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Deadicated: Cornell ‘77

Dean Budnick | June 09, 2017

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s performance at Cornell’s Barton Hall on May 8, 1977, Cornell University Press has issued a new book devoted to what has become the band’s bestknown show. The Press tapped Peter Conners (Growing Up Dead, JAMerica) to write Cornell ‘77. The ensuing work contextualizes the celebrated gig from a variety of perspectives, exploring the historical, social and musical backdrop to that evening. Here, Conners looks back on the experience of writing the book and the legacy of 5/8/77.

Prior to writing the book, what was your relationship with 5/8/77?

I was as familiar with it as anybody. It was a show I knew was good, but I can’t say I was any sort of 5/8/77 fanatic. It came up every once in a while, but I’m a guy who tends to do years. So I’ll geek out on ‘73, and do nothing but ‘73 shows for a while, or I’ll do ‘90, or my fixation might be a year in the late ‘60s. During the course of that, 5/8/77 eventually came up in the rotation, but it was never a show that I was obsessed with by any means.

So when Cornell University Press’ Michael McGandy contacted me and said, “The 40th anniversary is coming up, and we want a book about the show. Would you be interested in doing it?” I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. But I’m a real fan of Greil Marcus, and Lipstick Traces by Greil is one of my favorite books. I love the way he can take a smaller scene, or a smaller topic, and look at it from all these different angles—pull it apart and have these great digressions and then come back in. I’ve always been enamored with that style, and I thought this is an interesting chance to explore that style, to take this one show and look at all these different aspects of Dead life, culture around the Dead and also society—what was going on in the late ‘70s— and to put it all through the filter of this one show.

Looking back on the process, what most surprised you?

There’s a little anecdote about “Funiculi Funicula” in there. [Ed. Note: Conners writes that a Cornell student suggested the song to the band during soundcheck, when Jerry Garcia solicited requests.] When I first heard that, I wasn’t sure if it could be true. So I ran it past [Dead archivist] David Lemieux, and he said, “I don’t know the answer. I don’t know where it came from.” So, sure enough, I went into DeadBase, and they had also played it three times shortly after Cornell. Timing-wise, it made sense that it came out of that. I think the person who told the story isn’t versed enough in Grateful Dead stuff to know how “Funiculi Funicula” became this quirky little fan favorite. So that was a fun side story 

The quality of the recording that circulated for many years is top notch. How do you think that impacted its reception?

There’s no doubt that was part of the impact of 5/8/77 and why it became such an iconic show. Everybody I spoke to, like David Lemieux or Steve Silberman— who has spent a lot of time thinking about these shows, about eras, and about tapes and qualities—said that the quality of that tape turned their heads. It is a beautiful-sounding recording, which is why it became the secret handshake that people could have access to. So the recording quality was part of it—the power of Cornell— and, frankly, why we’re talking about it now.

You share the perspective of Betty Cantor-Jackson, who recorded the show, in your book.

That was a really fun and really poignant interview— talking to Betty about it and hearing, “This is how I set up my rig, this is how I recorded and this is why I got the sound that I did—this is what I was going for.” She has a great quote in there like, “Everybody wants to play in the band, so what I wanted to do was put you as close as possible to being on that stage—in between Jerry and Bob, or wherever you want to be.” When you look at it like that, you can almost hear the air that she let into that recording space that she’s allowing the listener to occupy. That was very intentional. Not only was it intentional, but it was also something that she honed over years of recording.

You also have Dennis McNally [the band’s longtime publicist and biographer] speaking out about the “Morning Dew” from that show. While the “Scarlet> Fire” is stellar, the “Dew” is really the standout moment.

It is an absolutely haunting, powerful, stellar version of “Morning Dew.” I was really curious to hear not only from his perspective as a writer and historian, but also as someone who spent so much time with Jerry. I asked him: “What would Jerry think of all this reverence for the show?” He had a fantastic answer that came back to “Morning Dew,” which was, basically, he would be a little bit embarrassed. He would see it was so popular that maybe that was a gimmick and it was something he’d have to immediately take out of his repertoire! [Laughs.] That’s such a wonderful and, no doubt, accurate portrayal of how Jerry would see it.

While many Deadheads are passionate advocates for 5/8/77, others will just as strongly champion the next night in Buffalo.

What I thought before I even wrote the book is if I could fuse the first set of 5/9 onto the second set of 5/8, that would be really phenomenal. There’s an interesting thing that came up: Steve Silberman was actually quoting another friend of his (and I say this in the introduction to the book), that the best way to look at 5/9 is as the third and fourth sets of 5/8. A different space and time, but it’s a big part of the same show. When you put it into that context, and if you listen to it, there’s a real continuity—and I think that kind of goes for that tour, that East Coast swing. It’s just stellar, and you can listen to one night after the other and be blown away. They were playing at such a high level, it’s a joy.