Tales of Bessman: The first times I saw The Dead (and Siegel-Schwall)

Admittedly, it would have been more fitting to listen to Workingman’s Dead on Labor Day Weekend, but since I just acquired a copy of the recently released three-CD Grateful Dead: Dick’s Picks Vol. 18–Dane County Coliseum, Madison, WI 2/3/78 Uni-Dome, University of N. Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 2/5/78, and it’s a long weekend, I figured I’d give the whole thing a spin and see if it was as good as I remembered.

Yes, I was at the Madcity show. We at The Madcity Music Sheet—my first music writing gig—were big Deadheads.

Not sure how many times I’d seen them before—or after, for that matter, though I did see them many more times, most memorably with Dylan at Giants Stadium and at least once with Bruce Hornsby.

The first time was April 26, 1970, some 25 miles north of Madison at York Farm in Poynette, Wis., the last day of the three-day, post-Woodstock/Altamont Sound Storm rock festival. I remember the show being great, but that’s about it. What I can tell you about it now comes from various attendees’ online recollections and an excellent Lost Live Dead blog account I just discovered (along with great photos from the Wisconsin Historical Society website): They topped a bill of regional acts including Tongue, Crow, Illinois Speed Press, Rotary Connection and Baby Huey & the Babysitters, and played three sets (nearly six hours), including a 20-30 minute “Dancing in the Street,” with Jerry having shaved his beard, perhaps, an attendee surmised, because of the drug bust earlier that year in New Orleans later immortalized in “Truckin’.”

After the second Dead song (it’s one of those relatively few Dead shows where the set list doesn’t exist) the band sought an I Ching, “the grey book,” Bob Weir said after a different one was passed forward (according to one Jerry Klein in The SetList Program website). The band then knelt down together in the center of the stage, tossed coins, read results, and then arose “laughing and hollering” and launched into “Other One,” with Wavy Gravy sitting ecstatically on top of a bank of speakers on the far left.

I digress. The second Wisconsin rock festival came exactly two months later, in Iola Township, some 140 miles North of Madison and 80 miles West of Green Bay, on June 26-28. I was there for the whole thing—whatever that means—and now must rely on an excellent two-part blog account The People’s Fair—which the festival was called–and The Battle of Iola, which is what it became.

According to a Saturday report in Madison’s Capital Times referenced in the blog, the festival, at the beginning, resembled “one of those medieval fairs that preceded the urbanization of Europe and its subsequent Renaissance [with] bubbles [that] were very much in style and they floated through the frisbee-laced air.” Despite the lack of toilets and telephones and “an abundance of mosquitoes,” thousands had gathered together “to reaffirm their own culture far from the boarded-up windows of State Street”—this an allusion to the era’s antiwar protests-turned-riots that frequently left many shops on Madison’s main campus street with shattered glass.

But the “carnival atmosphere,” one correspondent noted, substituted LSD for cotton candy. I distinctly remember gobbling down acid, psilocybin, mescaline and speed and wandering around complaining that I couldn’t get off.

Friday’s schedule, it says, included Melanie, Paul Butterfield, Taj Mahal, and Buddy Rich. Of these I vividly remember seeing Butterfield, though I can’t remember if they were right before or after Siegel-Schwall. I think it was before, and I’m pretty sure both acts were on sometime between 1 and 5 a.m. Saturday morning. Butterfield was great, but Siegel-Schwall was lifechanging: To this day, I’ve never seen a better band. Corky Siegel remains one of my biggest influences and closest friends. I was with Jim Schwall two months ago back in Madison. Everything else about Iola may be a purple haze, but I remember Siegel-Schwall, whom I would see countless times after, like it was last night.

Looking at the blog, I see the Amboy Dukes—Ted Nugent’s early band—played Saturday along with Brownsville Sation, Crow and Buffy Sainte-Marie, and no, I wasn’t one of the group of guys near the stage who affectionately yelled in unison, “Buffy. We want to fuck you!”—nor did I remind her of it years later at a press dinner in New York. Local bands who played included The Tayles, Oz, Tongue, Fuse (featuring future Cheap Tricksters Rick Nielsen and Tom Peterson), Soup (Appleton rock trio led by late guitar legend Doug Yankus) and Short Stuff—the wonderful Milwauke blues-rock band starring the great harp player Jim Liban and keyboardist Junior Brantley that I also became close to.

I’d forgotten about Iggy and the Stooges, who played just before sunrise Sunday morning. I remember them now, but I can’t remember if I heard the gunfire.

The blog recounts rumors of “shakedowns, beatings and rapes by bikers in attendance.” Just before 7 a.m., people began throwing bottles at the bikers at their campsite at the bottom of a hill to the left of the stage. A few bikers mounted up and charged, guns blazing. Three people were wounded, none seriously. People in the crowd estimated between 40,000 and 60,000 started leaveing, though I stayed to see Chuck Berry and Ravi Shankar. But after Iola, “the brief era of mass, multi-day festivals in Wisconsin was over.”

But back to Dick’s Picks Vol. 18, specifically February 3, 1978. Pigpen had died in 1973, and now the band had Keith Godchaux on keyboards and wife Donna Jean Godchaux on vocals. Before I even took out CD1, I studied the box to see if they did any of my faves, and sure enough, from the first Dead album came “Cold Rain and Snow,” though it was slowed down from the LP version, with a pretty guitar solo, but not as intense. Also from The Grateful Dead was a good job on “New Minglewood Blues,” from the Cedar Falls show.

The Madison gig also yielded a great “Good Lovin’,” and “Looks Like Rain,” which flowed from the first disc’s opening “Bertha.” This disc also had a couple tracks from the band’s in-between show Feb. 4 at the Milwaukee Auditorium, including an excellent take of “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.”

The second disc was all Madison, with a fabulous “Estimated Prophet” blending into “Eyes of the World” (the extended groove clearly showing the band’s avowed Coltrane influence), then merging into “Playing In the Band,” “The Wheel,” and back to “Playing In the Band.”

From the Iowa show came another favorite, “Deal,” also a terrific “Scarlet Begonias,” which fused into “Fire On the Mountain.”

So was it as good as I remembered? I can’t remember. But it’s really good. And when I finally looked at the booklet, I saw it had pictures from Keith Wessel, whom I worked with at The Madcity Music Sheet, and a review by the late Michael St. John, whom I also worked with at The Sheet as well as The Emerald City Chronicle.

So Dick’s Picks Vol. 18 essentially took me back to my beginnings as a writer. Onwards, now, to Siegel-Schwall ’70, which, by the way, is available thanks to my talking pal Tom Vickers into reissuing it and the entire Siegel-Schwall Vanguard catalog in a 2001 box set.

Here’s a fave track from Siegel-Schwall ’70: