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Grateful Dead Trip

Which San Francisco neighborhood do you most associate with the Grateful Dead? Stupid question, right? Well, take this Grateful Dead North Beach Trip, and you just may think twice about answering Haight Ashbury the next time the question is asked.

This chronological Trip around North Beach begins in the days prior to the emergence of the Haight Ashbury counterculture era in San Francisco. It transports you to the cusp of the Summer of Love. To experience it, you need not travel to San Francisco. But, the next time you are in North Beach, you may want to check out some of the sites.

First Grateful Dead Gig in San Francisco

The Grateful Dead’s association with North Beach predates their move to the Haight in September 1966. Their performance at Pierre’s in late 1965 was their first gig in San Francisco and their last as the Warlocks.

Pierre’s – 546 Broadway, San FranciscoNovember/December 1965

Pierre’s opened in 1961, three years before topless entertainment would debut in America at the neighboring Condor Club. Music-oriented venues lined San Francisco’s Broadway in the early 1960s. Initially, Pierre’s was not one of them.

Interior photo of Pierre's with co-owner posing with five women. The Grateful Dead played their first San Francisco gig here.
Pierre’s Grand Opening, late 1961. Co-owner Maurice Bessiere and friends in front of a salsa band fronted by San Franciscan Cesar Ascarrunz. Photo courtesy of the estate of Dick Boyd, Pierre’s co-owner, bartender, raconteur extraordinaire and author of “Broadway North Beach The Golden Years.”
Pierre’s Surprising History

Upon opening, Pierre’s quickly became popular with professional athletes. They came for discounted drinks at a time when most professional athletes needed to work in the offseason. The San Francisco Warriors celebrated their 1964 NBA division championship here. Wilt Chamberlain of the Warriors returned to this watering hole numerous times. Visiting athletes also discovered Pierre’s; Mickey Mantle and his Yankee teammates enjoyed an evening here during the 1962 World Series.

But Pierre’s was no sports bar. It was a classy joint, the kind of place that the Don Draper character from Mad Men would hang out in during the era. Men with tightly cropped hair wore suits, white shirts, and skinny ties. Women were decked out in fashionable skirt suits and high heels. A series of stained-glass windows filled the wall above the entrance. Opposite the ornate bar, a Montmartre street-scene mural, painted by a Hollywood set designer, adorned the wall. Guests gathered at the bar or sat at tableclothed bistro tables.

When Pierre’s first opened, a jukebox provided the music. Shortly thereafter, they began booking live musicians, typically for weeklong engagements. Go-go style dancers accompanied some acts and received billing in newspaper ads along with the musical performers.

Newspaper ad from 1964 for Pierre's presents The Harlequins plus dancing Shirley Kay. Photo of Kay on the side.
Pierre’s advertisement, spring of 1964. Courtesy of the estate of Dick Boyd

Other times, the band was enough. In late 1962, Pierre’s booked The Champs (of “Tequila” fame) for a special three-week engagement. These shows drew lines up the street. Pierre’s was the kind of a place where a couple would go before or after dinner at a North Beach restaurant. 

North Beach Goes Topless

On June 19, 1964, the scene made a quick and dramatic change when Carol Doda first performed in a “topless” bathing suit. Doda’s performances at the Condor Club created such a sensation that within two months many of the clubs on Broadway went topless, including Pierre’s.

Photo of model posing with arm over her breasts. The suit bottom rises above her navel and has thin suspenders.
Model Evelyn Fry debuted the topless bathing suit at a North Beach clothing store, June 16, 1964. Carol Doda got one and changed the City forever.
Credit: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

By late 1965, topless bars saturated Broadway. Many began hiring barkers to attract customers from the street. The atmosphere became less appealing for women and families. When the Grateful Dead played Pierre’s, two topless dancers alternated between songs.

Grateful Dead Recollections

Recollections from the band are a bit foggy. As Weir recalled in The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir, “The girls hated us, ‘cause they were sort of used to 2:30 tunes…we’d play for like 15 minutes, and they’d just run out of gas.” Bill Kreutzmann seemed to mostly remember the tits – “tits were flying, (and) sweat was flying off her tits.”

