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Blair’s Golden Road Blog - New Year’s Eve Memories, Pt. 1

By Blair Jackson

Even though I was a rabid Dead Head when I moved from New York to the Bay Area back in the fall of 1973, I didn’t make it to a Dead New Year’s Eve show until 1981-82.

Let’s see if I can reconstruct my thinking… In ’73 the Dead didn’t play NYE, but I spent the evening hanging out with my new girlfriend in my rooming house bachelor pad in Berkeley listening to the Allman Brothers’ marathon show at the Cow Palace across the bay in SF. The Allmans were one of my favorite bands at the time, and imagine my excitement when Garcia and Bill Kreutzmann (and Boz Scaggs, whom I barely knew at the time) showed up for the final two hours of the show!

The Dead were on “hiatus” during NYE in ’74 and ’75. In ’76, they played at the Cow Palace but I disliked the venue so much I elected not to go. (Sure do like the CDs that came out of that show a few years back, however!)

Now it gets tricky. In ’77, I went to the 12/27 and 12/29 shows and skipped 12/30 and 12/31. This was typical for me. In those days I never went to all the shows in a run—it never occurred to me, frankly. And there was something that made me think that going to Winterland to see the Dead on NYE would be a tremendous ordeal, so instead I went to the Cow Palace (oh, the irony!) to see Santana (I was a longtime fan), Journey, who in those days were practically prog-rockers, and local fave Eddie Money, who was riding high at the moment and always put on a good show.

In ’78, I went to see Van Morrison at Winterland in early December (which we all knew was the storied venue’s final month before it closed down), then I caught two Bruce Springsteen shows there mid-month, and I was back there December 30 to see Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, who were probably my second favorite act at the time. I spent New Year’s Eve watching the Dead’s “Closing of Winterland” concert on TV in the comfort of my tiny Berkeley bungalow; never regretted that decision.

In December ’79 I went to three of the first four Dead shows at the Oakland Auditorium, in part because it was so much more accessible to me than Winterland had been. But I still didn’t go New Year’s Eve! Instead I saw Tom Petty, Chuck Berry and the Fabulous Poodles ring in the New Year at Oakland Coliseum. Petty descended from the upper reaches of the arena to the stage riding on a humongous Flying V guitar. Yeah!

In 1980, I was visiting my parents in Manhattan during the holiday season so I missed that entire series at the Oakland Aud. At midnight on that New Year’s Eve, in a restaurant high above Times Square, I asked Regan to marry me. I once calculated that if the Dead had gone onstage that night in Oakland around 8:30 or so, by 9 o’clock (midnight in NYC) they might have been playing “Cassidy” during their acoustic set. Aww, how romantic! (Or maybe it was “Monkey and the Engineer”!)

Midnight balloon drop at the SF Civic, 12/31/84

Finally we make it to ’81, and Regan and I have Grateful Dead fever, a direct result of having had our spirits gloriously uplifted and our minds thoroughly blown by the group’s three Greek Theater shows in September of that year. This time we scored tickets for all five shows, starting with December 26—Regan’s birthday; excellent “Scarlet-Fire” that night—and ending with what turned out to be the best Grateful Dead New Year’s show I would ever see (and I saw the next 10, ending in 1991, the year of Bill Graham’s death). I guess you could say I finally “got” New Year’s Eve that magical night. OK, so the 30th did often end up being the hot show in subsequent years. New Year’s Eve was always a trip in itself, a wild (and long) rollercoaster ride. True, there were often bands I didn’t want to hear as opening acts, a lot of waiting around, and jeez, the whole nightmare of trying to save seats for friends… Ugh! Don’t get me started! But hey, there wasn’t any place I’d rather have been.

Looking for some celebratory listening over the next couple of weeks? Herewith, my critical guide to the 11 Grateful Dead New Year’s Eve shows I attended, and links to the shows on

1981, Oakland Auditorium. What a night! The evening starts with a five-song acoustic set of the Dead backing Joan Baez (who was dating Mickey Hart at the time). First electric Dead set has a disappointing song list but is played OK. The pre-midnight festivities were highlighted by Ken Kesey hanging precariously from a wire over the crowd, rambling on about who-knows-what, before leading to the countdown. Bill Graham’s entrance as Father Time: Riding on a joint dubbed the S.S. Colombian (grade: A). Midnight song: “Iko-Iko” (The “Sugar Mag” purists might have been disappointed; I loved it!) Second set is killer with “Playing” and the reprise sandwiching a fantastic “Terrapin.” John Cipollina helps out on “The Other One” > “NFA” > “Goin’ Down the Road” and the set is capped with an epique “Dew.” Third set brings back “Dark Star,” plus “Bertha,” “Good Lovin’” and Joan helping out on “Baby Blue” (complete with her awkward chicken dance!). Overall grade: A

