Head down highway 128 toward Vallejo, cut over to Berkeley on I-80 and on across the Bay Bridge, and it’s 73.5 miles (claims Google Maps) from Calistoga to San Francisco. Going west to Fulton to pick up 101 through Marin County and across the fabled Golden Gate bumps the trek to 75.1 miles. These days people actually make that commute, a bumper to bumper crawl of stalls of aggravation. In 1966, Calistoga, then a village of some 1,800 people, and San Francisco were much farther apart, even though there was less traffic and the challenge was dodging the speed traps instead of the slow-mo tango of rush hour with its road rage cadenzas and adagios of boredom. Even Santa Rosa, less than 20 miles, whether you went over Chicken Hill or out Mark West Springs, seemed pretty far away. And Napa? Nothing there. A place to pass through. If you had somewhere to go.
So how, in the summer of 1966, had we heard of The Grateful Dead? Even that first single, “The Unlimited Road (To Golden Devotion),” wasn’t out yet. Radio was, for pop music anyway, still only AM Top 40—British Invasion, Motown, the studio pop of groups like The Association, and The Byrds for a splash of folk rock. Even, “It’s No Secret,” the first single by The Jefferson Airplane, was still a month or two away from release. And, truth be told, we didn’t even realize (yet anyway) that one might snicker knowingly at Calistoga Joint Union High School as the name for the school, where we’d soon enough be doing our senior year, and then what? Vietnam? An Elvis wedding in Reno to try to beat the draft or make the junior or missy on the way seem planned? And maybe for a lucky few something called college. Ah, the apotheosis of Senior Prom, that once in a lifetime ritual when costumed children pretending to be “adult” imagine getting lucky and that this will somehow be a happily ever after, while anxious parents look on (with nervous or stoic or nostalgic smiles) pretty sure it won’t.
Looking back, I’m guessing it was the coverage on the local news (radio and TV) of Ken Kesey’s marijuana bust, faked suicide, Mexican sojourn, and the negotiated return to plead guilty and spend six months in the slammer. Was that our first clue of an incipient psychedelic scene in that far off place we were just hip enough to refer to as The City? Or maybe it was Ralph Gleason’s columns in The San Francisco Chronicle, the morning paper that reached Calistoga on the three p.m. Greyhound bus, each day three or four copies on sale at the drug store on the main street. Or maybe ads on the radio for dances at some place called Longshoremen’s Hall with groups with names like The Charlatans and The Great Society. But somehow we had heard of The Grateful Dead, even if we hadn’t heard the music, and somehow we sensed that this was part of a different world, or at least a different scene, than Calistoga, which was, then, more the 1950s (though not necessarily Happy Days) than it was an outpost of the emerging Summer of Love that would captivate the media the following summer.
This poem is less “about” The Grateful Dead and their music than it is about Calistoga, as it may once have been: a small town where the store owners along the one main street met each morning for coffee, where the tradesmen (such as my father, who ran a small meat market) knew their customers by name, and where the kids, once they’d walked across the stage for a high school diploma, were expected either to join the army or get married and get a job somewhere in town. As 1966 turned into 1967 and 1967 marched into the upheavals of 1968, the innocence and blindness of that world evolved into a different order, and that order in turn evolved and evolved again. The first photo above (from a post card) shows the restaurant, Reeders, just around the corner from the Union 76 station. The other, also from the late 1960s, also shows Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga’s main street, a half block or so closer to the center of town. Put another way: in 1966 Calistoga was still more the Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law and the Law Won” than it was the Grateful Dead’s “Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion),” even though Bobby was already some weeks dead (beaten to death in his Corvette) and the Grateful Dead were barely started on their long strange trip and it would be another year before we were listening to Anthem of the Sun.
These three links are examples of how the Grateful Dead sounded in 1966 (had we actually heard them then):