Phil Lesh recalled it differently back in the 1980s, although I have a little trouble with his math. “We’d play for twenty minutes, and the chick would come out and she’d be onstage a total of five minutes and it would take her four minutes to get her jacket off, so out of every thirty-minute set, when they changed the audience over, you got one minute of tit.”

For many years the location has been home to a strip club called the Hungry i, not to be confused with the historic Hungry i nightclub which was in the basement of the International Hotel at Jackson and Kearny Streets.

Big Daddy’s Big Influence

An early cornerstone of the San Francisco music scene and a fixture in the North Beach/Telegraph Hill neighborhood, “Big Daddy” Tom Donahue championed the careers of many local musicians, including the Grateful Dead.

Mother’s – 430 Broadway, San Francisco – November 3, 1965

Some sources claim that the Grateful Dead played Mother’s on November 3, 1965. Considered the first psychedelic nightclub, boss deejays Tom Donahue and Bobby Mitchell from KYA radio opened Mother’s in the summer of 1965.

Donahue and Mitchell also promoted many of the biggest concert events in San Francisco in the era including Chubby Checker’s Twist Party at the Cow Palace in 1962 – the first big-time rock and roll concert in San Francisco; the Rolling Stones’ first San Francisco concert in 1965 at the Civic Center; and The Beatles final concert at Candlestick Park in 1966.

Image of poster for Cubby Checker's Twist Party. Presented by KYA's Bob Mitchell and Tom Donahue

The walls at Mother’s were decorated by artists and poets including Michael Bowen. A renowned beat generation artist, Bowen later collaborated with Stanley Mouse on the Human Be-In poster. San Francisco Chronicle music critic and Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Ralph J. Gleason likened the décor to a Hieronymus Bosch mural. Donahue described it as “a giant womb.”

The psychedelic light show at Mother’s, the first of its kind in San Francisco, was produced by Del Close, the director of the San Francisco satirical/improv comedy group The Committee. Close went on to become a legendary behind-the-scenes character in the world of improv and comedic acting, coaching many Saturday Night Live cast members including Belushi, Akroyd, Murray, Radner, Candy, Myers, Farley, Fey, Poehler, and Sudeikis to name a few.

The Grateful Dead at Mother’s

A Lovin’ Spoonful show on August 4, 1965 proved one of the biggest shows in the club’s short existence. Some of the Warlocks were in attendance. “Do You Believe in Magic” happened to be one of Lesh’s favorite tunes at the time. The song was part of the Warlocks’ repertoire. The Spoonful acknowledged Garcia during the set.

The location is now a Chinese hot pot restaurant called Fondue Chinoise.

Golden State Recorders665 Harrison Street, San FranciscoNovember 3, 1965

Tom Donahue and Bob Mitchell also happened to run a label called Autumn Records which had a national Top 5 hit in 1964 with “C’mon and Swim” by San Franciscan Bobby Freeman. A 20-year-old deejay named Sly Stewart who also worked as the label’s in-house producer, wrote the song. Shortly thereafter, Stewart began using the name Sly Stone. The song initiated a dance craze. Once the Swim hit, clubs along Broadway advertised Swim dancers.

Freeman, who also had a big hit in 1958 with “Do You Wanna Dance,” performed regularly at the Condor at the time he recorded “C’mon and Swim.” Stewart also played there with a band called the Mojo Men (another Autumn signee).

Later in 1964, Autumn signed a talented Beatlesque band from North Beach called The Beau Brummels who would go on to have Top 40 hits with “Laugh, Laugh” and “Just a Little” in the early months of 1965.

The Grateful Dead on Autumn Records

Using the name “the Emergency Crew,” the Grateful Dead recorded demo tracks for Autumn Records at Golden State Recorders.  The session took place on the date of the rumored show at Mother’s. The six tracks cut that day were not released until decades later. They are the first six cuts on the album below.

