THE ONLY San Jose band ever to make a cameo appearance on the '70s sitcom What's Happening, is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary. The Doobie Brothers began in 1970, releasing their self-titled debut the following year.
The cover of that album showed the band hanging out at Chateau Liberté, a now-legendary biker bar in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where the Doobies got their start. This year, the band releases a new album with a new track, "Back to the Chateau," dedicated to the venue, which existed until the mid-'70s.
"The Chateau," as the mountain ilk still say, was located on a muddy dirt path off Old Santa Cruz Highway, buried amid the gargantuan redwoods. The Hell's Angels ran the place for years, and the parties were over the top. Since the building was down the hill from the main road and somewhat difficult to reach, the sheriffs often just refused to drive all the way in.
Many bands played at the Chateau, including the earliest version of the Tubes and several offshoots of the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. Skip Spence of Moby Grape, who had actually introduced the Doobie Brothers to each other, occasionally stayed in a van just outside the chateau. Hot Tuna recorded its live album, First Pull Up, Then Pull Down, at Chateau Liberté. In Jeff Tamarkin's book Got a Revolution, Jorma Kaukonen described the place: "It was a shit-kicking log cabin bar, an old stage stop in 1800s. It had very low ceilings and was down a muddy road. The sound was horrendous. We played there a lot and wanted to do this album there."
Previously, in the late 19th century, the building was a stop on the old Wells Fargo stagecoach line from San Jose to Santa Cruz. From 1920 to 1945 it was Chateau Boussy, a French restaurant and luxury hideaway for high-society types and politicians who needed a spot to bring their mistresses.
But many folks from the Chateau Liberté era still remain and continue to circulate their memories of the place. People of all shapes and sizes attended the festivities to eat, drink and listen to music. It was a communal atmosphere—a temporary autonomous zone of the most inspiring sort.
W.J. McKay, who first frequented the joint as a teenager, recalled how everyone seemed to get along: "You had people that were totally politically opposite, socially opposite," he told me. "Bikers and hippies were about as different as people could be, and yet they totally co-existed up there. They even had their own underground economy going on. Dope had an established exchange rate. Pot was worth so much in weight, for so many hits of acid. The hippies and the bikers totally worked together. They exchanged food, they worked on each other's vehicles, they did chores for each other."
Local real estate agent George Rabe currently owns and lives on the 72 acres where the Chateau sits. He restored the building and remains immersed in its history, so much that he went out of his way to give us a personal tour of the property. Oil painter Paul Berenson, who in 1973 lived in the redwoods right outside the Chateau, even drove up from Santa Barbara for the tour. It was the first time he'd been to the property in 37 years.
"It made me realize how much I didn't appreciate it back then." Berenson told me. "And how big of an influence it was on me. That was my first real appreciation of nature."
The Chateau Liberté scene was true counterculture in the sense that it could only have happened at that particular time and place. It was a uniquely Northern California scenario.
"It wasn't just a legendary rock & roll bar," McKay said. "It was an example of music and people breaking barriers, for better or worse, in one of the most beautiful natural coastal rain forests in the world. It was a scene that will never be re-created, and hopefully never forgotten."
"Where the Hell are we? I asked Warren. We were trying to navigate our way by foot from Holy City where someone had dropped us off. It was an uncharacteristically cold and windy night for the Santa Cruz Mountains. Some kind of Arctic inflow or something was causing rain to turn to snow . . . and it was blowing sideways, seeming never to hit the ground. Even under the canopy of ancient redwood trees, the wind howled.
Warren didn't answer.
"Why didn't we just stay on the goddam road?"
Warren still didn't answer.
"Warren, I hope you know where the Hell you're going!" I shouted.
Through the bursts of screaming wind I heard him say "The Chateau Liberte'." "Ooooooh shiiiiiit!" I heard Warren yell. There was a sound of breaking bushes and then silence.
I got to a spot where the soft ground below gave way to huge mossy boulders littered with mulch and tree branches. Warren was laying there motionless. I nervously laughed as I spoke "C'mon man. You're freaking me out!" He started laughing and slowly sat up. "Hey man. You don't have a doobie on you? Do you?" Warren asked.
Warren said "It's alright. We'll get some down at The Chateau." "What chateau are you talking about man?" I asked. He said "The Chateau Liberte'."
The trail had become a decent dirt road and we were getting close enough to see some lights through the trees . . . and the music was really loud. The snow had turned to light rain, and the wind had died down. The band was playing Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water" as we walked between scattered rows of Harleys, VW vans and old pickup trucks. Suddenly a huge biker stomped up to us and barked "Are you going to give me your money, or do I have to kill you first?"
To my horror, Warren stepped forward and poked, yes I said "poked" that big ugly biker right in the chest and said "Take it easy buzzard! You'll get your rent at the end of the month when I get paid!" As I was desperately calculating how many days until the end of the month, Warren pushed, yes I said "pushed" the behemoth aside and said "C'mon man" looking back at me.
We walked up a couple of old creaky wooden steps and right through the front door into the now legendary Chateau Liberte'. The first thing I noticed was the heavy fog of pot smoke that just sat in the air above the hundred or so people in the rustic, barnlike wooden building. On the stage which was just a slight riser on the floor, the band played Purple Haze. The three guys in the band all had long hair and jeans, and all looked too young to be in a bar. About my age. A guy in the back with an overhead projector was performing a light show using colored liquids in clear trays. It occurred to me that for the first time in my life, I was in a rocking bar and nobody gave a damn about my age. Well, except for the hippie chicks! Warren had told me that they liked 'em young. This long dark-haired tight jean-clad beauty walked right up to me and said "Do you want to go outside?" Before I could answer I was following her back out the front door. She walked up to an old Ford LTD, opened the door and said "This is my place. C'mon get in!"
I ended going back up to The Chateau Liberte' several times. I remember a bunch of Liberte'ians trying to fill up the old swimming pool. In the sixties, someone had painted a giant Zig-Zag man on the bottom which you could hardly see through the leaves and mud and cracks in the plaster. I'll always be able to picture clearly the scene that ensued as about twenty Freaks, Hippies and Angels From Hell, all stoned out of their minds, sloshed naked around in the mud at the bottom of that decrepit swimming pool. I can't be sure, but I guess that was the last pool party ever at The Chateau Liberte'.