THE LIGHT SHOWS
The Thunder Machines, self-interfaced TV equipment, tape recorders and other electronic toys of the Acid Tests did not survive into the dance halls. Graham and Helms basically continued the form of the original Family Dog dances. As at those dances, the element that inspired people to call them multimedia experiences and to speak of media overload was the light show.
There were several kinds of psychedelic light shows around the country similar to the companies Stewart Brand was involved with and to the group in Woodstock, New York, that was associated with Timothy Leary. They were all based on slide projection. What made the San Francisco shows different was that they projected light through liquid pigments in motion, producing radiant abstract paintings that covered a whole wall and changed from instant to instant.
When the psychedelic dances burst on the scene, it was suddenly evident that literally dozens of people in the San Francisco area could perform this kind of show, although it was virtually unknown elsewhere. The reason was that a San Francisco State College professor had invented it thirteen years before.
In 1952 State College had just moved out of its funky old campus near the Haight-Ashbury and wanted something impressive for a national conference of art educators it was hosting. The idea was to revive the European experiments of the twenties and thirties in projected scenery and have dancers running in and out of scrim projected with designs.
Professor Seymour Locks used hollow slides filled with pigment in a regular projector to get plantlike growth patterns. But he also experimented with Viewgraph overhead projectors, the kind used by teachers in many large classrooms. The light shot vertically rather than horizontally, up through a glass plate before being reflected by a mirror onto the screen. In his experiments Locks found that paints could be stirred, swirled and otherwise manipulated in a glass dish with slightly raised edges to keep the liquid from spilling. Plastic clock face covers were perfect.
The show for the art educators was a great success, with a jazz group improvising to the lights while Locks added abstract vocal sounds. Two of the musicians__one was among Lock's advanced art students__quickly tied up with a promoter to take the show on the road and went to Los Angeles, where it quickly broke up. One of the last shows was seen by an art student named Elias Romero, who went to San Francisco three years later to learn the technique from one of the artists he'd seen.
Locks kept teaching his course on Light and Art, but Romero was the real Johnny Appleseed of light shows. In 1958 he was doing shows in the Beat colony of Los Angeles, with a college classmate named Christopher Tree on percussion. In 1962 he was living on Pine Street in San Francisco and performing at parties, galleries and coffeehouses. When R. G. Davis formed the Mime Troupe, he and Romero rented an old church in the Mission district where Romero did regular Sunday night shows. He also came to the Open Theater's attic gathering where the "Revelations" nude projection idea was born.
The building manager where Romero lived was Bill Ham, who had been working in the gestural and action painting genres of abstract expressionism; to him these light shows looked like the natural next step. Romero collaborated with Ham on a theater piece and ended up loaning him a projector. Ham started doing his own shows in his basement studio. Later he moved his shows to another basement he maintained for just that purpose, with musicians from the after-hours jazz club around the corner for music and most of the Pine Street gang for an audience. Romero had also collaborated with Anthony Martin, the Tape Music Center's lighting director, and encouraged him in the use of liquid pigment shows.
Already at least a dozen people in the aria owned overhead projectors for light shows, and more got involved as the dance scene expanded. One was Ben Van Meter, a State College graduate in filmmaking who not only knew the Pine Street crowd but had even rehearsed with the Charlatans as a potential drummer. He had already shown interest in projections with his film "Poon Tang Trilogy", where films of the crash of the airship 'Hindenburg' were projected on a woman's body, docking at her navel and exploding on her pubes.
Bill Ham naturally did the light shows for the original Family Dog dances. Martin's assistant Roger Hilyard did lights for the Trips Festival, and Martin himself took care of Graham's dances and a few of Helms's until Bill Ham replaced him. Van Meter took martin's place at the Fillmore for a couple of weeks in the spring while Martin was on tour with the Tape Center. Ironically, Romero never performed at the dance halls. He was about to retire from light shows, fatigued after ten years of pushing the form. pp.66-68
...ultraviolet lights to make Day-Glo paint fluoresce and a flashing strobe light that might hit a hypnotic alpha-wave rhythm. But each light artist had a distinct approach. Romero was known for brilliance and saturation of colors in his all-liquid show. Ham, like Romero, came from an abstract expressionist background and liked working with jazz musicians so the lights and the music could be a combined improvisation. For the dances he had to supplement the liquid projections, which needed one man's total attention, with slides and film to create a dance-hall-sized light environment covering two or three walls.
Martin had worked in events and environment-shaping art and thought of himself as a fine-arts performer, not improvising but executing a worked-out composition. Indeed, he wanted to avoid being identified with the dance halls and never fought to get his name mentioned on the posters. Only two Family Dog posters carried his name, and with Bill Graham the problem didn't exist: Graham never mentioned light-show artists on his posters. Martin also avoided such psychedelic motifs as the mandalas and concentric patterns which in light shows symbolized psychedelic glory. His opposite might have been the Holy See light show where Ray Anderson of the Matrix worked. Holy See not only reveled in concentric imagery but also worked in literal images from songs, creating shapes through which a liquid design would be projected: say, the outline of a man and woman kissing, filled with one single abstract moving pattern.
And as a filmmaker Van Meter went into the light shows from yet another angle. At first he filmed dancers and sold the film to Tony Martin, who included it in his show the next weekend among the liquid displays and colored slides of faces, flowers, seashells and so forth. apart from the shock of seeing oneself up on the wall dancing at this same place the week before, the films were disorienting because up to three images were superimposed, as if ghosts were dancing through each other in an arbitrary space. This was not a sophisticated trick accomplished in the developing studio, just the same film run through the camera three times for a triple exposure; Van Meter could afford only one reel of film per weekend. When he did light shows himself, Van Meter used the liquid displays to blend the edges between the several films being projected.
A great blaze of colored imagery seemed to fit right in with a rock and roll dance full of acidheads. When the Grateful Dead returned from Los Angeles and first played in the full-blown dance-hall scene, they had such an unheard-of pile of speakers and amplifiers that it blocked the light-show screen. By the time they next played the Avalon Ballroom, they had painted their equipment white so the light show would be visible on it. By January this kind of psychedelic light show had already reached Austin, Texas, when a Texan named Travis Rivers brought the idea back from San Francisco and founded the Jomo Light Disaster to back the local psychedelic rock band, the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.
The combination of some form of colored light exhibit with rock and roll was such a natural idea in the emerging McLuhan/Mod zietgeist that gestures of one sort or another were being made in other parts of the country. In the spring of 1966 Life ran a story about the new lighting fashions in rock and roll discotheques in the East. The most advanced was the World in Garden City, Long Island, which projected a TV image of the dancers on a screen over their heads with slides of optical illusions on flanking screens.
Neither Life nor Warhol had a clue what they'd find already going on in San Francisco. pp.69-70