Watkins Glen Summer Jam, 7/73, part 1

Good Ol’ Grateful Deadcast​​
Season 8, Episode 1
Watkins Glen Summer Jam, 7/73, part 1

Archival interviews:
- Jerry Garcia, by Ray White, WLIR, 1/11/79.

JESSE: In the summer of 1973, the Grateful Dead played the biggest show of their career. And, up until that point and for a while thereafter, the biggest show of any band’s career. Over to Dan Rather at CBS.

DAN RATHER [CBS NEWS]: Four years ago, 400,000 young people gathered for a concert and a happening at a dairy farm in New York state. The vibrations from that event were so heavy that Woodstock became a symbol of the ‘60s. Today, 120 miles away, there is in the making Woodstock's apparent successor, a thing called Summer Jam. 

JESSE: Being the biggest festival of the past 50 years, everybody wanted to get in a television news story about it. Garrick Utley on NBC.

GARRICK UTLEY [NBC NEWS]: The one-day concert was called Summer Jam, and it was. There were jams in the roads leading to it. Some people had to leave their cars and walk in from 20 miles away. The concert was held at a Grand Prix racetrack. The music came from a number of rock groups, but the music was only part of the experience.

JESSE: Oh you betcha. And you guys forgot to name the acts that played — the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and The Band. Grateful Dead archivist and legacy manager David Lemieux.

DAVID LEMIEUX: You always hear Woodstock — biggest crowd ever. And the Dead Heads will always say, ‘Except for Watkins Glen...’ It was a bit of a point of pride.

JESSE: Woodstock in the summer of 1969 had solidified the template for a giant rock festival and in the summers that followed, many promoters tried to find the right formula to repeat its success. But the Watkins Glen Summer Jam was not a Woodstock knockoff. It was a group endeavor that took years of groundwork before it could be even conceived, part of a long-term plan conceived by Grateful Dead tour strategist Sam Cutler. As you may have heard, Sam sadly passed away this summer at the age of 80, as we were preparing our episodes for the year. And though we didn’t get to debrief Sam about Summer Jam specifically, it was one of Sam’s proudest achievements and it came up multiple times during our conversations over the past few years. Once again, we ask you to please rise and welcome, from Out of Town Tours, Sam Cutler.

SAM CUTLER: I kept on saying, “Well, one of the ways we build the Grateful Dead is the Grateful Dead is the Grateful Dead have got to play with other people. It’s got to be, like, collaborative trips: not with the Grateful Dead second on the bill or top of the bill, whatever. Let’s do a collaborative thing where you play, say, with the Allman Brothers.” 

JESSE: Sam’s co-conspirator in the Allman Brothers’ family was Bunky Odom from the Paragon Agency. 

BUNKY ODOM: You’ve got to think about it: $10 at Watkins Glen, for those three bands? Incredible. I'm surprised at the people that don't know about Watkins Glen. Woodstock comes out of their mouth, and I say, “Wait a minute…”

JESSE: Promoter Jimmy Koplik.

JIM KOPLIK: People compare us to Woodstock, as bigger than Woodstock. Woodstock was three days, 40 acts. We were one day, three acts. I don't know how you compare the two. 

JESSE: While Watkins Glen hasn’t exactly been memory-holed, it never quite achieved the same mythic status as Woodstock, which drew around 400,000 people. 

GARRICK UTLEY [NBC NEWS]: In Watkins Glen, New York, hundreds of thousands of young people gathered for an all-day rock concert. Estimates of the crowd have ranged from 300,000 to half a million — or as one person said today, it was 95 acres of wall-to-wall people.

JESSE: Woodstock was three days and many bands; the Watkins Glen Summer Jam was intended to be much simpler. One day, three bands, 12 hours. From the Grateful Dead, Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay.

DONNA JEAN GODCHAUX-MACKAY: That was a party. That's what you call a party. I don't think anybody expected that kind of a crowd. It was about 600,000 or something like that.

JOAN SNYDER [CBS NEWS]: Watkins Glen just didn't expect this enormous turnout. As the concert began, thousands were still trooping in, some of them having walked more than 20 miles after police roadblocks stopped their cars. Most didn't seem to mind the hardships.

DONNA JEAN GODCHAUX-MACKAY: It was around 600,000 people. And that was just like — who does that? And we got to do it. And we played with The Band, didn’t we? The Allmans, and The Band. 

JESSE: From the Allman Brothers, Chuck Leavell.

CHUCK LEAVELL: I remember when the chopper picked us up and we got up in the air and we approached the stage and looked down. It was just this incredible ocean of human bodies. I'd never seen anything like it.

JESSE: Even Jerry Garcia had a good time, as he recalled six years later on WLIR.

JERRY GARCIA [1/11/79]: That was fun for one of those colossal things. What the heck, all those people? 

JESSE: Promoter Jim Koplik.

JIM KOPLIK: And nobody expected what happened to happen. It ended up being a party. Nobody was gonna stop what was going on. It was a magical day. 

JESSE: There was—and is—an entire generation of Watkins Glen-minted Dead Heads. It wasn’t the first show for Lee Ranaldo, who went on to co-found the legendary rock band Sonic Youth, but it was an important one.

LEE RANALDO: It was probably the first trip like that I ever took — in a car with my friends without parents, just like off somewhere. We got there before a shit ton of people got there, just in terms of getting close to the stage. We were 17. It was such an amazing experience. There were all-night parties going on all over the place, people banging drums and whatnot. 

JESSE: Future science writer and burgeoning teenage Dead freak Steve Silberman was even younger.

STEVE SILBERMAN: I was just a kid at Watkins Glen. If you left to find a Port-O-San, it's like, how can you even find your blanket again?

JESSE: Part of the legend of Watkins Glen is the free public soundcheck that occurred the day before the main show, and especially the Dead’s performance. But most of the legend of Watkins Glen is Watkins Glen itself. Promoter Jim Koplik.

JIM KOPLIK: We wanted to do a movie because we knew that's how Woodstock became profitable. They lost money on the event itself. But when Warner Bros. bought the movie rights, they made a fortune. So my feeling was we wanted to do a movie. The Dead refused to do the movie. They said, “Unless we control the cameras, we're not doing it.” The Allmans refused to let the Dead control the cameras. So, we never did that. So then we said: let’s put out a record. Both the Allmans and the Dead said, “No, no. If we decide to put out a record, you’ve got nothing to do with it. It’s up to us to do it.” That was very disappointing. They both promised us that they were not going to record anything. Later, of course, we found out that they did record everything. 

JESSE: Perhaps owing to the fact that there was never an official documentary or accompanying LP set, Watkins Glen mostly falls into the category of folkloric memory rather than commercialized nostalgia — kind of a nice place to be, really. Bunky Odom.

BUNKY ODOM: We never, never thought about having 600,000 people. If you stood on stage, it was like a wave of people, like an ocean. And we pulled it off!

JESSE: It was an event so big that it inspired its own knockoff album, the Heavy Sounds of Watkins Glen, performed by a studio band called the Kings Road and released by the budget label Pickwick Records. It’s ideal if you ever need a three-minute version of “Whipping Post” or versions of Dead tunes that sound like hollow-eyed AI knockoffs with no swing. 

AUDIO: “Truckin’” [Kings Road, The Heavy Sounds of Watkins Glen] (0:06-0:36)

Getting the Jam Together

JESSE: Once again, Sam Cutler.

SAM CUTLER: For me, the culmination of my experiences with the band, really, the two things were the Europe ‘72 tour and Watkins Glen. 

JESSE: After a number of false starts, the Dead and the Allmans had finally been able to pull off a pair of mega-gigs at RFK Stadium in Washington DC, also on the Here Comes Sunshine box set, which we discussed at length last season.

SAM CUTLER: On this day, it's the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers. And on the second day, it's the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. We ended up doing huge fucking gigs that were amazing.

JESSE: Those alone had taken a good deal of planning. Bunky Odom from the Paragon Agency visited Sam Cutler at the Out of Town Tours offices in San Rafael.

BUNKY ODOM: I went back out there five or six times to get things back together. And we decided to do it. We said, “Let’s do two nights at RFK,” [with] Larry Magid of Electric Factory Concerts in Philadelphia. Let's see if we can get that together. 

JESSE: About 80,000 attended the first of the RFK shows, and 50,000 came to the second. But Watkins Glen was bigger. 

SAM CUTLER: And they ended up with three bands. We did it with the Grateful Dead, The Band and the Allman Brothers. And 610,000 people bought a ticket at Watkins Glen, right. That wasn’t an accident — that wasn’t planning by default. That was planned.

JESSE: Well, they didn’t all buy tickets, exactly, but we’ll get there. There was a lot of planning. 

BUNKY ODOM: My first trip out there… I didn't know if I was gonna drink the water out the spigot. I didn't know if I was gonna get dosed. I went out there and didn’t know, and I’ve never met a finer group of people in my life. I was treated like one of them, and we got along great. Nobody in our office could have done that but me, and they knew it. Everybody stayed out of my way. And Sam and I got it worked out. Well, Rock Scully helped, too. 

JESSE: The groundwork for Watkins Glen had been laid in the summer of 1972, when a delegation from the Allmans jammed with the Dead in Hartford, and the following night a delegation from the Dead jammed with the Allmans in the Bronx. The young promoters in Hartford were Jim Koplik and Shelly Finkel. Jimmy Koplik.

JIM KOPLIK: Berry [Oakley] and Dickey [Betts] and I think Jaimoe also came up to Hartford to play a Grateful Dead show the year before, 1972. They jammed at the end of the Dead show up in Hartford at Dillon Stadium. I had people meet them on the highway and make sure they drove in and got in properly and everything like that. It was very sort of archaic, the way we did things back then. And they did “Johnny B. Goode,” and it was really an amazing version of “Johnny B. Goode,” which I’ve heard a million times. When you have Dickey and Jerry on guitar, and Berry and Phil on bass, and Jaimoe and the two drummers on drums, it’s sort of special. Being a big Dead fan and a big Allmans fan, it was magical. One of my most treasured memorabilia is my picture of Dickey and Jerry playing that day up in Hartford. I remember saying that this is something, we should be putting them together on a show. The audience fits, the music fits. And that was really the genesis of the idea of trying to put a show together, playing on the same bill.

JESSE: In addition to planting the idea of a joint bill, it also introduced Jimmy Koplik and Shelly Finkel to the right people.

JIM KOPLIK: That was the beginning of my relationship with Sam and with the Dead. I had never met such a colorful character like Sam Cutler before. The Dead were a bunch of hippies that just needed direction, and Sam was that organizer that made sure everything went forward. He was great at his job. During his tenure there, they went from a bunch of hippie bands into a real business — which is something that we, as promoters, really appreciated. I was a hippie also, but I was also a business guy at the same time. 

JESSE: Sam Cutler and Bunky Odom began planning a series of shows for the ill-fated fall of 1972, while promoters Jim Koplik and Shelly Finkel began eyeing something even bigger.

JIM KOPLIK: At that point, I was 22 years old. Shelly was 28 years old. I was more the music guy, Shelly was more the business guy. When we came up with this idea, Shelly said the best place to figure out where to put them—because he knew it would draw a lot of people; we had no idea what it would end up drawing, of course—[would be] racetracks, car race tracks. They already handle that—100,000 people—on a daily basis when they have the car races. 

