Why Dead Heads Love Barton
Article by Brad Herzog originally ran in the May/June 1997 issue of Cornell Magazine
Call it a recipe for harmonic convergence, the ingredients for a blue-ribbon counterculture stew. Start with a nine-fingered guitarist and a former jug band, throw in a subculture spawned by a social revolution, stir it up in an ROTC hangout during the disco era, place it on a Hallmark holiday, season it with a dusting of snow in May. Let it simmer for a couple of decades, and then uncover it. What’s left is the legend of 5-8-77.
For those unfamiliar with the legend, some analogies may be in order. Say you’re a New York Yankees fan. Would you like to have seen Don Larsen pitch his perfect game? Consider yourself a Beatlemaniac? How about a front-row seat at the Ed Sullivan Show?
These are the who, what where, and when: the Grateful Dead, a band famous for its maniacally devoted following, performed at Barton Hall, the cavernous gym posing as a concert hall, on May 8, 1977, Mother’s Day. The big question is why. Not why the band played there—the band played everywhere, from the Meadowlands to the Great Pyramid, some 2,500 shows in all over its three-decade history; the Dead even played the HIll two more times—but why, of all the shows at all the arenas in all those years, is this one so special?
The reviews are nothing short of rave. From Connecticut, Kevin Hays, who’s spent nearly a year of his life at Dead shows—364 in all: “Exceptional. It’s one of the most well-known and well-respected Grateful Dead concerts of all time.” From San Francisco, Dennis McNally, the band’s publicist and biographer, who knows more about the Dead than they do themselves: “Simply classic. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.” And from the desk of Gary Lambert, editor of Grateful Dead Almanac: “For a Deadhead, a show like that is like being there when Babe Ruth called his shot. There’s just something about it that takes on a mythic quality.”
Why, in the eyes of many who have devoted their lives to knowing such things, does this particular concert rank at the top? Perhaps more important, why should we care? The answers are out there somewhere, but it is a long, strange trip to understanding.
The story begins at the end: August 9, 1995, the day Jerry Garcia died. He was overweight, bespectacled, relentlessly middle-aged. He was a lead vocalist with a cracking voice and a lead-guitarist missing half a finger, a man who saw more drugs over the years than your local pharmacist. But he was also the soul of the Grateful Dead, worshipped by many as a musical genius and spiritual guru. His demise, from a heart attack at age fifty-three, was greeted by his fans with the same sorrow and confusion tinged with inevitability that followed the deaths of Elvis and Hendrix and Lennon.
It was the end of a social institution, albeit a convoluted contradiction in terms. The Dead were a band, a subculture, a musical melange with a spiritual following. They were rock stars and folk heroes, artists and businessman, throwbacks and visionaries. They were acid rock, R&B, folk, country, disco, bluegrass, jazz. They were music in is purest form and its most diluted. They were anti-commercial yet commercially successful, one of the most popular (hundreds of millions in earnings) and least popular (only one Top Ten hit) supergroups of all time.
The band’s beginning is harder to pin down. It may have been when Garcia joined Robert Hunter, who would become the band’s longtime lyricist, to play blues in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1960s. They soon added a few players and formed a series of folk and bluegrass bands—first the Wildwood Boys, then the Hart Valley Drifters, finally Mother McRee’s Uptown Jug Champions. In 1965, they refashioned themselves as an electric band, the Warlocks. A year later, they became the Grateful Dead.
But the real beginning came with the emergence of the San Francisco scene and lysergic acid diethylamide—hippies and LSD. Owsley Stanley, the Dead’s early financial benefactor, also doubled as its resident sound engineer and chemist. The “King of LSD,” he was to hallucinogens what Ray Kroc was to hamburgers. When Ken Kesey put on his infamous Acid Tests—public LSD parties before the drug was outlawed in October 1966—the Dead became the house band. Their collective experimentation with drugs translated into Musical experimentation. The band’s communal house at 710 Ashbury Street became a focal point of the California counter-culture, and the Grateful Dead became a phenomenon.
Though the Dead would release more than two dozen studio and live albums over the next twenty-nine years, not until 1987 did they have a Top Ten LP (In the Dark), and a Top Ten single (“Touch of Grey”). The lifeblood of the Grateful Dead was always live performance. If they went into the studio almost out of obligation, they performed in sold-out arenas out of habit. The Dead played the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. They played for half a million people in Watkins Glen in 1973. Over the years, they played with musicians as disparate as Bruce Hornsby, Branford Marsalis, and the Blues Brothers. IN all, they performed about a hundred shows a year for nearly thirty years.
