The Grateful Dead Vs. Radio City Music Hall: Preview 'So Many Roads'

An excerpt from David Browne's new book breaking down Jerry Garcia and Co.'s career via epic days

David Browne's forthcoming book 'So Many Roads' breaks down the Grateful Dead's career by examining key moments in the band's history. Credit: Wenn

Call it a longer, even stranger trip. David Browne's So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead (Da Capo, out April 28th), takes a different tact when chronicling one of the rock's greatest and most enduring bands. Using new interviews with surviving members as well as Dead friends, colleagues, and family members, Browne, an RS contributing editor, centers each chapter around a significant or pivotal day or moment in the band's epic saga. In this exclusive excerpt, that moment is the band's 15th anniversary shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York — a run of concerts that confirmed not only the band's growing fan base but also the growing industry clout of the Dead itself.

Even the union workers agreed: part of the wall had to go. After all, the Dead had a slew of shows about to begin and their recording consoles had to be installed. If it meant a portion of a stairwell had to be removed—in a building that had just been given landmark status by the city of New York—so be it. On the occasion of the Dead's fifteenth anniversary, nothing and no one could stand in their way, not even Radio City Music Hall.

Just over a week before, the load-in had begun for the Dead's eight-night stand at the six-thousand-seat venue. On many levels the sight would have been unimaginable several years before. The venerable midtown building had opened its doors nearly fifty years before, in 1932, and by 1980 any tourist who came through the city seemed to be legally required to attend Radio City Music Hall's Christmas and Easter shows with the Rockettes or see one of the family-themed movies it hosted. But by the late seventies, with New York City in fiscal freefall, Radio City's future was suddenly shaky; movie attendance dropped, and plans to convert it into an office building or parking lot loomed.

Thankfully the interior of the building was granted landmark status in 1978, and its famed art-deco lobby and other interior design elements were refreshed for $5 million. During talks to save the building the idea of booking pop acts came up, and by the fall of 1980 Radio City Music Hall had presented one major pop star, Linda Ronstadt. Now it would host an entirely different kind of beast, the Grateful Dead, who were about to settle in for eight nights, October 22 to 31 (with the nights of October 24 and 28 off).

The band's clout became evident right away, when Deadheads converged upon Rockefeller Center, some camping out, and snapped up almost thirty-six thousand tickets. In an ambitious move that recalled the special screenings of The Grateful Dead Movie [1977], the last night, Halloween, would be broadcast live by a closed-circuit feed to fourteen movie theaters around the country; in addition, all the anniversary shows, both at Radio City and preceding ones at the Warfield in San Francisco, would be recorded for a live album or two. The entire undertaking felt like an event, especially when word trickled out that the band would be playing its first acoustic set in a decade.

To accommodate the recording the Dead needed two hefty Neve recording consoles, one rented and the other shipped out from their Front Street home base. Both had to be hauled up a flight of stairs to reach Plaza Sound, the studio that sat atop Radio City (and where punk bands like Blondie and the Ramones had recorded). The Dead's office had sent paperwork ahead of time to make sure the consoles would be able to make it into the building, but when the time came to install them, a problem arose: the consoles couldn't quite clear the stairwell. After some head-scratching, one of the union workers at the venue, with drummer Mickey Hart's urging, said, "Oh, fuck it—we've gotta get this thing up here." With that they grabbed a sledgehammer and took down a few inches of the stairwell wall.

Promoter John Scher, who'd been working with the Dead for several years by that point, had no idea the "renovation" was happening, and the thought of physical damage to the interior of a New York landmark rattled even Scher, who thought he'd seen it all with the Dead. "I remember them telling me after they'd already done it, after the fact," Scher says. "I was basically shitting in my pants until the shows were over." It wouldn't be the first time the Dead would encounter some pushback in their career, but this victory was significant. "I had no second thoughts about that," says Hart. "It was the thing to do. Nothing stops the Grateful Dead. Onward into the fog." They'd already made it to fifteen years despite adversity, busts, deaths, and fallow periods, and no one was about to let a bit of concrete stand in their way.

Tom Davis had an answer when someone at Radio City asked about the sketch with the LSD-dosed urine. "What are you guys afraid of, a little wee-wee?"

Before part of the wall in the Radio City stairwell came down, another issue had to be resolved about the live broadcast of the Halloween show: the matter of two forty-minute breaks. To fill up that time, and to the event producers (Scher and Dead manager Richard Loren) and director (Len Dell'Amico), the answer was obvious: skits featuring Davis and his Saturday Night Live partner, Al Franken.

