe Correspondent / December 21, 2008
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High school students with bedrolls and guitars still come to Haight-Ashbury, trying to soak up the vibe remaining from the days when the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and others lived here and made the city the center of the rock 'n' roll universe.

San Francisco is steeped in music history - from the Haight to the Mission District (where the band Santana was hatched) and the North Beach bars and coffeehouses where Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg hung out before the arrival of Joplin, Jerry Garcia, and the rest of the psychedelic pioneers.

And then, there's the Fillmore. It's the virtual Vatican of rock ballrooms, a 1,000-plus-capacity site run by famed promoter Bill Graham in the late 1960s, then closed, and reopened in 1994. Guests can pick from a barrel of apples in the front hallway (a Graham tradition), and everyone gets a free poster from the night's event. I caught Chris Isaak's show at this acoustically stellar hall (which Graham used to rent for just $60 a night), and it was wild to see so many fans clutching posters at the exits, something I have never seen anywhere else.

If you like colorful rock art, you'll love the Fillmore's Poster Room, where the art work on the walls is arranged chronologically. It runs from the '60s, when the Dead, Chuck Berry, and Cream (who recorded their live "Wheels of Fire" album here) performed, to more modern dates by Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, and Boston's Guster.

The Fillmore is an antique (it opened in 1912), but an immaculate one. "Graham insisted on cleanliness. If he saw a wrapper on the floor, he'd go bananas. So his staff would leave wrappers on the floor as their way to get him off their back on show nights," says Dennis McNally, the former aide-de-camp of the Grateful Dead and their authorized biographer.

McNally graciously consented to take me around one day to give his insider's account of the city's rock history. Another day I went out with Joel Selvin, longtime rock critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote a must-read book, "San Francisco: The Musical History Tour" (Chronicle, 1996).

Selvin had his own take on the Fillmore. "They gussied it up. It's not the same Fillmore anymore," he says, "but if you look under the stage, you can see the old stage, which was smaller, like a postage stamp. That's where the Doors, Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix played. The stage only came up to people's knees. . . . It was so small that Jerry Garcia used to routinely have conversations with people when he played. And the walls were covered with sheets and the illumination from the light show was everywhere."

Not wanting to overlap each other, Selvin and McNally took me to different places. Selvin drove me by the once-esteemed Avalon Ballroom, where Joplin first performed with her future band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. It's in a big, white concrete building on the second floor and was booked by quintessential hippie Chet Helms of Family Dog Productions. A movie theater is now in the front and the back room is still called Avalon, but "it's lying fallow right now," says Selvin, who is driving around, aptly, in his 1969 Pontiac Firebird convertible before taking me to lunch at a fantastic taco restaurant called La Taqueria. It's in the Mission Street neighborhood where Santana was formed, and not far from Slim's, a funky, high-ceilinged club opened by singer Boz Scaggs. I caught his performance to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and he was as silky-smooth as usual.

I did my own tour of North Beach, walking up and down the hills of Columbus Avenue. History jumps out of the Purple Onion (a folk room where the Kingston Trio and Smothers Brothers became popular), Tosca's (a cool dive where U2 often hangs when they are in town), Bimbo's 365 Club (everyone from Marvin Gaye and Neil Diamond to contemporary acts Jolie Holland and Pinback have headlined), and the bohemian Vesuvio Caf??, next door to the Ali Baba Smoke Shop and downstairs from a tarot reader.

Vesuvio is where Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of the script for "The Godfather." Kerouac and Dylan Thomas drank here. And Garcia's art teacher, Wally Hedrick, was paid to sit in the window because he had a beard and Vesuvio's sought to attract tourists to a real Beat hangout adjacent to City Lights bookstore.

The next day I went out with McNally, who waxed eloquent on San Francisco's post-Gold Rush days and how it has always had "a weird tolerance for the strange." To punctuate this, he stopped at the Longshoremen's Hall, a union hall booked in 1966 for the epic, two-day event called the Trips Festival, featuring the Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Shows at the Longshoremen's Hall signified the dawn of the acid-rock era, with many patrons dosed on LSD. Hippie guru Ken Kesey, whose group of Merry Pranksters popularized "acid tests," attended. It's also where Garcia met Graham, whose effort to fix the bridge on Garcia's guitar earned the musician's longtime loyalty, says McNally.

Just getting warmed up, McNally took me to the Matrix. The Jefferson Airplane debuted there, and it's now a club owned by Mayor Gavin Newsom. A plaque out front notes that the Velvet Underground and the Doors played there. And across the street was the Six Gallery (now a furniture store), where Ginsberg did his first public reading of "Howl."

We went by Golden Gate Park, notably an extension of it called the Panhandle, where the Dead once played a free show on a flat-bed truck with power provided by stringing household extension cords over some trees. But the pi??ce de r??sistance is the "Grateful Dead House," a three-story Victorian at 710 Ashbury St. Garcia and bandmates Bob Weir and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan lived there during the 1967 Summer of Love. It's not open to the public, but many people make pilgrimages and there's an "I Love Jerry" bit of graffiti on the sidewalk. It was also a community center when the Dead lived there and home to the Haight-Ashbury Legal Organization.

The day is capped off by parking in front of the "Jefferson Airplane House," a gleaming, four-story mansion at 2400 Fulton St. originally built by a lumber baron. The Airplane, after their sudden success, bought it in 1968 for $70,000 and rehearsed and held many a lavish party there, including one with John Belushi and the Blues Brothers in 1979. Years later, after it was sold, then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein walked in and innocently said, "I always wondered who lived here." It may be a footnote in music history now, but like so many other sites in rock-centric San Francisco, it stokes the imagination.

Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.

If You Go

What to do

The Fillmore

1805 Geary Blvd.

415-346-6000

Shows by national bands nearly every night.

Slim's

333 11th St.

415-255-0333

www.slims-sf.com

Open on concert nights only, usually four times a week.

The Purple Onion

140 Columbus Ave.

415-956-1653

A premier comedy club. Open only on show nights.

Vesuvio Café

255 Columbus Ave.

415-362-3370

A timeless, quasi-dive. Daily 6 a.m.-2 a.m.

Where to stay

Hotel Bohème

444 Columbus Ave.

415-433-9111

www.hotelboheme.com

A cozy boutique hotel ideally located in North Beach, designed to reflect the Beat Generation of the late 1950s. Rooms $174-$184.

Where to eat

La Taqueria

2889 Mission St.

415-285-7117

Mouth-watering tacos and low prices. Daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday till 8.

Rose Pistola

532 Columbus Ave.

415-399-0499

www.rosepistolasf.com

Lively, cosmopolitan Italian restaurant in the heart of North Beach. Open for lunch and dinner. Entrees $16-$44.

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