The Red Dog Saloon
And The Amazing Charlatans
40 years later by Andrew LauVirginia City, Nevada is a good forty miles south of Reno. Once onto I-395 there is a ten-minute winding climb up to Geiger Summit (elev. 5678) and from there another five mile jaunt before you suddenly notice the town hanging onto the face of the Sierra Nevada's. In the ninety-five degree heat, the colors are flat, the trees are dusty green against the brown hills.
Thanks to the blueish sand found in nearby Mt. Davidson, Virginia City became a booming town of 50,000 by the mid-1800's. Miners with silver lust in their hearts converged to get the job done. It was luxurious. Bars, brothels, gun fights, hotels, businessmen, fist fights, newspaper men in bowler hats, prospectors, saloons, even Mark Twain pulled into town to work for the local paper, The Territorial Enterprise. To illustrate the amount of wealth pouring from the soil, consider this: the profits made here went on to build San Francisco. Sure, it's a little more complicated than that, but you get the picture. White men walked out of town with pockets stuffed, grinning. James Flood, Adolph Sutro, George Hearst.
Of course, the silver eventually dried up and took the town down with it. Miners went off to find more work leaving the ground hollowed out under the streets and a great quiet took over. Not an unusual story for the West, really.
By 1930's and 40's, the population had dropped to roughly 300 as the town had become a bohemian enclave that could rival Greenwich Village or Big Sur. Back then, the place to get a divorce was in Reno and the more adventurous of those made their way to Virginia City, which was still considered a suburb of San Francisco. "An arty adjunct to the divorce ranch scene," is how Peter Kraemer explains it with a slight laugh.
The town became the stomping ground for a pack of big names that passed through with some staying for a few days, others for years. Kraemer spent a good portion of his childhood here with his sophisticated parents who lived in an old brewery- a brewery that once had Salvador Dali chasing a bird through it as young Peter looked on mystified.
"Here's a typical barroom scene," he says pulling out a large black & white photo and pointing at the faces: "[Oxbow Incident author] Walter Van Tilborg Clark who lived here in town; [head of Library Of Congress Folk Song Archive] Duncan Emrich, [official Eisenhower Administration historian] Roger Butterfield; [actress] Lucious Bebe..."
Kraemer owns and runs the Welcome Grant gallery on South C Street, one of the few fine art galleries in the area. Works by McNamarra, Yuroff, Martinez and Yamagata, Kraemer's own photos and, if you look close, the only hint to his music career: forty year old posters advertising his band Sopwith Camel.
"When I was twelve, the first girl I noticed was here to divorce [department store owner] Peter Gimble," says Kraemer in his usual matter-of-fact way. "Her name was Fern Gimble and she was a gorgeous redhead who was on the back of Life magazine as one of Pond's ‘World's Ten Most Beautiful Women.' When I first saw her in the Delta Saloon, she was at the bar talking to my mother and I'd been over shooting pool at some place. She was just dropping a filet mignon into the mouth of a Russian wolfhound; she had brought two with her from New York. That was the kind of imagery that was available in Virginia City in those days."
Today, the town chooses to remember the mid-1800's and not the roaring ‘30's or ‘40's. C Street (I-395 in disguise) has the tourist hotspots and by noon, the street is lined with cars. Most of the visitors are day-trippers form the outskirts: Reno, Vallejo, Stockton, Carson City. Families with 2.5 kids clogging up the wood planked sidewalks, young couples out for the day, children gripping fresh waffle cones with chunks of mint green ice cream stuck on top, elderly people with giant sunglasses and canes sitting on the narrow benches built into the wood railings. A perfect slice of Americana.
Scattered among them are Europeans, mostly from the eastern side looking for signs of the Old World. Take Tatiana, for example. Her blond hair pulled back into a casual ponytail, kaki shorts a tank top. She's from Bosnia of all places and stands wide-eyed and talkative, excited as the Wild West that she has seen on TV has sprung to life right in front of her face.
The shops up and down C Street are themed: The Comstock Rock Shop. Pioneer Emporium. Zephyr's Cove. There's a shoot-out over at the Old Virginy that has the kids enthralled. Post cards. Candy and homemade fudge. Antiques. Souvenirs. Plus a diner, a restaurant and a cannery. In another shop, people climb into period clothes and pose for their very own brown, grainy old timey photo. A leather shop has heavy black biker jackets hanging in the door with elaborate American and Confederate flags designs on the back.
