Thursday, March 6, 2014

April 17, 1971, Dillon Gym, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

The ad for the Dillon Gym show, in The Princetonian student newspaper of February 22, 1971. This appears to have been the only publicity for the show, which seems to have sold out instantly.
On Saturday, April 17, 1971, the Grateful Dead played a show in Dillon Gym at Princeton University. Beyond the enjoyment of the packed house, the show has become legendary in Grateful Dead circles because, for whatever reasons, a crisp board tape circulated as far back as the early 1980s. Although the band had had some rocky moments when Mickey Hart left the band in February, by April the Dead were firing on all cylinders. For listeners a decade later, the Princeton show was an expansion of the "Skull & Roses" album, with the Dead playing a striking cross section of American music along with their own original material. Dead fans have been enjoying the Princeton tape ever since, complete with epic Pigpen raps in a 27-minute "Good Lovin'" and a 16-minute "Turn On Your Lovelight." The Princeton show was celebrated at great length in the Tapers Compendium, and it may be one of the best-known Dead tapes ever.

Yet for all of the high profile of the Princeton tape, the context of the show at Dillon Gym has become obscured. 1971 was a different universe, and the micro-universe of Princeton University itself was an even more distant land. Part of what made the Princeton show so special was the insulated nature of the show, a show financed by the University exclusively for its own students, a financial arrangement that would be unheard of today. At the same time, the students chose a happening Fillmore East headliner from the opposite side of the country, an opportunity only made possible by the fact that the rock concert market in New Jersey was not fully formed yet. This post will take a look at the Grateful Dead concert at Dillon Gym on April 17, 1971, and focus on what made the concert a unique event that could not be duplicated.

An announcement from the Friday, April 16, 1971 Princetonian, promoting the Princeton FREE Weekend. The fine print notes that the Grateful Dead show is, in fact, not free
Princeton University
Princeton University was founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey, and it has been located in Princeton itself since 1756. It was just the fourth Chartered Institution of Higher Education in the American colonies. The University took the name Princeton University in 1896, and it is rightly regarded as one of America's finest undergraduate and graduate institutions. As an Ivy League school, Princeton students are always top-of-the-line. Of course, smart and accomplished as most Princeton students have always been, at least some of the undergraduates have always been at the school because of the wealth and prestige of their families, but that has always been a part of the Ivy League. Princeton, as the southernmost of the Ivies, has always had an historic connection to the South, so the school had a 20th century reputation as somewhat conservative.

The Borough of Princeton had been built up around Princeton University. Nassau Street was the main street of the Borough (now city) of Princeton as well as the front entrance to Princeton University. While in one sense Princeton is a college town, in another way it has a relaxed, wealthy feel that is quite different than your typical State University main strip. At the same time, Princeton is far more interesting than the usual moneyed enclave. Over the last few decades, and perhaps longer, former or current residents of Palo Alto have found Princeton eerily familiar, even if they have never set foot in the town before. The peculiar ways in which Palo Alto seems to be a younger, Western doppleganger for Princeton are too arcane to go into here, but suffice to say it is not a surprise to this former Palo Altan that the Grateful Dead's one show in Princeton was a stunning success.

The 1971 College Student
Undergraduates in 1971 would generally have been born between1949 and 1953. They would mostly have been in junior high when Beatlemania hit, so they mostly loved rock music. However, for the first explosion of live psychedelic rock, from 1967 onwards, they mostly would have had to wish and wonder. The original Fillmore scene, and similar scenes in places like Boston and Manhattan, were small and underground, and confined to bohemian enclaves in inner cities. Not many high school students were near enough to a Fillmore or a Boston Tea Party, and fewer still had a way to get there, with or without the permission of their parents.

However, when those 60s teenagers got to college, they were ready, ready, ready to rock and roll. They had read about all night debauchery and ear-splitting music--what was college if not a chance to experience that? In the 1960s, colleges still had entertainment budgets to provide extracurricular fun for their resident students. Sometimes this had comical results, like the time Jose Feliciano headlined the Ohio University Junior Prom, along with opener Led Zeppelin (yes, this really happened--May 19, 1969). By the time 1970 rolled around, however, the "entertainment committee" at most colleges had some serious rockers on it who tried to make sure that the best available bands came through. Booking agents caught on to this dynamic, too, and the Fillmore bands who were still together started playing more shows at colleges.

