Producer/musician Eric Albronda talks about Blue Cheer, Merry Pranksters, and magic city of San Francisco

"The Pranksters legacy was that millions of young people at the time adopted their carefree lifestyle and experimentation with altered conscience and also their music..."

Eric Albronda: San Francisco Nights

Eric Albronda was born on November 18, 1945 in California and raised in San Francisco. At age 6 serious music studies began. All through early Grade School he studied music and played/performed in the school band and school orchestra. While attending the University of California, Berkeley, a keen interest developed in the San Francisco music scene of the mid and late sixties. Eric began to associate with the Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey, Neil Cassady and various musicians of the San Francisco music scene, including Andrew Staples and the Oxford Circle of Davis, California.

Eric Albronda and his music partner Jerry Russell wanted to be active in the music scene in San Francisco and began to methodically start a band. First came Dickie Peterson from Andrew Staples, who moved to San Francisco with Eric and Jerry. Next came Leigh Stephens and Blue Cheer was born. Eric began playing drums with the band but was later replaced by Paul Whaley which formed the now famous Blue Cheer. Eric went on to be part of Blue Cheer's management team and later developed an interest in producing the music. After securing a contract for Leigh Stephens, Eric and Leigh moved to England where they produced Red Weather with various studio musicians from England. England was where Eric learned most of his production skills. Also in England Eric did sound work at the Royal Albert Hall and also produced a record for Bruce Stephens called Pilot. 5 years were spent in England learning the art of music production. Eric returned to The United States and produced several Blue Cheer Records and also other projects.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos from Blue Cheer's albums produced or co-produced by Eric Albronda

What do you learn about yourself from the rock n’ roll culture and what does the blues mean to you?

I always had a dream to have a band and do well. I was just at the right age and in the right place to enter the San Francisco music scene in 1966 with being a founding member of the band Blue Cheer -there was a true music renaissance at the time and the world took note of the music coming out of San Francisco and broadcast over the newly added format of FM free form music. I learned that nothing is impossible if you want it enough and I learned I had the confidence to have a hit record and everything that went with it. The blues means to me the same as soul and that is the sum total of all your experiences sometimes the harder and more devastating experiences can be the more soul one acquires thus the blues .

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of psychedelic researches and experiments?

As said above, a true music renaissance coupled with a population bubble of likeminded young people -all with record machines and all interested in experimentation with drugs and mind expanding substances -with UC Berkeley just across the bay and being the center of the free speech movement it was a natural that across the bay were free thinking musicians that wanted to express their political views through music and not necessarily through protest marches and riots and struggles.

Why did you think that the Blue Cheer music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Blue Cheer was magic and I truly believe in magic -also they were a step out of time and really became timeless. The music broke down musical boundaries that remain active even today. They accomplished what most others do not and that is true music done in a truly new style that remains innovative and progressive.

Blue Cheer, 1969 / Photo by Baron Wolman

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

My meeting with my true idol Bob Johnston, who produced Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen among others. Also meeting John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix and living for a time with Janis Joplin, were probably the highlights of my meetings with remarkable people.

Best advice given to me was by my musical partner, Jerry Russell and that was -never say never and there is no such thing as no or can’t.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Best gig ever was the Gulf Stream Racetrack in Miami Florida - Miami Rock Festival with Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, John Lee Hooker, Frank Zappa and others. It was here that I met and became good friends with Linda Eastman before she married Paul McCartney, we did remain friends however so I would say this is the best gig we did also while in England I was lucky enough to be present at the filming of the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus which had The Who, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Marianne Faithful and Taj Mahal. I met all of them as well as Yoko Ono and others, I went as a guest of the famous rock photographer, Ethan Russell.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss their creativity, as I see little sometimes I hear something, I like but very seldom and feel mostly out of place, except I did hear a rap by Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page doing “Kashmir”... and boy what a piece of creativity -simply great and joyful. I just hope the world survives and we can live in peace for a while, I am so sick and tired of wars and famine and displaced people and suffering and a joyless existence.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would make the entire business artist owned and operated no lawyers or suits —the artists would control their own money and have creative freedom to produce at will also they would own the record companies and get their payment from themselves.

Blue Cheer's album "The Original Human Being", 1970 /  Photo by Bruce Steinheimer

What has made you laugh from Haight-Ashbury era? What touched (emotionally) you from Summer of Love?

Laugh would have to be Wavy Gravy, the consummate clown and magic man that has helped more people than most of us will ever see or meet yes Wavy Gravy made me laugh a lot. Wavy Gravy, recently at The Kate Wolf Memorial Music festival, I know Wavy quite well was he has kept a fan of Blue Cheer and knows my partner ‘Gut’ even before as a Prankster. Wavy will come into our business site and talk for awhile every time he sees us. Wonderful man -responsible for restoring sight to over a million people with his nonprofit “SEVA” truly a ‘comic saint’ in the first order.

Summer of Love, touched me because I was truly a part of it all and felt so damm lucky to be alive at that time, it was so magical and the lovely young ladies, I still remember my love experiences today and miss every second of the time. I have zero regrets and would do it all over again in a second.

How important was the beat generation in your life? What’s the legacy of Merry Pranksters?

