The Grateful Dead's Greatest Year

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On May 8th, fans crammed into Cornell University's Barton Hall, a field house, were a little too pumped that the Dead were in town. "All right, now," a newly bearded Weir told them about halfway through the show. "We're gonna play everybody's favorite fun game: 'Move back.' Now, when I tell you to take a step back, everybody take a step back." Weir had to say it a few times, and bit by bit, the nearly 5,000 fans moved toward the rear of the venue to alleviate the crush at the front of the stage.

For the Dead, Barton Hall was just another stop, and a fairly out-of-the-way one. The only thing Donna Jean Godchaux remembers about it is how cold it was. "A college gig in New York, and it's snowing, and you just play the gig," she says. Hart's future wife, Caryl, attended Cornell at the time but opted to see "Barry Manilow or something" with a boyfriend that night. Just about every Deadhead, though, remembers Barton Hall, whether they attended or not. The show regularly tops fan polls of best Dead performances, and last year a tape of the show was included in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry. Ironically, the Barton Hall performance has never been officially released, since the master tape is now in the hands of an unknown collector. In the mid-Eighties, recording engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson – who recorded all the shows on the '77 tour – lost possession of the tapes after they were auctioned off (without her consent) from the storage facility where she was keeping them.

For fans and even band members, debate rages about whether or not the show matches the legend. "That was a really good performance," says Hart. "Was it the best? That's not for me to say, really." Listening to one of the many audience tapes available, there's no denying its highlights: a rare performance of Bonnie Dobson's apocalyptic nightmare "Morning Dew," which the Dead transformed into a huge, cathartic soundscape; fans also heard a new combination introduced onstage in February: "Scarlet Begonias" segueing into "Fire on the Mountain," which didn't make the cut on Terrapin Station but would end up on the Dead's following album, Shakedown Street.

What few debate is how sparkling the Dead sounded that night, and throughout that tour. At the University of Alabama, they played a slow, mournful "High Time" and added dramatic flourishes to Weir's "Looks Like Rain." A beautifully burnished "Wharf Rat" in Hartford, Connecticut, showed how they'd matured as a band without losing their shambolic charm. During a particularly strong "Sugaree" in St. Paul, Minnesota, Garcia discharged a wild flurry of notes that dispelled any sense that the Dead were mellow old hippies – one of many demonstrations that all the studio hours they'd logged with Olsen had paid off. "We're still as confused as we ever were," Garcia told RS's Charles M. Young during the Palladium run. "But the old Dead trip was getting to be a burden, so we sacked it and went on to new projects. We're having fun again."

Members of the Dead's legendary road crew still enjoy reminiscing about the musical high points. The secret weapon was keyboardist Keith Godchaux, Donna Jean's husband, who'd joined the band in 1971. "When you hear the tapes now, you're totally blown away," says Bill "Kidd" Candelario, a member of the crew from 1968 to 1995. "He played so quietly, but you're astounded at what he was playing. He was magical."

Every so often, the Dead encountered a bump in the road. When they played Buffalo's War Memorial Auditorium the night after Cornell, the two young local concert promoters – Bob and Harvey Weinstein, later renowned movie producers – offered receipts that seemed "a bit cockeyed," says tour coordinator John Scher. "I've kidded Harvey about it." But more often than not, the Dead machine rolled along as smoothly as it ever would. When they arrived at the University of Alabama, marking their first-ever visit to a state not known for being friendly to longhairs, the school's football team helped the Dead crew set up. "If you want to pick a year where everything was working well, that year stands out," says Parish. "We realized there were losses we had overcome, but we were still tight and had each other and were close. Everyone was healthy and partying full blast, every day."

In the predawn hours of June 20th, while the band was back home in Marin County during a break, Hart left a local club show and lost control of his car. He crashed through a guardrail, and only a tree on the side of the road prevented the car from falling into a ravine. Hart emerged with a broken collarbone, smashed ribs and a broken arm. "I opened my eyes [in the hospital] and Jerry was there: 'You look like shit!'" he says.