Most of the shows were quickly forgotten, but not May 8, 1977. There are Deadheads out there who think Ezra Cornell is a breakfast cereal and Libe Slope is a rapper. But they think Barton Hall is magic.
Obsessions can be a slippery slope. That crazy uncle who goes to Green Bay Packers cameos with a block of cheese on his head has made that abundantly clear. But Deadheads have a lot in common with other subcultures blurring the line between fan and fanatic—Packerbackers, Airstreamers, Trekkies, Dungeons & Dragons players, Tupperware partygoers, Harley owners, that friend who saw Star Wars sixty times and has all the action figures. In fact, some of the subcultures even overlap. Consider the following offering from one of thousands of Deadhead websites on the internet;
Kirk: “Mr Spock, I notice that you have applied for shore leave on Terra in a few weeks.”
Spock: “Affirmative, Captain. There are certain human activities I wish to observe.
Spock: “I believe the traditional procedure is to don brightly colored garb, ingest various psychoactive substances and then move rhythmically to the frequency and amplitude modulated acoustic vibrations created by at least six well-known musical personages…”
Didn’t you know your favorite Vulcan was a Deadhead? They’re everywhere. The Dead may be an acquired taste, but they have acquired a massive following. There are Deadhead doctors, Deadhead accountants, Deadheads who drive BMWs, Deadheads who wouldn’t know Maryjane from Mary Hartman. Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson is a Deadhead. The governor of Massachusetts is a Deadhead. Tipper Gore is a deadhead.
The headiest of the Deadheads are quite scholarly, though they may have too much time on their hands. They have time to submit historical analyses of the word Deadhead—dating back to at least the sixteenth century, it was originally an alchemy term for a worthless substance—and to offer detailed explanations of the hidden meanings in Dead lyrics. They also apparently have time to produce a manual, called Deadbase, which provides extensive set lists, statistics, and reviews of every recorded concert the Dead has ever played.
And therein lies the key to the Barton Hall legend. You know you’re a Deadhead, according to a widely-circulated bit of Deadhumor, when you spend more money on blank tapes than you do on rent. Live shows may have brought fame and fortune to the Grateful Dead, but recorded shows are the band’s gateway to immortality. The Dead were the first band to allow their fans to tape concerts and, beginning in 1984, the first to actually endorse it, roping off a special section for tapers just behind the soundboard.
With as many as 100 titles at their fingertips, the band never played the same songs in the same order, and never played them the same way. “The shows are never the same, ever,” Garcia once said. “And when we’re done with it, they can have it.”
Once a concert was recorded, it entered the collaborative, harmonious world of tape traders. Originals spawned copies, and copies of copies. There’s another giveaway that you’re a Deadhead: none of your tapes has a name on it, just a date. The show at the Carousel Ballroom on Valentine’s Day? That’s 2-14-68. That monster New Year’s Eve concert at Winterland? That’s 12-31-78. The Madison Square Garden performance where they played “Dark Star”? 9-20-90.
With the ability to pick and choose recorded Dead performances comes the inclination to evaluate them. Deadbase asked its thousands of readers to do just that and then compiled a Top Ten list from the responses. There, at the top of the list, just ahead of 2-13-70 at Fillmore East and 8-27-72 in Veneta, Oregon, is 5-8-77 at Barton Hall.
Adam Riback, a twenty-eight-year-old personal injury lawyer and practicing Deadhead in Chicago, is as familiar with the band as he is with the law. “You’ll always hear people saying, ‘Man, if I was there… ,’ ” he says of the Barton show. “Everybody wants to go climb into a time machine and go back to Ithaca in 1977 on Mother’s Day.”
Twenty years ago, Jimmy Carter had just finished the first hundred days of his presidency, Annie Hall had just won the Oscar, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine had taken two straight World Series. Everybody was talking about Darth Vader, Seattle Slew, Kunta Kinte, Debby Boone, the Fonz. Everybody looked like Dorothy Hamill or Doctor J. On the firstly of the second week of May, George Wallace was in the news, officially declaring his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. One of the nation’s largest birth-control device manufacturers in had announced a recall of 86,000 diaphragms (possible holes in them, they said). And the U.S. Navy announced it was leaning toward returning to the sailor’s traditional uniform of “bell-bottomed trousers, jumpers, and little white hats.”
