IN THE SPRING of 1990, a fellow high school senior I barely knew offered me a free ticket to see the Grateful Dead at Landover, Maryland’s Capital Centre. My benefactor, about whom I’ve forgotten all except his red hair and Bob Marley T-shirts, must have thought my shoulder-length, bedraggled mane and Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo-style stubble — I still didn’t know how to shave — marked me as a potential Deadhead. I accepted the ticket with, I’m sure, a 17-year-old’s lack of graciousness, even though (or perhaps because) the Dead were a joke to me — a pack of pot-bellied burnout cases, playing “Ripple” night after night, year after year, until the end of time. I imagined parking lots full of all-white girls in flowing tie-dye dresses dancing freestyle arabesques and all-white dudes in pseudo-Rastafarian tams playing hacky-sack. This wholesomely debauched jamboree wasn’t far off from the scene that greeted me and my green-haired friend L., not a freak manqué like me, but the real deal — who didn’t have a ticket but came along for the ambience and in hopes of scoring some acid — as we maneuvered my parents’ car into a spot at the Capitol Center, having already driven by scores of ticketless ’heads actually shouting out, “I’m looking for a miracle!” Leaving L. to fend eagerly for herself, I entered the huge arena where packs of rainbow-colored concertgoers whirled around me, trailing clouds of patchouli and weed.

When the music started, I looked at the stage, where the actual Grateful Dead stood under the shifting glow of rainbow-colored stage-lights, playing — well, what sounded like a “Grateful Dead song” to my young ears: syrupy-sweet, bland, middle-of-the-road country rock with pseudo-mystical lyrics. For what it’s worth, Dead archivist David Lemieux calls this “the last [Dead] tour that was consistently great, where every show [was] excellent”; but that night, for all I cared, the group might as well have been an all-male Starland Vocal Band tribute act. I didn’t register, “Oh, the fat one’s Jerry,” because I didn’t really care which one was which, or how many drummers there were, or who was behind the keyboards. (Now I know it was Brent Mydland, previous Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux’s longtime replacement, just a few months from his death of a drug overdose.) The individual band members’ faces were hard to discern. In memory, though, they radiate the ruddy-cheeked, gray-haired self-satisfaction of all the middle-aged male baby boomers who then occupied, it seemed, every position of authority in my life — and toward whom I felt the opposite of adulation. So, without even finishing out the song, I fled the venue and spent an hour locating L. in the melee of parking-lot Deadheads. We sped off to try and catch the hardcore band Halo of Flies’s set at DC’s 9:30 Club on F Street, where I’d last been to see — for real — Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

I’ve since come to love, dig, and revere much of the Grateful Dead’s music, especially the 1968-to-1969 “primal Dead” era and just after, when organist Tom Constanten joined the band. Nevertheless, I still prefer Halo of Flies’s seven-inch, “Headburn”/”Easy or Hard” to the Dead’s Spring 1990: So Glad You Made It compilation, whose songs — possibly including the very tune they were playing that March night when I turned my back on them — sound enervated rather than primal to these ears. Halo of Flies, however, were a different matter. They played “Headburn,” an uncompromising cranium-shaker I recognized, and a bunch of other songs I didn’t. I distinctly recall feeling — fearing? — that the guitarist was going actually to spit on us.

I didn’t have my lo-fi, Walkman-sized tape recorder with its diminutive, plug-in mic with me that night, but I did bring it to concerts sometimes — even once sneaking it into the notoriously fortress-like Merriweather Post Pavilion, in Columbia, Maryland, to make possibly the worst-sounding Lou Reed bootleg ever. I had better luck at local shows in my hometown, Annapolis, since I could get closer to the speakers because I knew some people in the bands. Once, I even managed to get a blank TDK cassette into the hands of whoever was doing sound for a double bill with Fidelity Jones and The Hated at some dilapidated performance-hall one spring night, and in the process got a taste of how mind-blowing a soundboard recording can be. Note to members of both bands I just mentioned: that tape lies somewhere among the contents of 200-plus jumbled and mostly unlabeled boxes in my basement storage unit.

