27 July 2003 – Star-Gazette, Elmira
(c) Copyright 2003, Star-Gazette, Elmira. All Rights Reserved.
Thirty years ago, a rock concert bigger than Woodstock took over Watkins Glen
By DANIEL ALOI
The recipe was fairly simple for the largest concert gathering in history. All it took was three top rock bands, a large piece of land and the hint that it could be another Woodstock.
The bands were the Grateful Dead, The Band and the Allman Brothers Band. The land was the Watkins Glen Grand Prix circuit (now Watkins Glen International). The date was Saturday, July 28, 1973, and the event was Summer Jam.
More than 600,000 people – one person out of every 400 in America at the time – came from far and wide to the concert, held 30 years ago Monday.
“Unfortunately, I don’t remember the bands, but I remember the strange people,” says Sharon Decker of Elmira. “It was like watching `Hair’ in person. It was amazing. Here are real live hippies and people from all over the place, Texas and California, in Watkins Glen!”
Concert promoters Shelly Finkel and Jim Koplik of New York City had announced the lineup on April 30, saying they expected about 75,000 people. That figure was later raised to 150,000 after health permits and other requirements were met, and Finkel said the site could comfortably hold 200,000.
Although they sold 150,000 tickets at $10 a piece, as estimated, the promoters didn’t expect four times that number of people to show up.
Summer Jam so exceeded the anticipated draw that traffic was backed up for up to 100 miles from the site, and two days before the concert, 20 miles from Watkins Glen, New York State Police set up roadblocks.
Travelers began abandoning their cars on the highway and started walking to the site.
The abandoned cars stretched for miles, on Route 14 from Watkins Glen south to Route 17, and east to Nichols and beyond. Locals who knew the lay of the land, however, had no problems driving onto the site.
“I used to go to the Grand Prix races up there; luckily we knew the shortcuts,” says Michael Page, 49, a correction officer who lives in Elmira Heights. “It was in my `56 Ford panel wagon. I got all the way in on the back roads, on Bronson Hill Road. We came back the same way.
“I can’t remember how, but I drove in with no trouble. I think it was so crowded at the gate that they let everybody in.”
The gates eventually came down from the crush of people headed into the site.
“I bought a ticket – like a fool,” says Bob Bement of Lowman, who was 16 in `73. “But when we got there, the gates were already trashed.”
Bement went to Summer Jam with good friend Rick Durgin of West Elmira. Today, the two men work together as furniture movers.
“We went up four days early and stayed for four days later,” Bement says. “We didn’t think it would be that big.”
Nobody – police, promoters or fans, seems to have realized how huge Summer Jam was going to be.
“An old-time friend of mine has a cover of the New York Post, with a headline saying `600,000′,” Page says. “I realized it was crowded, but I didn’t think there was that many people there. I didn’t know `til afterwards.”
The memory of Woodstock, held four summers earlier in upstate New York, was a big factor.
“These kids aren’t here for the music,” Village Police Chief A.T. Elsworth said before the concert. “They don’t care what it’s really like. They’re determined to make this another Woodstock.”
Summer Jam was another chance at being part of an event for a generation, especially for those who missed the legendary three-day festival in 1969. The Vietnam War was still going on in 1973, the `60s counterculture was still hanging on, a nomadic group up for anything, especially another Woodstock.
“I was 16 in `69, I’d heard about Woodstock but it was too far to go at the time,” Page says. “I was married only one month at the time (in 1973); my wife, she couldn’t go because she had to work, so I went with her sister and her sister’s friend.”
Page was a diehard Allman Brothers fan (and still is); but Decker was just ready to have a good time. “I was and I did. What I remember of it,” she says. “I was 25 and freshly divorced, and I had gotten married right out of high school. I went just for the experience, just to be with all those people. I said if that’s gonna happen, I’m gonna see it or be there.
“So me and a girlfriend got dropped off by her boyfriend, and we hiked all the way up the hill,” she says. “I think I had a six pack of beer in my backpack, which was quite stupid.”
Beer (especially cold beer) and wine were cleaned out of all area stores by Friday, the day before the show. Also in the Woodstock spirit, there was a haze of marijuana smoke over the Watkins Glen crowd, amid all the peace, love, mud and nudity.
“We pitched a tent and for some reason we had to know what time it is,” Decker says. “So we asked this guy and he said, `I’m not into time, man…’ ”
Two days before the concert, people were camping on adjacent properties uninvited and many were walking around freely in the altogether. Skinny-dippers were reported around the area, in Montour Falls at the pond above Chequagua Falls and elsewhere.
There were several sightings of “uninhibited romancing” among the make-love-not-war concertgoers, both on and off the concert site.
“I saw guys laying on motorcycles drinking wine, girls running naked through the crowd toward the bandstand, throwing glitter … I couldn’t believe it,” Page says.
Everybody was “messed up,” Bement says. “Nobody cared about anything but having fun. You could get reefer on one hill, hash on another, opium over there. But not much beer.”
Food was available on the site from 14 concession stands, but concertgoers had to endure long lines (even worse were the lines for portable toilets, which were overflowing by the time the music started).
“I worked the festival, I was the one who sold the hot dogs, and we sold 17,000 pounds in a heartbeat. I got there on Friday morning, and it was Monday evening before we got off the hill,” says Howard Lapple of Elmira.
