Thursday, April 4, 2013

October 21, 1972: Alumni Lawn, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN The Grateful Dead (Last Free Concert)

The crowd at the Grateful Dead concert at Alumni Lawn, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, October 21, 1972 (from the VU Hustler newspaper)
When Deadbase first  became available, it was the fruit of many years labor by a wide variety of people. Deadbase I was published in Spring 1987, and it was a multi-year, multi-person effort to create a list of every Grateful Dead performance and an accurate setlist to go with it. The arrival of the internet heralded Deadlists, and that was soon linked to the Archive, so Deadheads who used to check their mailboxes every day hoping a box of Maxells had arrived could now simply click on a few links and turn the volume up. From that point of view, all the things that Deadheads had desired were now manifest: no more strange meetings with some weird dude in the hopes of persuading him to make you a copy of a show where the Dead played with a horn section. Now, you just clicked, and it was off to the races.

A peculiar feature of 21st century Deadheads, however, has been a sophisticated knowledge of extant tape recordings that has drowned out the initial historical enterprise. "Shows" now tends to mean "tapes," and those are expressed as music rather than event. Now, the members of the Grateful Dead are probably good with that--wherever they are--since music is ultimately what the enterprise was about in the first place. Yet shows without tapes, or tapes taken in isolation, often lose all reference to the remarkable events that created them in the first place.

There is a six-song fragment of the end of a show at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN on October 21, 1972. There is some interesting, if poorly recorded, playing, but it's hardly a major tape. Yet a closer look at the event itself calls up something remarkable, a final glorious burst of the 60s at a private University in Tennessee, of all places. The October 21, 1972 concert in Nashville was a free concert, and it was the very last free concert by the Grateful Dead outside of San Francisco.

The Grateful Dead, to the extent they had a plan, had generally tried to invade a new town and play for free, with the confidence that enough people would be made fans for life that it would pay off in the future. They worked that mojo time and again, in Vancouver, San Francisco, Manhattan, Toronto, Montreal, Denver, Atlanta and other places, all places that they thoroughly own even to this day. The last stab was Nashville in '72, yet outside of Nashville, no one seems to remember. This post will attempt to frame the October 21, 1972 free concert by the Grateful Dead at Vanderbilt in its proper context.

Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN
Vanderbilt University is a private University founded in 1873 with a $1 million grant from Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, who had never actually set foot in the South.Vanderbilt was attempting to help heal the wounds caused by the Civil War. Today Vanderbilt has 12,000 students from around the United States and the world, and numerous distinguished alumni. To many Americans, Vanderbilt is known as an academically accomplished school in a major football conference. Vanderbilt is in the football-mad SEC, and as such it bears comparison to Stanford in the Pac-12, Northwestern in the Big 10 or Duke in the ACC. I think most Vandy alums would feel comfortable being compared to those three schools.

On one hand, Vanderbilt is clearly the superior academic school in its conference, but on the other hand it has a history of being outmatched in football. While Stanford has to compare itself to UC Berkeley academically--don't get me started--and Northwestern to Michigan, and Duke plays in an indifferent football conference, Vandy is the clear academic star of the SEC but has to play all those powerhouses every year. Thus a year like 2012 when Vandy was 9-4 (and 5-3 in the SEC) is memorable indeed. Back in Fall '72, Vanderbilt was 3-8, and 1-5 in the conference, so students had to take solace in the fact that they were at a far better school than the ones beating them on the field.

Another thing hanging over college students in 1972 was the Vietnam War. Male students had to worry about being drafted, and going to college was one way to get a deferment. That meant, however, that flunking out of college didn't mean skulking back to mom and dad with a hangdog look--it meant getting a very, very short haircut and giving up two years of your life for a very dangerous obligation. So idyllic as the 70s may seem from this distant remove, the world of those students was not so carefree as it may seem today.

The State Of The Grateful Dead, Fall 1972
In the Fall of 1972, the Grateful Dead were perceived as rock and roll veterans, rather than outlaws. They still did things their own way, but they were only one standard deviation removed from the rock mainstream. The Dead had helped create the national rock touring circuit, where good live bands could find an audience by making new fans in every city, and numerous English and American rock groups were crisscrossing the country, following the Dead's footsteps, often almost literally, from previous years.

By 1972, the Dead had had three hit albums in a row (Workingman's Dead, American Beauty and 'Skull & Roses'). They had never had a true AM radio hit, but they were regularly played on FM radio throughout the country. Their concerts were more and more successful, as well. In all the cities that they had been playing regularly, they would return to play either larger places or more nights, as Deadheads got on the bus at each stop, and almost never stepped off.

