SUMMER JAM, WATKINS GLEN, NY
Excerpt from "AQUARIUS RISING" by Robert Santelli
The largest crowd that ever gathered for a rock festival did so at Watkins Glen, New York, in July of 1973. Outdrawing the previous high at Woodstock almost two to one, more than 600,000 young people sardined themselves into the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway for a single-day festival known as the Summer Jam. Featured groups were the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and the Band.
Many historians claimed that the Watkins Glen event was the largest gathering of people in the history of the United States. In essence, that meant that on July 28, one out of every 350 people living in America at the time was listening to the sounds of rock at the New York state racetrack. Considering that most of those who attended the event hailed from the Northeast, and that the average age of those present was approximately seventeen to twenty-four, close to one out of every three young people from Boston to New York was at the festival.
600,000 at Watkins Glen listen to the Gratetful Dead. The turnout was the largest for a rock festival. Picture by Shelly Finkle
And yet, aside from the stupendous attendance figures, the musical and social significance of the event was minimal compared to, say, Woodstock or even Altamont. Watkins Glen is more important for what it wasn't.
It was not a history-making event, in a strict musical sense. Unlike Woodstock, where the lineup consisted of close to thirty acts, Watkins Glen's billing was comprised of only three supergroups. The Allman Brothers, the Band, and the Grateful Dead were established acts (the latter two were Woodstock veterans); all had been on the touring circuit and in the recording studios for at least three years. The groups' fans, perhaps the most dedicated around in 1973, had most likely seen them perform live at least once or twice prior to Watkins Glen. They had come to expect certain things from the musicians. In short, there was no overly excited rush to the stage generated by their mere presence at Watkins Glen.
Each of the three groups at Watkins Glen played unusually long sets. The Grateful Dead performed for five hours, the Allman Brothers for four, and the Band for three, including a thirty-minute break due to a thunderstorm. Woodstock had had a continuous change of musical formats and styles. Each time a new act stepped out in front of the massie [massive?] crowd, a revitalization occurred, creating a renewal of faith in the event and in the power of the music. Energy was forced to flow.
At Watkins Glen a feeling of monotony and tedium constantly challenged the viewers' interest in the music and the proceedings onstage. Long, winding solos were frequent. The heat, the lack of comfort, and the crowded conditions dulled otherwise stirring moments. Many of the 600,000 could barely see the stage, let alone the musicians. And most important, festivalgoers had only one day to soak up the rock-festival aura. Many in attendance were often too busy doing and seeing other things to bother to listen seriously to the music for extended periods of time.
Woodstock also had had two sets of lps and a movie to carry on its significance. No such enduring properties came out of Watkins Glen. Although the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band had their own sound people record their sets, the Dead would not give their consent to a Watkins Glen album. Their participation was crucial, since they represented over one third of the music and time performed onstage. CBS shot some footage of the event, but the Dead refused to allow it or any other film to be released commercially. Their unyielding position on the matter stemmed all the way back to Monterey, when the band had refused to participate in D. A. Pennebaker's film of the event, Monterey Pop. The Dead had always demanded full editorial control of their music and live performances. Whenever they were denied such power, they simply declined to be part of the project.
Watkins Glen did not register with the political portion of the youth culture as had some festivals in the past. To have 600,000 young people at one time in one place would have been the ultimate dream for any sixties radical. But that was just it—the sixties were over. The Vietnam War was over; the peace agreement had been signed in January of that year. Not that there was a lack of issues. Watkins Glen could easily have been an immensely powerful response to Nixon and the Watergate scandal. But the youth of the nation had grown tired of being politically active. Many had tasted the partial delight of seeing some peace in Southeast Asia and felt it was enough. The word most commonly associated with the Watkins Glen festival, according to those reporters who covered the event, was "party."
For some young people there Watkins Glen merely represented a summertime retreat from the city that just happened to include the sounds of rock music. For the neophytes, however, Watkins Glen was an opportunity to experience a rock festival in abbreviated fashion, and they relished every minute of it.
All this added up to the fact that the protests, the placards, the defiance, and the true revolutionary zeal of the young had actually subsided. Enter the "me" decade. The 1970s had finally arrived.
But Watkins Glen did point out that rock music was alive and well, and that there still remained within the youth culture a seemingly unquenchable desire to attend rock festivals. Young people still marveled at the power of such gatherings. Young people wanted to be there, had to be there.
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