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The Grateful Dead in Morgantown in 1983

Posted by Jessica McMillen.
June 22nd, 2020

Blog post by Lee Maddex, Archives Processing Assistant, WVRHC.

On April 10, 1983, the legendary San Francisco rock group, the Grateful Dead, played the West Virginia University Coliseum to much ado. Formed in 1965, the Dead forged their own musical path over the next thirty years, playing well over 2,300 concerts. Often perceived as a 1960s psychedelic throw-back band, the Grateful Dead had their roots in folk and jug band music and jazz and played a sophisticated blend of rock and roll, jazz, country and blues (now is known as roots music or Americana). The group disbanded in 1995 following the death of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia. This blog post touches briefly on the actual concert, but mostly examines the local and student reaction to the Grateful Dead and their followers coming to Morgantown.

Now nearly four decades later, it is easy to forget how popular the Grateful Dead once were, but in the early 1980s, the Grateful Dead were extremely popular with college students on campuses across the United States. WVU was no exception and our campus had a couple hundred ardent Dead fans known as Dead Heads. Not an overwhelming number but we had our fair share. In fact, when the local Grateful Dead cover band Nexus played downtown at the Underground Railroad (now 123 Pleasant Street), it was always packed with students and locals alike, dancing to the songs of the Dead until closing time. So, when the WVU Pop Arts Committee announced that the Grateful Dead were to play the WVU Coliseum on April 10 there was excitement both on campus and around the state. Tickets went on sale at the Coliseum on Sunday March 13 at 1:00pm. A sizeable crowd of students and fans camped out inline starting late Saturday night to get the best tickets when the box office opened the next day.

Invitation to Grateful Dead concert
The Go Go’s, Flock of Seagulls, Pat Benatar, Kenny Rogers, and the Oak Ridge Boys all played the WVU Coliseum during the 1982-83 academic year.

However, this excitement for the Grateful Dead concert was not shared by the local law enforcement. Morgantown Chief of Police John Cease was not very sanguine about the Grateful Dead coming to campus and was clearly in near panic over the concert. In a Dominion Post article dated Friday April 8, 1983, Cease said that the Grateful Dead were “notorious for its almost “cult-like followers” and that “we are anticipating we will probably have some motorcycle guys in here Sunday.” Cease went on to say “come Sunday, there will be an influx of persons into Morgantown [and] typically, Grateful Dead followers camp out rather than lodge in hotels…and that there have been “situations where people camp out on public grounds, private buildings and vacant buildings without much regard to those whose property they were on.” He concluded “It is the group activities before and after the concert that have presented the most direct threat to communities.” Fortunately, not all the local officials were in a state of panic. Cease acknowledged that the “university officials” stated that they are “well attuned to planning for the concert.” Cease’s near hysteria was remarkable considering on any given home football weekend, Morgantown experienced a huge influx of sports fans, many rowdy and law enforcement had no trouble handling the football crowd.

The Pop Arts Committee was the student-elected group tasked with bringing concerts to campus. Starting in the mid-1970s, they brought many big-name musical acts to the Coliseum, such as Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, America, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the Doobie Brothers, Boston, and many others. However, by 1980 the Pop Arts Committee struggled to bring in national touring bands because of the restriction prohibiting hanging equipment from the Coliseum’s dome. It was believed that the weight of this equipment would structurally compromise the Coliseum. Eventually it was determined that it was safe to hang lights and speakers from the dome. The Grateful Dead were one of the first bands permitted to hang their equipment hung from the dome.

The rumor on campus after the show, was that the Grateful Dead caught wind of this story (likely from the student stagehands, who worked the show) and that the Dead, ever the pranksters, wanted to test the structural soundness of the Coliseum. To that end, they opened the show with Samson and Delilah, a loud, rocking song that had the chorus “If I had my way, I would tear this old building down.” The Dead tried their best to tear down the Coliseum, but they, thankfully, failed.

Bob Weir
Rhythm Guitarist Bob Weir. Weir is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is still on the road performing Grateful Dead music

The Dead, however, did succeed in getting the audience up and dancing for the entire show! And by the end of the concert, the Coliseum crowd had enjoyed a typical early 1980s Grateful Dead concert. From the Samson and Delilah opener to the U.S. Blues encore, the setlist included songs ranging from their earliest days with Me and My Uncle to the 1970s with Uncle John’s Band and Sugar Magnolia to newer songs like Althea and My Brother Esau to the future top twenty hit Touch of Grey, that opened the second set. The concert was fair to middling musically, nothing too stellar, just some well-played “good old Grateful Dead.” However, without a doubt, everyone left the Coliseum with a smile on their face.

Local and student reaction to the concert was a mixed depending on who was commenting. The Dominion Post reporter, who clearly did not attend the show reported the next day “An influx of dead heads into Morgantown during the weekend to attend a rock concert turned a lot of heads, but for the most part passed without incident.” The reporter went on to say that only one concert goer had been arrested by the end of the show “for public indecency and intoxication.” (Oddly enough, this arrest occurred right in front of this author.) Police Chief John Cease, whose dire predictions did not come to pass, noted “Sunday…night passed without incident.”

The Daily Athenaeum sent student reporter Rich Gaw to the concert. His “jottings of a roving eye reporter” as he called them were published in the DA on Monday. It was clear that he did not get the Dead or the Dead Heads. Although the concert was a novel experience for Gaw (Dead Heads would disagree and say each show was a unique experience, a compelling reason to see more shows), he unwittingly captured the essence of the Grateful Dead concert experience. Gaw writes: “Outside the Coliseum, hordes of flowery vans flanked by gypsies are lined up in the parking lot. Lots of babies…Middle-aged women with long skirts parade in the blue entrance gate selling buttons, t-shirts, and tie-dye shirts.” He goes on “Concert starts. Coliseum transformed into traveling road show. Jerry’s harem weaving fluidly in the aisles, silhouetted against the exit gates. Going to Dead show is more a novelty than anything else. Like saying you’ve been to World Series…I watch some young man run up the aisles without clothing…I concluded that acid at a Dead Show is like hotdogs at a Yankee game…”

Jerry Garcia
Lead Guitarist Jerry Garcia. The song writing duo of Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter produced a canon of music that was superb with its beautiful melodies and timeless lyrics.

Laura Chiodo a contributor to the 1983 Monticola (WVU yearbook) had, for the most part, a better understanding of the Grateful Dead and their fans. She noted in the Monticola: “April 10, a rock and roll institution stopped in Morgantown. The Grateful Dead, followed by Dead Heads from across the nation, took concert attenders back to the days of peace, love and understanding. On the seats, in the aisles and with each other, Dead Heads danced throughout the two and a half-hour show. Guitarist extraordinaire, Jerry Garcia, laid down licks which proved why the Dead is such a mainstay in rock and roll history. Although many students did not attend, faithful Dead followers kept ticket sales from suffering…”

When it was all said and done, Morgantown survived the Grateful Dead and the Dead Heads. While there was one arrest, the Dead Heads did not run wild through the streets of Morgantown, destroying public property and the bikers never descended on the University City. The band and touring fans had the next day off, but they did not linger. Everyone moved on, heading to the next show in Binghamton, New York. And while Morgantown looked a little different in the Monday morning light, ultimately, the Grateful Dead left behind only memories and a few dozen of Grateful Dead related stickers on signs all around town.

Please note the Dominion Post and Daily Athenaeum newspapers and the Monticola yearbooks are available for use at the West Virginia Regional History Center.

There were multiple live recordings of the April 10, 1983 WVU Coliseum show available for your listening pleasure at archive.org.

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