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Deadheads on Campus

September 30, 1972

There were thousands of tie-dyed, dancing young people on the AU athletic field on September 30, 1972, but nobody was counting, because there were no tickets and the music was free. When the Grateful Dead broke into “Truckin’,” the beat could be heard for blocks around.

It was a legendary era in rock ’n’ roll, and AU students had a front-row seat in music history. Chicago, the Allman Brothers, Sha Na Na, the Byrds, Little Richard, John Sebastian, and Mountain all came to campus.

Bonnie Raitt played in the Mary Graydon Center. Procul Harem played in the gym, and lead guitarist Robin Trower lost his guitar near the makeshift dressing room at Leonard Hall. It was never found—at least not by Trower.

Somehow the administration agreed to the influx of rock bands, recalls the student organizer behind many of the shows, Jan Goldsmith, SPA/BA ’73, now a judge and law professor in San Diego. “This was a time period when you had demonstrators closing down streets and burning things, so in the scheme of things, I guess they felt, ‘people singing? That’s wholesome!’”

But when the students nabbed an act as big as the Dead for a free show—free to students, that is, since the band’s fee was a then-controversial $20,000—Goldsmith and the Student Union Board got cold feet. Until the last minute, in a nervous effort to staunch off-campus crowds, they denied the band was coming.

It didn’t work. “Word quickly spread all over the country that the Dead were doing this outdoor free concert, and kids from all over came to this thing,” says Gary Gurner SOC/BA ’73, who was on the concert committee.

In the casual spirit of the time, the Dead’s roadies took a look at the forklift the students had rented for the band’s gigantic wall of sound equipment, and asked if anyone knew how to drive it. Gurner once had a summer job at a warehouse, so he volunteered.

“Foolishly, these people trusted me to do it,” said Gurner, now a TV writer whose credits include Rug Rats. He spent hours in the driver’s seat, with roadies balanced on the forks, 20 or 30 feet in the air, to move the equipment into place.

Meanwhile, the crowds of Deadheads who followed the band found their way to AU. “We were scared stiff things were going to fall apart, or people were going to riot,” Goldsmith recalls.

Then university chaplain R. Bruce Poynter estimated the crowd for  “five hours of high-decibel sound” at 12,000 to 14,000. He was anxious, too—but was pleasantly surprised. “It was a good-natured crowd, even a gentle crowd,” he wrote at the time, although “if one looked at the field after the people had gone, one wondered if this is in fact the ecologically sensitive generation or the throwaway culture.”

Gurner, though, never threw away his concert T-shirt. “It was an amazing show,” he says.

David Lemieux, the archivist for the Grateful Dead, agrees. He considers the September 1972 tour “one of the band’s best ever.” The band taped the AU show, and the soundboard recording can be downloaded—for free here, like the concert 35 years ago.