When one thinks of cities with a psychedelic musical past, certainly San Francisco will spring to mind immediately, with perhaps London or Austin a close second... but Toronto is a place that shouldn't be left out, and is a location with strong ties to the history of psychedelic culture in general. Bill Graham's productions in San Francisco, and the posters that advertised them have come to be seen as defining moments in the birth of American psychedelic culture. In 1967, Toronto's O'Keefe Centre would become the only location outside of California to hold an official Bill Graham Presents event, complete with a James Gardner designed poster (with photography by Herb Greene) bearing text clearly imitating Wes Wilson's classic Roller-cum-psych font. Vintage poster experts are all too well aware of Toronto's link to the SF sound, as the BG-74 poster (many of which were confiscated at the border), remains one of the most sought after of the entire series of almost 300, and the very first to occur outside of the Fillmore.
I'm referring here to the now legendary week-long run of Jefferson Airplane / Grateful Dead shows at the O'Keefe Centre, with locals Luke and the Apostles opening. Graham was the Airplane's manager at the time, and had the group perform a free show at Nathan Phillips Square a week before the run (July 23rd, 1967) to garner interest and build momentum. But why Toronto? Why was no other tour stop made part of the original San Francisco series, or an extended stay? The Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead went on to play together in Montreal the very next day as part of Expo '67, but the Toronto shows were seen as special, and directly connected to Graham's Fillmore concerts, plus his setting up shop for a week says he knew there was a very real audience, and something was happening here. In his book, Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s, author Stuart Henderson states that by the Summer of 1967, "Toronto had found a place on the map of happening North American hippie scenes". The daily media coverage of the happenings in Yorkville at the time certainly put the city on the map for many. Nicholas Jennings considers Yorkville in the 1960s as having been a "vibrant artistic community of international renown".
However, another part of the answer to the "why Toronto?" question surely lies in the "local" opening act. Luke and the Apostles had been signed to Elektra Records in 1965 by producer/A&R man Paul Rothchild (known best for his work with The Doors), who discovered them at the Purple Onion in Toronto. Before "hippie culture" took over, Yorkville had been centre for Toronto's Beat/Folk scenes, and the fact that anyone from a record company was sniffing around is a serious sign that Toronto was on the US radar - after all, A & R guys were usually the last to arrive at any happening locale, and subsequently launch it into the mainstream. As another example of the city's profile, a Yorkville watering hole, The Riverboat, was a well known club that was part of what Jennings describes as "a prestigious North American circuit that included Detroit's Chess Mate and New York's Bitter End". Toronto was not a backwater location with an also-ran nightlife - it was a player on the North American hip frontier. So, Graham knew this opening band already quite well, as a matter of fact, according to DeadBase.com, they played with The Grateful Dead at the Cafe au Go Go in NYC's Greenwich Village from June 6th to the 11th in 1967, and during this run, both Bill Graham and Albert Grossman offered them a management deal (a decision that led, along with inner tensions, to their implosion), and Graham likely recognized a musical compatibility with The Dead - both even covered the same blues standards. He was likely showing what he could do for them when he asked them to be the opener for these Toronto shows, as well as opening for The Jefferson Airplane at Nathan Phillips Square - a show attended by (reports vary) 20 to 50 thousand! The decision to recruit Luke and theApostles as the opener is also a clear indicator that Graham was aware of what was going on in Toronto's Yorkville scene, and was a deliberate means of linking his production to this crowd - a promoter's version of an 'invitation'.
The sense that the Yorkville scene was a Haight-Ashbury North was possibly underscored and encouraged by the presence of The Diggers, an activist group that was formed by David DePoe, based on a San Francisco-based "humanitarian" organization of the same name. The San Francisco Diggers were located in Haight Ashbury, and operated a Free Store that gave out food, clothing and other necessities to those in need, with stock donated from various businesses in the community. The Diggers were also activists and believed in political and social change more than partying, and they put more into action than their humanitarian efforts at The Free Store: demonstrations, and direct engagement with tourists happened regularly. Author Richard Brautigan was closely associated with them, and a large part of the Digger population was made up of members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, an organization that Bill Graham managed in 1965, before realizing he wanted to be a concert promoter when putting on a benefit to raise funds for the troupe. On Victoria Day, 1967, a Love-In was held in Toronto, organized by the TO Diggers, with five thousand participants, various celebrities including Leonard Cohen and Buffy Saint-Marie giving the cause a nod with performances, and onlookers galore. Things went down beautifully without any altercations, and the word went out via the media nationally. For anyone waiting for a sign that Toronto had a "scene", this was it.
Graham's bold move of a week of days (matinees) and nights of SF psychedelia paid off big time: people came from all over the province and well beyond to check it out. Interviews from the time with members of The Airplane reveal they were impressed and surprised by how enthusiastic and engaged the audience was here. Phil Lesh couldn't avoid mentioning this week in Toronto in his autobiography, either. This was truly a peak in Toronto's music history, and remains preserved in audio format, and via Toronto's presence in the concert series that symbolizes this era.
Thank you, Bill Graham, and Luke & The Apostles, for putting Toronto forever on the "psychedelic" map.
Article made by Jason Steidman / 2013
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