DENISE KAUFMAN & THE ACE OF CUPS
by Patrick Lundborg
35 years have passed since San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ralph Gleason published his famous list of more than 300 Bay Area rock bands of the 1960s. Gleason's list signaled the start of a retrospective appreciation and research into the period which has continued unbroken since, with arcane facts and surprising revelations on S F bands big and small being documented via a half-dozen mainstream books and specialist magazines like Comstock Lode and Cream Puff War. While interest in the unique San Francisco scene is likely to continue forever, one could assume that at this stage the major stories have been told, right?
previously published in Shindig! magazine issue #7, 2005
Wrong. At least one crucial story remains to be told, and it's one of the most intriguing of all, being that of the all-female rock band ACE OF CUPS, who were there from the beginning in 1966 and continued right on through to the end in the early 1970s. The band shared stage and hung out with all the big Fillmore and Avalon bands, they had the same management as Quicksilver Messenger Service, appeared on the Westpole TV show (where Gleason first presented his band list) and in the "Revolution" period movie, sang on Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers" and were featured on the 1973 "Mill Valley Bunch" album, a sort of Bay Area swan song featuring a huge assembly of legends. Most importantly, the Ace Of Cups played music that matched the best of them, a tough folkrock/r'n'b blend with the eclectic flavor we have learned to associate with the region.
The Ace Of Cups left hardly anything behind in terms of a recorded legacy, which obviously accounts for their present-day obscurity - but then neither did the Mystery Trend nor the Final Solution, both of which have been well-chronicled over the years. No, I'm afraid I'm going to have to assign the glaring omission of the Cups in various S F retrospectives to the fact that people (meaning male rock writers) couldn't put a handle on an all-girl band right in the middle of the Haight-Ashbury daze. A rock group with just ONE chick wasn't a problem, as we have seen, but a band of FIVE tough young ladies who alternated between bittersweet a capella numbers and all-out Rolling Stones rockers? Naah!
Fortunately the Ace Of Cups' ship may finally be coming in, as I've noted a sudden surge of interest in the band among 1960s aficionados the last few years. It's almost as if people suddenly discovered the band's name on all those old Mouse & Wes Wilson ballroom posters. A live Cups tape from a San José show in October 1967 is making frequent rounds among CD-R traders, veterans of the trading field commenting that "no-one had asked for that one in 20 years". Better still, a retrospective Ace Of Cups CD has been released by the "Golden State" experts at Ace/Big Beat, titled "It's Bad For You But Buy It" (CDWIKD 236)
The Ace Of Cups story is partly the story of Denise Kaufman, a k a Mary Microgram, an extraordinary young lady who seemingly without effort moved between the vastly different Bay Area scenes of the day; hanging out in the "garage" teen clubs of the East Bay one year, dropping LSD with the avantgardeurs of Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters the next, playing with Quicksilver at the Fillmore the third. Denise's diary from 1965-1967 - if she ever kept one - must read like a chronicle of the whole San Francisco scene, from its stumbling infancy to the commercial explosion. I had already decided to write something about the Ace Of Cups when I was able to connect with Denise, whose excellent input and recollections "up-levelled the whole scene" (to quote Kesey quoting Stewart Brand) into the current article.
Monterey Bay, August 1965. An odd congregation has assembled for a conference at Asilomar Beach; a mix of liberal clergymen from the Berkeley Unitarian Church, younger church members, and a few regular East Bay teens along for the ride. They're listening to a speech by Ken Kesey, famous author and leader of art maverick band the Merry Pranksters, who have been invited to the conference. True to their own agenda the Pranksters won't let themselves be reduced to a surprise happening, and during the week they gradually take over the whole show, "bring it into their movie" in Prankster-speak. The church elders don't know what to think, but the youth in presence love the open-minded playfulness and unpredictability the Merry Pranksters radiate in word and action. Among the youngsters is Denise Kaufman, invited by friend Chip Wright, whose father is organizing the whole Asilomar conference. Denise and Chip know each other from the local Berkeley music scene where Denise comes from the UC folk/protest camp, while Chip and a few high school partners have an early garage/r'n'b band called the Answer.
Although they had never met true freaks like the Merry Pranksters before, the Berkeley kids were no strangers to LSD-fuelled weirdness:
DENISE: I was taking acid on my own before I met the Answer. They were already taking it too. I was turned on to LSD in the Spring of my freshman year  at Berkeley by Stewart - an interesting NY philosopher/seeker who was not a student at UC. I took a large dose and had, of course, a life altering experience. After that, I took it regularly to keep exploring those realms. I got together right at that time with Terry Wadsworth. I had had a crush on Terry since I was 14 and he used to play in the coffee houses of S F. He was an amazing singer/songwriter/bard. Terry had been in LA in '63-64 hanging out with Jim McGuinn when Jim had put a huge dose of acid in a drink Terry had without telling him. He flipped out so far that he left LA and went to live in a cave in Crete for about a year. He was pretty unstable but brilliant and interesting. When he returned to the Bay Area I found him and we moved into a downstairs apartment on Regent St in Berkeley. It was a horrible break with my parents for me - they were really upset. But Terry and I took lots of LSD together and played music. I learned a lot from him. We also took acid and made love - bringing humor and ease into that arena of life for me. You have to remember how repressive those times were! Before I ever took acid my first psychedelic was DMT. I took it with my friend Jody - he was a chemist and made it himself. We were sitting on a couch and I smoked a hit from a small pipe. Next thing I knew the world was dissolving. The curtains I was looking at turned to liquid and melted into the floor. I did the same thing. I poured off of the couch and watched/felt everything turn to molten energy. As that space "wore off" I awaked in "my normal identity" on the floor. That was my first psychedelic experience. Jody was a great guy. His mom was Kitty who ran The New Orleans House - a wonderful music venue. I also knew Owsley before the Kesey days and probably got some acid from him.
