Let Me Take You Down (To The Basement)-The Denver Be-In
The first “Human Be-In” which took place in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967 was a seismic event that helped set the tone of the counter-culture toward the end of the 1960s. An all-day event featuring many of the great San Francisco bands of the day, and a number of speakers, poets, chanters and, most famously, Timothy Leary telling the assembled crowd to “Tune In, Turn On And Drop Out.” A seminal event by any standard.
My wife Jill, a freshman at Berkeley at the time, was in attendance. Just to add a little reality to the scene, she claims to have been largely unaware of the music and drug subtext, but rather paints a picture of an innocent idealist in a plaid jumper there to raise her fist in political solidarity with the civil rights and anti-war movement. When she first sold me this picture, I was outraged at her popping of my hippie fantasy balloon, but as time has passed, this image has, in fact, endeared her to me even more. The ‘60s meant a lot of different things to different people, and overlaying a stereotypical scenario on top of her already fascinating and righteous life just seems silly. However, that day did change people’s feelings, and popular history has taken what it has wanted from the event.
What many people may not know, is that the idea of a ‘Be-In’–an event for the youthful tribes to gather in a public space and fully freak, peak or politically activate– happened in a number of cities during the ensuing months. Incredibly, it happened in the Mile High City on September 24, 1967 at our very own City Park. I first found out about it during my career as an English teacher at Smokey Hill High School in the 1980s.
One day after class, one of my students came into my office and said: “hey, you like The Grateful Dead don’t you? Well, my dad works for the Rocky Mountain News, and he found this picture in the paper’s archives and said you’d get a kick out of it.” My jaw hit the floor! I was looking at a black & white photo of The Grateful Dead playing on what are now the steps leading up to the west entrance of what was then called the Denver Natural History Museum (now Denver Museum of Nature & Science). There were no steps then; the band set up on a grassy landing in front of maybe a few hundred people. The crowd looked totally appropriate to the times, and the band looked like babies. A clean-shaven Jerry Garcia played a Guild Starfire guitar through wildly primitive amplification. In a different photo from the same event, he can be seen playing a psychedelic-painted guitar that I hadn’t seen before. Pigpen played an ancient organ. A shirtless Phil Lesh looks like he’s high, while a barely-adult Bob Weir is wearing striped high-water bellbottoms.
What! Am! I ! Seeing! Here? Is this real?
Yes! The more I looked at it, the more I could recognize that this was indeed Denver’s City Park, and this was indeed The Dead in 1967. I thanked the kid profusely and asked him if his father could get his hands on anything else documenting the event. He came back a few weeks later with a handful of other pictures: a close up of Jerry; a close-up of Pigpen; different angles of the full band set-up; and, best of all, a color shot of the group. I was so thankful. I just couldn’t believe it. How was it possible I had never heard of this show? I was now on a mission.
Over the next decade or so, I learned this was The Denver Human Be-In, held the afternoon after The Dead had played two nights at The Family Dog. No set lists, recordings or photos exist of those two shows (just an amazing poster—-see my previous blog about The Family Dog to get a look at it). They remain a holy-grail search for Deadheads worldwide to this day. Similarly, virtually no information exists about The Dead’s set at the Be-In either. As it turns out, the event featured The Dead, Captain Beefheart, Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth, and Denver bands Lothar & The Hand People and The Crystal Palace Guard. This was a real event, and it happened right here in Denver. What a trip.
I’ve met a few people who claimed to have been there, or had some information about the event. Unfortunately, none of it bore fruit. Memories were faulty and documentation non-existent.
I’ve been able to blow many minds with those pictures, but I had come to believe that the evidence I had was probably all that we’d ever see.
Fast forward to 2023 and the week after I sell my record store, Twist And Shout to my long-time manager Patrick Brown. I get a call from him saying an older gentleman has brought in a handful of old posters and would I mind evaluating them for purchase. I start going through them: Family Dog posters and other neat vintage items, unfortunately in poor condition. Then, I get to the final image and HOLY SHIT-it’s a poster for The Denver BE-IN. I can’t believe it. I immediately scour the internet for any other copy of this item (knowing full-well from past research it didn’t exist). I tell Patrick, yes, I will happily evaluate this collection, but I MUST OWN THAT BE-IN POSTER!!!! Patrick, sympathetic to my lifelong quest for Denver Rock relics, kindly purchased and gave me the poster in Day-Glo orange that actually says “The Denver Be-In” on it. The artist’s name appears at the bottom, but I can find nothing out about him. The gent who sold the poster claimed to have purchased it at the time but couldn’t provide any more details. The poster is one of my proudest possessions, and I encourage (no, beg) anybody with any first-hand information on this event to come forward and share!
Yes folks, the 1960s happened in Colorado, and here’s the proof.
– Paul Epstein, Co-Chair, Colorado Music Hall of Fame; founder/former owner of Twist & Shout; music historian and archivist
“I moved to Colorado in 1968 and started going to concerts almost immediately. I eagerly grabbed posters, flyers, ticket stubs, advertisements, concert recordings, pretty much any proof I could find that the event happened. In 1988, I started a record store called Twist & Shout, and my collecting of memorabilia went into even higher gear. Over the next 34 years, I had rare access to memorabilia of all types and sizes. Now that I’ve retired, the time seems right to start sharing these things, and the stories that go with them. So, every other Tuesday, I will ask you to Let Me Take You Down (to the basement) to check out some of the good stuff!” – Paul Epstein