Tom Donahue dug the Warlocks, but by the time they recorded the Grateful Dead, Mitchell was battling Hodgkin’s Disease. And despite the label’s successful releases, Autumn was struggling financially. Nothing came of the demo.

3rd Time’s the Charm

Longshoreman’s Hall – 400 North Point Street, San Francisco – January 21-23, 1966

The copper-domed Longshoreman’s Hall hosted the first major concert featuring the fledgling San Francisco Sound on October 16, 1965. The Jefferson Airplane, the Charlatans, the Great Society, and the Marbles played the show billed as “A Tribute to Dr. Strange.”

Black and white exterior photo of Longshoreman's Hall where Grateful Dead performed at the Trips Festival.
Longshoreman’s Memorial Building, San Francisco, California,1959.
Credit: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

Representatives of the promoter, the original Family Dog collective led by Luria Castell, considered the Warlocks for the show but ultimately were not interested. The Warlocks did not play enough original material. One of those Family Dog representatives was Alton Kelley, the artist who would later design a concert poster featuring what is now the iconic Grateful Dead skull and roses imagery.

The following weekend, a second Family Dog show at Longshoreman’s Hall featured the Lovin’ Spoonful as headliners. Some of the Warlocks attended the show following dinner at a landmark burger stand on Columbus Avenue called Clown Alley.

Exterior daytime photo of Clown Alley restaurant in San Francisco. The Grateful Dead ate here before a Loving Spoonful show.
Clown Alley, 42 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, 1964.
Credit: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

The third major event at Longshoreman’s Hall, The Trips Festival, marked The Grateful Dead’s debut performance at the venue. Promoted as an immersive multi-media experience that included music from the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company (pre-Janis Joplin), and the Loading Zone, The Trips Festival took place over the weekend of January 21-23, 1966. As Tom Wolfe wrote in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, “The Haight Ashbury era began that weekend.”

The former site of Longshoreman’s Hall is now a parking lot.

More Big Daddy

Enrico’s Café – 504 Broadway, San Francisco

A mountain of a man, “Big Daddy” Tom Donahue often held court on the outdoor patio at Enrico’s Café on Broadway. Record label promoters and executives would always pick up his tab. One close associate of Donahue’s was Joe Smith of Warner Bros. Records.

Photo of full patio of Enrico's Cafe where Tom Donahue likely recommended the Grateful Dead to Joe Smith.
Enrico’s patio a year prior to Donahue’s arrival, San Francisco, 1960.
Credit: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

Smith and Donahue shared history. They each worked as deejays on the east coast and moved west in 1961 in the wake of the payola scandal. Tom Donahue came to San Francisco to join KYA and Smith went to L.A. to become national head of promotion for the label.

In early 1966, Donahue had too many interests and distractions to keep them all afloat. Unable to pay his bills at Golden State Recorders, and as a result unable to cut new records, Tom Donahue sold Autumn to Warner where Smith was quickly rising the ranks.

At the time, Warner Bros. Records was irrelevant in the burgeoning rock scene. Their biggest acts were Dean Martin, Petula Clark, Trini Lopez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Donahue advocated for the San Francisco bands. Having missed out on signing Jefferson Airplane, Donahue pushed Smith to sign the Grateful Dead.

Today, Enrico’s is home to Osmanthus, an excellent dim sum restaurant.

A Strange Grateful Dead Gig

The North Face Shop – 308 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco – October 26, 1966

The North Face, a year-old mail-order ski goods company from Lake Tahoe, opened its first retail shop adjacent to the Condor Club in 1966. The tiny shop had rustic wood paneling and a mountain panorama that served as a backdrop for a Grateful Dead performance on opening night.

Photo of a crowd gathered at the door at the Grateful Dead performance at the North Beach Shop grand opening.
Photo used with permission of Suki Hill Photography.

The scene that night could have easily been mistaken for a Fellini film set. Mimi Farina modeled the brand’s apparel with her sister, Joan Baez, tagging along for support. Ski posters and a Ringo Starr photo adorned the walls. A large promotional poster for Bob Dylan’s current release Blonde on Blonde hung in the window. That night the Hells Angels provided security, and cowboys, hippies, and preppies mingled as men in business suits ambled over following a Carol Doda performance at the Condor. For an afterparty, the owners treated the band to dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant.

