Aug 6, 2019

October 23, 1970: McDonough Gym, Georgetown University, Washington DC


Mark Lang, a brother of mine, spent a lot of time rapping with Jerry Garcia while he (Mark) was living in Berkeley. Garcia once told him that the Dead were never intended to be a recording band, that making records was just something the band had to do for bread, and that the music of the Greatful Dead is an experience that must be shared in person.
The Dead's idea of music, as first demonstrated in the environment of Ken Kesey's Acid Tests in 1966, proved to be the experience that rescued American rock music from the likes of Gary Lewis and the Playboys. The Dead were the first born of the acid-rock scene with a new concept in the relationship of performers and audience. The emphasis was no longer on the music alone, though the music was the heartbeat of the event, but rather on the experience as a whole - the light-shows, the smell of incense, the touch of one another, and the vibrations. Along with the folk-rockers and the new blues bands, the "San Francisco sound" restructured and revitalized rock music.
Yet it is only with the release of their latest album, Workingman's Dead (their 5th), that the Dead have enjoyed any widespread popularity. Until recently, their only fans were for the most part other musicians, among whom Jerry Garcia became a legend. A rock and jazz critic for the Village Voice said it all when, while commenting that he considered Larry Coryell to be the best guitarist around, [he] added parenthetically "except for Jerry Garcia" who is only human when he wants to be. Garcia's sure-handed speed and economy of movement, his use of the entire length and breadth of the neck, his tonal control (though he rarely "bends" or "sustains" notes), and the beauty and power of his improvisational lines make him one of the finest guitarists of all time.
McDonough Gym is designed to hold 4500 bodies. About 6000 packed in to hear the Who last year. Between 8000 and 9000 were inside or immediately around the gym to hear the Grateful Dead. The music was piped outside, and after a few hours of admitting ticket holders only, all the entrances were thrown open for free general admission. Tickets had been selling for $5 in advance and $6 at the door, and I believe they sold out. Five dollars is a lot of bread, but I don't want to cry "rip-off" because I hear that the Dead asked for a high percentage of the gate plus their usual $10,000 (compare to CSN&Y who ask between $25,000 and $50,000). The Dead are badly in debt, as both the band and Owsley (their patron and engineer) are in drug-bust trouble. The Dead were busted for the second time in New Orleans, and Owsley is in jail pending an appeal. And remember that the Dead do more free concerts than any other major band.
The turnout for the Dead concert, their first in the DC-Baltimore area, has all the outward appearances of a holy pilgrimage, and the crowd looks to the stage as an altar. The sacrament is to be the music of Jerry Garcia's guitar. The Dead are preceded, as always, by the New Riders of the Purple Sage, with whom Jerry plays pedal steel guitar. A tiny cherub faced guy behind an absurdly large Guild acoustic guitar fronts the group and sings lead vocal. His name is Marmaduke. Coyly he asks the "monitor man" to turn up his guitar mike and stands there looking very stoned for fifteen minutes while they try to get it some volume, then Garcia shouts "fuck it" and Marmaduke's arm starts pumping across the strings like a power hammer. They go into the old Dave Dudley song "Six Days on the Road," and immediately the magic is on. Everybody in the front jumps up to dance and the usual "sit-down-in-the-front-stand-up-in-the-back" battle is begun. But above it all Marmaduke casts a spell. His whole little frame works out the beat and under his cowboy hat and blonde hair, his face becomes pure expression. Jerry's pedal steel riffs keep building stronger and more brilliant (he's only been playing the instrument for a year and a half, and the improvement over his playing on Workingman's Dead is striking). They do John Fogerty's "Lodi" and push it all up another notch. The finale is "Honky Tonk Women" and by the end of it, Marmaduke has chopped through all six of his heavy gauge strings, so they bid us good night.
There is about an hour's delay before the Dead appear. By this time kidneys are in critical condition and the overhead lights are making the floor of the gym seem like Death Valley. They are trying to get an aisle cleared down the center from the stage in order to remove someone who has taken ill. Virtually everyone in the audience is tripping and in extreme discomfort from the sardine-can crush and the heat. Yet no one leaves. I begin to develop this attitude that by God they'd better be good to put me (and all of us) through all this shit just to see them play. Then suddenly they are on stage and launch into "Casey Jones," and instantly everyone knows that it was worth the wait - everyone knows we were listening to the best rock 'n' roll band in the world.
Garcia sings "Casey" but Bob Wier does all the leads. All these freaks here to hear Garcia and he plays only one little lick in the entire song! Bob Wier continues to amaze me all night. He's easily as good as most lead guitarists, but mainly he's a great rhythm guitarist, playing long series of progressive chords interspersed with clean precise rhythm licks. During one jam, he and Garcia exchange one bar riffs beautifully for several minutes.
Even more astounding is bassist Phil Lesh. His right elbow arches over the bass guitar at a right angle as though he were playing an acoustic upright bass. Much of the time he plays out of bar positions, keeping his left wrist thrust out like that of a classical guitarist. He plays chords, octaves, and arpeggios, and his movements are often literally faster than the eye can follow. When the rhythm gets funky, he drops his right elbow and picks the strings with his thumb. I think I recall reading somewhere that he studied at Juilliard.
The Dead have two drummers, Bill Kreutzman and Mickey Hart. They start off playing the same thing together, and the visual impact is a trip. When they jam, Bill tows the line, counting out the beat, while Mickey starts syncopating the time, then they build one syncopation upon another until the fabric of the rhythm is filled to the bursting point, then snap back into the opening meter as the band begins a verse. Mickey Hart in particular seems to have an uncanny sense of the beat that allows him to syncopate it at will yet never disrupt the song. He did this strikingly well when he played with the Riders (he is the group's drummer).
Pigpen, who was with Garcia when he founded the band, has been relegated to the position of musical utility man in the Dead. He plays bongos, gongs, tambourine, organ, and mouth harp, but he has ceased to be as prominent a part of the Dead's instrumental work as he was in the band's early days. The early Dead were mainly into building spiralling crescendos, and Pen's organ sustained the rising tension. Then organist Tom Constanten joined the Dead and appeared on all their albums from the second through the fourth. His influence turned the group into what Garcia calls in retrospect "an experimental music" band. Tom has now left the group and they are a lot funkier and a little less "far-out" as a result. Pigpen now serves principally as the band's blues singer and turns out some great improvisational lyrics.
Jerry Garcia is getting a bit round and with his beard he looks like a teddy bear, always smiling his very strange smile. My brother Larry said to me while Jerry was hovering over the pedal steel, "Look at that face - that smile. That's the Dead!" Jerry used to wander around the stage quite a lot while he was playing, his wagging head bent down, buried in what he was playing. Now he mostly looks into the audience, from face to face, while his fingers, constantly in motion, create the closest thing to a rock equivalent of Coltrane's "sheets of sound." I mean, HE'S REALLY PLAYING ALL THAT, AND HE ISN'T EVEN WATCHING WHAT HE'S DOING! On his guitar, a stars and stripes bumper sticker flashes the legend "I am an American."
What songs did they play? Who remembers. "Know You Rider," a jam of "Cold Rain And Snow" and "Not Fade Away," "Good Love," "New Speedway Boogie." Things like that. What they play is rock 'n' roll. A lot of old stuff. And they play it like Stravinsky plays the masters. The Dead come on like a great musical machine, with a power that awes the audience, then when the initial wave passes over, has everyone grinning, dancing and generally getting it on. In response to a thunderous ovation, the Dead play an encore number, something they very rarely do. It is "Uncle John's Band." And they bid us goodnight.