The Grateful Dead had been playing college bookings pretty steadily since 1969. To your typical college student, circa 1971, the Grateful Dead were the Real Deal. The Dead had been infamous since the Fillmore days, and were well-known to have "played all night" many a time. With two recent albums that featured hummable tunes, and getting airplay on FM stations, it wouldn't be hard for the long-hairs on the entertainment committee to to get the middle-of-the-roaders onboard. Since most colleges had entertainment budgets, a school like Princeton could afford the Grateful Dead's fee (around $10,000), because they weren't exclusively dependent on ticket sales. So for the students at Princeton, all future leaders of government and industry, a visit by one of the most infamous bands from the 1960s had to be very desirable indeed.

Princeton, conservative as it was, had been forcibly inducted into the 60s. Apparently, the first African-American students had been admitted to Princeton only in 1964. More dramatically, a court case in 1967 had forced Princeton to admit women. The very first women admitted as permanent students at Princeton were freshman in 1969, although apparently many of the first women at Princeton were actually transfers. Note that the show as advertised above was presented "in cooperation with the Classes of 1972, 1973 and 1974." Those three classes, who would have been Juniors, Sophomores and Freshmen in the Spring of 1971, were the first Princeton classes to have admitted women. Pigpen's admonitions during his legendary "Lovelight" rap may have been valuable advice for some of the more sheltered Princeton undergraduates.

The Flying Burrito Brothers (with Rick Roberts having replaced Gram Parsons) were playing Alexander Hall on April 22, the Thursday night after the Dead show.
The Northern New Jersey Rock Market, 1971 (ca. 01 BSE: Before Scher Era)
Up until the middle of 1971, the most important figure in the New Jersey rock concert market was Bill Graham, even though he had never promoted a concert in New Jersey. Once Graham introduced the Fillmore East, on March 8, 1968, he became a central figure in the East Coast rock market. Playing the Fillmore East could make or break a known or unknown band, so playing there was not only profitable but a mark of prestige, as well. The Friday night early show at Fillmore East was almost always reviewed in the Village Voice, Billboard, Cashbox and other periodicals, so a good showing had significant consequences.

Bands contracted to play the Fillmore East had a standard clause where they could not play an advertised show within 20 days and 50 miles of the Fillmore East date. Some of the details may have varied, and it may have been applied differently to opening acts, but headline acts had to fear the very-real wrath of Bill Graham. Graham, naturally, was hip to the idea that a band could play a free concert or unannounced club show in Manhattan, and create some very good buzz for a Fillmore East show, but he was not going to let another promoter take away the Fillmore East's hold on the hippest touring rock bands. Much of the teenage population of New Jersey was in the North, less than 50 miles from Fillmore East, and as a result, the most populous part of New Jersey in the late 60s and early 70s was a no-fly zone for headline rock acts. Jersey rock fans had to go to either Manhattan or Philadelphia for their rock fix.

The actual members of the bands may have only been vaguely aware of the restrictions of their contracts, if at all. However, their management, booking agents and record companies were acutely aware of it. The band members of the Grateful Dead might have thought it was funny to poke Bill Graham in the eye, but it would not have been funny to Warner Brothers or their booking agent. Graham's ability to enforce his contract did not rest on his legal standing--although I'm sure Bill had a sharp attorney--but on the very real threat that anyone who crossed him would find that their other bands were not booked at the Fillmore East.

An effective exception to the Fillmore East rule (which was probably shared by every other major promoter in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere) were student concerts at colleges. Even community colleges had entertainment budgets in those days, so bands like the Grateful Dead could play paying gigs at what were effectively student dances without violating any contracts. For example, I have confirmed that they played a Sunday night dance at the Edison County Community College in Edison, NJ, on Sunday November 22, 1970. The only "advertising" was a few mimeographed flyers (none yet recovered) posted around the school. So the Grateful Dead and other bands played a fair number of shows at New Jersey colleges, but those events were hardly known outside their schools. When the Fillmore East closed, the door in New Jersey opened for John Scher and others to promote shows, but up until the middle of 1971, live rock bands in New Jersey seemed largely to have been confined to colleges.

