FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

When the Music Could Only Do So Much

by RON JACOBS

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: rjacobs3625@charter.net

 

WORDS THAT STICK

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

June 22, 2017
Jason Hirthler
Invisible Empire Beneath the Radar, Above Suspicion
Ken Levy
Sorry, But It’s Entirely the Right’s Fault
John Laforge
Fukushima’s Radiation Will Poison Food “for Decades,” Study Finds
Ann Garrison
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party, and the UK’s Socialist Surge
Phillip Doe
Big Oil in the Rocky Mountain State: the Overwhelming Tawdriness of Government in Colorado
Howard Lisnoff
The Spiritual Death of Ongoing War
Stephen Cooper
Civilized, Constitution-Loving Californians Will Continue Capital Punishment Fight
Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla
Cuba Will Not Bow to Trump’s Threats
Ramzy Baroud
Israel vs. the United Nations: The Nikki Haley Doctrine
Tyler Wilch
The Political Theology of US Drone Warfare
Colin Todhunter
A Grain of Truth: RCEP and the Corporate Hijack of Indian Agriculture
Robert Koehler
When the Detainee is American…
Jeff Berg
Our No Trump Contract
Faiza Shaheen
London Fire Fuels Movement to Challenge Inequality in UK
Rob Seimetz
Sorry I Am Not Sorry: A Letter From Millennials to Baby Boomers
June 21, 2017
Jim Kavanagh
Resist This: the United States is at War With Syria
James Ridgeway
Good Agent, Bad Agent: Robert Mueller and 9-11
Diana Johnstone
The Single Party French State … as the Majority of Voters Abstain
Ted Rall
Democrats Want to Lose the 2020 Election
Kathy Kelly
“Would You Like a Drink of Water?” Please Ask a Yemeni Child
Russell Mokhiber
Sen. Joe Manchin Says “No” to Single-Payer, While Lindsay Graham Floats Single-Payer for Sick People
Ralph Nader
Closing Democracy’s Doors Until the People Open Them
Binoy Kampmark
Barclays in Hot Water: The Qatar Connection
Jesse Jackson
Trump Ratchets Up the Use of Guns, Bombs, Troops, and Insults
N.D. Jayaprakash
No More Con Games: Abolish Nuclear Weapons Now! (Part Four)
David Busch
The Kingdom of Pence–and His League of Flaming Demons–is Upon Us
Stephen Cooper
How John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” Helps Us Navigate Social Discord
Madis Senner
The Roots of America’s Identity and Our Political Divide are Buried Deep in the Land
June 20, 2017
Ajamu Baraka
The Body Count Rises in the U.S. War Against Black People
Gary Leupp
Russia’s Calm, But Firm, Response to the US Shooting Down a Syrian Fighter Jet
Maxim Nikolenko
Beating Oliver Stone: the Media’s Spin on the Putin Interviews
Michael J. Sainato
Philando Castile and the Self Righteous Cloak of White Privilege
John W. Whitehead
The Militarized Police State Opens Fire
Peter Crowley
The Groundhog Days of Terrorism
Norman Solomon
Behind the Media Surge Against Bernie Sanders
Pauline Murphy
Friedrich Engels: a Tourist In Ireland
David Swanson
The Unifying Force of War Abolition
Louisa Willcox
Senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Tom Udall Back Tribes in Grizzly Fight
John Stanton
Mass Incarceration, Prison Labor in the United States
Robert Fisk
Did Trump Denounce Qatar Over Failed Business Deals?
Medea Benjamin
America Will Regret Helping Saudi Arabia Bomb Yemen
Brian Addison
Los Angeles County Data Shows Startling Surge in Youth, Latino Homelessness
Native News Online
Betraying Indian Country: How Grizzly Delisting Exposes Trump and Zinke’s Assault on Tribal Sovereignty and Treaty Rights
Stephen Martin
A Tragic Inferno in London Reflects the Terrorism of the Global Free Market
Debadityo Sinha
Think Like a River
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail