Mar 29, 2018

October 30, 1970: SUNY Gym, Stony Brook


Seeing the Grateful Dead ever more becomes a complex situation, filled with ritual, worship, and even madness. There are those who would (and do) pursue them across the country or put their asses on the line by attempting to steal past fences and security guards that they might trip out of their faces on stage behind Jerry Garcia's amplifier. If any band is enchanted, it is the Grateful Dead and if any night is the Dead's night, it is Halloween.

We journeyed to see the Grateful Dead at Stoney Brook on Halloween as, no doubt, thousands did, until Penn Station, it seemed nothing less than a pilgrimage.
I was enchanted from the very beginning. With Kevin's car incapacitated, the only alternative was hitching. So, two friends and myself waited along with six others in an intermittent drizzle on the entrance to the Thruway.
But the spirits of the day were partial to our malaise and within four hours, by way of two long rides, we arrived at Binghamton, cramped and woozy. Kevin and I grew uneasy. Things that go too smoothly are always subject to suspicion. Certainly the worst was yet to come.
We left our friend at Harpur with night an hour old already and the cold becoming quietly noticeable.
A short ride left us, along with one other passenger, several blocks from Route 17. Together the three of us walked down Susquehanna Ave. in this silly town of Binghamton. Our guide, short and large with curly hair, a ring in her nose, an American Indian and four months pregnant to boot. Being with her was one of those few fragile and precious human interchanges that remind you, if need be, that you are alive.
We walked slowly through the ghetto of Binghamton while our little lady rapped on about most everything. Early trick or treaters in masks and sheets danced around in the streets.
She asked us if we were hungry ("We don't have much, but if you boys are hungry, y'gotta eat"). We explained that we'd eaten and we blessed her kindness silently.
We left her at her house and she wished us luck, reminding us once more exactly where on 17 we should stand. We wished her the best with the new baby and she laughed. "Oh, don't you worry none 'bout the baby, it's me you gotta worry 'bout with three of them now, running around all crazy." We moved on as she stood at the gate, calling on her roommate in Spanish.
A short ten-minute ride and then the final deliverance - a ride all the way to New York with two guys from Cornell. Well, we thought, the worst doesn't necessarily have to come.
The Bronx! The Bronx! How unholy it seemed, walking away from Kevin's house - still, yet watchful; Halloween pumpkins glowing beside American flags in shaded windows. Change in the Bronx is subtle - always - a few more cracks in the pavement, another tree missing from Mosholu Parkway.
I talked with the folks for a while over coffee and then collapsed into sleep. The little three rooms that compose home never seemed smaller.
The next day's visit to my high school left me shaken. Perhaps it should not have; the stagnancy that has beset every human artifact, movement and situation certainly should not be exempt from a high school.
I spoke for some time with last year's English teacher who, for me, was that one person who remains synonymous with the high school experience. We talked long and the resignation was in his voice, the last voice in which I'd expect to hear it.
Well, high school was always a joke, wasn't it? So why shouldn't it now simply become a different kind of joke? A guy I know raced up to me. "Hey, next week we plan to lower the American flag and put up the YIP and NLF. Plus we got a special knot so they won't be able to get it down!" Said with all the political fervor of a kid with a new toy.
My friend, Maria, in the three weeks I hadn't communicated with her, had transferred to night school close to her home.
Lastly, I spoke to Maryam, a friend visiting from Cornell. Maryam is half Black and Cornell is no place for halfway situations. She sounded beleaguered. We parted, and she told me to try and get in touch with her backstage at the concert that night. Maryam has been with Pigpen for about a year now.
Kevin and I took the subway to Penn Station. It was an old train, its floor littered with that morning's Daily News: "Brunette Found Stabbed In Apartment."
We decided to walk from 34th and Sixth to the station. New York was in the midst of rush hour. Suddenly being thrust into the tumult of New York City after an absence creates an amazing elevation of the senses. Unable to keep pace, we walked slowly as people pushed by us, absorbing fragments of conversation and the smell of roasting chestnuts.
When I bought the train tickets, one-way to Stony Brook, the teller smiled knowingly and said something about the Dead.
Everyone congregated on Track 18, people with packs and guitars, flutes and harps. The commuters shivered.
I met a guy from (of all places) my driver's ed class.
The trip was long and the car filled with cigar smoke and the cries of card players. The guy from driver's ed walked to the back of the train and got quietly stoned outside the car. As we pulled out of some Long Island town, a rock crashed through the window alongside his seat. Calmly, he pulled a frightening splinter of glass out of his ear.
Stony Brook is a completely schizoid environment. Perhaps that is the nature of Long Island. After all, suburbia is in a tenuous position, never knowing when the first project will mark its absorption into urbanization.
Stony Brook is where a person suddenly lays down a rap about Marvel Comic Books and just as suddenly disappears or where two folks with painted faces join your game with the salt shaker at a table in the snack bar or where some non-descript individual joins your plan to locate your friends and just as soon melts back into the crowd that spawned him. It is where people's social games are either much too obvious or else non-existent.
Stony Brook is where the Grateful Dead played on Halloween weekend.

