“The dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland,” the satirical TV show “Portlandia” proudly sings — that dream being to form a rock band and save the planet while letting your precious individualism hang out in all its eclectic glory. Cover yourself with artistic tatoos, go to clown school and clamber up on that double-decker bike — why not?
Maybe the dream of the ’90s is really the recycled dream of the psychedelic 1960s, when rock bands and revolution — both political and personal — became a way of life. And Portland, a West Coast way station between Seattle and San Francisco, not only drew bands like the Beatles (in 1965), the Doors (in 1968) and Led Zeppelin (in 1972) — it also grew its own grass-roots musical and counter-cultural scene.
You can explore that scene in “Portland Psychedelic,” a colorful exhibit now on display at the Oregon Historical Society museum. It traces the history of beatniks and hippies, folkies and rockers as the earnest coffeehouse and folk-revival scene of the early 1960s eventually exploded with amplification, rebellion and, of course, drugs.
The exhibit doesn’t speak much to the serious social upheavals and political agonies of that era; it’s basically a short, strange trip through Portland’s music scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s via memorabilia like concert posters and handbills, autographed record sleeves and protest buttons. All of these souvenirs were donated to the museum by Peter Glazer of Lake Oswego, Ore., who was on the scene at the time and who managed to rub elbows with a wide variety of deejays, club owners and touring rock stars.
San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood grew world famous as the locus of hippies, drugs and rock music in the late 1960s, but Portland had its own miniature Haight-Ashbury in Lair Hill, a formerly grand southwest neighborhood where fading Victorian homes became affordable crash pads — not to mention coffeehouses where white acoustic guitarists could growl black blues, or sing wordy ballads by Bob Dylan or “We Shall Overcome.”
To Learn More
TUNE IN, TURN ON, READ UP
• “Music on the Cusp: From Folk to Acid Rock in Portland Coffeehouses, 1967-1970” by Valerie Brown.
• Download this illuminating history paper at www.ohs.org/museum/exhibits/portland-psychedelic.cfm.
• An exhibit called “1968: The Year that Rocked Washington” opened earlier this month in the Legislative Building in Olympia. The exhibit features profiles, photographs and artifacts that document a landmark year in world history. And it highlights Washingtonians who were involved in the issues of their day. Visit some of the supplementary materials at https://www.sos.wa.gov/legacy/sixty-eight.
Jim Blashfield, a high school kid in the early ’60s, had a great time either being or posing as a beatnik with his friends at Lair Hill’s Caffe Espresso: “We really wanted to be intellectuals and poets and we didn’t quite know what that meant, so we’d go to the coffeehouses and we’d drink black coffee and we’d smoke loads of cigarettes and people would read poetry and we’d just really enjoy being there, probably over our heads.”
(Blashfield is quoted in a research paper by Valerie Brown called “Music on the Cusp: From Folk Rock to Acid Rock in Portland Coffeehouses, 1967-1970,” that’s available for free download via the Oregon Historical Society’s website. Brown goes beyond the exhibit’s brief placards to provide a thorough history; if you’re a real student of hippie Portland, her paper is required reading.)
Meanwhile, Portland rockers roughed up the excitement of the British Invasion with their own raw, noisy, garage-rock approach. The premier Portland bands in the mid-1960s were Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Kingsmen — both of whom scored unlikely hits with the same song in the same year: “Louie Louie,” in 1963.
“The incomprehensible lyrics of the Kingsmen’s version in particular were presumed to be obscene,” Brown writes. “Louie Louie” and the noisy bands that purveyed it set a standard for what became grunge, the signature sound of Pacific Northwest rock in the 1990s and beyond — but they also became jokes to serious musicians who watched armies of imitators come and go. Those musicians didn’t care about three-cornered hats and “frat boy rock,” as one Brown interviewee says; they were fascinated by the fluid, free-form, truly long-haired experiments of visionary bands like the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors — all of whom came through Portland in the late 1960s.
Did you know that the vampirish Jim Morrison’s favorite singers were good ole Frank Sinatra, Elvis and the Beach Boys? That’s according to a bio sheet that’s part of the exhibit. Morrison’s personal street address in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles (circa 1968), is provided, too.
Picking up the slack
The Crystal Ballroom, a Portland musical mainstay since 1914, hosted psychedelic rock shows and counterculture dances. But when Newsweek magazine warned that “a wave of hippies was planing to invade Portland from San Francisco,” an exhibit placard says, city inspectors suddenly found cause to close the Crystal, in 1968. It stayed closed until 1997. There was no shortage of other concert halls in Portland eager to pick up the slack.
The story was similar in local radio, the crucial way music got around in those days. Radio station KISN was the most popular broadcaster in Portland, according to the exhibit, but the edgy rock music of the day became an increasingly bad fit for its top-40 format, and KISN wouldn’t play anything that seemed overtly druggy or suggestive — like the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” Lower-wattage radio stations filled that gap, and community radio station KBOO was launched in 1968 — offering not just music but current affairs programming, highly valued during an era of dissent and protest.
“Portland’s premier acid-rock band,” Brown writes, was an outfit called The Portland Zoo, formed by students at Reed and Lewis and Clark colleges; other big local draws were Total Eclipse, U.S. Cadenza and the Nazzare Blues Band. But by the early 1970s, the utopian visions of the 1960s had gone very dark with hard drugs, societal strife and an unending war; meanwhile, local musicians were growing up and facing adult realities — like the need to make a living. Groups broke up and recombined; heady coffeehouses gave way to boozy bars; even the edgiest rock music went more or less mainstream.
Which brings us to today, and museum curator Lori Erickson — one of the many ’60s lovers who were born a little late to rock out, personally, with Moby Grape in its heyday, but who inherited the fascination from her parents. (“I’ve seen Neil Young in concert eight times,” she admitted sheepishly.) Erickson hails from Illinois, and researching the facts behind this exhibit was tremendous fun for her, she said.
“If you didn’t grow up here, at the time, you wouldn’t know that all these amazing bands came through here and there was such a great local scene,” Erickson said.
If You Go
• What: “Portland Psychedelic.”
• When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Exhibit runs through March 17.
• Where: Oregon Historical Society museum, 1200 S.W. Park Ave., Portland.
• Admission: $5; free for youth under 18.
• To learn more: www.ohs.org
By coincidence, a group of visitors from Illinois overheard Erickson discussing “Portland Psychedelic,” and volunteered the same story: The music of the 1960s was a little before their time, but Jean Tuman and her brother Mike Rudzinski absorbed the love from their parents. (Beatles versus Stones? Rudzinski opened his coat to reveal a well-loved Rolling Stones T-shirt. Case closed.)
Now, Tuman said, her 23-year-old daughter is “hardcore” about Janis Joplin, and The Doors, and — most of all — The Beatles. “It gets handed down from generation to generation,” she said. “I don’t think it’ll ever go away.”