Blair’s Golden Road Blog — Cornell ’77 Enshrined for the Ages
By Blair Jackson
On May 23, the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry announced this year’s list of 25 songs, instrumental pieces and historic recordings to be added to the prestigious institution’s permanent collection. There’s lots of great stuff on the list: Prince’s “Purple Rain”; Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors”; Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas”; Donna Summer’s euro-disco “I Feel Love”; the first-ever commercial recording—a version of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” created for the first talking doll by one of Thomas Edison’s employees; the only surviving record of early 20th century Broadway sensation Lillian Russell; the 1943 NY Philharmonic debut by conductor Leonard Bernstein; the Grateful Dead’s May 8, 1977, concert at Cornell University’s Barton Hall… Whaaaaat? Where did that one come from?
Maybe it helps to have friends in high places. After all, Mickey Hart has been associated with the Library of Congress for many years. But when I asked him about it the morning the list was announced, he denied any involvement. “What can I say? The people have spoken!” he said with a laugh. “It’s true that I wrote part of the legislation for the [LOC’s digitization and preservation] project in 2000. It was copied after the Lucas-Spielberg Film Preservation Act. But when it came to voting, I recused myself.”
Voting? “People have been voting all year, and then the board decides what is culturally significant, and the librarian, James Billington, makes the final cut and the call.”
Ah, the power of Dead Head unity in action. Stuffing the ballot box—a tradition as old as this great republic itself!
All kidding aside, a copy of Cornell 5/8/77 is a perfect choice for the National Recording Registry. Consider this: It has never been released commercially (legally), yet it is probably among the most collected, traded and downloaded concerts by any band ever. That’s not hyperbole, either.
The original pristine audience recordings of this show started circulating among tape collectors very shortly after the concert, and quickly became a favorite of everyone who heard them—this at a time when Grateful Dead tape trading was just beginning to explode nationwide. In the pre-digital age, when all we had were cassettes, the show was part of any respectable tape collection, passed among untold thousands of people. It was always big news each time a cleaner, lower-generation copy would come through my circle of traders; had to have it! (It was also bootlegged as vinyl records and, later, CDs, and sold — boo, hiss! Not cool!) One of the late, great taper Jerry Moore’s greatest legacies is his audience recording of 5/8/77. I'm not sure whose recording I had originally; I didn't know any tapers by name back then.
But we really thought we’d gone to heaven when the much-ballyhooed show turned up among the famous “Betty Boards” in 1986-87—200+ hours of soundboard masters recorded by Grateful Dead sound engineer Betty Cantor, who stashed them in a storage locker for years, until they were auctioned off (due to non-payment of storage fees)—and bought by Dead Heads! What a treasure trove of tapes that turned out to be! So, gorgeous new SBD copies of 5/8/77 soon circulated to hundreds of thousands of collectors, further solidifying its reputation. (This chain of events also explains why 5/8/77 is, alas, not in the Grateful Dead tape vault, where it rightfully belongs, as the Dead, not Betty, were the rightful owners of their own master tapes, auction be damned.)
The show was reproduced many thousands more times when collectors transferred their tapes to CD. “Gotta get Cornell!” Again. By the time online live music repositories started popping up in the late ’90s—such as etree and the Internet Archive (Archive.org), who entered into a cooperative arrangement—high quality versions of the show became available to anyone with a computer, for streaming or downloading. There are currently 15 versions of 5/8/77 up on Archive—audience recordings, soundboards, and matrix combo versions. I frankly haven’t investigated deeply enough to know what the differences are—which came first, which is an “upgrade,” etc. (My own rule of thumb with Archive Dead shows is I look for Charlie Miller’s name, and if it’s attached to a recording, I’ll usually check that out first, since his name is synonymous with the highest quality transfers and upgrades.) Want to know how many times 5/8/77 has been downloaded from Archive.org? Are you sitting down? I added up the numbers beside each version: 928,006 as of May 23! I’m guessing that adding in all the copies that were made (tape and digital) in the years when the Grateful Dead was actually around, and when collecting was at its apex, the number could easily reach 2 million. Incredible for a so-called bootleg recording!
Is Cornell ’77 the greatest Dead show ever, as many have asserted through the years? (It’s been a consistent poll-winner.) Is it even the best show of the justly heralded spring ’77 tour? It doesn’t matter. It’s all opinions in the end, and we each have our own preferences for certain years, certain songs, etc. I don’t like to deal in those sorts of absolutes.
