Grateful Dead Mysteries Dark And Vast: Exploring Cornell ‘77

Cornell University Press director Dean Smith shares insights into the recently published Peter Conners book Cornell ’77: The Music, The Myth And The Magnificence Of The Grateful Dead’s Show At Barton Hall. The book was included in the limited edition Grateful Dead box set May 1977: Get Shown The Light featuring the famed May 8, 1977 concert at Barton Hall on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Last November, I went to see Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) at the State Theatre Of Ithaca with members of our marketing team at Cornell University Press. For Martyn Beeny, Jonathan Hall and myself the show was two parts pleasure and one part market research for a book we were publishing entitled, Cornell ’77: The Music, The Myth And The Magnificence Of The Grateful Dead’s Show At Barton Hall. Martyn and Jon made business cards for the book and distributed them all. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the legendary show at Cornell and the book officially published on April 11.

As the house lights dimmed, I immediately fell back into touring mode of trying to guess the first song — a natural inclination learned in the ‘80s and ‘90s when I followed the band to some 60 shows. The moment of first darkness remains magical for me. I may have traveled hundreds of miles through the night to make it to the threshold of Dead music or the venue was only 10 city blocks away as in the case of Madison Square Garden when I lived in Chelsea. You were meant to be in that exact place and time to hear something spontaneous and wonderful. The only visible signal of what was to come could be glimpsed in the blinking red lights of the speakers. You had waited months to see them again and maybe you scalped in and someone sold you a ticket at face value. Shadowy figures shuffled across the stage and there you were in the company of musicians whose connections dated back to your literary heroes: Kerouac, Kesey, Corso, Ginsberg and Wolfe.

A crowd approaching 1,000 had turned up to witness another expert recreation. The audience skewed middle-age with a smattering of young people dispersed around the majestic medieval venue. I hadn’t seen DSO since John Kadlecik had left to join remaining Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh in Furthur. Kadlecik channeled Jerry Garcia and had been my favorite. For me, on tour with the Dead, I connected with Garcia.

I suddenly realized I couldn’t call the song. The tuning was high-pitched and sounded like it may have come from a different era than I was familiar with. The DSO and their frontman Rob Eaton have meticulously recreated shows from over 2,300 of the Dead’s performances. Rob has integrated Bob Weir into his muscle memory down to his posture, attire and strumming technique. He’s also played an integral role in rescuing and restoring the famed Betty Boards recorded by the Dead’s sound engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson — some of the most highly coveted soundboard recordings ever made. One of those recordings is the Cornell ‘77 show that will finally be officially released on May 5.

Perhaps this show was from an era I knew nothing about. How far were they going back into the canon?

The first bars of the song “Casey Jones” erupted. Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia’s version of the great American folk song “The Ballad of Casey Jones” (analyzed in detail by Richard Polenberg’s Cornell Press book, Hear My Sad Story) includes the notion that Mr. Jones was “driving that train / high on cocaine” and that he should “watch his speed.”

Then came Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” “Black Peter” and “Hard To Handle,” a wicked blues number that Ron “Pigpen” McKernan handled vocals on. He died in 1973.

Here was the first clue that this show was from the early ‘70s — a run of shows thought by many heads to be some of the best ever. Deadhead purists believe that the early-1970s eclipsed Barton Hall and anything that came after. I typed what I had of the setlist evidence into my iPhone and was immediately taken to the Dead recordings on the Live Music Archive. DSO was recreating January 16, 1970 at Springer’s Inn, a small country music establishment in Portland, Oregon with walls of knotty pine.

It was a curious choice. Donald Trump’s election victory was barely a week old. Here was a show recorded in the second year of Richard Nixon’s tumultuous presidency. The Vietnam War was recklessly plundering on. A few months later, in May of 1970, four students were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. I tried to put myself at Springer’s Inn to soak up the performance and learn something.

I specifically wanted to know why Dead shows in the early-1970s were so special. The Cornell show, according to some, should not even enter the conversation when talking about the greatest Dead show ever. The great Fillmore East shows demanded attention. To others, it was not even the best show that week in the spring of 1977. I was not qualified to be a part of the discussion since my touring began in 1982 at the University of Virginia. The ‘80s were fine but not anywhere close to the pinnacle of the music. I’d listened to cassette tapes of Cornell between tours, but it wasn’t like the show held any special significance for me.

