Last year I started writing a memoir. In response to Scarlett's open call for Canucks In New York, here's an excerpt.
It was getting near the end of July, and I had a ticket for the big event of the summer of ’73: the Watkins Glen Summer Jam. Everywhere I’d been since school ended, the question everyone asked was “Are you going to Watkins Glen?” It was going to be the biggest thing ever (shorter than Woodstock but in fact, many more people attended), a one-day show featuring my three enduring favourite bands: The Grateful Dead, The Band and The Allman Brothers Band. I was a big Allmans fan and was just warming up to the other two.
I’d made a road friend earlier in the summer, a guy named Al whom I met in Montreal, then brought back to our house in Ottawa for a few days. Before he continued on his travels, which were also pointed towards this Holy Grail of 1973 scenes-to-make, Al suggested a rendezvous plan: we’d meet by the stage at sundown. This was a brilliantly simple, easily remembered notion, and it would work great at Blue Skies, or even the Winnipeg Folk Festival. But I never saw Al again, because although I did get to Watkins Glen and probably he did too, so did 600,000 other kids. I never got closer than, let’s say, 200 yards from the stage. That was one jam-packed field. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I guess I had the essentials for summer travel: a brown backpack with a comfortable internal frame, sleeping bag, poncho, and a bit of money. Watkins Glen is a speedway at the other end of New York State from Buffalo, so it took some time to get there. (Turns out if I had gone a day earlier, I would have taken in double the music; Wikipedia informs us that soundchecks turned into bonus concert sets for those who had arrived in time). Around dusk I hadn’t travelled very far, but then got lucky enough to get picked up by a friendly couple who were going to the very same show—not too surprising really. The guy asked me to spring for a tank of gas in exchange for the ride; it was a fair enough deal although it seemed like a lot of money at the time—about six bucks as I recall. Maybe eight. Pricey stuff. Wish I could get some of that expensive gas now.
I had one of these, but it turned out I didn't need it:
It was probably midnight when we arrived at the closest available parking spot to the festival site. It must have been a three-mile walk to the site, but I didn’t know that. Inexplicably, there was never a movie or a live album made of the Watkins Glen fest, so to picture the scene, you’ll have to review the “Woodstock” movie. Remember the interviews with uptight locals who were aghast at the hordes of unkempt strangers tramping through their formerly-bucolic neighbourhoods? It was that, and when we stopped at a store—Watkins Glen isn’t all that far from Woodstock, in fact--the comments locals made started to give me the idea that this wasn’t going to be a leisurely picnic. There were rumours spreading that the hippie vagabonds were killing and eating local livestock. This could get serious. I’d better plan to keep my wits about me, make sure I had food, water, and weather protection, and keep both hands on my gear. Well, that’s what I should have been thinking, but instead I did almost the dumbest thing imaginable (eating six hits of acid right about then would have been dumber, and no doubt attainable).
When we parked the car, I agreed with the folks who drove me, since we’d become friends of a sort, that I would hang with them. Since we were right there at the festival parking lot, I left my pack in their car while we went looking for a good spot to take in the show. After all, I didn’t want to be lugging that pack around all weekend, and could come get my stuff anytime…that was thirty-six years ago and I’ve done stupid things since then, but that was a personal high-water mark in pure naivety. We walked through the night, several miles, I soon lost my new friends in the streaming crowd, and I never saw them or my backpack again. Nor, of course, could I locate their car later. In the subsequent few years when hitchhiking was my main mode of transportation, I developed rules of thumb, and the first one was “hang onto your stuff at gargantuan rock festivals and also at all other times, DO NOT leave it in a stranger’s trunk.” In fact, when slightly older and wiser, I tried not to put my stuff in a trunk at all. If I had to, I memorized the licence plate number at the same time.
