Hippies, Guns, and LSD: The San Francisco Rock Band That Was Too Wild For the Sixties

Do you remember the band The Charlatans? Probably not. They burst onto the scene in San Francisco in 1965, burned brightly, and flamed out by 1968. They were ahead of the curve, and paved the way for the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and other bands that drew hippies from across the country to San Francisco for the Summer of Love. The Charlatans dressed in vintage Western clothing, took drugs by the handful, and played a mix of rock, blues, Western swing, and jazz.   

Of the San Francisco groups not invited to Monterey Pop, the Charlatans were the most glaring omission. They could have attended anyway, probably getting back stage to rub elbows with Ravi Shankar, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, and Otis Redding. Instead, the band found itself playing yet another crappy gig—and getting arrested for its trouble.

“George had booked us to do a high school dance in San Jose,” Wilhelm says. “It was somewhere down the Peninsula at a bowling alley,” Olsen recalls. The gig was such a yawn that the band’s piano player, Mike Ferguson, decided he had better things to do. “Mike had a jacket that I decided to wear that night.” Olsen continues. “He always carried 10 or 12 joints in its outside breast pocket.” What could possibly go wrong?

“So we’re out in the parking lot, taking a break between sets,” Wilhelm says, “smoking a joint in George’s Volkswagen van.” “The whole van is full of smoke,” Olsen says, “and these security guys come out and knock on the door.” The van door opens, smoke pours out, words are exchanged, and the security guy goes off to find a police officer. “Meanwhile,” Wilhelm continues, “we’ve eaten all of the joints we had, kind of rolled them up in little balls in our mouths, soaked them with spit, and swallowed them, so that when the cops finally arrive there won’t be any evidence. But when the cops show up, they say, ‘You guys are all under arrest.’ I say, ‘Well, you don’t have any evidence.’ And they say, ‘Oh, we’ll find some.’ That was good and ominous.”

Upon being booked into a San Jose jail, the band members were forced to take off all their clothes, which the police vacuumed for evidence. Now, anyone who has rolled a joint knows that they are not exactly hermetically sealed containers, which means there was probably about a joint’s worth of marijuana wedged into the seams of Ferguson’s jacket. “They found enough pot in the breast pocket alone to charge us all with felonies,” Olsen says. Wilhelm remembers one line of their spirited, if futile, defense: “We’re all, ‘Hey, man, we buy our clothes in thrift stores. Who knows what’s in them?’” Needless to say, that argument did not fly.

Read about the ups and downs of the Charlatans, and the lasting mark they left on pop music, at Collectors Weekly.


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