Recordings from the 1970s show were in short supply by the time I started following the band and the ones I listened to were sped up and grainy. Before and after shows, we’d walk the parking lot selling t-shirts with a slogan I landed on as we drove up and down I-95. We tie-dyed the shirts and printed “See The Dead” on the front and “Come Out A Head” on the back. In between those lanes of cars, the Deadhead outdoor arts and crafts mart was in full swing. Homemade t-shirts and peanut butter and banana sandwiches abounded. You’d often come up upon a group of people listening to a mouthwatering recording of that night’s show like it was fresh toro from the tuna markets in Tokyo, it’s magnificence only to be surpassed by the next night’s recording. Whatever tour it was, we were present in that moment — focused only on what was next.

DSO’s energetic rendition of the concert helped me understand why it was a special time. Pigpen added depth to the vocal arrangements. Recreations of “Hard To Handle,” “Alligator” and “Easy Wind” at Springer’s in that chilling vocal timbre would not be attempted in later years. Robert Hunter penned the memorable opening lines to Easy Wind: “I’ve been balling a shiny black steel jack-hammer / been chippin’ up rocks for the great highway.” The range of songs they could draw from during that fabled era encompassed their evolving mythology from raw San Francisco blues numbers like “Viola Lee Blues” to the deep space mysticism of “Dark Star,” “The Eleven” and “Cryptical Envelopment.”

The band also played a number of new songs in 1970 like “Cumberland Blues” and “Uncle John’s Band” that would appear on their fourth studio album, Workingman’s Dead. The classic song that they opened the show with, “Casey Jones” was about to be shelved for a long hiatus. I was on the edge of my seat asking the question, “How could Barton Hall possibly compare to the power of this 1970s show?”

The idea to publish a book about a concert on the campus at Cornell from 1977 – the so-called “greatest Dead show of all-time” emerged from my interview for the Cornell University Press director’s position in December of 2014. The university had booked a room for me at the Statler Hotel on campus. As I waited for the editor-in-chief to take me to the first set of interviews, I looked across the circular drive at a massive gothic structure. The concierge confirmed that this was Barton Hall. In the strategic report developed for the Press there was one recommended change that resonated above all others. The Press needed to reconnect with the university. The editors asked me what books the Press should publish. I had no idea about the missing Betty Boards or the impending 40th anniversary.

“Publish a book on the greatest Grateful Dead show of all time at Barton Hall in 1977,” I said. I started a few months later. Editor Michael McGandy quickly found a writer named Peter Conners to pen the manuscript shortly after I arrived.

Then the journey began: a series of long strange excursions into the Barton Hall recording and working with Peter Conners and Michael McGandy on the manuscript. Peter is a great writer and a poet – and he functioned a lot like Jerry Garcia — soloing around the fretboard and mastering the lyric. He’d bring us freshly laid tracks in the form of chapters and we’d comment and provide suggestions. Michael McGandy played the role of Phil Lesh — suggesting structure and orchestral arrangement. I functioned more like Mickey Hart, “filling in a lot of unusual places,” as Rick Moody wrote about Hart in his article, “Swinging Modern Sounds #54: A Jamband Apotheosis.”

Peter and Michael are responsible for my own renewed fascination with the music and I owe them a massive debt of gratitude. The manuscript sent me on several sojourns into the canon and namely to the compilation So Many Roads and an 18-minute improvisational jam known as “Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam” where I sought refuge. I began to understand why May 8, 1977 was so special. It occurred during a pivotal point in the band’s evolution.

If you were to produce a Norton Anthology Of Great Rock & Roll Concerts, Cornell ’77 is the rightful entry for the Dead. It’s Grateful Dead 101, essential listening for perspective on what came before and what followed after in their history. The fact that this tape circulated widely to new generations of Dead fans is part of the still evolving lore of the band but not a mistake. After a two-year touring hiatus, the release of the album Terrapin Station was a watershed moment for the band — the song itself an epic poem that would become a set piece for the next 18 years replacing “Dark Star” and “St. Stephen.” They would be grounding songs like “Casey Jones” and “St. Stephen.” The train, as the song lyrics state in “Terrapin Station,” would “put its brakes on.” The album set the tone for the Dead’s future and the sound was not going to remain the same. Pigpen had died a few years before and Donna and Keith Godchaux were soon on their way out.

