It was the Seventies, the decade of Creative Chaos as some have called it. And, in a city where no less an authority than the Doors’ John Densmore says rock had its origins, stood The Warehouse down on the banks of the Mississippi River—1820 Tchoupitoulas St. to be exact. It was the epicenter of rock in New Orleans, the Fillmore South if you will, and you could see the Who or Elton John or David Bowie or the Eagles for five bucks, $5.50 if you waited until show time.
“The Warehouse was the Fillmore East of the South,” says Sidney Smith, the “official/unofficial photographer of The Warehouse” as he refers to himself. Think of Smith as a New Orleans version of Cameron Crowe, who at the tender age of 15 managed to find himself keeping company with rock stars. When Smith watches Almost Famous, he can’t help but see himself and remember his early years. He was young with all the ambition of youth, and this new venue called The Warehouse provided an opportunity to make all his dreams come true.
“My father died when I was 15 and left me with a bunch of cameras,” Smith says. “He was a semi-professional photographer. I started shooting pictures of concerts and went to The Warehouse.”
While Smith doesn’t strike you as the religious type, it was during that time that he had an epiphany of sorts. As Smith explains it, “My plan to get in to meet the bands was I would shoot pictures of the road crew. Who ever shoots pictures of them? Then, I would show them pictures of themselves and they would say, ‘Did so-and-so see this?’ and they would introduce me to the band.” Soon, his photos were published in every major rock magazine of the era, including Rolling Stone, and he would later spend a year living with the Allman Brothers.
He was a high school student leading a charmed life, but a Warehouse job was not without hazards. Former OffBeat editor Bunny Matthews—then a concert critic for Figaro—wrote about one particularly stressful night for Smith back on May 12, 1976 at The Warehouse. It was a Bob Dylan/ Joan Baez concert and Smith had to display all the moves of Reggie Bush in order to survive that fateful night.
“Sidney Smith was able to get his shots from up front, including evading bodyguards by sitting on his camera and pulling in and out and shooting when they looked the other way,” Matthews wrote.
“Just because The Warehouse gave its blessings didn’t mean that the road manager of a particular group wouldn’t decide to hate your guts and throw you out,” remembers Smith. But it was a chance he was willing to take. After all, there was no shortage of beautiful women who wanted to carry Smith’s equipment into The Warehouse for the opportunity to cavort with rock stars. Perhaps, that’s why he smiles so much when he remembers those days. Although he strived diligently to maintain his professionalism in that raucous Warehouse atmosphere, well, some nights, it was damned tough.
The Warehouse opened 40 years ago on January 30, 1970, and co-founder Bill Johnston has organized a tribute show on its anniversary weekend at Harrah’s New Orleans Theatre. “The Warehouse New Orleans… Revisited!” will play January 29 and 30, and it will start with a 10- minute preview of A Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas, a documentary being made about the legendary venue. The Grateful Dead played its opening night with Fleetwood Mac and a band from Chicago named the Flock, and it didn’t take long before rock history was made there. According to Dennis McNally, author of a Dead biography, A Long Strange Trip, the band’s show “was a disappointment with some feeling that Fleetwood Mac bested them.” So, the band headed back to their hotel in the 300 block of Bourbon to drown their sorrows. Before coming to New Orleans, the Dead bought weed from the Jefferson Airplane, who warned them to be careful after having been busted in the Big Easy. When a couple of plainclothes cops showed up at their hotel, one thing lead to another and what seemed like the entire NOPD narcotics squad crashed the post-concert party the Dead were throwing. Soon, 19 people associated with the band found themselves booked into Central Lockup in an incident that inspired the song “Truckin’.”
“After the show,” Jerry Garcia told author Blair Jackson, “I went to somebody’s house and hung around there for a long time and rapped, and finally went to the hotel, and when I got there (the police) were already pretty much cleaning out everybody’s room. Everybody was gone, nobody was there, and I just happened to be walking down the hall with my guitar. I saw a couple of guys in the room and they said, ‘Hey, you, come here!’ and they shook me down.
Garcia’s “old lady”—Mountain Girl—was pregnant at the time and when she called the hotel looking for Jerry the poor hotel clerk informed her that all those guys were in Central Lockup. It came at the worst possible time with Mountain Girl going into labor.
According to author McNally, when word of the Dead’s bust reached record executive Joe Smith, he put in a call to DA Jim Garrison and expressed interest in making a contribution to his reelection campaign. When Smith mentioned that he had a band in the city’s jail, “Garrison took note, and mentioned that his police lab had analyzed the confiscated materials, ‘and we have some things that we don’t even know what it is.’ ‘Well,’ said Joe, ‘I can promise you that the Dead won’t be back in New Orleans anytime soon.’” The released band played brilliantly on February 1, when The Warehouse held a benefit to help the band cover its legal fees. Fleetwood Mac joined them again, not only as opening act but onstage during “Lovelight.”