As writers and performers, the tall, gawky Davis and the short, frizzy-haired Franken couldn't have been more ideal for the assignment at Radio City. They shared a dark, cynical sense of humor with the Dead (among the rightly revered SNL skits they'd written were Aykroyd's Julia Child–bloodbath bit and Bill Murray's "Nick the Lounge Singer"), and both were Deadheads: Davis in particular had been to many shows starting in the early seventies. Thanks to him, the Dead had appeared twice on SNL, first in 1978 and then 1980. To kill time between sets, what better than skits featuring both comics? "If it hadn't been for Franken and Davis," said manager Rock Scully of the plans for Radio City, "I doubt the Dead would have done it."

The anniversary shows would officially kick off with a long run of gigs at the Warfield. Backstage at the Warfield, before the first acoustic-set run-through at that venue, Dell'Amico witnessed band members wandering into Garcia's dressing room and expressing wariness about playing with- out electricity for the first time in so long. "It seemed like everybody was skeptical about the acoustic thing—they all thought it was crazy," says the director. "‘Why are we doing this?' But it's something Jerry wanted to do, and he was laughing."

Franken and Davis flew in from New York to tape segments in advance, letting the Warfield stand in for Radio City. The duo's knowledge of the Dead and its music as well as the musicians' willingness to goof on themselves couldn't have made a better match. "Jerry's Kids" lampooned Jerry Lewis's muscular dystrophy telethons but with acid casualties; a pretend dressing-room visit by Franken and Davis allowed Bob Weir to mock his fondness for his hair and blow dryers. Holding a microphone, Davis walked into the men's room at the Warfield to see whether people were "doing drugs," barged into a stall, and found one stoner, played by a Dead employee, throwing up (barley soup substituted for actual vomit). Other skits were rampant with drug and penis jokes, and Jerry Garcia mocked his own physical deformity by holding a box that contained his finger. "They made fun of themselves whenever that opportunity came up," says Dell'Amico of the process of sketch writing for the show. "They'd say, ‘Go for that.'"

The skits pretaped at the Warfield were uniformly riotous, but someone at the Rockefeller Corporation, which owned Radio City Music Hall, wasn't so taken. One Dead staffer found herself frantically retyping scripts at the last minute with minor but telling changes. On the grand Radio City stage one day Dell'Amico and Franken were deep into rehearsal for a skit in which Franken, in thousands of dollars worth of makeup, would be impersonating former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. With drummer Bill Kreutzmann joining in, Davis would "bust" the faux "Kissinger" for secretly taping the shows.

While they were practicing, "a phalanx of four men in black suits and carrying briefcases" watched by the side, according to Dell'Amico. The director was told to stop filming because the men—Radio City lawyers who supposedly represented the Rockefeller family—wanted to shut down the skit. As it turned out, Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller were old friends. "I said, ‘They can fuck off,'" Dell'Amico says. "And that was that. I think they looked at the paperwork and said, ‘They're right, they're renting this room.' If you're working for the Dead, you've got muscle because of the money coming in the door." As Dell'Amico predicted, the skit aired in its entirety.

There would be more wee-wee to come. During the Radio City run, one of the Dead offspring was summoned into either a hotel room or backstage space. The almost-teenager thought something was wrong but was instead asked to urinate into some small plastic tips. From what the kid was told, the band had to take some type of drug test to satisfy the insurance requirements of the closed-circuit broadcast of the Halloween show. "God knows what they thought they were going to find, but someone thought it would be a good idea if I did the urine test," says the now-grownup. "I peed into the cups and thought, ‘They're never going to believe this is us.'"

By the first night at Radio City, October 22, the nerves of the theater's owners were frayed. Deadheads had lined up around the block to buy tickets, preventing some Rockefeller Center employees from getting into the buildings. "The fans surrounded the place and took over," says Dell'Amico, who was observing from the sidelines. "They're doing drugs on the street. Management was freaking out."

