All In The Family: Peter Conners
Author Peter Conners got on the bus in '85 and he's been writing about the Grateful Dead, jam bands, and counterculture ever since. He tackled the challenge of chronicling Ithaca, 5/8/77 in his new book Cornell '77 - The Music, The Myth, And The Magnificence of The Grateful Dead's Concert at Barton Hall. Find out more about that endeavor and a few of his other favorite shows in this edition of All In The Family.
Tell us a little bit about how you got your start as a writer.
It all started with music lyrics. I was the youngest of four children growing up in the 70s and there was always album rock playing. I absorbed the lyrics – they just soaked right into my brain – and I fell in love with the language play, imagery, the danger and mystery. When I was about 16, I started writing my own poems. At first I was just trying to imitate some of my favorite lyricists, but since I wasn’t a musician, I had to make the words do all the work. I was doing terribly in school, but I was constantly writing poems. I passed them around to my friends and they seemed to dig them. Interestingly, I still hadn’t started to read any poetry or literature outside the usual school assignments. Around the same time, I discovered the Grateful Dead. Hunter and Barlow’s lyrics (along with all the Dylan the band played) took my love of lyrics and merged it more thoroughly with evocative, poetic language. In digging deeper into Dead culture, I discovered the Beats, and then just kept reading deeper and deeper until I was devouring stacks of books. It sounds kind of silly to say that the Dead were my gateway to Surrealist playwrights and the French poètes maudit. But it’s also true. They opened me up to cultures beyond what I’d experienced in the suburbs of Rochester, NY.
You got on the bus in the '80s (and even wrote a book about it, Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead), how did the experience change you?
When I was 15, I got ahold of a bootleg of Hershey Park, 6/28/85. I played to it over and over, trying to figure out what the hell I was listening to. “Tom Thumb’s Blues” in particular was so strange and compelling… it pulled me in like a magnet. I bought AMERICAN BEAUTY and it was very different than Hershey Park, but when I heard the song “Ripple” I was blown away. It was the mix of poetry and music I’d been waiting to hear. I called up the friend who’d given me Hershey Park and literally yelled at him, “Why didn’t you tell me about ‘Ripple’?” But he didn’t know either! We were just kids. Within a year, I went to my first show – Kingswood Music Theater, 6/30/87. My life basically divides into pre-Kingswood and post-Kingswood. I went to the show in a beat-up old van with some other kids from my school. I was 16 years old. Tripping. I had summer school the next day. Dan Healy was injecting tons of echo into the vocals and they opened second set with a stellar "Scarlet>Fire,""Estimated>Eyes." By the time they slinked into “Fire” the sun was going down in a giant ball of flame at the top of the amphitheater, and for a few notes Phil’s bass boomed twice as loud as everything else. My mind left body. At that point, I was pretty sure the Dead were playing the sunset, molecules of air, the waves in the hair of the girl dancing next to me – all of it. It was all a part of the show. I was smitten. I saw them two days later at Silver Stadium (7/2/87) in my hometown of Rochester, NY. I was transported all over again. I dropped out of summer school in less than a week, but my real education had only begun. I finished 1987 with two shows on the New Years run at the Oakland Coliseum – 12/28/87 and 12/29/87 – then spent spring break seeing five shows in Hartford and Worcester in ‘88. There was an expansiveness to the experiences – the music, the people, the travel – that fed me and split my life wide open.
Your latest book, Cornell '77 - The Music, The Myth, And The Magnificence of The Grateful Dead's Concert at Barton Hall, is included in the limited-edition MAY 1977: GET SHOWN THE LIGHT boxed set. Walk us through the process of chronicling the show.
Initially, I found the prospect of writing an entire book about a single concert (no matter how good the show was) incredibly daunting. In fact, when Cornell University Press approached me about writing the book, I politely declined. But once I accepted the project as an artistic puzzle I got inspired by the challenge. How the hell do you write a whole book about a single show? I started to conduct interviews about the show while simultaneously focusing on 1977 as an era for the band and for American culture as a whole. I also knew immediately that tape trading was going to play a crucial role in telling the story. Those elements became the skeleton of the book, and then I built the meat of the tale around it. It turns out there were stories buried deep inside 5/8/77 that shined light on that particular show, but also illuminated what made the Grateful Dead and the Deadhead experience so unique.
What can readers expect to learn in the nearly 200 pages?
My goal was to give readers a 360-degree view of why 5/8/77 is a significant show. I wanted to tell as many stories as I could – whether that was the 20-year old Cornell student sneaking people in the door, or Betty Cantor-Jackson spinning the tapes that spun our ears – they are all part of the legacy of Barton Hall. You’ll hear road stories from fans who were at the show. You’ll hear stories about how the show was organized and executed by the students on the Cornell Concert Commission. You’ll hear what was going on with the band at that time. You’ll hear why the show was so widely known and traded within the Dead Head community. You’ll hear me geek out on each song that was played that night – how it was played, its history, its meanings, the response it got from the crowd, etc. It was also important to me to write a book that can do more than just preach to the converted. As a writer, I want to help people who don’t understand the Grateful Dead (or their Dead-obsessed spouse/cousin/neighbor/friend) better grasp the phenomena. I think the still-unfolding Grateful Dead legacy deserves that. I also think it’s an important part of American cultural history.
