Bill Graham Fills Central Park with San Francisco Groovy


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
May 9, 1968, Vol. XIII, No. 30

East is West — A Ritual of Energy
by Don McNeill

Sunday the San Francisco sound came out in New York. Not that the past performances of the Grateful Dead or the Jefferson Airplane have been in any way a disappointment, not that Bill Graham’s Fillmore East has been anything short of a revelation for New York audiences starved for quality rock, but until Sunday something was missing. The bands knew it. Bill Graham knew it. So they got together and turned Central Park into the Panhandle. The coasts linked, and my head is still buzzing.

We wandered into the park and immediately got lost climbing over benches and circling around trees so we sat down and while we were looking for landmarks for bearings some unmistakable Airplane strains of sound came drifting up from the southwest.

The sounds led us down to the back of the bandshell and were suddenly overcome by a thunder of hands and cheers from what must have been something like 10,000 people as the Airplane went off and Bill Graham introduced the Dead. There was a sea of bodies in front of the bandshell, solid in the center and swirling around the perimeter, and farther out on the hills of grass among the trees a fantastic cosmos of families and friends and faces and colors and babies and dogs, everyone digging each other. It had to be like the banks of the Ganges.

We found some friends and some space and sat down, and the Dead began, slowly, pure, taking in the people and the energy and giving it back refined. Long, long improvisations with Pigpen’s shimmering organ eclipsing into guitar runs, completely together, stunning over the heavy amplification. Earth sounds, quaking in the people. They were out of sight.

As the Dead went off, more applause, on and on, and Bill Graham came back on and said something about having more free concerts in the park, but this one was over, and suddenly everyone was in motion, many going in the direction of the Sheep Meadow, and people passing by talking about football. Visions of psychedelic football like in the Easter Be-In a year ago with 26 teams constantly changing charging each other across the meadow, 18 tackles at a time.

There there was, but also straight football, each game on either side of the meadow, but sometimes coming close enough that they threatened to merge. Graham was quarterback, number 60 (the only number), in the straight game, with Michael Goldstein coaching from the sidelines. And the other game sort of broke up, sometimes into whirling circles 40 yards wide which would suddenly break and explode toward the center into a pigpile of dozens of bodies.

It was total release, surrender, exhilaration, a new ritual of energy spent that I’d only seen before at the first Easter Be-In. The same sounds, too. Rhythms of rocks pounded obsessively on overturned trash cans for hours. Tribal sounds. Chains of people hurtling across the meadow. Whoops and frenzy. And a beautiful small girl with a great bulk of golden hair falling all over her shoulders sitting serenely on the grass in the middle of it all completely engrossed in Eugene McCarthy’s “The Limits of Power.”

A kid runs through the crowd and shouts ecstatically, “Aren’t you Grateful you’re Dead?”

Later a voice: “Let’s take a vote!”

Hours later, the sun set in fantastic golden reflections over Central Park West and the people had thinned down to a few dozen diehard trash can thumpers and devotees of the unceasing rhythm and energy.

It’s amazing what a little sound can set off.

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