Rock At Princeton, 1970-71
Princeton was no junior college, so there was plenty of student entertainment. There was a professional theater company housed on campus, called McCarter Theater. McCarter Theater also acted as promoter for rock concerts on campus, whether or not the events were presented at the McCarter Theater itself. Reviewing The Princetonian newspaper for the 70-71 Academic year, I found quite a few campus rock shows:
October 3, 1970, McCarter Theater: Van Morrison
October 17, 1970, Dillon Gym: James Taylor (moved from Alexander Hall)
November 14, 1970, Alexander Hall: Miles Davis
November 21, 1970, Alexander Hall: Delaney & Bonnie & Friends
February 20, 1971, McCarter Theater: Tom Rush
March 12, 1971, Alexander Hall: Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (rescheduled from Nov 21 '70)
April 16-18, 1971: Princeton FREE Weekend
April 16: Palmer [Football] Stadium: Free Admission, Free Beer, Free Music
April 17: Dillon Gym: Grateful Dead/New Riders Of The Purple Sage
April 18: The Old New Quad: Mini Motherball Festival, Free Music
April 22, 1971 Alexander Hall: Flying Burrito Brothers
April 26, 1971 Alexander Hall: Cat Stevens
May 1, 1971 Alexander Hall: Kate Taylor
May 15, 1971 McCarter Theater: Incredible String Band
The McCarter Theater seated several hundred, and Alexander Hall seated about 1,100. Dillon Gym was the old gym, built in 1949, with a concert capacity of about 3,200. Bill Bradley, Princeton's best player ever, had played in Dillon, but in 1969 the University had opened the 5,000-capacity Jadwin Gym, so Dillon was relegated to campus uses. Dillon was used for bigger acts, like James Taylor, and particularly for acts that were perhaps too robust for venerable Alexander, built in 1892. However, Dillon  Gym still used folding chairs on the floor, rather than open seating.

There had been a surprisingly robust tradition of cool music at Princeton (as documented in the Princeton Alumni Weekly).  Generally, folk acts usually played McCarter Theater, and rock acts or larger folk acts played Alexander, but bands like the Dead played Dillon Gym. Relatively few acts played Dillon: James Taylor was so popular in 1971 that he was uprgraded to Dillon, and Poco played there in 1972. There was an apparently unique two night stand by Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention on April 27-28, 1973 (what nights those must have been--RIP, George Duke), which somewhat confirms my suspicion that Dillon Gym was considered a more suitable venue for bands with members named things like "Pigpen" and "Motorhead." According to the Alumni Weekly, acts like Bruce Springsteen, The Yes and Genesis also played Princeton in the early 70s.

Life in Princeton, ca '71. Want ads from the April 16 Princetonian have everything you need: stable your horse, buy an MGB-GT, get Dead tickets from Bob, a water bed, give Kevin a ride to Bennington, a tuxedo and a turntable. Which of these would you remember today?
April 17. 1971, Dillon Gym, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ: The Grateful Dead
Let's set the scene. It's Saturday night, April 17, 1971, at Princeton University. It's Spring, now, and about 20% of the student body are real, live women. There's a weekend event with free beer--my college never had free beer--and local bands, and a Fillmore East headline act is playing on campus. No need to take the Dinky train to Penn Station, because the real deal is coming to the little gym next to your dorm.

The old Tapers Compendium has a detailed description of the event from the campus point of view, thoroughly researched by Nicholas Meriwether. Princeton undergraduates have a strange tradition of "eating clubs," kind of like fraternities, only, apparently, not, but suffice to say every Eating Club was revved up for this Saturday night. Somewhat buttoned down Princeton was jumping on to a rocket ship to the end of the 20th century, and all the future leaders of industry and government were hopping on board. Everyone whose parents wouldn't let them to go to Fillmore East, or who couldn't sneak out of Prep School? No matter--the Grateful Dead were coming to Princeton.

Some Deadheads don't find the 1971 Grateful Dead to be as memorable as either the primal 69-70 music that preceded it, or the ethereal 72-74 configuration that followed, and generally I am inclined to agree. However, for converting 1971 college students, the 1971 model of the Grateful Dead couldn't have been better. With some known songs from Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, and some crispy soul, rock and country covers, the Dead were accessible to the average rock fan. With only four real players--Pigpen's organ only joined in occasionally--even the serious space was somewhat more comprehensible to the uninitiated. With a dose of professionalism and some Pigpen charisma, the 1971 college tour made Deadheads for life. People went to college to discover the wide world, and when the Grateful Dead brought the wide world to them--at Franklin and Marshall, or Bucknell, or Allegheny College, or Princeton or SUNY Cortland--people jumped on the bus with both feet.

