The Golden Road (To Tompkins Square Park): The Grateful Dead’s First Show in New York

Few bands have a relationship with the state of New York like the Grateful Dead. Performing over 300 shows throughout the Empire State in a span of 28 years, the Grateful Dead made their mark starting with their first New York performance in Tompkins Square Park on June 1, 1967

In some ways, the Grateful Dead’s maiden trip to the East Coast via New York City mirrors the ongoing circumstances we see there and across the country today.  The year was 1967, right in the heart of the Civil Rights Era.  And, locally, tribal tensions were beginning to boil over as well, stirred by the wrestling of control over the communal jukebox that had become Tompkins Square Park, a public space in the Alphabet City section of the East Village.

Tompkins Square Park 6/1/67

This being the “Summer of Love,” San Francisco was not the only place towards which hippies were flocking. Those that had descended upon Manhattan’s Lower East Side grew fond of playing their congas and bongos at the park.  Puerto Ricans, the neighborhood majority, wanted their music to be prevalent and the Black community also fought for control of the musical output. Over the last few weekends, fighting at the park had become rampant.

Most recently, 38 people were arrested at Tompkins Square Park on Memorial Day after being confronted by police for sitting on the grass where they were playing music, both park violations. Per a Village Voice article from June 8, 1967, “A couple of cops went over to the park and told the hippies to shut up and get off the grass. The kids laughed, and kept singing. The cops ordered them to leave. ‘They laughed at us,’ patrolman John Rodd explained. ‘That’s when the trouble began.’” 

Throw in all the other issues that the summer of 1967 undoubtedly brought and it becomes clear that local police were in danger of losing their city, as far as popular opinion went, and needed to rethink their tactics.  Maybe it was someone on the force who somehow had an early copy of the Grateful Dead’s eponymous first album, released just months earlier. Or maybe it was “Cream Puff War,” the album’s second single that was slowly beginning to garner some radio airplay, that had somehow made it to a patrolman’s ear. Whatever the root cause may have been, the Grateful Dead were about to be met with an interesting quid pro quo from the city in the effort of keeping the peace.

Grateful Dead playing Golden Gate Park, just a few months prior to their first East Coast trip

Although the band was still in its nascent stage, they were definitely on the local radar. This was made evident when they were greeted by two separate welcoming committees upon their arrival to the Big Apple, each with a distinct agenda.  According to Rock Scully, one of the band’s early managers, they had drama as soon as they arrived at their hotel. According to his book, Living with the Dead: Twenty Years on the Bus with Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Scully and the band were greeted upon their arrival with one of the oldest tricks in the book.

“I put the briefcase down on the front desk right next to me  – it had all of our expense money in it – and the next thing I know somebody comes up and asks a question. I turn around and when I turn back, bang! the money’s gone. ” ~ Rock Scully

After returning to the hotel later that day, the band is greeted by the NYPD and Thomas Hoving, head of the Parks Department. Unsurprisingly, this was not a follow up for details to the heist from earlier in the day but, rather, a business proposal that would seem to benefit both sides. The Dead is presented with an offer to do the city “an honor” by playing an additional show at the bandshell in Central Park. As it stood, their only planned shows were a series of gigs slated to go down at the Village’s Cafe Au Go Go.

Who would say no to an extra show at such an esteemed locale in the most populated city in America?  Surely, there had to be a catch.  Well, there was.  Now that the band had been buttered up, so to speak, the police then politely asked if they could give them “a hand with this little problem we’ve been having in Tompkins Square Park.”

The Grateful Dead may not have been a worldwide attraction yet, but they were known as a band that had no problems playing outdoors, and to great numbers at that. Word of the “Human Be-In,” a large outdoor show at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January which the Dead were prominently involved in, had clearly reached New York City. A band with mass appeal that played outside and catered to hippies would be just what the doctor ordered. Although, understandably, the band had their concerns about jumping into the local fray. 

“We can’t even hang on to our per diems and they want us to sort out a gang war in Alphabet City? They must be desperate.” 

Rock Scully, Living with the Dead: Twenty Years on the Bus with Garcia and The Grateful Dead

It became clear to the band that the caveat for being allowed to play Central Park was their assistance in this local matter. After some initial reluctance, they were nudged to accept after lead guitarist Jerry Garcia spoke up, seeing it as a chance for outsiders like them to bring another community together via music. In the name of harmony, the Dead encouraged all local bands and musicians to attend and share the stage with them.

So on June 1, the day after the Memorial Day skirmish, the Grateful Dead went down to Greenwich Village where they were given the royal treatment, hailed as foreign troubadours here to deliver peace.  Per a Village Voice article from the following week, “A happy, scruffy parade of 80 marched down St. Mark’s Place, complete with police escort, to present the Dead with a white carnation key to the East Village, graciously accepted by Pigpen. And the Tompkins Square bandshell rocked with San Francisco glory until a noise complaint was lodged in the late afternoon.”

But true to the band’s initial vision, they were only a part of the festivities that drew some 3,000 people to the park over the course of the day.  They played from 2 – 5 p.m. and delivered their signature sound of amplified rhythm and blues meshed with psychedelic rock that was being consumed by an East Coast audience for the very first time. A Newsday review claimed the music could be “heard for blocks in every direction.”

Tompkins Square Park video footage from 6/1/67 (no audio first two minutes)

Throughout the course of the day, music of all kinds filled the air in what had to be one of the largest, free musical gatherings in New York to date. The gathering, dubbed a “real-in,” was a successful mass protest of sorts, in response to the events from Memorial Day, signaling to the local authorities that the local community was capable of policing itself.

It was certainly highlighted by the Dead’s first East Coast gig, but they willingly shared the stage with The Fugs, a much more well known local act, as well as local Puerto Rican and Black musicians who had also assembled – a true “pop-up” festival with some San Francisco flair.  The Grateful Dead’s collective mindset, especially Garcia’s, is perhaps best summed up by Scully and his take on the day’s proceedings. “ Then other musicians come up with their congas and marimbas and bongos and cowbells, and they see this isn’t a turf thing at all. Music is music as far as the Dead go. African music or Puerto Rican salsa, it don’t make no difference to Garcia.”

And so, the band’s long, strange relationship with the State of New York had begun – dropped into the middle of civil unrest in return for an unexpected show at Central Park.  Both those shows and the following string of dates at Cafe Au Go Go went off without a hitch and the Dead had officially stamped New York City as its first East Coast mainstay. They would return many times and wind up playing shows in almost every region of the state – which we look forward to writing about and covering here in New York State Music’s “Golden Road” series.

Setlist: June 1, 1967, Tompkins Square Park – Manhattan, NY (setlist is incomplete and approximate)

The Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion), Dancin’ in the Streets, In the Midnight Hour, Beat it on Down the Line, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, Cold Rain and Snow, Morning Dew, Viola Lee Blues

Bonus footage from the band’s performance at the “Human Be-In” in Golden Gate Park 1/14/67

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