Tuesday, July 29, 2014

NOTARY SOJAC: The Night of the Grateful Dead

By 1971, the Grateful Dead's stage setup included the legendary 'pyramid' PA system, and even though Jim Lowry had heard of it, he was not prepared for what he saw.

There were "like a million speakers--- smaller speakers they'd stacked up like two big pyramids on each side of the stage," he recalled. "It had literally dozens and dozens of these small speakers. I don't know if the idea was to disperse the sound in a different way, but it was a huge system."

At the time, Lowry played bass for Portland-based Notary Sojac, a band on its way to creating waves of their own. Popular throughout the Pacific Northwest thanks to numerous well-attended gigs, opening for the Dead and New Riders was to them huge. It would look great on the resumé and, hell, Ken Kesey would more than likely attend (he did), living a stone's throw away at the Rainbow Farm.

"It was inside this multiple-purpose facility at Lane Community College," Lowry recalled, "which could be converted to concert- or gymnasium-type environments. The stage, about four feet high, was at one end and in back of the stage was an open area where they had put together two big foam pads like those used in pole vault pits. When we arrived, the Dead's entourage was already there--- the road crew and all of the people who traveled with them. Maybe a hundred people.

"A few of the Dead were there and a couple of the New Riders as well. There were a couple of bottles of nitrous oxide off to the side with long tubes on them. Pigpen, the Dead's keyboard player, came in carrying this briefcase which had whiskey and the like, his little wet bar, and he started pouring drinks for everyone. Of course, everyone was passing around pot and there was smoking and there was the nitrous oxide, and it's already kind of a big party, right?

"Well, we started talking with them, saying that we wanted to play, and they said why don't you guys go up and we'll do a sound check and when the doors open, you can do a couple of tunes and we'll bring out the New Riders. So we grabbed Mike Jenkins, one of our roadies, and brought in our equipment and set it up. We played two songs, maybe three, and it's pretty loud--- at concert level--- and a few more people came in. There were maybe 200 people, most involved with the concert in some capacity.

"I'm up there playing when all of a sudden I hear what I thought was an explosion. I honestly thought a bomb had gone off. I looked up and at the opposite end of this huge room, a couple of double doors flew open and a crowd of people ran through them and up to the stage. They kept hitting it and hitting it, hundreds of them, pushing and pushing. Some had hit so hard that the impact knocked them a little unconscious, but they couldn't fall down because they were being held up by the mass of bodies."

"When they hit the stage," Lowry continued, "it had knocked the wind out of them, so we stopped playing and went into rescue mode, lifting people up, carrying them across the stage to the back of the building where there was, I think, an ambulance. We laid them down outside until they could be revived. Some had to be taken to the hospital.

"That stage was big, four feet tall and a good twenty-five feet deep, right? And I don't know how wide it was, but that whole stage got moved back a couple of feet. Just from that. I mean, all bets were off. There was no security and it was out of control.

"Carl Pennington, the concert promoter, came up onstage and the Dead's road manager threw him against the wall. He was screaming at Carl, saying what the hell is going on and get this under control and Carl was yelling that it wasn't his fault, that he had no control. Carl finally grabbed the microphone and started screaming at the crowd, like, you ***holes, you really screwed this up for me and I'll never be able to promote another concert here. And the crowd got ugly real fast. They started throwing things and screaming and yelling and trying to grab him. I was actually in fear for my life at that point. I got behind my amp and looked over at the crowd, trying to find a route of escape. It was mass hysteria.

"Then, Phil Lesh walked up to the microphone and said, 'Hey, man, don't lay your bummer on your brothers,' and the whole crowd goes, YEEEAAAHHH!. Carl's shoulders dropped and he walked off the stage. The New Riders had gotten onstage and the drummer and bass player started a beat and when the rest of the band came in, everything went phhht! It calmed down. You still had this feeling that there was no authority or control over the situation, but it had calmed down enough that the concert could go on. And when the New Riders finished their set, the Dead came on and played for four hours."

The problem had evidently developed because someone had counterfeited concert tickets. The facility, designed to hold maybe three to four thousand, faced a crowd of close to eight thousand. When the crowd became aware, it was every person for him- or herself. In the melee, the tall floor-to-ceiling windows in the entrance shattered and the crowd stampeded.

"Our roadie, Mike Jenkins, was trapped under the stage for over half an hour," said Lowry. "It's hard to describe what the situation really was. You've been to big concerts and you know how without proper security, they can turn into their own beast and create this whole different environment? That was it."

After the concert, Lowry had a chance to survey the damage. The glass windows which encased most of the front of the building were gone. There was glass everywhere, the crews frantically trying to clean it up before more people were injured. It was a mess.

Carl Pennington had to go to court to defend himself against at least three groups who sued and they stopped allowing rock concerts at LCC for a long time, but that didn't bum Lowry out.

"The thing that impressed me most about it was that even though the whole situation was out of control, it didn't really matter because, in the end, music made it fine."

One might say that the night of January 22, 1971 was indeed the night of the living (and Grateful) Dead.

(Frank Gutch Jr. writes and has written for numerous magazines and websites, presently including this blog, his own website and the prestigious Don't Believe A Word I Say site put together by musician and music pundit Bob Segarini, out of Toronto. He specializes in the Indies, having fought hand-to-hand combat with major record labels for decades (talk about zombies). He believes music should be the core of the music business, though business it mostly be, and denies the accepted reality in the stead of the artistic one. Seldom does he receive pay for articles and/or reviews and believes that there is no place for negatives in a world in which one cannot keep up with the positives. He is, in a sense, a lost soul in a sea of music, drowning, but drowning gratefully.)

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