Next door is a coin-operated casino; no card games here, just machines. The one armed bandits of yesterday have been replaced with loud, flashing electronic gizmos. These too are theme based. One has Kenny Rogers picture glowing at the top and his soothing voice creeps out from a hidden speaker, asking you to sit down and play. The Wheel Of Fortune games have sound effects as well: a canned audience shouts the game's name just like on the TV show. It goes off every thirty seconds. The bookstores keep up with the rest of the town: ghosts and myths of the Comstock Lode; outdoor/camping books; Mark Twain (especially Roughing It, which details his time spent in the area) and cookbooks with Old West recipes. The hypnotic clip clomping of horse hoofs is long gone by now, replaced by the latest engine in the latest modeled car.
Then there is the Silver Queen Hotel And Wedding Chapel, an amazing three story building where you can get a room with a good-sized brass bed, claw-foot tub, high ceilings and an amazing view of the mountains. Room # 12 even has a 150-year-old barber's chair in front of the windows. The hotel's only TV is downstairs behind the bar. It's not unusual for the narrow steps that lead up to the rooms to thump and creek by themselves. On certain nights, particulate shapes of mist form at the foot of your bed or in one of the satin backed chairs. Don't get up.
Despite the stable population (which is now around 1,000) and a steady stream of visitors, things aren't easy as stores come and go and buildings trade hands. Not all of the storefronts are open; a telltale sign that business life isn't easy in an out-of-the-way tourist town.
The three story building that sits at 76 North C Street, for example, has a wooden CLOSED sign propped in the window. Lights out. Its paint (white exterior with brown, red and blue trim) is chipped and peeling. The doors have thick Master padlocks binding them together. One of the door's panes is cracked and clear plastic packaging tape has been stretched over the wound. Red and blue curtains with faded intricate gold detailing hang in the windows, a yellow ribbon gathers them at the middle. Beyond the padlocked doors, the air is motionless and no doubt musty. Stools are lined up in front of the long wood bar with varying amount of dust on the ripped plastic seats. Small video slot machines are sunken into the bar's surface, their screens blank and gray. Dusty coffee pots and a cash register sit behind the counter; a white phone hangs on the wall. Elaborate gold leaf panels cover half of the ceiling while the other half is bare wood. A white SOLD sign has been placed in one of the two sets of doors.
Most people shuffle on by without as much as a glance. A gaggle of pre-teen kids halt on their way past and strain on the toes to have a look through the windows and then continue running. Then a middle-aged white couple trudges up, both in gray T-shirts, white socks and tennis shoes. His shorts are beige, hers a faded green.
"What's this?" he asks in a voice low and feigning interest. The two of them cup their hands to the window and peer into the murk.
"Whatever it is, it's closed," she answers nonchalantly. They wander on but the woman stops to take one more look into the southern most pane as he keeps walking. She lingers for a moment, peers in and then slowly catches up with him. It's just a vacant building, begging for attention, the right owner.
What would those two think if they knew that forty years ago this summer, this very building at 76 North C Street was the place to be; the very apex of 20th Century underground culture was happening right here beyond these doors when a combination of rock music, psychoactive drugs, guns and a time-warped fashion sense collided into a perfect unadulterated glory stomp. Although the party barely lasted over two months, ramifications were fast and severe. The ripples that slid from these doors that summer eventually wavered down C Street, down the Sierra Nevada's, into San Francisco and, from there, right into history.
It's early June 1965 and Dan Hicks has had a busy week.
First, he completed his last two finals and subsequently graduated from San Francisco State University. Next was a tense stop at his Oakland draft board. They apparently hadn't yet been notified of Hicks' recent scholastic achievements as he successfully hoodwinked everyone there and failed the psychological test. Finally, he upped and left his life in San Francisco for a three month residency in Nevada with a band he had joined only months earlier. It didn't look too promising and Hicks was dubious about the offer to spend the summer in a ghost town. He sarcastically told band mate George Hunter that he'd do it for a hundred bucks. Well, without blinking, Hunter pulled out a crisp $100 bill from his vest pocket and handed it over. A deal's is a deal.
