When the Music Could Only Do So Much
The last days of April 1970 seemed relatively uneventful. The first Earth Day occurred on April 22nd that year. For the most part it bore little resemblance to the green corporation festival many of today’s Earth Days seem to be. At the same time it was not a radical showdown with police like that which occurred all too often. The most recent such episode had taken place in many US cities following the conviction of the Chicago 7 defendants in February. Apollo 13’s failed mission was already over a week old and creating its own share of commentary in the nation’s media.
I was living overseas in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where I had moved with my family in March. The Beatles song "Let It Be" and Simon & Garfunkel’s "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" were near the top of the record charts. I was mostly listening to The Band’s second album, the Dylan bootleg The Great White Wonder, the Stones’ Let It Bleed, the Dead and the Beatles. I remember watching Johnny Winter play a short set on the German television show Beat Club.
Major League baseball was just warming up. Being overseas, the best I could do was follow the box scores in the morning Stars and Stripes newspaper. The Stars and Stripes also gave us the news on the Vietnam War which, according to them and Richard Nixon, was moving along just fine. Indeed, there might even be an end in sight. Letters from friends in the States talked about the Grateful Dead new tour with the New Riders of the Purple Sage in a show that featured Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia playing pedal steel with the New Riders and three sets of the Dead, one of them acoustic. Over a hundred thousand members of the US radical movement were gathering the last weekend of April in New Haven to protest the trial of Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins on charges they were eventually acquitted of. Even that protest was characterized as mostly peaceful.
Then April ended. Not with a whimper but a bang. The night of April 30, 1970, Richard Nixon told the world that US forces were invading Cambodia ostensibly to destroy the warmaking capabilities of the NLF and northern Vietnamese military. The speech was not even over before students and others across the US were in the streets. The protesters in New Haven issued a call for a nationwide student strike. A torrent of protest raged across the nation. So much for the halcyon days of April. In Frankfurt, thousands of protesters marched on the US Army offices known as the IG Farben Building. Besides the German protesters, there were GIs refusing to work and US military dependents walking out of their schools. Black armbands expressing solidarity with the protesters and against the war could be seen on many a young person on base—GIs and dependents alike. The authorities were naturally wary. May was to be the cruelest month this calendar year.
Back to the protests in the US and that Grateful Dead/New Riders tour. The tour had hit the East Coast earlier that spring and was now traveling through the northern climes. In the year 2000 the Dead’s archivist released a CD recording of one of those shows. This show, which took place at Harpur College in Binghamton, NY on May 2, 1970, is considered a classic. Musically, it shines. As an indication of the cultural and political climate of the time, it reveals more than just a good time. I wrote this about it not long after the CD was released.
This show in 1970 took place in between two events that shook America: the US invasion of Cambodia in a war that was supposedly winding down and the National Guard killings of four students during an antiwar protest at Kent State University in Ohio. The Grateful Dead took the stage on May 2, 1970 not only with the knowledge that the audience was restless almost to the point of riot but that their job as a band was to take that potentially negative energy and transform it into one hell of a good time. Like the best Dead performances from any time of their thirty-year traveling medicine show and carnival, they did! The acoustic version of the traditional (and Dead standard) "I Know You Rider" has as much energy as any electric version they ever did. With a crowd eager to burn off their energy via an all-night dance-a-thon, it was up to Jerry Garcia and the boys to provide the music.
The first set is an acoustic marvel. Beginning with a bouncy version of "Don’t Ease Me In," the musical trip wanders into the aforementioned "I Know You Rider", where Jerry’s licks blend beautifully with the rhythm guitar backing of Bob Weir and the always sound bassman Phil Lesh. Stepping back, the outlaw ballad "Friend of the Devil" is rendered with a conviction felt by many of America’s youth in the US of 1970. A bouncy "Dire Wolf" follows as the boys beat it on down the musical line to an evocative "Black Peter" that brings the pain of death to the concert floor. Five more songs–including two from the Dead’s masterpiece Workingman’s Dead and two traditionals: Deep Elem Blues and the bluegrass gospel piece "Cold Jordan" finish out the set. That’s when the fun really kicks in.
The remainder of this three-cd set starts off with a ripping "St. Stephen" and ends an hour and a half later with a quiet take on the folk classic "We Bid You Goodnight." The highlights in between include Pigpen sounding like a male version of Etta James in "It’s A Man’s World" and a take of the post-apocalypse song "Morning Dew" that acknowledges the pervasive feeling of that week that the end might have been near. The lead guitar work of Garcia on this tune and the version of "Viola Lee Blues" that follows it goes straight to one’s spine as the notes do not send chills so much as they become part of the nervous system–it’s as if the music and the listener are one: something that happens rarely in any musical performance but, when it does, nothing else compares.
Which is perhaps the best way to describe this recording: nothing else compares.
The next day the tour moved to Wesleyan College. Protests and riots raged across the nation. At the University of Maryland and dozens of other colleges and universities, authorities called in the National Guard. The bands played on, aware of the maelstrom growing all around them. No one, however, except for the perhaps the most apocalyptic members of society, saw what was coming next. On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard murdered four students and wounded more than a dozen others during a protest at Kent State University. The Dead were not playing that day and most likely heard the news when everyone else did. Their next show was scheduled for MIT on May 7th. Organizers working with the Boston-Cambridge anti-imperialist group the November Action Coalition (NAC) were among the many Boston area antiwar organizations organizing a never-ending round of protests. In a conversation with NAC organizer Peter Bohmer many years later, he told me how the Dead became involved in these efforts. It seems that some fans of the band had the ear of the Dead and the band wanted to do something to express their state of mind about the escalation of the war. So they set up on Kresge Plaza on the MIT campus during a May 6th protest and played a nine song set. Bohmer wasn’t a fan, but remarked that Garcia and the other band members seemed like nice guys with their hearts in the right place.
The maelstrom of war, racism, and rebellion unleashed in the wake of Nixon’s words on April 30th took at least eight more stateside victims in the weeks following that Grateful Dead concert in Cambridge, Six blacks protesting racism in Augusta, GA. were gunned down. On May 14, 1970 two more young people were killed by Mississippi state troopers while protesting the war. The forces of law and order were resorting to the one card they could always pull from their sleeve: raw, murderous violence. Black and Brown-hued Americans knew this all too well. White ones were rediscovering it. Neither the war nor the racism of US political and cultural society was near an end. The music could only do so much.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org