1982, Oakland Auditorium. Another so-so first set—nice “Cumberland” and “Cassidy,” but “Day Job” closer; Yikes! Jerry, how could you? Bill Graham midnight entrance: gliding across the floor on a magic mushroom that rose to the height of the balcony (grade: A). Midnight songs: “Sugar Mag” > “Sugaree.” Decent, not great, second set; short post-“drums” with Cipollina on “NFA” > “Deal” > “Sunshine Daydream.” Third set is worth hearing—Etta James fronts the band for sloppy but occasionally inspired versions of “Lovelight,” “Tell Mama,” “Hard to Handle” (first post-Pig) and a couple of others. (Would’ve been more exciting if she hadn’t played two of those songs during the encore on 12/30). Overall grade: B

1983, SF Civic. Not one of my favorites. Not much to highlight. Oakland Aud. was undergoing renovations, so the action switched to the Civic for two years. Bill’s entrance: Father Time emerges from a giant globe (grade: B). Midnight songs: “Sugar Mag” > “Touch of Grey.” Short, disappointing second set. Four-song third set features Rick Danko of The Band (who opened the show and played well) and Maria Muldaur joining the boys for “Big Boss Man,” “Iko,” “Midnight Hour” and “Goodnight Irene.” Overall grade: C

1984, SF Civic. Much better than the previous year’s show. First set has both “Shakedown” and “Jack Straw” > “Bird Song.” Bill’s entrance: riding from the balcony on a lightning bolt (grade: B+). Midnight songs: “Sugar Mag” > “Scarlet-Fire.” Second set also has a “Spanish jam” going into “The Wheel.” Four-song third set includes second-ever “Gimme Some Lovin” into “Uncle John’s.” Overall grade: B+

1985, Oakland Coliseum. Uh-oh—New Year’s moves into an arena! Solid first set with “NFA” > “Touch” opener, “Cassidy” and a good “Let It Grow” closer. Bill Graham entrance: Huge and horridious “birthday” cake celebrating the Dead’s 20th anniversary. (grade: C). Midnight songs: a disappointing “Midnight Hour”> “Sugaree.” Pretty good “Playing” > “Terrapin.” Underwhelming. Olatunji’s opening set was the highlight for me. Neville Brothers were better than the Dead, too. Overall grade: B-

Bill Graham atop the infamous
1985 NYE Birthday Cake float.
That’s Bill Kreutzmann’s “head.”
Photo by’s bradleyg

1986, Kaiser Convention Center. The Oakland Aud. returns, spiffed up and with a new name. Just two weeks after Jerry’s “comeback” shows at the huge Oakland Coliseum, it was nice to be back in a small hall. Very high energy and emotional show. Bill’s entrance: He flies in dressed as an eagle (grade: C) Midnight songs: “Touch of Grey” (had to be!) > “Let It Grow” (nice!). Powerful “Black Muddy River,” “Terrapin.” Five-song third set has “Gimme Some Lovin’” and the recently revived “Box of Rain.” Overall grade: B+

1987, Oakland Coliseum. The Dead rise to the occasion of a national pay-per-view telecast with a very well-played, if not very adventurous, show (later released as the video Ticket to New Year’s). Strong first set with "Bertha,” “Cold Rain and Snow,” “Bird Song” and “Music Never Stopped.” Bill’s entrance: He rides across the floor on an enormous replica of the Golden Gate Bridge (grade: A). Midnight songs: “Hell in a Bucket” (really, Bob?)> “Uncle John’s.” Five-song third set includes members of the Neville Brothers (who opened) on “Man Smart, Women Smarter” > “Iko,” “Day-O” and “Do You Wanna Dance” before ending “Baby Blue.” Overall grade: B

1988, Oakland Coliseum. Clarence Clemons drops by and adds sax to a number of songs over the course of the night, for better and worse. Good first set, highlighted by “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Franklin’s Tower” and “Cassidy.” Bill’s entrance: riding a giant mirror ball (grade: A). Midnight songs: “Sugar Mag” > “Touch of Grey.” Rockin’ back half of the second set includes “Gimme Some Lovin’” “Watchtower” and “Sunshine Daydream.” Extended encore starts with “Wharf Rat,” of all songs. Overall grade: B