(by Ric Sweeney, from the Eagle (American University), 30 October 1970) 



To the Editor:
I sent this letter to the President of the University. I hope you see fit to print it.

Dear Sir:
I am concerned about the concert which took place at McDonough Gymnasium, Friday, Oct. 23, 1970.
The gym was filled to over capacity by 7,000 or more people. (I got this figure from the Washington Post.) People were smoking cigarettes yet there was no organized attempt to clear and maintain aisles on each side of the gym. This condition creates a terrible hazard for people and property at hand. Safety is the most immediate level of my concern.
The next level is the lack of business ethic of the promoters, agents, and people responsible for the production. Too many tickets were sold for the space available. The show, due to begin at 8:30, was delayed. The doors were not even opened until 8:15. The group, (rather an off-shoot group), finally came out on stage at 9:00 but didn't do much of anything until around 9:25. They left the stage at almost 9:55 and did not reappear for an hour and 45 minutes. During this time nothing happened. At 11:00 the Grateful Dead materialized on stage to play probably five songs. The show ended at 12:30.
The Grateful Dead did not attempt any songs for which they are famous or the sort of music which made them so well-liked. They gave a half-hearted performance which I am hard put to classify as entertainment.
At five dollars per person one expects and should receive musical integrity in the form of a decent attempt at a performance.
In conclusion, I will add that the trash left by the crowd was deplorable. Perhaps if trash receptacles were available they would be used. I don't know.
I felt impelled to write because the concert was quite a swindle. It is not right to take such blatant advantage of people.

