Tuesday, May 5, 2020

An Ear-ful of Poppycock

My renewed deep dive into Guaraldi's career resulted in a fresh look at his activities in the early 1970s, when — from the autumn of 1971, through the late winter of '72 — he had a semi-regular gig at a Palo Alto night spot dubbed In Your Ear. This is the venue where — most famously (for our purposes) — a young George Winston played intermission piano in between Guaraldi's sets, and was bold enough to introduce himself to Dr. Funk, probably on October 24, 1971. And we all know where Winston's admiration eventually led.

I was reminded, while re-reading some of the notes and performance dates, that I'd learned very little about this club, during my bio's research phase in 2009 and '10. Aside from the fact that it occupied the building at 135 University Avenue, in Palo Alto — and that Guaraldi often could be found there on Tuesday evenings, for five or six months — newspapers and the Internet had yielded very little. Heck, I've never even been able to find a photo of the place, inside or outside. Whazzup with that?

Clearly, it was time for renewed exploration.

The effort proved very fruitful.

In Your Ear wasn't the first music club at 135 University; that honor belongs to The Poppycock, which opened its doors in April 1967. A sign of things to come was visible in the classified "employment opportunities" section of Stanford University's newspaper, the Stanford Daily, beginning April 12:

Beertenders, waitresses, Olde English Fish Cooks. Full and part time. Start Immediately. Poppycock. 135 University Ave.

(One wonders how many Stanford students qualified as "Olde English Fish Cooks.)

Guests musicians were eclectic and comparatively modest during the initial few months; the stage hosted a diverse assortment that included The Flowers, Doc Watson, The Mind's Eye, Lightning Hopkins and Schlomo Carlsbach (a folksinging rabbi). But all manner of San Francisco Bay Area outfits soon found their way to The Poppycock: some little more than short-lived garage bands, others ... well, a whole lot more famous. Stanford's radio station KZSU claims credit for a live broadcast from the Poppycock, which gave the first-ever airplay to an obscure little group dubbed Creedence Clearwater Revival.

In March 1968, politically active students hosted a "petition party" for Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, to help fund his effort to become the Democratic nominee for U.S. President.

By mid-1968, the venue had established itself as Palo Alto's response to the most happening San Francisco rock clubs. The marquee bore witness to the likes of Notes from the Underground, the Flamin' Groovies, the Sons of Chaplin, the Flying Burrito Bros. and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Jazz and blues fans could enjoy Cal Tjader, Charlie Musselwhite, Big Mama Thornton and Jon Hendricks. (But not Guaraldi; there's no indication that he ever appeared at The Poppycock.)

Aside from Creedance, other soon-to-be-famous groups that hit The Poppycock early on included Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Youngbloods, Elvin Bishop and Santana.

But by this point, The Poppycock was frequently locking horns with the greater Palo Alto community, which objected to the "noise" and the influx of drug-hazed "hippie scum." This may have hastened the club's demise; perhaps other factors contributed. Big Brother and The Holding Company is known to have performed on January 28, 1970; the advertised bill for Febrary 7-8 featured Ofeeola and the Mendelbaum Blues Band. Whether the latter two acts ever took the stage remains unknown; what is certain is that The Poppycock dropped off the map immediately thereafter.

Here's where the saga gets interesting.

The scant references available claim little beyond the fact that In Your Ear later occupied the space left vacant, after The Poppycock went (or was forced) out of business. In point of fact, 135 University Avenue hosted another venue, in between the two.

Mom's, a "homestyle beer bar" that was the brainchild of third-year Stanford law students Peter Mair and Jim Rummonds, opened in early October 1970. (They likely would have opened sooner, but it took six months to get the beer license.) Mutual friend Brent Sellstrom was hired to be the full-time manager, because Mair and Rummonds had to maintain their law school studies. Patrons first strolled past the bar and grill, the latter pumping out hot dogs and hamburgers as fast as possible; the back of the venue, dubbed "Mom's Grand Ballroom," featured a dance floor and bandstand. Music was supplied, early on, by Fast Eddy and the Sheiks, and Rocking Ricky Zumbo and His Miracle Restoration Revival Band. (You can't make up this stuff, right?)

But Mair and Rummonds never got more aggressive, when it came to stage acts; I can't help feeling that folks who'd grown accustomed to The Poppycock's offerings, would have been quite disappointed by what took place on Moms' stage. Occasional live broadcasts by KZSU didn't seem to help.

