Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Remembering 9/11 (’81!)
By Blair Jackson
Yeah, yeah, I know. We’re all supposed to be somber as we approach 9/11.
But I’m more interested in celebrating 9/11—specifically 9/11/81—the 30th anniversary of the Dead’s first (modern) appearance at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. That evening was the first of 27 shows the band played at that magnificent venue from 1981-1989 (three per year). If you ever got to experience a Dead show there, you know there was nothing else quite like it.
I had already enjoyed many concerts at the Greek before I caught the Dead there. When I moved to Berkeley in the fall of ’73, the Greek was my neighborhood venue — for three years I lived a few blocks south, down Piedmont Avenue on Frat Row (but not in fraternities), a five-minute walk to the Greek. Racking my memory, I came up with a slew of great shows I attended at the Greek before September ’81, including Linda Ronstadt in her prime (’75), Jefferson Starship (’75), Bob Marley & the Wailers (’78), Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock at the Bread & Roses Festival (’78), the amazingly psychedelic “Tribal Stomp” of ’78 (featuring the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Country Joe & the Fish, Big Brother), Weather Report (’79), Bonnie Raitt (’80), Neil Young’s Hawks and Doves tour (’80) and The Kinks with killer opener Joe Ely (’81). So I knew that magic was easily accessible there. No wonder I was positively salivating at the prospect of seeing the Dead play there for the first time since a sparsely attended benefit concert in 1967.
It had been a while since I’d seen the band. I missed the ’80-’81 New Year’s series at the Oakland Auditorium because I was visiting family back East and getting engaged to my beautiful wife on New Year’s Eve, above Times Square. And the Dead didn’t play a show in Northern California the eight months before the Greek concerts, so my last show had been the final night of the Warfield 15th anniversary run (10/14/80). As fate would have it, the ’81 Greek series was the first three-show run Regan and I ever attended and it came just a month and a half after our wedding (also in Berkeley). Incredibly, the Dead had not played an outdoor show in the Bay Area since their Oakland Stadium (ugh!) concerts with The Who back in 1976.
When we arrived at the Greek that Friday, Sept. 11, we found the old place had been fabulously decorated by the good folks at Bill Graham Presents. A gorgeous, trippy tie-dye backdrop created by Courtenay Pollack (he of the fabulous GD tie-dyed amps of the early ’70s) spanned the entire width of the normally drab, grey concrete stage from the floor to about 10 feet above the musicians’ heads. The lower part of the tie-dye consisted of circular mandala designs in blues, greens, purples and yellow; topped by more mandala patterns that were connected by a striking yellow-dominated serpentine shape that seemed to undulate constantly; a psychedelic snake guarding the stage! Above that, between the two center columns at the rear of the shallow stage, were the friendly cutout male and female skeletons that had graced the front of the Warfield a year before for that 15-night run, and in each of the spaces between the other columns at the rear of the stage were huge wreaths of roses and other flowers.
The tradition established that first year at the Greek was the Friday show would start at 7, the Saturday show at 5 and the Sunday one at 3. As we quickly learned, this gave each show a different visual character, with the first mostly in the dark, the second split between daylight and evening, the third between afternoon and dusk. Nights could be bitterly cold if the famous Bay Area fog came whipping through the Golden Gate, crossed San Francisco Bay and reached up into Berkeley with its wispy fingers. But Saturday and Sunday afternoons were frequently quite warm, the shadeless concrete bowl radiating heat.
The setting was stunning—the 9,000 capacity venue, built in 1903, was modeled after ancient Greek amphitheaters, with the main stepped bowl (and a shallow, steep grass lawn with a canopy of towering eucalyptus trees above it) accommodating perhaps two-thirds of the crowd, who spread blankets out and danced or put down cushions and sat, or both; it was very loose and free-form, particularly the first couple of years. The rest of the audience was gathered in a semi-circle between the stage and the raised bowl, mostly dancing. It was usually fairly crowded up below the stage, as you’d expect, but nothing compared to a packed arena or stadium. There was also a rim of slightly elevated marble “thrones” at the back of the main floor—never sat in one myself, but they were always in high demand.