Actually, that aside’s not as self-indulgently tangential as it seems, since the Grateful Dead regularly made such soundboard recordings of their own shows. For a time, ’60s LSD-chemist-cum-culture-hero Owsley “Bear” Stanley served as the Dead’s resident live-recording genius. After the band fired one of their key longtime crew members and soundboard-jockeys, Betty Cantor-Jackson, following her breakup with Mydland sometime in the early ’80s, she eventually cached a sizable stockpile of Dead soundboard tapes she’d personally recorded in a pay-by-the-month storage unit. By 1987, the then-broke Cantor-Jackson had to default on the unit and the tapes were auctioned off; eventually, and very circuitously, they made their way into the Deadhead-sphere, where their high fidelity blew away the audience tapes most of the band’s denizens were then used to. The recordings became known as “Betty Boards.” According to participant-chronicler of American “jam band” culture Peter Conners, “More than two hundred hours of ‘Betty Board’ auctioned recordings surfaced in the late 1980s. It took until the mid-1990s for many more of them to surface.”

Conners’s Cornell ’77: The Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall juxtaposes the real-time aspect of one particular Dead concert, May 8, 1977, with the more gradual, chaotic perambulations by which the Betty Boards entered circulation. I recommend Cornell ’77 to anyone, Dead fan or not, who would like to know how one three-and-a-half-hour concert can, apparently, disappear into the mists of time for the musicians who played it, but stay vivid for decades in the memories of at least some of the almost 5,000 attendees, the concert’s organizers, and the Dead’s road crew, as well in the imaginations of untold listeners who only experienced the show through Cantor-Jackson’s recording on cassette tapes and CD-Rs.

Because Conners spoke to so many present and past members of the Dead-sphere — not all of whom parted happily with the band and its “family” of retainers-proxies-enforcers — his book reads like a cacophony of myth, counter-myth, and anti-myth. The “Betty Boards” chapter, for instance, brings to light the central role a woman played in the masculinist hierarchy of the Dead’s touring operation. Cantor-Jackson’s no sycophant or revisionist: “They were the world’s most macho road crew. Oh god! … I had to carry just the same weight as they did or I’d have been laughed off the road, I’ll tell you that.” The “weight” she’s talking about isn’t the mythical “load” of The Band’s classic “The Weight,” but the grueling physical heft of the Dead’s sound gear. Cornell ’77 reinforces the now widely accepted view of Cantor-Jackson as the Dead’s post-“Bear” ’70s-era soundboard-auteur, whose genius equaled that of the musicians: “‘I am not sound reinforcement,’ Cantor-Jackson says today. ‘I am sound.’” The master has spoken.

The then-teenage David Lemieux acquired a cassette of the Cornell ’77 Betty Board in 1988: “It was on a sound-quality level and a performance level head and shoulders ahead of anything I had up until then.” At that time, a consensus was forming among Dead tape-traders that Cantor-Jackson’s recording of ’77 Cornell show was indeed The Best Dead Show Ever. But as Conners, paraphrasing Dead authority Howard F. Weiner, points out, the “legacy of Cornell ’77 […] has almost as much to do with the recording of the show as it does with the show itself.” For one thing, because of their unexpected success on MTV, the late ’80s Dead had more visibility — and a younger fan base — than their 1977 incarnation. This fan base was hungry for fresh product, so the recording’s reemergence was perfectly timed. Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky — no Dead fan, I’m sure — might as well have had the Cornell show’s Betty Boards in mind when he told Dartmouth’s graduating class of 1989, “[Y]ou are entering the world where recording an event dwarfs the event itself.”

