Grateful Dead

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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Joined: Jun 6 2007

You're right about Etta. Supremely talented. I interviewed her in the early 80s and was extremely impressed with her. In fact, there was briefly talk that I was going to help her write her autobiography back then, but it never came to pass. That would've been a great story to tell!

Joined: Sep 21 2011
NYE 81

1981 was my first NYE show too after over a decade on the bus. The 2nd set was a monster - and the Aiko at midnight was the FIRST time it had ever been played on the west coast. The crowd just dove into the stomping beat as the balloons cascaded down onstage. I didn't get the impression that anybody was disappointed about no Sugar Mag. I was at 82 also and was underwhelmed to put it nicely. The last set felt like the Dead were simply serving as Etta's back up band. However, this is certainly a time to remember what and important figure she has been in our collective musical history and kind and grateful thoughts should go out to her as her life sadly comes to its conclusion.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

that was a nice one too!

deadmike's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
Remember ...

Remember getting 12-31-84 on tape a couple of months into 1985.

The recording was taken from the radio broadcast and started with several minutes of audience noise and talks from the hosts of the night. Even though I wasn't present, I felt the vibes from the night through the tapes. I felt some tears of joy in my eyes and then the band begun with a monster Shakedown Street. When they were done with Shakedown, the next couple of songs felt like an early anticlimax but overall the show became the one I listened most to over the next couple of years. It was also the show I made most copies of to non-Deadheads.

Micke Östlund,
Växjö, Sweden

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007
I have to agree with your fondness

for 12/31/81. I tend to think of it as THE NYE show.

I actually recommend having one's tape (as it were) start with Banks of the Ohio from the Joan Baez set. It's a fine version.

Joined: Oct 24 2008
Thanks again oroboros...

I started reading this and then realized I have read it before. Read it again anyway. Thanks for sharing!
Merry Christmas

Joined: Aug 21 2007

Thanks for the story! Very vivid and comes to life in the reading. Peace!
Blair, thanks for the guide! I was luck enough to attend NYE 86-89. In 86 I got rejected for the mail order but a close friend had tix #1 and 2!!! So I got to be number two that night.

Blair, your recollections are right on for the years that I eye-witnessed or got to listen to on the radio. I did not attend 90 or 91 due to work obligations and haven't been to a NYE since becuase I find the crowds overwhelming in my more recent years.

Peace and Joy to all in the New Year!

Joined: Jun 13 2007
Ahhh Blair...

What color were the roses? C


I enjoyed the part about you getting engaged NYE 1980 and that your wife's birthday is the day after Christmas; how very sweet! My best birthday wishes to her for a happy year ahead. @

I'll come tell A story another time.

Are you still rabid? I don't think there is a cure for that.
I might be? How do you know? teeheehee :)

Joined: Jun 6 2007
Great story...

Oroboros!! A close encounter of the cool kind... I can really hear Jerry's voice saying all those little remarks and asides!

Joined: Jun 4 2007
New Year's Eve 1977

Parden me for repeating myself (you are all used to this by now) about my New Year’s eve show with the Dead, but with Blair asking about it and possibly a 'fresh' audience let me tell the tale. But first grab a cup of coffe (or your preferred beverage) and get comfy, because brevity is not my forte', so bear with me on this. And I will ramble on into 1978 a bit as well to complete the circle.

Back in 1977, my girlfriend (now wife), myself, and two buddies decided to roadtrip from Nebraska to Winterland for the New Year's Eve shows in San Fransisco. I transported along with us a clay scupture that I had made the prior year. It was a one and 1/2 foot (in circumference) dragon that was biting/consuming it's own tail. I had 'scraffitto' (carved designs) into the entire beast's 'hide' prior to firing it and then staining it with an iron oxide wash. It was the biggest piece of clay sculpture that I have ever made.

And I thought it would be fun to give this beast to the Dead at the NYE show. So away we go, get to the venue and secured tickets for the run (12/27-29-30-31/77). The shows were unbefuckinliveable (see DP # 10) and Winterland was a great hall (but I'll save that for another time and thread).

On the 31st, we were sitting on the sidewalk waiting for the doors to open, talking and watching the circus, ready to hurry and get in for the 'activities' ie. freak volleyball and Bill Graham was going to show us some movies to pass the time away (Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man and the original Beatles Magical Mystery tour as I recall) before that evening's show.

I thought "I better try to unload the dragon aka 'oroboros' now, it's heavy and I don't want to try to talk my way though the front gate with it." I spied a door that said 'Backstage' and began knocking on the door. No answer. The line of people on the side walk started getting up and moving toward the entrance. Banged even harder thinking "I've got to get this dragon in there so I can go in the front and join in before the show", and as I pounded harder, the door yanks open so hard that I am pulled into the doorway. This doorway is immediately filled with a gigantic black man in a red event t-shirt, who puts his hand on my chest and leans forward and bellows "WHAT DO YOU WANT?" Startled, I held out the dragon with both hands and stuttered "to give this to the band". The giant took it in his immense hand and his face curls into a grin as he held it closer to inspect it and I watched my dragon shrink to the size of a key chain. He exclaimed "Wow, what is this, I'd like one" and I explained "it's an oroboros and that is the only one there is." He grinned and said "Cool, who do you want me to give it to?" and I said "to Garcia, give it to Jerry Garcia." The giant disappeared as quickly as he appeared and the door slammed shut like the first time Dorothy tried to get into the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.

