In honor of the anniversary of Music Mountain, here’s chapter two from my latest work, The Grateful Pilgrimage:Time Travel with the Dead.
TWO: MUSIC MOUNTAIN
In search of an abandoned stage…The gold standard for Jerry Garcia Band excellence…Something was happening here…Air-guitar in Jerry’s footsteps… Gong Hay Fat Choy...Preservation of historic stages...
My friend, Perry, suggested we should visit Music Mountain on the 40th anniversary of the Jerry Garcia Band show performed there on June 16, 1982. I loved the idea and enthusiastically committed to it, leaving Perry no chance of changing his mind. Located in Woodridge, in the town of Fallsburg, New York, Music Mountain was an intoxicating outdoor venue that could comfortably host a crowd of 10,000, although parking was an issue. Ted Nugent played the last concert at Music Mountain on September 18, 1982, and the venue was officially closed in 1983. Supposedly the stage was still there, but this adventure was loaded with uncertainty.
I took a one-hour drive to try and locate the Music Mountain stage the summer before, but I had no luck. I wasn’t sure if it was even there anymore until Perry told me about a recent YouTube video showing the stage. Tall grass and weeds filled the field in front of the stage. It didn’t seem like the type of place anyone would want to visit on a hot summer’s day. I imagined that the unkempt field was filled with bees, mosquitos, ticks, and perhaps, snakes. I enjoy an interesting escapade, but I’m not much of an outdoorsman or camper. I admire nature from a distance. On YouTube, I discovered another recent video of Music Mountain which showed the field in a reasonably manageable state. Perry found the Google map coordinates for the stage confirming its existence. The hunt for an important piece of our musical history was on!
I first met Perry in Mr. Murphy’s geometry class in Clarkstown South High School. I knew we were kindered spirits when we first smoked a bone in the woods and discussed music before geometry. A year later, Perry, who played lead guitar, formed a band with some friends called The Roadrunners. Half of the songs they played were Dead covers, and the other half was a brilliant mix of cool tunes, “No Woman No Cry,” I Heard Through the Grapevine,” “Willin’,” “Pride and Joy,” etc… They went from raw to pretty damn good rapidly. The band made a few personnel changes and renamed themselves The Lost Boys. These guys were very popular in Rockland County for about ten years. Perry gave up lead guitar and went on to become an accomplished mandolin player who jams with many bands these days. But he took the Dead’s advice and never gave up his day job as an accountant. I offer this brief bio because Perry was with me in 1983, at several of the shows I’ll revisit during the Grateful Pilgrimage. He was also at Music Mountain, but we didn’t travel together on that occasion.
Due to previous family commitments, Perry couldn’t make it to Music Mountain until later in the afternoon on Thursday, June16, 2022. I decided to conduct a surveillance mission a few hours before we were to meet there to see what we might be up against. Did it look like a jungle habitat out there, or had the fields been recently mowed? Would we have to scale any fences to get in? And could we play music there without arousing the wrath of nearby neighbors? I drove over the Shawangunk Mountains and listened to 6-16-82 Music Mountain on the way. I was one with every Jerry jam and vocal inflection. I know this tape better than a Broadway actor knows his lines.
The dynamic audience recording, and Garcia’s superb singing and guitar playing make this tape legendary. The circulating bootleg tapes of Music Mountain were sonic gems, sweeter than the subpar soundboard recordings. Music Mountain was, and still is, the gold standard for Jerry Garcia Band excellence. In the oppressive heat and humidity of that day, aural magic swirled in the air. The set lists were standard, but Garcia was inspired from the opening number, “How Sweet It Is.” The song matched Jerry’s giddy mood. Garcia was in awe of the Catskill’s arcane past, as he performed in-the-moment. After the show he visited the nearby Concord Hotel with JGB manager, Rock Scully. According to Scully’s book, Living with the Dead, when they were in the Concord, Jerry said, “Take a good look at this dining room, Rock. Bill Graham actually waited these tables! Mickey Hart’s grandparents, the Tessels, came here every summer, and Bill Graham used to WAIT ON THEM!”
Opened in 1982, Music Mountain was situated next to the Avon Lodge, which was part of the Catskill Borscht Belt, a string of summer hotels and bungalow colonies in Sullivan County. From Red Skeleton, Woody Allen, and Jackie Mason to Barbra Streisand, Bing Crosby, and Tony Bennett, the finest comedians, and crooners of their day entertained vacationers in these hotels. The popularity of these resorts peaked in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. By 1982, the area had plunged into an era of steady decline. Many of these hotels were closed or on death row. Born in an age of economic despair, Music Mountain was a final fleeting shot to keep entertainment magic alive in Sullivan County.
