“Tales from Winterland” 12/31/72

Today’s broadcast of Tales from the Golden Road on Sirius was all about Winterland, the Dead’s home back in SF for most of the ’70s. I received this story online, and since I wasn’t able to get the author, Dwight Holmes, on the air in time, I got his permission to post it here.

Winterland 12/31/72
by Dwight Holmes

You may not believe this but by the time 12/31/72 rolled around i was getting pretty down on the boys… as far as i was concerned it had been downhill from when Mickey left, and the first time i’d heard Godchaux i about puked (Chicago 10/21/71)… they did Dark Star & St Stephen in that show (neither of which i had seen done before but it sucked absolutely & it just didn’t seem to me that they were enjoying it. (Context: my Deadhead friends — which was pretty redundant at that time — and i were pretty agreed that ‘Skullfuck’ album was a downer — good songs, but bad renditions & odd selections (Couldn’t they tell good nights from bad ones anymore?), e.g. compared w/ 7/2/71 which was on a widely-distributed bootleg LP and was hot and it was becoming increasingly clear that ’69 – ’70 would never happen again)…

Anyway, i had caught them at Berkeley 8/22/72 and enjoyed myself, it seemed like they were getting a new style together, working Keith in a bit and even jamming respectably despite having only 1 drummer … found myself on the west coast again at holiday time & got tickets for the New Year’s show. All in all, however, I was thinkin that I was not gonna be interested in following the Dead too much longer; it just wasn’t fun anymore…

Winterland was packed–we were about in the middle of the floor as I recall… as things were gettin close to starting time these two guys are workin their way thru the crowd and crouch down right in front of us… they open a velour-lined briefcase — more like a large jewelery box — full of little white pills (mind you its hard to distinguish colors in that day-glo environment); One of ’em says: “Acid, courtesy of the Grateful Dead.” It was 8 months since my last trip, and over a year since I had wanted to quit–it was tempting, but, no, not tonight, I said to myself… Someone next to us took one, and my companion Kirk put one in his pocket — “Why turn down a free hit?” he said to me…

Bill Graham comes out and gets everyone to count down 10, 9 … 1, and the band breaks into “Around & ’round”… I was turned off from the start, as this song epitomized for me the metamorphisis of Bob Weir into a (pseudo-) rock star egotist (Johnny B Goode usually made me cringe as well)… “Deal” got me dancin–one of my favorite Jerry tunes & he was startin’ to rock & roll on that one… when Phil got up and sang “box of rain” the crowd lost it — he really sang it pretty nice — and Donna chimed in w/some fine harmonies to boot. “Jack Straw” really rocked — I always thought it was one of the best post-Keith numbers & so I was gettin’ off on this one. Then they blew me away, bringin’ out “Don’t Ease Me In.” I knew this from the ’70 acoustic sets–but this was rock & roll! At the end of the solo — which really rocked — Jer’ danced from way back by the speakers all the way to the mike just in time to sing “the girl i love! she’s sweet & true.” I just cracked up laughin’ — if Jerry’s havin’ a good time who am I to sulk over times gone by & paradise lost?!?

“Playin’ in the Band” started out as, well just another song — but the jam developed into a really cerebral thing (“So this is what happened to the Dark Star energy,” I was thinkin’ to myself) and then at an up-tempo place they dropped this silver ball from the ceiling — I forget what they called those glinty things! — and start it spinning ’round while they shine the spotlight on it: a new twist on the light show idea; people went wild. I thought it a little cheap, but I was diggin’ the music so just closed my eyes and grooved on it…

The second set built up with some nice renditions of “Mississippi Half-step”, “Big River”, and “Sugaree.” but — despite the nice Playin’ jam — I found myself pining for “the ol’ days” of psychedelic cosmos-pointing Dark Star highs & Lovelight rhythms (Pig Pen didn’t make this show & this too indicated to me that things just couldn’t ever be the same — no Pig means no Alligator, no Lovelights, no Hard to Handle, no Good Lovin’ — no blues, no rappin’.)

