Nov 2, 2012

July 27-28, 1973: Watkins Glen, NY


From the start everyone knew "Summer Jam" would be the year's biggest rock & roll show. The 95-acre Watkins Glen Grand Prix auto circuit was a natural site. Large, party-mood crowds are routine at the big races, such as the annual United States Grand Prix for formula one cars. The two young promoters announced early on that they would sell 150,000 tickets, at $10 each.

But no one could have predicted that 600,000 people would ultimately choose to attend and make this the largest gathering of rock & roll fans in history. About one in every 400 persons in the U.S. was there.

By Thursday night, July 26th, a full 36 hours before the music was scheduled to sound, more than 80,000 persons were camped in the woods and groves surrounding the stage site. By the next night, still with 12 hours to go, traffic toward the area, about 120 miles west ot New York City, was being affected more than 100 miles away.

By 4 AM Saturday morning, New York State Police established roadblocks 20 miles from Watkins Glen. Undaunted, the people abandoned their cars, hoisted backpacks and set out on foot. From the air, the ribbons of cars stretching toward the horizon looked if they had been dropped in place by cranes, rather than parked by human beings.

Watkins Glen was the largest gathering of its type since Woodstock, four years ago, when a tribal gathering at the late Max Yasgur's dairy farm gave the so-called counterculture a landmark. But Watkins Glen was no Woodstock. It has spawned none of the sociological sermonizing of its predecessor, unless one can say it is the middle of Watergate summer. There were no self-congratulatory, itchycoo Vibes of Nirvana Found.

Watkins Glen was, simply, a presentation of three of the most enduring rock & roll bands ever - the Grateful Dead, the Band and the Allman Brothers - a "Summer Jam."

The co-promoters, Shelly Finkel, 29, and Jim Koplik, 23, first met in 1971 when Finkel, a product of Brooklyn and NYU, traveled to Ohio with a band he was managing. Koplik, a New Rochelle, New York, native who attended Ohio State, was presenting the show.

They met again in New Haven later that year at a rock concert being presented by Finkel, and the two decided to team up. Last year they presented six shows at a 20,000-seat football stadium in Connecticut, and it was at one of those shows, featuring the Grateful Dead, that the germ of Watkins Glen took hold.

"We had the Dead at Dillon Stadium," said Koplik, "and after their set Dicky Betts and the late Berry Oakley of the Allmans came on and jammed. The music they produced was unbelievable, and we decided we had to get the two bands together for a planned concert."

In February of this year, they found out about Watkins Glen. "When we began thinking of a third act to round out the bill, we decided to ask the two bands who they wanted. They suggested the Band and everyone agreed," said Koplik.

The partners had high praise for Bill Graham and FM Productions, Graham's stage, sound and lighting people. "He's Number One, the best," said Koplik of Graham, who gave his advice and counsel at Walkins Glen free of charge. "In fact," said Koplik, "a couple of weeks ago Bill called us up and asked if it would be all right if he came."

Koplik, speaking by telephone from New York several days after the event, said he had one more thing to add: "We don't want to sound corny, but the real credit goes to the 600,000 who supported the show."

George Rehety was sitting under a large oak in his front yard on a slatwood lawn chair. Rehety is 74 years old. His face is flecked with liver spots. "You know," he said, "these are nice kids. I haven't seen one fight." All through Watkins Glen (pop. 3000) townspeople perched on lawn chairs and bridge chairs, sitting in their yards, watching the hippies. No one saw a fight.

By Saturday afternoon there wasn't an ice cube in Watkins Glen, or a potato chip. The Beverage Baron was almost out of beer. The Beverage Baron was absolutely out of cold beer. "And I'd filled the place with beer, up to the ceiling," Jack Mafianey, the Beverage Baron himself said. "This is ten times bigger than the Grand Prix."

Watkins Glen regularly draws 100,000 and more to the auto races. But these were different people. "I'd rather deal with these kids than the race crowd any day," a mounted cop said. "I've never been called 'Sir' so many times in my life."

Wooley's Liquor Store stocked up heavy on Boone's Farm fruit wine. What the race crowd drinks. But Boone's Farm didn't move. Instead Wooley's sold out of Jack Daniel's and Southern Comfort, and an extra truck full of liquor was shipped in with a police escort - to get through the traffic, not because of hijack fears.

Which is not to say there was no trouble. Friday night five youths were arrested for butchering and attempting to barbecue a farmer's pig -- SOP at races, but that was before bacon hit $1.69 a pound. Virtually every shopping cart in Watkins Glen and nearby Mantour Falls was borrowed for the hike to the festival site. There were some 200 arrests, most for misdemeanor drug possession.

At the site a Midway had been set up: shirts, $2; ice cream, 25 cents. One kid had set himself up with a sign: MEXICAN GRASS $20 AN OUNCE. Another walked the Midway singing: "Opium, opium, who wants to cop some opium."

"It's funny, we're seeing no heroin, almost no LSD. Our biggest drug problem here is alcohol." Bill Nagle, a local internist, directed medical operation. He went through $30,000 worth of Band-Aids and Thorazine and tetanus toxoid. Late Saturday night another doctor reported: "Two-thirds of the people we've seen have come in with cuts and fractures. They're all drug related, because everybody is wrecked here, but just one-third of our patients have been ODs. And half of those have come in with acute alcohol intoxication." Acute alcohol intoxication means dead drunk. Or nearly dead.