Hart recuperated, thanks to almost two months of rehab, but the incident was a sign that there were more troubles ahead. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, Lesh began relying increasingly on alcohol for what he called "the slightly numb, detached feeling"; by the fall, he'd put on 30 pounds thanks to the beers he would start downing for breakfast. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann's second marriage was falling apart, and Weir had, the year before, parted ways with his longtime love, Frankie Weir (they weren't married, but she took his last name anyway).

Offstage, Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux were an increasingly volatile couple. Donna Jean was, in her words, "no angel," and was regularly using cocaine and drinking wine. She'd tried heroin once and hated it: "I just threw up for 24 hours. So I couldn't plant my feet in that patch." But her husband became increasingly beholden to the drug; Olsen remembers him mostly sleeping on a couch during the Terrapin Station sessions. On the road that year, band and crew often heard the couple's screaming matches. "There was always backstage drama," says Candelario.

Garcia, the group's charismatic but unwilling leader, was besieged on numerous fronts. "It was an emotionally difficult time for him," says Richard Loren, then the Dead manager. "He was at wit's end pretty much." He went through a messy breakup with his girlfriend (and future wife), Deborah Koons, and had to deal with the fallout from Ron Rakow's expensive departure from the band. Since it was Garcia who had brought Rakow into the fold, the band penalized him for it, cutting his paycheck down to about $50 a week (from about five times that amount). Garcia was also beginning to feel the burden of being an iconic figure who was easy prey for anyone who needed a favor. "He was starting to hide," says Candelario. "He had guys hounding him to do free shows. They didn't come by to say, 'Hi, what's going on?' They came to tell him he needed to do a benefit concert or whatever. It was a hustle. He had all those kinds of things pounding on him."

As with Keith Godchaux, Garcia turned to opiates – in particular, a new, strong Persian style of heroin. At the time, Garcia hid his growing habit from his bandmates; Hart and Godchaux say they didn't realize until later that he was using. And given the quality of Garcia's playing and singing in 1977, there was no reason to suspect anything at that point. "I think it made him feel good," says Loren, "and when he felt good, he played good."

One bright spot cracked open that June, when The Grateful Dead Movie, filmed during the band's pre-hiatus shows in San Francisco in 1974, made its long-overdue premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre in Manhattan. "Jerry was really proud of that movie," says Loren. Of Garcia during that period, Hart recalls, "He was in a creative zone, and his health was OK. Yes, there was a lot of pressure. But that didn't interfere with Grateful Dead music. Music was the only way any of us could deal with pressure."

On Labor Day weekend, the Dead returned to the road in a big – almost risky – way. Scher booked the band into Raceway Park, a racetrack in Englishtown, New Jersey. The park normally held about 50,000; the band sold 102,000 tickets – up to that point its biggest nonfestival gig. Until then, everyone assumed the Dead's on-the-road success was a result of repeat business – the same fans buying tickets to more than one show. But Raceway Park proved that the Dead could pull in huge numbers for just one show. "It said, 'We're a big band,'" says Loren. "It put the Dead up there with anybody else who was performing: 'Yeah, the Allman Brothers are a big band, but they're not the Grateful Dead.' The industry stood up and said, 'Holy mackerel!'"

In the years that followed, the Dead's audience would only grow larger and more fervent – and the Dead's excesses would sometimes grow proportionally. The Godchauxs left the group in 1979 (Keith was killed in a car accident the following year). Garcia grappled with hard-drug use on and off between then and his death in 1995, and Lesh sobered up, but only after hitting rock bottom in the early Eighties. But in 1977, it seemed as if the music could hold everything at bay, at least for a while. "We kept getting reborn, and this was one of those birthing processes," says Hart of that flagship year. "We all played good when we got to that group-mind place. When the music played, everything made sense. When the music stopped, things started getting weird."

This story is from the July 4th–18th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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