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.