Woodstock, the mother of all music festivals, took place in Bethel, twenty miles from the Music Mountain. After “Three Days of Peace and Music” in the summer of ’69, the Bethel site was abandoned. Except for a handful of minor pop-up gigs, nothing was happening in Bethel for several decades until the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center was opened in 2006. The Music Mountain concert series almost became an insignificant footnote in Sullivan County history. Did bands ever really play in this Ghostland at all? Thanks to the 6-16-82 Jerry Garcia Band show, Music Mountain well always be cherished, even by legions of Deadheads who never attended the show.
What makes this JGB concert immortal? Just listen to the first five songs, “How Sweet it is,” “Catfish John,” That’s What Love Will Make You Do,” Valerie,” and “Let it Rock.” These performances are in contention for best-ever versions. Garcia had the mojo rolling. His solos sizzled in the fast lane, yet nothing was overbaked. This incarnation of the Jerry Garcia Band featured a sensational line-up: John Kahn, bass, Billy Kreutzmann, drums, Melvin Seals organ, Jimmy Warren electric piano, and Julie Stafford and Liz Stires vocals.
Garcia’s guitar virtuosity shines throughout 6-16-82 Music Mountain, but what separates this night from the abundance of other notable JGB shows is Jerry’s heartfelt angelic crooning. In set two, Jerry seemingly stops time in its tracks as he belts out “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and you wont find a sweeter vocal performance of “Love in the Afternoon” anywhere. For anyone who would like to take a deep-dive into the glory of this show, a chapter of my book, Positively Garcia: Reflections of the JGB, pays homage to the Music Mountain performance.
It was an overcast and chilly summer’s day as I pulled up to the GPS coordinates for the Music Mountain stage on the 40th anniversary of the immortal show. I followed directions, and lo and behold, there it was! The back of the stage looked like an abandoned barn. Maybe that’s why I never found it when I looked for it a year earlier. Anyone passing by this road would never suspect that this was the back of a stage. To the left of the stage was a decaying in-ground swimming pool, and further to the left was a shabby housing development. To the right were the ruins of the Avon Lodge. These historical structures were just there, dull, and insignificant, without anything identifying what they once were. It was surreal and spooky.
It seemed like the field in front of the stage had been mowed about a month earlier. Someone was attending to this area on a part-time basis. There were no fences, barriers, or warning signs hindering my progress. I cautiously walked up four steps to the side of the stage. I immediately when to the area where Jerry stood that night and looked out into the field and took some photos. I was among the 10,000 Deadheads grooving and sweating on the hill. I called up Perry to let him know that I had found the stage, and he wouldn’t believe what was there.
Something was happening here, and I didn’t know what it was. Various items cluttered the sides and back of the stage: a tent, ten-foot basketball hoop, heavy duty tool kit, fridge, microwave, patio heater, folding chairs, plastic bins, two garbage cans, hay bales, barbeque, portable shower, folding table, office chair, and a dirty table with four dirty chairs. If this where a locker on an episode of the TV Series Storage Wars, the contents on the stage would have auctioned for at least a grand. Was someone squatting here or just camping out? Was this person the owner, or possibly a caretaker? It looked like no one had been here recently except for birds. There were nests in the rafters, and a generous amount of bird poop was dumped center stage. Suddenly, three deer dashed across the field and disappeared into the woods. My reconnaissance mission was a success. I decided to check into my hotel room at the nearby Resorts World casino in Monticello, meet Perry there, and then return to play the entire concert on stage.
To capture the entirety of 6-16-82 Music Mountain, I must mention that Bob Weir’s band, Bobby & the Midnights, followed the Jerry Garcia Band. Throughout this tour, the two bands alternated who would open and close the show. On that night, Weir lost because relentless torrential rains swooped down on music Mountain right after Garcia Band left the stage turning the entire concert area into a massive mud pit. At the time, I wasn’t interested in seeing any band without Garcia. I left the scene with many others due to the hard rain, but I recently heard the tapes of the Bobby & the Midnights show, and I was impressed. Weir and his talented band stood and delivered a phenomenal show in the middle of that monsoon.
Perry and I arrived at Music Mountain around 5 PM. These days, Perry looks like a cross between ex-San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana, and Hell’s Kitchen chef, Gordon Ramsey. We set up shop on stage—a Bose speaker, two folding chairs and a cooler full of Modelos. We were both wearing light jackets because this was by far, the chilliest day of the month. I played the “How Sweet It Is” opener at moderate volume levels. When I realized we weren’t disturbing anybody, I cranked the volume during “Catfish John.” It’s a delicious fish, massive in magnitude—every note matters, and every instrumental passage is precious—immaculate group improvisation.
