Inside the Museums, Infinity Goes Up On Trial
Cornell ’77: The Music, the Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall
(Cornell University Press, 2017)
“Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial…”
—Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna”
Peter Conners’ book, Cornell ’77: The Music, The Myth, and the Magnificence of the Grateful Dead’s Concert at Barton Hall is out in time for the fortieth anniversary of the show. And like the collective gasp heard throughout the Deadhead community when the “Betty Boards” (reel-to-reel soundboard tapes of the Grateful Dead originally recorded by Betty Cantor-Jackson between 1971-80; more on that to come) were released in the late 1980s (the Barton Hall show among them), it’s high time we have a bit more context around the debate over what legions of Heads consider the greatest show the band ever played on the one hand and what others consider merely a well-played but over-rated show on the other. Which is it? Like all things music, that’s a subjective call. What Peter Conners delivers in this book is the background scenery that led up to, surrounded, and contributed to the only Grateful Dead show contained in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. Nobel laureate Bob Dylan captured the power of such stature when he said, “Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial.” Let’s go inside that museum.
But first, before we venture into Conners’ curatorial effort, let’s align. I’ve been steeped in the Grateful Dead for thirty-plus years now, and much like Peter Conners, have the scars to at least lend a critical voice to the conversation. Like many of you reading this, I went through the phases of collecting bootleg tapes (yes, cassettes, remember those?) and endured the painful time between being at a show until trading for/receiving the bootleg, usually some mashed-up audience source with distant vocals and hollow music. Of course that all changed when the Betty’s entered the stream. We would also be all amped up to get our mitts on anything with a label that included “Healy Matrix” or ‘Digital SBD.” That addressed the quality issue.
Another important step in accessing the catalog of the 2314 Dead shows was the internet and all of the sites that popped up, like eTree and others, that allowed for file sharing as a proxy for bootleg trading. Shazam! Now we address the timing of access. I and thousands others could now collect from serious players who somehow had/have enough time on their hands to make the best possible audio adjustments to recordings I may have never heard or been able to hear and then make them available for download. This was a watershed moment for Heads like me with a voracious appetite for live Grateful Dead recordings and a hint of obsessive compulsive disorder required to put in the time in downloading/organizing our digital libraries.
I must admit, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Barton Hall. I think this emotional bipolarity can be applied broadly when one approaches the Grateful Dead because of the heavy and passionate opinions Dead Head Nation holds collectively and individually on myriad subjects but first and foremost, favorite shows. Collectively speaking, Barton Hall has been polled as both the best and most over rated show of 1977 (Deadbase X) Deadbase X also describes Barton Hall as picking up best version honors (Tapers’ Choice: 63 folk with 1000+ hours of bootlegs) for the following songs; Brown Eyed Women, Dancin’ in the Streets, Estimated Prophet, Scarlet > Fire, Lazy Lightning > Supplication, Not Fade Away, Saint Stephen, and Morning Dew. In other online forums, these feelings are generally reinforced with a heavy dose of hyperbole served up. Ahhh, the collective.
From an individual standpoint, in many ways, I look at the Dead like I do the game of baseball. You rarely, if ever, get a perfect game (the Show) but you do get outstanding plays (jams/musical moments), and innings (songs/sets). I also recognize the intrinsic definition of the word “individual” This is my perspective, both regarding the show itself as well as Peter Conners’ deep review in contextualizing what is, by any measure, a bell-ringer of a concert.
So what can you expect? For those of us in a certain age bracket, Peter Conners’ book is a trip in the ‘Way Back Machine’ and he, as Mr. Peabody, is a weathered and trustworthy skipper. Cornell ’77 takes you back to 1977 in all its colors and sounds. Conners has done a lot of research on the year that hosted Barton Hall. The year, the season (weather included), the pop culture of the time, and the trials and tribulations of the Cornell Concert Commission (CCC) all combine to deliver the show’s context as described by primary research interviews and Conners’ own deep understanding of the history of the Grateful Dead. I, for one, was quickly transported back to 1977 when Radio Was King and the prevailing consensus of listeners had chosen Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” as the year’s #1 pop song, followed closely by Barry Gibb’s “I Just Want to be Your Everything.” (Let us pause a minute here to respect the contributions of the Brothers Gibb to the late-’70s soundtrack.) Others that jog the memory include KC & The Sunshine Band, Abba, the Sex Pistols, Disco. Getting the picture??
