May 1977. I had just returned from six months in Munich. Although I had originally flown to Germany just to be with family for Xmas, things turned out differently. I found a job washing dishes in a cafeteria on one of the US military installations in the city. My boss and I drank top notch Munich beer while watching the Bayern Fussball club battle its way into a showdown with the Kiev Dynamo in the European cup. It was during those evenings of football and German lager that I truly began to understand the lure of the game. My brother and I smoked a fair amount of Lebanese red hashish while the Bavarian winter turned to spring. As the month of May opened, friends told me that the Grateful Dead were playing Baltimore in May. I knew I wanted to be there. I was ready for some serious late 1970s freak celebrations.
As it turned out, I made it back to the Baltimore area right after May Day. My send off from Munich were the May Day demonstrations downtown and an afternoon of hashish smoking topped off with a few liters of beer at the Augustinerbräu Keller. A couple days later I boarded a plane headed towards JFK airport in Long Island, NY. The military and police presence at the Munich airport included dogs and commandos with machine guns who ran their magnetic security device over each and every passenger. This type of security was par for the course at most German airports ever since 1972, but was enhanced this particular May because 1977 was turning out to be a year of peak activity from the armed political group known as the Red Armee Fraktion. When I landed at JFK, I sauntered through customs and over to my connecting flight without a problem. The biggest surprise was the five dollars I paid for a pack of cigarettes—a price that seems cheap nowadays but was exorbitant in 1977.
Oh yeah, the Grateful Dead. After settling back in to my living situation in Maryland, I took some of my hard earned money and bought a bunch of LSD on blotter paper. The graphic on the blotter was a drawing of R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural and it was these pieces of paper which would enhance the upcoming Grateful Dead show for me and my friends. As I remember the show, it was fairly long, the music was clean and loud, and the song selection included some rock and blues classics, some Dead tunes from earlier in the decade and three or four songs from their just-released album titled Terrapin Station. When we got back to our place in Silver Spring, Maryland, my friends and I all agreed it was an excellent show (and the acid wasn’t too bad either).
As the years went by, that show would slip into relative obscurity, even among many of the Grateful Dead’s most obsessive fans (Deadheads.) Instead, it would be a show from earlier in that month of May that would end up being ranked as perhaps the best show every played by the band. While I am not one who ranks musical events, the Grateful Dead has thousands of fans who spend way too much time doing so. However, given that the show in question—played on May 8, 1977 in Cornell University’s Barton Hall in Ithaca, New York is listed by the Library of Congress in its National Recording Registry archive; these fans might be on to something.
One of those fans is author Peter Conner, who entered into the world of the Grateful Dead in the mid-1980s and recently had his book on this particular show published by Cornell University Press. Titled Cornell ’77: The Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall, Conner has written a book that is many things. Firstly, it is a song by song analysis of the show; secondly, it is the story of what it was like being a Deadhead in the 1970s (with the view of a teenage fan of the 1980s); and thirdly, it is a look at the Grateful Dead and its thoughts on their history while also serving as a history of the band in the late 1970s. At times, it borders on the obsessive, but that is the nature of a certain number of music fans, especially among those who listen to the Grateful Dead.
It is a fan’s tribute but also an introductory guide to the Grateful Dead. It asks the question occasionally raised about this particular show and its lofty perch in Deadhead circles: is it just because the recording of the show is so good that this show is considered to be of such quality? In asking the question author Conner discusses the source of the recording—a sound engineer named Betty Cantor-Jackson—and the journey the master tapes have taken over the years. In a certain sense, it is a countercultural archaeological tale. There has never been an official recording of the show released. That will change later in May 2017, when the Grateful Dead releases the recording in multiple formats.
Cornell ’77: The Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall is a book about the Grateful Dead by a fan, but it is not a book just for fans. This reader recommends it be read after listening to a recording of the show it describes. It’s up to the reader to choose their refreshments.