Grateful Dead Celebrates “Long, Strange Trip” from Kezar to Levi’s® Stadium
It seems like an odd affiliation: the 49ers and the Grateful Dead. But these two San Francisco icons have a long-standing link to Kezar Stadium. They partner again on June 27-28 when the remaining members of the original Grateful Dead reunite for a 50th anniversary gig at Levi’s® Stadium.
Jerry Garcia, frontman for the Grateful Dead and a native San Franciscan, was a life-long 49ers and San Francisco Giants fan. Years before he sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Giants 1993 Candlestick Park opener, Garcia “talked about doing ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ at halftime of a 49ers game,” according to the band’s biographer, Dennis McNally. Unfortunately, “it hadn’t panned out.”
During the late 1960s, when the 49ers played home games at Kezar Stadium on the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park, Grateful Dead band members resided just six blocks away. Known as the “Grateful Dead house” at 710 Ashbury Street, Garcia, Bob Weir, “Pigpen” McKernan, Phil Lesh and other musicians made it their crash pad of choice from 1966-1968. The beautifully restored Victorian building is now a regular stop on any tour of the city.
At the time, the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets was ground zero for rock and roll, social revolution and 1967’s “Summer of Love.” On autumn Sundays, rabid 49ers fans flocked down Haight Street on their way to Kezar Stadium and often found themselves amidst a crew of long-haired, exotically-dressed hippies. Even the players were caught up in the scene. Pro Football Hall of Famer Dave Wilcox, a 49ers linebacker from 1964-1974, vividly recalled the sights, sounds and smells of the neighborhood.
“Me and (linebacker) Matt Hazeltine use to drive together down Haight Street on the way to Kezar for games,” Wilcox recalled. “That seemed to be when a lot of hippies were out mingling around. It was a different era. There was a lot of music and dancing. People looked like they were having a good time. We enjoyed getting to see everything that was going on.”
The Grateful Dead often hosted impromptu Golden Gate Park jam sessions and were at the forefront of bands performing for local non-profit and charity organizations. They were slated to be one of the headliners at Kezar Stadium, the 49ers home field, for the “Wild West Show” from August 22-24, 1969. Several days earlier the 49ers hosted the Dallas Cowboys in a preseason game at Kezar. The three-day music and arts festival arranged by Bill Graham booked an incredible lineup of all-star Bay Area bands that included the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sons of Champlin, Michael Bloomfield, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Steve Miller Band.
Unfortunately, the festival was abruptly canceled at the last minute due to security concerns. Most probably, in light of the Woodstock Music Festival that took place the previous week in New York from August 15-18,1969, city officials grew wary of hosting a similar event. The possible logistical problems caused by thousands of rock-and-roll enthusiasts converging on the 49ers home field seemed overly daunting
The Grateful Dead finally had the opportunity to play at Kezar several years later. On May 26, 1973 they performed a masterful four-hour concert there on a scorchingly hot day. The show, advertised as promoter Bill Graham’s first “Day on the Green,” is widely regarded by Grateful Dead aficionados as one of the band’s finest San Francisco gigs. Garcia, Lesh, Weir, Keith Godchaux and company played 32 songs over three sets. They opened the show with “The Promised Land” and ended with an encore performance of “Casey Jones.” New Riders of the Purple Sage and country music legend Waylon Jennings also were on the bill.
Jerry Garcia and friends made another appearance at Kezar Stadium on March 23, 1975. This time they played a benefit called the SF SNACK concert (San Francisco Students Need Athletics, Culture and Kicks). The fundraiser helped provide needed cash to San Francisco public schools for extracurricular student programs and activities.
During all his years traveling with the band Garcia never lost interest in the 49ers. McNally recalled Garcia trying to catch a game during the Montana-Rice era. Late in the contest, the 49ers were trailing and Garcia, unable to watch any longer, left his room visibly agitated.
“On the last play of the game, Joe throws to Jerry Rice, who runs about 70 yards for a touchdown,” McNally said. “49ers win. I cheer, and go downstairs to the van for a ride to that night’s gig. As usual, Jerry came down to the early van. While he could sometimes be quiet, this time he was still seething. I asked him if he’d seen the final play of the game. ‘Naah, I got so mad I turned off the TV,’ Jerry said. When I explained what had happened, he immediately cheered up and, as I recall, played a wickedly good show that night.”
For their reunion performance original Grateful Dead musicians Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir will be joined at Levi’s Stadium by guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, and pianist Bruce Hornsby.
Memorabilia from the 49ers early days at Kezar, including artifacts from the colorful Haight-Ashbury neighborhood adjacent to the stadium, are on display at the 49ers Museum presented by Sony. Guests also can walk through the Hall of Fame gallery where life-size statues of the club’s 26 Hall of Famers can be seen. For more information on Museum tickets, hours and content, visit levisstadium.com/Museum. For group pricing call 415-GO-49ERS.
By Joe Hession
49ers Museum historian