Daylight broke on an incredible mass of humanity inhabiting a huge rolling field. I don’t recall being uncomfortable or cold, I guess I must have at least kept my sleeping bag or poncho. Far in the distance I could see a little toy stage populated by tiny little dots…but there was pretty good sound, considering. (Wikipedia advises that this was due to the foresight of famed concert promoter Bill Graham, who had realized that there would be a huge crowd and made sure multiple speaker towers were dispersed enough through the area so that everyone could hear, if not see—this probably prevented mass crushing of spectators crowding the stage area.) This was before the days of giant-screen TV projectors, which would have been highly useful technology. The emcees advised us that because we were so numerous and crowded, we should not expect to find our friends. They wouldn’t make any announcements except for missing children and missing medication, or Summer Jam would have turned into Talk Radio—all friends looking for each other, all the time. “Stay where you are and make new friends”, they sensibly suggested, so I did. Around noon the tiny dots onstage became the Grateful Dead, who I had never seen before. They did lovely renditions of “Box of Rain”—still one of my favourites---“Brown-Eyed Women”, “Sugar Magnolia”, and a whole lot more, because they actually played for close to five hours including a break. I was busy making new if temporary friends, and had the good fortune to be next to a guy who handed me cold beer out of his cooler. In order to reciprocate, I bought a bag of weed and started rolling. I remember incredibly long lines for the portajohns, and I don’t have any recollection of what there was to eat.
Meanwhile, The Band took over the stage; they only played about three hours (Wikipedia says two, but what do they know?) but no band would ever want to match the Dead for marathon concerts. I hadn’t heard them that much, which seems strange now, and I dug their sound a lot. For years I thought it was them rather than the Dead who had played “Brown-Eyed Women”, and searched their albums for that tune in vain. Unlike the other two bands, The Band still had their original lineup: Helm, Robertson, Danko, Hudson and Manuel. The other two bands had already lost members to the fast lane: the Allmans had lost Duane Allman, my favourite guitarist of all time, and Berry Oakley in motorcycle accidents in ’71 and ’72 respectively, while Ron “Pigpen” McKernan had drunk himself to death in ‘72 at the age of 27, which made him the first on the list of the dead Deads. Subsequent decades would prove that the most dangerous gig in rock-n-roll was to play keyboards for the Dead, who killed off three of them over a twenty-year span, starting with McKernan. A few years later, Keith Godchaux, who was their piano player at Watkins Glen, had a fatal car accident shortly after leaving the band, and in the early 90’s his replacement Brent Mydland OD’ed on heroin. But it took the 1995 loss of brilliant but addicted guitarist Jerry Garcia to end the storied career of the Grateful Dead (some survivors still play together, officially called just The Dead now).
All these years later, the Allman Brothers are still touring under the same name, with a vastly different lineup that still includes Dicky Betts, Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks. The Band broke up, not just because of the deaths of Richard Manuel and later Rick Danko, but largely due to enmity between Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm. In 1984, I saw The Band and the Grateful Dead on a double bill once again, at Canada’s Wonderland. It was the last time I saw either band. But again I digress.
I had made this epic journey to see the Allman Brothers Band for the first time, and finally in late dusk they started their show. They opened with “Statesboro Blues” with its slashing slide guitar part, played by Betts, I believe. (Since the late 70’s they have continued to tour with two lead guitarists, as in their original lineup, but after their main man Duane had died, they decided to add piano player Chuck Leavell rather than a new guitarist who would be seen as trying to imitate the incomparable Duane.) Then “Done Somebody Wrong”. And “Jessica”, buoyed by Leavell’s sparkling piano work. Then I fell asleep.
Well, I’d been up all night hiking in, and then partying all day. My family will attest nowadays that it is unremarkable for me to hit the hay at 8 p.m, but it wasn’t really the plan in 1973. I had come all this way, endured hardships and made bad decisions in order to take in three songs from what was left of the Allman Brothers. (To be fair, with Chuck Leavell on piano they still had their mojo working—much better than the weak lineup I saw in 79 in Syracuse.)
I woke up just a moment later, as it seemed. Actually it was 3:30 a.m, and members of all three bands were just wrapping up an hour-long jam with “Johnny B. Goode”. Maybe it was raining, or maybe it had been raining when I fell asleep. Then Bill Graham took the mike and told us it was all over and good night. I was shaking my head and asking, “What happened? It can’t be over, they just started.”
The crowd was a little thinner but still huge. The lineups for the portajohns were much reduced though, although some were being toppled over and set on fire by less respectable but practical festival patrons who felt the need to generate some warmth. How do you set a portajohn on fire? They’re made of plastic. I guess they weren’t back then. Or maybe, despite the clarity of my recollection (as you can see), they were burning picnic tables and snow fences. And perhaps wooden portajohns. Ah yes, grasshopper. Plywood burns.
Getting home was another adventure, and a darker one, but that's another tale.