The Case for Cornell

cornellI can’t share any memories of the show, as I was just shy of 8 months old on 5-8-77.

But, like a lot of people, Cornell was in the very first batch of bootlegs I was given. Somewhere in early 1993, I want to say, I gave a high school friend a stack a Maxell XL II blanks, looking to get my hands on some Phish shows. He happily obliged, on one condition: he would include two Dead shows along with the Phish. I liked the Dead at that point, but what I knew of the band consisted mostly of the few CDs I’d purchased. I had Anthem of the Sun, Skeletons from the Closet and Terrapin Station, all picked up on the cheap at a used CD store without any foreknowledge of what they sounded like. I was happy to take what my friend had to share.

When he gave the tapes back, he included 7-16-90 and 5-8-77. I knew absolutely nothing of the shows, other than they were the recommendations of a friend that I trusted. For a year or so, they were all I listened to in my car. I fell in love with both shows, to be honest, although it was clear that the music on the tapes listed “Cornell” was special. I listened to them front to back, and flipped ’em over and stared again when they were done.

Perhaps there are better shows, objectively speaking, than 5-8-77, though I’d argue, objectively speaking, there may not be. The music is so outstanding, so incredible, it’s pretty much undeniable. The Scarlet > Fire combo is rightfully considered an all-timer, as is the Morning Dew. Dancing in the Streets is a top version, as is Not Fade Away. And not to be forgotten is that first set, which features tight and energetic versions of every song played, from the opening Mingelwood to the Jack Straw and Brown-Eyed Women.

Granted, as I’ve readily admitted, the tapes were one of my first true Dead experiences. So I’m biased. The music is elemental to my understanding of the band which became a lifelong love.

Sure, I’ll listen to arguments for 8-27-72 or 2-13-70 or any of a dozen other greats, if you want to say those shows are more deserving of the best-ever crown. Certainly shows and jams go deeper, pushing the boundaries in unique and risky ways. I’ve often made the case that 1972 is the band’s best year, so I can see why people gravitate to other shows and eras.

5-8-77 is, obviously, a 1977 show, and that’s why you don’t get the extended psychedelic freak-outs of a Dark Star, a Playin’, or an Other One.  Instead, you get the essence of the band at that point in its history, a peak in one of its greatest months.

And finally, part of the lore of the Cornell show comes from how highly traded the tapes became (and in high quality, too). I would guess my experience with Cornell is not uncommon. So if you think that the trading and sharing of bootleg recordings was one of the most important elements of the Grateful Dead, and that 5-8-77 was one of the most readily available shows, and that the music is at the upper echelon, and that therefore 5-8-77 may be responsible for turning on more Deadheads than any other show out there, now you’re suddenly making a damn good argument that it’s the “best” show ever. It’s the way I look at it.


2 thoughts on “The Case for Cornell

  1. Great story, great thoughts. Makes complete sense to me. That I can quarrel with Cornell (and I don’t, really) simply shows our surfeit of riches.


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