Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Barton Hall Pilgrimage 5-8-2015

                          Excerpt from Grateful Dead 1977: The Rise of Terrapin Nation

 As I neared the end of my ‘77 Virtual Reality Listening Tour, a mystery remained—an itch I couldn’t scratch. What happened on May 8, 1977? Why was that night different from the rest? I could hear it and write about it, but I could only vaguely visualize the scene. I needed to visit the Mecca, the holy shrine of mystical Dead activity, Barton Hall, on the campus of Cornell University, in the city of Ithaca. I’d traveled all over the state of New York during my Deadhead days. I’d seen Garcia in Middletown, Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, Rochester, East Setauket, Uniondale, Binghamton, Glens Falls, Niagara Falls, Manhattan, Saratoga, Lake Placid, Albany, Stony Brook, and South Fallsburg, but I’d never been to Ithaca. What kind of city, venue, and campus could inspire the most talked about performance in Grateful Dead history? In addition to my Garcia-inspired travels, I’d been all across New York and back again as a traveling salesman, but for some reason, I’d never passed through, or even near Ithaca. Being that I have Thursdays and Fridays off from my day job, I knew I had to be in Ithaca on Friday, May 8, 2015. I didn’t know what I’d do when I got there.  Maybe a bolt of inspiration would strike me inside Barton Hall as I finish the final edits of this book. Or maybe I’d be scuffling with the Ithaca police, another freak taken into custody on May 8, an unexplainable phenomena, some kind of spring hippie uprising.
            A car service picked me up at my Bronx apartment on the morning of May 7. I arrived at the Port Authority and boarded a Shortline Bus bound for Ithaca at 8:00 AM. The seating was more cramped than I’d imagined, and I learned that this would be a five-hour ride with a stop in Binghamton. For some reason, I thought that this was a four-hour trip; that extra hour might have been a deal breaker—at some point you gotta know when to fold ‘em. Once our bus hit Route 17 West, I opened a mini-bottle of Pinot Grigio, put my headphones on, and settled into the magnificent Boston Garden “Mississippi Half Step” on its 38th anniversary.
            It was a dastardly bus trip. I was relieved to get to Binghamton so I could stretch out before the final one-hour leg to Ithaca. I decided to widen the scope of my journey and check out Binghamton’s Broome County Arena on my ride back to New York City. Binghamton, to some extent, is also legendary in Grateful Dead folklore. This was the first positive sign that I was on the right track, and that this little road trip wasn’t an ill-conceived folly.
            My apologies to those who live between Binghamton and Ithaca, but this strip of road was a forlorn trail of nothingness in the sticks—fallen tree limbs from a hardcore winter, modest ponds and creeks, abandoned shacks and tattered cabins, farmers, hunters, pick-up trucks, small graveyards—evidence of some kind of shabby existence. After almost an hour of Deliverance, I spotted a few decent houses roadside, and then, suddenly, came the Ivy League Factor—quaint houses and exquisite cottages—the dean of admissions lives here, the town judge lives there, a bestselling author lives here, the alumni president lives there.
            Our bus rolled into Ithaca, civilization as I know it, at last. It was a pretty little town—amazing how communities crop up, sustain, and flourish, thanks to higher education. And then we headed up a mountain to Collegetown, and the campus of Cornell, which is perched on East Hill, overlooking the city of Ithaca. It was at this point that I could imagine what Garcia might say as the Grateful Dead bus rolled on up this hill for the first time, on the early afternoon of 5-8-77:
Hey, Weir, Phil, check this out, man! We’re on top of Western Civilization. Some of the most brilliant minds study here! Architects, physicists, scientists, neurologists. Kurt Vonnegut used to write up here! Look at this campus! These cats are freaking living on top of the world. Wouldn’t it be the hippest if we really blew their minds tonight? Drop a “Dew” on them, perhaps?
            There’s something exhilarating about ascending East Hill for the first time, and I don’t think rolling up this hill is something that can ever be taken for granted. I got off the bus and was duly impressed with the Godly panorama, the beautiful creek that flows below the bridge that gently connects and introduces you to the brick buildings on campus. This was a special day in Cornell for two reasons, and neither one had anything to do with the Grateful Dead. Thursday, May 7, 2015 was Slope Day, a huge on-campus party to celebrate the last day of the school year. The other amazing thing at play was the weather. After a harsh winter, and an extended cold spell through April, it was 85 degrees on this mountaintop in Ithaca early in the afternoon. On 5-8-77, snow was accumulating as Deadheads filed out of Barton Hall.
            Full of school spirit, Slope Day revelers streamed towards campus in skimpy shorts and Big Red t-shirts. A few of them were already liquored-up, but most of them looked younger and more innocent than I’d expected. There was a rapper performing, and a plethora of food and beer kegs, but I was oblivious to the festivities. I had a thirty-pound knapsack on my back and a poster board of the cover to my “Grateful Dead 1977” book in hand as I walked towards Barton Hall. Intuitively, I knew I was heading in the right direction. I didn’t have to ask anybody, I could feel it in my bones. I was possessed, drawn to my destination like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Working up a sweat, I paused to survey the scene, and there it was, right in front of me—the blessed words in white lettering against the Cayuga Bluestone façade of the building.

