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Jan. 16, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 6


Play a song for me

In the golden age of concerts, celebrated artists made Princeton a stop on their tours

By W. Barksdale Maynard ’88
Published in the January 16, 2013, issue

Bill Lockwood ’59 made use of three campus venues: Alexander Hall, which seated 1,000; Dillon Gym, 3,200; and ­eventually Jadwin Gym, 8,000.
Bill Lockwood ’59 made use of three campus venues: Alexander Hall, which seated 1,000; Dillon Gym, 3,200; and ­eventually Jadwin Gym, 8,000.

James Taylor opened his show in Dillon in 1970 by quipping that he had hoped to avoid college by becoming a singer. Near the end the audience was astonished to see folk musician Joni Mitchell join him on stage. The crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to her — she had just turned 27.

Rick Shea ’73 remembers a technical glitch that night: “Suddenly a loud crackle and the PA system went silent. A murmur rippled through the crowd, but Taylor just kept picking those familiar chords until the multitude became completely quiet. Then he began singing; no amplification, just an acoustic guitar.” Voices joined in until most in the audience — estimated to be 4,000 by the Prince — gently were singing along, ­“Rock-a-bye sweet baby James.”

Some of the best rock concerts were at McCarter, where, in one week in 1971, you could have heard singer and actor Kris Kristofferson (“Me and Bobby McGee”) — briefly joined on stage by Carly Simon — as well as Pink Floyd, ­earsplitting with its six-ton portable sound system. A year later, the English band Yes played there, quickly followed by the J. Geils Band, for which a novice was paid $500 as an opening act: Billy Joel, who played “Captain Jack” and “Piano Man.”

Lockwood made use of three campus venues: Alexander Hall, which seated 1,000; Dillon Gym, 3,200; and eventually Jadwin Gym, 8,000. Long known for violin concertos and drowsy Econ 101 lectures, the Victorian-era auditorium inside Alexander Hall seemed an unlikely home for rock legends. But now it saw thunderous performances, including Lynyrd Skynyrd as an opening act in 1973 when their song “Free Bird” had just begun propelling them to fame.

Allen Furbeck ’76 saw Hot Tuna there — “probably the loudest show I ever went to. My ears rang for three days.” Marc Fisher ’80 found the Ramones disappointing: “The band played all of 15 songs for about 35 minutes. The audience was stunned that the show ended so abruptly.”

In 1971, swaths of empty seats in Alexander Hall greeted a bearded Londoner who called himself Cat Stevens. Two years later, Bette Midler appeared in Alexander Hall, and students paid $2.50 to see a progressive band from England named Genesis, starring Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. A singer then known mostly in New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen, played two three-hour sets at Alexander Hall in 1974, a year before he hit the cover of Time magazine as “Rock’s New Sensation.”

Dillon Gym proved an imperfect ­setting for rock concerts, with its low ceiling, poor lighting, and seats scattered across the basketball court. But it hosted legendary acts in the Age of Aquarius, including the Lovin’ Spoon­ful, Simon & Garfunkel, Steppenwolf, Frank Zappa, Average White Band, and Jackson Browne. Ned Nalle ’76 saw the Beach Boys: “I remember the music amped up way too loud and classmates stuffing paper-towel bits in their ears as they danced.”

Doug Quine ’73 had an unforgettable encounter as he hitched a ride down-campus from a limousine passing Dillon Gym: “It was the Byrds!” Quine struggled to think of small talk — “What does one say? I asked how they transported their instruments from California. One of them sang a couple of lines: ‘I came from California with a guitar on my knee’ — the shortest Byrds concert in history, for a fortunate audience of one!”

The Grateful Dead’s invasion of Dillon on April 17, 1971 — Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang in tow — is famous among devotees for a quintessential performance of “Good Lovin’ ” by band member Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, then suffering from what would be fatal cirrhosis. “The concert was expensive, $10,000,” says Lockwood, a faithful Deadhead who treasures a cassette recording he made that night.

The band played until “well past midnight,” Lock­wood recalls, and “a substantial part of the audience, which was all students, was stoned out of their minds.” Concertgoers passed ­marijuana joints down the rows of seats, he says. According to legend, when a Princeton proctor demanded that ­shaggy singer Jerry Garcia extinguish his joint, Garcia snarled, “I’ll never play here again.” He never did.

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4 Responses to Play a song for me

Charlie Hickox '73 Says:

2013-01-14 10:44:13

1969 to 1973 were golden years of jazz, pop, and rock at Princeton. Your article illustrates some of the more poignant events of those years but leaves out a couple of my favorites: John Sebastian of Lovin' Spoonful fame playing an acoustic set during the student strike of spring 1970, Sir George Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony in the first Jadwin Gym concert, and John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra) playing in the Chapel. And let's not forget Derek & the Dominos playing at Rider College just down the street!

Leonard Lawson '71 Says:

2013-01-14 10:48:48

Did you forget The Miracles, The Four Tops, or Sam & Dave? I saw them all in Dillon Gym.

James "Putter" Cox '74 Says:

2013-01-15 09:22:20

Most interesting concert moment: Alexander Hall, probably 1972: John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra ... with opening act John Prine! Who put this one together? After several songs by Prine, someone in the restless crowd awaiting the main act yelled, "Get off the stage." Prine stepped back for a moment, then walked up to the mic and said: "The next song's called ... 'Get Off the Stage'!" He won them over.

Douglas M. "Ike" Eisenhart '72 Says:

2013-01-29 09:17:29

Three rock concert memories at Princeton (among many) come to mind: -- The aforementioned John Prine/Mahavishnu Orchestra double bill in Alexander Hall, which was indeed a complete mismatch, and therefore all the more memorable. -- James Taylor in Dillon Gym, Prince-Tiger Weekend, fall of 1970. Surprise guest: Joni Mitchell, I believe on her birthday. Most memorable moment: the mikes cutting out on "Sweet Baby James" encore, causing 3,000 people to fall totally silent and strain to hear only the sound of the two voices and acoustic guitar. -- Dave Mason rocking the house at McCarter Theatre a week or so before we graduated, May 1972. He was at his peak, on tour just after release of "Alone/Together" album. All magic Princeton musical memories.
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