The North Face Shop is long gone. The space has been occupied by Taqueria Zorro since 1998.

Grateful Dead 1st Anniversary

The Old Cheese Factory – 517 Washington Street, San Francisco – November 12, 1966

The Grateful Dead celebrated their first anniversary with a show at The Old Cheese Factory in a long-since demolished building on Washington Street next to where the Transamerica Pyramid stands today. Tickets for the show were available at a half dozen locations around the City including the North Face Ski Shop. Stanley Mouse created a poster for the show that included Andrew Staples as an opener and a light show by Bill Ham.

Andrew Staples was a band from Davis, California whose four-point Baroque style of music was influenced by Bach. One member of the band in 1966 was Dickie Peterson, who left the band around this time to found the proto-metal band Blue Cheer.

Bill Ham originated the use of psychedelic light to accompany rock music at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada when the Charlatans resided there for a time in 1964. Philip Elwood of the San Francisco Examiner wrote of Ham’s work in January 1966: “Instant art… this is a remarkable happening; a brilliant and beautiful collection of instants which become a whole, like a series of exquisite…solo choruses.” His collaboration with jazz musicians called “Light Sound Dimension” was exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art the following year.

Grateful Dead Record Deal

Contract Signing – 118 Alta Street, San Francisco – January 1967

In August 1966, Joe Smith and his wife visited San Francisco. One night they enjoyed dinner at a classy restaurant on Montgomery Street called Ernie’s. Albert Hitchcock created a replica of the restaurant for his 1958 film classic Vertigo.

A call from Tom Donahue interrupted Smith’s dinner. “The Dead want to talk to you now,” Donahue declared. “They’re at the Avalon.” Smith replied, “We’re all dressed up” to which Donahue responded, “No one will notice.”

Joe Smith and his wife waded through the Avalon crowd toward the dressing room. Smith met with the band between sets while his wife waited outside. According to Summer of Love author Joel Selvin, the record executive was dazzled. He confided to Donahue, “Tom, I don’t think Jack Warner will ever understand this. I don’t know if I understand it myself, but I really feel like they’re good.”

The Grateful Dead met Smith at Donahue’s home for the contract signing. The band’s managers, Danny Rifkin and Rock Scully, approached Donahue with one additional concession; the Grateful Dead wanted Smith to drop acid prior to signing. The band believed it was the only way for the label to truly understand the Grateful Dead’s music. Smith declined and they signed the contract shown below.

Copy of Grateful Dead recording contract with Warner Bros. All band members have signed.

The former Alta Street home of Tom Donahue is located near the top of Telegraph Hill, just below Coit Tower. The panoramic views stretch south across the Financial District and west toward Nob Hill. At the time, the Transamerica Pyramid was not yet part of the skyline.

Whisky a Go-Go – 568 Sacramento Street, San Francisco – March 10-16, 1967

Following the contract signing, the band headed to L.A. for three nights of recording for their eponymous debut album. The week prior to the album release on March 17, 1967, the Grateful Dead were booked for a weeklong residency at the Whisky a Go-Go. Not the famed club on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, but the short-lived San Francisco location.     

Exterior evening photo of back entrance to Whisky a Go Go nightclub in San Francisco. Well dresssed older couple walking past the door.
Whisky a Go Go San Francisco, c. 1966.
Credit: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

As was typical, the engagement was preempted on Monday by Latin Night featuring the Escovedo Brothers. Percussionists Pete Escovedo (father of Sheila E.) and his brother Coke would later tour with Santana throughout much of the 1970s. A younger Escovedo brother, Alejandro, gravitated toward the San Francisco punk scene at Mabuhay Gardens (443 Broadway) in the late ’70s. Incidentally, the Whisky offered luncheons with Topless Fencing and Topless Fashion shows on weekdays in San Francisco.