            I’d made it to the Promised Land! My first instinct was to take pictures before the Cornell police came swooping down on me. With all the terrorists and whackos on the loose, I was hoping that campus security wouldn’t mind me snapping some shots of the shrine, and if that went well, I’d attempt to enter Barton Hall, which certainly looked majestic on the outside. The campus was dead. Everybody was occupied with the Slope Day shindig. I may have picked the perfect time to be here.
            After snapping pictures of the shrine’s perimeter, I noticed a young lady pull a door open and enter Barton Hall. Could it be that easy? My worst fear was that Barton Hall would be completely shut down. I followed the young lady’s footsteps and entered the sacred grounds. There was no authority around, just cement walls, and rooms with signs for the ROTC and the Cornell Police. OK, this wasn’t the Beacon Theatre or Madison Square Garden. In the glass display cases there were American flags and military uniforms galore, but nothing commemorating the Grateful Dead, or music of any kind. I stepped into the men’s room and had my first Grateful revelation. This is where everybody pissed on 5-8-77! It was an impressive row of thick marble urinals divided by thin planks of wood. I sensed that no major renovations had been made on this bathroom since 1977. It was built to last.
            My head was filled with great expectations as I scampered up the stairwell and entered an enormous space. This was it, the immortal shrine, Barton Hall, a massive field house with an indoor track, a place where marching bands could practice. Hell, you could reenact a Civil War battle in here. I didn’t want to be too obvious, but now was the time to take pictures, before I got the boot. Where was the stage? I quickly concluded that the Dead must have been set up at the north end of the hall, looking up at the magnificent window that stretched across the back end of Barton Hall. A flat map of the world was painted on the window, with the all-important words CORNELL UNIVERSITY imprinted over the map. Yes, yes, yes! This is what Garcia must have been gazing at during the brilliant “Fire on the Mountain” solo. The world is yours, Jerry!

            I noticed a plain-clothed young man behind a desk at the other end of the hall. He may have noticed me, but he didn’t seem to be paying me any mind. After all, there was nothing suspicious about me. I was just a sweaty, baldheaded cat with thirty pounds of God knows what strapped to my back. Maybe I looked like just another nutty professor. Now was the time for me to start taking pictures of my book cover inside Barton Hall. I kept one eye on the cat at the desk as I pulled a portable easel from my bag, unfolded it, placed it on the indoor track, and put my poster board on the easel. I snapped a few photos, and life went on all around me—a few young ladies were stretching out on the track, some uniformed military men walked into their headquarters, and a couple of muscle heads made their way to the weight room. This was incredible. I could do whatever I wanted, and I figured I wouldn’t have a problem getting back into the building tomorrow, on the 38th anniversary of the sanctified show. After taking all the pictures I wanted, I headed back to the men’s room, changed into a pair of shorts, and shot hoops in Barton Hall. There were about eight backboards set up in the middle of the track with a few loose basketballs laying around. I shoot hoops three days a week in The Bronx, but these were unforgiving double-rimmed hoops. Regardless, I was draining jump shots in the shrine!

