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History, Missing Persons, Music

Twilight of innocence: Summer Jam at Watkins Glen, 40 years ago this week. [video & audio]

Forty years ago this week, on July 28, 1973, about 600,000 people descended upon a race track at Watkins Glen, New York to attend what was, up until that time, the largest rock concert in the history of the world, called the Summer Jam festival. (Woodstock, which occurred four years earlier, had 400,000). The Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band and The Band performed–only three bands, and only one day, in marked contrast to Woodstock’s many bands and four days.

I have a little history with rock festivals, having attended Wacken Open Air–the largest heavy metal festival in the world, in Germany–11 times. Wacken is a pretty crazy scene, but at its peak it draws 70,000 to 80,000. Summer Jam had eight and a half times the number of people who attend Wacken in a given year! I simply can’t imagine almost nine Wacken Open Air festivals at once. The scene must have been awe-inspiring.

I think this would have been an awesome time. Good weather, a seemingly peaceful vibe, great music, good-looking women, long-haired guys with their shirts off, probably lots of beer…actually it sounds pretty damn close to Wacken!

In some ways I think Summer Jam was the last gasp of the innocent idealism of the 1960s generation. By 1973 that innocence had already taken a huge beating, after the horrors of assassinations, Charles Manson, Altamont, and the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago. (If you’re interested in that sort of thing, you should read the Daniel Pope interviews). After 1973 there were no huge festivals quite like this, on the Woodstock model, at least none that carried the same populist vibe, what we would now call “open source” (though Summer Jam and Woodstock were both very clearly business ventures). One man, Willard Smith, died at Summer Jam in a skydiving accident. And then there’s Mitchel Weiser and Bonita Bickwit, who are the source of my interest in this festival.

As documented in yesterday’s post, Mitchel and Bonnie, two teenagers from Brooklyn, were on their way to this festival–hitchhiking, as kids did freely in the ’70s–when they disappeared mysteriously. Tomorrow’s post will be about them.

But this post is about the show itself. Here is some audio of Grateful Dead performing at Watkins Glen, interspersed with a few photos.

And, here’s The Band, together with some fascinating reminiscences by someone who was there.

(Photo at the top of the page is by Jay Falvey, here is his Flickr).


In the original version of this blog I stated the date of Summer Jam was July 27. Actually it was July 28. I’ve corrected the error.


  1. BJ Rhatigan

    I was there 40 years ago. I was 20, and the concert held many firsts for me: my first rock concert, first time I hitch-hiked; and first time I dropped acid. And even in that huge crowd, they were all positive experiences. Everybody wanted it to be like Woodstock again – and we succeeded.
    About 8 pm on July 27th, 1973, two friends (Ed and John) and I were getting stoned at Ed’s house and heard about this concert on the radio. We grabbed some blankets and immediately set out to hitch-hike from Bricktown, NJ to Watkins Glen, NY. (250 + miles) I had $5 in my pocket (I was wealthy) – John and Ed had a bunch of weed and about $2 each. Got a ride right away with some people going to the concert.
    Got within about 7 miles until traffic came to a complete standstill, so we started walking. This was about 5~6 am July 28th.
    Someone was selling acid. I bought some. Within about an hour, my memory of what happened afterwards for the next 12 hours is kind of hazy.

    I do remember: Lots of weed being passed around. It got really hot – over 90 degrees. Because I was getting badly sunburned, I lay on the ground in a fetal position, and drapped the blanket, (an old olive green wool Army surplus number)(in 90 degree heat!) over me and started rocking to the music. I remember someone walking by stopped and asked one of my buddies – “Is he ok ?” And hearing the reply “Yeah, he’s just trippin. ” Then – “Oh, OK, cool ! ” ( I’m pretty sure I was not the only person tripping that day.)
    It says the Grateful Dead played for 4 hours – I only remember hearing one song – Truckin’.

    Later, we went looking for a restroom. There were a couple of dozen Port-a-Pottties, (for 600,000 people).
    They were so disgusting, we went to the woods. Then it started to rain. I think it was Ed who decided to get naked and take a shower in the rain showers. Someone gave him some soap, he got all lathered up, and then the rain stopped ! Then the sun came out and it got really hot again, so he got kind of itchy with all that dried soap under his jeans and tee shirt.

    I don’t recall the Band or Allman Brothers playing during the rest of the day at all. I know they did, but for me it was all kind of just background music.

    As evening came on, it started to really pour. That at least made Ed happy. And I was coming back from my trip. We found an abandoned food stand stall and, along with a few dozen other prople, appropriated it to get out of the rain. About midnight I fell asleep in the mud, with my head up against the boards of the wall. Then the Band, the Grateful Dead, and the Allman Brothers all started to jam together. Some guy who was sitting right above my head started kicking the wall in time to the music. That kind of woke me up. And even though I had not been drinking anything but water, I had the worst hangover. I asked the guy who was doing the kicking if he could go somewhere else. He said sure, said he was sorry, and he moved over about 6 inches. I went back to a partial sleep and woke up at sunrise the next morning. (July 29th) At least the hangover was gone.

