Seattle Now & Then: The Coolest ‘Then’ Ever

(click to enlarge photos)

Novelist Tom Robbins, left, and Paul Dorpat, in 1968 sartorial splendor, hang out at the first Sky River Rock Festival in a field near Sultan. Says Dorpat: “I must ask: Does any reader know who took this photo and/or where I might recover the saffron robe to more carefully stash it? One matter more. That is Inger Anne Hage, her Scandinavian physiognomy barely contained, in the bottom-right corner of the photo. At that time, she and I, with her two young children, were housemates on Boston Street in the Eastlake neighborhood. We met at the Blue Moon.”
Inger in the Helixhaul also in 1968.

Without a crashing piano, there would have been no Sky River Rock Festival over Labor Day weekend 1968 on Betty Nelson’s raspberry farm. Or  was it strawberries? Certainly, there were no oranges.

Fruit farmer Betty Nelson confers with Smokey on how to turn her acres into an inviting grounds for a rock festival without burning it down.
Weighing about 500 lbs the dropped piano’s harp crashed through the instrument’s frame and furniture and except for the loss of its bass strings survived the drop. It is imagined and planned to invite local composers to study the remains and write music for this historic instrument. The Jack Straw Foundation, being both involved in the founding of KRAB RADIO – with Helix the original sponsor of the Piano Drop in the Spring of 1968 – and regularly serving as a venue for new music (and some old) wo;uld be a most fitting place to make this music. (Thanks to Ron Edge for both keeping and moving – in his truck – the dropped piano when needed.

Four months before that weekend, about 2,000 people paid to enjoy the surreal thrill of watching an old, tightly strung piano fall from a rented helicopter scarcely powerful enough to lift it. The exceedingly hip Berkeley, Calif., band, Country Joe and the Fish, provided the music. They had played at the Eagles Auditorium the two nights before, and donated their services for The Drop.

About twenty years ago or so I gifted Paul Heald’s poster for the Piano Drop to Joe McDonald during his visit to Seattle for a performance and but also to Wallingford for the poster. Joe survives. I corresponded with him last week. Paul Heald does not. He passed about three years ago. Paul stands far right in the photograph below this one. Tom Robbins holds the center, and sculptor Larry Beck is far left. Larry died about twenty years ago. His wake at Golden Gardens was a spectacle.  (Note that Paul has marked with an arrow the spot in the sky where he expected the piano to be released.) 

By our request, the pilot aimed to release the 500-pound, swaying instrument from an altitude of more than 100 feet above a large woodpile. A mix of antsy and artsy celebrants had packed into a grand horseshoe around the pile. Using Country Joe’s microphone, I pleaded with them (but with little faith) to step back.

More than any of the Sky River Rock Festival’s rain-spattered performers, this recording of its mud players was the most-often-printed photograph taken during the festival’s three days. During the afternoon of the last day, the sun made a brief visit, confirming, as Tom Robbins
recalls, that everyone was already happy.
Here the mud dancers were used on a Helix cover to promote yet another benefit. We survived with the sales of record album ads, on the street sales of the paper, and benefits.

As the piano fell, my heart took hold of my stomach, and both leapt to my throat. Fortunately, the renta-pilot missed. The piano plopped onto mud that pop doctrine ever-after believed was earlier divinely tamped between the woodpile and the half-built Duvall home of our host and fellow conspirator, Larry Van Over. All flesh was saved from woodpile shrapnel, and only a few piano strings were broken with the crash.

Country Joe and the Fish play for both the Piano Drop and the MEDIA BASH that preceeded it – by one day. It was another benefit, this time for KRAB too. 

A half-century later, the salvaged piano was given to me by the wife of the recently passed strong man who, on the afternoon of The Piano Drop, had lifted the piano into his pickup and driven away. Now, the still-sturdy relic is silently and secretly kept in a locked garage.

A glimpse of the stage at the 1969 Sky River.  The sun has here made one of its rare appearances that Labor Day Weekend.   
The Seattle Times captioned this “Bedraggled Hippies took shelter in tents and under plastic near Sultan. The grounds of the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair were hazy with smoke from stubborn camp fires.

The resounding but mud-muted success of The Piano Drop inspired us to do something bigger, longer and sometimes louder. A notice in the weekly tabloid Helix (we were the editors) searched for a farm or field on which to stage a three-day music festival.

This is a centerfold spread in The Helix, Seattle’s underground newspaper (founded and edited by Dorpat), advertising the first Sky River event. Dorpat and a few friends created the festival, inspired by another event they hosted: the dropping of a piano from a helicopter four months earlier.
John Chambless relaxing at his desk in the Helix Office, where much of the festival work was also handled. John joined the production after finishing his directing of the Berkeley Folk Festival. I first met John in 1965 when he was teaching philosophy at the University of Washington and I was using the philosophy library as a quiet station for writing a thesis. I dropped out of these to manage the Free University and then start the Helix.

Betty Nelson promptly answered with an invitation to use her fruit farm. We thought that appropriate. Betty’s available acres were suitably inclined on a sloping open grade next to the Skykomish River, about 3 miles south of Sultan. That summer on Betty’s farm, we rapidly squeezed out a campground facing a grand stage with light towers. Skilled volunteers prepared lighted rows for porta-potties, a food circus, space for arts and crafts, and a light-show projection booth.

