By Robert Santelli
The largest crowd that ever gathered for a rock festival did so at Watkins Glen,
New York, in July of 1973. Outdrawing the previous high at Woodstock almost two to one, more than 600,000 young people sardined themselves into Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway for a single-day festival known as the Summer Jam. Featured groups were the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and the Band. Many historians claimed that the Watkins Glen even was the largest gathering of people in the history of the United States. In essence, that meant that on July 28, one out of every 350 people living in America at the time was listening to the sounds of rock at the New York state racetrack. Considering that most of those who attended the even hailed from the Northeast, and that the average age of those present was approximately seventeen to twenty-four, close to one out of every three young people from Boston to New York was at the festival. And yet, aside from the stupendous attendance figures, the musical and social significance of the even was minimal compared to, say, Woodstock or even Altamont. Watkins Glen is more important for what it *wasn't*.
It was not a history-making event, in a strict musical sense. Unlike Woodstock, where the lineup consisted of close to thirty acts, Watkins Glen's billing was
comprised of only three supergroups. The Allman Brothers, the Band, and the Grateful Dead were established acts (the latter two were Woodstock veterans); all had been on the touring circuit and in the recording studios for at least three years. The groups' fans, perhaps the most dedicated around in 1973, had most likely seen them perform live at least once or twice prior to Watkins Glen. They had come to expect certain things from the musicians. In short, there was no overly excited rush to the stage generated by their mere presence at Watkins Glen. Each of the three groups at Watkins Glen played unusually long sets. The Grateful Dead performed for five hours, the Allman Brothers for four, and the Band for three, including a thirty-minute break due to a thunderstorm. Woodstock had had a continuous change of musical formats and styles. Each time a new act stepped out in front of the massive crowd, a revitalization occurred, creating a renewal of faith in the event and in the power of music. Energy was forced to flow.
At Watkins Glen a feeling of monotony and tedium constantly challenged the
viewers' interest in the music and the proceedings onstage. Long, winding solos were frequent. The heat, the lack of comfort, and the crowded conditions dulled otherwise stirring moments. Many of the 600,000 could barely see the stage, let alone the musicians. And most important, festivalgoers had only one day to soak up the rock-festival aura. Many in attendance were often too busy doing and seeing other things to bother to listen seriously to the music for extended periods of time. Woodstock also had had two sets of LPs and a movie to carry on its significance. No such enduring properties came out of Watkins Glen. Although the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band had their own sound people record their sets, the Dead would not give their consent to a Watkins Glen album. Their participation was crucial, since they represented over one third of the music and time performed onstage. CBS shot some footage of the event, but the Dead refused to allow it or any other film to be released commercially. Their unyielding position on the matter stemmed all the way back to Monterey, when the band had refused to participate in D.A. Pennebaker's film of the event, "Monterey Pop." The Dead had always demanded full editorial control of their music and live performances. Whenever they were denied such power, they simply declined to be part of the project.
Watkins Glen did not register with the political portion of the youth culture as
had some festivals in the past. To have 600,000 young people at one time in one place would have been the ultimate dream for any sixties radical. But that was just it -- the sixties were over. The Vietnam War was over; the peace agreement had been signed in January of that year. Not that there was a lack of issues. Watkins Glen could easily have been an immensely powerful response to Nixon and the Watergate scandal. But the youth of the nation had grown tired of being politically active. Many had tasted the partial delight of seeing some peace in Southeast Asia and felt it was enough. The word most commonly associated with the Watkins Glen festival, according to those reporters who covered the event, was "party." For some young people Watkins Glen was an opportunity to experience a rock festival in abbreviated fashion, and they relished every minute of it. All this added up to the fact that the protests, the placards, the defiance, and the true revolutionary zeal of the young had actually subsided. Enter the "me" decade. The 1970s had finally arrived. But Watkins Glen did point out that rock music was alive and well, and that there still remained within the youth culture a seemingly unquenchable desire to attend rock festivals. Young people still marveled at the power of such gatherings. Young people *wanted* to be there, had to be there.
Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik, the two promoters of Summer Jam, had been
producing rock concerts in Connecticut and had established a regular audience. In 1972 they staged a series of shows in Hartford, one of which was a Grateful Dead concert. During their performance members of the Allman Brothers Band who were backstage were invited to come out for an informal jam. The reception they received from the Deadhead-dominated crowd was lavish and striking. Finkel and Koplik loved what they saw and heard. The promoters talked with members of the Dead and the Allman Brothers to see if they were interested in a large outdoor concert that would feature the two bands performing separately and then, at the conclusion, merging for one spectacular, memorable jam. The promoters added that the profits could be astronomical for all involved if a large enough concert site was chose. Both bands were very interested.
Finkel and Koplik searched high and low for an appropriate site. The Pocono
International Raceway was considered, but when the promoters heard of the availability of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway, they immediately made plans to talk with raceway officials there. Both the town of Watkins Glen and the racetrack management were accustomed to handling large crowds, and since the event was to be a one-day affair, few obstacles prevented a contract from being signed. Finkel and Koplik promised to limit ticket sales to 150,000. Privately, raceway officials doubted whether the rock promoters could sell even 100,000 tickets. But more power to them. They had certainly paid a considerable sum to rent the facilities for the day. In order to fill out the remainder of the billing, Koplik and Finkel suggested that another band or performer, perhaps Leon Russell, be added to the show. The Dead and the Allmans both agreed to the concept but felt that the Band would be more appropriate than Russell. Besides, they were local New York State boys from the Woodstock area and had a more concentrated Northeastern following than Leon Russell. The Band was approached with the idea and quickly signed a contract.
Two weeks prior to the festival more than 100,000 tickets at $10 each had been sold. The promoters secured permission to put on sale an additional 25,000 tickets the day of the show, since it was obvious that many more people than were originally anticipated would show up. Watkins Glen was to be the first huge rock music event in New York to be produced since the state passed the Mass Gathering Code following Woodstock. Koplik and Finkel adhered to the stringent rules in a precise, almost religious manner. More than one thousand portable toilets were rented and twelve wells were dug to increase the racetrack's water supplies, in addition to strategically locating more than a thousand gallon jugs of mountain spring water throughout the grounds. The promoters even ordered 300,000 premoistened paper towelettes, although no one could figure out what real value they would have to a rock festival. A makeshift heliport was also built.
Henry Valent, president of the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Corporation, was
impressed. Jim Koplik and Shelly Finkel seemed to be real professionals. Watkins Glen would not be like those other rock festivals he had read about. It would be different, he thought. It would be a first-class operation. People began arriving a full week before the festival. Many thumbed their way in or drove campers or vans early to select an ideal camping location. On the Tuesday before the show, the first thirty ticket gates opened. Rather than have the young people mill about the town, the promoters and Valent agreed to open up a bit early. But there was cause for consternation. Summer Jam, as it was called, was supposed to be a one-day affair. Sure, promoters and track officials had realized that many would show up early. That's why they had prepared sizeable campgrounds. But not *this* early. And not this many.
The crowd grew. On Wednesday the New York State police estimated fifty thousand people were at Watkins Glen. On Thursday the approximation more than doubled. By Friday afternoon they were certain that a full quarter of a million kids had made camp in or near the festival grounds. The troopers recalled Woodstock and the nightmarish traffic problems. This was worse. Cars sitting in traffic stretched back almost fifty miles, while the impact of it all could be felt one hundred miles away. They began turning back young people with or without tickets. There was no doubt about it. Summer Jam was going to be bigger than Woodstock. Much bigger. A sound check was scheduled for Friday. Bill Graham's FM Productions had been contracted to employ the Digital Audio Delay Line system, a computerized sound system designed so that people sitting up front and near the towers of speakers would not be blasted into the universe. It also enabled people sitting way in the back to hear the music just as clearly as those closer to the stage. With such a system, sets of speakers are set up a hundred yards apart. The first set of speakers receives the sound from the stage and relays it back to the second set. This set rebounds the sound to the third set. All this occurs with spit- second precision. It is not discernible to the human ear that there is a microlapse in the sound. For both the sound check and the actual concert, the system worked like a charm.