    We started hiking home. As we were leaving we saw that somebody had set fire to the Port-a-Potties.
    I decided it was probably the best thing that could have happened to them.
    Since there were about 100,000 people trying to hitchhike out of there, and we didn’t have any pretty young girls with us, and we were all muddy, dirty and bedraggled, we ended up walking many, many miles. Probably close to 15. If you look at the pictures of the grounds after the concert, I suppose we probably resembled those pictures.
    Finally some guy and girl with a an old pickup let us ride in the back. We were cruising down the New York Throughway past some very beautiful countryside, all smoking some weed, when all of a sudden: BANG !!! It sounded like a huge explosion; and the truck slowed down and the driver pulled it over to the side of the road. We opened the hood of the truck. The bang had been the piston blowing through the sidewall of the engine. None of us had ever seen anything like that before, and although none of us were mechanics, we all knew that truck wasn’t going anywhere ever again. So my buddies and I went into the woods and let the the guy and girl start hitch-hiking first. They got a ride right away. Then we started hitching. Some really old psychiatrist (he must have been like 45 ! ) picked us up. He was very interested in our mindsets, and asked all kinds of questions all the way to New York City. We were probably the first ‘hippies’ he had ever spoken with. He dropped us off at Grand Central Station.
    Since we did not have quite enough cash left to buy bus tickets home, we started pan-handling. (Begging)
    We finally got the dollar or so we needed, and caught a bus back to Bricktown. Got back to Ed’s house about 9 pm that night. And for the first time in about 49 hours, we got some food.

    So 40 years ago that is how I spent the last weekend in July.
    And to this day, I’m still happy I did. Go figure.

    • Wow, wonderful story! Thanks for sharing with us!

    • i have really good photos from this show that were on slides so they have not been seen since then.if you want buzz me.

    • andrew

      that was awesome. cant believe you dont remember the band but hey weve all been there whethers its 1969 1973 2014

    • Mary Woods

      I was just watching a doc about the Allman Bros and there flashed a quick pic of the gargantuan sea of people at Watkins Glen…I am somewhere in that massive crowd. My 3 friends, Alyce and her bf Ken and my roomie Betty and I decided to drive up to the concert from Bucks Co, PA. We made a pack that they had to be at work Mon morning and would be leaving Sunday night no later than 8pm. If you’re not at the car by then, well, sorry but we have to leave you here. So be responsible and don’t get lost while you wander around the vast ocean of dazed human beings.
      I was the first one to drop some A and left our little tent to explore. I got so completely lost there was no way to find my way back and I spent the next 24 hours trying to find my friends. Never did find them. I don’t remember the music much.. well I listened to it being broadcast on the PA system but couldn’t see the bands. It started raining and I ducked into somebody’s tent who was nice enough to help me out. I had no money with me and no jacket. As time drew near, I knew I’d better get it together and figure out how I was going to get home. I knew my friends were in the car heading back. Walking around the sea of filth was astonishing. Not one single square inch without trash or old shoes or twisted up wet blankets.
      Well, I got in line with a lot of other stranded people and evenly got a ride to Brooklyn. I went to a used clothing store and got some clean clothes. I’d borrowed some money from a kind soul (and yes, I paid it back with a small gift once I got home), Since I didn’t have to be back to work until Thursday, I hung out in Brooklyn for a few days and had a great time. Took a bus and train home. My friends were part worried and part pissed off at me. No cell phones then, but I did call them from Brooklyn to say I was ok.

      I will never forget this and still think it was one of the best times of my life. It all turned out just fine and there was no violence. Only peace and love man. And that’s the truth.

  2. Randy Houser

    Check my 40th anniversary Facebook page.

  3. Jay

    Seems that there were a lot of people that hitchhiked there!!! Did so from Pittsburgh Got lucky when we hit the traffic jam by finding a local who drove some backroads to get to the concert site!! Met some nice girls from NJ and partied all day and night and then went to NJ with them. What a great SUMMER Thanks

  4. Bob Ott

    I was there with friends 1day prior to the festival. Way too many memories. Here are a few. So many people that if you were sitting and reached for something a line of people would appear walking through the space you created by leaning. Met the young sister of the doomed parachute man. She was lost so me and my friend Lee brought her to the State Police command center where her family was. We were so out of it when he came down in flames we thought it a bunch of cool flares. Walking into the Hell Angles tent to buy some pot. They laughed as us and walked us out. Bringing our passed friend Johnny to the aid station telling them he had a fatal disease. Much better than the Pocono Festival. Pulling up in a van to a secluded spot only to wake the next morning to a new neighbor who built an amazing stone fire place for cooking. Great music . Great time

    • Terrific story! Thanks for sharing it with us!

    • Pat

      My brother took me, Smitty took him skydiving one time. He went to Syracuse U…go Orange…Most of Fri. was sound checks, hope you caught them…Bird Song, OMG. watt an experience. I was 19, left my Bro to catch the show on my own. Miraculously, I remembered where he was parked

  5. thomas

    im working on getting the rest of the 1973 watkins glen slides done if anyone wants any photos let me know.also have rfk from same year.