And yet, the gig the Dead played that night was by definition as evanescent as the late-spring snow that fell, improbably, in Ithaca during the concert. Their encore was rhythm guitarist Bob Weir’s (to me) insipid, pseudo-’50s rocker “One More Saturday Night,” which emphasized — both in rote performance and in lyric content — cyclicality over uniqueness. By the following morning, or even that night, the band’s gear had been hefted back on to the trucks and everyone was road-tripping to Buffalo for the next gig. The surviving band members have, by their own accounts, never looked back on the Cornell show. After all, the Dead, in its myriad incarnations, played approximately 2,300 concerts between 1965 and Garcia’s death in August 1995. According to The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten, Dead bassist Phil Lesh grumbled, “I don’t ever want to hear any of that shit. All it does is remind me of what I was trying to do.” Yet the Dead absolutely brought Barton Hall down that night, at least on the basis of Rhino’s three-CD release Cornell 5/8/77, which, by time you read this essay, may be easier to get hold of than the simultaneously released box-set May 1977: Get Shown The Light (Betty Boards of Cornell, New Haven, Boston, and Buffalo). The band was on a roll that spring: back from a long hiatus, performing new material they’d worked up in an L.A. studio with Fleetwood Mac producer Keith Olsen for Clive Davis’s recently formed Arista Records, well rehearsed, and, one presumes, either on or off just the right combination of chemicals.

Until very recently, though, I’d written off the 1977-era Dead as slick and almost disco-ish (in a pejorative sense). Since I’d come to the Dead as an avant-garde jazzhead — that is, a whole other kind of music snob — I wanted them always to sound like a jazz group, which they’d never been to begin with, except, in a way, on those mind-burgling Constanten-era “Dark Star.” Eaton, however, persuasively articulates the rational for taping the band’s shows in terms of jazz aesthetics: “It’s improvisational music, which is what the whole jam scene is based on — the jazz concept, which is no show or song is played the same, and there is no right or wrong way of doing it. So you can collect all those tapes, and they are all valid to their own degree. Their own personality.” This approach negates the very idea of a Best Show Ever, which serves marketing purposes better than it does listeners who want to know how any particular song evolved in performance over time. (Exhibit A: John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” in 1961 and his debasement of it six years later.) Jazzheads and Deadheads share this predilection with each other — but not with most mainstream listeners, who tend to be content with one version of a favorite song. For instance, on jazz bassist-titan’s Charles Mingus’s “lost” 1964 Cornell (!) concert — the soundboard tapes of which were mislaid for 43 years — “Fables of Faubus” has a different “personality” than an earlier version of the song, with wild vocals by Mingus and drummer Dannie Richmond, on 1961’s Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. I can’t choose a “better” version, any more than I can choose a “best” Dead concert.

The Dead’s symbiosis with a live audience attuned to its songs’ evolving personalities was a — if not the — key to its appeal. That group-and-audience mind-meld was achieved, in part, by means of the band’s increasingly accessible songwriting. In fact, even in the midst of my beloved spring, ’69-era shows, the Dead were introducing discrete, un-jammy compositions like “Casey Jones” and “Dire Wolf,” rooted less in “the jazz concept” than in American folk traditions. From early 1970 on, especially after Constanten’s departure, their set-lists alternated between behemoths like “Dark Star” and “The Other One” and more recent, shorter songs, often co-written by Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter. Many of these songs were still in the Dead’s repertoire in 1977, but by then the band had started to transform them into vehicles for exploratory improvisation — without, however, sacrificing their melodiousness. Conners claims that in the ’70s the band “seemed to be aiming for punchier, more focused [live] sets that were less discursive but more narrative.” I’d say that they combined the discursive and the narrative in different permutations, depending on the night.

You can hear the intensification of one particular song from a brooding, ballad-like narrative into a discursive freak-out in Cornell’s last, pre-encore number, “Morning Dew,” which for me and many others makes the show so vital. The band had been playing Canadian singer-songwriter Bonnie Dobson’s 1962 folk-rock song, set after an imagined nuclear apocalypse, since 1967. At Cornell, they absolutely tear it to pieces, but less in a Summer-of-Love mode than in the spirit of then-brand-new, soul-scorching rave-ups like Arista label-mate Patti Smith’s “Birdland.” Conners nails the song’s ending: Garcia “digs deep into his fret board, deeper than ever before, wailing against his strings as if frantically broadcasting an SOS across a wasted universe. The band follows suit, giving everything they have, hammering, banging, crashing, flailing, howling.” But did the song possess that kind of spiritual-existential significance to everyone at Barton Hall? What about the sophomore Biology major with a lab report due the next morning, who’d come as someone’s date and had never even heard of the Dead? That indeterminacy between Cornell’s “Morning Dew” as Library of Congress–approved psycho-rock Americana and its status as just another song played at just another concert by a band that crisscrossed the country, year-in, year-out, draws me to the Dead in the first place.