The Ithaca Area was teeming with possibilities that weekend. There was Ringling Brothers circus in Binghamton There was a piano recital at Barnes Hall. For a real walk on the wild side, there was the Wool Day event hosted by the Black Sheep Handspinners Guild at Stewart Park. Or one could simply combine it all—the circus, the music, possibly a sheep or two—and attend a Grateful Dead concert.
Of course, it wasn’t uncommon for a rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut to visit Cornell in the mid-Seventies. Bruce Springsteen did. So did Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Billy Joel, Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, and the Doobie Brothers. But a Dead show—once described as a “traveling Sixties road show of gypsy hippies”—was a different animal altogether. It was a scene, in the most wondrous, confounding, and otherworldly sense of the word.
The mind’s eye pictures a parking lot resembling a VW bus convention and an improvised tent city serving as a virtual head shop outlet. There are skeleton decals and wizard candles for sale, dancing-bear T-shirts and woven bracelets, rolling papers, and veggie burgers. There is a bug-eyed vendor in a buckskin coat selling dog-eared paperbacks. Next to him is a sleepy couple, sitting behind a hibachi, offering bratwurst and acid. While a gaggle of sorority sisters in store-bought tie-dyes examine bumper stickers on display—EAT, DRINK AND SEE JERRY—a frowsy old hippie in a star-spangled top hat twirls feverishly to the tunes in his head. The sweet, druggy air blurs it all into an incongruous collection of colors and sounds—bings and bangs and especially bongs—suggesting that perhaps, amid the accouterments of the scene, the music is almost an afterthought.
On the 49th day of spring in 1977, however, it was snowing. Pouring rain had turned to freezing rain; freezing rain became flurries. Two inches of snow would fall through the night, just short of the local record for May. The wintry weather meant no tent city, no vendors, no outdoor sensory explosion. It meant the music in the concert hall was everything, which is what the legend is about in the first place.
If the legend is to be believed, the people who were there—the Cornellians who served as a backdrop to Grateful Dead history—should remember it like it was yesterday.
First, the alumnus. An in-house lawyer for the National Football League who teaches a sports law class at the Cornell Law School each spring, Buck Briggs ‘76 drove in from Washington, D.C., to catch the show his first year out of college. He would become a certifiable Deadhead as a result, hitting one or two concerts a year for the next eighteen years and even purchasing a three-CD European-made bootleg of the 5-8-77 show.
“In my case, it was special because it was my first Dead show. I mean, when I think about my favorite major league baseball game—and I’ve been to hundreds—I think back to the first time that I walked into the Polo Grounds,” he says. It was quite an event, but I had no way to realize that, twenty years later, it was going to be one of the most talked-about concerts that the Dead have ever done.”
Nice, but not quite the breathless endorsement befitting a legend. Perhaps the freshmen collected more vivid memories. Lauran Jacoby ‘80 was attending her first Grateful Dead show that night in 1977 during her first spring on the Hill. Like Briggs, she would experience several dozen more Dead concerts over the next decade. But again, like Briggs, it wasn’t so much the show that captured her imagination as the setting.
“For me, it was more of an exciting event because a lot of my friends came to Ithaca to attend this thing. There was a big festival atmosphere. It was like our home court,” says Jacoby, now a labor relations specialist in human resources at Cornell. “I have since listened to the tape of that Cornell show and realized, after becoming familiar with the band, what a great show it was. But I couldn’t appreciate it at the time.”
Strike two. Maybe it’s because they were Grateful Dead rookies back then; perhaps they hadn’t yet honed their music appreciation skills. Time to turn to the senior, a Dead veteran even before the band came to Ithaca, a woman so inspired by them that she eventually carved out a career in the music industry.
Jayne Lipman ‘78 wrote the concert preview of 5-8-77 for the Cornell Daily Sun, the first lines of which read, “I have a confession to make. I am an extreme Grateful Dead loyalist, I have traveled many hours, many times to see them perform, and will continue to do so as long as they do.” Surely Lipman will reveal what it was like to be there the night planets aligned in Barton Hall, the night a sweaty old gym in upstate New York became the setting for musical history.
“Hmmm, let me think… that was a long time ago,” she says. “All I can remember is that it snowed…”
The magic, then, must be in the recording, not the recall. After all, it’s not the concert itself that has earned royal status in the Deadhead kingdom, it’s the tape of the concert. Besides, Barton is no Carnegie Hall. Great for storing airplanes, maybe, but not for acoustics. The best sound that night went not to the ears of the 9,000 fans crowded into the building but to the soundboard, and thus to the tapes.