JESSE: At first, the promoters had looked at the Great Eastern Exposition Center, known as the Big E, outside Springfield, Massachusetts. They’d also investigated the Pocono International Raceway in Pennsylvania, where a festival called Concert 10 had been held the previous summer, drawing 200,000 to see Edgar Winter, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Humble Pie and more. But when neither were available, Cornucopia Productions set their sights on the Watkins Glen International Speedway, about 25 miles west of Ithaca, in New York’s Finger Lakes region.

JIM KOPLIK: So the closest one to us was Watkins Glen. So Shelly and I went up to Watkins Glen, New York, which we had no idea what even where Watkins Glen was at the time. I flew into Elmira, New York, and we rented a car and drove over to Watkins Glen, and we met with the owners of Watkins Glen. They thought it'd be a piece of cake: “No problem, we handle 100,000 people. What do you want to pay us? We could do this.” I mean, it was really easy to put the deal together with the track, because they were going to get [paid] this way. It wasn't going to interfere with their race week or anything like that. 

BUNKY ODOM: We thought, let's see if we can get a big date up there. And Shelly Finkel and Jimmy Koplik came through with the idea of let’s do Watkins Glen. So we said — that sounds great! The Allman Brothers Band, and the Grateful Dead.

JIM KOPLIK: I would assume that we made the deal with the track sometime in late ‘72, because it took a lot of planning.

SAM CUTLER: It took nine months to get that gig together properly, and plan it properly. And that was a result of a conversation I had with Jerry, where we wanted to do a big gig again, and show people that it was possible — that you didn't have to have people being killed or violence or whatever. They could be done right: the sound could be done right, everybody could be looked after, everyone could have an amazingly good time. Which they did, I'm pleased to say. 

JESSE: One subliminal plotline under the Watkins Glen Summer Jam was Sam Cutler’s redemption for his role in the 1969 Altamont Free Festival, which he’d spend years living down.

JIM KOPLIK: Bunky was definitely the leading person with the Allman Brothers, and Sam was certainly the leading person with the Dead. Thank goodness we had Sam and Bunky, because they were both people that understood process and order and things like that. 

JESSE: Sam Cutler even made a trip from Out of Town Tours in San Rafael to visit Bunky at the Paragon Agency in Macon, where Bunky was helping to construct not just a Southern rock empire with his stable of bands, but the very idea of Southern Rock itself in his office downstairs from Capricorn Records.

BUNKY ODOM: We were in the same building, but we were separate. My office was in the basement of a building. Every musician that walked through the front door came to my office. They didn’t go to see someone with Capricorn — they came to my office. I developed a relationship with bands. We went on to manage the Marshall Tucker Band from the beginning. Wet Willie. We managed Dr. John. I’m probably missing out on somebody else. But we went on to be a big management company. 

JESSE: But mostly what dictated the shape of the concert was the mutual love felt between the Dead and the Allmans. Bunky Odom. 

BUNKY ODOM: Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, and Berry Oakley — I can't speak to Gregg and whoever — they were very, very, very big fans of the Dead. 

JESSE: Alan Paul is the author of the great new book Brothers and Sisters, telling the inside story of the Allman Brothers legendary 1973 album, still in progress at the time of Watkins Glen. Welcome back, Alan.

ALAN PAUL: The Venn diagram overlapped quite significantly in a way so that it made sense. But on the left and on the right of their Venn diagram, they each had fans who weren't necessarily fans of the others. And so I think it's not coincidental that both of these bands were getting more and more popular after they did these shows together. I don't think the musicians were calculating about this type of stuff at all, but I think that the management, especially Bunky and Sam, absolutely were. They saw the vision there. Part of what the Allman Brothers represented to the Dead—especially to Sam, who, again, was looking at this with the commercial mind that certainly Jerry wasn't—is that the Allman Brothers were proof of what they suspected, which was, basically, in his words, the freak nation wasn't just in California or the West Coast. It wasn't just in New York and Philadelphia. You could take it right down the coast: you could go to Florida, you could go to Atlanta, you could go to North Carolina, etc., and their people would be there. They were everywhere.

JESSE: And while the freak nation was everywhere, they needed one more act to ensure the audience. 

ALAN PAUL: The promoters had initially booked Leon Russell. They had sort of agreed with him, they paid him a deposit to be the third band. 

AUDIO: “Stranger In A Strange Land” [Leon Russell, Leon Live] (0:31-0:57) - [Spotify]

JESSE: Solid choice. In the summer of 1973, Leon Russell was huge. That June, he released Leon Live, the triple LP we just heard some music from. The previous November, he’d crossed paths with the Dead for the Thanksgiving Jam at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, and a Dead/Allmans/Russell superjam could’ve been pretty sweet too. But not to be.

BUNKY ODOM: So we're still talking about it, and we finally got the details worked out. But we went to a final meeting in Mill Valley. Garcia and all of them are there: Sam, Rock Scully. Bill Graham was there. We got to talking about the dates. And, especially, we paid a lot of attention to Watkins Glen. We knew Watkins Glen was going to be big, maybe 100,00 people or so. We came up with the idea: this is what we want to do. And Jimmy and Shelly wanted to put Leon Russell on the show. And Sam and I said, “No, no, no. There’s not but one band we want on the show with us. We want The Band.”

JIM KOPLIK: We went back to the Allmans, and they were fine with that. And then we went to the band to the Dead, and Garcia was not happy about that. Sam didn’t mind it, but Garcia minded. Garcia felt that if we were going into upstate New York, The Band’s home territory, that we at least owe it to The Band to ask them to be on the show.

AUDIO: “Up On Cripple Creek” [The Band, s/t] (0:34-0:50) - [Spotify]

JESSE: Also a fine choice. Slight problem, though.

JIM KOPLIK: I readily agreed to that because I figured they would say no, they're not a touring artist at the time in 1973. They weren't touring. So I said, “Okay, fine. Well, if The Band want to do it…” When they heard that, at the request of Jerry Garcia, they were asked to be on the show, they decided to take it. We couldn't have four acts on the show because there wasn't enough time in the program in order to do four acts. So we went back to Leon Russell's people, and we had to pay Leon Russell money to not play the show.

BUNKY ODOM: And that was what we wanted. And we invited Bob Dylan to come. That was it. We offered, The Band got a certain price. They were not involved in any negotiations or anything. We gave them a guarantee. We paid them $50,000.

ALAN PAUL: Phil Walden had really demanded that the Allman Brothers close, which Bunky was really upset about. He thought that they had gone really far in the negotiations without anyone making that demand. And then Phil was insisting that Bunky make that demand. And ultimately, they were diverted from having to do so because Jerry woke up and volunteered to go first. Which sort of, ultimately, maybe saved the whole thing.

BUNKY ODOM: Garcia stood up and said, “We'll take the first four to five hours to test the PA out,” to test the PA out at Watkins Glen. So, the Dead are gonna take the first four or five hours. That sounds like the Dead? So, they take the first four or five hours, and the Band’s gonna play second, the Allman Brothers close the show.

ALAN PAUL: And the concept all along was that the third band, which turned out to be The Band, would play first. That only got short-circuited because Jerry came out and said, “We should play first.” So The Band became the in-between band.

BUNKY ODOM: We gave Bill Graham $20,000 to fly in and be the stage manager.

JIM KOPLIK: We had to go hire Bill Graham to help us put the show together, because the ability to produce the show… we knew we could promote the show, but we didn't know we could produce the show. Producing the show, man… renting a stage, building a backstage area, fencing the area, doing all that sort of stuff. Bill had history from doing previous outdoor shows. So we hired Bill’s company, FM Productions, to be the operations head of the show, putting the backstage together, fencing and everything like that. We definitely took the risk — we signed the bands, we oversaw everything that happened at the show. But without Bill’s sage advice and the brilliance of his FM Productions team, which put together the staging, it could have never been a success without Bill Graham.

BUNKY ODOM: And all this is coming together. And we gonna do it.

AUDIO: “Across the Great Divide” [The Band, s/t] (0:20-0:37) - [Spotify]

The Dead & the Allmans

JESSE: In 1973, the Allman Brothers were somehow getting both more Dead-like but simultaneously more radio-friendly, if such a thing is possible — both thanks, probably, to the ascendency of Dickey Betts, the author of the song that would become their biggest hit, just recorded at the time of Watkins Glen and not yet released.

AUDIO: “Ramblin’ Man” [The Allman Brothers Band, Brothers and Sisters] (0:00-0:25) - [Spotify]

JESSE: Brothers and Sisters author Alan Paul.

ALAN PAUL: The biggest connection of all, [in terms of a] musical connection, were similarities in Dickey Betts’ and Jerry Garcia's approach to the guitar. It's not a coincidence, because both of them came from sort of a bluegrass background — from somewhat different angles, but they were both really, really rooted in that acoustic music. And when they started playing electric guitar, they transferred some of those concepts. Anyone who is a musician will understand they mixed major and minor keys; they played certain major key licks in places you're expected to hear minor. That's sort of musician talk, but any listener could understand the similarities just by the ear. And of course, Jerry and the Dead were a little bit ahead of the Allman Brothers in their recording career. Dickey told me, “I always had this concept in my head of what I wanted to do. And the first time I heard Garcia, I thought, ‘Oh, damn, that guy beat me to it.’” So he immediately recognized the kinship as soon as he heard Jerry.

JESSE: In late 1972, the Allmans added piano player Chuck Leavell, who brought an instinctive new voice to the band’s conversation comparable to Keith Godchaux’s entrance to the Dead almost exactly a year before Leavell became an Allman. With their double-drummers, extra-conversational new bassist Lamar Williams, and Leavell’s piano, plus Betts’s Garcia-adjacent guitar, to my ears it sounds a bit like the ‘60s double-drumming Dead with the Europe ‘72 double-keyboard attack. It’s represented well on the September 1973 performance from Winterland, released as a bonus disc with Brothers and Sisters.

AUDIO: “Ramblin Man” [The Allman Brothers Band, Brothers and Sisters bonus disc, 9/26/73] (5:51-6:21) - [Spotify]

ALAN PAUL: Jim Koplik, from the promoters of Watkins Glen, told me that when they started to discuss it and book the Watkins Glen show, without a doubt, the Grateful Dead were commercially on top, were a more popular band. But by the time it happened, that was sort of already no longer the case, and they were very much on equal footing. 

JESSE: While the Allman Brothers family had ventured a little bit into live sound, their efforts didn’t quite match the Dead’s high fidelity.

BUNKY ODOM: So we’re at the meeting, [talking about] how to do things. Garcia and Sam are talking about how we’ll put delay towers out there to make sure that music gets out there to the people.

JESSE: At the RFK shows, a backstage fight had resulted in several members of the Allman Brothers crew losing their jobs, including their front-of-house engineer, a story we detailed last season. One of the Allmans’ new live engineers was Buddy Thornton, who’d played with Allmans producer Johnny Sandlin back in high school.