Unless you were hooked up to the academic East Coast scene of Timothy Leary & his ex-Harvard colleagues, there was no established frame of reference for hallucinogenic trips in early 1965, and it wasn't until she came across Kesey & the Pranksters that Denise met someone who might be able to relate to her experiences.
At Asilomar, down by the sand dunes, Ken Kesey looks out over the Pacific Ocean and tells the crowd: "Something magnificent is going to happen in a few moments". And in line with the larger-than-life quality that characterized the Merry Pranksters at their peak, something does happen, as Lee Quarnstrom recalls in the excellent Prankster memoir "On The Bus" (by Perry & Babbs, 1992): "…As the sun went down it hit the ocean just right and there was this incredible green flash, which is a natural phenomenon that happens when the atmospheric conditions are just right. But for Kesey to be tuned in to the fact that this was going to happen was impressive". During a conference break, Denise gets talking to Kesey and shares some of her acid impressions, and receives an invitation to hang out with the Pranksters when the seminar week is over.
DENISE: Kesey and I spent the night on the beach talking. Our band [the Answer] had brought amps and guitars with us and that was the first time Kesey played with a reverb unit on an amp. He loved it. The next day I went back to Berkeley where I was in school. A few days later Kesey showed up and said "I've come here to get you, you need to come live at La Honda." And I went. I was there from then on until Kesey got busted and went to Mexico [in the Spring 1966]. I was part of all the Acid Tests and all adventures and travels. I often road shotgun sitting on a little box next to Neal [Cassady, the beat legend] while we cruised. I was also really connected to Hugh Romney a k a Wavy Gravy - we had many extremely psychedelic moments together.
Denise came into the Merry Pranksters scene just as it was reaching its most glorious heights, the Asilomar conference week being one of several triumphs for their complex brand of lysergic mayhem, inbetween the Hell's Angels party in August 1965 and the priceless Vietnam Rally prank in Berkeley two months later. Denise acquired the Prankster name "Mary Microgram" and is mentioned in Tom Wolfe's docu-novel "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" (1968). She partook in the series of Acid Tests held in late 1965 that would culminate in the 3-day Trips Festival in January 1966, a massive event at Winterland in San Francisco which marks the beginning of the psychedelic pop culture era. Apart from turning Kesey onto rock'n'roll, she gave Jerry Garcia his "Captain Trips" nickname.
Q: Did you perceive the Acid Tests and the whole Prankster scene as being important or groundbreaking back then?
DENISE: Absolutely! It was about creating a space where reality could be dissolved for a while - after that nothing is ever quite the same. That is about as ground (and wall and ceiling) breaking as it gets.
While hanging out with unique individuals like Kesey, Neal Cassady and Wavy Gravy, Denise still maintained ties to the Berkeley teen scene. Sometime in the Fall 1965 she found time to record a 45, which has since acquired legendary status:
Denise Kaufman. Photo by Kenneth Loh.
DENISE: The guys in the Answer were students at Berkeley High and all good players. I didn't play with them regularly but from time to time. We recorded a 45 at Coast Recorders in San Francisco of a song that I wrote called "What'll You Do Then?". I sang on it and played harmonica, Answer played on it, except for the drummer who was Lonnie Hewitt. Lonnie produced the session for his label Wee Records. The band on the 45 was listed as "Denise & Co." Lonnie Hewitt took it to Bill Gavin who "picked" songs to put on radio station playlists. From what Lonnie said it was way too raw for Gavin! Nancy Sinatra was right about the limit for him!
Q: Do you recall the timeframe for the 45 recording?
DENISE: I think it says 1966 on the actual record - and seems right to me - but I don't know that for sure. It could be we recorded in late '65 and released early '66. From that time on even though I was mostly based at [the Pranksters' HQ] La Honda I would leave to play music, go to jams etc.
"What Will You Do Then" must be heard rather than described, but suffice it to say that it's a Pretty Things-style r'n'b blowout as raw as anything from the era, with Denise's tough, mocking vocals delivering 100% payback to the thousands of zit-faced high-school boys who strutted around in '65 pretending to be Mick Jagger. The tune is included on the current Ace Of Cups CD (apart from being bootlegged on "Girls From The Garage, vol 1"), where Alec Palao's liner notes reveal that the target for Denise's teen amazon rant is none other than Jann Wenner, future founder of Rolling Stone magazine! The unique nature of the Denise & Co 45, combined with its rarity, led to it being placed at the #1 spot in a recent Internet project which aims to document the "1000 Rarest Garage 45s" of the 1960s, assigned a market value of at least $5000. Perhaps 100 copies were pressed, a whole bunch of which apparently were stolen from a car trunk, and only 1 copy is known to exist today. Lonnie Hewitt's Wee label would release another cult item with the Mad River "Wind Chimes" EP in 1967, but usually dealt with soul/r'n'b artists.
Around the time of the Denise & Co session the Answer boys cut a 45 on their own for White Whale, "Why You Smile/"I'll Be In" (White Whale #225, released November 1965) which is highly rated by garage fans and can be found on a few compilations. The whole Berkeley High School teen scene is chronicled in detail in the excellent Cream Puff War magazine (issue #2, 1992), with frequent mention of Denise Kaufman.
Pranksters & Frantics
As detailed in "On The Bus", Denise stayed with the Merry Pranksters during their most active period, ending with a Kesey-less sojourn to Los Angeles in early 1966 wherein hip Angelinos were treated to a vat full of Owsley LSD, 4 AM jams by the Grateful Dead, and bizarre hijinx organized by Ken Babbs, deputy Prankster chief as Kesey was hiding from the law in Mexico. After four Acid Tests in L A many of the core Pranksters decided to join Kesey south of the border, and the group went into a silent phase for about six months. Rather than going to Mexico, Denise decided to return to the Bay Area.