They come out w/”Truckin'”, and people are dancing again… they move on into a jam, get lost in space, and suddenly the boys are all around Billy-the-Drummer and they’re gettin’ down!! Lesh is on the bottom, Jerry’s sailin’ high above, Bobby’s fillin’ in the void betwixt & between and Keith is just everywhere — first they paint wild, abstract textures and then, the unexpected, unanticipated, thought-it-couldn’t-happen-again hard drivin’ jammin’, following Kreutzman’s beat they recreate something out of nothing — Void becomes Chaos, and then becomes Order: my friend Kirk — reacting at the same time as me, as the whole Winterland crowd — utters out “Oh, shiiiiit.” It’s pure, visceral, timeless, awe & wonder. Like Bill Graham says, “the Grateful Dead are not the best at what they do — they are the *only* ones who do what they do.” In two or three minutes of that Truckin’ jam, all my hypotheses are proven false: They *can* still maintain intensity through a jam; Keith *can* support the momentum without pulling it down in the space-quagmire, and, yes, the boys *can* get it on with just one drummer. I’d gotten *more* than my ($4.50, as i remember) money’s worth.

P.S. Morning Dew was icing on that cake… after that i was ready to go home — i could do without the Johnny B Goode encore, and Uncle John’s Band (one of my favorite songs) seemed trite, forced & formulaic. So be it — that image of Jer’, Bobby & Phil gathered tight in a semicircle around Billy K. and just smokin’ from Truckin’ all the way into “That’s it for the Other One” will forever be etched in my mind as one lasting image of the Good Ol’ Grateful Dead.

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3 Responses to ““Tales from Winterland” 12/31/72”

  1. Don Schneier says:

    Dwight offers an historical observation that seems to have been rarely appreciated: the transition of the Grateful Dead from 1970 to 1972 was an incredible shock to the system. Ferocity and a sublime seamlessness got irrevocably lost, and regardless of the new heights that eventually got scaled over the next three years, even with the Wall of Sound, the live sonic intensity was never as great. Even with the core quartet a constant, the band underwent a stunning personality makeover in this period

  2. Dan says:

    I’d like to second the above. I thought the same thing as I read this stunning and lucid recollection from 12/31/72.
    The roughly ’70-’72 span was tumultuous to say the least for this band, and with no cable, internet, digital technology, etc, back then it was hard for even rabid fans to stay abreast of things. Recordings reveal Phil for example still introducing Keith to audiences as late as July of ’72 if not later.
    So for a fan turning up to find no Pigpen, two new members in the Godchuax’s, one drummer only, and a pretty different set list on 12/31/72….this had to be disconcerting to some.
    However- and it’s a big however -while the flavor of this lineup is distinctly different from the funky Pigpen hog-stomp ensemble of ’69-’70, the music on this night is astonishing. This second set jam is some of the most raucous, vibrant Grateful Dead music I am aware of. The musical picture painted on this night is one of sheer joy.

  3. Mike says:

    Whoa Nelly there Dwight. Off the top of your head you remember the play list from 30 years ago? Really? Quite remarkable my good man. I suspect, however, that you slinked over to the corner with your bootleg cassette and edited your critique. As fact would have it, I too was at this gig along with 2 buddies on our way back to Redondo Beach from skiing at Heavenly. After reading your piece I gave each a call and niether they nor I can remember anything about the band distributing acid to the crowd. A fact that even if we had missed out on the opportunity the word of such an event would have spread thru the venue like a wild fire. Not to mention that it had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the performance. I asked both of them if they could recall the play list and each suggested that I was out of my mind. As I recall the music was top notched top to bottom. But of coarse I didn ‘t brain fornicate it prior to walking in the door. In conclusion, without some sort of disclaimer regarding your recollection of the evening I’m inclined to call B/S. But what the hey, congrats on the remedial writing skills.

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