The early show never ended at midnight, having begun late, and we massed outside the gym until 2 a.m.
The Dead's cars, nice, shiny limousines, were parked outside. Limousines. "I thought the Dead don't use limousines?" someone remarked. He sounded offended.
"Seize the Time" lay on the front seat and we slipped some nonsensical note into the book.
Security was quite prominent as they began to admit us slowly, the ushers begging the crowd not to push. The gym filled to capacity.
The New Riders opened. A bit unsure at first, they quickly gathered momentum, mixing the old with the new, until they climaxed with "Honky Tonk Woman."
I had never seen the New Riders of The Purple Sage before, but I am convinced that they produce some of the sweetest and tightest music around. Marmaduke is an intense performer and his songs are all fine compositions. Garcia wrenched amazing sounds out of his steel pedal (an instrument to which I am partial) complete with a wah-wah. They left stage after "Honky Tonk" to a standing ovation but didn't return for an encore.
After a spaced-out Betty Boop cartoon, the Dead came out.
They opened with a brand new song about the hard life of the workingman. Garcia got a nice steel pedal sound out of his guitar during the piece. It seems that he plays both instruments in a similar fashion. After one song, the audience was on its feet and smoke spiralled through the lights.
"China Cat Sunflower" followed and flowed into "Know Your Rider." The combination was possibly the best work of the evening. The Dead seemed especially nostalgic that Friday evening, getting deep into material off Vintage Dead. Besides "Know Your Rider," "Dancing in the Streets" and "It Hurts Me Too" were heard.
"Dancing in the Streets" was the spiritual highlight of the set. Bob Weir turned the vocal into a high-powered plea that brought everyone to their feet. The gym shook as the lights played upon several thousand wiggling asses.
The entire set was a field day for Pigpen. His vocal graced "It Hurts Me Too," "Too Hot to Handle," and the inevitable "Lovelights." He also displayed some fine harp work on "It Hurts ..." Unfortunately he almost completely avoided his organ except during tune-up, when it could be heard grumbling above all else.
Garcia took a back seat for the first half of the concert, allowing Weir to get into some of the finest guitar he has ever produced. Gradually, Garcia began to cook and the entire band swung into that old Grateful Dead magic. Somewhere around here, during "St. Stephen" - "Not Fade Away," they launched into some incredible jamming that had everyone mesmerized.
At last, the Dead moved into a comparatively short "Lovelights," a smoke bomb exploded and they left the stage. The audience screamed and stamped their feet but the Dead didn't reappear.
I found Kevin, who'd disappeared early in the evening. He had found Maryam and spent half the concert in a tiny room backstage, drinking cider, eating cheese and talking with her as the New Riders quietly nodded out in respective corners. The second half, he stood behind Garcia's amplifier, tripping out of his face.
We stepped outside as the sun crept up, red through the grimy air of New York City.
The Dead had come across strong, even in the face of several hassles. During "Not Fade Away" Weir's mike passed out and he spent a moment in a famed Bob Weir fit before moving to another. Later, a speaker blew and had to be completely replaced. It was accomplished quickly and efficiently by the Dead's whiz kid, Ramrod (who turned down Kevin's offered aid). Lastly, the Stony Brook gym is a limited environment, yet the band seemed to need little time to feel it out.
The set was somewhat abbreviated, perhaps due to the overtime allotted to the first show or even a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Dead themselves. The customary acoustic section was sorely missed.
Nonetheless, too many questions were raised in my mind. The Grateful Dead have been playing quite a few concerts these days. In truth, can they be expected to be enjoying themselves even 50% of the time? At what point does pleasure become business and business become drudgery? During "Lovelights" Pigpen wandered away and had to be frantically called back by Weir. And, as a billion flashbulbs popped when Garcia lit a joint, he was heard to mutter: "Big fucking deal."
And as for us, packed inside a gymnasium, the sweat rolling down and joining the sweat of basketball and calisthenics, how far will we go in our frantic worship? Outside the concert, several people attempted to gain free admission. A cop singled out one and proceeded to beat the living shit out of him as an usher implored: "There is no need for that, no need at all!" Who then is the manipulator? The manipulated?
It is said that Garcia's new rap is that we don't need the Grateful Dead; we should learn to entertain ourselves. He should know better and perhaps he does, only falling a victim to wishful thinking. As Robert Hunter, the Dead's lyricist said: "One man gathers what another man spills."
Trick or treat, Jerry.