The Spring 1977 tour served as a bridge into that future with a band at the top of their game, much like Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls, playing with reckless abandon. You can hear it inside Barton from the opening whistle. There is also an 11-song first set barrage featuring a slew of great songs to my ear such as “Loser,” “They Love Each Other,” “Mama Tried,” “Jack Straw,” “Row Jimmy,” “Brown-Eyed Women” and a host of others. It was one of the band’s classic, Western-tinged first sets replete with gunslingers, cowboys, card cheats and rapscallions. At the end of the first set, they planted their feet firmly in the moment and unleashed a funk-filled “Dancing In The Street.” It’s the energy, the physicality and the range of those 11 songs that pour the foundation of the debate of whether or not the show is the greatest of all time.

Then, in the second set, three incredible moments. First, a fiery “Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire On The Mountain” to open. Then later, a “St. Stephen” into “Not Fade Away” back into “St. Stephen.” There is that raw San Francisco sound again in “St. Stephen” that would be abandoned in the next decade. The defining moment of punctuation from Cornell ’77 is the last song, “Morning Dew.” It’s considered one of the best versions ever and in the airplane hangar of Barton Hall, Jerry Garcia soars into the rafters.

Peter Conners teases out these moments masterfully in Cornell ’77, pushing his voice into the music. The book is like any Dead show. Once you’ve finished it, the music reverberates through your soul. You are walking through the arena thinking about the great moments and wishing they’d played a few more songs to make it perfect. You realize you’ve been presented with a road map and there is more to investigate, other doors to venture into and more music to enjoy — a sacred gift.

I can report that I’ve never witnessed a show that approached the excellence of Cornell ’77. Some shows came close at the Spectrum in Philly, Hampton Coliseum, Madison Square Garden, Alpine Valley and Greek Theatre. The idea of any show being the greatest is to engage in an endless and impossible debate. My favorite Dead show would include “Peggy-O,” “Uncle John’s Band,” “Crazy Fingers,” “Cassidy,” “Me And My Uncle,” “Franklin’s Tower,” “Standing On The Moon” and yes, “Terrapin Station.” My personalized greatest show ever would be dispensed immediately from contention because my generation of Deadheads, including Conners, supposedly did not see the Dead at their best. Even the party favors were deemed to be less-than. We were blissful in our ignorance just the same. The Dead gave us everything we needed.

Like Peter Conners, I pursued a career in poetry and publishing. The Dead influenced me in that direction — the courage to explore and create. I drove a Bali-green Karmann Ghia across the country in 1985 in search of Jerry Garcia and wrote a poem entitled “Engine” about it years later. Many of my friends on the tour with me pursued careers in the humanities and became professors of religious studies, political science and anthropology. Once the shows were over the message was clear: keep stoking the dream.

And that brings me back to the DSO Show. After it was over, I spoke to State Theatre executive director Doug Levine about Springer’s Inn, 1970.

“DSO played it better than the Dead,” he said. Levine is a Deadhead who chose Ithaca College because he’d first encountered the town on a bootleg Dead tape. His Dead pedigree earned him the right to make that bold assertion.

I had to think about that for a few seconds. In that statement is the reason why Deadheads defy all attempts to quantify them. They exist in another dimension.

As we moved toward publication, Rhino records cleared rights for the AWOL Betty Boards and contacted us about placing copies of the book into a limited-edition four-show box set they were creating. Rhino sold 15,000 of those sets in four days. The Dead.net message board and shopping cart exploded. The Cornell recording was still that important to the community 40 years later despite the fact that you can stream it online for free. Throw all the market research out the window. Authenticity and authorship remain core values.

[Get Shown The Light Unboxing Video]

It’s hard to say whether DSO bested the original band that night 46 years later but it’s the essence of a new discussion somewhere on a message board. Let the debate begin.

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