Mark Unobski was a rudderless kid from Memphis whose parents didn't have much hope for him. That changed when he asked them to underwrite his idea to renovate an old gambling hall in a Nevada ghost town. The Comstock House at 76 North C Street (a three story hotel with a bar called the Gold Leaf on the ground floor) had been on the market for a couple of years, waiting for a boost of life. And here it was; all it took was $5,000 to renovate and rename it –presto! -- The Red Dog Saloon.
Unobski had surrounded himself with some of the most talented crazies on the West coast to help him with the project. A world class painter, a Reno disk jockey with his tough girlfriend who worked as a North Beach waitresses, a mechanics expert, a gourmet cook and a local entrepreneur who lived in a railroad car in town were but a few. All of them lending a hand and making the Red Dog unlike anything else in the country. Red-flocked wallpaper with gold trim, a giant antique mirror running the length of the hardwood bar, velvet drapes, faux gaslight fixtures but working chandeliers, elaborately framed period photos and slot machines.
It didn't take long before the staffers took to wearing period clothes. The women were now in velvet dresses, hair up in a bun playing the parts of Miss Kitties and Calamity Janes. The men donned string ties, vests, black drape pants, boots and everyone wore side arms. Back in the Old West, anyone worth a spit lived by a code. The locals took to these kids with a smile, happy to see them indulge in name of history and visitors no doubt figured that it was all part of the show. The nearest police official lived in a nearby town and told Unobski early on: "If you have any trouble, just shoot ‘em." The sly grin smeared across these kid's faces gave a signal to those dialed-in that something was going on here other than just a roll in the hay with history. Everyone involved in the Red Dog's revitalization was practically shimmering with the effects of highly potent LSD, a drug that had been all the rage with Bay area hipsters that spring.
The Saloon also had a well-stocked jukebox, but the novelty wore off after a while. So, the only thing missing from the Red Dog scene was live entertainment. As luck would have it, there happened to be a perfect band for the occasion down in San Francisco. As luck would also have it, Red Dog employee Chandler Laughlin was in town picking up some gaslight fixtures when, while driving in North Beach, he spotted two long hairs on the sidewalk and thought they were famous musicians. He stuck his head out the window and yelled: "Hey, are you guys the Byrds?"
The two longhairs looked over and one of them replied with out blinking: "No, we're The Charlatans."
Ah yes, The Amazing Charlatans, as they were called back then. George Hunter was half of the band's image team who couldn't play an instrument besides strumming the auto harp and maybe singing a bit. A high school classmate of Hunter's, Mike Wilhelm, fresh from the Navy, was an accomplished guitarist especially with the twelve string. As a kid, Richard Olsen was an ace clarinetist but had taken up the bass guitar by this time and was the harmony in the band's vocals.
All of their paths crossed as they drifted around Mike Ferguson's clothing boutique located at the corner of Haight and Divisadero called Magic Theater For Madmen Only. Amidst the strands of marijuana smoke trailing out the door, the place was jammed with Victorian artifacts, clothes and a jukebox that pumped out The Beatles' "You Can't Do That." Soon-to-be crucial counter-culture dignitaries moved in and out of the place trading ideas and making plans. Poster artists, light show artists, organizers, musicians... Ferguson's boutique was one of the bridges between Beat and ‘60's counter-culture.
The band members naturally gravitated toward each other as Olsen and Hunter had already considered forming a band. Hunter was reunited with Wilhelm after bumping into him at a club called the Blue Unicorn where Wilhelm was doing acoustic sets. Ferguson played a convincing barrelhouse piano... an obvious addition to the band's sound. Things were moving along nicely.
One day, the four were rehearsing in Hunter's Downey Street apartment with a not-so-good drummer acquaintance when a knock at the door brought things to a halt. Seems a gentleman was there to buy some marijuana, Hunter's side job. Turns out the guy can play drums and write songs to boot. Enter Dan Hicks and the band's line-up is complete.
