Jun 27, 2017

May 5, 1968: Central Park, New York City


It was a beautiful day in Central Park yesterday for lollipops, dogs, pretty girls, wisteria, and hard rock.
The rock was provided for free by three of the currently best-known groups on the rock 'n' roll scene - the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead.
The area's normal Sunday denizens - pretty girls in their slimmest pants suits walking dogs in hopes of meeting the lawyers and advertising men in their weekend Nehru jackets and turtlenecks - were all but swamped in the horde of young people who flocked to the concert.
About six thousand, the police estimated, jammed into the plaza in front of the bandstand near the Mall while thousands more sprawled out on the grass and under the trees. A few of the park benches were held by elderly people who listened and watched solemnly.

Free concerts have become a tradition among the oddly named groups in San Francisco who are bringing the music back to its rhythm and blues roots and adding an almost overpowering electronic sound.
"We almost always do free concerts - sometimes after the paying gig (job) we go outside and do another show for the kids who can't get [in]," explained Rock Scully, the Grateful Dead's road manager, as musicians and technicians set up their equipment in the concrete bandstand.
The most popular apparel among the youths was cast-off military jackets, often decorated with peace buttons. Many of them carried photographic equipment, and they showed their affection for the bands by cheering wildly, holding up two fingers in the "V" sign, and throwing lollipops on the stage.
As the wailing notes of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band drifted across the football players on the Sheep Meadow and bounced off the apartment houses on Central Park West, a barefoot blond girl in the back did an intricate dance by herself.

Grace Slick, the lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane, brought the crowd to their feet as she half-growled her lyrics into a hand microphone, and the excitement was maintained by the Grateful Dead, a band consisting of an electric organ, two electric guitars, an electric bass, a Chinese gong, and two complete sets of drums.
The Dead are extremely driving, amplified and hirsute, even by San Francisco standards, and in their finale, one of the drummers appears to run amok and savagely attacks his cymbals, while another member of the band sets off a small explosion.
As the group was playing, Michael F. Goldstein, a public relations man who assisted William Graham of the Fillmore East and Howard Solomon of the Cafe au Go Go in setting up the show, approached a glum-looking police captain near the bandstand.
"It's a great day and there aren't any hassles, captain, why aren't you happy?" Mr. Goldstein asked.
"I'd rather be listening to some Bach or Mozart," the captain replied, "or even Beethoven, heavy as he is."

(by John Kifner, from the New York Times, 6 May 1968)

See also: 


  1. Another spring in New York City, another free Dead show in Central Park... The Dead made this an annual tradition in the '60s, which Rock Scully sounds proud of here.

    The Airplane had announced the free show at their Fillmore East show the night before.
    Billboard reported, "An estimated 10,000 persons heard a free concert at Central Park's Mall on Sunday... The show was set up by William Graham of Fillmore East and Howard Solomon of the Cafe au Go Go, who probably will set up more such concerts in the future."

    The Village Voice (linked) described it: "The Dead nearly caused a civic disturbance by stopping when the permit said they had to (disturbance cooled by Bill Graham). It was beautiful. The audience - a little wiped out from hours of Butterfield Blues, Airplane, crush, and waiting - milled and sat. The Dead played: it was New York, but it was a free concert, in a park, on a sunny Sunday. The Airplane, back in the bandshell listening, grooved. The Dead started cooking. Suddenly a teenybopper was up down front, all limegreen and longhair and motion. The row of photographers in front of her were up. Then the audience, not in rows, but en masse, was up, dancing, screaming, frenzied. A firecracker went off onstage. Bubblegum flew. A drumhead popped and drumsticks flew. Everyone onstage was dancing. Suddenly it was over."
    One witness fondly remembers, "Everyone was up and dancing and didn't sit down until they stopped."

    Most newspaper reporters covering free park shows at the time didn't pay much attention to the music, but here the fuddy-duddy New York Times has pretty good coverage (though you wouldn't guess from the article that the whole crowd was dancing to the Dead). As usual the reporter pays attention to the youth attire and the pretty girls in attendance, but he also says a bit about the "oddly named" San Francisco groups and their "overpowering electronic sound," and seems especially taken (or bemused) by the noisy, hirsute Dead. He probably sympathized with the glum police captain!
    I'm reminded of the Toronto Globe & Mail's coverage of the Dead in August '67: "five simian men, presumably reeking with San Francisco authenticity...not volume, but noise...like a jet taking off in your inner ear, while the mad scientist was perversely scraping your nerves to shreds."