Q: Was there any particular reason for you dropping out of the Kesey/Prankster scene? DENISE: I think for me there were two reasons. One was that my nature was taking me in a different direction. I had taken lots of acid and - especially on some trips I took with Wavy Gravy - I felt extremely sad when the acid wore off. The level of awareness that opened for me with the acid wasn't something I could sustain when I came down. I came to feel that the acid was a tool for opening those channels, those doors, and for giving me a real experience of unified beingness. From that point on, I began to see that the work was my own. I wanted to get to that space - even if it took years of work - in a way that once I got there it wouldn't wear off. That feeling brought me to Esalen Institute, caused me to begin my yoga studies, to begin meditation, to change my diet - to start to explore how others had accessed different levels of consciousness. The other reason was that music, music, music was calling me. I wanted to jam, to find people to write and play with. I had been recording and playing with a band when I met Kesey and that part of life was burning for me.
Back in the Bay Area, Denise didn't have to wait long for a musical opportunity to present itself, this time in the form of pre-Moby Grape outfit the Frantics, who had arrived in S F after playing and recording with some success in their Washington homebase.
DENISE: After I left La Honda I joined another band called the Frantics which had moved to the Bay Area from Seattle. Their bass player had left the band and when I joined we changed the name to Luminous Marshgas. That band was Jerry Miller on guitar/vocals, Don Stevenson on drums/vocals, Charlie Schoening (a k a Chuck Steaks) on Hammond, and me on harmonica and vocals (maybe once in a while guitar). When Charlie and I left that band they reformed and became Moby Grape.
Q: Did the Frantics play out much in the Bay Area?
DENISE: Yes, we played live gigs. We all lived together in a house in San Bruno, south of San Francisco. We had a regular gig over a few months at two places. They were both kind of cheesy lounges. One was called The Spectrum, the other was called The Syndrome. One of them was at a hotel near the SF airport. They were all really weird. But then, lots of places were weird then. The ballrooms were just starting to happen in the city, of course the Matrix was going full on and there were a few places like that, but most places were still in an earlier bardo. I don't think we ever played in San Francisco. The Frantics had played in the city before - that's where I first met them with my friend Sanda, who later married Charlie Schoening. They were playing in North Beach at a club called Dragon-A-Go-Go. One time Jann Wenner and I took his father and step-mother there to eat dinner upstairs at the Chinese restaurant, then we went to hear the band. I used to sit in with them sometimes on harmonica....out of that they asked me to join them. Don or Jerry may have some recordings but I don't know of any. Charlie passed away some years ago.
As recently has come to light, there were indeed some pre-Moby Grape demos recorded by the Frantics in S F, but these likely date from a period when Denise wasn't in the band. This material has been reported to be very good in parts, but remains unreleased. There was also a local 45 ("Someday" / "Human Monkey" on Action 1113), the first release to bear the "Frantics" name in three years, although it had little in common with the instrumental rock the band had played in the Northwest. This obscure, excellent 45 also pre-dates Denise's tenure with them.
Q: Were there any future Grape tunes in the Frantics set list?
DENISE: We did mostly cover tunes (three/four sets a night in cheesy lounges!) and some originals. Some blues, some R&B, some rock i e: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Stones.... Don Stevenson was awesome when he sang Ray Charles tunes. One day Jerry had to appear in court over a traffic ticket and when he came back to the house he was really angry that the judge gave him a heavy fine and was pretty severe. That night he wrote "Murder in My Heart for the Judge". We did the song, and later I know Moby Grape did it too.
Q: You mentioned that the Frantics changed their name…
DENISE: At the time there had been a rash of reported UFO sightings in the US newspapers. NASA or one of the military programs which dealt with these questions issued a report saying that these were NOT UFO's people were seeing but instead were reflections related to luminous marshgas. Kesey's response to the UFO sightings was this: people were really worried that UFO's were landing and we were going to be invaded from space. Kesey said that all extra-terrestrials had already been here and the sightings meant the UFO's were all leaving! I just liked the whole image so we took that for our name.
Q: I understand the Northwesterners had some difficulties adjusting to the S F lifestyle.
DENISE: When we all played together during those three or four months Jerry (particularly) and Don (somewhat less) were not what you would call psychedelically oriented guys. They had moved from a very different scene in Seattle and they were great musicians but not (at least at that time) consciousness explorers. The kinds of group energy blending that I'd been part of from when I started taking acid though the Prankster days was not part of their experience. Maybe part of this was related to the two wives - they were used to living in Seattle and being married to working musicians. They weren't used to living in communes or taking acid. An example: Jerry had expressed interest in learning the sitar. I was interested in Indian music and the only place to study in the Bay Area was in Berkeley. Wonderful world class players from India were the teachers: Nikhil Banerjee, Ali Akbar Khan, Mahapurush Misra, Sachev. So I got the info for Jerry and thought that he should go and that we, as a band, should pay for his studies. He wanted to but couldn't even begin to accept the idea that we'd all contribute to his program. I think it felt like charity to him or some loss of dignity. He finally did go but I think he felt as though we were fools to be paying for it. That said, I think Jerry thought I was way too much of a psychedelic ranger for him to be comfortable around after a while. Maybe my 18-year old self and my beautiful 16-year-old friend Martha were too much for Jerry, Don and their wives. In any case, Charlie (who had come from Seattle with them) and I left the band and moved with Martha to a house in the Haight Ashbury.
While no longer a member of their scene, Denise maintained contact with the Merry Pranksters, Wavy Gravy in particular. As she tells it in "On The Bus", after a period of intense acid trips with and without Wavy, she went to visit her parents who were scared by her spaced out behavior. In an action not uncommon for the era, the worried parents had Denise committed to Mount Zion Hospital in the hope that she would get straightened out. To avoid being transferred to a lock-up facility such as Napa State Hospital, Denise decided to stay at Mount Zion, where she would remain within the city and was free to come and go as she wanted. This event coincided with Ken Kesey's undercover return from Mexico, and imagining his own "Cuckoo's Nest" storyline being played out in real life, Kesey promised to send some Hell's Angels over to Mount Zion to bust Denise out from there. While it would have made for an excellent adventure, Denise managed to set Kesey straight on the actual situation, and remained a patient of the hospital for a couple of months. Inside she met one Ambrose Hollingworth, former manager of the embryonic Quicksilver Messenger Service, who was paraplegic after a car crash. Supported by Hollingworth, Denise worked on her music and started writing songs quite different from the r'n'b material of the Answer/Denise & Co days; complex, introspective compositions with extraordinary lyrics.
