Monday, February 18, 2008

a ROCKIN' look back at what was then said to be the largest rock-and-cars gathering

(above) from the NY Daily News
(above) the Grateful Dead hitch a ride to Watkins Glen for their two-set soundcheck,'
photo by Suki Coughlin, courtesy Eileen Law, Grateful Dead Productions
photo copyright Suki Coughlin
(above) the Dead, the next day, for two even longer sets
(above) 150,000 tickets were sold @ $10 each
but and add'l 450,000 people got in for free

(above) wire stories and photos were printed everywhere;
this in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
(above) more from the NY Daily News
(above and several below) photog Grant Gouldon's photos, recently unearthed

(above) "by the time we got to Woodstock" . . . oops, I mean The Glen
this time "we were more than half a million strong"
One of my dearest friends in rock & roll is Eileen Law, the "head Dead Head," who has organized and protected the Grateful Dead's legendary archives over many decades for, initially, Grateful Dead Productions, and now for both Rhino and maybe a repository at one of the University of California libraries.
Eileen recently turned me on to Suki Coughlin's marvelous photo of Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, and Bobby Weir 'hitching a ride' to their now-legendary two-set soundcheck at Watkins Glen racecourse on July 27, 1973 (the actual concert took place the next day). Suki remembers suddenly seeing the band passing by in a car, as everyone else at that moment was trudging their way thru. Seeing them, she shouted, "Remember Bickershaw!" and the band turned to her and laughed--and Suki clicked the shutter. History!
Suki herself is a legendary photographer, who made her home and studio for years in New London, NH, and who captured the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Fords, the late Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, Jack Nicklaus, Meryl Streep, and hundreds of other notables. I'm guessing Suki was herself at the Bickershaw event the year before, in England, or else she wouldn't have spontaneously chosen that shout-out.
Seeing that shot again reminded me that Watkins Glen was an even bigger Woodstock, with even more cars lining the roads for dozens and dozens of miles, also up in New York State. However, unlike Woodstock with its dozens of bands and place in history as the first such mega-concert-event, Watkins Glen featured only the Dead, the Band, and the Allman Brothers.
With an estimated 600,000 in attendance (150,000 paid), it was likely the largest concert up to that time, but this number has since been superseded.
Even though it took place at the spaceous Watkins Glen Prix Raceway site (at the southern tip of Seneca Lake in New York State's Finger Lakes region), most of the audience could barely (if at all) see the stage. But huge electronically-staged amplifiers and speaker platforms created by promoter Bill Graham's FM Productions allowed everyone at least to hear the show--and very clearly, happily so.
On the day of the show, the Dead performed first, playing two long sets. The Band followed with one 2-hour set, interrupted halfway thru by a drenching thunderstorm reminiscent of the last day at Woodstock. Then the Allman Brothers performed for three hours and an hourlong encore jam ensued with many of the three bands' musicians.
The Dead's music was not as memorable as that which they would play four years later at Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ (see next blog), and some feel the Allman Brothers really stole the show at Watkins Glen. For most in attendance, it was horribly hot and humid, and like Woodstock there were barely enough porta-potties, drinking water, and food. The traffic jams both to and from were horrendous, and there was much bizarre abandonment over a 50-mile radius. And, unlike Woodstock, despite the historic size of the event, no official recording or movie was officially released, as the bands themselves had concerns about the quality of the capture.
A thorough, although a bit sardonic, write-up occurs in Robert Santelli's book AQUARIUS RISING: THE CONCERT FESTIVAL YEARS (Delta Books, NY, 1980). Santelli also covers the Cal Jams at California Motor Speedway in 1974 and 1978. You can read portions of his analysis at
Many accounts of Watkins Glen note that the promoters, even with the memory of Woodstock's problems clear in their minds, failed to anticipate the transportation problems inherent in promoting such large-scape events. Although both concerts were 'out in the country,' the traffic both times caused a huge local disturbance, as well as jam-ups on the freeways leading in. There were even post-Monterey Pop and post-Woodstock ordances passed to control such enormous gatherings. Even so, there was very little law enforcement could do except try and turn back portions of the crowds, to little avail, as most simply found other directions. And the media took huge delight in issuing hundreds of photos of rock fans and their (abandoned) and (immovable) cars, vans, trucks, and buses.
In the great tradition of the Grateful Dead's fanbase, the Dead Heads, there are wonderful memories of hitching rides and finding unusual transport provided at the Dead's semi-official site and http://www.dead-net/show/july-27-1973
Recently many from-the-audience and out-on-the-road photos taken by Grant Gouldon appeared at
Watkins Glen International was itself long known around the world as home of the United States Grand Prix (Formula One) which it hosted for 20 consecutive years (1961 - 1980). It also hosted famous Can-Am, Trans-Am, SCCA, IROC, and IRL races, and more recently has been the site of one of the only two roadcourses run by NASCAR. Watkins Glen (apparently) also was the first major post-WW 2 site for American roadracing, with its first Grand Prix held in 1948 on a 6.6-mile course over local roads.
Other large concerts not held at racecourses have included Rod Stewart at Copacabana Beach in Rio (3. 5 million, 1994); Garth Brooks in Central Park in New York City (750,000 people, 1997); the US Festival in Devore, CA (670,000 people, 1983); the Isle of Wight Festival in the UK (500,000+ people in 1970); and Simon & Garfunkle, again in Central Park (nearly 500,000 people in 1981).
Here's one example of a Dead Head memory of Watkins Glen:
"Riveaux" wrote: "We met in Ithaca and drove over in a couple of cars on Friday night / early Saturday morning. The road was gridlocked from miles away, so we [parked somewhere] and headed in on foot, finally reaching the fences at sunup. The fences were all down so we didn't need to show our tickets, and proceeded to carefully walk over thousands of sleeping people to get a spot down front, where we plopped down and slowly spread our group's radius out into our own self-defined space. As the sun came up and the crowd came to life, it was pretty crazy--some of the hippiest people I've ever seen. We all did our gelatinous medium (windowpane) and flowed with the morning and people and sights and rain and mud. The Dead, The Band, and the Allman Brothers put on an incredible show, each giving it their own energy. We danced and gyrated and laughed and played on many different levels until after midnight when the Allmans finished up. Then we hiked back to the main road and got split up. I thumbed my way to town and happily ran into our group of trekkers at a diner. Feeling absolutely spent and still wired, we ate, buzzed, and for many hours afterwards still could not really believe what we'd just been through."
For those who were not there, this was the Dead's two-set soundcheck the day before, bookended by Chuck Berry classics:
The Promised Land
Mexicali Blues
Bird Song
Big River
Tennessee Jed
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo
Me and My Uncle
jam into Wharf Rat
Around and Around
For sure, you had to have been there . . . and in the great rock & roll tradition, at least a million now claim to have.


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