True-Life Rock Tales

    Summer Jam at Watkins Glen

    Issue 146

    For a variety of reasons, we left in the late evening of July 27th, 1973. The trip to Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway was about 265 miles. It was going to be a long drive and we planned to drive all night. One reason we left so late was that we thought traffic would be better at night. Also, my friend and business associate, Jim Kellem, had to go as part of his job. Jim worked for Creative Management Associates (CMA) and The Band was a client of the agency. Watkins Glen was remote to say the least, so CMA was happy when Jim volunteered to go and represent the agency at the event, Summer Jam at Watkins Glen.

    Jim (one of the “two Jims” at CMA) was driving a Honda 750cc four-cylinder. That motorcycle had recently been introduced by Honda and to our knowledge was the only four-cylinder motorcycle available at the time. It was a beauty, smooth and quiet. Following on a Yamaha 650 cc that had a strong resemblance to a Triumph (a British motorcycle) was our late dear friend Lanny Turner from New York’s Bedford Street in the West Village, and finally, me with my two-cylinder Honda 450cc.

    For the three of us the reality was, it was just an excuse to get on the open road with our bikes. Once we got on the New York State Thruway it was going to be three-lane interstate all the way, and it being nighttime, we expected to be cruising at a good speed. We were going about 70 miles per hour, a nice pace. Around 80 miles north of the city we were overtaken by four Harley Davidsons. The riders were friendly and waved at us. These guys rode Harleys, but they had no patches or outlaw memorabilia, so I deduced that they weren’t Hells Angels or any other outlaw biker club. They motioned for us to ride along, while punching their speed way up over 80 miles per hour. We happily throttled up and cruised along with our new friends.

    At the next service area, we all pulled over and got acquainted. These guys were from Danbury, Connecticut and were friendly. We filled up, got sodas and got to talking. I mentioned that I was concerned about getting a speeding ticket, and they looked at each other and smiled. They told me not to worry about that and I was, “OK, really? How is that?” One of the guys said, “look, we are just regular bikers and are taking it easy.” Hmm, I thought, what does that mean? They told us they weren’t interested in anything like smoking (pot), and did not care if we were or weren’t. “Well,” I answered, “we aren’t either,” and told them our plan was mainly for drinking beer.

    Then the guy said, “we are just going to the festival. We can go as fast as we want and we will not be getting any speeding tickets. We are Danbury, Connecticut police officers. When we flash our badges there will be no problems; professional courtesy.” “Oh, okay, no problem,” I said. They seemed relieved that we were cool with them. I understood that they wanted time off from being blue and in order to do that they had to go incognito.

    When we left the rest stop, we were cruising around 90 mph. That was close to the top end for my bike. I was almost but not quite redlining it. This was fun, the seven of us flying along through the night with no fear of getting a speeding ticket. It was a rare experience. The funny thing was, even though we were bulletproof we never saw any police or state troopers.

     

    The Grateful Dead, 1970.

    The Grateful Dead, 1970.

     

    By dawn of July 28th, 1973, we were close to the Watkins Glen racetrack. The roads were clogged but that’s not a problem for motorcycles. Our new friends had tickets, and we had all-access backstage passes. They had to go into one of the entrance gates, and we said goodbye and drove on to the backstage area. I had no idea what to expect. The area was huge and in fact the Summer Jam turned out to be the biggest outdoor festival in the history of rock festivals. Even bigger than Woodstock.

    The festival was bigger than planned. The feeling among some of the people and band members involved was if the crowd got to be 100,000 people that would be great.

     

    Summer Jam concert poster.

    Summer Jam concert poster.

     

    All the bands were staying 18 miles away in a small motel in Horseheads, New York. On the 27th they were supposed to do sound checks, but the roads were completely clogged. There were abandoned vehicles as far away as eight miles and the occupants had to walk the rest of the way.  It was an unbelievable sight, with all the deserted cars parked every which way.

    The band would not be driving to the concert ground. Helicopters were hired and as they drew close, the pilot was asked to circle the site. “We wanted to soak it in and it was absolutely stunning, exhilarating and exciting to see this incredible mass of human beings,” recalled Allman Brothers keyboardist Chuck Leavell. “It was an ocean of bodies. We were all just really buzzed by the whole scene and situation.”

    With our credentials we were able to drive our bikes right up to the side of the stage. It seemed like there were a thousand people in the backstage area. We put down our kick stands, parked our bikes near the stage and looked around for a beer. The grounds were already occupied as the doors…er, gates…had opened at noon the day before. There were at least a couple of hundred thousand people already there and more were piling in. At that point the gates and fences had been pulled down.

    Jim went to the dressing room area and checked in with the Band. He made a point of saying hello to Robbie Robertson and the rest of the group. While Jim was doing that, Lanny and I climbed up the stairs to the big stage. As we stood on the side of the stage, we looked out over the audience. There were a lot of them and the area already looked quite crowded. A beautiful scene. I have never seen anything like that before, or since.

    A sound check had been requested by Robbie Robertson but due to traffic delays it was pushed back to the next day. So, when it happened, he was surprised at the amount of people sitting in front of the stage. Sound checks aren’t usually open to the public; they are a start-and-stop situation. The band and the people doing the sound have to stop frequently in order to make adjustments. However, because of the large amount of people, the Band’s approach changed to playing complete songs as they and the crew made adjustments on the fly,. That became a forty-minute set.