But it’s indisputably an amazing show. (OK, some might even dispute that. Sorry, this time you’re wrong!) The first set is solid and occasionally spectacular—the “Loser”; that speedy-confident “Lazy Lightning” > “Supplication”; “Row Jimmy” with beautiful Garcia slide, a fantastic “Dancing in the Street” that puts every disco song on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (released fall of ’77) to shame. The second set reaches some of the highest moments the Dead ever attained—particularly the jam after the second (final, in those days) verse of “Fire on the Mountain” and the completely transcendent version of “Morning Dew,” which has to be heard to be believed. Throw in “Scarlet,” “St. Stephen,” a really dynamic and elongated “Not Fade Away” and the then-new “Estimated Prophet”—each played with unbridled energy and enthusiasm—and you’ve got one helluva set. Is it perfect? No. Does that diminish its greatness? Not at all.
I asked Mickey what, if any, recollections he has from the show? He laughed. “Oh, I don’t remember shows that way. I know it’s famous. I guess there’s a great ‘Morning Dew’ and some others. I haven’t heard it in many years. But if the Dead Heads say that it’s one of the best shows, I believe them. They know.
“What’s funny is my wife [Caryl] was a student at Cornell at the time but she didn’t go to the show. She was off with her boyfriend seeing Barry Manilow or some dumb thing! She never got to see the Grateful Dead until we met in the ’90s.”
Well, it’s never too late to get into 5/8! Dig it now, Caryl!
All right, now it’s time to put you on the spot. If you were to choose just one Dead concert to represent the band forever in a digital archive, which would you pick and why?
Not sure why, but "Bertha" felt like a gift from the gods the first time I heard it. It immediately became one of my favorite songs. Still is.
The answer to this question is always going to be subjective, and so many things influence ones choice.
My first two shows were 11/5 and 11/8/1970 .... 18 years old, I was a lucky boy.
but I'll choose my third show, 2/18/71. Blair, you and I have talked about this a little bit, since you saw two of the shows at Portchester from that six night run.
For me, it was my first show where I attended from an exalted sense of reality, helped out by a generous helping of a certain three letter substance that some of us were getting involved with those days.
It was also the last night of what I think of as 'the first Mickey Hart era'. Of course, we didn't realize this was going to be Mickey's last night night for a few years, and that is not one of the reasons I chose it, it's just an interesting coincidental historical factoid.
It was also the night that the Dead introduced Bertha, Loser, Wharf Rat, and Playing in the Band. That is also not the reason I choose this show, although it is also an interesting historical curiousity.
No, I chose this show because after listening to it for 40 years, I still can't find a show I like more. The opening set with Jerry playing pedal steel with NRPS was absolutely excellent, they played a truly flawless set with great creativity and energy. I didn't get it at the time, but it also got Jerry good and warmed up for what was to come, although he played so fine it didn't sound at all like he was warming up.
After the break, the Dead came out for their first set. They opened with first Bertha every played and I defy anyone to find a better played version. Jerry positively leaned into his guitar and there wasn't a wasted note or one note in excess. The audience literally leaped up with excitement from this new song we had never heard before, played with such verve.
Listen carefully to this version because being the first time played is not the only reason it's unique, they also played a short instrumental coda at the end that I have never heard them repeat on any version, and it really functioned as a coda should.
A smoking Truckin, lots of fun, then a somewhat dragging version of It Hurts me too, and then into the first Loser, spooky, VERY psychedelic and other wordly ....
Johnny Be Good, also absolutely smoking and another first. A sweet Momma Tried, Jerry's lead with such a deft and light touch, and then Pig struts out and say's 'This microphone has a rubber on it' ... everyone laughs and wham, Hard to Handle, also absolutely smoking (I have to find another adjective, that's three smokings and we're still in the first set).
And then ..... a first set Dark Star .... and after the first verse they got quieter and quieter till you could literally hear a pin drop, and then Jerry started something that sounded like you had heard it before, maybe in another life, and it kept building, stately, in that minor key, and Wharf Rat emerged for the very first time .... a beautiful, soaring, fresh version played with deep feelings of redemption and we're all saying what the fuck, is this Jerry's way of putting out a Dark Star level kind of song every year or two? (I had made a cassette tape of the show and me and my buddies listened to it for months, and we actually used to call Wharf Rat by the name Dark Star 2 until we found out the name and then it was what the fuck, what does Wharf Rat mean? ... lol) .... and at the end, a jam that later was labeled as 'the Beautitul Jam' on box set that came out a few years ago. There is a story that Latvala played Beautiful Jam for Phil once a few years later and he wept .... and I get that, it was beautiful like a lightening bolt from Jerry's deepest heart to us all, you could feel it .... and the whole show was like that ...
And it was beautiful, the boys playing as if they were in each others minds, and hearts, with Jerry leading the way in a soulful, lovely and somewhat sad kind of sound .... then back into the second verse of Dark Star, and a little teaser would they do St Stephen ? .... and instead into a great version of Me and My Uncle and then 'we're gonna take a short break, everyone gets to take a short break' ....
That was a part of the first set. I was stunned.
