I attended the second-largest rock concert in history, the "Summer Jam" at Watkins Glen, New York, in 1973. Two months before, I'd flunked out of Cornell University, but I still had friends in Ithaca, and a group of us drove together to the show: my sister, her boyfriend, my girlfriend (Joan) and Steve Lapointe.
After about an hour, we reached the racetrack hosting the concert and parked. Like at Woodstock, the fences had been dismantled, the show was free and so we strolled on in. We quickly pitched a tent, and then walked around to check out the scene.
The crowd filled the bowl of our valley like a vast puddle of gray oatmeal. The audience was peaceful, or should I say "sedated." It was a very marijuana crowd, though a cornucopia of drugs no doubt was present, as well as beer. Everyone remembers the hippies as colorful, but by the 1970s, the dull blue of denim had settled over most of us. Also, this was before America became a multicultural place. The crowd had no Asians and nearly no African-Americans.
Suddenly, I ran into Joey Fishman. Joey was the kind of guy who always had the inside track on everything. If you wanted a refrigerator for your dorm room, a bag of marijuana or a rare record, Joey could find it. At Watkins Glen, Joey set his mind to reaching the front row. Joey and I gently but persistently wended our way towards the stage. When we got around two-thirds of the way there (everyone was standing), we hit a psychic wall. Here were the serious rock fans. They wouldn't let anyone penetrate them. But we were close enough, as the Grateful Dead began their set with "Bertha."
At one point, I looked up in the sky and saw a parachutist drop from an airplane. Suddenly, there was a bright flash of light. I returned my attention to the stage. The next day I learned that the man was carrying two flares that caught fire, and I had watched his death.
Watkins Glen was not truly a "festival," as the term is typically used. It was only one day, and only three bands played. Woodstock had offered a variety of musicians: Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Sha Na Na, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix. Watkins Glen had three variants of the same white blues-rock: the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and The Band.
But the music was lovely. Deadheads are fond of boasting that the band always "chokes" at historic shows, but this was untrue of Watkins Glen — though the lapidary music of The Band did quietly eclipse them. As for the Allmans, I missed much of their three hour performance — I began to worry about my friends in the tent and headed back to find them. (In those primitive times, people had built-in GPS — even hippies.)
Back at our tent, my group was bummed out (as we liked to say back then). They were too far away from the stage to enjoy the music, and they didn't like crowds. We drove away as the Allman Brothers played "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" ecstatically in the distance.
The "festival" made no lasting impression on the culture. First of all, it had a terrible name. There was no "Watkins Glen Nation," no anthemic song.
By the time we reached Watkins Glen/We were 600,000 strong ...
Rumors that Bob Dylan would appear had been rife (as they often were in those days), but of course he didn't show. The concert was characterized by his absence, and by the absence of any residual idealism of 1969. And a man had died, incinerated before a multitude. I will give you his name: Willard Smith.
Within two years, punk and disco would begin to divide and conquer the homogenous horde of quasi-hippies at Watkins Glen. Never again would 600,000 people agree on three bands.