That version of “Morning Dew” exhibits the Dead at one particularly vital moment in its evolution of the band-as-organism. Lately, I’ve grown to love this incarnation of the band, because it reminds me of poly-rhythmic innovators like George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, Fela Kuti, and the Afrobeat-inspired, expanded Talking Heads of 1980, which included P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell and guitarist Adrian Belew. Check YouTube for full-length concert videos of the Dead, Parliament-Funkadelic, and the 10-piece Talking Heads playing Passaic, New Jersey’s now long-demolished Capitol Theater. You’ll find the groups have a lot in common, starting with a poly-rhythmic base, long jams, and beats that kick your ass. (I offer this half-hour-ish video-playlist for the busy reader/listener: the Dead’s 1977 “Row Jimmy,” P-Funk’s 1978 “Cosmic Slop,” and Talking Heads’s 1980 “Drugs.”)

Earlier, I used “disco” as a put-down, but Conners quotes Adam Mattera to insinuate that the ’77 Dead were closer to disco in its pre-mainstream incarnation than to the Top 40 hits of Andy Gibb and others: “In its proud and glorious mid-70s Manhattan heyday, disco was […] a four-on-the-four bassline, euphoric strings, fierce cowbells and a soaring vocal straight out of the church and on to the dancefloor. More importantly it created a place — or rather it soundtracked a space — outside the mainstream.” Since Mattera emphasizes disco’s roots in “black, Hispanic, [and] gay” culture, it may seem a bit of a stretch to include so white a band as the Dead in this non-mainstream, sub-, or even countercultural moment in American music. Apparently, Dead fans, haters, and commentators have long debated whether the band’s ’70s version of “Dancing in the Street” and the subsequent “Shakedown Street” exemplify funk or disco. But the Dead had been playing soul, Motown, and rhythm-and-blues covers since the ’60s, and they never hid their love for the kind of bottom-heavy music like P-Funk’s.

As a “euphoric” ensemble, the Dead specialized in slow build-ups, but they could pick it up or slow it down on a dime. Between songs at the 4/27/77 Capitol Theater concert, broadcast live on WNEW, Garcia apes the old-time radio show The Shadow’s narrator, whispering huskily, “Don’t be afraid to change the channel”; and that channel-changing impulse fueled their shows’ endless-feeling-ness. Listen to the end of Cornell’s first set, where, on the deliciously deliberate “Row Jimmy” — in which Garcia croons, “Rock your baby to and fro, not too fast and not too slow” — the drummers’ reggae-inflected rhythms pull you in; where the front-line vocalists, Garcia, Weir, and Donna Jean Godchaux, seem actually to harmonize on the chorus; and where Garcia’s molasses-textured slide guitar solos create a cocoon in which you can curl up and listen to what Conners calls Keith Godchaux’s “woozy” organ sound, which “keeps this rendition of the song in the realm of off-kilter fairy tale.” Then, after applause and some tuning, the mood shifts from swampy languor to the Dead’s frenetic, way-up-tempo version of “Dancing in the Streets.” I don’t care how you define “Dancing’s” musical genre, I just want to luxuriate in Garcia’s extended solos, which derive their sound from a guitar effect called the Mu-Tron III. According to Steve Silberman, the Mu-Tron III generated Garcia’s “huge, fat sound with a distinctive thwack that resembled a steel guitar turned up to 11.” It would have gotten even a geek like me up to dance his awkward ass off during “Dancing.”

