For the last 25 years, all an aging Grateful Dead fan had to do to win the instant admiration of a Gen-X or Gen-Y counterpart was to utter these eight words: “I was there the night they closed Winterland.”
The Grateful Dead gave some 2,500 concerts across three decades — give or take a couple hundred — and New Year’s Eve 1978 at a decrepit old ice rink in San Francisco is revered as possibly the greatest of them all.
To those who were there for the last concert ever held at Winterland, a Hunter Thompson remembrance of the 1960s clearly applies to that night as well: It represented “the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
Now the rest of the world can learn what all the hoopla was about with the release this month of the two-disc DVD boxed set “The Closing of Winterland.”
“It was cathartic in a way. It was the end of a long run. Kind of the end of an era,” Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart says of that night.
It began as the curtain call for a fabled old hall that was to be torn down after years of playing host to all the top rock ’n’ roll acts of its era.
To send it out in style, flamboyant producer Bill Graham decided to hold an all-night New Year’s Eve party starring the Grateful Dead.
It would be recorded in 24-track stereo, state of the art for the time, and the local PBS television station, KQED, would tape the concert as well as broadcast it live as part of a pledge drive. Thus it would be preserved for posterity.
A crazy scene
The Grateful Dead, who would come on at midnight after a series of opening acts that included the Blues Brothers, would do the rest, playing past dawn and bringing along friends such as the Hells Angels and Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters to liven up the evening.
“That was madness,” Hart recalls of inviting Kesey, who brought with him a “Thunder Machine” to supplement the band’s drum segment.
“He detonated an explosion, and he had gotten our permission to do it but of course he never tried it out. It was something like 10 times louder and bigger than it was supposed to be and it shook the whole stage. He was lucky it didn’t blow the building apart.”
The band played that night with as much energy, passion and precision as anyone had ever seen. Hart credits more than one circumstance for that.
“Were we high? Well, that’s what we did in those days,” the drummer, now a teetotaler and fitness fanatic, says sheepishly. “Yeah, I think we all had taken some psychoactive ingredients that night.”
Whatever provided the energy burst, the band seemed to play on forever, literally to the point of exhaustion. Nearly seven hours after the musicians had taken the stage, Graham walked out to tell the audience they were too tired to manage another encore. When no one would leave, he persuaded them to do one more.
“We made him stand on his head,” Hart remembers, laughing heartily. “He said, ‘They’re going to tear the place apart.’ He was almost in tears. We finally said, ‘OK, Bill, stand on your head and maybe we’ll do it.”’
With festival seating, Winterland could only hold about 5,000 people, but there may have been twice that many there that night, and probably on many other nights.
“Bill had a way of getting around the fire marshals,” Hart says. “He would take the tickets and, instead of ripping them in two, he would carry them back to the box office and sell them again.”
That was why the producer could always find something for the lucky few who arrived at sold-out shows without tickets but with convincing sob stories.
“Yep,” Hart says, laughing again. “He was cheating us. ... But I still love him like a brother.”
Graham is gone now, killed in a helicopter crash in 1991. Kesey died of cancer two years ago, and the Grateful Dead’s legendary leader, Jerry Garcia, succumbed to a heart attack in 1995, prompting the group, after much soul-searching, to reform as The Dead.
But a quarter-century later, much of that spirit of brotherhood, not to mention all the music that was generated there that night, remains very much alive on “The Closing of Winterland.”
John Rogers was among those lucky few to arrive at the closing of Winterland without a ticket and still get in.