Grateful Dead’s first North Coast home
If you look at the back cover of the Grateful Dead’s 1969 album “Aoxomoxoa,” you’ll see the band and members of their community huddled under a sprawling California live oak.
This signature image was taken on land just north of Novato that for centuries was a Coast Miwok settlement, then was owned by the San Francisco dentist Galen Burdell and his family in the 19th century and since 1977 has been Olompali State Historic Park.
It’s where the Dead lived for six weeks during the spring of 1966, in the Burdell Mansion on land they leased for $1,000 from the University of San Francisco. And it’s where they returned frequently during the late 1960s for spontaneous jams that lasted until dawn.
Other psychedelic rock stars, including Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Jack Casady, visited the bucolic property and joined the Dead’s lead guitarist Jerry Garcia and the boys on a makeshift outdoor stage. The house burned Feb. 2, 1969, leaving behind only the foundations and 26 barrels full of charred belongings.
Fortunately, archaeologist Breck Parkman tagged the material as historically relevant in the early 1980s but, due to concerns about toxic contamination, wasn’t able to sift through the material until 2010. What he found was a window into the world of a psychedelic band nearing the peak of its creative powers.
It was a halcyon time for the Grateful Dead. Their following was growing, they were at the leading edge of the experimental music of the time, and their creativity seemed boundless. Friends and family flocked to the site for the parties and some stayed to live there, wearing fringed leather jackets, tie-dyed shirts or nothing at all.
Guitarist Bob Weir, who recently visited the park for the filming of a documentary about the Dead, told Parkman the band especially liked the acoustics inside the Burdell house’s living room. The stucco ceiling was rounded, and the room had a warm sound that appealed to the band.
After the Dead no longer officially lived there, the land was leased to Don McCoy, a wealthy hippie who in 1967 founded and bankrolled The Chosen Family, a commune created as a safe haven for a group composed mostly of single parents and their kids.
But by the beginning 1969, when the flower-power era was giving way to darker realities resulting from excessive drug use, things were getting out of hand on the property.
The Chosen Family had become an open community (anyone was welcome to join), and its numbers more than doubled to about 90 people.
Then one night in February 1969, a fire engulfed the Burdell house, the beginning of the end for the commune. No one was killed, but the building was destroyed and most possessions were burned.
Among the relics that survived the fire were 93 record albums (55 of them have been identified), a box of melted beads and a satirical novel checked out of the Novato library called “Little Brother is Listening.”
In 1981, Parkman noted the debris from the fire contained artifacts from the commune and the Dead’s time on the land, and he documented them as historically important. When he prepared to sift through the material in 1997, lead and asbestos were discovered in the debris. A hazardous materials crew placed it in 55-gallon drums, sealed them and stored them on site.
It wasn’t until 2010 that a hazmat team cleaned the materials inside the 26 drums and Parkman was finally able to investigate what remained.
“When they were done, they laid it all out. I came in and said, ‘holy cow,’ ” Parkman said.
“There is no one thing here that you would put in the Louvre by itself, but when you look at this whole collection of material it’s like a time capsule from February 1969. What makes this unique … is that it’s not a planned-out time capsule. In a time capsule like this you see the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Among the albums he found were Nina Simone’s “Forbidden Fruit,” the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” and records by Bill Cosby, Bob Dylan and even folk singer Burl Ives.
“It’s not what I would have thought” the Dead would listen to, Parkman said, but on Weir’s recent visit, he said the thought that Ives album belonged to the Dead, whose influences included folk, country and bluegrass, just about anything in the American music catalog.
It’s easy to see why the Dead found a home among the oaks and rolling grasslands of what is now Olompali, the Coast Miwok word for “southern village.” The 760-acre parcel has a quiet beauty, it’s not far from San Francisco, and the band had the space to play music all night without disturbing neighbors.
“The Summer of Love began one afternoon at Olompali,” Merry Prankster Ken Kesey reportedly said. He also spent time on the property.
Owsley “Bear” Stanley, known for making LSD to exacting standards of purity, lived in the Burdell house with the Dead. Parkman described him as the band’s “chemist.”
But the dream didn’t last. A few months after the Burdell house burned in 1969, two girls ages 2 and 3 were playing on a tricycle when they fell into the pool on the property and drowned. Marin County authorities raised concerns about the welfare of the children on the property, and the community eventually dispersed.
Had it not been for Parkman’s interest in the charred relics from the Burdell house fire, the Grateful Dead’s moment at Olompali might be a largely forgotten chapter in the band’s history.
Yet not everyone appreciates his work.
“I’ve been accused over the years of trying to glorify hippies and glorify the ‘60s,” Parkman said. “I’m just interested in what did transpire and what benefited us.”
Rather than solely interpreting Olompali’s long-ago history, he said, “we realized that we had an opportunity and a responsibility here to tell everybody’s story, and to tell them equally: the Coast Miwok, the Burdells, the Chinese cook Sam Yaw and the Grateful Dead.”
“But that doesn’t mean I’m glorifying hippies or the ’60s,” said Parkman, who in the late ’60s was a high school student in a conservative Atlanta suburb.
“When you look at the history of the place … there was plenty of glory in the ’60s, whether it’s women’s rights or civil rights or understanding sustainability,” he said. “A lot of really good things came out of that time.”