A Short History of the Matrix club, San Francisco

A Short History of the Matrix club, San Francisco
Authored By John Nicholson

In the history of rock n roll, The Matrix plays an important role in providing a home for, and promoting, what became west coast acid rock. It was a nightclub in San Francisco from 1965 to 1972 located at 3138 Fillmore Street. It opened on August 13, 1965. The newly formed Jefferson Airplane were the house band, not surprising really as singer Marty Balin was one of the three owners, putting up $3,000 apiece to finance the club's opening, giving them 75 percent ownership, while Marty retained the remaining 25 percent for creating and managing it. 

It was here that the Airplane rose rapidly to local prominence during late 1965 and early 1966 and were first seen by Ralph J. Gleason, who became an early champion of the group. RJG was an important dude on the Northern California music scene.

A music critic for the influential San Francisco Chronicle, he also became founding editor of Rolling Stone and co-founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival. He died in the mid-70s at just 58. A great loss. 

The Matrix was also a favorite haunt of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in the late 1960s who was a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and creating a reputation for himself as a wild and crazed guy. 

In the early years of The Matrix, there was a huge mural of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the left wall near the rear; rumor was that the members of Jefferson Airplane had painted it before the club first opened. The club's lighting was very subdued everywhere but on its small stage.

The entrance was recessed about two feet and was left of center on the windowless wall seen from the street, and there was a cabinet outside to the door's right where upcoming bands were listed and handbills were posted. Inside, near the entrance, there was a bar (beer and wine license only - they couldn’t serve spirits, which is a very weird licensing quirk) on the front left. The interior was about 50 by 80 feet. The ceiling at the front third of the club was about ten feet high, but farther back, it went up to about 18 feet. 

The right front area had chairs and most of the cocktail tables, while the center of the room to the rear was a dance floor. The stage was a step above the floor on the right side, center to rear. A small sound booth occupied the center of the left wall, and a few cocktail tables were at the left rear in front of the mural. The rear wall had a window opening for the small galley used to prepare food.

Sometime in 1966 or 1967, Marty Balin sold his share of the club to Peter Abram and Gary Jackson, two of the original partners. Abram actively managed the club room and made bookings while also recording those musicians he knew and liked. Jackson took care of accounting and general business matters. For a brief period toward the end of 1966, Bill Ehlert, better known as the "Jolly Blue Giant" or simply "Jolly", owner of the Jabberwock in Berkeley, took over running The Matrix. 

This brought a distinct change to the booking policy whereby Jabberwock favorites Country Joe and the Fish, the New Age and Blackburn & Snow performed. Another change was seen in the advertising of shows, with Jabberwock house artist Tom Weller producing some classic posters and handbills. Beautiful creations they are too.

It continued to be home to all the great, good and obscure bands of the west coast scene. In 1968, after finally getting all the necessary releases, The Matrix's owners sold to Columbia Records some tapes of live sets from 1966 by The Great Society (the band Grace Slick belonged to before replacing Signe Anderson in Jefferson Airplane). Edits of those tapes (including the first commercial recordings of "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love") eventually became two LPs, Conspicuous Only in Its Absence and How It Was (promoted as by "Grace Slick & The Great Society"). Over 20 years later, identical combinations of the two albums were re-released under different names as CDs by two different labels, because of separate licensing agreements in the US and the United Kingdom.

Released by ABC Dunhill Records in 1969, the album Early Steppenwolf was material recorded live at The Matrix, purportedly on May 14, 1967, more than a year before the remodeling. However, the recordings were actually made when Steppenwolf was still called The Sparrow and were taped between May 9 and May 11, 1967 or between May 19 and 21. 

The earnings from the Great Society tapes enabled a major remodeling of The Matrix, including a professional mixing booth and two higher quality tape decks, as well as major improvements to the sound and lighting systems. As part of its contract, Columbia Records also created a custom mixing board for the club, hoping for additional tapes of future live performances.

The club closed in 1972; although briefly reopening at a new location (412 Broadway, previously "Mr D's") in the fall of 1973. When The Matrix closed, a nearby bar, Pierce Street Annex, leased the space and moved in, remodeling once again, and turned it into a nightclub with only a DJ and no live music. In 2019 after several incarnations it was remodeled and renamed the White Rabbit. Of course it was. 

It’s importance can’t be overstated. It’s hard for us to grasp today but there were so few places for bands to play this new form of electronic music, let alone somewhere which tolerated long hairs, freaks and others perceived to be a threat The American Way. 

It didn’t so much as get ahead of the curve but helped form the curve itself. From 65 to ‘69 it was axiomatic to the launch of so many bands that became household names. Once the 70s arrived, its work was done and the scene had moved on. So be it. Everything has its moment in the sunlight.

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