Features & Columns

It's a No-Brainer For San Jose
to Embrace Grateful Dead Legacy

San Jose's City Hall didn't get much of a draw to commemorate
the 50-year anniversary of the first Grateful Dead show.
BROKEDOWN PALACE: San Jose's City Hall didn't get much of a draw to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the first Grateful Dead show.

Last Friday at noon, almost 10 people showed up outside of San Jose City Hall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the famous Ken Kesey Acid Test which took place in a house at 43 S. Fifth Street on Dec. 4, 1965.

This was the legendary party Tom Wolfe documented in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the same party at which the Grateful Dead first performed as the Grateful Dead. That monumental event 50 years ago was the second of several acid tests thrown by Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, the first one of which went down in Soquel a week earlier.

Thousands of Deadheads should have been there last week. Ken Babbs, whose "spread" hosted the first acid test, should also have been there. Every news station in the Bay Area could have shown up. Representatives from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could have documented a huge party. Of course, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann should also have been there, along with Grateful Dead biographer Dennis McNally. Then there's Neal Cassady's son, John Cassady. He should have been there. Technicians from Meyer Sound, stagehands from Bill Graham Presents, and even the Hells Angels all should have been there. With all due respect to the organizers, it really felt like a major opportunity was blown.

Since the famous acid test in question went down right where City Hall now sits, last week's event came together with the purpose of declaring an official effort to place a permanent historical plaque somewhere on the property. In any real city, this would be a no-brainer. The site would vault San Jose to international recognition, as thousands of Grateful Dead fans would regularly visit the plaque, in the same way they visit Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's grave in Palo Alto. There could be concerts every single year on that date. Anyone with half a brain can imagine more ideas.

The Dead have all sort sorts of history in the South Bay, so let me digress a bit. When Bill Graham built Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, in the '80s, he and Jerry Garcia designed the entire layout of the premises to resemble the Grateful Dead's "Steal Your Face" logo. If you look at an aerial photograph of the property, you can easily see it. The oldtimers will show you.

San Jose should do something similar with City Hall: Bulldoze the wannabe-urban-chic rotunda that looks like a deodorant stick and replace it with something, anything, that pays tribute to the Grateful Dead. And since no one at City Hall had enough vision to understand the rotunda would need decent acoustics—use a microphone in the place and it sounds you're talking in an airplane hangar—the city can hire Meyer Sound to implement a better events space. Imagine Mayor Sam Liccardo holding a press conference with the Grateful Dead's Wall of Sound behind him. Now that would be something to brag about.

So, yes, of course, there should be a historical plaque. Why do we need to even advocate for it? I mean, it has nothing to do with whether or not you listen to the Grateful Dead (I don't) or if you even experienced the 1960s (I didn't). It's about significant, cultural events that happened here, monumental stuff that should be recognized. This is another instance of something that should be second nature to any culturally literate, 20th-century, even halfway-interesting city official. It shouldn't take more than a few meetings for this to get decided. Yet all of us have to scream about it for years before the bureaucracy in City Hall gets rolling. That's what really has to change around here.

But I'm not sure if it ever will. Sometimes I'm convinced that City Hall's attitude is this: If the citizens want anything interesting to happen around here, then they should fight for it. That's always been the city's mentality. If this plaque finally happens, I guess we can hope, at least for now, that when 2,000 more homogenous tech schmoes move into downtown solely because they can no longer afford Mountain View, they'll at least realize that cool and rocking history exists here.