BUDDY THORNTON: I stopped playing, got married and tried to stay out of Vietnam as best I could. I finally got a job with Douglas Aircraft Company out of Huntington Beach. I was working at the Marshall Space Flight Center. I was taking engineering courses at school at night, and working during the day I drew schematics for the third-stage Saturn V stimulator. I'm working on the space program in Huntsville. They put me on the Skylab program, so I was helping design the Skylab trainer prototype. Do you remember Skylab? It was this first space station in the U.S., and we were building the trainer in Huntsville, the prototype. So, I was working on that, and the real trainer was going to get shipped to Houston, for the Mann Space Center. I was flying back and forth from Huntsville to Texas for about a year on a NASA charter, helping to integrate that trainer. I got burned out on that, and ran into Johnny after Duane got killed. Johnny was back in Decatur. I talked to him — I didn't want to move to Texas. And he said, “Well come on down to Macon and help me record music.” So, I quit and moved to Macon.

JESSE: And within a year, he was on the road with the Allmans.

BUDDY THORNTON: After the RFK shows, Johnny and I went back and started working on Brothers and Sisters, finishing that album. But then we’d have to go out and mix front-of-house for several gigs.

JESSE: After the RFK shows in early June 1973, the Dead played a short West Coast run at the end of the month before taking nearly all of July off before Watkins Glen. The Allman Brothers Band stayed at it, with a docket that included their own big Northeast gigs, including two nights at Madison Square Garden. We’ve spent so much time detailing the Dead’s evolving sound system over the past few years that it’s worth lingering on what the Allmans were working with.

BUDDY THORNTON: I kind of knew what was going on, but the Brothers’ sound system… what I inherited, and what was left when [road crew member Mike] Callahan left there, was just a mix-and-match of four-channel M67 Shures; they had a Tascam eight-channel mixer; a couple of old Ampex [machines] with the big knobs on ‘em. Just an old, bastardized… it wasn’t even a mixing console. It was really a mess to sort out and keep the buzzes [out]. But they still had some of the cabinets from what was called Wiley Audio, which Butch Trucks had started.

JESSE: Sometime a few weeks after the RFK shows, in-between Allmans gigs, Buddy was dispatched to the north.

BUDDY THORNTON: And then one day, Johnny tells me I need to go to a meeting up in either Ithaca or Elmira, New York, because they're putting together a big concert for a racetrack, which I had no clue about. 

JESSE: Buddy was ready to learn.

BUDDY THORNTON: All I know is that Johnny told me that I had to go to New York, and meet with these guys at a hotel, and plan how we were going to interface with the Dead sound system. I knew nothing about it — didn't know any of those guys, other than I'd met a couple of them at the RFK gig. So, I fly in there. I think it was either Elmira or Ithaca, New York. I’m pretty sure it was a Holiday Inn in Elmira, because that's where we stayed later when we did the gigs. I found the conference room they were in, knocked on the door. I distinctly remember walking in there — that's because I had short hair, I had been in the space program recently. I didn't look like the normal Macon hippie. I walked in, and those guys looked at me. And one of them knew I had talked to—maybe it was Healy, Dan Healy—and somebody had called that I was going to join them and see what’s going on, from the record company. They gave me a stare and said, “Come on in, sit over here.” They had impressed me from an engineering standpoint: they had blueprints of the racetrack, all around the walls, pinned on the wall. So I started looking at these prints of how they’re going to lay out the trenches, the delay towers, where the stage is going to be, et cetera et cetera. And I’m very impressed that they’ve got blueprints of this whole thing.

JESSE: Just as Watkins Glen was the result of Sam Cutler’s booking over the previous years, the sound system was also the result of the hard work in those same years by the sound company Alembic. We detailed the evolution of the band’s delay tower experiments in our Kezar and RFK Stadium episodes. Susan Wickersham.

SUSAN WICKERSHAM: The biggest trial of all of that was Watkins Glen, a combination of all kinds of stuff coming together.

JESSE: Alembic’s Janet Furman helped orchestrate the delay tower system at Watkins Glen.

JANET FURMAN: In order for that huge crowd to hear what was going on on stage, there had to be sound reinforcement towers. There were two concentric rings of towers — one was a row of four towers that was 100 yards from the stage and a second concentric row of six towers that were 200 yards from the stage. And in order for the sound from the stage to reach the towers and be in sync with the sound coming out of the towers, there had to be a delay of the amount of time it takes sound to go through the air, 100 yards or 200 yards. So that was kind of a new thing in rock and roll, having towers like that. Alembic was in charge of what went on on the stage. 

JESSE: Buddy Thornton, fresh from the Skylab program, was privy to some extremely radical real-time brainstorming during the meeting in New York.

BUDDY THORNTON: Maybe 10 people in the room there, I didn’t know any of them. Seeing maybe Dan Healy and perhaps Ron Wickersham. I sit down on this couch. I sit down next to a guy who is leaning back, mouth open, staring at the ceiling. I’m kind of looking at him like… I thought he was maybe asleep or in a trance. And all of a sudden, he sits up really quickly and says, “I know what I’ll do! I’ll burn out the goddamn receiver!” He had gotten a speeding ticket with the new police radars. And he turned and looked at me, and he’s telling me this: “I’m gonna burn out the receiver on their radar, and they can’t give me a ticket then…”

JESSE: This angry member of the Dead’s sound team had laid out his plan to somebody who’d just spent the past few years designing radars.

BUDDY THORNTON: I said something like, “You're gonna need a lot of power and you’ve got to know what frequency you're on. Or maybe you can just jam it. I don't think you can burn in the front end of their receiver out. You're gonna need a lot of power, man.” And he looked at me like: who the fuck are you? And he leans back, goes back — he’s thinking, really, not paying attention to any of the shit going on in the room. That turned out to be Owsley. [laughs]

JESSE: Welcome to the team, Buddy, we’ve been waiting.

BUDDY THORNTON: The next time I saw him was on the stage at Watkins Glen, laying on a pile of cables and staring up at the clouds. Somebody told me, “Hey, that’s Owsley.” Red Dog had clued me in how Owsley had been involved with the Dead and helped design the system, but he also did chemistry. I had no idea he had designed that whole system at the time.

JESSE: Promoter Jim Koplik.

JIM KOPLIK: It was fascinating to see a guy like Buddy Thornton, who is brilliant in his own way, really going through a learning experience from the Grateful Dead sound guys. Dan Healy was the king, he was it. He knew more about sound than anybody, as far as I'm concerned. And that was one of the reasons that the Dead accepted the show, is we allowed the Dead to control the sound. 

Getting Into a Jam

JESSE: The Watkins Glen Summer Jam was announced in early June. 

BUNKY ODOM: Howard Sokoloff did the poster. Summer Jam. It’s a great poster.

JESSE: Which leads to a question: where’d the name Summer Jam come from? Jim Koplik.

JIM KOPLIK: Shelly and I were sitting around talking about what to call it. We knew the bands were jam bands, and we wanted to, in some way, have the word “summer” involved. So we came up with Summer Jam. The bands did not agree to jam together, up until the point until they actually jam together. 

JESSE: But it might have been the event’s subtitle that contributed to what unfolded.

JIM KOPLIK: Not only was it Summer Jam, but the tagline was “A Day in the Country.” We started to sell a ton of tickets in New York City. We didn't expect New York City to be a big market for us, going all the way up to Watkins Glen for a one-day show. A lot of people call it a festival, and that's because of the amount of people who were there. But it was really a concert. You'll never see the word “festival” on any of our posters or anything like that. It was three acts, one stage — it was a concert. Three acts, one stage, but people call it a festival.

JESSE: Originally, state officials had cleared the way for a concert with an estimated audience of 100,000—around the size that came to a regular race at the Watkins Glen Speedway—and put an additional 25,000 tickets on sale when they realized there was demand. By early July, heads were headed towards New York. We spoke with Bob Student in our episodes about Santa Barbara and Kezar Stadium during our Here Comes Sunshine season.

BOB STUDENT: When I got out of the Army, what I wanted to do was get a van, drive around the country and pick up hitchhikers. 

JESSE: I’ve come across a number of accounts of fans traveling a long way to make it to the Summer Jam, including a few from California. We’ll let Bob stand in for the long-distance heads.

BOB STUDENT: I was traveling around the country. I was just picking up hitchhikers. I was on the Texas-New Mexico border, and I picked up these two hitchhikers. They asked me where I was going, and I said down the road a ways. And they said, “Well, we're going to Watkins Glen to see the Grateful Dead.” And I said, “That sounds interesting…”

JESSE: A long strange something something.

BOB STUDENT: I actually drove into a tornado on the way to Watkins Glen because I didn't have any news or weather report until it threw my van off the road. I didn’t know it was a storm. I was wondering why all the trucks were pulling over. The next thing I know, I get pushed to the median. The only damage was that it tore off my muffler when I went across the medium. I just threw the muffler in the back of my van. It was three days later, but I had it put back on.

JESSE: As Bob Student and his expanding crew pointed east, one of my favorite stories of Watkins Glen was beginning to unfold in Connecticut. Please welcome, John Ramsey.

JOHN RAMSEY: I had a couple of good friends that were real Dead Heads. I wasn't — I always liked the Dead but I wasn't head over heels. I liked a lot of bands. I certainly respected their artistry and what they were doing with a sound system, too. I wasn't a Dead Head by any means, but I love the Allman Brothers.

JESSE: John had something else going for him.

JOHN RAMSEY: I was a radio geek the way there are computer geeks these days. 

JESSE: These days, John runs a cool website dedicated to Connecticut Radio History and has written a book about Hartford Radio for the Images of America series.

JOHN RAMSEY: I've been doing college radio since I was 15 at the University of Hartford. And also doing part-time work at a commercial country station just to make some money in high school. 

JESSE: We’ve spoken about a lot of varieties of clandestine activities over the past few years of the Deadcast, and we’d like to introduce a new one today.

JOHN RAMSEY: I was 18 years old in 1973 and I was running a pirate radio station in Hartford, playing jazz and progressive rock. We were on the air about 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It was called WYBS. We picked the call letters because they sounded legitimate, but they stood for “Why bullshit?” WYBS sounds good, doesn’t it?

JESSE: Even if you think you can guess what happened next, it won’t be as amazing as hearing the actual details.

JOHN RAMSEY: We'd been on for a couple of years, and then through a mutual friend in high school, I heard about Jack, who was the guy who had the idea for Concert Free Radio. Jack didn't have a didn't have an engineer and didn't have a transmitter to use, so we got together through a mutual friend and I provided the transmitter and the engineering to hook it all up.

JESSE: The regular listeners to WYBS would forgive them for disappearing from the Hartford airwaves for a few days. 

JOHN RAMSEY: The one I used at home was the one that I actually took to the concert. It was the Korean War surplus 40-watt transmitter. As far as commercial FM stations, that’s not much power — they run thousands of watts. But 40 watts, particularly from a high location like Watkins Glen, can cover five or 10 miles, no problem. Three or four days before, we left to rent the trailer, and the guy from the rental place—it was a brand-new trailer—said, “Oh, you’re not taking it to that hippie fest up in New York, are you?” And Jack said, “No, No, I’m taking it fishing with my dad.”

JESSE: There’s a great web page about the adventures of Concert Free Radio with some photos of the trailer parked at home, ready to get outfitted. 

JOHN RAMSEY: It was set up with three turntables, a mixer and a couple of microphones and headphones.

JESSE: On the back, they taped their new call letters — CFR AM FM.