Hunter's love of the Old West and Ferguson's knack for Victoriana formed the band's unmatched style: waistcoats, stiff paper collars, six button vests, cowboy boots, bowler hats, string ties, pocket watches, Ferguson even sported a walrus mustache. And guns, revolvers mostly. The Charlatans were carpetbaggers with musical gear, 50% image and 50% music culminating at just the right time in just the right place. Their peers were dressed in drainpipe pants ankle boots with Cuban heels and flowery shirts...not bad, really, but it wasn't awe-inspiring. Other bands in the vicinity might have been more proficient but no one could touch them as far as gumption, appeal and drive. They had it first and they had it best, they stuck out. They were sharp.
At this point, the British Invasion and Folk sounds were still the rage but, as George Hunter wrote years later, "Everybody and their brother was doing that, we were looking for some strong American identity." Besides their look, they had concocted one of the most unusual sounds in the city: Johnny Cash vs. Chuck Berry vs. New Lost City Ramblers vs. Jelly Roll Morton, all revved up and electrified. The fact that some of them weren't fully adept at their instruments only made it more interesting. It was a raggedy, tumbleweed sound: jumpy, loose, dedicated and determined without a hint of irony. They were serious.
Obviously, these guys were the perfect house band for the Red Dog... but first they had to audition. When they arrived in town, the Saloon's interior was still being worked on and they were ushered upstairs to the rooms. The exterior, on the other hand, had been painted fire engine red; the windows were trimmed yellow and black. The name of the bar was painted in red letter against a blue background on a sign stretched across the entire bottom of the balcony. In the middle was giant white circle with a crazed looking yellow-eyed red dog inside.
After a few days of doing nothing, the big night arrived. A large table had been laid out, a big celebratory feast was underway as the band made they're way down to the bar. Now, in the twilight, The Red Dog Saloon looked stunning, the people looked stunning and the Amazing Charlatans were stunned. It was 1865 all over again. The entire staff would be on hand to watch the audition and what would be the band's very first performance outside Hunter's apartment. Bill Ham and Bob Cohen had built a light box especially for the occasion that blinked gooey light to the pulsed of the music from the Saloon's jukebox and whatever noise came from the stage. It hypnotized everyone; no one had ever seen that kind of light show before.
Even the town's sheriff showed up and was wowed by the scene. These odd kids had been running around town for the last few months wearing authentic-down-to-the-button period clothes, morphing into the spirit of 100 years ago. Astounding. A diorama had come to life in the bar... and the bartender was even wearing sleeve garters. Since it was custom to leave your weapon at the bar, the sheriff walked up and handed it over.
"Check my gun?"
The bartender took it, opened the barrel, snapped it back and quickly fired two rounds into the floor and handed it back. "Works fine, Sheriff."
It was about then that Unobski asked the Charlatans if they wanted the LSD before or after the audition. Though they had all dabbled individually once or twice before, none of them had tried to actually play while high; hell, Hunter had never even sung in public before. Not wanting to look like a bunch of narcs, the band hooked back the tablets right there on the spot. Back in the Old West, anyone worth a spit lived by a code.
Well, it was bound to happen eventually, the two worlds of rock ‘n roll and psychedelics met full scale in the most interesting of places... it was time-smear phenomenon mixing an old-world look with jet-aged drugs and electronic equipment. Unprecedented.
The ensuing performance, however, was an out-and-out mess. Each member was soon lost in their own personal spinning world. Their instruments were of no used to them after a while and they were soon switching with each other in hopes of rectifying the problems. Finally, Wilhelm just gave up and sat down to watch the room undulate. Must've seemed like an eternity up there for them and they certainly didn't notice that their audience –also soaring in their own acid vapor-- was both captivated and humored by the show. Once the band decided that it was all over, (five minutes later? ten? fifty?) they staggered off stage into the now giant laughing red face of Unobski.
"That was the funniest thing I ever saw in my life, you guys are hired."
And so it was: one of the earliest rock meldings of drugs, dress, music and lifestyle. Until then, amphetamines had been the drug of choice in the still burgeoning rock world while hallucinogen usage traveled in the scientific and literary circles. Yet some of Rock ‘n Roll's Hierarchy had started to dabble in mind-bending substances around this time; it had been only a scant four months earlier when Beatles George and John had been dosed while having dinner with their wives at a friend's house. Now some nobody band, some young upstarts from San Francisco who had almost zero experience together was stuck up in the mountains blazing trails and blowing minds.