So as the reader, you are now in a time warp, whether familiar ground or not, and in this simpler age where/when few delivery channels were available when it came to music (radio, record albums, 8-track tapes, and live concerts being primary) you begin to reacquaint with the environment. Conners picks up from here by going deeply into the world of Tapers; those who snuck recording equipment into the concert and did their level best to preserve the moment in audio recordings. We meet the pioneers like Rob Eaton, Jerry Moore, and Barry Glassberg who Conners calls upon to give the reader a real taste of what the early days were like in terms of effort and product. This is a seminal chapter in the history of the Grateful Dead. The Band had decided to let this practice occur or at least turn a blind eye to it and this decision had far reaching consequences on several levels. Conners describes the early tapers and how they managed to learn best practices of the craft. He examines the Band’s own practices and experimentation with sound, going deeply into Owsley “Bear” Stanley as both a brilliant chemist and sound engineer who simultaneously bank rolled the first PA systems the Dead used and turned on an entire generation to the wonders of LSD.
Conners then introduces us to Betty Cantor Jackson (she of the “Betty Boards”) and establishes her important place in Dead history. For those interested in this part of Deadlore, Conners goes deeply into Betty’s history with the Band, her methods that produced such sublime recordings, and her revealing insights as to the back room political structures and gymnastics within the Grateful Dead “family.” This is one of the more interesting passages in Conners’s book. Betty is a bit of a hard-to-reach, behind-the-scenes guru to Dead Heads, and Conners gives us a very good understanding of the person who, in many respects, was the siren who called us all to listen again to Barton Hall. When her recordings of this show and several others were unwittingly bought at auction and then painstakingly restored and released in the late ’80s, Dead Heads everywhere dug back in and were blown away. Betty’s recording may be THE reason, outside of the Band’s performance that night, for Barton Hall to have become the coin of the realm for many.
Conners then takes us to Cornell before the show and reveals the goings-on from several perspectives. We learn of how 250 or so folks without tickets were selectively chosen to enter the hall; we attend sound check and learn about how, when the Band asked for requests, a student’s song suggestion established a little ditty that would later become a staple we all have come to know and love during live show tuning moments between songs.
For the show itself, Conners takes his time and nicely builds the suspense, introducing us first to attendees, giving us their bona fides—their personal histories and vibrant anecdotes on how they came to the Dead and some of the shows they had previously attended. This will be interesting to some readers who, like me, seek reading first-hand accounts of shows they love to listen to. I’ll say here that one such character in the book, Bill Wasson (pseudonym), has a pretty wild history when it comes to attending Grateful Dead shows.
So, let’s get to the music. I like the way Conners takes his time getting to the actual show. His stroll around the ‘lot scene’ of 1977 and other dimensions of context are skillfully delivered by way of interviews and other explorations of Grateful Dead history all leading up to the crux of the matter at hand. What did they play that night and what made it SO great?
Coming to this book, I was skeptical, quite frankly. For all the reasons described here and those that certain die-hard fans will have, Barton Hall can get to be too big for the playground. Whether you take the side that it’s the best ever or if you, like me, consider it to be overrated and happen to prefer the show they did the next night in Buffalo, the passion is equally strong. Rather than rely on the familiar hyperbole that typically accompanies a review of the music on any given night, Conners takes a matter of fact approach and frames the offerings in a more contextual way. Song by song, set-by-set, he takes us through the show.