JOHN RAMSEY: We were stupid because we thought that Watkins Glen was near the Canadian border. It's no closer to the Canadian border than I think Hartford is, where I live — maybe a little bit more, but it's not like… we thought, Oh, upstate New York, it's gotta be near Canada. Dumb. So we were gonna pretend that we were a Canadian station. And all the Canadian stations, coincidentally, start with C and not W. So we thought it would be a Canadian station, doing a remote broadcast right over the line.

JESSE: They assembled a crew.

JOHN RAMSEY: We actually incorporated four or five of the DJs from my station, WAPJ. They all came along. They all were easy to convince to come along and run the thing, including one of the guys, Doug, who was one of the Dead Heads that I mentioned.

Wednesday, 7/25

JESSE: And, like a half-million other people, they got ready to drive. 

JOHN RAMSEY: I think we left on a Wednesday morning — or Tuesday night, I'm thinking. Wje got within maybe 10 miles and the road was jammed. We were on side streets and it was absolutely jammed… just standing still for hours. I said, “That's it — we're never getting any closer.” And Mike, who was with us, a really wonderful guy with a great personality—he could talk anybody into anything—he says, “Oh, I’ll get us in.” He disappears up into the crowd [and we think]: “Well, that’s it, we won’t see him again.” Well, an hour later, he comes back with two motorcycle cops, and they get a police escort. So, we got escorted through the crowds.

JESSE: Concertgoers started arriving at the concert site a week before the scheduled date of July 28th. On Tuesday, the 24th, the promoters made the decision to start letting people into the surrounding grounds. By Wednesday, they estimated that some 50,000 people had already arrived. The Allmans had played over the weekend at Madison Square Garden. Bunky Odom.

BUNKY ODOM: So I go up there on a Wednesday afternoon from New York. Great trip, through New York state, upstate New York. We stayed at Horseheads. I got up there on a Wednesday, just to see how things were going. They were going okay. They didn’t have what you’d call a real hotel up there. They had these hotels on the side of the road — you see them occasionally in the country, just on the side of the road. A little office in front, you’ve got all the rooms around. It wasn’t the highest [quality]. I forgot where the Dead stayed, I don’t know where The Band stayed, I can’t remember. But that’s where we stayed.

JESSE: In his memoir, A Book of Tails, Allman Brothers crew member Red Dog remembered of Watkins Glen, “The stage was one you dream of as a roadie, about 20 feet high, 80 feet wide, and 60 feet deep with 25-foot PA wings on each side. A monster stage.” And on the opposite side of the stage from the pool was the press area, which soon got its first occupants.

JOHN RAMSEY: We got into the press area before the press even got there. We were the first people there. CBS and NBC, they're not gonna send people up there three days ahead of time — they'll just show up when the thing’s happening, or try to. So the amazing thing that I remember seeing is driving into [the site] at dawn. I think it was on Wednesday morning. Driving into the grounds, seeing the huge stage, seeing the delay towers—which was pretty impressive, because I was a sound man on the side, so it was the first time I'd ever seen delay towers—and also seeing the fence with literally half a million people on the other side of the fence. I was in this huge expanse of emptiness in front of the stage because we hadn't opened the gates yet. And it was, like, 100,000 people on the other side of the fence. There were also several rows of porta-potties, and I joke about it looking like that typical [scene] in art class or science class, the picture of the railroad tracks going off in the distance. It's perspective, how straight lines appear to merge. There were rows of porta-potties that were so long that they looked like they merged.

JESSE: They scored a pretty sweet parking spot, too.

JOHN RAMSEY: We parked right next to the only telephone pole in the press area for two reasons: it had all the electrical outlets on it; and we realized we could put our antenna up on top of the pole. Everybody was itching to get on the air and talk about what was going on, so we got on right away.

JESSE: With a library of 200 LPs, Concert Free Radio, 89.9 FM, was on the air, playing music for the incoming crowds. 

AUDIO: “Uncle John’s Band” [Workingman’s Dead] (0:00-0:27) - [dead.net] [Spotify] [YouTube]

Thursday, 7/26

JESSE: Somewhere on Thursday or so, our buddy Danno Henklein showed up. Burning Man vets might know Danno as Tipi Dan, part of the continuity between the freak contingent of Dead tour, the Rainbow Family, and modern-day Burning Man. Dan was part of a cross-country odyssey the summer before that passed through the inaugural Rainbow Gathering en route to the Dead’s benefit for the Springfield Creamery, which we discussed last summer. In June of ‘73, Danno had his heart crushed on the first night of the band’s RFK shows, which we discussed at the end of last season. But by July, Danno’s heart was not weary, it was light and free, and he was ready for his next Dead adventure. Welcome back, Danno.

DANNO HENKLEIN: I hitchhiked out there. Maybe I had checked with a friend, I don't know. I left the day or a couple of days early, just like I did at Woodstock. 

JESSE: Danno was a veteran of the scene that continued to move around the underground in the early ‘70s and, for Watkins Glen, he was organized.

DANNO HENKLEIN: At that time, I had several different social groups that I was operating in. At Woodstock, we had a great group that I was with, but occasionally I would run into friends in the crowd. And I decided that, this time, from whatever friends of mine that were still present, still participating, I wanted them to all be in one place at one time. And I thought, well, how can I do this? I'm gonna make a pirate flag. So I took a piece of bedsheet and a magic marker, and I sketched out this Jolly Roger — kind of a naturalistic one. And I still have that flag. I just made phone calls, I did leg work, or whatever. I said, “Go to Watkins Glen, go to the front of the stage and go to the pirate flag. And I will welcome you with open arms right there. Let's all be together at this event.”

JESSE: By the time Danno made it to the site, he’d found a few friends, and the flag got its finishing touch.

DANNO HENKLEIN: And so, as we're walking in, I could see off to my left a grove of trees. And to whoever I was with, I said, “Wait a minute…” I went bushwhacking into this little grove of trees. Fortunately, there were a lot of very young maple saplings, and I cut a nice green, flexible, young maple sapling, about two and a half inches, three inches at the base, 25 feet long, trimmed it up and dragged it in there. 

JESSE: You can see Danno’s Jolly Roger flying near the stage in many of the photos of Watkins Glen. He got a good spot. By Thursday, the crowd was estimated at close to 100,000, and the organizers realized they had something even bigger than they planned.

DANNO HENKLEIN: As we're going in, the next thing we encountered were all these stacks of bottled water that Bill Graham had provided for the crowd. People were going up and taking the water, and it was all on pallets. Some of the pallets were empty already and some of them were not. For those that were not, we moved the water off the pallets, and we grabbed four pallets and we dragged them right up to our favorite sweet spot: about halfway out, three-quarters from the stage, about a quarter from the soundboard right there. 

JESSE: And there Danno made camp. It rained that first night, and the pallets came in handy.

DANNO HENKLEIN: I think it was kind of muddy and all I had in those days was a Swiss army knife. That was what I used, the little Swiss army knife, to cut them. I sharpened it up and then we rammed that into the ground as far as we could ram it, and we put the four pallets around it. So it was right in the center of the pallets, and then we piled our backpacks up around that. There we are — we're right there where we want to be. 

JESSE: Bunky Odom.

BUNKY ODOM: Then, late Thursday, all of a sudden it’s crazy. The traffic is backed up for miles. I'm not talking about one lane with a two-lane highway. There were three cars in the lane trying to get there. 

JESSE: Local police made the decision not to sweep out the area by the stage, where people like Danno were already camped.

BUNKY ODOM: We stayed at Watkins Glen. I had access to a helicopter — Jim Koplik and Shelly gave me access to a helicopter at my disposal, because that's the only way we could get around. We couldn’t move. 

JESSE: Promoter Jimmy Koplik. 

JIM KOPLIK: We're there three or four days in advance. When we had people start showing up on Thursday—the show being on a Saturday—in the tens of thousands of people, I remember Shelly and I talking about: “Why are these people coming so early? It’s still a workweek. What are these people doing? We’re not prepared for them.” We have gates set up, and we had prepared to sell tickets at the gate. We thought [we could sell tickets at] the gates at $10 a ticket, we thought we’d be able to sell at $10 and people would come in. We started to get word on Thursday when people started showing up, and we were wondering to ourselves — why are they getting here so early? So we actually went out and started talking to people, and we found out that most of those people didn’t even have tickets. That really worried us. We knew we’d sold 150,000 tickets in advance, but now it was going to be more than 150,000 people, because people without tickets were showing up two days in advance. What’s going to happen a day in advance? What’s going to happen the day of the show? We knew we had a red alert going on probably by Thursday.

JESSE: Buddy Thornton.

BUDDY THORNTON: The day before the gig, I fly up to Elmira, I’m pretty sure. There was an airstrip close by, and Willie Perkins was the road manager for the Brothers. And Lee Sparks, from Capricorn Records, he was the other engineer that went up there with us and Johnny. We get a call from Willie Perkins: “Okay, guys, come down and get in the cars. We’ve got to go out to the airport.” I said, “Airport? Where are we flying?” He said, “Well, we’re flying in a helicopter to the gig.” I said, “Well, it’s only like 15 miles down the road. We’re flying?” He said, “Yeah, it’s all packed. You can’t get there by car.” So we get in these helicopters. They take off, and I see this mass of people. I’ve never seen that many people. I grew up in rural Alabama, man. The whole county didn’t have that many people. 

JESSE: Sepp Donahower of the LA-based Pacific Presentations started promoting Dead shows in 1967, handled gigs in several regions, and had become friends with Sam Cutler.

SEPP DONAHOWER: Sam put Watkins Glen together. He booked all the acts. I went to Watkins Glen with the Dead. Me and Bill Graham went with the Dead to Watkins Glen. I didn't get to fly over — we flew in. I remember flying back. There was Sam, and we walked into the place. I could see that there's just thousands of people on every dirt road entering the grounds. I'm looking at Sam, and everybody that's walking in has got their wallets out, going: “Where do we buy tickets!” I tell Sam, “Shit, man… you just should have set up some gates and started taking money.” Everybody wanted to buy tickets! There were 600,000 people. I think the originally-issued tickets… Sam would know, but I think it was 50,000, or 100,000. Once the tickets sold out, they didn’t sell any more. They could have sold another 200,000 tickets! And I was kind of looking at him like — boy, here’s a missed opportunity! Everybody was ready to pay! I was laughing.

JESSE: Bob Student and others were still working their way onto the Speedway grounds.

BOB STUDENT: I rode up to Watkins Glen in my van with 13 hitchhikers in it. We hit the bottom of the hill and it was drizzling. I had to get everybody out so I could drive my van up the hill — it wouldn't go up with all the people in it. There were two guys from the Texas/New Mexico border heading there. I didn't tell them I was gonna go all the way there until like two days before. They kept getting nervous: “Oh, we may have to change vans because we’ve got to get to Watkins Glen…” And then we got there a day early. And then they were upset that I asked them to get out of the van so I could drive up the hill in the rain!

JESSE: In our RFK episode, we told the story of how taper Jim Cooper and crew had made an incredible audience tape of the second night, only to have most of their gear and all but one of their tapes ripped off.

JIM COOPER: That killed me. Arty and I decided that we were definitely going to Watkins Glen. And we knew how to do it now, so we're going to do it [well]. And that's what we did.

JESSE: This time, they were taking their own wheels — the Spacemobile.