Early on, Sellstrom opined — in the November 18 issue of the Stanford Daily — that The Poppycock had failed because "it wasn't run like a business. Mom's will be run like a business, because we are in business."

We call this "tempting Fate."

And, indeed, Mom's vanished only a few months later, in February or March 1971.

This time, the space remained unoccupied for only a short time. In Your Ear opened May 20 — initially operating only Thursdays through Saturdays — with a bill that featured Festival of Light; Top Soil; and Shanti, an East Indian rock band. This new venue was parented by Rummonds (presumably having learned a few lessons during Mom's' brief existence) and another law school student, Nick Clainos. They had their eye on the prize from the get-go, with a much stronger focus on music. They doubled the size of the stage, built green rooms in the basement, and added a movie theater-style ticket booth outside the main entrance.

"We want to make it a performer's club," they explained, "a place where a name act will dig playing."

They definitely succeeded.

During the remainder of 1971 and almost all of '72, the marquee boasted name talent such as Sun Ra, Common Ground, Rockin' Foo, the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils, and blues masters Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Jazz fans were ecstatic; they could listen to the likes of Mose Allison, Herbie Hancock, Larry Coryell, Bobby Hutcherson, Gabor Szabo, Kenny Burrell, John Klemmer and Charlie Musselwhite. And Guaraldi, of course.

Allison recorded his live 1972 album, Mose in Your Ear, at the club. Several of the tracks on Guaraldi's posthumous 2004 album, Oaxaca, also were recorded at In Your Ear.

Alas ... something went wrong.

Bookings became less frequent. Fewer ads appeared in the Stanford Daily. The last known performance was by the Luther Tucker Thing, a blues group, on October 30.

Then things went really wrong.

On December 31, New Year's Eve, a gas leak in a pizza oven started a fire that ultimately resulted in roughly $110,000 worth of damage to the building (and that was a lot of change, back then). In Your Ear never re-opened, nor — as far as I can determine — did the property ever again feature any sort of nightclub or music venue.

It became just another lost fragment of Guaraldi's performance career, following closures of the Blackhawk and the hungry i, and anticipating the closures of El Matador and the Trident.

And so it goes...


Corry342 said...

Great work I have an almost-complete list of performers at The Poppycock. One of these years I will finish it off an post it, as part of my eleventy-two part history of 60s Palo Alto rock shows.

Here's part 1 anyway

References to the Poppycock (other than my blog) are quite few. There is a description of The Poppycock in a book by writer Ed McLanahan, published about 73 (can't recall the title, and as the kids say "Tl:DR").

The Palo Alto subplot was a place called Lytton Plaza, about one block East. Lytton Plaza was right on University Ave, but it was private property (it belonged to nearby Lytton Savings Bank). The local kid hippies started having free concerts there in late 1968, attracting other hippies, causing problems and protests and busts. The Poppycock being a block away made it part of the problem

Palo Alto being sui generis, part of the problem was that while the City powers hated the free concerts, if they sent the cops in to break it up and break some heads, they would be busting the kids of Palo Alto parents. Palo Alto parents may have been architects and lawyers, but they were Anti-War and not convinced of the righteousness of the police in any case. The Mayor would have gotten voted out, the chief of police would have gotten fired and some serious lawsuits would have been filed by those same Palo Alto parents. So the cops were largely powerless to stop the free concerts and protests

Ultimately all the ringlesders, mostly from Paly High, went off to college. It was Palo Alto, after all, and by 1971 the town returned to the hotbed of social rest that it had always been.

cryptdev said...

I just published a semi-complete list of gigs at In Your Ear on my blog, Cryptical Developments, along with remembrances from a few shows I saw there, including the Friday night stand of Vince's pre-Christmas stand at the club. My brother thinks our family were the only patrons for that early show set.


He was often paired there with Karen Marion, about whom I could find nothing. Ring any bells?


Michael Parrish

Derrick Bang said...

Michael: An excellent resource, very nicely assembled and annotated. You need to cross-check with my Guaraldi timeline, as I have more In Your Ear dates than you do:


A couple of comments:

• I have Vince there on December 21, 22 and 24 (1971), but not on the 23 ... which actually matches your memory, because the 23rd was a Thursday. If you truly saw him on the Friday before Christmas, that was the 24th.

• Alas, no; I also couldn't find anything on Karen Marion. I only show Vince paired with her on Feb. 1, 8 and 22 (1972), but if you're certain she also was present on the 15th and 29th, I'll amend my entry.

My email is at the right, toward the top of this blog post; feel free to get in touch.