I particularly like the way he draws on the provenance of songs when/where appropriate. He educates us on the history of “New Minglewood Blues” (“played . . . 435 times, including thirty-five times in 1977 alone”); he describes the Merle Haggard classic “Mama Tried,” including a brief history of Haggard’s own time in the San Quentin (during which he felt great guilt about his mother) when he saw Johnny Cash play for the inmates and became inspired to write this song, and much more. Conners’ experience with the Dead is evident throughout the book. He insightfully points out that the Barton Hall first set song selection is replete with odes to outlaws and scoundrels (like Haggard and Cash)—quite clever when one considers that Barton Hall was played on Mother’s Day, 1977. Other examples of Conners’ colorful descriptions include: "‘Brown-Eyed Women’ is delivered like the best song Robbie Robertson never wrote," and Row Jimmy as "the perfect psychedelic fairy tale," and the profound insight of "In abstract experiential terms, first sets were made for the Grateful Dead audience to listen to stories, while second sets were for the audience to participate in them." And say what you want about Barton Hall’s place in the Pantheon, the “Dancin’ in the Streets” that night was, according to Conners, “The Grateful Dead at their god-almighty funkiest.” To which I say, Amen, Mr. Conners.
It’s usually the second set where opinions of ‘best ever’ begin to surface. The manner in which Conners approaches this is just exactly perfect. He dives into the background behind what happened that night rather than how ‘blistering’ or ‘scorching’ a particular solo was played. Again, this is a refreshing departure from the hyperbolic super saturation that usually accompanies reviews of ‘best ever’ versions. Readers will enjoy his approach, perhaps even pause to reconsider previously held opinions, and most likely listen to the show again. I have no doubt that serious fans of the Band will queue up Barton Hall during and after reading Conners’ account. For convenience sake, he directs the reader to several sources to ensure a successful effort.
As we approach the end of the second set and understand that this show had no ‘Drums’ section; although, the percussive barrage that occurs at the end of the “Not Fade Away” and ending with the Saint Stephen coda is a capable stand in. Conners again smartly connects some dots that the casual and even serious listener may have missed, and we see some synchronicity between the songs lyrically. Seasoned Dead listeners are often very good at the musical transitions that occur between the songs, particularly in second sets; I count myself among them. One of Conners’s many contributions to the dialogue around Grateful Dead appreciation drawn out in this book is how he sees and suggests both song (story) and lyrical transitions as well. You’ll have to dig into the text to understand what I mean by that. I assure you it’s worth the trip.
Throughout his treatment of Barton Hall, Conners recognizes the Grateful Dead is best consumed with contributions and narratives provided by fellow travelers and their personal paths to the Band. Throughout the book, we are introduced to characters who were there. We hear from insiders. Conners paints the scenery around this magnificent concert by connecting us to some of these key players, he educates us on interesting contextual dimensions, and in the end he leaves the scale in balance. No sides are taken, no right or wrong. That is rightfully left to the individual who may continue to reinforce or reject the polls of the collective.
I’ve listened to Barton Hall countless times; know it like the proverbial back of my hand, I might say. But I’ve also logged too many hours to count in the years surrounding ’77. And I have the familiar opinions all Deadheads have on which shows/song version(s) stand out and why. I always looked at Barton Hall as a ‘gem,’ one that I would most likely play for a novice or the skeptic. Conners contribution here is important from the standpoint of treating the show as more than the music that was played. Barton Hall deserves context and we as fans of the show get that in Conners’s book.
As for the Band’s opinion, Conners asked, and the reply is, well, interesting. In the end, this approach of diving into the fabrics surrounding shows of significance will garner a lot of interest. As we await more archive recordings and footage of The Grateful Dead, and continue to revisit the media we already have, it will always be the case that the each show has its own personality. Barton Hall certainly does, and Peter Conners brings it to us in an interesting and informed way. So sit back, pick up the book, and click play. Let Conners fill in the spaces between as you reacquaint yourself with that Mother’s Day back in 1977. You’ll feel more connected to the show than ever before.
BILL GATTI is originally from Chicago and currently lives in Massachusetts. Having attended Grateful Dead shows beginning in the 80s all the way through the last shows at Soldier Field in 1995, Gatti, considered an authority on many dimensions of the band and its music, brings a strong background to the work of Grateful Dead consumption and criticism, and is known to insiders as something of a Grateful Dead savant. He has published lyrics with The Freddy Jones Band, out of Chicago, where he ran a publishing concern for several years. This is his first appearance in the Brooklyn Rail.