1989, Oakland Coliseum. The show starts with “Sugar Magnolia” > “Touch of Grey.” Opening act Bonnie Raitt joins in on “Big Boss Man” and first set closes with “Shakedown.” Bill’s entrance: dressed as a chicken, he lands on a large egg, which hatches to reveal his young son, Alex (grade: C+). Midnight songs: “Iko-Iko” and “Victim or the Crime” (which is preceded by Bob’s immortal remark: “Well, my buddy over here tells me it’s the beginning of a new dickhead—I mean decade.”). A pretty good “Dark Star” comes out of “Victim,” but it still feels like a pretty short pre-“drums.” “Dear Mr. Fantasy” > “Hey Jude” coda out of “space.” Overall grade: B-

1990, Oakland Coliseum. The first post-Brent NYE. Opener Branford Marsalis spices up the Dead’s sets with his always tasteful and inventive tenor and soprano sax work. I love that guy! In the first set, he plays on “Bird Song” and “Promised Land.” Bill’s (last) entrance: He descends to the stage as a loincloth-clad witch doctor, accompanied by fire-eaters and acrobats on bungee cords (grade: A). Midnight songs: “Not Fade Away” > “Eyes of the World” > “Dark Star,” all with Branford, make for a spectacular pre-“drums” segment. The back side, also with Branford, is “The Other One” > “Wharf Rat” > “NFA” reprise. Worth your time! Overall grade: B+

1991, Oakland Coliseum. The final and only Bill Graham-less GD NYE concert. Just two months after Bill’s death, it felt a little weird being there on what was his night as much as ours every year. Show has its moments but there’s nothing earth-shaking. “Help-Slip-Frank” closes the first set promisingly. Midnight moment: After a video montage of Bill’s entrances through the years (grade: A!), there were fireworks and then Mickey and Airto led a contingent of drummers from Olatunji’s group onto the stage for a pounding countdown, which led to the midnight songs: “Not Fade Away” > “Eyes of the World.” Not much to see here, folks, move along… Overall grade: B-

* * *

More to come next week about strange and wonderful New Year’s reveries in the post- Grateful Dead age. Any New Year’s tales from any era you’d care to share?


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marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
OK uturn

that's a great tale. Classic BGP!'s picture
Joined: Jul 25 2013
89 new years show chek this out

Ever heard of a father time back stage pass t-shirt?

I was 19 and me and my friend Chris ( who's older brother is Larry LaLonde - lead gituarist for Primus )were invited to work for Bill Graham's "Staff Pro" for the entire show that night as security....... we started off posted at the concourse between the two stadiums... that is until a gigantic crowd stormed the fence across the concourse trying to get into the show.... we were kids and I didn't know what to do... but I knew I wasn't going to listen to this old jerk who was our supervisior yell at us to F*** up them damn hippies. Well that was it me and my friend threw off our gold staff pro jackets and told the old coot you handle it were outa of here. when we made it back over to the main bosses trailer and told our account of why we did,nt have our jackets he vary sagely and with a slight smirk said " that guy had no business working for us with his attitude.... and then he handed us each perhaps the most memorable and valuable item of clothing I've ever owned..... a 1989 new year's eve father time grateful dead back stage pass T-shirt and for the rest of the night we worked back stage escorting VIP's from the limo to the back stage area....... I like the Dead .... but i'm a metal head however my farther is the worlds hugest dead head of all time and when he saw the shirt he flipped out ... but not as much as he flipped out a week later when I sold it for a bag of pot.

Joined: Jun 13 2007

Indeed, you're welcome. No easy task!

If we ever start to fly off---I got yer ankles, promise! HA!
Hope You, and Everyone has a Sweet New Year, Happy 2012!

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
hey sherbear...

that was my first show, so I guess I've got you to thank! Thank you!

Joined: Jun 13 2007

Just following up with that A story...