Before discovering the existence of the Mu-Tron III in Conners’s book, I sat down and watched the Dead’s 19-minute rendition of “Dancing” at the Capitol Theater online, because I just couldn’t believe that that science fiction sound was really emanating from Garcia’s guitar. I also wondered whether Keith Godchaux wasn’t sitting out for unannounced guest appearance by the aforementioned genius Worrell, who, on a song like Funkadelic’s “A Joyful Process” sounds like he’s beaming in from another planet when he steps behind the keyboard. But, no, at about the four-minute mark, you can see that Garcia’s Mu-Tron-III-fueled fingers, not Godchaux’s keyboard playing, drive the song’s rhythmic vortex.

The officially sanctioned way to experience the Rhino-cized Betty Boards of the Dead in May ’77 is to shell out for the label’s much-hyped 40th anniversary releases. (I wonder if Cantor-Jackson is finally being compensated for her prowess at the soundboard. She told Paumgarten, “I’d like everyone to get [the music] for free, unless someone is getting money for it, and then I want money, too.”) But I prefer to time-travel from May 8, 1977 to another show Conners mentions, the Dead’s September 3, 1977 performance before an outdoor crowd of 100,000-plus at Raceway Park in New Jersey, released as the pre-Rhino-cized Dick’s Picks, Vol. 15 and now, alas, out of print (but available on YouTube). This particular show is enlivened by the raucous exhortations and responses of what drummer Bill Kreutzmann calls “the seventh band member” — that is, the Dead’s live audience. On Cantor-Jackson’s recording, the multitude of listeners sure makes a righteous noise — for instance, during the deceptively mellow “He’s Gone.” (This longtime crowd-pleaser alludes, in part, to the band’s ex-manager, Lenny Hart, who disappeared in 1970 with a whole lot of the group’s money.) I hear “He’s Gone,” and other early ’70s Dead songs, as post-psychedelic homages to Hank Williams–style country-gospel music, whose lyrics brim with quintessentially American imagery of lonesome trains and deep rivers. Both Williams and Garcia can easily stretch the word “gone” out to six or more syllables. But the Dead song’s back-porch vibe slyly sidesteps the anguish in such lamentations as Williams’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.” It’s hard to tell whether “He’s Gone” celebrates or mourns its subject’s gone-ness.

As a prime Betty Board artifact, this particular “He’s Gone” reveals Lesh’s bass-playing as the song’s anchor, both rhythmically and melodically. “[I]n classic Lesh style,” Conners notes, he’s “playing more a lead and melody role than a traditional bass line.” Garcia solos desultorily at around the four-and-a-half minute mark, still leaving plenty of room for Weir to do the almost-lead thing that makes his rhythm guitar playing so pleasurably distinctive, and for Godchaux to keep up a quiet but powerful “steam locomotive” piano rhythm. Everyone coalesces around Lesh’s laid-back but decisive bass-playing, until the song becomes sheer texture — as Garcia sings words that describe the feel of the song itself: “Hot as a pistol / But cool inside.” The audience gets into the leisurely groove, especially when the front-line singers go into a three-minute virtually a cappella vocal-breakdown of “Ooh, ooh, nothing’s gonna bring him back” that genuinely approaches gospel. Once the musicians reassert themselves, that same meditative, purposefully lazy feeling returns, with Lesh holding the center, Garcia’s and Weir’s guitar lines swirling in parabolas around each other, pianist Godchaux keeping that gospel rhythm chugging along, and the drummers having audible fun “rolling down the track.”

Then, when we’re 14-ish minutes into the third disk of Dick’s Picks, Vol. 15, something … happens. The guitarists stop chiming away at the margins, the drummers sound more driven, and Lesh’s thrumming becomes practically ominous. There hasn’t been an actual break between songs, but the whole musical atmosphere has changed. Garcia starts actually soloing, but his playing gets bluesier and out-and-out nasty; it’s like the lead guitarist has beamed out from the Grand Ole Opry and into a Memphis roadhouse. After two or three minutes, Weir’s rhythm guitar hints at the melody of one of the Dead’s favorite show-closers, “Not Fade Away.” But Weir’s passing aural reference sounds odd when juxtaposed with the drummers’ still relatively exploratory, if more upbeat, playing. It’s as if the Dead aren’t so much playing a song as generating a primordial aural-stew from which “Not Fade Away” might eventually emerge. Per Conners, in “transitional passages” like this one, the Dead reveled, “gently easing from one song to another, neither fish nor fowl, […] something more thrilling than any one song could contain.”