The Grateful Dead shows at the Whisky a Go-Go in San Francisco were not well attended. As reported by Lost Live Dead, even opening night on Friday, March 10 attracted less than 100 people. One attendee noted in his journal, “Dead crowd. Left early.”

On the day of the album’s release, the Grateful Dead opened for Chuck Berry at the 5,000-capacity Winterland Ballroom. That Friday night gig was followed by shows at the Fillmore on Saturday night as well as a Sunday matinee.

Today, the Sacramento Street side of the building is occupied by Leo’s Oyster Bar. The rear of the building, a former PG&E station at 565 Commercial Street, is shown in the photograph above.

Album Release Party

Club Fugazi – 678 Green Street, San Francisco – March 20, 1967

On Monday, March 20, 1967, the band was back in North Beach for a Warner Bros.-hosted record release party at Club Fugazi. Invitations were printed using the same Stanley Mouse design as on the anniversary party poster.

Joe Smith of Warner Bros., wearing a company blazer, announced, “I want to say what an honor it is for Warner Bros. Records to be able to introduce the Grateful Dead and its music to the world.”  Jerry Garcia quipped to the attendees that the Dead were proud to introduce Warner Bros. to their world.

A power outage aborted the Grateful Dead performance that night. The ubiquitous Ralph J. Gleason recapped the weekend in his On the Town column in the San Francisco Chronicle labeling it “A Wild S.F. Weekend of Rock.”

Club Fugazi was a one-time concert venue where in 1959 Thelonious Monk recorded his Thelonious Alone in San Francisco album. Beginning in 1975 the club was home to Beach Blanket Babylon, the longest-running musical review in history. Currently, Club Fugazi hosts Dear San Francisco a fantastic, acrobatic love letter to the City.

Jerry & Phil’s “Top 40” Radio Show

KMPX-FM Studio – 50 Green Street, San Francisco – April 1967

The end of 1966 found Tom Donahue at a career crossroads. That year he sold Autumn Records, closed Mother’s, and promoted the Beatles concert at Candlestick Park which turned out to be their last. His partner, Bobby Mitchell, relocated to Los Angeles where he would succumb to Hodgkin’s disease in 1968.

Donahue and his young girlfriend Raechel, a former nightclub dancer who later became his wife and an excellent deejay herself, often hung out at their Telegraph Hill home playing records that could not be heard on AM radio at the time. As Raechel recalled to Ben Fong-Torres, the former Rolling Stone writer/editor, “Tom said, ‘Do you realize that we sit here every night and smoke dope and play records for each other? I wonder why nobody’s done this on the radio.’”

Soon after, Donahue found a struggling Chinese language FM station and secured the 8 pm to midnight slot. On April 7, 1967, he began broadcasting what became known as “free form” radio, or the term he preferred “freak ‘n’ roll.” Within its first month on-air, Tom Donahue invited Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh into the studio with their current favorite records for a magical night of radio.

For a glimpse of the scene in San Francisco between the Human Be-In and Monterey Pop check out this recording from that night of radio. Think of it as “Jerry and Phil’s Top 40.”

Months later, Donahue penned an essay for the second issue of Rolling Stone titled “AM Radio Is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up the Airwaves.”

—————————————————–

More Grateful Dead Related Venues in North Beach

Keystone Korner – 750 Vallejo Street, San Francisco, California

Following the closing of the original Matrix nightclub on Fillmore Street, Keystone Korner would become a preferred San Francisco venue for Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders for their regular gigs in 1971-72. Most recently a Chinese restaurant, 750 Vallejo Street was a prominent jazz club that produced numerous live recordings by artists such as McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Art Blakely, Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Smith, Freddie Hubbard, Pharoah Sanders, Nat Adderley, and Stan Getz.  

A Garcia and Saunders gig recorded here on May 21, 1971, was released as GarciaLive Volume 15. The album shown below was recorded at the Keystone Berkeley.

The Stone – 412 Broadway, San Francisco

The Matrix, the shuttered Fillmore Street club, reopened briefly at this location in 1973 with the most notable performances being by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The club later reopened as The Stone, a venue the Jerry Garcia Band played numerous times including October 4, 1986, Jerry’s first show after a four-month hiatus recovering from a life-threatening diabetic coma.