The Ace Of Cups
Before moving on to the Ace Of Cups it should be pointed out that this wasn't Denise's creation - in fact she was the last member to join, and the idea of an all girl rock band belonged to bass player Mary Gannon. However, the arrival of Denise into the formation of the Ace Of Cups may have provided the all-essential "X" factor. Lead guitarist Mary Ellen Simpson stated recently that "I feel that [Denise's] connection to the band is what made everything possible. She was a personal friend of Ralph Gleason, the San Francisco Chronicle music writer, and his family. She also worked for Fantasy and knew a lot of people."
DENISE: I went to Blue Cheer's house on New Years Eve [late 1966] - Mary Ellen was sitting on a bed there playing acoustic guitar - really good blues. I pulled out a harmonica and started jamming with her and we really hit it off. She told me she and some friends had started a band - all female - and invited me to come play with them. That notion - all girls/women - was so odd to me that I could hardly imagine it. I had always played only with guys. But I was curious and I went over to an apartment on Waller Street in the Haight to check them out. Diane, Mary, Marla and Mary Ellen were already jamming. I was the last to join the group. At first I couldn't take it seriously because it was so ridiculous - we hardly had instruments - we had no money to get them - it just seemed so impossible. But every time we played something kept working - we wrote cool songs together and the collaboration kept feeling good. It is hard to imagine from 2003 how completely unheard of it was to do what we were doing.
In a 1995 interview, keyboardist Marla Hunt recalls her first encounter with Denise: "…I'll never forget when she walked in. She's wearing cowboy boots, a very short skirt, a wild fur coat and a fireman's hat. Her hair's stickin' straight out on the side. She's got these big glasses and this big guitar case - she's like 5-3 and it's almost as big as she is. Even in San Francisco she stood out."
The background of the other Ace Of Cups members is detailed in Alec Palao's excellent liner notes to the current Big Beat CD and needn't be recycled here. Of the other four, Mary Gannon was the only one with experience from a real rock band, as a member of the obscure Daemon Lover who played some Bay Area gigs in 1966. The line-up of the Ace Of Cups, which was stable throughout their career, was as follows: MARY GANNON: (bass, vocals); MARLA HUNT (organ, piano, vocals); DENISE KAUFMAN (guitar, harmonica, vocals); MARY ELLEN SIMPSON (lead guitar, vocals); DIANE VITALICH (drums, vocals). All five members sang harmony while the lead vocals were divided among them (except drummer Diane), although the majority were handled by Denise. The band was named by Ambrose Hollingworth, the "Ace Of Cups" being a Tarot card showing God's hand holding a cup with five streams of water. Not just the lead vocals but a lot of the songwriting was spread out among the five ladies.
DENISE: We all wrote - individually and together. And we all sang. Even songs that one of us had written often expanded and blossomed when we brought them into the band. We were really into harmonies, counter melodies and experimentation. We did some songs a capella. Some were humorous ("Waller St Blues", "Catch You Later") many were socio/political ("Glue", "Living in the Country", "No More War"), many were about relationships and in those times that was by its very nature personal/emotional and political. The songs we wrote as women ("Pretty Boy", "Gypsy Boy", "Looking for My Man", "Circles", "Simplicity") were outside the box of those times.
After hanging out in the Fantasy label studios (where Denise was employed) and sharing studio time with John Fogerty's Golliwogs, Hollingworth got the Ace Of Cups a rehearsal space in Marin County, where they spent the early part of 1967 getting their act together. The band played a rather unsuccessful debut gig up in Arcata, followed by a few shows at the neighborhood Mt Tamalpais Theatre. The band's first major gig was a memorable concert with Jimi Hendrix in Golden Gate Park the week after Monterey Pop, where Jimi had become a star. In the 1995 interview, drummer Diane Vitalich recalls the show: "When we played with Jimi, we started with this song, 'Waller Street,' that was supposed to be like a joke. It was awful. We were outta tune, the sound system was terrible. But people liked it. It was fun and wasn't like anything you'd heard before. Up until then, everything had a category - it was doo-wop, or R&B. This stuff didn't have a category". Hendrix was impressed enough to mention the Ace Of Cups in a year-end interview, singling out Mary Ellen Simpson's guitar playing in particular. Already at this stage the band had written most of the tracks that would make up their repertoire.
Q: Apart from the Sam Cooke song ("A Change Is Gonna Come"), did you do any cover versions?
DENISE: Over the years, we did a few. "Afro Blue" (Mongo Santamaria), "Testify", "Shake a Tail Feather" (me in my Tina Turner devotional phase!), one of John Fogerty's tunes from the Golliwog days that we did early on and changed the lyrics to fit women singing it ("Fragile Child"), one great song that Michael Bloomfield wrote with Marla singing it in his mind. We called it "Michael's Tune" but I think he called it "Don't Miss Your Water til the Well Runs Dry". Those are the only covers that come to mind.
Mary Gannon, Diane Vitalich, Mary Ellen Simpson, 1968. Photo by Kenneth Loh.
