May 8 will mark 40 years since the Grateful Dead descended upon Ithaca and performed a concert that would go down as the most talked about show in the band’s 30-year history.
Many people say it’s the greatest performance in the Dead’s storied history, and it’s easily the most documented show the band ever performed. In the new book, “Cornell ’77,” author Peter Conners dissects the famous and infamous concert at Barton Hall on the Cornell campus in a variety of ways, from culling excerpts of local media at the time, to finding and interviewing attendees of the show, to emailing with the living band members.
The history of the Grateful Dead has been documented endlessly in print form, with full band documentaries, autobiographies, fan accounts and everything in between. But Conners’ book is the first time a single show has been viewed on such an in-depth level, and with good reason: May 8. 1977, is the most downloaded Grateful Dead concert ever, and has been streamed live more times than any other.
Conners clearly spent his time in piecing together information for the book. He rounded up newspaper clippings from the time, both previewing and reviewing the show, located a few people who attended the concert and spoke on record, and even got some of the band members to give their input.
The first chunk of the book gives a history lesson of sorts into the Dead up until that time, including a great deal about the famed Wall of Sound, and more importantly a lot of insight about the near breakup, which turned into a hiatus, in 1974.
The most interesting parts are in the chapter titled “Cold Rain and Snow,” where Conners depicts a few fans’ experiences of the entire day, from traveling to the area, to getting in the show and how the fans viewed the music at the time. Fan Robert Wagner, who traveled from North Carolina to upstate New York, gives anecdotes about experiencing snow in the spring that catapult the reader back to 1977. This chapter easily is the book’s selling point.
Something that has been documented ad-nauseam is listener reviews of the show. Conners did not attend the show — he was a Deadhead in his youth, however — but did give some of the better breakdowns of the songs performed that night that I have ever read. At times, Conners’ comparisons were a bit odd: he compared “U.S. Blues'” line about skinning a goat to a cat, which left me wondering what he meant; later, he compared “quaaludes running through the bloodstream” to the jam in “Supplication,” and I was, admittedly, a bit lost. But in the end, Conners ended up giving readers a completely unique review of the show, breaking each song down, while providing a little history and context for each one.
While the premise of the book is initially intriguing, “Cornell ’77” does have its shortcomings. At times, the book appears to have not been edited very well, as it has a few glaring grammar problems.
But my main issue with it, is that Connors seems to have pulled most of his information from other sources, while seemingly being unable get much information directly from the four living members of the band. Drummer Mickey Hart pours his heart out, as always, but outside of Planet Drum, the rest of the band is nearly absent outside of Conners taking quotes from past interviews conducted by others. That makes the book not feel fully authentic.
If you’re a seasoned Deadhead, this book won’t provide you with much new information.
But if you’re new to the Grateful Dead, this is a book I highly recommend checking out, as your eyes will be opened to an era of the Dead many think is the unquestioned leader in the handful of iterations of a rock and roll band beloved by its followers.