Jun 19, 2019

December 31, 1971: Winterland


The Grateful Dead can do no wrong with an audience and they usually don't. This year's New Year Celebrations at Winterland were no exception. The hardcore fans all turned out from their Marin hideaways, from the Haight, and one gentleman came all the way from New York. "I've just travelled three thousand miles to be here tonight," he said as he was turned away from the stage door by a conscientious rent-a-pig who was scrupulously checking everyone's story.
Consequently after an hour-long wait I caught the end of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, who did an admirable job of filling in the time until the stars of the show were to appear, though their overall sound seemed somewhat weak in comparison to their excellent album. The lack of Garcia on steel guitar made an obvious difference and the vocals were murky, but the crowd was all with them and the acid and the energy was building up.
But first a tableaux had to be enacted: Bill Graham the sponsor, seated in a wheelchair, with long robes, silver hair and beard and transistor radio to ear, waving a wand, was wheeled down the centre aisle to the stage where a big clock beat out the seconds to midnight. His acting talents shined thru as he vainly clutched the hands of the clock, trying symbolically to hold back the coming of the New Year, but as midnight struck he fell to his knees and two rather mature looking new babes burst from the clock and began to throw bottles of champagne to the audience. The customary balloons descended, the pretty lights came on, a gigantic skeleton was lowered over the stage, and the stars of the show at last launched into "Dancing in the Streets" as the babes, by this time disrobed, cavorted about the stage merrily bringing in the New Year.
The energy was released, and everyone settled back for a four hour musical excursion with the smiling face of Garcia at the controls. All those songs we know and love so well, some old stuff some new, and some rock and roll. "It's always been 1956," Bob Weir said. Everybody peaked and a number of individuals near the front had visible psychedelic orgasms during one of the Dead's masterful musical climaxes.
Meanwhile, back outside there were the voyeurs, watching the freak show being enacted around the stage door. The guy just sitting on the cold pavement staring blankly, trying to get "it" together. A rent-a-pig understated, "All these crazy kids, half of them stoned on acid, we had to throw out two nudies this evening." (Law enforced voyeurism.) It's OK to watch the nudies on the stage, acting out freedom, but don't try to actually be that freedom.
And back inside, the Dead were well into their penultimate number, "Not Fade Away," more orgasms. But it did fade away, and visibly tired the Dead split the stage to the sound of thousands of hand and feet making known their loud approval. Winterland's plaster cracked and they came back for the inevitable encore of 'Casey Jones.'
And after the encore it was the end. Quite suddenly. The place that had been hot, heavy, and sweaty was quickly vacated. The doors that the rent-a-pigs had been zealously guarding all evening were now thrown open and the inmates picked up their coats, pieced together their dispersed heads, and made it out into the 4 am night cold. Helping up their shell-shocked friends on the way. Stepping over the empty coke cans, the discarded popcorn bags, and those lonely souls, sitting far away, lost in some musical mandala.
Strange paradox, the Dead preaching their message inside and the rent-a-pigs preaching theirs outside. As Mr. Graham was saying to an interrogator on this very subject..."I've had a beautiful evening, but if you don't split, I'll kick your fucking head in!"

(by Allan Stephanson, from the San Francisco Good Times, 14 January 1972)


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