My first Grateful Dead Concert
In March of 1972, I was an eighteen-year-old singer-songwriter, performing at wine bars and cafes in San Jose. If I remember correctly, I had already given up my half-hearted presence at San Jose State University.
I had been collaborating with a lyricist, Stephen Donnelly, since our senior year at Branham High school. He had been touting the Grateful Dead for a while, telling me the Dead were “the second-greatest rock’n’roll band in the world”—accepting the Rolling Stones’ declaration that they were tops. I was focusing on that singer-songwriter world—CSN, Jackson Browne, John Prine, Steve Goodman, Cat Stevens. I looked at the Dead albums and saw titles like “Ripple” (an ode to cheap wine?), “New Speedway Boogie,” “Cumberland Blues,” etc. I wasn’t much into the blues, and “boogie” to me was synonymous with loud, uptempo music with unsubtle lyrics.
I’m not sure what he said that finally persuaded me to give the Dead a shot, but on March 5, 1972, with our friend Dennis Driver at the wheel of Donnelly’s green VW 1500, we took off up I-280 to attend a benefit concert at Winterland.
Fairly early in the trip, the throttle got stuck in the wide-open position. Dennis rode the clutch all the way to the City, as my extremely large dose of LSD began to take hold.
The show had already started when we got to Winterland; we were among the last to arrive. We headed for the upper reaches of the balcony, climbing over people sitting on the stairs and eventually settling into seats in the very last row. It must have been 120 degrees up there!
The Sons of Chaplin had recently changed their name to Yogi Phlegm, and I have a vague memory of one song from their set: “Poppa Can Play.” Then the New Riders of the Purple Sage took the stage. I didn’t know much about them other than they were “country-rock.” I recognized their covers – “Hello Mary Lou,” “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” “Willie and the Hand Jive,” and “Honky Tonk Women”—and I watched a bottle of Jack Daniel’s being drained over the course of the set.
I also don’t remember much about the Grateful Dead’s set. I was pretty overwhelmed by the acid, but I felt enough of the magic— and retained enough information—to motivate myself to learn more. Various bits of music stuck in my mind from that first show, and in the ensuing weeks I got hold of some records and started to sort out what I’d heard. The fragments that made a big impression on me included “Bertha,” Jerry Garcia’s guitar in (the world premiere of) “Black-Throated Wind,” Bob Weir’s guitar playing in “Greatest Story Ever Told,” and Pigpen’s expansive reinvention of “Good Lovin’.”
I had Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty and Grateful Dead (aka Skull & Roses). Garcia was already out (I remember hearing “Sugaree” on the radio), and Ace emerged in the spring.
I don’t know how I acquired the understanding that we needed to go to more than one show at a time, but I was wised up in time to camp out overnight at the San Jose Box Office in order to score tickets for three shows (plus a fourth, added later) at the Berkeley Community Theater in August – but not wise enough to notice that they also played a show in my town the night before the BCT run started.
`By the end of August, I was a goner. The Dead opened up my own music in a zillion directions, inspired me to take up the electric guitar, and propelled me into a world of literate improvisational music that has continued to inspire me for more than half a century.