The Rockefeller Corporation decided to retaliate. By way of Loren and Scher, they ordered the band to stop selling a commemorative poster for the event. The move took everyone aback: no one had thought the artwork would be a problem. Dennis Larkins, Bill Graham's stage designer and art director, had been assigned the task of illustrating a poster for the run of shows at the Warfield. He and Peter Barsotti, one of Graham's right-hand men, settled on featuring the iconic Dead male-and-female skeletons. The poster, which showed the skeletons leaning up against an illustration of the Warfield, was so well received by the Dead that Larkins was told to design a similar one for the Radio City run. From one skeleton wearing an Uncle Sam top hat to the use of the skull-and-lightning "Steal Your Face" logo on the building, the poster was clever and witty, and the Dead signed off on it with no hesitation. "The figures weren't intended to be threatening, more like benevolent guardians," says Larkins. "They weren't intended to imply the death of anything. It was Dead iconography."

According to Rockefeller executives, though, no one had cleared the illustration with them, and the corporation, possibly also irked by the Dead's wrangling over production costs, struck back. Interpreting the skeletons as a death wish for the hall and claiming the facade was a copyrighted logo, the corporation insisted the poster "suggests the Music Hall's impending death and is unpatriotic." The Dead were stunned. "Here we are, saving Radio City Music Hall from its demise," says Loren, "and they're suing us for doing it." (Strangely, the slight damage inflicted on the interior stairwell wasn't brought up, probably since the Dead had warned the Hall owners about the specifications of the recording console.)

After initially demanding the entire run of shows be canceled outright, Radio City allowed the Dead to simply stop the sale of the posters at the venue and have the entire print run destroyed.

In the end the acoustic segment, only eight songs long, was charming and lovely; the arrangements lent "It Must Have Been the Roses" (a bittersweet ballad that had first appeared on Garcia's 1976 solo album) and "Ripple" an autumnal feel not heard in previous performances of those songs. "Cassidy" recaptured the strumming gallop of the version on Weir's Ace. The plugged-in portion of the night started with "Jack Straw" and wound up with a mesmerizing electric version of "Uncle John's Band"; Brent Mydland's vocal contributions, the way he returned the band to its three-male-voice harmonies of the Workingman's Dead era, were particularly evident on those two songs.

In one live skit Davis pretended to drink the notorious acid-dosed urine backstage, and afterward he was seen wandering around onstage, even trying to climb the scaffolding, as Franken warned him, with an increasingly concerned tone, to be careful. Later Davis told Dell'Amico he actually had taken acid and was stumbling around onstage with good reason, but it's doubtful anyone informed Radio City executives of that either.

In fact, it's almost certain no one did. Once the shows were over the legal wrangling began. Radio City and the Dead haggled over who would pay the leftover production costs. Eventually Radio City filed a $1.2 million lawsuit against the Dead, largely on the grounds that its reputation had been damaged by Franken and Davis's sketches during the Halloween video broad- cast. "Despite the Music Hall's strenuous and repeated objections, the band's representatives refused to remove small portions of the tape that were potentially damaging to the Music Hall's image and reputation and in violation of the standards mandated by the contract," read Radio City's filing. "Those objectionable portions either suggested that illicit drugs were being used in the Music Hall or were obscene, in bad taste or against good morals. For example, one segment, actually filmed in a San Francisco theater, reported to show men vomiting in a Music Hall restroom while another, also filmed in advance and without any reference to what was actually happening in the Music Hall, suggested that bad cocaine was being passed around the theater. . . . There is no doubt that the Music Hall was damaged by the simulcast." And yes, the skit in which "urine laced with LSD being consumed on stage" was also brought up. In its reply the Dead's legal team countered that "the Music Hall's lawsuit to enjoin use of the offensive videotaped segments and damaging poster were unnecessary because the dispute could have been resolved."

Ultimately the lawsuit was settled out of court, and everyone could claim one victory or another. Radio City Music Hall allowed the Dead to proceed with plans for a cable special of the show for Showtime, but thanks to the suit, the Dead wouldn't be allowed to use the now-outlawed poster or any Radio City logos on either Reckoning or Dead Set. One final disaster was averted Halloween night. In a truck outside Dell'Amico smelled a horrid, burning stench. He normally kept his cool under such circumstances, but on one of the previous nights at Radio City all the gear onstage had blown out the venue's huge brass electrical panel, never a good omen. Leaving the truck, Dell'Amico saw smoke on the street outside Radio City and briefly panicked. Luckily, the source turned out to be a tire fire in New Jersey so pungent it wafted over into Manhattan.

Although they came close on several levels, the Dead hadn't succeeded in destroying Radio City; if anything, they would make it acceptable for other major rock acts to play there over the next few decades.

Excerpted from So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead by David Browne. Available from Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.