"Busted, down on Bourbon Street, set up, like a bowling pin. Knocked down, it gets to wearin' thin, they just won't let you be." — from "Truckin'" by the Grateful Dead (American Beauty, 1970)
They got caught with weed in their hotel," says filmmaker Jessy Williamson, laughing. "As soon as they open their door and sit down, NOPD comes in and goes, 'OK, you're arrested.'"
Before the members of the Grateful Dead were so famously arrested by New Orleans police on January 30, 1970, the band — along with Fleetwood Mac and The Flock — christened the opening night of The Warehouse, a bare-bones, 30,000-square-foot music venue on Tchoupitoulas Street. Nineteen years and hundreds of shows later, the Warehouse was demolished by the city and paved over, buried beneath the intersection of Tchoupitoulas and Felicity streets, seemingly doomed to be forgotten.
Last year, Williamson, 33, and his crew (Autumn Boh, Bethany Coan, T.J. Reetz and cousin Aeron McKeough), after a few whiskey sessions, agreed to film a documentary capturing an oral history of the venue, a place that was founded before Williamson and most of his crew were even born, and an era.
"A lot of rock 'n' roll history happened at the Warehouse," says Boh, 36. "We felt if we didn't tell it, it'd be forgotten."
"If this story doesn't get told, just here locally, then it'd be something in 20 years that nobody will even have heard of," Williamson says. "They'll be like, 'I have no idea what you're talking about.' It'll just be gone.'"
The Warehouse bricks that made it out of the rubble cover a back room floor at Le Bon Temps Roule on Magazine Street, where Williamson and his documentary crew, along with Warehouse founder Bill Johnston, share a few beers. Williamson taps the brick floor a few times.
"This is it, right here," he says.
"That is a kick and a half," Johnston says. "Here I am sittin' on it."
After graduating high school, Johnston — now the entertainment director for Harrah's New Orleans — moved from New Orleans to Chicago in the late '60s and worked the bar scene — checking IDs, bartending and bouncing. One bar, Barnaby's, featured rotating house bands and free fried chicken and wine. ("It was only free for two weeks," he says.) One band called itself The Big Thing, later renamed Chicago Transit Authority, and now known as Chicago. Johnston followed the band to New York City's Fillmore East when it opened for Buddy Miles.
"I was blown away. I hadn't seen anything like that in my life," he says of the venue. "We didn't have anything like this in New Orleans."
Johnston convinced two business partners, Don Fox and Brian Glynn, along with two roommates, to move to New Orleans and set up shop in a rundown Tchoupitoulas warehouse. The roommates called it quits, but the remaining partners called in lawyer John Simmons and got to work. Ties in Chicago led them to a few booking agencies that landed acts for opening night, including the Dead.
A then 16-year-old Susan Spicer, now chef/owner of the restaurant Bayona, remembers the radio announcement: an all-ages venue — not a bar — was opening. "We were like, 'Oh my God, they're going to open a place where we can hear all these people, we have to go see it right now!' Literally," Spicer says. Aside from the four founders, she was the first to see its insides — brick walls and mismatched bits of carpet lining the floor.
"We didn't even know anyone was going to be there. We thought we'd just look at the outside of the building," she says. "They're like, 'OK, you need to help pass out posters, do this, do that.'" Spicer earned her admission as part of the club's unofficial street team — handing out flyers, pinning up posters and taking stubs at the box office. Johnston traded show passes for carpet donations.
"Once we got hooked up with the agencies, we just took over from there," Johnston says. "Once they knew you, you were getting bombarded. There's a new place in town, there's a demand to play, and the place was big enough for a lot of these bands."
On opening day, the Grateful Dead showed up with its gear in a station wagon and a van. After the show, Simmons busted them out of jail. The band vowed never to return to the city for 20 years (though they made it back in 12).
"They didn't even find them with that much," Williamson says of the Dead's marijuana bust. "But the Allman Brothers' story is much better."
For the next 12 years, the Allman Brothers became the unofficial house band of The Warehouse, performing no less than twice a month for five years, including three New Year's Eve shows. (The band later dubbed its 1989 Louisiana Superdome-bound tour The Warehouse Reunion.)
Williamson took his crew to Georgia to interview the Allmans' original roadie, known as Red Dog. One of the bands' earliest visits to New Orleans landed them in jail after they returned to their hotel after their Warehouse gig:
"Red Dog's got a giant hunk of hash the size of his fist in his pocket. There's eight plainclothes cops walking down the hall, and at every door, one of them is stopping," Williamson says. "They [the band members] get back in the elevator, stop off at a different floor, throw the hash in an ashtray, and continue down to the lobby, and as soon as they get to the lobby, cops are there. They arrest 'em. Simmons gets them out of jail, and even though they were in jail all night, after playing the Warehouse, then getting busted and going to jail, they called the hotel and told Red Dog to bring the family — what they called the roadies — and bring the truck and set everything up 'cause they were still going to play in Audubon Park. For free."
New Orleans musician Deacon John Moore remembers lending his Hammond organ to Johnston for $50 every time the Allmans came through. "I thought, 'Man, this is the big time,'" Moore recalls. "I got to play with [Allmans drummer] Jai Johanny Johanson. They were up and coming, before they got real famous. Before they couldn't afford them any more," he adds, laughing.
