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SDSU rock-and-roll anthropologists dig deep into campus music history

Ella was a badass

Painstaking peeling has saved the Backdoor’s mural of Aztec rockers.
Painstaking peeling has saved the Backdoor’s mural of Aztec rockers.

“Jaime and I have become rather obsessed with the history of live music at SDSU,” says Seth Mallios, professor of anthropology at San Diego State and co-author of Let It Rock!, a five-volume book series featuring over 1500 pages of essays, archival reviews, photos, ticket stubs, bootleg album covers, and hundreds of firsthand recollections.

With over 3400 bands having played more than 3100 campus concerts from 1931 through the 2000s, Mallios says, “The toughest part of the research was staying true to our mission of trying to catalog every billed show that ever occurred at State...it was hard not to get overwhelmed with thousands of items and interviews.”

Co-author Jaime Lennox, an anthropology alumna, notes the many historic performances, including Joan Baez with Bob Dylan (1964), a pre-Woodstock rock festival at Aztec Bowl featuring the Grateful Dead (1969), Frank Zappa (1970), the Ramones (1977), Bob Marley (1978), and 28 appearances by Jimmy Buffett. “Then there were shows that almost disappeared from public record, like Ike and Tina Turner at Peterson Gym. There was next to no coverage, just one tiny announcement tucked away in the Daily Aztec.”

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SDSU Music History: Let It Rock

As for inside stories, Mallios singles out SDSU’s thank you letters. “Ray Charles wrote part of his thank you note in braille, and Joan Baez signed hers with a big heart. Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 contract included a rider prohibiting segregation in any form at the gig. If she saw any racial discrimination, she was free to cancel the show and keep the $2500 deposit. The Queen of Jazz was a total badass!”

All five volumes will be released in a boxed edition designed to look like a set of vinyl albums, packaged with a poster of the recently restored mural that once graced the entrance hallway to campus music venue the Backdoor, which operated from 1969 through the 1990s. Painted by nine students as part of a Chicano Studies Mural Art class in 1975, the colorful 14-by-9-foot mural portraying pre-Columbian Aztec deities playing in a rock band was slated for destruction when the Aztec Center was razed to build the Aztec Student Union.

Local conservator Gary Hulbert removed acrylic paint off the concrete wall, inch by inch (“Gary likened the work to peeling a giant sunburn all in one piece”), at a cost of $63,780, over five years. “We wrote grants, held fundraisers, and worked with the SDSU Alumni Association to crowdsource some of the funding as well,” says Mallios.

The restored mural will be unveiled at the October 29 book release, on the third floor of Love Library, part of a campus-wide celebration that includes a live performance by Eagles songwriter and SDSU alumnus Jack Tempchin (who ran the Backdoor open-mic nights and wrote one of his biggest hits, “Already Gone,” while drinking wine in the venue’s kitchen).

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Painstaking peeling has saved the Backdoor’s mural of Aztec rockers.
Painstaking peeling has saved the Backdoor’s mural of Aztec rockers.

“Jaime and I have become rather obsessed with the history of live music at SDSU,” says Seth Mallios, professor of anthropology at San Diego State and co-author of Let It Rock!, a five-volume book series featuring over 1500 pages of essays, archival reviews, photos, ticket stubs, bootleg album covers, and hundreds of firsthand recollections.

With over 3400 bands having played more than 3100 campus concerts from 1931 through the 2000s, Mallios says, “The toughest part of the research was staying true to our mission of trying to catalog every billed show that ever occurred at State...it was hard not to get overwhelmed with thousands of items and interviews.”

Co-author Jaime Lennox, an anthropology alumna, notes the many historic performances, including Joan Baez with Bob Dylan (1964), a pre-Woodstock rock festival at Aztec Bowl featuring the Grateful Dead (1969), Frank Zappa (1970), the Ramones (1977), Bob Marley (1978), and 28 appearances by Jimmy Buffett. “Then there were shows that almost disappeared from public record, like Ike and Tina Turner at Peterson Gym. There was next to no coverage, just one tiny announcement tucked away in the Daily Aztec.”

Past Event

SDSU Music History: Let It Rock

As for inside stories, Mallios singles out SDSU’s thank you letters. “Ray Charles wrote part of his thank you note in braille, and Joan Baez signed hers with a big heart. Ella Fitzgerald’s 1960 contract included a rider prohibiting segregation in any form at the gig. If she saw any racial discrimination, she was free to cancel the show and keep the $2500 deposit. The Queen of Jazz was a total badass!”

All five volumes will be released in a boxed edition designed to look like a set of vinyl albums, packaged with a poster of the recently restored mural that once graced the entrance hallway to campus music venue the Backdoor, which operated from 1969 through the 1990s. Painted by nine students as part of a Chicano Studies Mural Art class in 1975, the colorful 14-by-9-foot mural portraying pre-Columbian Aztec deities playing in a rock band was slated for destruction when the Aztec Center was razed to build the Aztec Student Union.

Local conservator Gary Hulbert removed acrylic paint off the concrete wall, inch by inch (“Gary likened the work to peeling a giant sunburn all in one piece”), at a cost of $63,780, over five years. “We wrote grants, held fundraisers, and worked with the SDSU Alumni Association to crowdsource some of the funding as well,” says Mallios.

The restored mural will be unveiled at the October 29 book release, on the third floor of Love Library, part of a campus-wide celebration that includes a live performance by Eagles songwriter and SDSU alumnus Jack Tempchin (who ran the Backdoor open-mic nights and wrote one of his biggest hits, “Already Gone,” while drinking wine in the venue’s kitchen).

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