Chi Chi Club – 440 Broadway, San Francisco

Kingfish and The New Riders of the Purple Sage, a couple of bands with Grateful Dead ties, played the Chi Chi Club at 440 Broadway. Kingfish played here with various iterations of Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Brent Mydland between 1984 and 1986. By the time The New Riders played Chi Chi’s in 1990, there was no Dead connection, John “Marmaduke” Dawson was the only original member remaining.

The Chi Chi Club space has had a long and colorful history. In the 1940s and early 50’s it was home to Mona’s 440 Club, the first lesbian club in San Francisco where female entertainers performed in male drag.

A singer named Ann Dee then bought the club and changed the name to Ann’s 440. Dee gave local crooner Johnny Mathis his start. A Capitol Records executive came to see Johnny at Ann’s and would not leave until Mathis signed a contract.

Jerry Garcia collaborator Merl Saunders was actually the first to recognize Mathis’ talent, asking his high school friend, a star athlete, to sing in his band. Mathis spoke the eulogy at Saunders’ funeral in 2008.

After Ann sold the club in 1964, the new owners jumped on the topless craze, renaming it the Chi Chi Club. By the time Kingfish played here in the 1980s, it was a straight-ahead rock club.  

In recent years, 440 Broadway was home to a not-too-popular dance club called Cosmo’s Bar and Lounge.

The Orphanage – 807 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, California

Jerry Garcia and Merl Saunders performed at the Orphanage on February 6-7, 1973. For an inside look at the club during this era, check out this great video of a Van Morrison performance. The recording features an introduction by Tom Donahue and a priceless interview/conversation with Van between sets.

Incidentally, Van’s backing band, which he raves about in the interview, was a young group out of Tamalpais High in Mill Valley, California called Sound Hole. They were rivals with another band from Tam High called Clover who also worked with Van and would later back Elvis Costello on his debut album. Members of the two groups would later combine to become Huey Lewis and the News. The bassist of Sound Hole is Mario Cipollina, brother of the Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist.

One member of Clover (whose tasty guitar work is featured on Costello’s hit “Alison”) was guitarist John McFee. While he is mostly known for his tenure with the Doobie Brothers, another Bay Area band, McFee has an impressive list of session credits including pedal steel on “Pride of Cucamonga” from the Grateful Dead album From the Mars Hotel.

807 Montgomery Street has since been converted into an office building.

“Lately It Occurs to Me…”

Cities are forever changing, even if the buildings look old. Most of the original structures on this Trip remain largely intact, yet the current use renders them nearly unrecognizable from the days of the Grateful Dead. This doesn’t prevent my mind from wandering to the night of the North Beach Shop grand opening every time I walk past Zorro’s Taqueria.

Two sites bear seeking out.

118 Alta Street* – High above North Beach at the top of Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower offers stunning views of the City and bay. On your way back down, take a beautiful short walk down the Filbert Steps leading to this quaint dead-end street. Imagine the Grateful Dead here on the night of their record deal signing. Or the gatherings at Big Daddy’s place where they played records and smoked dope well into the night, conceptualizing a groundbreaking radio format.

Club Fugazi is another spot worth visiting. Dear San Francisco, the indoor Cirque du Soleil type show, is excellent entertainment for visitors and locals alike. The well-preserved interior is little changed from the days of the Grateful Dead record release party.

More Travel Ideas

If you are looking for more ideas of things to do or see in the neighborhood, check out my North Beach Travel Guide. My San Francisco Travel Guide will help you plan your trip.

*Please do not disturb the current residents. There is no need to walk up to the front door.

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Primary Sources:

The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound by Ralph J. Gleason

Broadway North Beach The Golden Years: A Saloonkeeper’s Tales by Dick Boyd

Summer of Love by Joel Selvin

The Hits Just Keep on Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio by Ben Fong-Torres

Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out by Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield

A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally

Featured image of Broadway in November 1965 courtesy of OpenSFHistory / wnp25.2886