JIM COOPER: I took my car. I had an old 1960 Chrysler Newport… gigantic. We had to yell at people to get off. What would happen was, when you were there at the campsite, you had to drive down or walk down to the stores or something. People would hitch rides: they’d jump on your car. I had 10 people on my car at one point — like, dude, you’re gonna break the springs in this thing! But it was awesome.

JESSE: Also in the traffic jam was a 17-year-old from Long Island named Lee Ranaldo. In 1981, Lee would co-found Sonic Youth, one of the great rock groups of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and beyond and help transform the vocabulary of psychedelic music. This is from the classic album Daydream Nation, released in 1989, Lee singing “Eric’s Trip.” It’s about what you might think.

AUDIO: “Eric’s Trip” [Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation] (0:00-0:28) - [Spotify]

JESSE: Sonic Youth is one of my all-time favorite bands and we’re thrilled to include Lee’s story today.

LEE RANALDO: I went to that concert with two friends of mine, a 17-year old and I want to say that the third guy was 16 years old. We had no idea what to expect. I don't even remember, but I have a feeling we bought the $10 tickets or whatever they were. But I don't really know for sure whether we had tickets. 

JESSE: Lee was very much on the Bus already.

LEE RANALDO: I saw the Dead for the first time a few months earlier. I saw them at Nassau Coliseum. It was definitely the first tour they did after Pigpen died, so it was early ‘73. From the time that Workingman’s [Dead] and American Beauty came out, I was getting pretty heavily into them. And then Europe ‘72 was just the ultimate Godhead experience for me.

JESSE: Watkins Glen was not one to miss.

LEE RANALDO: A lot of the road trips I took in the ‘70s, the car was always a kind of fixation point, what car you were in. We drove up in my family's old Ford Falcon, with the wood panels on the side. A station wagon. It seemed like the perfect kind of car to go to a rock festival. We loaded up — we brought whatever we needed for the weekend, we brought some illicit substances of one form or another. We went a couple days early. And we stopped the first night at this farm in Middletown, New York that belonged to my uncle and spent the night there. 

JESSE: After a day spent exploring the gorges of the state park, they plunged into the Summer Jam traffic. 

LEE RANALDO: We got within… I don't remember walking for an endless period of time, but we definitely got to a point where we just pulled the car off the highway and walked from there.

JESSE: They got a pretty sweet spot near the stage — probably within waving view of Danno, before the rest of the crowd arrived.

LEE RANALDO: We got there early enough that we were really close. We were off stage right a bit, but we were quite close to the stage — we had good listening and viewing vantage points for the weekend. Everybody that got there early staked out a little territory. We definitely had a good spot where we could see the bands and hear really well. And I think I just remember the first night just kind of tripping around the site. I don't mean tripping on acid necessarily, but just kind of wandering around the site and grooving on all these people milling in. For 17-year-olds, it was pretty amazing.

JESSE: Deadcast pal Ihor Slabicky was a true New Yorker and took public transportation.

IHOR SLABICKY: I ended up taking a bus from Port Authority in New York — Port Authority Bus Terminal, up there. That was also a lot of fun because it was one of these all-night rides. The bus left there at 11 or 12 o'clock, late at night, and we got into Watkins Glen the next morning. It was all full of people: I remember one or two people had crawled up into the luggage racks to sleep there, which I couldn't imagine doing that. And the rest of it was people talking about the shows, music and things like that. It was kind of a bit of a party ride.

JESSE: Also taking public transportation, maybe even on the same bus as Ihor, was a longhaired teenager on his way to his first Dead show and a lifetime of Deadheaddom. Please welcome back esteemed science writer, author of Neurotribes, and co-author of Skeleton Key: A Dictionary For Deadheads, Steve Silberman.

STEVE SILBERMAN: The ads were everywhere. I had been sorry to have missed Woodstock because I was too young. I remember seeing the ads for that everywhere because they were up all over Forest Hills and I was growing up in Queens. So I see: “Three days, Summer Jam, Allman Brothers, The Band and the Grateful Dead.” What most excited me about that bill was the Allman Brothers. I wanted to go see the Allman Brothers — they were having sort of a surge on popular radio. So with a best friend of mine, Tom, we arranged to go up on a Greyhound bus. And the night before the show, he copped out. He said he wouldn't go. And I was so excited to go that I lied to my parents and told them that I was going with my friend Tom. And so I got my sleeping bag together and got on a Greyhound bus and went up to Watkins Glen.

Friday, 7/27

STEVE SILBERMAN: I got there, I think, the morning of soundcheck day. The weather was bizarre. It wasn't just the thunder and lightning, because I remember the night before the soundcheck day—or maybe it was the night of soundcheck day—there was frost in the grass. Like, this is August! It was very unusual for there to be frost on the grass. It was really cold. Within an hour of getting there, I lost my sleeping bag in a mudslide. I just remember a chain of implausibly unpleasant weather happening through the whole thing. And so that also added to the atmosphere of unreality. 

JESSE: At least there was body warmth.

STEVE SILBERMAN: There were already many tens of thousands of people there. What's freaky is that, once you got there, and if you were in the middle of the field there, people would cluster in around you. Pretty soon, it was hard to go anywhere. 

JESSE: Erik Nelson and his friends drove from Ohio. 

ERIK NELSON: It was a nine-hour drive from Antioch to Watkins Glen, I remember that. I think we left early in the morning on the 27th, got there in the afternoon, and got settled as close to the stage as we could.

JESSE: We spoke with Erik for our Dead Behind / Dead Ahead episode about a pair of mini documentaries he made in 1980 in conjunction with Bill Graham Presents. These days, he’s the host of the great Dead radio show The Dead Zone on KSQD in Santa Cruz. But in 1973, he was a burgeoning teenage head.

ERIK NELSON: The key for a lot of people at Watkins Glen, if you put the lens on of 18-year old me in the summer of 1973, it was: Oh, boy, we missed Woodstock, because I was 15; now I can go see these bands and see naked hippie chicks. Oh, boy! I'm there. 

JESSE: The Watkins Glen Summer Jam was a generational party for the middle part of the Baby Boom, now reaching their late teens and early 20s.

ERIK NELSON: I was going for the event. And I wasn't going to see the Grateful Dead — I was going to see The Band. And I was going to see The Band because I was a rabid Bob Dylan fan. And because this event had been billed as a Summer Jam, and because it was in upstate New York, I said, “Oh, well, Dylan will come over from Woodstock, maybe and he'll join in the jam.”

JESSE: Tim Meehan had it even easier. He lived in a group house on Long Island.

TIM MEEHAN: This gal sort of moved in, didn't really know everybody. We sort of knew this family, but she moved in and she told us about the concert happening up at Watkins Glen. That was probably in May of ‘73, and her brother had just signed the contract to sell 100,000 gallons of spring water to the promoter. And lo and behold, two VIP guest passes were made available to her. Because I was the impetus for the call, I became her date. It turned out that the guest passes came with a helicopter ride in from Elmira. So we drove up to Elmira and flew in by helicopter — my one and only helicopter ride. We were sitting in the jump seat behind the pilot, who was probably Vietnam era ex-military. I asked him, “Hey, when does this thing level off?” He said, “It doesn’t, that’s why we call it a chopper!” But it was full of rock and roll types, and at that point we were in the experience of our life: flying Sound of Music-like, over the hills and dales of upper New York State. We fly into the valley, wherever Watkins Glen is actually nestled, and there’s half a million-plus people. That was Friday.

JESSE: The Grateful Dead were enormously popular in 1973, and their fanbase included future members of the government, young musicians, writers, and creative heads of all stripes. To bring us on one slight tangent is our buddy Michael Simmons. You may know Michael’s byline from such publications as LA Weekly, Mojo, and Arthur. But in 1973, Michael was just a teenage New Yorker with a band and a wildly cool after school job.

MICHAEL SIMMONS: The last semester of high school, the school came up with this idea to give the kids a work-study program. So, my work-study program was to work at my father's show, which basically meant hanging out with a bunch of freaks and getting high all the time — and then writing some bullshit paper about why this furthered my education.

JESSE: Michael’s father was Matty Simmons, and the show Michael worked at was called National Lampoon’s Lemmings

JOHN BELUSHI [National Lampoon’s Lemmings, 1973]: Can I have your attention please? Can I have your attention? Alright, listen, there’s still some people comin’ in. So, for the benefit of you people who just paid to get in: from now on, the Woodshuck Festival of Peace, Love and Death, is a free concert! Alright, a free concert!

MICHAEL SIMMONS: The original cast was Belushi, Chevy [Chase], Garry Goodrow, who had been at Second City; Alice Playten; Mary-Jenifer Mitchell; and Christopher Guest of course, who went on to become a very successful film director and writer. It was an amazing cast, extraordinary cast. I was the doorman, and then I also was kind of the gatekeeper: if celebrities came, I made sure they got a good seat. Also, during the day, I handled rock press and underground press publicity. So, for instance, I knew Bob Fass, so I took the cast onto Radio Unnameable.

JESSE: In the summer 1973, a month before Watkins Glen, the Lemmings put out their own self-titled debut LP, with lots of rock and roll and festival humor. Doing the stage announcements, if you didn’t recognize that voice, was 24-year old John Belushi.

JOHN BELUSHI [National Lampoon’s Lemmings, 1973]: Okay, I’ve got a coupla announcements! Sunflower Polanski, your insulin has been located — I’ve got it right here!

MICHAEL SIMMONS: The Lemmings cast were true freaks — I mean authentic freaks. And John was a Dead Head. I don't know if he was a Dead Head in the sense that he followed them around, because he was working. But he was a fan, a definite fan of the Dead. In fact, one of our regular audience members was one of the original New York area tapers. 

JESSE: Michael had seen the Dead in Central Park in ‘68, but he really became a Dead freak when he went to see them with his friends from the Lemmings.

MICHAEL SIMMONS: The first time I really got to listen to the Dead was at Nassau Coliseum in March of ‘73. I believe it was the first night, it was a Thursday night. I had to go to school the next day. One of the cast members, his girlfriend at the time, was a high-end drug dealer. So the entire cast went to see the Dead, and she gave everybody a hit of mescaline. John did four, John being [someone who would] always take it over the top. In the middle of the show, I decided I was going to take a walk. It's a huge, cavernous place where you can hear the music virtually anywhere you are. 

JESSE: I know the circular concourse of the old Nassau Coliseum well. This was the Dead’s first show at the venue, and the first show since Pigpen’s death just a week earlier. There’s some silent footage of this hallway from a few nights after this floating around on YouTube. The Nassau Coliseum shows in the early ‘70s were also teeming with cops who were busting heads at the slightest provocation. 

MICHAEL SIMMONS: So I wandered around, and I'm tripping. It's circular. So I look up and I see John, surrounded by six cops. I know John's tripping on four hits of mescaline; I'm only on one hit of mescaline and I'm really high, so I can only imagine how high John is. I look up, and I'm staring at this spectacle of John talking to a bunch of cops, uniformed cops. Suddenly, the cops all break out laughing. I can't hear what anybody is saying, but I can see that the cops are all laughing hysterically. Obviously, John was entertaining them, doing some kind of bit or something, and absolutely had them in his pocket. And John looked down from the higher perch that he was on, and gave me the infamous eyebrow. Anyone who has seen Animal House would know what I'm talking about, the infamous eyebrow. As in: you and I know how high I am, and you and I know that they have no idea how high I am. It was fantastic. It was a work of art.