In mid-1967 the S F scene was going through its commercial explosion, and while the Ace Of Cups didn't grab any headlines among the Slicks and Joplins, they were right there with plenty of work lined up. In early October they played a benefit for the Haight-Ashbury Medical Clinic called "Dr Sunday's Medicine Show", a big all-day event in San José that also featured Quicksilver, Big Brother, Mad River and the Freedom Highway. 6000 people attended and the event was reported as a tremendous success in local papers. Young music-lover Faren Miller was there and has preserved memories of this concert, among many others, in a diary she recently made public via the Internet:
"It took place in the Family Park near the San Jose Fairgrounds, a good-sized grassy area with trees and picnic tables in the rear. The show was slated to last from noon to dusk, and it did just that, on a beautiful warm, sunny day. We arrived a little before noon, and I had just enough time to finish lunch before Mad River started their set. They were playing 'Wind Chimes', a lovely instrumental, when I found a place on the lawn, among a well-spaced crowd -- pot was wafting everywhere like sweet-musty smog in the breeze…"
The entire benefit has been preserved on tape via a crude but listenable audience recording (incidentally, this is also the only Mad River live tape around), and offers a very interesting snapshot of the Ace Of Cups. They were clearly still in an evolving phase, with some rough edges, but their music and performance shines with a unique combination of sarcasm, gentleness, and plain old fun. Opening with the down-and-out testimony of Haight life in "Waller Street Blues", with its tales of leaking roofs and rat tail stew dinners, the raw Jaggeresque vocals and a killer fuzz guitar break from Mary Ellen Simpson create an instant counterpoint to the image of these five young women in hippie gear up on stage, which I'm sure must have had the audience confused. A later excerpt from the Faren Miller diaries for an Ace Of Cups show in 1968 may give an idea of what the band looked like on-stage:
"… Mary Gannon was demure in a white-collared purple smock dress and black tights; Marla wore dark pants and shirt and she was barefoot; Diane wore the flowered bell bottoms her mother had made her and a black velvet blouse; Denise looked incredible in a white East Indian pajama outfit, and her hair was tied back from her ears with a long blue scarf…"
On the San José tape, "Waller Street Blues" is followed by "Pretty City" and "Stones", two more r'n'b/garage-style numbers with plenty of attitude and again excellent lead-guitar breaks, as well as superb organ-playing by Marla Hunt. The latter tune appears on the "Girls In The Garage, vol 4" compilation incorrectly listed as "The grass is always greener"; the track is taken from this actual concert tape. Written by Mary Gannon, "Stones" is perhaps the strongest of all the band's rocking numbers. "Pretty City", written and sung by Marla Hunt, is also very good, its classic urban blues lyrics given an interesting edge when delivered by a woman. These two rockers are followed by the atmospheric, Country Joe & the Fish-styled "Gemini", which is actually introduced as "Moon Song" by a band member.
DENISE: That would be like us to say something like that. Doesn't mean it was really the title - just that it was about the moon... Sometimes, too, when we first brought songs onto our songlist it took a while before we settled on what we called it....a few of them went through some interesting evolutions before we finally settled on the name. The lyrics are: 'I'm the first of the children of Gemini, I was born in the wind and raised with the butterfly. And I just like little things, pretty things like moonbeam wine - if you don't mind....'. This song was written by Terry Wadsworth and me. Terry was the boyfriend I wrote you about - the one who was dosed by Jim McGuinn...
The moody atmosphere is skillfully extended into "The Sun Is Setting", written and sung by Mary Ellen Simpson, which has some similarity to the introspective folk ballads Grace Slick did with the Great Society.
MARY ELLEN: "The Sun is Setting" was my way of putting into words some of the concepts, ideas, and feelings that I had gathered from reading various spiritual books in my very early 20s. The books which influenced me most were Autobiography of a Yogi and a couple of books by Meher Baba. All of my songs have always held that spiritual influence.
The pace then picks up again with the anthemic "Glue", a satiric rant complete with a half-spoken commercial and the ensemble chant "Buy it, buy it, it's bad for you but buy it" - this complex song must have been a challenge to play live but the band pulls it off with energy and enthusiasm. The show closes with Marla Hunt's excellent "Stagecoach", a fuzz guitar-laden Jefferson Airplane-style rocker that segues into Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come", followed by the band's powerful a capella number, "No More War".
MARLA: I wrote the verse "It's a war they cried, it's a war they cried and the young men bled and the young men died, and the old men watched and philosphied and the women wept on every side". I sang it at the beginning of every vocal jam that we did. It was never in the middle. I sang it alone and then we went in to NO MORE WAR as an a capella vocal jam. We often ended our sets with that but not always. I always had people come up to me saying how much they loved the beginning verse. I wrote "Stagecoach" from a poem I wrote in high school. I also wrote "Pretty City". I liked both of those songs. I thought they were awesome. Too bad we dropped them but we dropped alot of other songs too. I can't remember why.
In her diary Faren Miller salutes the Cups' musical skills but is unimpressed with the vocals; perhaps a good indication of the sweetness that was expected from a "girl group" at the time, rather than the natural and often mocking style of the Ace Of Cups. A keyboard amp problem during the concert was solved by an unexpected tech crew member, as Miller reports:
"…This necessitated bringing on one of the Quicksilver's amps -- but it wasn't working out, so who should come up but John Cipollina, super-handsome in rust-brown trousers and an olive corduroy shirt, to fix the trouble. He did so, then disappeared from the stage with a smile and a wave for the girls. They later dedicated part of a song to the Quicksilver, and John stood near the stage grinning all through it…"
Marla Simpson, 1968. Photo by Kenneth Loh.
The audio quality of the San José tape was deemed too poor for the current Ace Of Cups CD, and while some of the songs appear there in other versions, "Pretty City", "Gemini", "The Sun Is Setting", "Stage Coach" and "No More War" do not. Compared with the CD the band comes across as a rawer, more garage/folkrock-type outfit on this early live recording. Incidentally, the "No More War" recording from San José is the only version preserved of this focal number, and the Cups members were delighted to finally get to hear it.
MARY GANNON: I really never realized that we performed those songs. Another thing I find intriguing is that we were "jamming" so often I mean "winging it" in front of thousands of people. I know that it was the times but I find that pretty damn ballsy and brave. We took risks and sometimes it failed and other times it was a magical mystery tour. You can't always be perfect.