    The Allman Brothers also did a sound check and it was just like a live performance. They had fun with it, and it ran for about two hours. Of course, the Grateful Dead’s sound check was last, as they were going to be going on first. I didn’t watch, but it was said to be two and a half hours (no surprise there) long. Quite a few of those present said the sound checks had some of the best music performed at Watkins Glen.

     

    “We got the short stick on who would open and who would close,” said Bob Weir, as quoted in an article written by Alan Paul, author of One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. Weir added, “As I recall, it was essentially determined by drawing cards out of a hat, because it was impossible to rank the bands. It would have been nice to have the lights, and we didn’t get them because we played in daylight. I do remember the jam at the end [of the concert] was pretty spectacularly wiggy.”

     

    The Allman Brothers Band, 1971.

    The Allman Brothers Band, 1971.

     

    At noon and on time Bill Graham introduced the Grateful Dead by exclaiming, “From Marin County to Watkins Glen, the Grateful Dead.” They launched into “Bertha” and played about four and a half hours, until about 4:30 pm. The three of us watched the Dead for close to an hour, and then wandered around the backstage area chatting and hanging out while picking up the occasional beers and hot dogs from different dressing room areas. The Dead were on their game, and remember, it was still early in the day.

    The Band had not played a gig together in a year. Nevertheless, they were on their game, even though they had had some strife due to personal issues regarding publishing rights to some of their songs, as well as substance abuse becoming more prominent. An interesting fact was that the decision to have The Band join the festival was because the promoters asked the Dead and Allmans which act they would most like to have on the bill with them. It is very unusual for acts to have that kind of say so, but the decision was unanimous.

    The Band came on at close to six in the afternoon and everyone went crazy. The sea of humanity seemed to go on forever. Everybody was having a good time and things were running smoothly. The folks in attendance had come from all over the country, though mostly from the New England area.

     

    The Band, 1969.

    The Band, 1969.

     

    Standing on the side of the gigantic, elevated stage structure was a good place for us to be. The viewing angle we had was great, but the sound, not so much, because we were off to the side and slightly behind the drummer and the main PA speakers. I found out later that the sound was much better out front. This was important, because many of the attendees never even got close to the stage, and I’ll have more to say about that later.

     

    The promoters, Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik, had hired Bill Graham to handle the staging and backstage area. Bill had a close relationship with both the Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers and the bands had pressed Finkel and Koplik to hire Bill Graham’s FM Productions to handle the details. Graham had constructed a welcoming backstage area, which Willie Perkins, the Allman Brothers’ road manager, recalls as “idyllic.” Palm trees were brought in, though I didn’t notice them. The bands each had their own trailers, and people were coming in and out of one another’s space, saying hellos, checking out each other’s digs and spontaneously having jams and hangout sessions.

    The sound system, a 50,000-watt monster, was provided by Bill Graham’s FM Productions. They also provided the lights and staging. Bill’s firm had hired a New Jersey electronics company, Eventide, and at Summer Jam, they introduced a new concept to mitigate the problem created by the slow speed of sound traveling in the air.

    To be continued.

    Header image courtesy of Eventide Audio/A Agnello.

    3 comments on “Summer Jam at Watkins Glen”

    1. This is the “concert” or “festival” during which I didn’t hear The Band, The Greatful Dead and the Allman Brothers. The weekend was a bad joke. My Dad thought it to be an orgy with topless women etc. The only ones with their tops off could have done us a favor and left them on. The realization of the truth when I broke the news to Dad was more memorable than the trip.

      The sound system was horrible and didn’t penetrate the crowd. The highlight of the weekend was that I found a nice pocketknife at the far end of the “concert area” near freshly installed chain link fence. I still have the knife and also the memory of not hearing the bands.

      One would have to have been high the whole weekend to think of it as anything but a prank played on folks dumb enough to buy a ticket and make the trip.

      1. martytoo must have been at a different event. I was there. You could hear the music from a quarter mile away, at least. Massive sound system, as noted by the article, with at least 3 enormous speaker towers (visible in the photo) out in the crowd. I remember being impressed with how good the sound was given the logistics. Folks learned lessons from Woodstock and worked hard to improve the sound, I heard. Amazing event- surely not as historic as Woodstock, which I missed, but momentous nonetheless. I remember setting up our tent in an empty field; when we came back a few hours later, the whole field was filled. Not sure we spent any time in that tent, though… Also remember that someone drove a massive military amphibious landing vehicle with about 30 folks hanging out on top… Was like a parade float. Strange times, indeed. Glad I was there.

    2. I grew up 10 miles from Bethel NY (in Monticello) where Woodstock was held but at age 14 I was only on the periphery, though I did manage to get within 2 miles of the concert site.
      So come 1973 and recently graduated from high school myself and 3 friends were eager to head out to Summer Jam. I recall we were all packing the car when my mother came out and said she heard on the radio that this was going to be just like Woodstock – we replied under our breaths “we hope so”.

      I recall vaguely that we encountered lots of traffic but were in good spirits and just soaked it all in.
      I thought the vibe wasn’t as much “peace, love and music” as Woodstock with a bit more wild behavior going on but generally it was a great time.
      We were fortunate to find some friends stage center maybe 500′ back. They were sitting near an impromptu garbage dump so we just moved the boxes around and made ourselves at home.
      Thanks for sharing, it was a special time in my life.

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