In your years of going to Dead shows, can you think of any other worthy contenders for “Greatest Dead Show Of All Time”?
The Grateful Dead are a band of moments. It’s one moment after another. Everything happening in the moment. One note, then another. It all makes up a continuum of music that I often envision has no beginning and no end. As the fella says, the music plays the band. I was first row at Greensboro Coliseum on 3/30/89. I was standing right in front of Jerry. If ever in my life, I have swooned – I swooned then. Jerry was looking straight into my eyes and singing "Row Jimmy." I was singing along with him. In all my time seeing the band, it was the only time I can say that Jerry saw me too. That moment, for me, was the greatest Dead show of all time. And then a miraculous thing happened. The band played “Blow Away” and Brent dynamited the room with that amazing energy he brought to the band – and, in that moment, it was the new greatest Dead show of all time. But to cut to the chase, the best consistent Dead I saw live was the East Coast spring 1990 tour. I did much of that tour, and they were just lighting it up night after night after night. Everything was clicking. My friends and I loved Brent, and he was really at the peak of his powers in 1990. His energy was infectious too. One of my favorite nostalgia trips is to watch videos of Jerry and Brent interacting during that era. They were right next to each other onstage, egging each other on, exchanging smiles and knowing glances – it was just big fun. The entire band seemed to be having a great time. It was coming through loud and clear in the music too. Much like the spring ’77 east coast tour, the consistency, the energy level, and the overall quality of the playing on that spring 1990 tour was exceptional. I’m forever grateful I got to experience those shows.
You've authored books on jam bands, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, dipped into poetry, fiction, and more. What's next?
I feel like with Cornell ’77 I cracked some sort of code for how to open up single events into book-length projects. I went from feeling daunted by the idea to feeling inspired by it. I don’t have another project started yet, but I’m considering turning my focus onto another singular event and seeing what turns up. Or, more likely, as with Cornell ’77, I’ll end up writing something I haven’t even conceived of yet. Meanwhile, I scrawl poems into a notebook in my pocket. I make notes and lose them. I read tons of books. I talk to people. I’m very interested in the power of bhakti music. I mull over ways to write about that. I’m also in close touch with a talented screenwriter who is working on adapting Growing Up Dead into a film, so I’m fascinated and engaged with that creative process. It’s all a part of the trip. Something will come up. Something always does.
PETER CONNERS’S GRATEFUL DEAD
First exposure to the Dead/first show:
First Bootleg: Hershey Park 6/28/85
First Show: Kingswood Music Theater 6/30/87
Favorite Dead Song/Songs:
Favorite Dead Era/Years:
1990 for shows I attended. 1973 for consistently surprising grab bag of Dead exceptionality.
Desert Island Dead:
Dicks Picks Vol. 4, 2/13-2/14/70. Two words: "Dark Star."
Being A Dead Head Means…
Being open to finding inspiration in the strangest of places…
Facebook: Peter Conners
Thank you kindly!
Many thanks for your close and careful reading!
My review of this book from Amazon, in case you want to see it.
The concert played by the Grateful Dead at Barton Hall at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, on May 8, 1977 is perhaps one of the most infamous shows, whether you love it or hate it. Is it the show itself? Was it the amazing pristine soundboard tapes made by the near-perfect ears of Betty Cantor-Jackson which were leaked out when it was difficult to get anything other than a third-generation audience recording? We may never know, but what we do know is that everyone has their opinion about this performance.
Since Mr. Conners has written this book, presumably to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the show, the tapes have been obtained by Grateful Dead, Inc., and are being released as a boxed set with the other early shows in May 1977. Destpite the price of the box at $139, it sold out in less than three days, so that should be an indicator of how important this run of shows is to the "deadicated" fan.
Although I have read many other books about the Grateful Dead, I did find much of the information in this book to be informative, insightful, and entertaining. One of the highlights for me were the song-by-song followthrough of the show, touching on a bit of the history of the song as well as notes about the performance on May 8 in particular. I learned a few new nuggets of information I hadn't before, and this section of the book makes an excellent read-along while you're listening to the show.
I also really enjoyed the section discussing Betty Cantor-Jackson, some of the processes she used, as well as some of the behind-the-scenes stuff, like the fact that she often purchased her own tapes, and how she performed the mixing "on the fly" to her own ear, disregarding the PA mix as too biased toward the performance hall.
There was also an excellent "further reading" section, which was more friendly than an annotated bibliography for those who wished to explore further, and I definitely found some resources to check out there.
If you are even a casual listener of the Grateful Dead, you've heard of May 8, 1977. Learn a bit more about this infamous show and why it matters forty years later. I recommend this book highly.
I loved your first book and can't wait to start reading this one when I get home (box set is waiting at my door). Keep up the good work!