What made the Greek so special—aside from the clear and powerful sound (ask any musician who’s played there)—was that the bowl configuration allowed us all to enjoy each other in a way that a conventional venue, where all the seats are facing forward, oriented toward the stage, could not. Your eye was naturally drawn to the rhythmic sea of dancing bodies all around the bowl. You’d see friends and acquaintances from afar, maybe share a moment or two, before your attention might shift back to the stage or the tie-dye backdrop or, once night fell, the splashes of colored lights the ever-inventive Candace Brightman would project on the crowd. In the late afternoon sun, you’d see bronzed bodies glowing in the golden light, the sun’s reflection in thousands of sunglasses around the bowl.
That first Sunday Greek show in ’81, there was a small group of long-tressed, nubile young women who danced topless for much of the afternoon—a California dream come to life as the band played on. People picnicked before the shows and at the break, visited friends, walked to the top of the bowl to take in the panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay (fog permitting). Frisbees—supposedly banned—sailed across the expanse of the amphitheater, eliciting “oohs” and “aahs,” or sat in laps to be used for rolling joints. In later years, the scene outside the shows got kind of crazy—and eventually led to the Dead being banned from the venue—but inside it often felt like being in an enveloping rainbow-hued cocoon. Everything you needed and everyone you wanted to hang with was right there.
The bonus to an afternoon and evening livin’ the good life at the Greek was that a Grateful Dead concert was part of the deal, too. And more often than not the band played really well there. This past week I’ve been under headphones revisiting the ’81 Greeks courtesy of some fine audience recordings I downloaded to my iPod Nano from Archive.org. (Sad to say, soundboards of those shows do not seem to exist, diminishing the likelihood that we’ll ever see a Complete Greek box someday.) I hadn’t heard the shows in years, and they certainly lived up to my rosy memory of them. They’re filled with energetic and enthusiastic playing, there are a few ferocious jams, and nearly all the big songs and combos deliver—“Scarlet” > “Fire,” “China Cat” > “Rider,” “Estimated” > “Eyes” (all from the spectacular Saturday show), “The Other One,” “Morning Dew,” “Bird Song,” “Stranger” > “Franklin’s”; the hits keep a comin’ one after another.
I’m not saying they were the best shows of all time or anything, but the overall experience of the three days—the setting, the music, the crowd—was so overwhelmingly positive, even transcendent, my appreciation of the whole scene soared to another level. And I thought I was already hard-core!
I could fill a book just talking about all the Dead’s Greek Theatre shows through the years—Courtenay’s tie-dyes in ’82 and ’83; a “Morning Dew” that literally knocked me off my feet; the ’84 “Dark Star” encore; the 20th anniversary shows; the fabric hot-air balloons festooned with rose designs that were launched from backstage one year; the “motorcycle space”; Flora and Airto helping out the Rhythm Devils; Bob’s hilarious band introductions during the ’86 “Good Lovin’”; the intergalactic “Other One” of ’89; and on and on.
Back on Sept. 11, 1981, when we were standing there, dazed and delighted at the end of that first night, we had no idea what the Greek would come to mean to us all. Or that the next year would bring us the first shows at Frost Amphitheatre across the bay, and Ventura down the coast, the Downs in Santa Fe and so many other beautiful places that made being a Dead Head in the 1980s so special. The Greek ’81 was the start of all that.
Oh, yes: Sept. 11 is also Mickey Hart’s birthday; has been for the past 68 years!
Care to share some Greek memories with us?
(To see more of Clayton Call’s cool photos of the Dead and other bands, click here.)
just had to chime in on the greek
dove across the country from VA summer 85 to hopefully catch the greek shows (had no tix) and then the tour from alpine to to pittsburg (i did have tix for the rest of that rainy 20th aniv. tour), nice way to spend my first summer out of highschool
got shut out of the greek first two shows but they cranked the show on big speakers in the neighboring soccer field
then i did score a ticket on the 3rd night minutes before start time (thanks mark) and got to totally enjoy that sloppy cryptical and the rest of the show
havent been back to CA since but that was great
I was at all three shows and they had a special twist as I was wearing a new contraption called a beeper because my wife was home in Montain View 8 1/2 months pregnant with our first child who was born later that month (9/26). So I was "on call" to boogie home but was fortunate to be able to see all three shows. My wife had stopped going to shows at this point so she was kind of glad to have an excuse not to go. Loved the setting at the Greek but man those concrete steps were hard to sit on. I was happy when they moved the Rex shows to Cal Expo - much easier on the body :-)
Not the greatest opening to an otherwise nice read. We are not "suppose" to be anything...we just are...for reasons.....and our somber feelings on 9/11 come from the fact that thousands of people lost their lives on what was the most horrific day in my life. I love this website, but after reading the opening of this article, I lost a little respect for ya Blair.