JOHN BELUSHI [National Lampoon’s Lemmings, 1973]: We’re going to bring somebody out to mellow you out. He’s so mellow, it’ll make your skin crawl. For you people on acid out there, it’ll probably make your skin peel off your body.

JESSE: After the spring shows at Nassau, Michael was ready for more and made the trek up to Watkins Glen with his bandmates.

MICHAEL SIMMONS: We were stoned out of our skulls the entire time. I wrote a song called “We Almost Got Busted in Newburgh,” because we almost got busted in Newburgh. We’re like shooting fish in a barrel: ten hippies, crammed into a Chevy van with smoke pouring out of the windows, and some local cop pulled us over, walked around the van with a flashlight, and let us go. I would imagine he had probable cause, but for whatever reason, we didn’t get busted. [laughs] Not on the way there.

JESSE: While Michael was getting up to the show, the situation changed even further. By then, the bands had started to arrive. Dead Heads stuck in traffic that Friday might have seen some familiar faces in the traffic jam. Todd Ellenberg caught up with some friends the next day. 

TODD ELLENBERG: Some of the folks in that group of people said, “Hey, Todd, yesterday in the traffic jam, we met the Dead! We even took pictures with them!” I said, “Yeah, right.” I guess a couple weeks later, they showed me the pictures. I was like: holy shit, I can’t believe it. What the hell were the Dead doing in a traffic jam? I figured they would be ‘coptered in or something.

JESSE: Yeah, us, too, but sure enough there are pictures of the Dead stuck in traffic for Watkins Glen by Suki Couglin, different from the ones Todd’s friends took. Garcia’s riding shotgun, Weir and Lesh in the back, and a few extra passengers are on the roof. Chuck Leavell had joined the Allman Brothers in the fall of 1972, just before the death of bassist Berry Oakley.

CHUCK LEAVELL: My wife and I, Rose Lane, just celebrated our 50th anniversary. So we were very freshly married when Watkins Glen went down.

JESSE: Happy golden anniversary to the Leavells!

CHUCK LEAVELL: We stayed in a little motel in Horseheads, New York. I remember that Rosie and I were awakened fairly early in the morning, with commotion going outside the room. I went to open the door, looked out and here's all this incredible traffic. Some people seemed to be abandoning their cars, starting to walk and hitchhike. We thought, Oh my goodness, maybe there's more to this than we thought. I think the promoters, Finkel and Koplik, probably were thinking —maybe we'll have 100,000 people, maybe 120,000. But I don't think anyone expected what happened, which was 600,000. 

JESSE: Allman Brothers booking agent Bunky Odom.

BUNKY ODOM: Later that day on Thursday or Friday morning, Bill Graham and Shelly Jacob got together, and it was declared a free concert. I went to Shelly and Jim and I said, “How are you going to have a free concert when you gonna stop selling tickets?” They had already sold 100,000, somewhere around 100,000 or 150,000 tickets at $10. So, everything is covered.


JIM KOPLIK: Friday evening, we—Bill Graham, Shelly and myself—sat down. And we said, “How do we handle this? How do we hold the gates?” And the three of us determined that safety was the most important issue. We had already sold 150,000 tickets — we were already in the black on the show, money-wise. And instead of being pigs, to make sure the event went off right, we just opened up the gates and said: “Free concert, come on in.”

JESSE: Joan Snyder with CBS News.

JOAN SYNDER [CBS NEWS]: The event started days before the music began, with young people pouring onto 1,000 acres at the Grand Prix Motor Racing Grounds. The promoters were allowed to sell only 150,000 tickets at $10 a head, to restrict the size of the crowd. But as word spread that this was the big youth event of the year, hundreds of thousands more cascaded in. To avoid any violence, they've been allowed in, free, to the concert grounds.

JESSE: Just as at Woodstock a few years earlier, it was Bill Graham who convinced the promoters to make it a free show in the name of public safety. And, while that was probably the right move in both cases, I’ll also note that Bill Graham wasn’t technically the promoter at either Woodstock or Watkins Glen. 

JIM KOPLIK: It was easy for Bill to say “make it a free show,” because it wasn't his money. It was Michael Lang’s money at Woodstock, and it was Jimmy Koplik and Shelly Finkel’s money at Watkins Glen. But the truth of the matter was: Bill was right. And sometimes, the owners—Shelly and me, in this case—we see through green eyes, which are money eyes, but Bill sees through clear eyes, which are what’s best for the event. And if you’re smart, you listen to the people that have the event in mind, and not only money in mind. Shelly and I were smart enough to listen to Bill’s wise advice. Because it was really Shelly’s and my decision.

BUNKY ODOM: When it became a free concert, we were due some money, a percentage. When it became a free concert, we all had to go back to the drawing board. But we worked it out — both bands got some more money.

CHUCK LEAVELL: We had to helicopter in. There was no way, given the traffic situation, that we were going to make it in a reasonable timeframe. I remember when the chopper picked us up — we got up in the air, we approached the stage and looked down. It was just this incredible ocean of human bodies. I had never seen anything like it. We asked the pilot to circle around a couple of times, so we could take it in, and he did. I had never seen anything like that in my life; I never imagined seeing anything like that. That sticks out in my memory, very, very strongly. I can close my eyes and look down and see that enormous number of bodies. What an incredible feeling, to say: wow, these guys are coming to hear us play. Of course, it wasn't just us, but it was the Dead and The Band. I think it was the combination of the three that really made it interesting to people.

JESSE: In between the helicopter landing area and the encampment of backstage trailers, one had to pass by the press area, where they might spot a trailer that read “CFR AM / FM.” Concert Free Radio’s pirate radio station was in full swing. John Ramsey.

JOHN RAMSEY: The heliport was further down to our left — so, all the band members and people like Bill Graham and Ron Wickersham, who helicoptered in, had to walk right by us or go right by us on motor scooters. So we could snag them. That's how we met Phil Lesh as he was coming up, and invited them in for interviews on the air.

JESSE: While there are no surviving air check tapes of Concert Free Radio, there are some great photos of an amazed looking Bobby Weir checking out the set-up. 

JOHN RAMSEY: We dropped the pretense of being Canadian. Nobody cared. We told Bill Graham and Bob Weir. I think Ron Wickersham knew, he was smart enough being a techie — he knew that we weren't licensed. Nobody else cared. The police could care less.

JESSE: Not only did the people in positions of authority not narc out the illegal pirate radio station, they were thrilled to have them there and every single party welcomed them with open arms.

JOHN RAMSEY: The state police were right next to right across the driveway from us in the press area. They had a huge commissary tent and in return for us giving traffic reports that their helicopter people provided, we got free food. It’s funny, it tasted like the best food I’ve ever had. All three meals were just great.

JESSE: Promoter Jim Koplik.

JIM KOPLIK: The guys from WPLR in WHCN, two rock stations in Connecticut, I guess together they sort of formed a pirate radio station there. We used them — they were our friends. They were good because they got word out to people. When the storms were coming in, not only did we get on stage and warn people that lightning’s coming in, rain’s coming in, but we used the pirate radio station to get word out to people that were listening on the radio that storms were coming in. They were our friends; they were our buddies.

JESSE: With the arrival of a few hundred thousand unexpected guests, Bill Graham had assigned himself a few extra roles. 

JOHN RAMSEY: Bill Graham would come by several times a day with what we called health and welfare information: the commissary’s open here; there’s tents over there with water; for first aid you need to go here; etc. He gave it to us, we wrote it down and put it on the air. I think he was too busy. I doubt he was shy, but I think he was just too busy to be bothered going on the air.

JESSE: On Friday, Graham also declared that the gates should be opened a few hours before their announced time, and that the bands should soundcheck publicly. 

BUNKY ODOM: And when the three bands did their soundcheck on Friday, there were hundreds of thousands of people that got to hear soundcheck! It's just something that was happening, and I didn't realize how big of a deal it was at that time. I mean, this is just a concert. 

CHUCK LEAVELL: And then of course, as you might recall, they moved the soundcheck up a day. So it was almost like a second concert, doing this soundcheck the night before the actual show. That was unusual. 

BUNKY ODOM: You can imagine a soundcheck with 300,000, 400,000 people.

JESSE: Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth was a teenage concertgoer.

LEE RANALDO: All of a sudden, there were kind of rumblings from the stage. And then out of nowhere—I don't even remember if there was an announcement or anything about what was going on—The Band started playing. It was kind of amazing that you're just like: wow, The Band’s doing an early set. I don't even know at the time, being not exactly experienced in the music business, we didn't know that they were soundchecking per se.

AUDIO: “Jam” [The Band, 7/27/73] (0:46-1:16)

JESSE: Taper Jim Cooper and his crew had been ready.

JIM COOPER: My friend Artie and I went earlier in the week, so we had a tent. We were set. We knew you couldn't go to the site where the concert was, but we were there so that on Friday, we got the word: ‘Hey, there's going to be a soundcheck tonight.’ And it was like, Wow, you’re kidding! So we went to the gate and bang, they let us all in. That was the best.

JESSE: Jim Cooper and crew had gone to the next level with their taping at Watkins Glen.

JIM COOPER: We decided that we needed to step up our game for Watkins Glen. We bought a pair of Sony ECM-22P condenser mics. And we used those, still with the Hitachi.

JESSE: When they got there, they received an unusual notice.

JIM COOPER: A couple of days before, they were circulating these flyers that said: “No taping. Cords will be cut.” I don’t have any of them, and I’ve never seen them again, but Artie and I said — oh, shit. But yeah, it said “Beware, cords will be cut.” Apparently, the Allman Brothers don’t like the taping. But we figured the Dead did.

JESSE: I’ve not come across copies of these flyers, and would love to see one if you happen to have one. But the Fingers Lakes underground newspaper, the New Times, published a special edition that week devoted to the concert that included a quote from Dead manager Rock Scully: “We’ve been ripped off for the past year-and-a-half with bootleg tapes. We’re not going to bust heads but we’re going to physically stop it. We’re going to cut cords. Whatever we have to do to stop it, we will.” Yeah, well, good luck with that, Rock. The Band hit the stage first and they were definitely running tape.

AUDIO: “Don’t Do It” [The Band, 7/27/73] (1:38-1:59)

JESSE: At some point, the sound team decided that what the system really needed was more speakers. Jimmy Koplik.

JIM KOPLIK: When we realized we had more people and there was more space that needed to be taken care of, and we needed to deal with setting up more sound delays and more speakers from the stage and everything like that, we literally had to go to McIntosh.

JESSE: Janet Furman was there with the team from Alembic.

JANET FURMAN: I was there as equipment tech and I was in charge of keeping everything running. We set up the delays and fed them to two PA companies that did the two rings of towers. So I was kind of involved in getting all of that set up, but we didn't have enough amplifiers. What we really wanted was the big McIntosh MC-2500 power amps. And so, the day before the show was to begin—and this was the middle of the summer—it was decided that we should try to get them. Since the McIntosh factory was not far from Watkins Glen—it’s in Binghamton, New York—I was given the task of getting them. So Sam Cutler, who was the Dead’s road manager, had also been the Rolling Stones’ road manager before that. I remember he handed me $6,000 in cash and the use of a helicopter and a pilot. “Go get the stuff.” That was my assignment. So I got on a payphone that was located backstage, called up the factory. I reached somebody, explained the situation. They put me in touch with the owner of the company, who was at home preparing to go on a summer vacation with his family. I told him what we needed, and I said I had a helicopter, I could come pick it up. So he said, “Okay, well, if you can get to Binghamton, I’ll take you from there to the factory, and I’l sell them to you right off the floor.” There was a little helipad backstage at Watkins Glen — so, off we went.

