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.)
Twenty years before 9.11.01.
All I can say.... I really treasured listening to this second set back in the day. There is something entirely wonderful about that show that is truly one of a kind. A great vibe to the music, and incredibly energy from the crowd.
Afterall, this is a website dedicated to the Grateful Dead, and this is an important milestone in their history. I don't know what a GD tribute to 9/11 would seem like, but I'm sure that a few Jerry ballads might have pacified the world at crucial times when we needed it.
Now that that's settled. Anyone living in the New Jersey/New York area would be well-served checking out Wigjam. They are a very talented Dead cover band (albeit their song repertoire being, while interesting and eclectic, limited so see them once and be blown away, twice and it's somewhat repetitive). The singer/lead guitarist is the best reflection of Jerry I've seen.
They will be at Mexicali Live in October.
I understand your point, and enjoy Blair's writing as well. It was interesting chatting with you- Thank You for a real good time!
"Yeah, yeah, I know. We’re all supposed to be somber as we approach 9/11.
But I’m more interested in celebrating (9/11/81)..."
Of course his point was he was more interested in celebrating another 9/11! I'm not going to reiterate my point. It's proof-text is to be found in the first two sentences of his post.
I didn't go to his blog to read a 9/11/01 tribute. I went to read his writing about our favorite band. He chose to use that day and it's 10th anniversary to segue into his post. And he could've done it more kindly. That's all.
Still enjoy his writing (way back to The Golden Road)!
My point was we are here to celebrate life. And many people honor the departed by doing just that. I believe that's Blairs point as well.
It's the same. I think you are trying to make a point, unclearly. Whatever your point may be, what does the musical loves of the victims have to do with my one and only criticism. I'm not criticizing the band, deadheads for being deadheads, Anti-Iraq War folks or folks that are rather tired of media hype. I only say that, even though this is only a blog post on the greatest band's website about said band, I think the baby (including, probably, numerous Deadheads) were thrown out with the bathwater. Those victims were not engaged in a war when they went to work or onto planes that day, they were innocent victims of murderers. Regardless of the path the government took, those victims were already dead. I know I am somber at that thought. I'm proud to say I can be somber at that thought 10 years later AND I can love The Dead. I don't have to dismiss a national tragedy to love the band. Apparently, some feel otherwise. My comment was to point that out and only that.
Well Michael07921, if someone who passed away that tragic day was a huge a Deadhead, then what's your point?
From me, ( the guy who accused Blair of crumminess) to the folks who think Blair wasn't at all insensitive: You seem to think that he's more interested in celebrating a Grateful Dead show than giving in to the cable news overhype. That's not what he wrote.
At a funeral we don't say, "Let's not mourn our dear departed, let's celebrate some other entity entirely."
Yes, cable news feels it needs to overdo every story. But some people tune in for a few moments to see commemorative pieces. If the channels don't have them continuously, people will tune to a station that happens to be showing such a piece at the time.
Jingoism, racism, phony right wing patriotism is a terrible thing indeed. But that has nothing to do with what Blair actually wrote.
Someone wrote that Blair Jackson doesn't need anyone to defend him. Well, he didn't need these folks.
After 9/11/01 I didn't listen to music for quite a few days. When I did I popped in the Grateful Dead. One can praise the glory that is the Grateful Dead without essentially dissing the victim's of 9/11. Blair threw out the baby with the bath water.
... though I was not aware that was Neil's only show with that band! For some reason, what I remember most about that was the upright piano that they had onstage...Those Bread & Roses Festivals were always a highlight, the years they put it on. Saw so many great, legendary performers there I would never have seen otherwise.
I also didn't mention the Berkeley Jazz Fest (which is the reason Weather Report played the Greek), which I attended a few years running in the '70s. There was another great Joni Mitchell Greek set there in '79--her band was Jaco, Herbie and Don Alias... sort of the mini-version of the great group she had for her Shadows and Light tour, where her band had Pat Metheny and The Persuasions sang with her. (That group put on one of my all-time favorite shows, at the SF Civic whatever year that tour was...)
Just one bit of clarification Blair.
You mentioned seeing Neil Young's Hawks & Doves tour at the Greek.
There was no "tour"... it was one set by that band, performed as the last
act of the first night of 1980's Bread & Roses Festival. It was their only
performance ever as that unit. And it was Neil's only concert performance
between Oct. 1978 (the Rust Never Sleeps tour) and July 1982 (the Trans tour).
Due to the difficult birth of his son Ben, he didn't perform live during those years.
I was at that show too, and it was fantastic. I remember that Neil had an
incredibly long Rip Van Winkle-esque beard at the time. Leonard Cohen also
played that night.
Always loved the Greek, and always will.
I was fortunate to see Peter Gabriel there just a few months ago...