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New Year's Eve 1978: The Grateful Dead's 8-Hour Concert, With Breakfast After

Entertainment | December 29, 2019

The Grateful Dead perform at Winterland on December 31, 1978 in San Francisco, California. Left to right: Bob Weir, Donna Godchaux, Jerry Garcia, Keith Godchaux, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart (hand only). Photo by Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty

Saying goodbye to San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom was not an easy task. The venue played host to thousands of memorable shows. It can be seen in music documentaries that span genre and it’s namechecked by some of the greatest artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Winterland’s final day of operation was on December 31, 1978, and to close out the year and the venue’s existence the final show was orchestrated by San Francisco’s own Grateful Dead.

Rather than perform a regular set (if such a thing exists for the group) they played an eight hour long concert that went into the New Year and featured drop-ins from the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Blues Brothers and Ken Kesey. As the sun rose and the band put down their guitars, they fed the audience breakfast before saying goodbye to the Winterland Ballroom for the last time. 

The Winterland Holds A Place In The Hearts Of Every West Coast Music Fan

source: Michael Zagaris

Built in 1928 as an ice skating rink, the Winterland became a part of rock n roll lore in 1966 when promoter Bill Graham began renting it out to accommodate surging audiences from the Fillmore West. By 1971 he was renting the Winterland full time and running weekly shows for artists like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Jefferson Airplane and pretty much anyone who could fill the 5,000-plus seats. The venue wasn’t just the home for flower children and rockers singing about their love of psychedelics: Bruce Springsteen recorded plenty of live sets there, and the Ramones packed the Winterland during their infancy. But the band who called the venue home was the Grateful Dead.

Home Court Advantage

source: Dead.Net

For music fans in the Bay Area, seeing the Dead at Winterland in the ‘70s was like catching a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge - you didn’t have to go our of your way to make that happen. Between 1968 and 1978 the Dead played at Winterland a whopping 59 times. They recorded pieces of their 1971 live album at the venue, they played there five nights in a row while filming The Grateful Dead Movie in 1974, and when they returned from Egypt in 1978 they played another five-night run. Winterland wasn’t just another place to play, it was home, it was a place where they felt safe. The band could step on the stage and do whatever they wanted.

One Last Hurrah

source: Rhino Records

It didn’t matter who was playing at Winterland, be it the Sex Pistols (who played their last-ever concert there in January 1978) or Tom Petty, plaster rained from the ceiling, covering the audience on a nightly basis. Repairs were estimated at $350,000, a cost that the Winterland’s owners refused to deduct from Graham’s rent if he went ahead with repairs. Instead of fixing the place up on his own dime Graham asked the Dead to send the old girl off with an unforgettable show.

To make sure the show was special, the band did something rare: they rehearsed. The Dead reworked some old songs and figured out how to integrate old favorites long dropped from their show back into their set. The show wasn’t just a wake for the Winterland, it was a look back at the last decade for the group.

Like A Wake But With More Drugs

source: Michael Zagaris

It may not snow in San Francisco, but on New Year’s Eve 1978 it certainly did. Aside from booking the Grateful Dead, Bill Graham also hired the Blues Brothers to play the show. That night the band - John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and their crew of miscreants - showed up with an entourage that included members of the Saturday Night Live cast that included Bill Murray and Deadhead Al Franken, and a lot of cocaine. 

Aside from the Not Ready for Primetime Players, the Hell’s Angels were also hanging around and snorting everything they could. Bill Graham was understandably upset with this raucous addition to the wake for his club, but the only thing to do was keep the bikers happy. Dead road manager Steve Parish told SF Gate

They started pouring in the place. They literally took the backstage over. There were hundreds of them. We gave everyone onstage a dose of acid. That was our way of dealing with it.

Zero Days Since 'Dark Star' In San Francisco

dead dot net

While waiting online for the show one Deadhead held a sign that read: "1535 Days Since Last S.F. 'Dark Star.’” The song that was once a regular part of the group’s set had become a legend, a fan favorite (and gateway to famous extended improvisations) that the band almost never played anymore. The Dead took the stage at midnight under a hail of balloons. Bill Graham, dressed as Father Time, rode a massive joint across the audience. The Dead were in rare form.

During the second set Lee Oskar of War and Gregg Errico of Sly and the Family Stone hopped onstage for a lengthy drum solo. Ken Kesey set off a small bomb of the “Thunder Machine” created by Ken Babbs of the Merry Pranksters.

To begin the band’s third set of the night, Jerry Garcia played the notes that had been absent for so long in the city: The beginning of “Dark Star.” The 12-minute exploration of the song (which was a brief 2:40 in its studio version) thrilled the audience and filled them with memories of a time long ago. The sign reminding the audience that it had been “1535 Days” since the song was played in San Francisco lazily fell from the balcony and disappeared on the floor.

Buy The Ticket Take The Ride, Or Just Watch It On TV

source: rhino records

It goes without saying that the show was sold out long before the Dead took the stage. Not only was this the last time the Dead would be playing Winterland, it was the last time anyone was playing. Even if you’d only been to one show at the former ice skating rink, you wanted to be at the last one. At a press conference two weeks out from the show Bill Graham said that he could have sold half a million tickets, and his claim gave radio executive Jeff Nemerovski an idea.

Rather than only allow 5,000 people to enjoy the show why not let the entire Bay Area in on the fun? Nemerovski convinced KQED-TV to broadcast the show live while KSAN-FM provided the same show on the radio. In 2003 a nationwide 80 minute edit of the broadcast aired on PBS, coinciding with the DVD release of the four hour performance. 

Dead And Breakfast

source: SF Chronicle

As the sun rose over the San Francisco Bay, the Dead packed it in. After playing for hours on end they linked arms and took a bow; it wasn't just the end of the show, it was the end of an era. The Winterland was no more. With band and audience alike coming down Bill Graham served champagne along with ham and eggs. It had been a long night and what better way to begin the new year? The building stayed up until 1985, when it was finally demolished to make room for a $30 million, 304-room apartment complex.

Tags: Bill Graham | San Francisco | The Blues Brothers | The Grateful Dead | Winterland

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.