AUDIO: [Helicopter takes off]

JANET FURMAN [2/10/22]: We landed in the middle of downtown Binghamton. The place we landed was like a public park, right in the downtown area. Helicopters did not normally land there. So when we landed, it was very unusual — there was a big crowd, and there were people around wondering what was going on. There were guys from the local press, sticking microphones in my face and asking me what was going on — taking photographs and flashbulbs were popping.

AUDIO: [Flashbulbs popping; press conference hubbub]

JANET FURMAN: So I met up with the owner of the McIntosh plant, took me to the factory. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. I pulled a wad of money out of my pocket and gave him the $6,000. He pulled five of these big amps off the production line; they weren't in boxes, they hadn't been completely ready for sale yet. And we loaded them in his station wagon, along with his wife, and two kids, two dogs, and me and the five amps. We drove back downtown and loaded all the stuff in the helicopter. 

AUDIO: [Helicopter takes off]

JANET FURMAN: When a helicopter is heavily loaded, it can't go straight up — it kind of has to go on a diagonal path. This helicopter was built for two people, but it had two adults in it and five amps that each weighed over 100 pounds. So it was pretty heavily loaded. We took off, and there was a ring of kind of high-rise buildings, maybe five or six stories around this downtown square. We took a diagonal path and we came so close to hitting one of those buildings. It was a moment that I will never forget — maybe you could call it a near-death experience. I don't know if the pilot was as freaked out as I was, but we managed to stay aloft. We got back to Watkins Glen and landed. I was an instant hero — I got a big round of applause for accomplishing the task.

AUDIO: [Helicopter lands; crowd cheers]

JANET FURMAN: Of those five amps, four of them went into Phil's experimental quadraphonic bass system. Rick Turner at Alembic had built a special pickup for his bass that had a separate output for each string. So each string had its own huge sound system, which is pretty overkill, but it was awesome. That was kind of the beginning of the Wall of Sound concept: each musician, each instrument having its own sound system, so that there would be a minimum amount of intermodulation between them.

JESSE: Joe Gauthier had helped put on the Dead’s show in Iowa City in February, and had driven from the Midwest at the invitation of crew member Kidd Candelario, still on his way in on Friday afternoon.

JOE GAUTHIER: Quite a climb up that hill — it's just one car, one car, one car, one car. Very slow. On the way up the hill, we had a Nixon mask. We were causing people to laugh. We were there in time to watch the helicopters bring in a bunch of new amps from McIntosh, a dozen new amps.

JESSE: Lee Ranaldo.

LEE RANALDO: The Allmans came out and played for a while, and they sounded great. And at that point, we were immediately anticipating that, Okay, the Dead are gonna come out next, probably. The Allman Brothers may have played for about an hour, something like that. We were inside the delay towers — because we were close to the stage, the sound didn't have to be loud enough to carry all the way to the back of the crowd, which made it much more pleasant for the people up front. It wasn't ungodly loud, so it reached people a quarter-mile away. It was all kind of regulated and measured. I just remember feeling like the sound was really excellent all weekend long. 

JESSE: It was a pretty open backstage scene, if you could find your way there. Joe Gauthier.

JOE GAUTHIER: I had a job at a printing shop back in Iowa City. We had printed these big foot-and-a-half-sized signs that said “Safe Way Cab Company.” So I slapped one of those on the side of my car, and when we got to the gate to go backstage, I said, “I’ve got some people here.” They said, “Fine,” and let us backstage with my car. We got backstage and asked for the Kidd. Kidd came and gave us some t-shirts that were supposedly backstage passes for that show, with some little pins.

JESSE: Things were a little hot and crazed in the New York summer. There are some great pictures of Bill Graham at Watkins Glen in shorts, tie-dyed tank top and fedora. So imagine him with that summer look here. 

JOE GAUTHIER: I saw Bill Graham, backstage and shooting the fire hose at the people who tried to break down the fence.

JESSE: According to Dead manager Jon McIntire, Graham’s firehose tactic served to cool off the crowd more than push them back, and did the trick. Meanwhile, Tim Meehan, who’d gotten a free ride through his housemate’s brother, was wandering around.

TIM MEEHAN: We were issued the [button that VIPs got]. It was about a two-inch button. There were three buttons you could have: one said The Band, it had that logo and a picture of The Band. The others were the Dead or the Allman Brothers. I ended up with The Band button, and put it on my straw cowboy hat.

JESSE: Tim’s gonna be our eyewitness to the backstage scene.

TIM MEEHAN: They had some trailers. They were no Airstreams — they were like jobsite trailers, a little truckstop, a little low-rent and raunchy, to quote Tom Wolfe. I have a picture of Jerry, sitting at a picnic table and looking right at me. And behind him is the Allman Brothers trailer: you can see it says “Allman Brothers,” and the window’s broken to the door. A broken piece of glass in it. Things probably got a little rowdy somewhere along the line.

JESSE: Bill Graham was running the backstage, and it was full-service. 

TIM MEEHAN: There was an above-ground pool — which seemed to me to be bizarre, but there was an above-ground pool. In New York, we called them Henry Hendon pools, because they’d always run these commercials: ‘You can have your above-ground pool for $899,’ or whatever. But there was this pool.

JESSE: Tim made some great shots.

TIM MEEHAN: I have some Gregg Allman pictures sitting in front of the trailer. You can just imagine that, now, they run concerts a little differently. But the trailers… there were 55-gallon oil drums that were full of trash. They should have been emptied a week earlier, it looked like, but they were just overflowing.

JESSE: But it was a big place and lots to explore.

TIM MEEHAN: After the photograph I took of Jerry, I had a conversation with him. I asked him if I could go back in the trailer and leave my camera bag on the dashboard or somewhere under the driver's seat, because I wanted to go out in the crowd and look for my friends. And he proceeded to have a conversation with me about — “Oh, no, man, you don't do that.” He goes, “Just leave it right there, put it under the front wheel.” And I was like, “Eh, I don’t know, I’ve got a lot of equipment here.” And he’s like, “Dude — it’s like the Times Square theory.” I say, “What’s the Times Square theory?” He goes, “Well, a guy runs around Times Square trying to give out $20 bills, and everyone thinks he’s crazy, and they run away. They don’t want to deal with him. But then the same guy’s got a wad of cash in his pocket trying to hoard it, and then everybody’s after him trying to kill it. Just leave it right there! No one will take it, no one will even see it.” And that was my five minutes of conversation with Jerry. And, sure enough, I left the bag there and went out in the crowd. I never found my friends because it was too crazy, half a million people. But I did wander out, punch my way through and see what I could see. And then I came back. And, of course, my camera was sitting right there.

JESSE: The organizers had invited The Band’s old boss, Bob Dylan. But Bob Dylan had both parted ways with Woodstock and manager Albert Grossman and made for Malibu, where The Band themselves would relocate soon.

BUNKY ODOM: Dylan didn't show up. But Albert Grossman was there, with The Band.

JESSE: Imagine, then, Albert Grossman’s Benjamin Franklin-like visage amid the chaos wrought by Bunky and Sam and a half-million music freaks. There’s at least one picture of him hanging out backstage with The Band. Backstage were a group of trailers for each group, plus a jam trailer, of course — like the Festival Express coming to ground at a speedway.

BUNKY ODOM: It was like a family back there. The only time all the musicians really showed up was the soundcheck on Friday. At night, you'd have a few musicians, but you wouldn't have a whole band over there. You'd have some members of the band jamming and just getting together. 

JESSE: Chuck Leavell.

CHUCK LEAVELL: Everybody was getting along great. It was a very wonderful, communal feeling. I didn't have that much personal interaction with the guys in The Band. At the time, I really didn’t know them that well, and we all obviously had our own separate compounds there. But the Dead, we knew — the Brothers had done shows with them before I joined the band. And then we went on to do a number of shows with them after I joined.

JESSE: There are a few great pictures out there of Chuck and Garcia playing in the jam trailer, with access to one of the site’s only air conditioners.

CHUCK LEAVELL: I remember it very well, and I do have a copy of it myself, of Jerry Garcia and myself and a couple others backstage. We were just going through some ideas about what we might jam on. The only one I remember was Jerry coming backstage and hanging. I don't really think I spent time with Phil or Bob or any of the other guys. Maybe Kreutzmann, because we became friends.

JESSE: Jams unfolded over the course of the weekend, as Donna Jean Godchaux-MacKay told us of her main memory of Watkins Glen.

DONNA JEAN GODCHAUX-MACKAY: I remember I was pregnant of course, And our dressing rooms were trailers on the property. Rick Danko was in one of the rooms and he was singing: “Let me wrap you in my warm and tender love.” It was a song that I had sung the background on, on a Percy Sledge record when I was 19 years old.

AUDIO: “Warm and Tender Love” [Percy Sledge, Warm and Tender Soul] (0:37-1:00) - [Spotify]

DONNA JEAN GODCHAUX-MACKAY: So Rick Danko and I sat in there and sang that song together. That was one remembrance that I had of Watkins Glen. He said, “You sang on that? How old are you? When did you do this!” Because by that time, it was pretty old. And I was 19 years old. So anyway, that was so much fun getting to sing with Rick Danko, Of course. He's a great singer, And it was just one of those serendipitous moments.

JESSE: Meanwhile, the crew from the pirate radio station started to explore.

JOHN RAMSEY: Of the six or seven of us, I was the only one that didn't go out into the crowds. I just didn't like big crowds. It was shoulder-to-shoulder — it was like Woodstock, there was no room. They all came back and independently said, “Oh, yeah, everybody's listening to the station.”

JESSE: Broadcasting from the top of the electricity pole in the parking lot, they discovered their signal was making it out further than expected.

JOHN RAMSEY: The AM didn't work very well, it didn't get out very far. But I don't think we cared much because the FM was working so well. With FM, the height makes all the difference, and Watkins Glen is up on a pretty good hill. So we had people that were coming in to see us that had been stuck in traffic 25 miles away that said they were listening.

JESSE: Pirate radio at scale was largely a European phenomenon, with off-shore stations like Radio Caroline blanketing London. But in the United States, it didn’t quite have the same reach.

JOHN RAMSEY: Radio London and Radio Caroline probably had more. But domestically, I think we probably have the largest temporary audience of any pirate station.

JESSE: And though—as we noted—Bill Graham wasn’t the promoter, he also assigned himself a few onstage announcing duties. Chuck Leavell.

CHUCK LEAVELL: Bill just had that personality and I think he rather enjoyed the role of getting up in front of all those people just before whatever band was going to start and say: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome…” He enjoyed that, and he was quite good at it. He made for a great emcee. 

BOB WEIR [7/27/73]: Alright, announcing the show, a fine American and a wonderful, wonderful man, Mr. Bill Graham.

