Forty-five years before Red Hot Chili Peppers headlined BottleRock, Napa hosted a legendary rock concert with a very different flavor.
We Were There to Be There, a new documentary, looks at when punk icons The Cramps and The Mutants played a free concert in June 1978 for psychiatric patients at the Napa State Hospital.
Directors Mike Plante and Jason Willis share archival footage from the show alongside new interviews with band members, promoters and Joe Rees, the videographer who documented the concert. The riveting film raises as many questions as it answers while chronicling how the concert came to be, how it was filmed and who the audience was.
Opening with a look at the political and social climate of the Bay Area in the 1970s, Rees and Target Video collaborator Jill Hoffman-Kowal talk about meeting at California College of the Arts. San Francisco’s punk music scene arose in tandem with its performance art scene. As a student, Rees could borrow state-of-the-art video cameras, which he used to document performances.
“The [National Endowment for the Arts] was giving a lot of grant money to people with good proposals for alternative art spaces,” Hoffman-Kowal said.
For art-punk band The Mutants, this meant playing concerts in popular clubs like The Mabuhay Gardens, but also for deaf children at the Oakland School for the Deaf and at The Temple, a former synagogue next door to Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple.
Punk promoter Howie Klein said he wanted The Mutants to play Napa State Hospital because everyone had a good time at their shows and got on stage with the band to sing and dance. Klein also invited The Cramps, who regularly performed at CBGB and came from New York to play the free concert.
The film never explains who at the hospital greenlit the concert or who allowed it to be filmed, but Alan Gill, a former psychiatric technician for the facility said it was an anomalous show. Rees released his black and white footage of the show as a Target Video VHS called Live at Napa State Mental Hospital, which went a sort of analog version of viral for its day.
“Somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that,” Cramps vocalist Lux Interior says to the crowd. “You seem to be alright to me.”
Plante remembers buying the tape from a skate shop as a teenager. Growing up, the infamous performance seemed dangerous to him.
When he began interviewing sources for We Were There to Be There, Plante says that what came through was how much love and perceived fellowship the bands felt with the patients in the audience. The footage of the concert is wild and energetic, with band members jumping into the crowd and audience members walking on stage to scream into the mic.
Plante said that one of the people in the film who is often thought to be a patient of the hospital was actually a friend of The Mutants who had just come for the show.
The bands and promoters insist the show was never intended to be ironic. Rees says it was one of the best things he’s ever been a part of, and Sally Webster, then a member of The Mutants, says it was an adventure for everyone. Multiple people called it life-changing.
Gill, who worked with paranoid patients, says the people he brought had a good time.
Less than six months after the concert, San Francisco was rocked by Harvey Milk’s assassination and the Jonestown massacre, which might have happened in the city, had Jones not moved his followers away to evade media investigation. Within a couple years of the concert, Ronald Reagan was elected president.
We Were There to Be There closes with an indictment of Reagan’s impact on mental healthcare in California and the country. At the time of the concert, people could commit themselves to state hospitals. Reagan’s budget cuts as California governor and later as president resulted in program closures that Gill says pushed many psychiatric patients with no safety net onto the street.
‘We Were There to Be There’ can be streamed at fieldofvision.org/shorts/we-were-there-to-be-there.