When I was kid in the 70s, growing up in the northeast of England, obsessed with all things west coast and hippie, the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco was one of those almost mythic places that you heard about, like the Fillmore East and West. They were not mere venues for bands to play, they were counterculture planets which like-minded people orbited around, or that’s how it seemed 6,000 miles away.
31st December 1978 marks the end of the Winterland. It was the day it closed its doors for the last time with a final eight hour gig featuring the Blues Brother, New Riders of the Purple Sage and, inevitably, a six hour set from the Grateful Dead, which you can get as a DVD and CD. A Dead ‘skull & roses’ banner hung in the rafters of the old ice rink, at all times, as though it was their spiritual home.
It had been built in the late 20s primarily for skating but also to hold concerts. With a 5,400 capacity it was a big venue. In 1966 Bill Graham opened the Fillmore nearby and would hire Winterland for bigger gigs such as one in September of that year featuring Jefferson Airplane and the Butterfield Blues Band. Cream played there at the height of their popularity. Three of the four live tracks on Wheels of Fire, despite being titled ‘Live at the Fillmore’ were recorded at Winterland on 8th & 10th March 1968, with only Toad actually being recorded at the Fillmore on 7th March. Winterland isn’t mentioned on the sleeve notes at all.
Airplane’s 30 Seconds Over Winterland was another recorded there, and the 1971 double live by the Dead was also mostly laid down there. The Allman Brothers ‘Wipe The Windows…’ is yet another. There’s a great Hendrix live album recorded there and of course, Frampton Comes Alive was too, and last but never least, it was where The Band’s The Last Waltz happened. But by the time the Sex Pistols wrapped their US Tour there, the whole place was falling apart and was too expensive to keep fixing up. There’s only so long punters will put up with roof plaster hitting them on the head.
When the wrecking ball tore the place apart, it’s not hard to imagine the destruction releasing music into the air; music that had been absorbed into the brick and plaster and released in a final echo of all the great gigs.