However, since the Grateful Dead's success was predicated on live concerts, the band tended to be a hit in the places where they had toured for years. The heart of the rock circuit, pioneered by the Dead in the 60s, was I-80 and I-95. There were some secondary routes, on I-70, I-5 and I-10, but the heart of the action was on I-80 and I-95. Relatively small cities like Des Moines (I-80), Portland, ME (I-95) and Portland, OR (I-5) were Dead strongholds because they were between major stops on the circuit, and near the main Interstates, so the Dead played them regularly. Other cities, particularly in the South and Southeast, had rarely seen a Dead concert anywhere near them, and so the band had few followers there. Since other rock bands did not play those cities so regularly, either, so there wouldn't have been as many venues or promoters seeking the Dead.

1972 was the last year when the Grateful Dead still set out to conquer new lands, like Alexander The Great. The most famous of those expeditions was the legendary European tour that begat the Europe 72 triple album. But even afterwards,  the group was still sending expeditions into unconquered territory. The Dead's 70s innovation was broadcasting entire concerts on FM radio. This reached a much wider audience than the old free concerts of the 60s, and those FM broadcasts had a huge effect in cementing the Dead's audience in cities where they had played for many years, like Chicago and New York.

Still, the Dead's touring was somewhat limited to certain cities, so they seem to have decided to fall back and their old tactic of the 60s, and played a few free concerts. The free concerts at American University in Washington, DC on September 30, 1972 and at the Alumni Lawn at Vanderbilt University would be the last free concerts by the Grateful Dead outside of San Francisco.

An article from the VU Hustler in October 1972. Inset: they never suspect "good acid."
More from the VU Hustler
An article in the VU newspaper, The Hustler, from few days before the concert, explained the back story:
The Alumni Lawn location was selected by special arrangement with the Grateful Dead. The concerts committee had tried to bring the group to Vanderbilt "for at least three years now," and had finally persuaded them that "appearances in the South are worth while." They "refused to play in the [Memorial] gym for acoustic reasons, and preferred Alumni Lawn" to all other suggested sites.
These details tell us a few interesting things. First of all, if the Dead had refused to play the gym, then they were being paid to play at Vanderbilt--this was no hippie guerrilla strike.

The Dead were mostly playing smaller theaters on this tour, older places that probably sounded pretty good. The tour had opened in St. Louis at the Fox Theater from October 17-19 (Tuesday through Thursday), and would go on to The Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee (Monday and Tuesday October 23-24) and then Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Detroit. So the band had an open weekend on Friday and Saturday (October 20-21).  I think tour manager Sam Cutler probably used the following logic: if they played indoors, the students and local hippies would show up, but those people liked the Dead anyway. If they could play a free concert, it became a regional event, and it would have a much greater impact. Clearly, Cutler was able to persuade Vanderbilt to use their entertainment budget on a free concert, probably an unprecedented request that I suspect was never repeated.

Alumni Lawn, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN October 21, 1972
Apparently, the day started out foggy with a threat of rain, but the sky cleared by the one o'clock showtime. 15,000 fans came from hundreds of miles. Vanderbilt let people camp out on the lawn the night before--no word if veggie burritos were available for purchase--as long as people were willing to "brave the elements" (it probably got down to 50 degrees). As for the day of the show, the crowd was handled differently than at Golden Gate Park. According to The Hustler, the plan was that
Student marshals will "attempt to secure the area immediately in front of the stage with ropes until 11:30 am," in order "to assure Vanderbilt students a good seat." Entrance to the special area will be by VU ID only beginning around 9 am.
[Concert Committee member] Kahn commented that there will be sufficient area for non-Vanderbilt students to view the concert but admitted that "we will have to rely on the good faith of Vanderbilt students" to hold the student section.
I saw the Grateful Dead many times at the Greek Theatre, and let me tell you the school never did anything like this for us. OK, I admit I would have let "townies" into the student section, but it would still would have been cool to flash your student ID and get into the front. No wonder the memories of the Dead concert on the class of 1973 website are so fond.

The balance of the article is full of reminders about camping (sleeping bags only, no camp fires) and warnings about not engaging in illegal drug traffic, but on the whole, the message from the University is fairly positive. The article ends "Rain or shine, the Concerts Committee expects the Grateful Dead and their music 'to infect our campus with good time spirit.'" That they apparently did.

The show was scheduled to start at 1:00pm,  possibly to accommodate students who had just finished taking their LSATs on Saturday morning. The band started a little late--just like they were at home!--but the 15,000 or so lucky fans present got themselves a full dose of the Grateful Dead.

One Bertha ; Me And My Uncle ; Deal ; Beat It On Down The Line ; Sugaree ; El Paso ; China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider ; Black Throated Wind ; Tennessee Jed ; Jack Straw ; Loser ; Playing In The Band
Two The Promised Land ; Brown Eyed Women ; Big River ; He's Gone ; Greatest Story Ever Told ; Bird Song ; Truckin' > The Other One > Morning Dew ; Sugar Magnolia
Encore Johnny B. Goode

There is a surviving soundboard of the back of the second set, 77 minutes or so, from "He's Gone" through "Morning Dew". The quality isn't great, but there's no doubt that the Dead showed Nashville what they were all about, and "Truckin'">"The Other One">"Morning Dew" must have been a mighty fine way to follow a morning when you took your LSAT exam. People indeed came from all over to see the Vanderbilt show, and they remember it decades later.