            I wanted to celebrate my great fortune with a bite to eat and a couple of brews, but after wandering around Collegetown for a few minutes, my efforts to find a comfy bar were in vain. I decided to walk the two miles to my hotel. I followed the directions on my iPhone, but I had no idea that this was a serious hike—two sweaty miles to the top of the hill. As I endured the trek, I thought about how Bob Dylan might appreciate a bizarre adventure like this. Old man Dylan has a predilection for roaming around the neighborhoods of fellow legends. In the summer of 2009, I went to see Dylan in Lakewood, New Jersey, and earlier that day, Bob was arrested for suspiciously wandering through backyards in Bruce Springsteen’s old hometown. What I’m doing on this expedition is weird, but no weirder than something Dylan might do. Anyway, dehydrated, depleted, and feeling deranged, I finally made it to the Best Western Hotel. The girl behind the counter asked me why I didn’t just call the hotel for the shuttle van. That’s something to keep in mind the next time I visit Ithaca.
            After checking into my room, which had a nice fireplace that would be of no use to me on this steamy eve, I went to the nearby P & C Foods supermarket. I walked in and there were two Bohemians on a small wooden stage playing Buddy Holly songs. Peggy Sue, I love you, with a love so rare and true, oh oh Peggy, my Peggy Sue-ue-ue. I’d never seen anything like that before in a grocery store. I headed down the first aisle, and a sushi chef was insisting I enjoy samples of his spicy tuna and salmon rolls. So I did. I also bought two trays of sushi because it was two for one Thursdays.
There were all kinds of groovy food giveaways and samplings, but all I craved was beer and bottled water, before I passed out. By the beer section, representatives from different companies were offering me samples of their summer ales. Once again, I sampled. I was feeling lightheaded by the time I hit the checkout counter, and if this was a typical Thursday food shopping experience in Ithaca, I was moving here. At the counter I was informed that it was just the store’s annual Spring Fling—another stroke of good fortune on what was now shaping into a brilliant pilgrimage. After dining at a local restaurant, I relaxed in my hotel and enjoyed 5-8-77, in Ithaca, on my crisp-sounding portable Bose speaker. Tomorrow I would return to Barton Hall, and play the second set in its entirety, inside the shrine—God willing.
            On 5-8-15, I easily gained access to Barton Hall at eleven in the morning. I set up shop in the wooden stands toward the back of the hall. Opened in 1917, Barton Hall was named after Colonel Frank A. Barton, and designed by architect Lewis F. Pilcher. The Gothic Revival-style architecture of Barton Hall is simple, yet breathtaking. There was something unassuming and warm about the place. Springsteen played here in 1978, and Dylan had just played here a year earlier. But I have to believe that most of the magic that Barton Hall had to offer was harnessed by the Dead on May 8, 1977. As I listened to the Scarlet > Fire, I kept turning it up louder and louder, since the smattering of athletes and military men didn’t notice or mind my presence. Early night rain turned into snowfall on 5-8-77, and I could see the flakes as I looked out the windows and listened to Garcia’s guitar flurries. What a night that must have been. I could taste it and feel it. Classes were probably over, and this was the final bash featuring the Grateful Dead in the thick of their greatest run. The music is so unique, so Cornell, nothing else in the band’s oeuvre sounds like this. The mystical aura of this show was now tangible to me.
            My Bose was fully cranked for the entirety of “Not Fade Away.” On another 85-degree day in Ithaca, I was sweating in the shrine. I was convinced I could have been sucking back a few cold beers if I had brought some. Maybe next year. Listening to the “Morning Dew” in Barton Hall was a divine experience. Upon completion of the set, I felt a sense of accomplishment; my mission was complete. I was the first person to crank this set on a sound system in the shrine. If somebody else has done this, I’d like to meet them.
            As I drank sake and nibbled on shrimp tempura in Collegetown, a smug feeling of achievement overcame me. I wished I could stay in Ithaca, but I had to catch a bus to New York with a stop in Binghamton. Being that it was Friday, and the end of a college semester, the bus was overflowing with humanity. I got off at the Binghamton stop and spent two hours there before picking up the next bus. It was a much different scene than Ithaca. The few times I’ve been to Binghamton, it has always struck me as a dreary place. I made my way down to the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena and discovered that the venue is now called the Floyd Maines Veterans Memorial Arena. With all due respect to Mr. Maines, I hate the new name for the venue, and the place was an eyesore. I didn’t take any photos or try to enter the building. There was no aura surrounding this building; the Grateful Dead had tapped the entire magic supply when they played there in ‘77, ‘79, and ‘83. I was there on 4-12-83; what a brilliant show that was. However, I felt no attachment to the place. I killed some time at a local happy hour, and then endured the bus ride back home.

            I’ve been on many historic musical pilgrimages, and the only one that tops my excursion to Ithaca was my trip to Dylan’s home town of Hibbing, Minnesota. I was invited into the house where Dylan was raised, and I spent time in Hibbing High School, one of the finest schools of its kind in America—an educational monument. Another memorable pilgrimage was my trip to see Dylan in Memphis in 2006. My favorite shrine in that city is the Stax Records Museum. I can feel the ghost of my favorite soul man, Otis Redding, every time I’m in there. Stax is in the dangerous part of Memphis, and I was the second person to visit on that day in 2006. An employee told me that the place was opened up a half-hour earlier that day so Bob Dylan could roam through Stax by himself. Strange minds think alike. Whatever indescribable thrill or enlightenment I expected from my Ithaca getaway came to fruition—the itch was sufficiently scratched for the time being. The second set of 5-8-77 still weaves its mystical spell over me, now more than ever.

 Howard Winer's new Book Deadology

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