Paul Gerald <email@example.com>
Many people will tell you that it never happened - that it's not on The List, that they don't remember it, that such a thing could not have happened in the first place - but the Grateful Dead did play in Memphis once before, on June 19, 1970, at the Mid-South Coliseum.
More than likely, the show is so largely forgotten because it wasn't a big deal in the first place - it drew only 2,054 people, according to The Commercial Appeal - and by most standards the evening wasn't exactly a smash success. Plus, since we're talking about 1970, you can safely say everyone's memory is a victim of both time and the times.
But there it is, in the newspapers of the day and in the memories of the few who saw it. Back then the Grateful Dead was a 5-year-old band that would take about any gig it could get; now it's a 30-year-old institution, probably the biggest touring act in rock-and-roll history, yet it still includes five of the six members who played Memphis 25 years ago.
So let's find out why rock-and-roll's most prolific touring act waited a quarter of a century to return to the birthplace of rock-and-roll.
In 1970 the Memphis papers, like those elsewhere, were filled with news of Richard Nixon sending more troops into Cambodia, the Charles Manson murder trial getting cranked up, and Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, backed by a diving grab at second by Bill Mazeroski, throwing a no-hitter. In Memphis, where the papers still called black people "Negroes," the Cook Convention Center was being built, and the CA had a story on the "rural" areas of Shelby County - Old Millington Road just off Highway 51 and the "remote community" of Woodstock. (Both areas are now almost lost in suburbia.)
At the time, there was a thriving hippie community along the Highland Strip and in Midtown, and some big-name musical acts came through in and around 1970: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Jethro Tull, and a "Cosmic Carnival" that included Grand Funk Railroad, Chicago, Mountain, and Rare Earth. But when the Grateful Dead, that "hippie band from San Francisco," signed for a date at the Coliseum that summer, the announcement ran under a picture of Country Joe McDonald, who shared the bill, and a later story showed a photo of the third band on the card, The Illusion. (The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock has no mention of The Illusion, but they did have a hit song, "Did You See Her Eyes?")
Though most of the dozen or so attendees whom the Flyer tracked down said they had fun that night (some said that's exactly why they can't remember much), the night was in many ways forgettable.
For the performers involved, the trouble started upon arrival at the venue. Country Joe's band almost didn't make it in time, and when they got there, according to the next day's Commercial Appeal, the police thought they were just some more freaks trying to get in without tickets. The paper said Coliseum officials and six cops entered the band's station wagon through the back door - not what you'd call a warm welcome.
For the Grateful Dead, the whole scene must have looked unpleasantly familiar. Less than five months before, they had been busted by the New Orleans narcotics bureau (an event which inspired a verse in their song "Truckin"), and now here they were again, surrounded by cops in an uptight Southern city. To make matters worse, a thunderstorm was raging outside, and there were tornado warnings all over town. (Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir announced at one point that if a tornado developed he would quit playing and go watch it, but the next day's Press-Scimitar tells us that "the tornado spirits hovering over the city never took bodily form.")
Consider this exchange from an interview that lead guitarist Jerry Garcia and a revolving host of others did with the underground paper Tennessee Roc that night: Roc: "What do you think of our town?" Garcia: (laughter) "I'm scared to death. I can't wait to get out." Roc: "Are you serious?" Garcia: "Have you dug the cops here? The cops here act like the cops do in other parts of the world when there's something horrible happening. When we first came here, we thought somebody was getting beaten up or something and then we suddenly realized that's just the way they are."
Later in the interview, Country Joe wandered in, sporting a new haircut which earned him some abuse from the others sitting around, and announced that the cops had just said that if the fans approached the front of the stage, the power would be cut (something which the interviewer said had happened to Sly and the Family Stone in Memphis). Country Joe later said, "I'm gonna play horrible tonight so the crowd won't get excited."
That much he apparently accomplished. Country Joe and the Fish played two tunes, lasting all of 20 minutes: "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine" and another which the Press-Scimitar's next-day review referred to as "just a long jam."
Sally Graflund says she and her sister Betsy, who had gone to the show just to see Country Joe and the Fish, even confronted McDonald about it after the show, only to be told the problem was a "contract dispute."
"I was so bummed out," she says. "I remember some great concerts from back then, but that was not one of them."
There were problems out in the crowd, too. The police turned on the house lights so they could see people they thought needed busting. One of the folks removed from the premises that night (along with most of her section, she says) was Pam McGaha, now a waitress at the Half Shell and a staffer at the Crossroads Music Festival.
McGaha, whom you may recognize around town because of her 1970 VW bus covered with Dead stickers, said that during Country Joe's set, "There was this guy up front acting real, well, you could tell he was high. The cops turned on the lights and dragged the guy out. Somebody jerked him away, and then the cops started just pulling people out of the crowd. They told us we were arrested for 'inciting a riot,' and they made us leave. We spent the rest of the night riding the Pippin [local rollercoaster]."
By the time the Dead hit the stage, much of the crowd had apparently left. John Leland Braddock, who was only 15 at the time and has the clearest memory among people interviewed by the Flyer, says with varying degrees of certainty that they played "Casey Jones," "China Cat Sunflower," "Hard to Handle," "Me and My Uncle," "Attics of My Life," "Candyman," "Uncle John's Band," and "Good Lovin'." Unless somebody out there taped the show, we will probably never know exactly what they played that night, but each of those tunes was a standard of the day.
Harry Nicholas, who now runs Harry's On Teur on Madison, says that even though the crowd wasn't into it, "The Dead was on. Country Joe and the Fish just did the least that they had to do, but the Dead were warmer."
When it was over, musician Randy Haspel, who had seen the Dead a few times before in much more comfortable environments, sought out the band backstage because he felt the need to apologize to them for Memphis' "unresponsive crowd."
"[Dead bassist Phil] Lesh said Memphis was the most soul-less place they had played," Haspel says. "There were more people there that were curious than were Grateful Dead fans, and I don't think the audience knew how to take their extended jams. They sat on their hands, and the band seemed real frustrated. The cops were pretty bad, too."
In a Tennessee Roc review headlined "Memphis Flunks the Acid Test," Pat Rainer wrote, "the majority of Memphis still isn't ready for anything like real freaks who were 'hippies' before the word was coined. Memphis once again cheated itself out of a truly psychedelic experience. It seems like it just can't happen here."
All in all, 6-19-70 is not a red-letter date in Grateful Dead history - in fact, up until now it wasn't recognized at all. It's listed as a cancelled show in Deadbase, a quasi-official but amazingly complete record of the band's 2,500 or so concerts. When the Dead's publicist, Dennis McNally, was asked last week in Charlotte if any of the original band members could be queried about the 1970 trip to Memphis, he said, "No, because they won't remember it. They're the last people who would, in fact."
But even though Garcia told Tennessee Roc in 1970 that "there isn't gonna be a next time in Memphis," in fact the hometown of rock-and-roll and the most prolific rock-and-roll band of all time have another chance to entertain one another. Round Two is set for this weekend at The Pyramid, and five of the six band members who walk on stage Saturday night in front of a screaming sellout crowd of 20,000 will be the same ones who were in the somewhat nervous Mid-South Coliseum 25 years and about 2,000 concerts ago.