BILL GRAHAM [7/27/73]: I’d like to also… this is Sam Cutler, who’s very much responsible for a lot of what’s going on. So let’s hear it for Sam Cutler also, please…. And the name of the band is the Grateful Dead, as we all know.

AUDIO: “Promised Land” [7/27/73] (0:08-0:24)

JESSE: Jay Kerley was just walking onto the concert grounds.

JAY KERLEY: We got there… I don't know, Lord knows what time. But we walked in there and I heard “Promised Land.” And I said, “Oh, they're playing Dead tapes.” And my friend said, “That's no tape — that's them.” So we double-timed it up to where my friends were and there's the band in all their glory [doing their] the soundcheck.

AUDIO: “Promised Land” [7/27/73] (2:35-3:03)

JESSE: Jay was friends with Danno Henklein and found him easily.

DANNO HENKLEIN: By Friday, several of my good friends had arrived. And then by the end of Friday, the greater majority of my good friends had arrived. We were all able to join together on this crazy pirate raft in the middle of a sea of people. 

JESSE: Danno was a veteran outdoors person who’d had his ass unexpectedly whupped at the legendary Sunshine Daydream show in Veneta the summer before, and he was better prepared this time.

DANNO HENKLEIN: We talked about Veneta and how hot that was. Nothing can surpass that, but it was very, very hot and humid and nasty. People were definitely at risk of heat-related illnesses. Again, we were much more prepared: I remembered Veneta. I knew it was going to be hot. I’m sure I had plenty of canteens and we had grabbed bottled water. But we still had to nurse the supplies that we had to get through. 

JAY KERLEY: My friends were all standing on top of the warehouse skids. And me and my buddy showed up and they just said, “Okay, open your mouth.” And caps of mescaline, a tab of acid, and more weed. [laughs] I was all ready for that Dead show, I’m tellin’ you…

DANNO HENKLEIN: The first day, Friday, when the Dead decided to do their soundcheck, the crowd was very small and still clean and, I daresay, almost a little bit wholesome — we were just jumping up and down and screaming and yelling and cheering. We were just as happy as we could be that they were going to play a special little concert for us. 

PHIL LESH [7/27/73]: This whole thing is a fraud... We’re really clever androids.

JESSE: The Dead didn’t play a full show, except by most other bands’ standards — performing two sets over 90 minutes, each with a legendary jam of its own. The “Bird Song” from the first set is one of my favorites, stretching over 15 minutes. Ask a taper.

AUDIO: “Bird Song” [7/27/73] (10:55-11:18)

JESSE: Remember that anti-taping notice we mentioned?

JIM COOPER: In the first set during “Bird Song,” we noticed this guy coming through the crowd — a big redheaded guy with a big red beard. He was going to everyone who had mics up and hassling them. So he came over to us, and he hassled us, wanted our tapes. It looked like he came from the Dead, or maybe the Brothers. I was standing up and holding the mics, and he comes over and started yelling at us. I said, “Well, what?” Blah, blah blah. And he goes, “Give me your tape. Give me your tapes. I want your tapes. Stop doing what you’re doing.” Blah blah blah.

JESSE: Jim and Arty weren’t to be denied.

JIM COOPER: The guy comes up to us, he's in our face. Arty goes down to the deck. We had two boxes, two 10-in-a-box boxes of TDK SDs or something, something good, UDs. He’s down there, and I’m in the guy’s face, kind of asking him questions just to distract him. Arty’s down there — he switched the tape on him, gave him a blank, and he took a box of our blanks. And he couldn’t wait to get out of there and go to the next person. He kept looking to see who had ‘em. So, after that, we didn’t tape the rest of the set, and then the second set, we just kind of lowered the mics so that they couldn’t be seen. It had gotten dark, too.

JESSE: Lee Ranaldo.

LEE RANALDO: The Dead came out and they played for what I want to say is a good long while. Then they stopped, but then a little bit later they came back again and did a second set. The other bands played for more briefly, but the Dead really just kind of kept playing and playing. I just thought their attitude was: shit, everybody’s here, we might as well play for ‘em. It was just a magical evening.

JESSE: We spoke with Eric Alden on our Europe ‘72 season. He’d been in the Army and caught the Dead in Frankfurt, the show that’s now Hundred Year Hall, and picked up seeing Dead shows almost as soon as he got home. Watkins Glen was already his fourth gig of ‘73. 

ERIC ALDEN: There were six of us that drove in the car. When we got there, we were in a big, long, creeping traffic jam for hours. The other five guys all got out of the car and walked around and whatever; I was stuck driving and sitting in this cloud of car exhaust for what felt like hours. We got there and we set up our campsite. I felt like crap from breathing all of this exhaust. And so we kind of sat around and whatever. But they did the soundcheck that night. Some of my friends walked up and watched it from in front of the stage, but I just listened to it from our camp. You could hear it from there; you could hear it all over. And it was cool. It was fun, just sort of sitting there in the evening, listening to live music drifting across the night sky.

JESSE: Jay Kerley.

JAY KERLEY: I remember walking around, just amazed. People had card tables set up, selling weed, selling acid, selling cocaine. It was a marketplace, as well as a humongous party. 

JESSE: Bob Student.

BOB STUDENT: I go to see the people. I go to smell the smells. I go to test out everybody's pot. I tried various drugs. It was nice! They played a lot of background music that we all liked.

JESSE: Bob had brought his Super 8 camera to the Santa Barbara show, and brought it out again at Watkins Glen, getting over 20 minutes of footage.

BOB STUDENT: I wanted more pictures in the crowd, which really became evident if you watch my Watkins Glen movie. I think there's 70 seconds of the stage and 23 minutes of the people. There was the guy who was naked, jumping up and down. And I think that took away my general rating on that video — now they say kids can't see it. But I was just showing you what was going on! Then there's a scene of a VW bus where it says “The Bozo Boogie Bus” in the Watkins Glen clip. The next time I [saw] that bus, I was back home in San Francisco and it was parked on Haight Street. He was going to another Dead show.

JESSE: The big highlight of the Dead’s day and, for many, the musical highlight of the whole weekend, was something the Grateful Dead were often accused of doing but rarely actually did—they just jammed.

AUDIO: “Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam” [So Many Roads, 7/27/73] (0:00-0:26) - [Spotify] [YouTube]

JESSE: Steve Silberman.

STEVE SILBERMAN: The Dead soundcheck was, in retrospect, easily one of the most beautiful pieces of purely improvised “fast composition,” as David Grisman calls it. There's not really anything like it. 

AUDIO: “Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam” [So Many Roads, 7/27/73] (4:51-5:19) - [Spotify] [YouTube]

JESSE: It was a performance that hit teenage Steve Silberman square in the third eye.

STEVE SILBERMAN: It was just gorgeous. And I knew it was gorgeous at the time, even though I hardly knew anything about the Dead or anything. I mean, I was into them, “Uncle John's Band” and all that. But I wasn’t into into them until Watkins Glen.

AUDIO: “Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam” [So Many Roads, 7/27/73] (14:30-15:00) - [Spotify] [YouTube]

JESSE: Lee Ranaldo.

LEE RANALDO: I just remember that at the time it kept feeling like it was going to go… like, ‘Oh, they’re gonna go into this,’ or ‘They’re gonna go into that…’ But it never did. It just stayed as this abstract jam with no singing. I want to say that the Allmans and the Band checked during the daylight, and that by the time the Dead played at least their second set, they were under all the colorful lights and everything. It was a beautiful, beautiful night as I remember, and it was just amazing to hear them. It just felt like you were hearing them do brand-new music — which, in essence, it was.

JESSE: Erik Nelson.

ERIK NELSON: It wasn't like you're thinking, “Ooh, there's a theme reminiscent of ‘Fire on the Mountain.’” I was just kind of a building wash of music. I do remember the generosity of spirit, and definitely comparing the Dead’s vibe and performance on stage with The Band who, from the moment they came on stage, didn’t seem to really want to be there.

STEVE SILBERMAN: I can't say that I fully understood the significance of the soundcheck jam. But the one thing that is true is that, decades later, when I was asked to co-edit the So Many Roads box set with David Gans and Blair Jackson, the first thing I wanted to put on it was the was the Watkins Glen soundcheck jam — in part because Dick Latvala, who was my friend at that point, had already told me that it was sort of this orphaned jam. And so it wasn't gonna end up on… he didn’t like the actual performance the following day. So it wasn't going to end up on that. So, I was thrilled to rescue it — it was not only as good as I remembered, it was better than I was even capable of remembering. 

AUDIO: “Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam” [So Many Roads, 7/27/73] (15:00-15:30) - [Spotify] [YouTube]

JESSE: To date, it’s the only bit of the Dead’s Watkins Glen performances that has ever been officially released. Lee Ranaldo.

LEE RANALDO: Once they stopped, the site was, at that point, really massively full of people. From within it, and especially from close to the stage, I don't think we could really tell how many people were there. But it just seemed like the equivalent of what went on at Woodstock. I think that was kind of the vibe. We were too young for Woodstock, and we were probably among the younger element of people there. But it just had this feeling of [being], like, for everybody that missed Woodstock. I remember after the Dead finished, we just kind of wandered around the site until all hours of the morning. Strange weirdos here and there, just kind of taking it all in.

JESSE: There was wildness to discover.

LEE RANALDO: There were a lot of people blasting music left and right. I don’t know what they would have been — there weren’t boomboxes back then. I don’t know what they were playing out of, but there were definitely people that brought music systems and were playing stuff, especially as you wandered away from the stage and it got a little bit easier to walk around. People in the woods or out in the fields were either playing music with instruments, or playing music from recorded sources. I don’t remember radio in particular, but there were definitely people in lots of different little encampments, playing music and just hanging around groovin’ to records and stuff. 

JESSE: There’s some wild Portapak footage out there involving a giant speaker strapped to the hood of a station wagon and blasting the “China Cat Sunflower”/“I Know You Rider” from Europe ‘72 from a tape machine. Jay and the others just slept by the stage. It might have been quieter.

JAY KERLEY: We just rolled out our sleeping bags on the warehouse pallets and crashed out.

DANNO HENKLEIN: You just passed out. And on our little pirate raft, I remember lots of people were just passed out — kind of semi-horizontal, 45-degree angle, leaning back against the backpacks that were all piled in the middle of the thing. That was very common. Conditions at those events—conditions at Woodstock, conditions at at Watkins Glen—are challengingly comparable and a different order [compared to] the conditions that one encounters today at Burning Man.

JESSE: While gangs of people were trying to get in, Buddy Thornton of the Allmans’ sound team was trying to get out.

BUDDY THORNTON: After the first night, I was screwing around doing something and there's no more helicopters. I'm looking around, trying to flag a ride back to the hotel. There was a limo, and the doors open and he's looking at me saying, “Come on, we’ll take you!” I think it was Kreutzmann and maybe his wife. So I get in the limo and we're riding through the mass of people. They were looking in the windows and banging on the windows, shit like that. 

JESSE: And that’s where we’re going to pause our story tonight. If you’re still with us, feel free to climb on the back of Kreutzmann’s limo and take your chances, or find a place to crash somewhere on site. We’ll see you in the morning. And by the morning, I mean in two weeks. Stay hydrated.

AUDIO: “Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam” [So Many Roads, 7/27/73] (18:05-18:33) - [Spotify] [YouTube]