(by Alan Meerow, from the Spectrum, Buffalo NY, 6 November 1970)

Thanks to Dave Davis.

See also:  (early + late shows w/ NRPS)  


  1. An unusual article - rather than the hastily-written review that's usually found in the papers, the author clearly spent time crafting this one, and it reads more like a short story, with the hitchhikers' odyssey across a decaying but friendly New York just as important as the actual show itself.

    Meerow was a freshman in the University at Buffalo (though he sounds older) - he'd grown up in the Bronx, so this trip to see the Dead also served as a visit back home, and he stops by his high school too. He mentions the Dead fans who "pursue them across the country" (already, in 1970), and thinks nothing of hitchhiking across New York state to see them, a day-long pilgrimage. For the true fan, seeing the Dead is a process "filled with ritual, worship, and even madness."
    Evidently he'd seen them before, though he doesn't say when - he hasn't seen the New Riders before, but mentions the "inevitable" but "comparatively short" Lovelight (a mere 22 minutes), "sorely missed...the customary acoustic section," and refers to "a famed Bob Weir fit" when a mike dies. He'd also picked up Vintage Dead, which had just come out. I'm especially impressed that he names Ramrod!

    Meerow says he saw the Dead on Halloween, slightly misleading since he actually went to the show on the 30th. Technically it occurred after midnight on Halloween though: "The early show never ended at midnight, having begun late, and we massed outside the gym until 2 a.m." (The Dead actually cut the early show pretty short, playing for less than an hour.)
    The same thing happened the next night, as the Stony Brook paper reported:
    "“The Grateful Dead were very uncooperative,” said one [Student Activities Board] member, explaining that the group insisted on continuing their first show until midnight, the time set for the start of the late concert. As a result, the second concert could not begin on time, and impatient ticket-holders waiting for the second show were joined by gate-crashers in the pushing and shoving that developed."

  2. Meerow says the Dead "opened with a brand new song about the hard life of the workingman" - he must have got his notes mixed up, since the New Riders' set started with Workin' Man Blues, but the Dead set started with Smokestack Lightning which he fails to mention in his list of Pigpen songs. (Instead he lists 'Too Hot To Handle,' which Pigpen didn't sing that night - an interesting mistake which shows he knew they played that song, though he didn't know the title.)
    He was impressed by the New Riders, and notes a similarity between Garcia's pedal-steel & guitar playing. He observes that Garcia lays back in the first half of the show, but once he starts cooking "the entire band swung into that old Grateful Dead magic." He gives a striking image of the whole gym dancing to Dancing in the Streets, "the spiritual highlight of the set," but suggests China>Rider was the band's best work. He also praises Weir's playing ("some of the finest guitar he has ever produced"), is sorry Pigpen doesn't play more organ, and is mesmerized by the "incredible jamming" in the Stephen>NFA medley.
    On the other hand, he also notices that the Dead aren't in a good mood. Though not quite as awful as the late show on 10/31, this show was quite sloppy & tepid, with Garcia's playing in very poor form by the end ("big fucking deal," Garcia mutters). This might not have been apparent to the audience: "The Dead had come across strong, even in the face of several hassles." They remained pros even during equipment troubles, and "needed little time to feel out" the gym.
    At less than two hours, Meerow feels the set was abbreviated and, despite his love of the music, senses the band's "lack of enthusiasm." He suspects, accurately, that perhaps they're touring too much to enjoy it, with a lot of pressure from the fans' "frantic worship."
    This raises a bit of soul-searching, as he wonders whether Dead shows have become "business" and "drudgery" for the Dead themselves, and worries about Garcia saying "we don't need the Grateful Dead, we should learn to entertain ourselves." (Not too far from Garcia's actual disgruntled mood at the time.) But Meerow feels the Dead are a necessity, bringing enchantment and magic to the masses even in workmanlike shows like these.

    (Editorial note: The original article, as typical for newspaper stories, was randomly broken up into smaller sections with their own captions, which were generally added by an editor. I omitted these as usual, but should note that Meerow added the captions himself, since they're the titles of Dead songs: Cryptical Development, Dire Wolf, Don't Step On Tracks, High Time.)