For a moment on first finding this snapshot in a stack of other prints we wondered if Stormy Daniels might have made it to the festival but then thought better of it for while our profession has somehow endured without much trouble thru the half century since the festival was put forward thru that time Stormy’s labors would have certainly required more flex.  (Search top-center)

We gathered four months later with about two dozen bands, including Country Joe and the Fish; Santana; The Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band; and, for the last act, the Grateful Dead. The benefactors — aka ticket-buyers — gave “for American Indians and Black People.”

Attendance reached many thousands more than for The Piano Drop. However, we have no ticket count, for the long farm fence between the festival and the highway soon gave way to freeloaders who, no doubt, thought they were entitled to hear “their music” while also helping us lift the sky at the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair.

A Sky River ticket, 1968

The price was $6 for three days of round-the-clock music, theater and comedy. (My stage contribution included setting the microphone for comedian Richard Pryor, about whom I then knew nothing.)

The Sultan-based Sky River Festival, the first of three annual events, all on different pastures, has often been extolled as the first multiday outdoor music festival on a rural site, ordinarily on a converted farm, that was prepared for it.

The first Sky River was staged and played a year before Woodstock. Within three years, there were about a dozen more multiday rock-jazz-folk festivals in the Northwest alone. Worldwide, wherever hippies hitchhiked, there were probably hundreds more.

I remember well the evening meeting in a Wallingford home when we easily chose the nearly self-evident name, “Sky River Rock,” for the historical festival. The Lighter Than Air part was a kind of a payoff to Van Over, The Piano Drop host, who hoped to fill the sky with tethered balloons lifting riders above the festival. As one of the larger riders in his hopeful balloon, I easily demonstrated its failings. I was too heavy to lift.

The photographs collected here are all from that first festival, the first Sky River. In the shot with the two fashion plates, the uncombed fellow in the saffron Buddhist robe is me. I remember thinking that the first Sky River would be an appropriate opportunity to abdicate my ordinarily nondescript dress for something eccentric. By the end of the day I had somehow lost the robe — probably intentionally.

An early contribution to the Helix motivated in response to the city’s attempts to stop our light-show dances at Eagles Auditorium. It was a struggle we won.

Standing with me is my friend — now for more than half a century — novelist Tom Robbins. In 1968, we were both in our prime, already beginning our slide into somatic decline. I first met Tom in 1966, five years before the publication of his first novel, “Another Roadside Attraction.” (I suspect and/or hope that most of our readers have followed its whimsical search of the historical Jesus.)

We first met during a Free University course in experimental drama for which Tom staged a “happening” with the help of George, a nearly retired high school art instructor, who carefully covered a spotlighted dining table with a white tablecloth pressed flat for an elaborate setting of dinnerware for six. The happening’s climax came with Tom’s attempt to pull the tablecloth free from the table without upsetting the china. Of course, he failed. However, with Tom’s North Carolinian splash, it was an elegant crash. Above the scattered glass on the floor there stood a comic genius.

CLICK TO ENLARGE – Here’ Seattle in 1968 shot from Beacon Hill. The SeaFirst tower, far right, is under construction but will soon be topped-off. Not so, however the idle freeway parts.

Tom remembers the morning this portrait of the two of us was recorded. After spending most of that summer night writing at the Post-Intelligencer, he visited the Dog House, then the newspaper neighborhood’s most popular all-night greasy spoon, before driving to the Sky River encampment for its second day.

While wearing my saffron Buddhist smock, it was easy to be both found and avoided. Obviously, Tom found me, although I do not know whether he was looking for me.

A Times photo taken after the deconstruction of the site had commenced. I cannot decide if the bus stop poster is thorough farce or if it has been moved from a sensible spot  beside the highway which bordered Betty’s farm.


Anything to add, Paul?

Yes Jean.  Here’s another of Tom, and Inger and I and several other friends taken by the same (now a half-century later) forgotten photographer.  May he or she will come forward – if they can still walk.  Gary Eagle, far lefdt, was one of the most productive and gifted on the artists that helped illustrated Helix.  Far right is Stretch.  We lived together first during my Artist in Residency at Fairhaven College in 1969 and then in a fisherman’s cottage on the west shore of Lummi Island.  I am embarrassed that I no longer remember the name of the woman sitting to Randy’s right, although I SAW her as recently as my 70th Birthday party.   As you can see I am still in my buddhist robe in the photo below, but I am also reaching for what might be a shirt or light coat.  The person standing to my left was Randy’s “girl friend” at the time.  She later moved to Colorado to study Buddhism and changed her name because of it.  (And so I have not named her here.)  Only now It occurs to me that she may have taken my robe for which she will have long ago asked forgiveness of the Buddha and I grant it as well.

Finally, I think, here’s Mt. Baring, only a few miles up the Skykomish Valley, east of Sultan.

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: The Coolest ‘Then’ Ever”

  1. Paul, at Sky River, I volunteered to be in a video that I’m pretty sure you took. We, the subjects, were told to disrobe and wrap ourselves in a sheet of clear plastic. We were then instructed to run around thru the forest while you shot the video. Were you the photographer? Do you remember the event?. If so, I’d really appreciate seeing it if thats at all possible. Betty and Ronny were good friends as was Larry Van Over and Milo Johnston. I guess they are all gone, but I really enjoy seeing your photos and your talent for catching it all on film.


    Larry Collinge

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