The medical tents saw 7000 people. Forty-three were helicoptered out to nearby hospitals. One remains in serious condition. OD'd on booze and downs, but he is expected to make it.

There was just one death at the site itself. A skydiver, jumping, carrying some kind of exploding device, caught fire. He was dead before he hit the ground. And at least five persons were reported killed in automobile accidents en route to Watkins Glen. There were two stabbings. Two young men refused to give away a quantity of marijuana they had been intent upon selling, so two other young men tried to pry the dope away from them.

Co-producers Finkel and Koplik estimated that costs would run to more than $1 million. Although they would not divulge exact figures, they said it was a "good estimate" that the total band fees amounted to about $400,000. "We believe," said Koplik, "that each band had its biggest payday." (Later it was learned that the Dead received a flat fee of $117,500.)

Other bills included: $30,000 for helicopters; $50,000 for police; $100,000 for rental of 1000 portable toilets; $40,000 for water; $40,000 for clean-up. Also provided were 300,000 pre-moistened facial towelettes. Bill Graham's FM Productions earned $200,000 for the stage, lighting and 50,000-watt sound system.

The Watkins Glen Grand Prix Association rented the circuit for a guarantee against a percentage. That figure was unavailable. The association also ran the concessions, and figured to make a neat profit off such items as hot dogs, pizza and 30-cents-a-can soda pop.

Promptly at noon Saturday, the Dead came on and began a five-hour set. The Band played from 6 PM until 9, and the Allman Brothers came on at 10 PM and played until 2 AM. Then everybody jammed till 3-30. The last song was an extended "Johnny B. Goode."

While the Band was playing, the rains came for about thirty minutes, churning the turf into mud. When the rain stopped, and the Band came back to finish up, there was this couple balling in the mud just below the stage. She was a little zaftig, and you heard the shoosh when she lifted her hips and the splat when she hit bottom.

At ten it was dark - country dark, and the Allman Brothers chewed 'em up and spit 'em out whole, as they say. Surveying the scene from behind the stage, a roadie said of the endless flickering campfires that could be seen: "It looks like something from the Civil War."

"The Band played brilliant music," said Bill Graham. "Robbie [Robertson] said it was the first 100 percenter he'd been to. Leon had a kick to his drums, and Manuel...great. They all had a marvelous time. And the Allmans and the Dead - of their ilk, they're the best."

Graham revealed how the early arrivals at the race circuit received unscheduled entertainment. "By Thursday night there were already 80,000 to 100,000 camped outside. I said to the promoters let's open at dawn [Friday] and do a sound check in front of 100,000 people. Everybody agreed. My theory was that rather than have a stampede, open up at dawn, and those that were up could come in and those that were sleeping could sleep, then get up and not be in the middle of a crowd.

"So they came in Friday. At noon on Friday the sound was set - and this was never reported - the Dead played two hours. It drove the kids crazy. The Band came on and did an hour. The Allmans did two hours. By Friday night 150,000 people had gotten a five-hour show. They'd gotten a taste, an appetizer, and they knew their heroes were there."

Capricorn Records, the Allmans' label, recorded their set. So some sort of Watkins Glen album seems probable. However, there won't be a Watkins Glen movie. The Grateful Dead refused to participate, and in a statement, released by manager Sam Cutler, explained:

"The Grateful Dead are sick and tired of being given cornball ideas for rock movies. The Grateful Dead are delighted that Watkins Glen is only a fond memory and that there will be no further commercial exploitation of what was a tasteful musical trip."

Sunday, 7 AM: the morning after. In the early light the compound looked, indeed, like a war had been fought there. A war fought with beer cans and plastic water jugs, whiskey bottles and Cracker Jack boxes and 10,000 jars of Skippy Peanut Butter. The young promoters, it turned out, had forgotten to rent garbage cans.

But while "Summer Jam" ended messy, it also ended happy. One youth who faced a ten-mile hike to his car - and then an all-day and all-night drive home - said he'd do it again - next week. The girl who'd hitched down from Toronto barefoot not only had a good time, but she was beaming over the pair of discarded sandals she'd found to wear home. And the guy, stark naked, drying his Levis over a fire, holding them there with a slick the way you'd roast a hot dog, he looked like any contented backyard barbecue chef.

"Things went so well," said Koplik, "there's a chance we'll do another one, but not this year. Henry Valent [of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Association] says, 'No more.' We can't do one of this magnitude. He asked me, 'How can we hold things down the next time?' I told him, 'I don't know how we got all those people here in the first place.'" Wandering around in the rubble, I found a Bible half buried in the mud. It was open to the Book of Isaiah. Chapter 24, The Apocalypse: "Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and he maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down."

(by Joel Siegel, from Rolling Stone, August 30 1973)

This article is also included here:

And there is also a long article by Robert Santelli about the festival here:

1 comment:

  1. McNally also goes into a lot of detail about the festival in his book, p.455-458.

    This is the first place I've read that there was to be a Watkins Glen movie. But true to form, the Dead refused to participate! (I haven't seen any footage from this event.)

    As it turned out, the Dead played better in the "soundcheck" than they did in the actual show... While the full sets are available in circulation, not much from the festival has been officially released.
    The Allmans' show was recorded (as the article notes), but only one track got released on a '76 live album. There was a "Live at Watkins Glen" album from the Band, but ironically most of it was a fake! And the Dead's 7/27 'soundcheck jam' was released on the So Many Roads box set; but it's unlikely anything from the 7/28 show will come out.