On July 5 the Grateful Dead performed their final concert at Soldier Field in Chicago. Their “Fare Thee Well” show marked the band’s 50th anniversary.
In my senior year at Ohio University I missed out on one of the biggest rock shows of the decade – the one where the Grateful Dead blew away the crowd at Veteran’s Hall on Nov. 22, 1968, in Columbus. By the time I heard about the concert a couple hundred local Deadheads had already left Athens for the venue.
After the concert in Columbus, Little Bob, a loveable OU stoner, hopped on stage after the band’s encore and convinced Jerry Garcia that a mother lode of dedicated followers in Athens would flock to a Dead show.
And that’s all it took for the band to load their van and head to Athens.
The next evening I walked over to Ohio University’s Memorial Auditorium to chase down the buzz that the Dead were in town. It wouldn’t have been the first rumor to dissipate into thin air. Tales that the likes of Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix were on campus came and went like the annual spring floods. (On the other hand, some stories did pan out – like when Led Zeppelin really did open up for acoustic guitarist Jose Feliciano in Athens.)
When I got to the auditorium, the place was packed with students and townies squeezed into seats and aisles. Word was the Dead really had arrived and the university had given the go for a free show.
By the time I snagged a front-row seat, an entourage of groupies dressed like gypsies sauntered across the hardwood stage smiling at the crowd, while ponytailed roadies in cowboy hats hauled drums, keyboards and oversize Marshall amps into position.
After their equipment was in place, the band – Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh and Tom Constanten – casually picked up their instruments, tuned up, and segued into a haunting rendition of “Morning Dew.” After that, they rolled into a jam set that included “Dark Star,” “Saint Stephen,” “The Eleven,” and a bunch of bluesy tunes including “Good Morning Little School Girl” and “Turn on Your Love Light,” with that Bobby “Blue” Bland cover featuring Pig Pen on vocals and harmonica.
The show seemed to roll on forever, and at one point I slid out of my seat and made my way to the stage.
Around midnight, the band was ripping through a rendition of “Good Lovin’” that had the crowd dancing in the aisles. But right in the middle of the song a university official climbed on stage, opened the metal cover on a large circuit board, and flipped a couple of switches. With the exception of the drums, the music stopped dead. The official shouted to Garcia that the show was over. There was a whole lot of heckling, but not any real protest from the band. They unplugged their instruments, and eventually the roadies started packing up.
I walked over to Pig Pen and told him how much I loved the show. He was unpretentious, and at one point he asked me if it was safe to hitchhike in Ohio and West Virginia. I told him my experiences – all good – but I couldn’t understand why someone in the Dead would even need to think about hitchhiking. But he insisted he did it for the sake of adventure.
After the band had cleared off the stage, I followed them outside to their van. About the time they were ready to head out, Garcia – wrapped in a poncho – asked me if there was any place to grab some food. Unfortunately, the only place open that late was the BBF – the Burger Boy Foodarama. (Otherwise known to us locals as the “belch, barf and fart.”) So a few band members – Garcia, Weir and Lesh – followed a couple of us down Court Street for some greasy burgers and fries.
Sitting across from Garcia, I noticed he was missing part of the middle finger on his right hand. (Years later I learned he’d lost it when his younger brother accidently struck it with an axe.) We hung out for a half hour, and Garcia asked me about the college, the town and life in the Midwest. He seemed genuinely interested. The previous July, at a Doors concert in Cleveland, Jim Morrison sauntered across the stage mocking the city and reminding the audience that he hailed from California.
That was the first and last time I saw the Grateful Dead, and after that show they played thousands of concerts around the world. But I never made it to another Dead show.
There are hundreds of pirated recordings of the Dead. Sirius XM Satellite Radio even has a Grateful Dead channel where archivist David Lemieux broadcasts recorded concerts from around the world, some dating back to the late 1960s.
Unfortunately, there’s not a single sound byte of audio from one of the Dead’s most legendary shows – their free and spontaneous jam session in Athens, Ohio, back in the fall of 1968.
The writer is a Yellow Springs, Ohio resident and University of Maryland associate adjunct professor.