The late 1960s and early 1970s were prime for the Grateful Dead, as the band wrestled through the country’s political turmoil with their unique brand of performances. The Dead’s psychedelic-inspired journeys incorporated countless elements of the musical spectrum tied directly to the counterculture movement. One directly topical song they produced was “New Speedway Boogie”, a shuffling blues number penned by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia. Though the song would ultimately appear on the Workingman’s Dead album in early 1970, it made its live debut on December 20th, 1969, at The Fillmore West in San Francisco, CA.
According to Hunter, the song was written as a direct response to a popular article by famed San Francisco music critic Ralph J. Gleason published just after the tragedy of Altamont. The free concert was held outside San Francisco at the Altamont Raceway Park and organized by The Rolling Stones with help from the Grateful Dead, but quickly fell apart due to poor planning and led to the murder of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter at the hands of the Hells Angels. Gleason, like many both then and now, saw the tragedy as the end of the counterculture movement.
“New Speedway Boogie” opens with the line “Please don’t dominate the rap, Jack, if you’ve got nothing new to say,” which Hunter said referred to Gleason. In the aftermath of Altamont, many fingers began placing the blame on the Grateful Dead since San Francisco was their home turf and they did advocate for the Hells Angels to provide security considering their early history of employing the outlaw motor club at concerts.
Hunter said of the lyrics,
Jack was [writer] Ralph J. Gleason, and why are you laying all this blame on us? It was badly conceived to move that thing from Golden Gate Park. We were going to do the show for free there, and then suddenly after the Rolling Stones were involved, San Francisco said no, so we went to Altamont. Had to do it. Now is it our fault or is it the San Francisco city council’s fault that that went down? Who’s to say, you know, so in time we may understand. That’s what the song says, and in time we may not understand.
Altamont occurred on December 6th, 1969, and the song was debuted just two weeks later in San Francisco. Interestingly enough, “New Speedway” was only played on a handful of occasions in 1969 and 1970, before ultimately being shelved until 1991. You can hear that fateful debut version played 53 years ago today, thanks to this recording on Archive.org uploaded by Jonathan Aizen.
Grateful Dead – The Fillmore West – 12/20/69 – Partial Audio
Courtney Barnett – “New Speedway Boogie” [Grateful Dead cover] – Mountain Jam 2016
One way or another, this darkness got to give…
[Originally published 12/20/16]