The Warehouse was a jumping-off point not only for the Allman Brothers, who used the Warehouse as a link from Bill Graham's Fillmore East to the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Other headliners included Joe Cocker, the Clash, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Rod Stewart, Talking Heads, and the Doors, where Jim Morrison performed for the last time before his death.
"It was the hottest place in town," Moore says. "People was lightin' up reefers and nobody said shit. It was like heaven."
Johnston let Moore attend shows for free on occasion, but Moore also shared the Warehouse stage with members of his psychedelic blues outfit Electric Soul Train. "That was Hendrix kind of shit," he says. "But I couldn't set my guitar on fire — I couldn't afford it. You could play loud, loud as you want. It'd make your skin crawl."
Music aside, The Warehouse also offered community resources, sponsoring a Little League baseball team and men's and women's softball teams and hosted fundraisers for community groups. ("We were just doing what we can," Johnston says.
"The thing I'll never ever forget is the struggles," Johnston adds. "The financial struggles and the friends we had — some would give $5 here or $20 there" to help the venue get by.
Moore remembers The Warehouse as a "catalyst for the love generation. It brought together black and white. It was a haven for people who believed in peace and love, and people came from all over to experience that. Bill and them had the vision and courage to get away with it."
But the love movement only lasted so long, with bad drugs, police pressure and disco and punk rock taking its place.
"I know The Who is playing the Super Bowl this year, and it's funny 'cause The Who was one of those bands we lost a ton of money on," Johnston says. "We'd tell people who's playing and they'd go 'Who?' 'Yeah, The Who.' You know, one of those 'Who's on First?' things."
By the mid-'70s, The Warehouse wasn't raking in enough cash to grease its wheels. Though it had a capacity of 3,500, Warehouse crowds diminished and could only meet the size of the considerably smaller New Orleans market. "They were living check to check," Williamson says.
Johnston was on his way out. Before he departed, WNOE-FM held a free concert at The Warehouse for Gino Vannelli. "There must've only been about 800 people that night," Johnston says. "When he came out onstage, there was no guitars. 'This is supposed to be a rock 'n' roll place. Where's the guitars?' But he did well, and I figured it was time to move out." Johnston moved to Los Angeles, leaving Fox, Glynn and Simmons at the helm. Fox's production company, Beaver Productions, started handling outside shows, some around the country.
Eventually, with a little more than 12 years of wear and tear and competition from newly opened venues like the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena, the State Palace Theater and the Municipal Auditorium, the Warehouse closed its doors. The 1970s were over, and The Warehouse's era had ended. As if to illustrate a changing of the musical guard, the post-New Wave group Talking Heads performed The Warehouse's last show in September 1982.
"It's really something our generation never experienced as a venue. It had a pulse to it, a scene to it, a culture," Williamson says. "On off days they were doing all kinds of stuff — organic food lectures, women's health, Lamaze [classes], healthy eating. Usually you hand the guy your ticket, you walk in and then you leave. You don't really care about the place — it's just a couple walls and a ceiling. But this really meant something."
"Thank God for hippie parents," Boh says, laughing. The production crew grew up hearing about The Warehouse from their parents, who all met in high school and later moved to an off-the-grid commune in Loranger, La. The crew was hooked on the stories.
"It seemed like this mythical place," Williamson says. "We didn't know where it was, or what it was, or anything."
With no film projects in sight, the crew started sending emails and making phone calls to interview anyone attached to The Warehouse. Once word got to Johnston, the list grew.
"We thought we'd shoot a couple months, and now it's been more than a year, and it keeps growing every month," McKeough adds. "It's bigger than we've ever imagined."
"When Jessy first told us about the idea, I had no clue how it would engross my soul," Boh adds.
"Bill will get a producer credit," Williamson jokes.
"I don't want one," Johnston replies. "The Warehouse and what they're trying to do with this documentary is almost the same thing. They're doing it the same way. No money, borrowing money, or borrowing from Peter to pay Paul."
The crew contacted Johnston, who put them in touch with musicians, Warehouse employees, concertgoers, 'zine publishers and others.
"I said, 'How'd you guys even hear about this? How'd you get involved with this? How did it even start? How old are you?'" Johnston says.
In 2008 and 2009, Johnston helped produce the production "Joint's Jumpin'," a celebration of New Orleans rhythm and blues from the late '30s to the early '70s, at Harrah's. "I thought 'Wow, that has done so well, now here comes the 40th anniversary in January, why don't we do the same thing?," Johnston says.
To celebrate The Warehouse's 40th anniversary in January, Johnston and musical director Larry Sieberth assembled a rock band of New Orleans musicians to perform the music of 25 to 30 artists that performed at the venue. At the concert, Williamson will screen 10-minute preview clips of the crew's near-completed documentary, A Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas.
"It's a nostalgia piece on the one hand — there's so many great stories, and we want to tell this awesome story that happened right here, thanks to Bill," Williamson says. "If the place would still be here, every musician that comes through here, that's the place they'd want to play, to be able to step on that stage."