DIANE: What I felt emotionally listening to the San Jose concert was my prayer for No More War, be it Vietnam, or the Gulf, or Iraq, or the thousands of wars throughout the ages. That song was and is still a stand for peace. Until the human race can really know that there is no us and them, there remains the illusion of separation. The Ace of Cups took on the issues closest to us in our lyrics: some about everyday life, relationships, having children, and many about our sorrows, dreams and visions for life in this world. We had conflicts with each other but somehow moved past those blocks in communication and have remained friends to this day.
DENISE: There were songs we had either incomplete versions of or poor quality versions (or even sections) of so they didn't make it onto the CD. I even asked if we could put a few tracks of parts of songs (because I'd rather have them out there in some form than not at all) but they didn't want to do that. I still would love to get them out in some fashion - maybe another CD we could offer on the website. Some of my all time favorite songs not on the CD: "Some of Us" (Marla, Denise) -- CLASSIC Ace of Cups; "Let It Be Known" (Denise) / "You of Faith" (Marla, Denise); "On the Road Again" (Mary G, Marla, Denise I think...) -- classic Ace of Cups; "Baby Come Home" (Denise); "Gold and Green" (Mary Ellen) -- I love this one; "Living in the Country" (Mary Ellen) -- I love this one too!; "Dressed in Black" (Mary Ellen) -- cool song! "Feel it In the Air" (Mary G.) -- a message from all of our hearts; "You Can't Go Back Again" (Denise); "Fools Must Pay" (Marla); "Come to Me" (Marla).
The complete list of songs written and performed by the band is much longer, and it is obvious to any Cups fan that the current CD is just a first glimpse into their creativity and productivity. Another highly interesting document is a mysterious film clip of the band playing "Stones" live at an outdoors festival, inserted into the 1968 semi-documentary "Revolution", which is a typical zeitgeist presentation of the San Francisco lifestyle. The "Revolution" soundtrack LP has gained some notoriety as it features a couple of rare tracks by Quicksilver Messenger Service, but the Ace Of Cups are nowhere to be found on it, and oddly not even mentioned in the movie credits. The film clip shows the band on a small stage in a rural setting, about 1 minute of nice color footage and live audio, with a barefoot Denise up front. Neither she nor Mary Gannon could remember this segment, which may come from one of the Mount Tamalpais shows in 1967. An even more mysterious Ace Of Cups clip (albeit with no audio) exists:
DENISE: I don't know if it is the same footage or not, but there is a short section of us at an outdoor concert in the Golden Gate Park in the 60s surf movie called "The Natural Art". It has Janis and Big Brother, then the Ace of Cups, then cuts to more surfing. The really weird thing about it for me is that most of the movie is surfing footage from all over the world, then there is the concert footage, then in about a minute it goes to some surfing footage in Maui with Vinny Bryan surfing at Honalua Bay. This was the only surfing movie Vinny was ever in. I met him in 1973 and we lived together for eight years. When someone gave me this film about three years ago there was footage of the both of us in the same film made years before we ever met...
Around the time of the San José show there was also a management switch for the Ace Of Cups, as Ambrose Hollingworth passed the band on to Ron Polte, in a move similar to what he had done with Quicksilver in 1966. Polte was becoming a central figure in the S F music scene, and was impressed with the Cups after having booked them for a show in Santa Clara in mid-1967. Polte got the band a new rehearsal space in Sausalito and booked them at several venues around the Bay Area, often opening for Quicksilver in a convenient package deal.
MARY GANNON: Our band moved to a great house in Tam Valley where the Electric Flag used our living room to practice. Our manager, Ron Polte started a company named 'Westpole' with Julius Karpen who managed Big Brother. These were guys out of Chicago, and friends with Nick Gravenites and Michael Bloomfield. Quicksilver Messenger Service basically supported our band for the first couple of years. It was quite a ride.
Despite their tough cowboys-on-acid image the QMS guys offered the Ace Of Cups plenty of assistance; a relationship that led to the Cups providing backing vocals on the first two Quicksilver LPs, not to mention the inclusion of one of Denise's compositions on "Shady Grove". One might also detect a certain Quicksilver influence in the Ace Of Cups' superb interpretation of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" (as heard on the Big Beat CD), similar to how Gary Duncan would explore jazz and exotica themes in his brilliant arrangements for the QMS.
Q: What were some of your favorite local bands of the era?
DENISE: I had always loved the Golliwogs when we were at Fantasy and thought they kicked ass when they came on as Creedence. I loved the Sons of Champlin. I loved the Dead, especially in the earlier days when Pigpen was around. I heard Santana audition at the Fillmore one night when they were unknown and I flipped over them. After that I used to go to Greg Rollie's aunt's garage where they practiced just to hear them work on their music. They were amazing. And I loved to hear my husband Noel Jewkes' group play. They were called Light Sound Dimension and they did a musical journey behind a huge screen while Bill Hamm created a light show. It was sublime. Very outside... I have to mention the comedy group "The Congress of Wonders" who made me fall off of chairs laughing more than once… More of my faves: Curley Cooke and His Hurdy Gurdy Band (Curly and I had an adventure where we went hiking and he almost died - that was pretty much the end of that group), Hot Tuna - I had been a Jorma fan from the very beginning - his brother Peter and I used to jam together when I was still in high school. Will Scarlet lived in the apartment upstairs when he was 16 and I lived for a while on Regent St in Berkeley. Will used to come downstairs while Terry Wadsworth and I were rolling tape and playing for hours. That's when he starting playing harmonica and of course, opened the channels of his talents to heaven....I still LOVE to hear Will play. The Anonymous Artists of America were another wild group of friends/players. Little Richard, their drummer, was a soulful locomotive, and Lars and Trixie were interesting and talented. I was also good friends with Norman and Bill who formed Sopwith Camel. We used to jam a lot before they started putting the band together. I enjoyed their evolution and always liked to hear them play.