When the Grateful Dead went to do their sound check, more than 100,000 of the 250,000 people present at Watkins Glen were already assembled in front of the stage. Graham suggested what the hell, might as well start the concert early. The Dead consented, and the sound check turned into a two-hour set with a few interruptions to balance out the wall of sound. The Band and the Allman Brothers felt compelled to do likewise. They delivered one-hour and two-hour sets, respectively. In all, a five-hour prefestival performance disguised as a sound check. After it was over Jim Koplik sat himself in a chair in the backstage trailer and remarked to Finkel, "I'm beat. I feel like everything is over and we actually pulled this off." Finkel nodded and broke a tired smile. "I can't believe, though, that wasn't the real thing. Tomorrow is the real thing. Tomorrow is the concert. We have to do it all over again, for at least twice as long and probably for twice as many people." Koplik glanced over at his partner. Shelly Finkel had fallen into a deep sleep. The Grateful Dead returned shortly before noon on Saturday to officially open Summer Jam in front of 600,000 people stretched out over every available inch of raceway property. There was the usual threat of rain, but no dark clouds were in sight. Instead the sun shone brightly as the heat grew to noticeable but still tolerable proportions. Stretched out across the ninety-acre grassy knoll that faced the stage was a youthful, exuberant sea of humanity. It was an awesome, emotional sight. And it was scary. What if... But negative thoughts were set aside.
The Grateful Dead played and played and played. For five hours Jerry Garcia smoothly rolled out solos like only Jerry Garcia could do. Bob Weir backed him up on rhythm guitar, filling in and closing up weak areas and balancing out a generally tender sound. Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzman on drums provided Garcia with takeoff and landing strips. Donna Godchaux sang, and her husband, Keith, added bits and pieces on keyboards. "Uncle John's Band," "Casey Jones," "Friend of the Devil," "Ripple," "Sugar Magnolia," "Truckin'," "Not Fade Away," "Me and Bobby McGee." They kept comin'. It took little over an hour for the stage crew to disassemble the Dead's equipment and ready the area for the Band's set. Out in the crowd things were good considering the multitude of people. There was a marked decrease in the use of hard drugs and hallucinogens at Watkins Glen, although there were plenty of dealers on hand and pot was everywhere. The ground was littered with empty bottles of Jack Daniel's and Southern Comfort, signs of the large increase in the consumption of hard liquor. There was an abundance of food and water available, and most of the portable toilets seemed to be functioning, but the lines to use the facilities and the trek getting there were the real problems. A round trip to and from a Port-O- San, including a very brief stay inside it, could take more than three hours. For the sluggish or the stoned, it was like five.
The sun had been overtaken by a series of ominous, dark stormclouds by the time the Band began to crank it up. Not quite an hour into their set, the rain, thunder, and lightning all struck with alarming might. The Band was forced from the stage to wait it out. Thirty minutes later the storm passed, leaving behind 600,000 wet bodies and -- what else -- mud. Prior to the storm, however, four skydivers had jumped from a circling Cessna, intending to land somewhere on the festival grounds. All of them carried colorful flares to mark both the success of the event and their downward path. The crowd cheered them on as they gradually assumed a shape in the sky. But something had gone wrong up there for one of the chutists. Seconds into his freefall, one of the skydivers' flares prematurely exploded and ignited his garments. Helplessly falling downward, the diver managed to open his chute as the flames engulfed his suit and body. It was a terrible way to die. The Band's set lost much of its impact after the storm's interruption. Many people returned to the campsites to cook up some supper and put on dry clothes. Others began the journey back home. But the Band played on -- free-flowing, countrified rock with traditional foundations. The instrumentation was defined and exact; the delivery, sharp and authoritative. The Band represented the antithesis of slickness in the summer of '73. None of their music was souped up or hammered out via record-company formulas. Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel offered to rock what the poppish, syrupy bands could not: unadulterated, unpatterned, unmistakable music. Finally it was the Allman Brothers' turn. The Brothers had the reputation of rarely putting on a less-than-dazzling performance. The high-quality compositions and the arousing artistic competency of the band resisted mediocre displays. Dickie Betts had fully assumed the role left vacant by Duane Allman's death. It was a big order to fill, but Betts was just coming into his own. He was confident and, most important, aggressive. He and Gregg Allman were the stars and the leaders that dictated the group's direction. In terms of comparison, neither the Dead nor the Band measured up to the overall ebullience of the Allmans. With the song, "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," it all came together nicely. It was two o'clock in the morning. The crowd had shrunk considerably, but, as promised, the event would conclude with an all-out jam. Not all the members of the Dead and the Band came out, and realistically, there were too many tired musicians for anything truly memorable to result. More solos. Some basic blues. The last song was a spirited if not overly effective version of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode." Watkins Glen had stolen the headlines much the same way that Woodstock had four years before, but with much less intensity and drama and for a much shorter period of time. In the NEW YORK TIMES Grace Lichtenstein described the Watkins Glen even as she had seen it: ...At times the scene in the moist darkness resembled a Bosch painting -- half naked bodies coated with brown slime, moving rhythmically to the music amid huddled figures curled sleeping in the mud at their feet in barbiturate or alcohol induced stupors. The overall success and incredible turnout at Watkins Glen prompted other rock promoters to think seriously about staging single-day rock festivals. Rock- concert production was steadily growing more sophisticated and professional, and many of the new concepts employed in them were carried over into festival production. This was ultimately accomplished at the expense of the rich, unconstrained, natural improvisations that had made past festivals exciting for the festivalgoers and the media and precariously unstable for the promoters, the local townsfolk, and the police. By 1974 the evolution of the rock festival had finally caught up with the technological, impersonal mid-1970s. Out in California a former rock manager, Lenny Stogel, went to ABC television after hearing about Watkins Glen with plans for a similar event on the West Coast. He asked the network if they would be interested in financing and filming a single-day rock festival produced at the Ontario Motor Speedway in southern California. Stogel told ABC officials that he intended to bring in eight or nine topnotch recording acts for a twelve-hour concert. He had figured out, he told them, the ways to make it run smoothly, without the problems encountered at Watkins Glen or any of the other festivals. ABC listened and liked what they heard. They put Sandy Feldman, vice-president in charge of live events, on the job. Together, he and Stogel were to complete plans for what would later be called Cal Jam. Even though two previous rock concerts held at the Ontario Motor Speedway had been near financial disasters, Stogel felt certain that it was the ideal place for Cal Jam. Its accessibility was perfect; two highways bordered the speedway -- the San Bernadino and the Pomona major roads. It was also located within driving range of Los Angeles, San Diego, and all of Orange County. Southern California ranked with the New York metropolitan area as possessing the most voracious rock appetite in all of America. Ontario had parking for fifty thousand cars and was far enough away from any immediate population centers so that traffic would not be catastrophic. Ontario was the place. At first Stogel and Feldman hoped to lure either Led Zeppelin, the Band, or the Rolling Stones into signing contracts. But this never materialized due to the awesome fees of the supergroups. The promoters next went to proven stars such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Black Sabbath; and Deep Purple to headline the show, backed up by Black Oak Arkansas; Seals and Crofts; Rare Earth; the Eagles; and Earth, Wind and Fire. Admittedly the lineup was not spectacular, but the promoters counted more on the "event" rather than the groups to attract a big crowd to Ontario. Many people out on the West Coast had not participated in Watkins Glen. Cal Jam would be their chance. In order to prevent the problems that had dominated rock festivals in the past, Stogel felt that the audience must be totally captivated for the entire twelve hours of the show. Once the kids grew restless, the event was in trouble. Keep them busy, keep them seated, make them feel they would miss something important and interesting if they didn't pay attention. That, according to Stogel, was the key to success. The promoters hired Imero Fiorentino to design the stage, which he conceived as a complex structure of hydraulic lifts and movable platforms built on railroad