I realized that the glue that held the 50’s personalities together (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neil Cassady) was about mutual respect for each other and an ongoing support of each other as individuals and their creativities weather poems or fiction or nonfiction or novels. They would hang out together in all corners of the world but seemed to focus on New York and San Francisco. Also in the 50’s there was a true literary renaissance with poetry, and writings of all kinds as such they had a captive audience and very much laid down the ground rules for a lifestyle that was to be adopted by Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. The important and great legacy of the Merry Pranksters was to live a lifestyle without any direction really and no maps to guide them -this lifestyle was enhanced yes by drugs such as LSD and others and naturally music -perhaps early on folk music then  psychedelic music of the San Francisco sound aka Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin etc…The Pranksters legacy was that millions of young people at the time adopted their carefree lifestyle and experimentation with altered conscience and also their music —an entire generation followed them and it is still reverberating around the world, today as following generations try and understand just what they were all about as it relates to present time and historically.

Blue Cheer at Dolores Park Playground, San Francisco, California, 1968. Left to right, Peter Wagner sound, Dickie Peterson bass & vocals, Doug Tracy sound, Eric Albronda first drummer, founding member and co-manager, Allen 'Gut' Turk co-manager, Jerry Russell co-manager &  founding member, Paul Whaley drummer, and Leigh Stephens guitar. Photo © by Jim Marshall

Which memory from Ken Kesey and Neil Cassady makes you smile?

Easy, when I first met Ken Kesey he was with Neil Cassady—we as Blue Cheer were just beginning in late 1965 and I was the first drummer —we were practicing in a head shop owned by my partner Allen "Gut" who was a Merry Prankster and knew Kesey well. The head shop was called “Joint Venture” with reference to the spelling of joint or a marijuana cigarette. This store was located in the north end of the mission district in San Francisco and we used the basement to rehearse one fine day Kesey showed up with Cassady. They stayed and listened to us for a long time and started to dance seriously waving their arms in the air and spinning about —finally after about 2 hours of this we stopped and talked with them and on departing Kesey said to us “OK, you guys can come along with us,” to me this mean that Kesey, had given us his blessing and encouraged us to keep going and we were now officially part of the music scene or the early San Francisco sound. We had just recently accepted the name "Blue Cheer" that was made up by Owsley, Augustus Stanley. So this has stayed with me as a highlight of my life so far.

What is the impact of rock n’ roll & blues music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

For example as much as rap music is misunderstood it remains probably the most culturally pure form of music that exists -so as music is a reflection of culture and the times it acts like a mirror in time for most people that relate their moments of their lives through their musical memories. I find this amazing, especially since I am a true holder of having instant musical recognition, as some people can memorize books on sight I can do it with music -a gift I have always had and appreciate this gift, as it has lead me down, a much adorned life of music and the world it encompasses.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would want to be present at the creation of our universe -the big bang so to speak sort of like Blue Cheer's The Big Noise.

Poster: Fillmore & Winterland, San Francisco 1967, artwork by Bonnie MacLean

A meeting point for people of all ages who are wild at heart, and favorite among hipsters, San Francisco is ahead of its time as it embraces. Why this city was a Mecca of avant-garde peoples?

Mostly because San Francisco has the perfect work and think climate also some people think if you are looking for the answers. San Francisco often becomes the end point for a lot of people, because it is all there every bit of it just reach out and take it —I did —people with enough get up and go moved to San Francisco to get the best out of life and so their offspring, also had the creative seeking genes in their soul and it just attracted many special people, that were the most creative and forward looking people around. San Francisco is the true magic city and I was lucky enough to grow up there...

Do you have any last comments to new generation from a veteran of Rock n’ Roll culture?

What was interesting is that a lot of people for one reason or another wiped clean from their experience the era of the sixties weather, because of unpleasant memories or bad drug involvement or the Viet NAM War. For whatever reason, people have unsettled feelings about the time - I personally think and why I loved your questions is that the time did promote a vast awakening for the world if one chose to take advantage of it. I did apparently you did but many just did not get it - but now are rethinking their experiences then and if too young to remember then a valid and sincere wish to know about the prospects of “NOW” and like philosophies. Obviously, a lot of what was put forth in the 60’s does not hold up over time like the idea of free love and sleep with anybody you wish whenever you wish - nowadays sleeping with someone can be a death sentence and not as then something to share with someone else in a loving and pleasurable manner.

There were on the other hand great strides made in our society by the people involved and definitely music was a huge part of all that. I can safely say that the music renaissance of the time has not yet come around again and this is evidenced by the younger folks wanting to return to our music of the time and want it even on vinyl -to be able to believe and practice magic and to share this with a huge amount of people worldwide at a young age is priceless, I must say and again I feel so lucky to have been alive and having kept my eyes and ears and heart open I was able to learn some universal truths that many people never get. So for the above reasons, I feel it is my duty to get what I know out there in an honest and straight forward manner. 

You sir, have contributed to my lifelong venture by contacting me and now, we can share out piece with the world. If they would only read it and take it in -seems like it is all there if one thinks for a minute about the questions and the answers given—not to toot my own horn too much, but I do consider what we did as vastly important for society as a whole and for peace and quiet every where.

Albatross Productions Presents in S.F. - Big Brother and the Holding Co., with Blue Cheer and the Congress of Wonders at California Hall, Tursday, June 29, 1967. Artwork by Allen 'Gut' Turk.

 

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