“Everyone from both bands had munched and sipped various electric cakes and beers, and the show assumed a certain jovial mood,” McNally writes. “Being the Dead, they’d invited the police who’d arrested them to come to the benefit, and being from New Orleans, the cops had taken them up on their offer.
“But the most elegantly apt visual of the night was Mick Fleetwood, all six feet nine inches of him, flying higher than anyone! He’d found an out of order sign in a broken soda machine and hung it around his neck as he looned around the stage.” The Warehouse owners let the Dead keep all the proceeds from that night. It was the least they could do.
The Warehouse was conceived in the mind of a native New Orleanian named Bill Johnston while he was working at a club on the north side of Chicago called Barnaby’s. Every other weekend, a band then known as The Big Thing would play there at 8 p.m. on Sunday nights. Johnston struck up a friendship with the band that we know today as Chicago and accompanied them to New York for a gig at the Fillmore East.
“They were the opening act for Buddy Miles at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East. That did it for me,” says Johnston. “I immediately went back to Chicago and my two roommates that I was living with at the time, we thought it would be a great idea for New Orleans.”
From there, Johnston hooked up with John Simmons, headed to New Orleans and found an abandoned cotton warehouse near the riverfront that was built in the 1850s that would become the home of The Warehouse or “A Warehouse” as it was originally named.
Bill Johnston, Don Fox, Bryan Glynn and John Simmons formed the original ownership, and Johnston, the chief owner, was responsible for booking talent, promotions and putting together an in-house publication.
“We didn’t have a clue what we were doing when we first started,” he says. “We evolved, and we wanted to do the right thing, but we didn’t have the money or the savvy of a Bill Graham. Now, it’s easy to look back at the talent we had but remember, in that era they were just starting out.”
One group who was just starting out but quickly gaining notoriety with each passing tour stop was the Eagles. They paid a visit to The Warehouse July 15, 1972, and in a concert preview Figaro wrote, “a new country-rock band from California currently fl oats in the updraft of a hit single, and my guess is that on the wings of a successful tour the group will begin to wheel and bank in ever-wider circles.”
The Eagles’ Greatest Hits 1971- 1975 is the best-selling album of all time, having sold 26 million copies, and on January 12, 1998 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Says Johnston, “I saw the show where [the Eagles] did five encores at the (New Orleans) Arena and before their third encore they announced, ‘The next song we’re going to play for you, we did it for the first time at the Warehouse!’ And, then, all these people went absolutely crazy.”
If there was such a thing as a house band at The Warehouse, it was the Allman Brothers. The Warehouse pretty much gave the Allman Brothers their start, as they would play a series of New Year’s Eve concerts there in 1970, 1971 and 1972 that live on today in rock lore.
Sidney Smith recalls, “There was something very magical about the Allman Brothers playing The Warehouse. You just can’t put it into words. There was no curfew at The Warehouse, and they would play into the wee hours, then go back and play in the bar, then come out into the park and play for free the next day. They were addicted to playing.” As an epochal moment in rock history, December 12, 1970 garnered little national attention at the time. It turned out to be Jim Morrison’s last concert with The Doors, and it was at The Warehouse.
The Doors’ John Densmore wrote in his 1990 autobiography Riders on the Storm: “The gig was in a place called The Warehouse. It was just that. A low ceiling with posts everywhere gave this place a claustrophobic feeling. It was heavily padded for acoustics.
“There was an eerie mood that night and it was coming from Jim. Someone must have been sticking pins in his psyche because five years of bizarre behavior came to an abrupt halt.
“Rock had its origins here in New Orleans. Could it have been the voodoo revenge?”
Johnston remembers it well. “We used to go out to the airport and pickup the groups with the Olympia Brass Band. As soon as the band would walk off the plane, the Olympia Brass Band would start doing their second line and second line [the bands] through the airport. All I remember when we got the Doors was that Morrison was pretty loaded.”
At show time, he was very drunk. He struggled to sing “Light My Fire,” then began pounding the microphone stand into the stage until you could here the sound of wood splintering. He sat down in front of the drum platform and when it was time to return to the mic following Ray Manzarek’s solo, he just sat there as The Warehouse crowd looked on in stunned disbelief.
“When that stage was built, that stage was built to take a beating and he literally put a hole in the stage floor with the mic stand,” says Johnston.
The show ended early, and Morrison would be dead less than seven months later.
The Talking Heads performed on the closing night of The Warehouse, September 10, 1982. Johnston remembers former Warehouse patrons taking home bricks as mementos after the rock ballroom was reduced to a pile of rubble in April 1989.
“I don’t think you could ever do it again because I don’t even know if people would like the atmosphere that it was in, because it was really just four sections of a warehouse opened up,” says Johnston. “I look back at it as a real fun time, meeting a lot of people and having a place that people thoroughly enjoyed. It wasn’t about us. It was about the place and the era. It could have been in Mobile. It just happened to be in New Orleans. It was the era.”