The Princeton Alumni Weekly has a special memory of the Dead's show
The Grateful Dead’s invasion of Dillon on April 17, 1971 — Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang in tow — is famous among devotees for a quintessential performance of “Good Lovin’ ” by band member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, then suffering from what would be fatal cirrhosis. “The concert was expensive, $10,000,” says [McCarter Director Bill] Lockwood, a faithful Deadhead who treasures a cassette recording he made that night.
The band played until “well past midnight,” Lock­wood recalls, and “a substantial part of the audience, which was all students, was stoned out of their minds.” Concertgoers passed ­marijuana joints down the rows of seats, he says. According to legend, when a Princeton proctor demanded that ­shaggy singer Jerry Garcia extinguish his joint, Garcia snarled, “I’ll never play here again.” He never did.
The story about Garcia and the Proctor (essentially a campus cop) always gets repeated. The truth of the matter is that the Grateful Dead would never again be small enough to play a 3200 seat gym  in Northern New Jersey. Ironically, once the Fillmore East closed, New Jersey became open territory. John Scher started promoting very successful Grateful Dead concerts at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, and the Dead played no more campus concerts in the state, for the very reason that New Jersey became one of the largest and most fervent Deadhead strongholds in the country, and any campus gym would have been overrun.

A clip from the Newsday article of April 8. 1971, announcing the cancellation of the scheduled Grateful Dead show at Hofstra University in Long Island on April 19, 1971, when 4500 out of 5000 tickets had been sold
The "Lost" Hofstra Concert, Monday, April 19, 1971
The uninitiated may wonder whether my fixation on advertising restrictions from the Fillmore East affected concerts in New Jersey. However, a fellow researcher sent me an article from the Long Island paper Newsday, on April 8, 1971 (clipped above), explaining how a scheduled Grateful Dead concert at the Hofstra Gym on Monday April 19, was abruptly canceled. The article begins
Since last Thursday was April 1, nobody at the Hofstra University Student Center took it seriously when someone called to say that The Grateful Dead was cancelling out of a scheduled April 19 concert at the school. "It was April Fool's Day," David Gould, student center director said yesterday. "At first we thought it was a joke."
Some joke.
Among the less humorous aspects were about 4,500 tickets that had already been sold at $4 and $5 for the concert, which was to be held in the 5,000 seat Physical Fitness Gymnasium because the Grateful Dead is a very popular rock group. 
At Hofstra, The Grateful Dead has lost much of its popularity in a very short time. A telegram followed the call, and since it was not April Fool's Day when the telegram arrived, reality dawned. Despite confirmation of the concert date on March 3, The Grateful Dead would not show up. The inevitable hectic scene of students lining up for refunds was the immediate result at the Hempstead campus yesterday.
The rest of the article, along with some background information about the band and comments from students, has some surprisingly vague quotes from Grateful Dead representatives.
Ron Rainey, who books the Grateful Dead for the International Famous Agency in New York, didn't help settle anybody's stomach with his explanation of the cancellation. "I don't really want to go into it in great detail," he said. But he did indicate the rock group "didn't want to be overexpose itself in the New York area." As for the group, Rainey said they were en route to Boston and he did not know how to reach them.
Then again, maybe it wasn't so much overexposure as overbooking that caused the washout. So opted Rock Scully, co-manager of the rock group, who was found at Fillmore East. Said Scully, "we get our contracts from both coasts and they don't catch up to us for an okay in time, sometimes. Our agent is often overenthusiastic in making bookings." He added, "it looked like a way-too-crowded itinerary."
As the blank tone of the Newsday writer suggests, neither Rainey nor Scully had convincing explanations, and indeed I believe they were merely intended to save face. According to Google Maps, Hofstra University is 28.5 miles from the Fillmore East. Regardless of what the exact contractual restriction of the Fillmore East, there was no way that Bill Graham was letting that stand. Long Island was a big market for the Fillmore East, since the Long Island Railroad and the Subway could take teenagers straight into the Fillmore East (the N, R, 6 and L were nearest). If Hofstra had sold out immediately, that might have been one thing, but since there were available tickets, Hostra could cut into the Fillmore East's box office.