Lapple, 70 and supervisor of the Town of Elmira, says that hot dogs were just about the only food offered at the concert. “They didn’t know what they were getting into at the time.”
Bement had an aunt in Montour Falls. “The stores were empty – every shelf, everything was gone. There was only one road in and out, but we hitched a ride out and raided her house and came back. I think I ate about twice in eight days.”
Unlike today’s concert venue restrictions, fans could bring anything in with them at this show, including campers, stoves, food and beverages and whatever else they needed.
“I think we just had a cooler full of sandwiches, and I remember selling a bunch of beer at a buck a can,” Page says. “We came prepared. We were mainly drinking anything we could get our hands on at the time.”
Bement remembers watermelons going for $5, and a would-be entrepreneur who drove in a truck of water. “He was trying to sell it, but people were just stealing it.”
It was crazy, but the Grand Prix and other races at the time – marked by crowds of up to 100,000 and mobs burning cars and buses for fun – were “real crazy” compared to the concert, Page says.
“I didn’t see any trouble. No fights even,” Bement says. “And there only seemed to be about three cops there.”
The music proved as memorable as the size of the crowd. An impromptu concert was held, with all three bands, on Friday afternoon for the gathering masses, numbering up to 150,000.
Show day came, and the Grateful Dead went on, on time, at noon on Saturday. They played for five hours. The Band followed at 6 p.m., but their set was interrupted by a 30-minute thunderstorm, and they walked off stage three hours later.
The trampled site became 95 acres of mud underfoot. Once darkness fell, campfires flickered across the concert field. (Rolling Stone reported one roadie saying, “It looks like something from the Civil War.”)
The Allman Brothers Band came onstage at 10 p.m. and played into the night for four hours, followed by a 90-minute-long closing jam with most of the musicians onstage. The last song, an extended “Johnny B. Goode,” ended at 3:30 a.m.
“It was excellent, I loved all the bands,” Page says. “I liked the Dead at the time, but I liked the Allmans better. I remember they were the best band there.
“The really funny thing is, my wife worked at the Arnot Ogden emergency room, and she got Gregg Allman’s autograph,” he says. “He came in needing stitches on his arm before the concert. I came all the way here and she got to meet him. We were set up by the tower, but it was hard getting closer to that grandstand.”
Page wasn’t alone in saying the Allmans emerged as the rulers of Summer Jam, musically. The Dead’s set that day is considered uninspired by fans. While guitarist Robbie Robertson commented that the Band’s set was the first “100 percenter” they’d played, the rain hampered their momentum.
The Band’s performance, featuring Garth Hudson’s inspired mid-rainstorm organ fugue, was released on CD in 1993, as “Live at Watkins Glen.”
The crowd was more peaceful than expected.
There were about 50 arrests, including charges against five people for the theft and slaughter of a local farmer’s pig. They intended to barbecue it.
Others were charged mostly for fights and property damage, and some drug charges.
“They had a lot of security from Rochester. State Police, with sawed-off shotguns, they didn’t know what they were getting into with these people,” Lapple says.
But “they were easy to get along with, and no rowdyism,” he adds. “You’d see a trash can, piled eight feet high and a 10-foot circumference around it, and people were walking over to it and dropping their stuff. You don’t see that now.”
Yet as polite as Summer Jam was, the event had lasting negative repercussions, mainly caused by the uncontrollable volume of the crowd.
Security was the biggest problem. The promoters were supposed to guarantee that certain access roads to the concert area, and paths through the area to the stage, would be kept clear at all times for emergencies. Yet more than 100,000 cars lined County Route 16 and routes 14 and 414.
For three to four days, the Village of Watkins Glen and some surrounding areas were without mail, fire and police services. There were abandoned vehicles left for miles in all directions, and tons of garbage. About 125 members of two communes, in West Danby and in Vermont, were hired to clean up the trash over 1,100 acres, including in nearby towns and highways.
Area hospitals reported about 50 festival-related injuries treated, including 11 overdoses. There reportedly was a baby born at the festival, a nice but still unverifiable story to balance the one known death – a skydiver, Willard J. Smith of Syracuse, was carrying flares strapped to his leg, that exploded before he touched ground.
“I remember seeing him, he was just shooting off those colored flares coming down, and then there was a treeline where we lost sight of him,” Page says.
Sanitary facilities in the concert area, planned for 150,000, were inadequate and the water supply was short. Rock fans told of waiting in line for up to two hours for a jug of water.
The negative reaction from the community was swift. By Aug. 22, 1973, a 120-day moratorium on gatherings of more than 5,000 people was passed by the Schuyler County legislature.
Three months after the music stopped, about 25 residents and families living in the area of the Grand Prix circuit sued the promoters, their corporation, health officials, and just about everybody associated with Summer Jam. The claim was that the crush of people resulted in property and livestock damage and general disruption of the area. . The suits were settled out of court in 1982.
“It cost `em a lot of money, but really there weren’t too many bad complaints about anything,” Page says.
“We hiked back down the hill of course, and had to hike all the way to the Rambling Brook Inn (in Millport) before we got picked up,” Decker says. “We had giant blisters and a lot of stories when we got back.”