But where to find a copy 5-8-77? One half expects a secret hideaway hidden behind an overgrowth of hemp, eerie passageways lit by roach-clip torches, an ancient-rune password amid psychedelic cobwebs, a locked vault, and a lone cassette resting atop a milt-hued pillow—something out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of ‘Shroom.
Instead, a friend of a friend pulls the tape of the concert’s first set from his cluttered collection, retrieves the second set from his car, and says, “Sure, take it,” suggesting that much of the legend of 5-8-77 derives from its accessibility. With as many as 100,000 copies the Barton show floating around, it is in ample supply, like a bulk section of Holy Grails at Sam’s Club.
Twelve songs and some ninety minutes after putting the cassette into the tapedeck, as the band closes the first half of a concert with an extended cover of “Dancin’ in the Streets,” the review in Deadbase appears on target: “Each song is solid, with a couple that are truly exceptional.” But the first set is just an appetizer. The second set is supposed to be the main course.
It begins with a request by the band for the crowd to move back. “Take a step back,” says rhythm guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir. “Now take another step back.” Drum “rim shots” ring out with each request, as Garcia adds, only slightly exaggerating, “All these people in front are getting horribly smashed here.” Pretty standard stuff, and yet Deadbase calls it, without a trace of self-satire, “arguably the finest ‘Take A Step Back’ ever done.”
“Then,” the review continues, “the Dead get down to business.” The rest of the evening is a lesson in Grateful Dead musical freedom. Often, for instance, the band would merge two songs seamlessly with one long jam, which it does with the first two of the set, “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain,” the latter being three-and-a-half minutes long in its studio version but fifteen at Barton Hall. Occasionally, too, if the mood struck them, the Dead would merge one song into another and then go back to the first, as they do with “St. Stephen” into Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and then back again.
All the above are considered A-list Dead songs, but it’s the band’s final entry (before the encore, “One More Saturday Night”) that is, according Deadbase, “a religious experience—certainly one of the finest moments in Grateful Dead history.”
Dead publicist Dennis McNally offers an explanation: “The classic song to end a Dead concert is ‘Morning Dew.’ It’s apocalyptic. It’s exciting. In Deadhead lore, it was always assumed that they would only play it at the end of a good show. At the end of the song, there’s a passage where extreme tension is released when Garcia strums a final tonic chord and says, ‘I guess it doesn’t matter anyway.’ Usually, that last bit takes maybe ten seconds. At this Cornell performance, it was as though they couldn’t stop, and it went on for minutes. It was stunning, a unique performance, radically different from any other they ever did.”
Having sampled what the fuss is all about, we can wonder if the last line of “Morning Dew” is trying trying to tell us something. Maybe it doesn’t really matter anyway. So a very good band put on a great show at a grand old armory. So what?
We can wonder, too: Does fate have a sense of humor? A Bay Area band in the Finger Lakes, Anti-establishment icons in the buttoned-down Ivy League. A shock of snow in May. A smattering of psychedelia on a day conceived as a tribute to mothers. And Barton Hall, a military science building, all discipline and precision—the antithesis of a Grateful Dead show.
But maybe it was, in fact, a happy coincidence of time and place. Though they were San Francisco-born, the Dead had developed a strong bond with Eastern audiences, especially college crowds. And though it was the peak of the disco era, 1977 is widely considered to be among the Dead’s two or three best years. The East Coast tour of April-May 1977 is especially storied—in particular, the weekend of May 7-9, when the band sandwiched the Barton Hall concert between shows in Boston and Buffalo. So here they were, at a college arena in the East, playing some of their best songs and playing them well, on perhaps the peak day of the peak weekend of the peak tour of the peak year of their nearly three decades together.
And Cornell may have had something to do with it. “The Dead always played off the energy of the crowd. When they were at their best, they were trying to create some sort of magic. And it was a two-way transaction for the band,” says Andy Denemark ‘78, then the Deadhead program direction of WVBR and now the Deadhead program director of United Stations Radio Networks in New York. “The Cornell crowd was probably in a frame of mind that was very exciting for the band to play off of, and it affected their performance.” So maybe it’s all academic—the sociology of the subculture, the history of the band, the psychology of the music, the chemistry of the concert—and maybe that matters. Maybe, in fact, the words of the first song in the famed second set that evening were eerily prescient:
Well, I ain’t always right but I’ve never been wrong
Seldom turns out the way it does in a song
Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.