So, I happily gain entrance to the show and needless to say, it was something, volleyball followed by the movies, the colorful/wonderful crowd, 'rainbow' Rose with an eyedropper of liquid party favor "just one dollar per drop. On your tongue or for the adventurous, a drop in your eye". A full service event, that is for sure. Oh and when each person walked through the entrance the staff handed us a piece of paper that had a message about stating "Good things happen for those who wait, the surprise is at midnight".

The New Riders of the Purple Sage started the show and rocked the house. Anticipation was high and the Dead came out for the first set. Awesome, and then I noticed when the house lights went down, and the stage lights went dark in between songs, I saw it. On top of a monitor, in front of Billy and Mickey, there was a flame, it was a white candle sitting in front of a dragon consuming it's tail. It was oroboros, ON STAGE WITH THE DEAD! I watched as Jerry walked over and lit a cig off the candle. They took a break and the surprise for the second half was Uncle BoBo ( Graham’s nickname) was dressed up as Uncle Sam on a motorcycle sliding down on a cable suspended high from the back of the hall to the stage. They put spotlights on him at the end of the all facing the stage and the drummers tapped out cadence as he slowly glided down a cable over our heads. As ‘uncle bobo’ approached the stage and it was hilarious as the weight of the bike and BoBo was too much and the cable hung he and the motorcycle below the lip of the stage. The stage hands rescued him by dragging he and the bike onstage and then the explosion of Sugar Mag, complete with dropping balloons and then two ‘baby’ New Years (a male and female in diapers and a sash with 1978 on it) ran out dancing on each side of the stage. I was 'sittin' on top of the world (Dead reference intended). What a night!! The band was on fire that year and plied us with transportive aural ecstacy on into the morning. After the show we walked out into the cool San Francisco early morning fog and began the drive back to Nebraska (a harsh reality!).

This is not the end of the tale. Fast forward to another road trip to Madison, Wisc. on 2-3-78. The Dead were still on a roll and it was a killer show. The next morning before I left the hotel, I got a wild hair and called the front desk and asked "Could I have Jerry Garcia's room please?" and the phone rang and Jerry answered! I said "Hey, I'm the guy that brought that dragon to the New Year's show" and Garcia said "Meet you in the coffee shop in 20 minutes". I couldn't believe what was happening but stumbled into the coffee shop at the appointed time and looked around and saw Jerry Garcia seated at a table with a ravishingly beautiful raven-haired gypsy woman.

I walked over and introduced myself, and 'shook the hand, that shook the hand, of PT Barnum and Charlie Chan'. Jerry beamed that smile and gestured and said "sit down, man". He asked me "How did you fire that dragon so that it didn't explode in the kiln?" and I explained how I had cut it in half and hollowed it and joined it back together. I told him how I had used a guitar string to 'halve it" and we locked eyes at that moment and he burst into laughter and I said "Ironic, huh?" and Jerry quipped "No, man that makes perfect sense." And then we laughed some more. Then the gypsy/beauty said "where are you from?" and I replied Nebraska. And she shot Garcia a glance and stated "he came all the way up here from Nebraska to see the band!" To which Jerry shrugged his shoulders and retorted "we didn't ask him to come" and looked at me and we both howled with laughter again. No deadhead was she.

We talked more about art and the dragon and I didn't know at that time of Garcia's interest and practice in art (this kind anyway). He was completely engaged in the topic of art, but so quick witted with 'turn on a dime' twists, turns, and little commentaries on a myriad of related topics. Jerry was so focused on listening, not acting like he was the important one, giving me time and locked in on our discussion and talking about our shared interests. The gypsy woman frowned in disbelief as she asked me "You went out to San Francisco for New Years and then came to Wisconsin" and I said 'yes' and then I turned to Garcia and asked him "Why don't you come back to Lincoln, Nebraska?" He said "You mean to Perishing Auditorium?" and I corrected him "No, it is Pershing Auditorium, after the army general" and he quickly retorted "No man, it was perishing really!" And we burst out laughing again.

At that Lincoln, Ne. Dead show on 2-26-73, there were a bunch of drunk frat boys yelling 'boogie, boogie" at the top of their lungs, but that show is topnotch! ( a DP, really great show) Anyway, I asked Garcia "could you bring the Dead back to Nebraska" and Jerry grinned that Cheshire cat grin and said "who knows?"
I took my leave (their breakfast arrived) and drove home.

Then that summer the Dead came back to Omaha, Ne. on 7-5-78, and I taped them with a NAK 550 in FOB, and then followed them to their/my first Red Rocks shows. But I will save those stories for Blair’s next topic that tickles my synapses enough to be able to recall and share.

Happy New Year in advance, my friends. May the next one be better for you and yours.


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