Forty years ago Monday the Grateful Dead played in upstate New York at Cornell University’s Barton Hall. Memorialized as “5-8-77” on a million cassette tapes, it is considered their best, a legendary show, the band’s Holy Grail. A good friend ran the concert commission and assigned me, a lowly freshman, to turn on the house lights when the show ended. Things have changed over the past 40 years, but it took time to make out what was illuminated that night.
The Grateful Dead began playing in 1965 as the Warlocks, right before the flower-power era they ushered in. Their opening gig was a Wednesday night at a pizza joint named Magoo’s in downtown Menlo Park, Calif. I’d be surprised if more than 20 people showed up, but they still planted seeds of what you’ll recognize as modern innovation in the heart of what is now Silicon Valley.
Eventually a vast army of fans known as Deadheads arose. Though not me, as I didn’t look good in tie-dye. Deadheads were nonconformists but amazing trendsetters. As they trucked into the show, I noticed many clumsily hobbling on crutches. It wasn’t until the concert started that the audience turned these crutches into makeshift microphone stands, rising high above the crowd to tape the performance. Most of the band’s more than 2,000 shows were pirated. From this emerged a peer-to-peer network: bootleg cassettes passed between fans, an early sharing economy.
Networks were a powerful thing, but the recording technology was rudimentary. When a cassette was duplicated, the sound of the tape moving over the playback head would end up on the recorded copy as an annoying hiss. The further from the original, the worse the hiss. I used to walk into friends’ rooms and snark, “Is this Cow Palace ’74? Man, the hiss player was really on that night.” I haven’t changed much since then.
The Grateful Dead could have put a stop to it all, frisking concertgoers as they entered, but the band accepted piracy. A viral marketing campaign started. Free music lured new fans, who practically toured with the band and bought tickets, shirts and posters. They then made more cassettes, enchanting even more fans. This is the power of free that Facebook and Google have since perfected. Also, I’m pretty sure the band’s fans invented virtual reality. I heard many at shows say they could see things that weren’t really there.
In 1977, no one knew where the world was heading. Gas shortages and crushing inflation were around the corner. I was in my room building a “home-brew computer” (definitely not a way to get dates). I carefully soldered a board with 64 slots for 1-kilobit memory chips, a whopping 8 kilobytes—barely enough for a half a second of audio recording, if MP3 had existed at the time. The trick then, as now, was to look into the future and see things that don’t yet exist. We’re grateful cassette tapes are dead.
Another important lesson is that things peak. Cornell was the Dead’s greatest show but that also means they were never that good again. They didn’t disappear, but time went on. You can’t avoid it. Eras, trends, companies, people—they all peak. But memories should not fade away.
The real surprise on 5-8-77 came after I turned on the house lights—and got booed. Revelers streamed outside to see a fresh blanket of snow covering the campus. In May! You can image the reaction from those practicing better living through chemicals. Things change slowly, a long strange trip, until they change quickly, and when you least expect it.
Deadheads never did live in communes and practice free love, except maybe on weekends. They changed. In fact, they went on to build the world we live in today: Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and—wait for it— Steve Bannon. It happened quickly. It was only in 1984 that the ex-Eagle Don Henley “saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac.”
These days it’s hard to tell who the nonconformists are. Everyone seems to be. There’s a finer and finer line between eccentric and establishment. Who will see and create the next future? And turn smartphones into the cassettes of yesteryear?
Mr. Kessler writes on technology and markets for the Journal.