A short break? You mean after the New Riders set and incredible set they were gonna play another set? Holy crap, we'd already been there 3 hours, how could they top that?
But they did come back and the second set was absolutely fabulous. I won't describe how wonderful it was, just get a download and listen to it. Ole Dov knows of what he speaks. You'll thank me.
For those of us lucky enough to see the Dead play at Porthchester, and I did three times including the famous 11/8/70 show, th 2/18/71 show is is my favorite. It may never be released since 'Beautiful Jam' has already been published, but I invite my fellow music loving freaks to check it out and enjoy what I think is possibly the best unknown Dead show.
To say that nothing after '74 "rocks" (I still don't understand the distinction between "rocks" and "really rocks") strikes me as insane. To me, the thread of the Dead's essential greatness goes through every era and manifests itself in different ways with each lineup. Personally, I'd rather hear a great '80s "Scarlet-Fire" than another endless '69-'72 "Lovelight" or "Good Lovin'" any day (and I saw a bunch of both of those with Pigpen). To me, a lot of those are treading water half the time, whereas a great "Scarlet-Fire" ROCKS. Whatever that means. ;-) But each to his or her own.
I also don't buy the notion that the Dead after '72 becomes some polished, successful sell-out... If that had been the case they wouldn't have kept playing "space" until the bitter end...They stayed plenty weird...
I think 9 June '77 would have been the perfect choice - the Dead playing one of the greatest shows, in one of their greatest years, at their home base, in their home town.
Barton Hall is a fabulous show and, as far as I can recall, was the very first live Dead I heard but it makes more sense to me to select something from San Francisco. I can't think of a better, more accessible show than 9 June '77 that is representative of the Dead in their natural state at one of their many peaks..
Given the factors of performance, set list, sound, etc., I see why this was put into the LoC.
Calling 5/8/77 over-rated is crazy in my opinion.
JUST ENJOY IT!
So is there any good reason AT ALL that there isn't a legal CD of this from you guys?
My guess? A) It's not in the vault, although obviously it's readily available, and B) It's so widely circulated already.
So is there any good reason AT ALL that there isn't a legal CD of this from you guys? Starting with Dick's Picks right up to today.
Thanks for the DP 18/ Cornell combo idea. I have a cd burning right now.
The Music Never Stopped (DP 18)
Scarlet Begonias > (DP 18)
Fire on the mountain (DP 18)
St. Stephen > (Cornell 5-8-77)
Not Fade Away > (Cornell 5-8-77)
St. Stephen > (Cornell 5-8-77)
Morning Dew (Cornell 5-8-77)
Thanks for the explanation musigny23, it is appreciated. And thanks for the tip about the Good Lovin from 10/4/70. I hadn't heard that in a long time- They're on fire, and it illustrates the point very well. I remember Mickey Hart's comments once when asked if he listens to shows they played from early in their career. It was something like he hears all the notes they should have played. This is what I find as the band went on- a strive for the perfection of their art. Maybe this is why any show on any given night can thrill me. Speaking more to the point, I can't compare 70 to 74, or 69 to 73. Primal dead is unrestrained rock. Although the intention- to transcend the ordinary and thrill through music- I find this on many performances throughout their career.
Zuckfun, to "rock" to really "rock" one cannot be super clean, polished and in constant control. For whatever reason, the band felt compelled to be more professional as the 70s progressed, and by making that choice, they gave up their ability to "rock". The Grateful Dead became an ingrown, inbred, insular thing unto themselves. It was fine if you could enjoy it for what it was, but it wasn't truly rockin', not like they had earlier. In the late 60s/early 70s they were youthful, in debt and broke, not yet "rock stars", they traveled and hung out together all the time and they were fighting to be successful among all the other major rock acts at the time. A completely different dynamic existed then. Once real success arrives, in '71-'73, the changes begin and they evolve away from being a true "rock" band.
The late 70s, especially 1977 saw the explosion of punk and new wave, those being largely sparked by the fading of the 60s supergroups as leading creative forces. In Pop, it was also the Disco era. As a passionate angry male teen, I despised disco as being a crime against good music. When the Dead rolled out the disco arrangement of "Dancing In the Streets", I was mortified, confused and felt betrayed. What the fuck were they thinking? Whatever funky groove you find enjoyable now in retrospect about that arrangement, it did not, could not, rock.
Take "Good Lovin'", versions from the fall of 1970 ROCK. The 10/04/70 is a perfect example. The later Bob versions, with their "happy samba" arrangement do not. The early good versions in '71 of "Bertha" rock, later ones don't, no matter how spirited you might think they are. There are plenty more examples.
At the August 79 shows in Denver I met a guy visiting from England who when I asked him what he thought, emphatically stated that "It was bloody horrible" and while I enjoyed it pretty much, because it was a ROCK show he wanted to see, I knew exactly what he meant.