Grateful Dead

Just Like New York City...

Symposium Looks at the Dead in New York

The Grateful Dead have always had a unique symbiotic relationship with New York. In the early days, there were free shows at Tompkins Square and the bandshell in Central Park, and extended stays at the Café Au Go-Go and the Electric Circus. Once the Fillmore East opened, that became the band’s main New York home for a while. In the ensuing years, the Dead played hundreds of shows in the New York metro area, from intimate halls like the Academy of Music/Palladium and the Capitol and Stanley theaters in Jersey City, to arenas like Madison Square Garden (52 shows!), Nassau Coliseum and the Brendan Byrne Arena, and more than a dozen in cavernous Giants Stadium. Yep, New York loved the Dead, and the feeling was mutual: The group almost always played fantastically well there—the energy of the crowd and the area clearly inspired the band. As Garcia told me in a 1988 interview, “In New York, it’s like Bill Graham used to say—they want the sword fighter, they want the juggler. In New York they really want you to sock ’em with rock ’n’ roll. I mean they’re tough!” he laughed.

The success of the current Grateful Dead exhibition at the New-York Historical Society is proof that the ardor of local fans has not dimmed through the years, and now, on Thursday May 27, the magical bond between New York and the Grateful Dead will be explored in what is certain to be a fascinating symposium, titled “Tales of the Grateful Dead and New York,” sponsored by the N-YHS but taking place nearby at the New York Society for Ethical Culture— 2 West 64th Street, NYC—from 6:30 to 8 p.m. that day.

According to noted GD historian, Sirius/XM Grateful Dead Channel host and dead.net contributing editor Gary Lambert, “The folks who put together the exhibition at the Historical Society asked me if I wanted to moderate a public program, which they put on frequently in conjunction with their exhibitions (as well as their freestanding events that are not connected to their exhibitions), on relevant matters to the Society’s mission of presenting New York history.

“So, I thought it would be really great to do something specific to the Dead and New York because their relationship to the city was so enduring and so important to them in terms of establishing a beachhead in the Northeast. Very early on there was a conscious strategy, which [former GD road manager] Sam Cutler mentioned in his recent book [You Can’t Always get What You Want], of playing New York a lot as an anchor for all other dates they could do in the region, and the band developed a great mutual affection for the town and the fan base there. And it also occurred to me that although the Grateful Dead was uniquely a product of a certain time and place—the Bay Area in the ’60s—so much of what they did was informed by cultural forces that either originated or found their fullest expression in New York: a lot of the jazz and other avant-garde music that they chose to emulate, for example; and of course the Beat movement started in New York and migrated out west and that had a crucial impact on what those guys became. So I thought it would be great to get a bunch of smart people together and talk about that specific aspect of the Dead’s history and how and why the city took to them as it did.”

The always witty and erudite Mr. Lambert will be moderating the event. “We put together what I think is a really cool panel,” he says. “Pete Fornatale is a local radio legend from WNEW who was there at the time the Dead were really starting to build an audience. One of the reasons the bands like the Dead got any kind of traction was because it was in that period when FM radio really took over from Top 40 as the dominant tastemaker. Pete was a big part of that here.

“Then we’ve got Carol Brightman [author of Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead’s American Adventure], who I think will be very interesting to have on the panel in terms of her knowledge of the Dead’s not always close—but interweaving—relationship with the counterculture at large, which was certainly a big thing going on in New York at the time, especially with the scene on the Lower East Side, where the Fillmore East was. I know Carol has some insight into the Dead getting smuggled onto the Columbia campus in a bread truck [during the strike there].

“I’m also really thrilled that we have [writer and Patti Smith Group guitarist] Lenny Kaye on the panel, because he was one of the first champions the band had in the local rock journalism community, and he wrote the lead Rolling Stone review of Live Dead. [Kayes’s verdict in the 2/7/70 issue: The album “explains why the Dead is one of the best performing bands in America, why their music touches on ground that most other groups don’t even know exists.”] He also cites how in a sort of inspirational, proto-punk way the Dead inspired a lot of the indie bands later on—although musically you probably can’t tell on the surface that what he and Patti Smith and people like that wound up doing was somewhat traceable to the way the Dead interfaced with the industry.

“And for me personally, this is a perfect thing to be doing, because my personal history with the Dead started at the bandshell in Central Park May 5, 1968, and so much of my passion for the band is very much intertwined with my having been a New Yorker and having the great cultural advantage of growing up in New York and getting turned on to all the kinds of music that would make me receptive to weirdness like the Dead.”

Bottom, line—it’s going to be a provocative and stimulating discussion, and lots of fun to boot!

Blair Jackson

Tickets: $20 ($10 for New-York Historical Society members); available at smarttix.com

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Just Like New York City...