Photos exist from this period. The best one is of the boys inside the Saloon standing in front of the bar, it's all sepia tone'd and if it were to be secretly placed into one of those fancy Time/Life books about the Old West, no one would be the wiser. The Magnificent Five. Bad asses, much more menacing than any other band at the time. Hicks blankly stares into the camera resting a rifle on his knee, the barrel pointing straight up. Olsen too is staring right into the camera but his arms are crossed and he looks weary, unsure. Wilhelm is in profile holding a beer and a smoke but his pistol is clearly visible in its holster. Hunter is dashing as ever and looking off to the left, blond hair coiling below his collar. Not surprisingly, it's Ferguson that is most authentic. Leaning in from the right side with a stern face and droopy mustache. Standing slightly behind the others, he is a little out-of-focus and appears grainer. If you go back and look at photos from the mid to late1800's, most people have that deer-caught-in-headlights gaze, as if they can quite get their heads around the fact that their image is being preserved. A future shock. Well, that's Ferguson in this photo- future shocked.
The Charlatans weren't the first batch of musicians to take LSD, they just happen to be the band to do it at a point in history when it would have the biggest impact. Although it probably didn't seem like it at the time, this was cutting edge stuff. Mind you, these weren't the sloppy kids with the tired eyes found in that silly Woodstock movie. This is before horrible tie-dyes, even before the term "hippie" was being used. These folks had style. It was singular. This predated all the generic trappings of what would soon make up the counter-culture. Only sixteen months had passed since "I Want To Hold Your Hand", sixteen months, and that already seemed a lifetime away. Things were moving fast.
On Mondays, the Saloon was closed and that's when everyone would drive out of town to test the guns. Or go to the hot springs for a dip and maybe shoot home movies. Or just sit up on the balcony and watch the sky. It would seem that the entire residency was a vacation but the band did actually work Tuesday through Sunday, four sets a night. Their audition was a fluke of disorder; most of their sets that summer were straightforward and had the folks in Virginia City mightily dosed and whooping it up into the early hours.
The band had come from a close-knit community of underground artists, so word spread quickly that they were playing all summer to a packed house. The elaborately drawn poster advertising their Red Dog residency that Hunter and Ferguson whipped up was catching eyes all over town. Hunter and Ferguson's friends were soon driving up to see what it was all about and ended up staying for a few days. It was another world up there, one in which all previous rules had been stripped away. The visitors would drive back home with THE FUTURE flashing in their heads. Some had never given much thought to playing music until now. Others may've already had a band going and realized all the new possibilities that were suddenly available. Then there were those who were already onto the general idea only to have it reinforced by watching the Charlatans work their magic up on that tiny stage. Something had changed.
Yeah, well, our boys thought they saw THE FUTURE as well so they took a train from Reno back to San Francisco one sunday in order to lay down a few of their songs. They stayed at a hotel on Lombard Street and recorded a four song demo at Costal Recorders with a hyper, multi-talented producer named Sly Stone. Had they not been so busy getting into town, recording and getting back to work in Virginia City, perhaps they would've noticed some interesting going's on in their hometown. A new club called the Matrix down in the Marina District on Fillmore Street was just about to open. The house at 1090 Page Street was throwing dances and impromptu jams in the ballroom sized basement; loft parties and acid tests. Big name bands, national and international, were pulling through town and the local bands that were opening up for them were stealing their thunder. Things were moving fast.
Meanwhile, back at the Saloon, as the weeks went on, most of the locals were still obliging to the party at the Red Dog. All except for a group of good ‘ol boys who walked tall, carried their own guns and wore red vests. They called themselves The Clampers for some reason and they didn't like the band or the other kids with the funny, glassy eyes. Things got edgy and the band soon found some real Jesse James-type action. At one point, after a parade down C Street, The Clampers decided to take some shots up at The Charlatans sitting up on the Saloon's balcony watching the end of the festivities. The Clampers' guns held only blanks but it both spooked and humored the band.
It was sometime in August, Laughlin and Wilhelm were on their way back from an overnight supply run to San Francisco when Laughlin's Nash started to overheat not far out of the East Bay. A patrol car squeezes behind them and the cop steps out to see what's the trouble. Of course, our boys are done up in their usual Old West gear, and it doesn't take a seasoned eye of the law to figure they may be up to something unusual if not elicit. First, the cop spots a giant pistol resting on the dashboard and then, while Laughlin is yapping away about life in the frontier town, notices a vial of pills in his belt. After a quick search of Wilhelm, a joint is discovered and the curtain falls as the two are brought to the Martinez jail for the night.