I was too young to drive, so a friend and I took the Grayhound bus to Nashville ... walked down Broadway to VU. It was a beautiful Fall afternoon...the show was outdoors on a hillside. What a magical afternoon that was....Great show.
As a teen living at home, I used to get fried, come home and put on headphones in bed to listen to the Midnight album hour on the radio. When Europe '72 came out, the DJ played two sides of it. I had never even heard of the Dead, but I got on the bus that very night! Wow, for a kid growing up in Nashville listening to the ABB, The Beatles, Jethro Tull, and the like, the Dead blew my mind that fateful night. Soon thereafter, I learned that the Dead were doing a free show at Vandy. I remember marveling at all the knobs on Phil's bass and at how cool Donna's hair was. I also remember meeting heads who'd come down from NY and had pitched a tent on the quad at Vandy. I couldn't believe anyone would come down from NY for a concert! After the show, I understood why! 
From the Archive
I moved from southern California to Nashville to attend college at Vanderbilt and started hearing a lot of good bluegrass. My sophomore year and the Dead were scheduled to play, right on campus where I lived! Amazing. Total party carnival extravaganza. I've seen them at UCLA Pauley Pavilion and outdoors also at UC Santa Barbara, but this was like seeing them at home. Fantastic
and more from the Archive
Thanks for posting this. I was there at this show in Nashville. Brings back some awesome memories of the Dead.This was my first Dead show and will always be one of my favorites. 
I had just turned 18 and I was pretty darned impressed. Another time when it rained right up to showtime, then became a beautiful sunny fall day in TN. This was the day I got on the bus.
And some guy put some great photos online from Vanderbilt, and they give a pretty good feel for the relatively low-key event. Vanderbilt had students from everywhere, so while the Dead may or may not have cemented their standing in Nashville, numerous Commodores left Vanderbilt as fully signed up Deadheads.

"Tennessee Jed"
The rock concert industry was still young in 1972. Outside of California, New York and a few big cities, it was even younger. Although the music industry had been well entrenched in Nashville for decades, rock music meant something different to young people, particularly young people who faced the threat of themselves or their friends being drafted to fight a pointless foreign war. Rock concerts made people feel that there were lots of other people like them--maybe they still do--and some of the now-typical rituals were still new and exciting. It's unfortunate that there is no audience tape of the Vanderbilt show, because I would still like to hear the audience's roar of approval when the Dead sang the first chorus of "Tennessee Jed."

At Dead concerts, and indeed at most concerts, people like to cheer when their city or state are mentioned in a song. It was a famous ritual at Grateful Dead New Year's, with numerous people from out-of-town, for people to cheer for the different cities named in "Truckin'." Cities like San Francisco, New York and New Orleans were often mentioned in rock songs, but other cities had to take their pleasures where they could find them. While Europe '72 was apparently being played on the radio in October '72, the overwhelming majority of the audience would have had no idea about "Tennessee Jed." In a place like Nashville, hearing a San Francisco band sing "Tennessee, Tennessee/Ain't no place I'd rather be," tongue in cheek or not, had to have lit up the entire campus.

The Dead only played Nashville two more times, both in 1978. I think the reason for this was prosaic. Nashville is on I-40, and it wasn't really between any two cities that the Dead played regularly. The Dead regularly played North Carolina, because it was between Washington, DC and Atlanta, but Nashville just wasn't on the way to anywhere else that the Dead typically played. So the Dead conquered Nashville, for a day, but then they retreated. By the time they could have played Nashville successfully, they could make even more money in Chicago or New York, so there wasn't really any need.

More significantly, after the Vanderbilt show, the Grateful Dead never played a free show in unconquered territory again, and indeed they only played two more such shows in Golden Gate Park. Some of that was economic: University entertainment budgets shrunk in the 70s, and schools no longer had the cash to pay a major rock band to play without some compensation from ticket sales. The other was practical: after '72, if there was a free Dead concert anywhere, with any kind of fair warning, people were going to come from everywhere, by any means necessary, and complete madness would ensue. Now, that sounds like fun to me, but University or city administrators did not want to have a mini-Woodstock, much less an Altamont, on an open field. No amount of student marshals could have controlled that.

So the lucky Commodores, Nashville residents and out-of-towners who saw the Grateful Dead at Alumni Lawn on October 21, 1972 not only saw a great '72 Dead show on a nice Fall afternoon, they saw the end of an era. The Dead never again played a free concert in a new town, just to get everyone to hear their music. But for one last time, they showed they could do it, rolling in like psychedelic cavalry to rule the campus all of Saturday, and rolling out the next day leaving unforgettable memories, if only anyone could recall them.