Featured Column: A Personal History of Madison Square Garden
New York’s Madison Square Garden plays host to boxing matches, professional teams in two major sports leagues, and concerts of all types. While I have been inside the building thirty-three times, I have only seen two types of events there: Grateful Dead concerts and Phish shows on New Years’ runs. That would seem like an insufficient mix of events to have much of a history, but four of my favorite concerts I have ever attended were in the Garden, two from each band.
September 19, 1990 was a time of transition for the Dead. Brent Mydland had just passed leaving keyboard duties to Vince Welnick. Vince was the sole keyboardist for the first few shows of the fall but Bruce Hornsby came on to assist by the time they hit the Garden. The pre-reaction by the Deadhead scene to Bruce being a part time band member was terror. He has top 40 hits, so clearly he was going to ruin the entire Grateful Dead experience and make them into a pop band. Instead, he inspired Jerry to jam more. He loved to throw references to “Dark Star” and “Playin’ in the Band” in the middle of other songs. The 19th was his 4th show with the band and the rust had been shaken loose. Every song had something extra, from the extended “Slipknot!” and “Franklin’s Tower” jams to the exceedingly high energy “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” to the “Stella Blue” where Bruce’s piano fills interplayed with Jerry’s vocals to create an incredible work of beauty. The surprise highlight to the show was the second set “Let It Grow” – the song was stuck in the first set closing spot for years before this night – which led into a long jam that had only guitarists and keyboard players involved.
Eight days shy of a year later, I was lucky enough to have 8th row seats. I settled in early to see Bruce demonstrating some song ideas to a guest. I didn’t know who he was until someone a few rows in front of me screamed out, “Hi Branford!” and received a wave in return. Branford Marsalis occasionally sat in with the Grateful Dead, most notably in an incredible “Eyes of the World” that was released on Without a Net. This night he sat in for the entire show, giving extra texture to “Shakedown Street” and “Turn On Your Lovelight,” but also inspired them to play some rarities like “High Time,” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” The second set is anchored around an incredible segment of “Help -> Slip -> Franklin’s, Estimated -> Dark Star” which by itself would be a highlight of any era for the band.
While the Dead peaks I saw at the Garden all involved personnel changes, the great Phish shows only had Tom Marshall as a sit in. Both in the “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” of 12/31/95 and the “Harpua” on 12/30/97, he came out to sing a version of a recent hit. The two Phish nights were about the jams – 1995’s “Runaway Jim,” “Mike’s Song,” and “Weeakapaug Groove,” 1997’s “AC/DC Bag” and “McGrupp,” match with the best versions they’ve ever played – but also the energy; see the “Johnny B. Goode” that ended 12/31/95 for an incredible rendition. When people go on about how Madison Square Garden produces incredible shows, those nights are perfect examples.
While those four nights were the big ones for me, there were also quite a few others that were also impressive. The 9/24/88’s rainforest benefit suffered by Jerry having end of tour laryngitis – the inevitable Crazy Fingers for the rain theme was rather painful – but had some surreal special guests. Hall and Oates with the Grateful Dead is a combination no one ever expected to see and to have a Robyn Hitchcock song performed with Suzanne Vega provided an element of NYC hipsterness to the affair. While 9/10 was the cream of the 1991 crop, I saw 7 out of the 9 shows on that run and most of them were very good. The first four all had a jam off of “Dark Star” or “Playin’” and the 7th had a surreal personal moment that stuck in my memory.
The cops had decided that year to try to stop any sort of lot scene getting created. In order to do so, they abused loitering laws. It was OK to hang out outside the Garden as long as you walked in slow circles. I bought some fabric paint and made some really bad t-shirts to commemorate the moment. One had an apple on legs and had a line from “Comes a Time” on the back: “Walking all morning, been walking all night.” I wore it to 9/16/91 and was rewarded with my only version. On the Phish side 12/29/97 had the great Blues Brother moment in the “Possum,” 12/30/95 is a high energy show all around that mainly suffers from being surrounded by two all time classics, and no one who was there would ever forget the first time Phish played Madison Square Garden in 1994. Hearing 20,000 people chant “Wilson” for the first time was the moment when we all knew that Phish had indeed made it.
More than anything, that’s the reason why I hate the remodel of the building. I know that most people mourn the loss of the rings that circled around the upper deck and gave a great place to see and dance, but what is lost for me is the sense of continuity. Even as late as 2010, when I was looking up at the portals in the upper level, I was able to remember the time where a 22 year old version of me was dancing in that area with a group of great people. I could see the spot where someone tried to pickpocket me in 1988 because I was dancing to “Space” so he assumed I was tripping. There are so few buildings left standing where the Grateful Dead played regularly. For those of us who made the transition, it’s painful to lose one more place to look around and remember the feeling of seeing Jerry. Madison Square Garden still stands and the outside is still the same, so there’s some of that, but the remodel lost the feel.
Still though, with every loss there’s a new opening. I’m writing this in a hotel room in southeastern Manhattan on the morning of a new New Year’s Run. Maybe there isn’t the chance to bring back the old nostalgia, but it’s a cleaner slate Phish. Let’s create something new!
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page