Finally, in the in the manner of Fela Kuti, who took his time laying down the grooves on his 15-minute-plus songs before cueing the vocalists to come in, the band launches full-on into “Not Fade Away,” which goes on for 11 more minutes. I do wish I’d actually been at the September 3, 1977 concert, and braved bathroom lines, heat, bad trips, and getting (à la Garcia) “squashed,” all in order to soak in that one-time-only “He’s Gone > Not Fade Away” followed by the rousing show-closer “Truckin’.” And readers of Cornell ’77’s in-depth, painstakingly affectionate recreation of the May 8, 1977 Barton Hall show — which took place when Conners was no older than seven — will wish they’d been at that gig, too.

With all these concerts I never went to, many of them before my time, resonating in my imagination or on my headphones, however, I’ve gotten lonely for the company of fellow human listeners. I keep thinking of Brodsky’s ominous warning to the class of ’89: “you are entering the world where recording an event dwarfs the event itself.” As my friends and students report, at big performance events circa 2017, one’s view of the stage itself is blocked by the tens of thousands of iPhones held aloft to record — and indeed, visually, to “dwarf” — “the event.” I never raised my lighter in response to “Freebird,” but I can begin to understand the archaic impulse of collective homage: many hands held aloft in one shared, light-emitting gesture. I envision that mass of iPhone screens, on the other hand, as almost anti-communitarian; but I wouldn’t know, because arena shows still aren’t my thing.

Last October, a friend and I caught jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls quintet in a small Los Angeles auditorium that held maybe 100 people — my kind of venue. Having never seen this particular quintet, I didn’t know what to expect — except, from the Bird Calls moniker, something to do with Charlie Parker. Then Mahanthappa and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill stood up and, without any accompaniment, played what I can only describe as antiphonal, ecstatic invocations. The two were taking the iconic bebop front line of saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and putting it through some kind of 21st-century musical blender that evoked those jazz legends without in any way imitating them.

After a few minutes of back and forth between the two, the rest of the band charged in for a high-energy, no-holds-barred version of what turned out to be Mahanthappa’s new (to me) “On the DL,” which went on, I swear, for 20 edge-of-your-seat minutes. When his band came to the end of this monster of a song, instead of thanking the audience, Mahanthappa called out derisively to someone I couldn’t see closer to the front of the stage, “Hey man, are you planning to record the whole gig?” The taper must have shaken his head, but Mahanthappa continued to lay in to him: “Sure looks like it to me. Tomorrow I’m gonna come to wherever you work and film you while you’re working.” (Decades before YouTube made instant, mass distribution of audience members’ vérité concert recordings both possible and commonplace, Bob Weir helpfully told a ’71-era Dead concertgoer, “Hey, you down there with the microphone, if you wanna get a decent recording you’ve gotta move back about 40 feet.”)

Then Manhanthappa’s band launched into another killer, extended song I was hearing for the first time, “Chillin’,” during which someone in the front row — probably the taper — walked out. The band raged for another hour at least, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only attendee who would’ve stuck around for a second set had there been one. Maybe the sound engineer was surreptitiously making the digital equivalent of a Betty Board, but I loved the feeling of listening to music that wasn’t being recorded, that you had to be in that room, on that one October night, to experience. Afterward, at the merch table, I bought a copy of Mahanthappa’s CD, and though I’ve listened to it many times since, its songs don’t compare with my memory of those stretched-out, jubilant, hard-driving versions his quintet played onstage, which would (probably) never surface in recorded form, and have no doubt been played better, worse, or just differently at other gigs. In fact, on the car ride home that night, my friend and I didn’t even listen to the CD. We just wanted to talk with each other about the music.

¤

Eric Gudas is the author of Best Western and Other Poems (Silverfish Review Press, 2010). His work has appeared in The American Poetry ReviewThe Iowa ReviewPoetry FlashRaritan, and elsewhere. He currently teaches in UCLA’s Writing Programs division. For more information, visit ericgudas.com.