Even though I was Bay Area born and raised, going to The Greek was a reminder of how special the Bay Area was. Perfect weather, a beautiful setting and the Grateful Dead. Plus, in the early days, I could walk, so it meant I could stop at the Top Dog on Durant on the way home.
One of my most vivid Greek memories was meeting a trio of Deadheads from Vienna, Austria while hanging out in the lower bowl waiting for the show to start. This must have been Sunday, July 15, 1984, although of course you know how memories are. Anyway, since the whole idea of the Internet was still a Star Trek concept, meeting people from a foreign country who were huge Deadheads was fascinating (fortunately they spoke excellent English). All the things I took for granted, like seeing Jerry Garcia at the Keystone, were absolutely magical to these guys. I tried not to rub it in, but I felt good about where I lived. It was a perfect sunny day, and the Greek looked its best.
Anyway, my favorite moment was when one of them interrupted us and pointed and said "look, look, over at the soundboard" (in English, probably for my benefit). They all stared slack jawed, but I didn't see anything except Dan Healy and John Cipollina behind the board, smoking cigarettes as usual. "I'm sorry, what do you see?" I asked. One of my Viennese friends managed to stutter "it's John Cipollina!" I'd never felt cooler--I was so Bay Area I took Cipollina for granted. "What's he doing here?" my friends asked. "Well, seeing the show, like we are" I explained.
Of course, all the Austrians raced over to talk to him, and Cippo couldn't have been nicer. They came back walking on air. The Dead hadn't even come on to the stage and their trip was a complete success. I smiled--just another sunny day in Berkeley.
In those days, for me anyway, it never felt quite right when a "Scarlet" wasn't followed by a "Fire," and though it was cool to get something different (I guess) there's no way a "Touch" equated with a "Fire," so I was a tad bummed at the time... but then delighted when we still got the "Fire." The things we used to obsess over!
Of course by the time the "Dark Star" encore appeared, accompanied by an outer space slide show, I wasn't thinkin' about the how novel the "Scarelt-Touch-Fire" was...
I recall, and have on tape someone, a woman, announcing how important 9/11 was because it was Mickey Hart's birthday. I was there for that show and the next eleven at the Greek (until 1984). I recall the magical Scarlet Begonias>Touch of Grey>Fire on the Mountain in 1983. Or maybe it was 1984. Great venue!
9/11/83- I did forget about that one- Thanks Blair!!!
9/11/83 at the Santa Fe Downs!
As for Jerry at the Greek... don't forget the year Bonnie Raitt played with him!!
I didn't get to see a Grateful Dead show at the Greek- I did once eat a Gyros sandwich at a show at Soldiers Field. Sorry, bad joke- just trying to lighten the mood. Let's not forgot 9/11/73 and 9/11/74, 2 fantastic shows for sure.
Blair , I was 12 when i first heard Touch of Grey in a jukebox on summer vacation in a beautiful area in Iowa called Okoboji . Never knew years later - 1992 - I d become a lifelong admirer of the greatness and magnificence of their music / art
In the latter day tours , on a certain ocassion friends who went to Highate VT in 1994 and 95 - excellent place to see this band ( perhaps with some similarity to Buckeye lake in OH } . That there ocassionally were rowdy yahoos here and there , raining in people s afternoon ( Example the Deer creek perpetrators in July 2 1995 } .
I totallyy doubt the greek theatre posed this type of anomalous behavior from its fans
Peace Blair and everyone reading . I just wanted to get clear that there wasn t always a peachy , wonderful experience seeing and following this band ...
We , in my native Chile await a Sept 18 celebration of our 201 st anniversary amidst much social and media clutter . That like i suggested , when managed unaccordingly can produce sobering experiences
Greetings and wishes that we on earth ,learn to tolerate other's comments , their experiences . And their constructive opinions the way that the lord asked us in the bible s gospels
“In your patience possess ye your souls.” The Gospels
Peace to all again , in these challenging times we live in