Despite the rumors that the Dead were breaking up, it was a typical Grateful Dead show for the times. The Hells Angels were out in force…it was rumored that a ramp had been built onto the stage to accommodate the bikes.
The Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic maintained its usual "office" at the back of the hall. It consisted of rows of tutti-frutti air bags with Indian rugs suspended on the ceiling, to accommodate those who had consumed too much of whatever, which, given the times, might include the Dead themselves.
And there was the Dead's extended family, which wandered on and off the stage, a vast circus of soundmen, equipment haulers, bikers, dancers, dealers, soothsayers, and hangers-on.
One thing was different: the sound system, the biggest damn thing anyone had ever seen. It stretched right to the ceiling of Winterland, about forty feet straight up. Stacks and stacks of speakers, hundreds of them (604, I found out later), a veritable Twin Towers of sound.
"It's amazing, ain't it?" The fellow standing next to me was as Gobsmacked as I was.
"Yeah, it sure is," I said. We were standing on the floor, and even 50 feet or more from the stage, we were craning our necks to see the top.
Even then, the Dead's fans were divided into two groups. There was an older cadre of followers, mostly in their late 20's and 30's, grizzled fans with handlebar mustaches and sagging midriffs who had followed the Dead since their founding in 1965 and for whom the Summer of Love in 1967 was already a dim, hazy memory.
And there was a much younger crowd, mostly college students like myself.
This was one of the older guys.
"You know, that's him, standing there."
He gestured to a man standing to the left of the stage, with some kind of bottle in his hand.
"Man, I wonder what's in that bottle," he said.
I had no idea who I was talking to, no idea whom the person he was referring to was, and no idea when—or if—the Dead would show up.
This was also fairly typical of the times.
"That's him, man. I'm telling you, it's him."
"Who? Who is he?"
"Owsley. Man, that's Owsley." He whispered the name, like it was a mantra, a sacred name.
Owsley Stanley. Full name, Augustus Owsley Stanley III. Originally, the Dead's LSD supplier, indeed the supplier to the world, but that had stopped years before. He was the Dead's soundman, recording engineer, and creator of the monstrous speaker system in front of me.
It was called The Wall of Sound, and it was the largest sound system yet created.
After what seemed like a very long wait, promoter Bill Graham appeared in a white tuxedo, walked to the mike and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Grateful Dead."
They opened, to the delight of the crowd, with an old favorite: "Bertha." Several hours later, they closed with "Uncle John's Band" and "Johnny B. Goode," and an encore, "U.S. Blues," from the just-released "From the Mars Hotel" album.
Years later, when the Dead released a live album of those nights in Winterland, critics were not kind.
Not me. I loved it. The disco ball, the dancing girls whirling on the stage, the kids boogying barefoot on the sidelines, the angel-faced Donna Godchaux singing in tight jeans and t-shirt, and most of all the sound from those 600 speakers, the crystal-clear twang of Jerry's guitar and the crack of Kreutzmann's cymbals.
And that was it. The Dead played four more shows at Winterland, and then split up. The now-famous Wall of Sound system was sold to Bill Graham. With the exception of a few local San Francisco gigs—I saw them again in March, 1975, when they played Kezar Stadium in a benefit concert to raise funds for public schools for after-school sports--the Dead would not tour again until the middle of 1976.
By then, the world was changing. Disco was in full swing, and the hottest sounds in music were coming from what came to be known as new wave and punk: The Ramones, Blondie, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads.