Grateful Dead in the Bob Fitch contact sheets
This is a guest post from Bob Fitch Project Archivist, Gurudarshan Khalsa.
We recently completed digitizing the many contact sheets in the Bob Fitch Photography Archive. Thanks Griselda Mercado! And thanks to Michelle Paquette and the team at the Digital Library Systems and Services, the contact sheets are now available online. The Bob Fitch Photography Archive consists of the work of photojournalist and activist Bob Fitch documenting the civil rights movement, farmworkers movement, peace movement and other social justice causes from the 1960s to the mid-2000s.
As part of the digitization process we would check each folder and the front and back of each contact sheets to see if there was any information that would help identify people, places, dates, or context for the images. Bob Fitch and his assistant were very diligent about identifying as many people as possible in the photos in his archive. I was checking a folder about hippie communes in Northern California when one of the contact sheets happened to catch my eye. I had seen this contact sheet before while I was physically processing the collection and I remember at the time thinking, “Oh another image of hippie musicians.” This time I took a closer look at the contact sheet and I thought I recognized one of the musicians. A quick Google image search verified my guess and to double check I asked the opinion of our resident music buff Franz Kunst (Special Collections’ Processing Archivist). He confirmed that it indeed was Jerry Garcia and when we looked through other contact sheets in the same sequence we found images of the rest of the Grateful Dead with Stephen Gaskin. This was exciting to me because these images otherwise might not have been discovered.
Surprisingly there was no other information in the folder about the context of the concert. But based on the fact that the Grateful Dead were with Stephen Gaskin I determined that this most likely was the Celestial Synapse concert at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. As it happens one of my family friends, Sat Santokh Singh Khalsa, had been a manager for the Grateful Dead for a few years in the late 1960s (he then went by Bert Kanegson). I sent him copies of the digitized images, and here is his initial reply:
“Quite a surprise that out of all the many, many Grateful Dead concerts, that you would send me photos of an event that I organized. It was called the Celestial Synapse. The man blowing the horn was Stephen Gaskin, later founder of “the Farm” in Tennessee, and husband to Ina Mae Gaskin, a well-known pioneering midwife. The man speaking was Don Hamrick, founder of the Frontiers of Science Foundation and Harbinger, a community at what is now Harbin Hot Springs…. The date of it was February, 19, 1969.”
Sat Santokh Khalsa later sent me a longer description of the event that is from his (as-of-yet) unpublished autobiography:
“THE CELESTIAL SYNAPSE
Don Hamrick, the founder of Frontiers of Science wanted to put together a weeklong event called the Celestial Synapseto raise funds for Harbinger. I took Don to meet Bill Graham, who seemed suitably impressed. I told him we needed a thousand dollars, and being who he was, he didn't simply say no, so we argued about it. We went around and around for several hours, Don just watching, and wishing, no doubt, that he was somewhere else. Graham gave in and gave us $1000 and told us we could use, what had been the Carousel Ballroom and was now Fillmore West, free of charge for part of the upcoming Celestial Synapse.
The Celestial Synapse was to take place in three places: Fillmore West, the College of Marin, and at Harbinger, in that order. I was in charge of the event at the Carousel, and left everything else to the others. We sent out 1500 invitations to the Carousel event, sure that would result in a full house. The list was composed of the Harbinger mailing list, friends of the Grateful Dead, all my friends and other core rock-scene friends—the who's who of the rock world and the spiritual scene. The concert was the most “in” event of that time’s “in” events.
Almost of the the major rock musicians attended, in fact, almost all of them had asked to play, but I held fast to only using the Grateful Dead. The light show was composed of a group effort of the three best light shows in San Francisco. The dope dealers all brought their best dope—mescaline, THC, LSD, and marijuana. It was the epitome of a love festival, and everyone greeted everyone with hugs and exclamations of joy. We programmed the event so that there would be nothing happening for the first hour other than people enjoying one another.
I had designed the program. We began in a purple and violet atmosphere, with Steven Gaskin blowing his conch and leading us in an “Om” chant. As the “Om” swelled and reached its peak, Richard the Gong master began to play his gong. The sounds of the gong took the sound of the “Om” and raised it to another level, while the “Om” continued. Almost everyone in the audience had their eyes closed and was stoned on one or more of the available substances, so it was for them one building experience, and they were not aware of the changing personnel on stage. I persuaded the Grateful Dead to tune their guitars off-stage, so they were able to begin to play without a break in the chanting, taking the sounds and vibration from where it was, and building from there. Most of the audience had no idea the Dead were onstage until they shifted into their dance music. Talk about ecstatic dance, this is where it began.
After some time of oneness for all in the music, the Dead stopped, and Don Hamrick began to speak. I could only occasionally hear him, but I may have heard him say something to the effect of “this is paradise…” Everyone surged forward, arms around one another, filling the stage.
The Grateful Dead began to play again, gathering all that energy and sweeping us all together into the further reaches of our collective consciousness. They finished with singing that sweet song, “and I bid you Goodnight…” The audience sang it back, and it went back and forth for a good while before it became quiet. It was hours before we got the last people to leave. Tough guy Bill Graham was moved enough by the event that we walked around for a little while with our arms around each other as we thanked people for coming and inviting them to leave. It was early morning by then, and time to close up.
Sat Santokh S Khalsa
This was extracted from an auto-biography that I wrote in 1974.”
A recording of the show can be listened to here on the Internet Archive.
These contact sheets are just one of the many treasures and surprising images that can be found in the contact sheets in the Bob Fitch Photography Archive.
The contact sheets are in Series 1, Box 6, Folder 19: Communes, Northern California, and can be viewed online here.
The negatives are in Series 7, Box 87, Folders 11-12.
Text of The Celestial Synapse reproduced with permission from Sat Santokh S. Khalsa.