It was NYE in the year 1980-1981, I was much younger.
Well, the party was underway and there was a bunch of
food and drinks. I was snacking and loving all the goodies.
I got a lil thirsty and decided on having the punch. Well...
little did I know it was a special punch called a Hurricane.
I liked it alot and have many glasses unknowingly the
effect it might have a little further into the evening.
Sometime after awhile when the real fun began I set
out in my mission. I thought I was the earth's axis, I dropped
to the floor and began rolling around believing that if I
stopped all the people would fall off the earth. So, I
needed to keep rolling around all over. People were
stepping over me and just let me do the job I set out to
do. It didn't matter where I rolled or if I was in a pattern,
I just had to keep going or all the people would fall and it
would ultimately be my fault. I could not let that happen so
I kept rolling as I was the earths axis and was keeping every-
one safe. This went on til midnight when the count down
to 1981 began. I was relieved because in 60 seconds I knew
I was loved and that someone was on deck to take over the
job...I didn't know or where in the world they were just
that my turn was going to be over. Phew. So the count down
went down and I kept rolling til we got to 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4,
3, 2, 1. 1981 Yeah! I stood up and was so freaking dizzy
but immensely relieved all the people were still indeed on
the earth. Many people were laughing and hugging and
kissing and thanking me for seeing to it that they all were
still standing on the earth! I was very proud but still very
dizzy. It took about an hour for me to return to a human
and not the earth's axis anymore. I danced and twirled
and celebrated like crazy. When I see twirly dancers at shows
I sometimes laugh wondering if it's their turn but I never ask
just chuckle to myself. To this day, I have never touched
Hurricane punch again. I'd take about any job but that one.
The responsibility was immense, damn really immense!
Oh yeah....and music was playing. Happy 1981 Everyone!

Joined: Jun 4 2007
"close encounter of the cool kind'

Grate comment Blair, I used to call that morning my
'brush with greatness'
but 'encounter of the cool kind' befits the event much better.
And will be the descriptor from this day forth when
I recount the tale.

We are all lucky indeed for the music
and celebrations the Dead shared with us.
Those NYE shows along with the wonderful shows as
the band toured throughout the year.

Ahh, for a little Tralthamadorian time trip to an appointed date and time.
' It always will happen, it always does happen, and it always has happened'.
and many of us wishing to return to attend a
desired Grateful Dead show.
Whilst Billy Pilgrim requests his night canopy
with Montana Wildcat.... request granted. ;o}

Joined: Jun 25 2011
NYE 91 Never gets any love!

For some reason most people just blow this show off. It's(unfortunately) the only NYE show I attended so I am sure I am a little biased, but second set is fantastic. I remember the balloons dropping a few minutes late but no matter. Just the thrill of being on the floor with the lights on and thousands of balloons and Jerry just SHREDDING on NFA. Life changing!! The following Eyes>Estimated is some of my favorite 90's Dead. The jam out of Estimated is very long and very jazzy to start but begins to drift into that magical realm where only the Dead can take us. I believe that if they hadn't played Dark Star the previous two years, this is where that jam would have lead to. I believe its VERY underrated version. PLEASE, give it another listen!

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
speakers in front of the Henry J...

I gotta say, Bill was more considerate than your average promoter. Speakers on the field adjoining the Greek, too.

Old School Chuck's picture
Joined: Feb 3 2009
Fun memories!'s amazing, really. What a long strange trip it's been. My own journey with the Dead started in the first half of the eighties. Born in '69 as I was, I couldn't really have done it any other way (my folks were not hippies or deadheads, but they loved the Beatles!).
Oroboros' story was great! The only New Years runs I attended were '86 and '87. I didn't get in for NYE either time but those three leading up to NYE in '86 were fan-fucking-tastic in my opinion. The one show I saw the following year (12-27) was good, but the 30th in '86 was THE ONE!!!
They put speakers out in front of the Kaiser for NYE and closed the block off, so it didn't feel like missing anything. Musically, though, the 30th blew it away though. What a show...what a run...I will always remember it...everybody was so psyched for the return of Jerry and the band after the Fall hiatus. The San Francisco/Bay area (Oakland, obviously) magic was in full effect.
There were some bad drugs in Oakland back then ('86), as I'm sure there still are. The night of Jan. 1st was not a great one for me, but hey, I lived through it all and am still here to revel in the joy of remembering the good stuff (99% of it, maybe?).
Of course, dropping two tabs at 4am on the 2nd as an alarm clock so I could catch my flight back East didn't work so well...but that's another tale!
Peace and Love and to all a merry Jerry and a happy Bob Weir!!!!!!

Grateful Don's picture
Joined: Aug 19 2008
Closing of Winterland

My favorite all time NYE show was the closing of Winterland. I got a miracle ticket when a friend opted out and stayed home and watched it on TV. Lucky me! I remember the balcony all decorated with pictures of all the bands that had played the famous venue. We were treated to a showing of "Animal House" starring John Belushi. Later John and Dan would perform for us as the Blues Brothers. The band was in great shape playing until the wee hours of the morning. And who can forget the first Dark Star in a very long time. And then the breakfast served at dawn by uncle bobo himself. What a night. One I will never forget. I still have my beautiful blue rose poster to remind me I was really there.


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