In early 1968 things were certainly looking up and on track for the Ace Of Cups, so why weren't there any records, you ask? Well, a considerable amount of space is devoted to this issue in the Big Beat CD liner notes, the short answer being that Ron Polte, for reasons that I don't quite get, held out and waited for the right deal. In retrospect it would seem that the band had significant commercial potential with a profile that must have been right-on for the time, but it just didn't happen. As late as 1970 the Cups were being considered for a record deal with Jefferson Airplane's newly formed Grunt label, which undoubtedly would have suited them. Airplane manager Bill Thompson referred to the Grunt prospect in a 1978 interview: "…The Ace Of Cups never quite happened. Those girls could never quite get it together - they had some great songs; they were really unique but they just fought all the time."
The Cups members didn't sneak out and cut studio sides for themselves but were wise enough to get plenty of live material taped, and the majority of the material on the Big Beat CD comes from live shows at the Avalon in S F, Poppycock Club in Palo Alto, New Orleans House in Berkeley, and a couple of other venues. Another source of recordings is the "Westpole" TV show, aired August 1968 and undoubtedly one of the high-points of the band's career. As mentioned earlier, this is where Ralph Gleason first presented his huge list of contemporary San Francisco bands, an effort in which the Ace Of Cups partook.
DENISE: Ralph was my mentor, "god-father" and dear friend. For weeks before the show he had started collecting names of all the Bay Area bands. At first we just brainstormed for a couple of days getting the list started. As the list grew it was always fun to call and delight him with one he had missed. The Westpole show was produced at channel 5, KPIX, with Bob Zagone working with Ralph. I remember Bob was really excited about working with the video cameras in a whole new way. He wanted to give the feeling of the light shows in this program. At the ballrooms, the light shows really dissolved the solidity of reality. When the Jefferson Airplane went on the Ed Sullivan show, Bill Hamm (I think) did a light show behind them. But it didn't work on TV. It didn't get that psychedelic feeling. So Bob came up with the idea of dissolving the actual image at the camera rather than filming a light show. It worked and they were all really stoked. Ralph wanted to feature Marla's singing so we did "Gospel Song". He wanted "Music" for the a capella sound to open the show. I'm not sure why we did "Simplicity". They just hung a couple of microphones from the ceiling for the recording. It wasn't sophisticated at all. I think we were told that if we played anything too loud and wild it wouldn't record well... I also remember that it was harder to get the good feeling going in that studio. Technicians with cameras moving all around, mikes hanging here and there - we always worked with our audience so much that it was less fun to play with no "audience." We should have brought in some friends to dance in front of us - we'd have had more fun and a better result. The end result we got was way stiffer than we really were - it was just the circumstances of taping in that environment. And it would have been fun to do a song like "Stones" or "Pretty Boy".
Despite Denise's reservations, "Westpole" is mandatory viewing for any fan of 1960s westcoast. Apart from live performances by the Ace Of Cups and the Sons Of Champlin, rare promo reels for Quicksilver, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Steve Miller Band are shown. There's an eloquent introduction by Gleason, and interviews with various heads outside S F concert venues extolling the virtues of their favorite bands; the Fish, QMS and even Frumious Bandersnatch getting frequent mention. The graphic psychedelic effects Denise discusses above is put to the most extreme use during their first number ("Music"), while the other two shows the young ladies looking serious and confident in line with the melancholic numbers they perform.
Any questions why "Simplicity" was selected are swiftly answered by the tremendous performance given by the band. It is an extraordinary song, perhaps the best the Cups had, comparable to the moody acid ballads Grace Slick delivered on vintage Airplane platters. A minor chord, late night jazz mood sets the tone for Denise's soliloquy to Wavy Gravy and the special bond she felt with the legendary Prankster/performance artist, her beautiful lyrics reflecting experiences of a woman who at 21 had been through more than most people see in a lifetime. The sentiments are complex and contradictory, as always in true psychedelia; joy, longing and sorrow simultaneously communicated in a sort of requiem over an otherworldly love that cannot last, much like the psychedelic experience itself. Marla's perfect organ solo sharpens the tension before a shift into an uptempo rock variation on the opening verses, which in turn gives way to a succinct guitar solo, before the song ends. If this was the only thing the Cups had left behind, people would be tearing their hair out in despair.
Fortunately, there is more, such as Marla Hunt's excellent "Gospel Song", which appears on the Big Beat CD in the Westpole rendition (the CD version of "Simplicity" is from another source). The title is self-explanatory, yet within the genre it's an outstanding number, shining in every aspect - Marla's soaring lead vocals, the harmonies, the rich organ and understated drumming. These two major league numbers make the Ace Of Cups' subsequent obscurity seem more than puzzling, in fact it appears outright bizarre.
Denise & Mary Ellen, 1968. Photo by Kenneth Loh.
There was no major label contract in the tarot cards for the five Cups, but they soldiered on through 1968 and 1969 second-billed to Quicksilver, the Airplane and other ballroom luminaries, playing the Avalon, the Fillmore and Winterland and a whole bunch of other venues in the area; out-of-state trips were rare but they did get to play Chicago and Vancouver. In her diary Faren Miller reports on an August 1968 Ace Of Cups show at the local Palace Of Fine Arts Festival:
"…All of them sang beautifully, their voices enhanced by the place's echo-chamber effect. One number was actually a trio of gentle songs sung by both Marys and Denise. They cranked it up with Denise doing 'Gypsy Boy', jumping all over and madly playing harmonica. Every song was a delight, as Ralph Gleason would say (he was there), and I couldn't quibble with the girls' musicianship at all. They write their own material, and they put most groups to shame in that area. Marla sang 'Lord, Lord, Lord, Won't You Listen to Your Children' ['Gospel Song']. They did a tribute to life in the country ("sitting on the back porch, smoking a peace pipe"); another song, 'Circles', put down city life -- obviously, the Cups live in the country. They closed with the acapella 'No More War', an appropriate song in these days after the Chicago Democratic Convention. […] Bloomfield suddenly called up all the Ace of Cups to join him. Giggling, they formed a semicircle around a microphone and practiced a few 'Baby!'s, under Mike's direction. 'We're the Bloomettes!' Denise laughed. […] Everyone loved the Cups and they got good applause."