News of the bust reached Virginia City quickly when the Teletype machine started to chatter away in the offices of the Territorial Enterprise. Naturally, paranoia followed along with the sound of bags being packed. The local bigwigs suddenly changed their tune about the goings on at the Red Dog and –wham-o! —a raid came down. The best part is that Unobski wasn't arrested for drug possession. Nah, what The Man found was illegal venison in the freezer of the Saloon and he was nabbed for –get this—poaching. Just like in the olden days! The whole deal reeked of a set-up but it really didn't matter. The party at the Red Dog Saloon was over for the summer and everyone scattered back to San Francisco with damage having been done by both sides. The authorities had just effectively shut down a rather ambitious party of unknown proportions and the Red Dog folks had set into action a massive cultural shift that would gain tremendous momentum down in San Francisco and eventually play out in the rest of the Western hemisphere.
The band returned to San Francisco as heroes of sorts; people respected them. They were now known within a community that was greatly expanding even beyond their expectations. What the Charlatans had in style and finesse, however, they lacked in destiny. They began by hitting upon a tremendous stroke of good luck by landing the Red Dog gig, but it would prove to be their last as they soon found themselves swamped by the influx of other bands in the city. Within a year of the great Red Dog Summer, they were still third on a bill of three, opening up for groups who weren't even formed when they were kicking open doors in Virginia City.
This happens more often than not and the Charlatans are one of the finer examples of a good start gone badly. They didn't loose their momentum due to hard drug use or excessive living; they lost the momentum to internal differences, bum luck and lack of a central direction. The fact that only half the group was accomplished musicians was catching up with them. Even though they set a certain standard by looking good, bending minds and playing a bastardized version of rock ‘n roll, they were not of the times. The Charlatans had zero in way of extended guitar solos and ten-minute free form jams popular at that point. They stuck to their original concept and, while it gains them much respect in hindsight, it earned them very little in the shot run. They were so ahead of the times, they were behind the times.
They soldiered on through it all. Money was always tight and the band was sometimes paid off in chunks of marijuana, leaving Hicks to collect empty bottles for spare change. There were some of out of town gigs, a couple of label deals that went frustratingly nowhere. It was too much for some of them and by the spring of 1968, only Olsen and Wilhelm remained of the original line-up. A year later, the Charlatans were history.
Nowadays, typically, their memorabilia (posters and promo copies of their only record made months before disbanding) fetch steep prices. That poster that Hunter and Ferguson drew for the Red Dog is widely considered to be the first in stylized rock posters and it's understandable highly sought after. Understandably, it's highly coveted. An English label, Big Beat, released a good portion of the original line-up's recorded out-put in 1999 in lavish fashion with extensive liner notes and photos.
It's well after midnight and the tourists have long since drifted away. Except for one or two cars, the road is deserted. The black outline of the surrounding mountains loom upward and the 150-year-old buildings stand against the purple sky overhead. Since it's mostly empty, the former Red Dog Saloon seems more lifeless than the others, a sad reminder of the ways things work. What was going on exactly forty years ago, right this minute behind these walls?
Since the 1970's, the building at 76 North C Street has traded hands as many times as it's changed names; Kitty's Longbranch being one of the better monikers. In the past fifteen years or so, various owners have tried to maintain its mid-sixties history by keeping the Red Dog name. Additionally, in 1996, filmmaker Mary Works put together a documentary called The Life And Times Of The Red Dog Saloon that gained national attention. This reporter was first in the Saloon in 1999 (when it was utilizing only half of it's original space and even then there was a pizza place taking up much of the northern half) and again in 2003 when it had been restored to its original size. Between those two visits, it had closed, changed owners and reopened yet again. The locals who care always put on a good face and try to be optimistic when a new proprietor comes around.
The Wheel Of Fortune game goes off in the distance, muffled behind locked doors. Other than that, it's extremely quiet as a steady warm wind blows in natural pine air from the north. The hanging sign form the neighboring shop creeks as it swings back and forth giving off a deeply unsettling feel. This place is haunted. Ghost town supreme. Rock history supreme.
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