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.)
Blair, I usually enjoy your posts but I couldn't get over this. I'm from new York, long island exactly, and everyone around here knows or knows of someone who died in 9/11. To write about it so jokingly just felt insulting. I feel like a jerk but I really thought it was offensive. I'm not going "to never read this" or "never use this sight". I'm jar rewarding a little consideration.
It IS one of my favorite life experiences ever.
OCD, OCD, not so fun for you and me.
The opening paragraph does seem a bit insensitive upon first glance. Sometimes something written seems harmless at first and then reads differently when seen by "bright unfocused eyes" (thank you RH).
The rest of the post is great.
7/13/84 was truly magical. It was my first Greek show, 5th GD show overall. First set was interesting, the break was VERY interesting, the second set was SPECIAL (how I wish I could go back to this show in the flesh!!!), and then Dark Star. I felt the presence of God, no kidding. It was one of my favorite life experiences ever. The skeletons on the glowing rainbow were dancing all night long.
The special feeling wasn't there on the 14th, and by the 15th the friend who I attended the shows with was getting on my nerves; plus, he wanted to leave early, so I missed the second encore of JBG, listening to it from outside the venue. BUT, to balance that out, the people we were staying with said someone THEY knew left the 13th before the encore and missed the Dark Star. i know i'd rather miss the JBG.
That was my only Greek run. The 13th is dear to my heart, the rest of it not so much.
Two shows at Ventura a week later, and then fate kept me away from attending (but not from listening to and loving) the GD until 7/19/87. Oh well.
God bless the Grateful Dead.
Here in Sweden there are many former refugees from Chile. They came after the miltary overthrew and killed the democratic elected president Salvator Allende on 9/11/73. And since the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet recieved aid from CIA with dr Henry Kissinger in charge, many former refugees have always had feelings of animosity against the Goverment of the USA.
Of course this doesn't mean they all had feelings of spitefulness on 9/11/01 even though some probably had it. All in all, both 9/11/73 and 9/11/01 meant big harm to humanity.
On the other hand I can't see why one can't think of other nine elevens, like Blair does here. Nine eleven is also the birthday of Mickey Hart, a good reason for thinking positive thoughts on that oterwise dreadful day in modern history.
Micke Östlund, Växjö, Sweden
------------------------------ My record collection: jazzmicke
I have really fond memories from the Greek shows in 85 and 88, so lucky to be among a few close friends, bopping to pounding Dead with THOUSANDS of your buddies, and bathing in GREAT SOUND. Too much.
One of my favorite Greek musical memories was hearing the first-ever "All Along the Watchtower" in the late 80s. It was a song many of us had wished they'd do, and when they unveiled it, it knocked our tie-dyed socks off. It sounded so powerful - the band clearly was locked into it - and obviously the song was a natural for them. And not so many words, for a Dylan song... helps Bob & Jerry not forget lyrics!
And yes, definitely remember that wild "Other One" in '89, with the giant flower being waved in the crowd near the stage.
There were numerous ways of transitioning from 9/11/01 to 9/11/81 thoughtfully, but you chose the crummiest way. You sound like you are saying:"Yeah, thousands were killed, thousands of children left without a father or mother (including 60 born after 9/11). But, that commemoration is political b.s. Let's commemorate something REALLY significant..." Michael Rudnick
Too True Blair, too many stories from the Greek sets "83, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, and not to forget JerryBand in 89 and 90 with Jimmy Cliff and Bela Fleck, resp.
Went to UCBerkeley one day from UCSantaCruz (shuttle-$2) and was checking out the campus and wandered by the Greek was open, so went inside, up on stage, back stage front stage found the Jerry spot and sat and had one for the head, this is '84, so I could always say, "Hey, see where Jer's standing, smoke one right there"
and the hits just keep on comin'
The Sky Was Yellow And The Sun Was Blue People Stopping Strangers Just To Shake Their Hand.
...I don't know which Greek shows you're talking about, but for the entire history of the Dead's time there, NO ALCOHOL was sold in the place. That's part of what made it so great. I don't remember seeing ANY drunks. And if people were out of control, it was probably in a good way...I don't recall seeing any violent or cruel behavior...
Blair , one thing i have tro admit ( that sweet sweeet Jelly is so good , no JK } . Is that sometimes there were drunk , Violent Cruel , out of control fans at these shows . And that was a threat for the thousands in presence of the concert .
I say this as i began to find amusing , this bands music in the early 90s . I was born in ' 75 .- So i had to see some of these latter day morons ruin things for the innocent bystanders and music lovers
Grat Photos of those pretty back drops
* Happy b day Mick . GREATEST Drummer ever , and a brother in arms . Who could ve accompanied Billy so well in those sweet intense Jams and special moments of the band ; Mick