tracks. This way, as one band on one platform finished its set, another act on another platform was ready and waiting to be slid into the spotlight. A maximum lapse of fifteen minutes was all that was to be tolerated. Due to the excessive amount of equipment used by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a separate platform was constructed for the English trio. Throughout the day skydivers, stunt men, skateboarders, and other entertainers would keep the audience occupied. Cal Jam occurred on Saturday, April 6, 1974, and drew 200,000 fans paying $1O a ticket. The gross of $2 million was one of the largest in the history of rock. ABC filmed it and televised the concert on their "In Concert" series. It had all gone so smoothly. Rare Earth, the opening act, took the stage fifteen minutes *ahead* of schedule. The crowd was orderly. There were very few drug problems and almost no gate-crashers. They expected 200,000 to attend and that's exactly the number of people that showed up. So structured. So systemized. So calculated. There were mixed reactions to Cal Jam. Most marveled at the precision and organization. The event was the epitome of efficiency. The media dubbed it a computerized rock festival. Others, however, looked upon it with disappointment. There was no room for creativity or a do-your-own-thing attitude. The musicians were forced to perform in a machinelike fashion. No excitement; too predictable. Boring. During an interview in June of 1979, just a few weeks before his death in Chicago in a DC-10 plane crash, Lenny Stogel recalled Cal Jam. "When I knew I was putting on a show for 200,000 young people, I didn't want anything popping off unexpected. I wanted to be in total control and know exactly what was happening that moment and what would be happening in the next few hours. Two hundred thousand kids was a big responsibility. I used to get a funny feeling in my stomach whenever I thought about it. I had to be in control -- for the preservation of my sanity." The financial achievements of Cal Jam necessitated a sequel to the event; thus another Cal Jam was held in March of 1978. It was basically a repeat of the original formula: efficiency plus organization equals success and big bucks. Instead of 200,000, Cal Jam II attracted 250,000. It was held at the same location and produced by the same promoters. It was filmed for television, and this time an album also resulted from the concert. The lineup was once again less than outstanding. Actually the billing reflected the stagnation that had gripped rock, especially mainstream rock, at the time. It also revealed that the younger portion of the vast rock audience was not really bothered by the situation. Only Santana, Dave Mason, and to a lesser extent, Heart, played music reminiscent in style to the old festival sets. Most of the other bands uncorked a numbing, combustible orgy of manic power that bullied its way through the speakers. Hard rock was being abused: it was being exploited for its colorful audacity more than anything else. Aerosmith and Ted Nugent blitzed the crowd with frenzied and furious energy. Mahogany Rush and Rubicon tried to follow suit but failed. Bob Welch had members from Fleetwood Mac come to his aid. The festival spirit was only superficially present at Cal Jam II. Some members of the crowd clutched to remaining threads of the past, while a few of the performers tried to simulate an emotion vaguely remembered by the older members of the crowd. Rock had become big business, and festivals like Cal Jam were, to many, just big-business ventures. The performers had their choice of either being helicoptered from the Beverly Hills Hotel to the festival grounds or chauffeured there in lavish, customized vans with paintings of the same band's latest album cover on the exterior panels. Backstage requests were ludicrous in many cases. Some performers wanted pinball machines for their amusement. Others required specially prepared dishes. One band wanted plates of M&Ms placed in their dressing rooms, but no yellow ones were to be included. As a result, a Cal Jam employee had to sift through the mounds of candy, separating the yellows from the rest. Cal Jam I and II were hybrid forms of the old rock festival phenomenon. Cal Jam's promoters sought to present a festival to the atmosphere in a highly regulated and supervised environment. Eight or nine years back a rock festival would have smothered under such conditions, but for the late seventies it was the right way to handle such events. It was easy to determine the differences that existed between an outdoor rock concert and an outdoor rock festival. It was also easy to comprehend that in terms of rock music and rock events, 1968 and 1978 were really and truly a full decade apart.
- Excerpted from "Aquarius Rising: The Concert Festival Years" by Robert Santelli (New York: Delta Books, 1980).