  6. cindy weitzmann

    I was in 10th grade at the time. Drove up with a bunch of friends from Forest Hills, NY. We were right at the front of the stage. It was awesome. Walking through the crowd I saw my older brother. I thought I was hallucinating since my brother lived in Tucson, AZ and never told me he was going. It was pretty incredible and a moment I’ll never forget. Spotting him in a crowd of 600,000!!! It was the perfect lineup: Dead, Band & Allman Brothers. Lol, my mother still likes to remind me that she gave me $10 for the ticket. Ha, $10; can you imagine.

  7. Cheryl

    I was there. Graduated In June 1973 – 17 years old. Had to wait all summer before I turned 18 but talked the parents (Mom) into letting me go. Fortunately, I had a group of friends that rented a Winnebago and I got to tag along – so I lucked out as far as the arrangements went. Not a soul had any idea it would turn into the one of the largest rock concerts in history. Turned out to be experience of a lifetime – one I will never forget. I don’t remember a single negative experience, considering the size of the crowd and the torrential downpour in the middle of the concert. They were truly the days of Peace, Love, Dove, Watkins Glen.

  8. Mike McKenna

    Anyone have photos of the parachutes landing at the Festival? I was in the group that jumped with Smitty. I was flying a square red and white Paraplane Cloud. My only momentos are the letters and Fines from the FAA and State of NY. They were waiting for us at Smitty’s Wake. I still miss Smitty. The two other jumpers may wish to remain anonymous.

  9. Bruce Brooker

    Thank you! Thank You!! We traveled by VW from Fort Erie Canada. 5 of us. Arrived Fri night. Parked a couple miles from the site and walked in. Found a place to lay out our bedrolls, woke up early to a sea of people. Everybody millin about havin a great time, no bad vibes anywhere. Music everywhere. Made our way down to as close to the stage as we could get. I found a perch sittin on the front fender of a jeep parked beside a hospital tent…that’s where I sat all day…in the hot sun, in the rain.

  10. Chester

    Yup, I was there at the top of the hill in the camping area.
    Never cared for the DEAD until this concert.
    The BAND and the ALLMANs were disappointing as I recall.
    Fun people, hot.

  11. Steve Malone

    Wow, a friend just found this. I’m the guy on the far right of the photo. Just graduated from Liverpool HS and last big party with my high school friends.

    Innocence lasted a bit longer until after I moved to SF Bay Area (where else?). Still alive and still a fan of the Band. IOW still missing Levon since he went away. Saw the 40th anniversary of Last Waltz (really the end of the era) a couple of weeks ago. I remember the Band had to stop during the rain at summer jam and resumed their performance with “I shall be released”.

    We had a campsite a ways from the concert area. When they opened up the stage area the day before the show, we brought our sleeping bags down for the night. We were pretty far back (people on stage about half-inch tall) but next to a speaker tower so the sound was good (rare at that time for big concerts ) Although the concert area was packed, people kept trying to climb over the sleeping campers to get closer. Every time I fell asleep, sombody stepped on me and said “sorry man”. Vibe was good enough so it was more funny in it’s predictably than anything else.

    Also, the Dead played a sound check that was basically a set. And just as tight as New Years at Winterland (-:

    • Wow, cool! You’re the fellow with the glasses holding what appears to be a milk jug?

      Great story. So many people who were there have been sharing their stories in the comments. Sounds like a fascinating time!

      • Bill Parker

        I remember a very nice looking girl from Beverly, MA name of Katie Hammond asked me if I wanted to go to Summer Jam with her. Outstanding, I thought and ordered the tickets. The day we were to leave, she told me her parents would not let her go with me! Bummer but my friend Paul and I drove all night to get there about 2AM and there was a lot of traffic with all sorts of vehicles including army surplus stuff on the roads. We made it through the entrance and parked my Chevy Vega and pitched a tent to catch some sleep, about a half mile from the stage. Morning dawned and we were up and at ’em. Paul and I got close to the first line of speakers off to the left and watched the skydivers come down, not knowing that one was dying. We started drinking and smoking when the Dead came on-I think about 10AM and remember thinking “geez” these guys are going to put me to sleep! Paul and I got separated in the crowd so I wandered as close to the stage as I could when the Band came on-and then it rained like hell! There was nowhere to sit but the mud so I ended up sitting on top of the porta potties for relief and talked to people passing by. Since I had started partying so early, I was pretty trashed when the Allman’s came on-I wanted to see them but remember I was afraid that’s I’d pass out and left to find my car with Southbound playing. Woke up the next morning and missed most of the Allman’s and the Jam. My friend had tried to move my car in the middle of the night and pulled the tent down all around me! The next day, we hung out with some friends we ran into, one of whom was coming down off of acid so we took care of him, ate some canned Chef Boy Ar Dee, drove my car on the racetrack and hit the road. During the concert, I remember feeling lost and very alone, although there were 600,000 people there!

      • Steven Malone

        Not a milk jug; a water jug. There were giant piles of these placed around the concert grounds by the promoters to prevent dehydration.

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