Now, Graham was no naif, and probably knew perfectly well that the same people who bought the final tickets at Hofstra were probably going to most of the nights at Fillmore East anyway. Nonetheless, even though Graham was privately already planning to close the Fillmores, he had months more of shows to get through, and he wasn't going to let other promoters think they could horn in on his territory. Shutting down a nearly sold-out Grateful Dead concert was a clear warning blast to other promoters--cross Bill at your peril. Rock Scully and the booking agent were forced to make some token explanation that no one believed, but both needed Graham as much as anyone, and certainly the Dead had signed the original contract with Fillmore East.

Really, it's too bad. The Grateful Dead were rocking hard in the Spring of '71, and they were young and strong. What else were they doing on that Monday night? The night after Princeton, the Dead had played SUNY Cortland, 216 miles to the North of Fillmore East. What do you think they did next? I think they came back to Manhattan and hung out, and Garcia probably just practiced guitar all night. They would have had way more fun in front of 5000 rockin' Long Islanders, and who knows what Pigpen would have come up with. But business was business, and the Dead's contract with Graham mandated no Hofstra show two nights before a lengthy Fillmore East run.

Coda: Princeton Rocked (In It's Day)
Dillon Gym was just about exactly 50 miles from the Fillmore East, and with only one ad in the student paper and an instant sellout, Bill Graham had no reason to interfere with the Dead concert. This geographic constraint must surely have helped Princeton throughout the 70s, because even though Graham retreated to the West Coast, every other promoter must have had similar restrictions for their headline bookings. But Princeton seems to have been safely isolated from both Manhattan and Philadelphia, so the McCarter Theater was free to book shows. A search of the Princetonian reveals a lot of good shows in the early 70s. Just look at the Spring of '72
  • March 4 McCarter Theater: J Geils Band/Billy Joel (Peter Wolf must have melted the joint)
  • April 1 McCarter Theater: Mahavishnu Orchestra/John Prine (there's a double bill)
  • April 15 Alexander Hall: Curtis Mayfield (people, get ready)
  • April 24 Alexander Hall: New Riders Of The Purple Sage (I'll bet they smoked joints)
  • April 29 Alexander Hall: Mark Almond (these guys were great, if now largely forgotten)
  • May 5 Dillon Gym: Poco (another great live band)
  • May 14 McCarter Theater: Dave Mason (only you know and I know)
The fine shows continued throughout the first half of the early 70s. Since rock was expanding, there were a lot of touring bands, so a Princeton show was welcome on an off-night, even if the gigs were tiny. Frank Zappa did two shows at Dillon (April 27-28 '73), and Bruce Springsteen played an early and a late show at Alexander Hall (December 10, 1974).

By the late 70s, however, the rock market was just too big for tiny Princeton. For one thing, John Scher was booking a lot of shows at the Capitol Theater in relatively nearby Passaic, and he had a lot of clout, insuring that he kept the best bands. On top of that, the sort of acts that would have played McCarter or Alexander in the past were now commanding fees that required them to play Jadwin Gym. The Talking Heads and Bruce Springsteen played Jadwin Gym in the same week in 1978, and Bruce, of course, rocked the joint--whatever others may say, Mercer County is still part of New Jersey--but Jadwin paid a price. The whole crowd danced to Bruce while standing on folding chairs in the gym, and it created a $15000 repair bill. Although there were a few more concerts over the years, with The Kinks and 10,000 Maniacs and a few others, Princeton was priced out of the rock market. Bands still came to Princeton on occasion, but it was no longer a regular tour stop.

I'm sure that 70s graduates of Princeton all have their memorable rock moments, but it's hard not to see the Grateful Dead show as the day when uptight Princeton got down, whether anybody was ready for it or not. The Grateful Dead never came back, not because a Proctor made Jerry put out his joint--the Riders would not have turned up the next year if that were the case--but because the world where the Dead could play a sleepy little gym was just about to disappear, and the Princetonians who went were lucky enough to catch the bus before it got on the superhighway.