(Photo of Jerry Garcia at Woolsey Hall by Joe Sia)
Between 1972 and 1975, I worked at the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. We used to get an hour for lunch, which was pretty nice, but I’ve never been a big lunch eater. Most days I would wander down the street to Rhymes or Cutler’s Record Shop and sort through the import record section for any LP’s with cool vintage guitars on the cover. Another favorite pastime was to go over to Woolsey Hall with a cup of coffee and play my guitar.
The Beinecke Rare Book Library is one side of a plaza at Yale created with Woolsey Hall and a dining hall. Woolsey Hall is one of Yale’s premier performance spaces. Its main lobby was on a well-worn path between colleges and generally unlocked to allow students to cut through and save time. The actual Performance Hall was always locked. Most of the time I would just go up the hallway from the lobby to a balcony for some privacy.
This one time, I was sitting there with a cup of coffee and I could hear guitar playing. It was 1:00 in the afternoon (not a time for performances), so I was curious. I tried the main Hall doors and found them unlocked. I quietly entered and sat in the very last row. To my amazement, on the stage was Jerry Garcia and one or two other people. Jerry was plugged in and playing some crazy good stuff. It’s too bad the iPhone hadn’t been invented yet.
I was there for about 20 minutes before one of the people on the stage noticed me. He came back and told me to leave. I explained that wasn’t really an option and that I promised to sit and be quiet. We finally agreed that I could stay as long as I didn’t move from my seat and made no effort to interact or disturb Jerry.
I asked where the rest of the band was and why was he sound checking by himself. He explained that Jerry liked to check out performance venues and play by himself as a way of connecting with the space before every show: “to get to know the room.”
Sitting there I could not help but think of how insane it was. I was the only one in the audience with Jerry standing alone on the stage of Woolsey Hall for about two hours lost playing the sounds inside his head. If I was the kind of person who liked to eat lunch, I would have missed it. When he was finished playing, he looked back at me and waved. True to my word I smiled and left, getting back to work from lunch quite late. The date was 10/22/1975 and I’m pretty sure Jerry was playing his white Travis Bean guitar.