This was turning out better than I could have imagined. We went out in the field and took photos and videos with our phones. You could still see where the soundboard was located, and part of a concession stand was still there. This area must have a shield of invincibility to have rested in peace for so many years.
I hiked to the area on the hill where I stood forty years earlier as “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” roared from the Bose speaker. On 6-16-82 I had a memorable day, but I didn’t realize how great of show it was until I got the tapes a month later. I had only been a Deadhead for one year, and I didn’t have a lot of Garcia Band tapes. The other thing scrambling my mind was a hit of blotter acid. I enjoyed my brief period of experimentation with LSD, but at times, it interfered with my ability to focus on what was most important, the live music I was experiencing. Music Mountain was the last time I messed with mescaline, shrooms or LSD. Although, I carried on with a steady diet of just about everything but heroin.
Back on stage, I shuffled and played air guitar in Jerry’s footsteps as the smoking jams of “Let it Rock” and “Deal” filled the air. Perry pumped his fists in the air and said, “I can’t believe this! Music Mountain is ours.” It was mind-blowing. There was a community to our left, but we weren’t disturbing anybody. I doubt this stage held any significance for any of the folks who resided here. Nobody was calling the cops, and the mystery tenant responsible for all the items on stage was nowhere to be found.
I have no expertise in foreign languages, but the person who owned the stage, or was squatting here, was Korean or Chinese. There was Chinese calligraphy on various items, and most notably, there was some graffiti on the backstage wall. It was a cartoon caricature of a pig, and the caption read, “Gong Hay Fat Choy!” This is a New Year’s greeting. It literally means, "wishing you to be prosperous in thecoming year.” The Music Mountain stage may have been the site of a Chinese New Year’s bash.
In a more relaxed state of mind, I was enjoying the music more than I had forty years earlier, although nothing beats being part of that traveling Deadhead community. I must have run into at least one-hundred Deadheads I knew from Rockland Community College at Music Mountain. Perry and I were both attending “The Rock” at the time. The Grateful Dead’s popularity was off the charts on college campuses throughout New York. Passion for the band steadily soared in New York when they played the Fillmore East and Capitol Theatre back in the early ‘70s. However, it was the Dead’s amazing concert run of 1977, which included awesome shows at Cornell, Colgate, and Binghamton universities, as well as their legendary outing at Raceway Park in Englishtown, that turned the Grateful Dead into East Coast heroes for the masses, ensuring the band could continue to thrive on tour without any major commercial success. The Garcia/Weir billing drew the largest crowd ever at Music Mountain.
Besides the gloomy weather, our 40th anniversary celebration was triumphant. As we listened to set two, Perry and I savored two of Garcia’s greatest vocal performances on “Love in the Afternoon” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” From the ripping blues of “I’m a Road Runner,” to the reggae rhythms of “Love in the Afternoon,” to the sophisticated jazzy explorations of “Don’t Let Go,” the Jerry Garcia Band presented a kaleidoscope of American improvisation. Garcia was passing on his influences, the songs that he loved during his formative years to his admiring fans. And here I was, enjoying them more even more than I had that night. That’s transcendence.
During our time at Music Mountain, nobody strayed near the sacred space. I suggested that if we do this again next year, Perry could assemble an acoustic band to do a set out here in addition to enjoying 6-16-82 again. It’s almost unfathomable that the stage was still here and in good condition. Twenty miles away from Music Mountain, the magnificent Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center has it all: a gorgeous venue with dynamic sound, lush grounds, top-notch concessions, and one of the best museums I’ve ever seen. One thing it doesn’t have is the original Woodstock Festival stage. Music Mountain has nothing, not even a tiny plaque commemorating what it once was. But it still has the stage where Jerry Garcia Band and Bobby & The Midnights rocked. This stage must be preserved.
Before heading back to Resorts World to watch Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors beat the Boston Celtics to win the NBA championship, there were two things I had to do. I went to my car and grabbed a basketball, and a large posterboard of my Positively Garcia book. As I had done in Barton Hall, I drained a few long-range jumpers. Inexplicably, there was a basketball hoop on the stage. I then grabbed a hammer from the toolbox and nailed the Positively Garcia posterboard on the wall. Jerry was here! Twenty feet away from the “Gong Hay Fat Choy!” graffiti, it gave the backstage wall a balanced look.
I can’t foresee anyway I’ll be playing hoops in Madison Square Garden or the Greensboro Coliseum, but well, well, well, you can never tell. These day trips to Barton Hall and Music Mountain were thrilling warm-ups prior to the mystery of doing an entire ghost tour. They were cosmic confirmation that I was on the right path. Traveling solo will be a challenge, but I’m ready to roll so let’s get on with the show!