M. Elizabeth Person 
Falls Church, Virginia 

(from the Hoya (Georgetown U), 5 November 1970) 



To the Editor:
This letter is in reference to Miss Person's letter in the Nov. 5 HOYA, in which she characterizes the Grateful Dead concert as a "swindle." I can only scratch my head in bewilderment, as, out of the dozens of good and bad shows I have seen, this one was without a doubt the best. Perhaps that wasn't the right word, as it was more of an experience than a "show." I will grant that Miss Person and others were not interested in an "experience;" all they wanted was a good evening's entertainment. And they were not "entertained."
All I can say is that they should have been forewarned. The Dead never have been, are not, and do not intend to be "performers," "entertainers," or "stars." They are human beings making their particular music. That's why the lights were on: so you could be aware that you were in a room full of other people, and not watching a few figures among the darkness, like TV. You say they were half-hearted, but they were giving you their souls, and yours, and your neighbors'. Your reaction was up to you, they only presented the opportunity. They tried to make the best music they could, for you, and you instead wanted the "songs for which they are famous." Well you got the best performances of "Casey Jones" and "Uncle John's Band" I have ever heard. Does it really matter what they play, as long as it's good? You could have stayed home and listened to their records.
Songs are for singing; and they were doing something different, to see what would happen. As it happened, they succeeded. You could have had the courtesy to walk with them for awhile and get something out of the journey, instead of whining about the road being muddy, and can't we rest a bit, and my new shoes are getting worn out, etc. I'll admit that things were uncomfortable, and I can see why you wouldn't like to pay money to look at your friends for an hour, but good things don't come cheap. Ninety minutes is not a "long" show, but so much effort was put into [it] that to demand more would have been greedy.
Not many people seem to have liked the New Riders of the Purple Sage (though there was a lot of applause), regarding them as something of a welsh on the advertising, but I think it's better for the Dead to have a warm-up group, to get people ready for when things get really weird. I also happen to think the New Riders excellent on their own terms. But everyone is entitled to his own tastes. And of course you'll never get anywhere trying to please everybody you know. I'm just sorry you were put off by trivial problems, although the thing was incompetently run.

Mark Sawtelle 
Coll. '73

(from the Hoya, 12 November 1970)



May I heartily congratulate Kevin Moynihan and the Homecoming '70 Committee for pulling a fantastic stunt last Friday that qualifies them as second annual winners of the "Ron Henry Mismanage a Social Event" prize! When I read in the Oct. 22 issue of The HOYA that Mr. Moynihan "reminds concert-goers to bring a blanket" to the Grateful Dead Concert, I figured some budding HOYA journalist needed to fill up some space. (I never thought anything in The HOYA was meant to be taken literally.) But it turns out that The HOYA concert/fiasco tradition is in no danger of being supplanted. . . . .
Anyway, my date and I walked down to the Dead Concert, advance tickets in hand, fearing nothing worse than being inundated by pot-smoking teeny-bopper hippie freaks from Montgomery County. We weren't so lucky. Upon arriving at McDonough, we were told there was no room inside and they might find a place for us in the stable (alias, McDonough parking lot). They were nice enough to pipe the music out to us, and all for a measly $6 per ticket. October evenings in D.C. may be mild, but after 2 1/2 hours of sitting in the parking lot, with double pneumonia coming on and my date swearing she'd kill me if I ever dared call her again (she may only have been a dumb Marymountie, but she wasn't a bad kid), we left. And, of course, we didn't get our money back.
I realize this meager complaint will probably go to no avail. I'd bomb a building, but basically I'm a peaceful person. I just hope next time somebody on those godawful social events committees has the intelligence to enlist the aid of George Houston - or at the very least, an SBA accounting major.

George Sand 
Coll. '72 

(from the Hoya, 12 November 1970) 

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1 comment:

  1. 10/23/70 has turned out to be an extremely well-reviewed show, with reviews found from three university papers (so far). It seems the Washington Post covered the show as well - I haven't seen that article, but I'd guess it was more about crowd/police issues than about the Dead.
    The Eagle was the student newspaper of American University in Washington DC (where the Dead would play two years later).

    This review is so well-written I can add little in comment.
    Sweeney was very knowledgeable about the Dead and their history; he's clearly read up on the band, and his writing is much more in-depth and observant than most other reviewers at the time. Only a couple minor mistakes (Phil Lesh didn't study at Juilliard, and the Dead had played in Baltimore back in '69).
    He's seen the band before - doesn't say when, just remarks on Pigpen's diminished role in the music, and how Garcia moves less on stage now. He worships Garcia and "the best rock 'n' roll band in the world."
    Oddly, when it comes time to recall the setlist, he just shrugs, "Who remembers?" (Actually the Dead didn't play Cold Rain or New Speedway.)

    I added a couple letters to the editor from the Hoya, which I missed when searching the paper earlier. The Hoya never actually reviewed the show (instead running a number of pieces on the university's troubled reaction), but the letters offer a few thoughts. The first writer hated everything (the crowd, the organizers, the Dead, the world) and just wants to complain about it all; the second writer loved the show and gives her a well-deserved scolding; the third writer represents the poor souls who couldn't get into the overcrowded gym and had to listen outside.