The band did plenty of session work for vocal harmonies, including LPs by Nick Gravenites ("My Labors"), Mike Bloomfield ("It's Not Killing Me"), and the Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers". Earlier in 1967, Denise had also found time to release the rare "A Cid Symphony" triple LP set featuring Berkeley musicians Ernie Fischbach & Charles Ewing (recently reissued on CD by Gear Fab). Denise doesn't recall much beyond engineering the recording session, which was handled via her publishing company Thermal Flash Music.
No-one was getting rich, but Denise got a break with the inclusion of her "Flute Song" on Quicksilver's successful third LP, written on request by QMS bass player David Freiberg, with whom she also co-wrote "Words Can't Say".
DENISE: Noel Jewkes and I got married in 1969. We did some playing together, along with Diane, Mary Gannon, Joe Allegra and Lolly Lewis over those next months. I got pregnant and then got badly injured at the Altamont concert. After that I took it pretty easy til after our daughter, Tora, was born, in April, 1970. A short time after her birth I got some (to me) big royalty checks from the "Shady Grove" album that allowed me to just stay home with my baby and not work for a while. It was a heavenly gift. Noel was a jazz musician and his gigs came and went - having a little nest egg was really sweet at that time.
The only two Ace Of Cups recordings to be released during their lifespan (well, almost) were made during these later days.
Q: The Ace Of Cups are credited on the various artists "Mill Valley Bunch" LP from 1973, and at least one song, "What Would I Do Without My Baby" (a k a "You Don't Miss Your Water") does sport female lead vocals…
DENISE: The LP came out after I moved to Kauai and Marla was, I think, already forming the Fairfax Street Choir. We did the recording for that quite a bit earlier - before 1970 I'm sure. The song you mention was a special one. Michael [Bloomfield] sang it for me on the plane on the way home from the show we all did in Chicago. He had just written it and he wanted Marla to sing it. He heard it with her voice and he wanted us to do the song. He was really excited about it. We did learn it and performed it for a while. We actually have a pretty good rehearsal tape of it. Marla sings it really well. We also recorded "I've Had It" with Michael around that time.
While the "Mill Valley Bunch" LP is a charming aggregation of dozens of famous Bay Area musicians coordinated by Bloomfield & Gravenites into delivering a couple of truly great tracks, the Ace Of Cups numbers aren't on level with their top-flight material as heard on the Big Beat CD and the San Jose and Westpole tapes. When the album came out the band was no longer, it sort of fizzled out slowly during 1970-1971. Denise remained faithful until the end, but finally called it quits.
DENISE: In 1971 Noel and I split up and I went to Puerto Rico with some of the Cups to set up and play for a concert there that never quite happened. It was called Fiesta Del Sol. After returning from that adventure, I took off with Tora and my friend Merlyn Wenner for an aikido conference in Hawaii and basically didn't return for years. We ended up on the island of Kauai. (I had spent a summer there when I was 16 going to school and learning to surf and didn't ever want to leave.) After camping for the summer on Kauai's north shore, we rented a house there and Mary Gannon came over to visit and to bring all my musical instruments which I'd left in Marin. She got off the plane with my sitar, my tamboura and had brought my electric guitar and amp as luggage. She had planned to stay for a couple of weeks but 30 years and 5 children later she's still there. Mary and I started getting gigs on the island as a duo. Over the years we played in bands together and separately. We had an all female band called Tropical Punch which was quite a lot of fun. I got really into Hawaiian music and played with my boyfriend, Vinnie Bryan - a wonderful slack key player- as a duo for many years. I still LOVE playing and listening to Hawaiian music. In about 1980 I switched to bass and played in a country band, The Silverados. I was in one more really neat band in Kauai, Raja and the Curls, and was playing with them up until I left Kauai to study bass at the Musician's institute in Hollywood in 1983. While in music school I played the harmonica parts on a TV show, "Knight Rider", and co-wrote and sang the theme song for an X-rated movie (just to let you know a skeleton in the closet). After music school I played with an all women's band, The Outskirtz, and then up until three years ago with an original surf/rock band called Cheater Five. We did a couple of tracks for a surf film called "Wing Nut's Search for Soul". In the last year I've been working on a CD of my own songs - many of them songs that go back to Ace of Cups times but were never recorded - or in the case of "Flute Song" - never recorded the way I heard it.
Q: Are you still in contact with the Merry Pranksters?
DENISE: Yes, for sure. Most of all, Wavy Gravy. I have loved him since I was 15 and that love only grows through the years. Every year I buy a dozen tickets to his big SEVA benefit and take a bunch of old friends as my guests. One of my guests who will attend this year is (Prankster/Janis' manager) Julius Karpen. Julius will pick up Jean Gleason - Ralph's widow - who is another regular guest at the party. Other Pranksters I still see/ stay in touch with: Mountain Girl, Bob Weir, Hassler, Roy, and I just got a letter from Lee Quarnstrom.
Today Denise divides her time between Hawaii and Venice Beach, concentrating on her two favorite activities, yoga and surfing. The post-Ace Of Cups adventures of the other band members are detailed in the CD liner notes, Marla Hunt's Fairfax Street Choir being perhaps the most noteworthy music project among them. The five original members recently got together for a reunion in Hawaii, and in conjunction with the Big Beat CD release an excellent website has been launched with band bios, plenty of photos, concert posters, and more.
Thanks to Gray Newell, Faren Miller, Alec Palao and John Berg.
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