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The Grateful Dead played Knights Hall

Summer 2019

When the Grateful Dead landed on Bellarmine University’s campus in the winter of 1968, the motley band of psychotropic adventurers were the face of America’s booming counterculture.

A youth movement was in full swing, and hippies were a growing subculture, even in notoriously slow-to-adapt Louisville. Everything was shifting, politically and culturally.

Bellarmine’s image was that of a straight-laced Catholic university where male students wore ties to class. Squaresville.

That image was skewed then, and perhaps still is now, and Dan Bardisa is proof. Bardisa was a senior in 1968 and a big reason that the Grateful Dead showed up at Knights Hall with a generous supply of weed, LSD and more sound equipment than the cozy gym could handle.

Poster advertising Grateful Dead's performance at Knights Hall.

Bardisa was also a world traveler, a native of Cuba who had moved to Spain before landing in Louisville. When not studying history and political science at Bellarmine, he worked as a bouncer in an Old Louisville rock ’n’ roll club where he hung out with The Outlaws, the area’s most infamous motorcycle gang.

So, not exactly Squaresville. And for one December day, he helped Bellarmine become the epicenter of the city’s youth movement.

New Bellarmine Boogie
The Dead rolled onto campus on Dec. 7, fresh off a show in Philadelphia the night before. Bardisa was there to greet them. He had also played a major role in setting up the show.

Bardisa had graduated from bouncer to partner in Kaleidoscope, one of the few Louisville clubs that catered to fringe rock bands. It was considered a psychedelic club, though extremely mild by Haight-Ashbury standards.

The club’s owner, Ramona Guest, had booked the Dead at the Kaleidoscope only to realize that it was far too small. Short
on options, she asked Bardisa to meet with Bellarmine faculty and the student government association.

“The guys at the student government association were thrilled,” Bardisa said in an interview from his home in Madrid, where he helps run an English language academy. “I remember it was like, ‘Great! Let’s do it.’ I don’t remember anybody saying, ‘We shouldn’t do this.’”

The band was maybe a bit less thrilled. Bardisa said that Dead patriarch Jerry Garcia climbed off the bus and sighed. “Great,” he said. “Another gymnasium.”

But he was also very friendly, sharing his substantial stash of weed with Bardisa and generally living up to his laid-back reputation. The band’s Kentucky native, however, was a problem.

“Bear was kind of a d—head,” Bardisa said with a laugh.

“Bear” was Augustus Owsley Stanley III. His grandfather was one of Kentucky’s more progressive governors, and his father was an attorney for the United States government.

Bear went a different route. After moving to San Francisco, he was quite literally responsible for the acid revolution, expertly cooking up the clean, powerful LSD that fueled Ken Kesey’s infamous Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests.

Bear famously designed the Dead’s “lightning skull” logo and its massive sound system, which was wildly ahead of its time. For years he controlled the mixing board at all Dead shows, and at Bellarmine he argued with anyone who stood between him and 12,000 watts of perfect sound.

“Later at the concert,” Bardisa said, “Owsley came over and offered me a sip from his Coke cup, and I thought, well, that’s nice, he’s trying to make amends.”

But the drink was laced with Bear’s finest LSD. He had surreptitiously dosed Bardisa and the entire nine-person crew that Bardisa had hired to help him run an elaborate light show provided by Kaleidoscope.

“We worked most of the show,” Bardisa said. “It was maybe the last 20 minutes we got wiped out.”

Counterculture in the Commonwealth
It’s ironic that a Kentuckian was such an integral part of the counterculture, because in 1968 the movement had barely scratched Louisville’s surface. Still, the struggles of the country as a whole were also Louisville’s struggles.

In May, two people were killed and 400 arrested after a race riot erupted in Parkland. The fuse was lit by the assassination in April of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the bomb went off when a white police officer who had been suspended for excessive violence against a black man was reinstated.

Meanwhile, growing race-related unrest on the University of Louisville’s Belknap campus led to the 1969 formation of the Office of Black Affairs and the Department of Pan-African Studies.

But hippies? Not so much.

Lonnie Griesbaum was a high schooler from the South End in 1968. He was a rabid music fan and ran in local band circles, so he had some encounters with Louisville’s modest counterculture scene. There were small hippie enclaves in Old Louisville, the Highlands and the South End, he said, but no big movement.

“Compared to Berkeley, of course, Louisville was pretty conservative,” said Griesbaum, now 67. “I think a lot of people who called themselves hippies actually just didn’t want to go to Vietnam.”

Griesbaum was turned on to the Grateful Dead by a musician
friend but bought his ticket to Knights Hall largely because all of the opening bands—The Oxfords, Stonehenge and The Waters—were from Louisville.

He didn’t see anything odd about Bellarmine hosting the show.

“I never considered Bellarmine to be a conservative place,” he
said. “I mean, it was a liberal arts college, and I never had seen any indication that Bellarmine was a conservative bastion. Now, there were some priests that still had offices up there then, and if they had been [at the show] they would probably have been put off by it, but they would have been put off by Donny Osmond.”

Jay Petach, a member of The Oxfords, remembers surviving a brief run-in with Bear more clearly than he remembers his own band’s performance.

“I asked him how much power his sound system had,” Petach recalled. “He said, ’12,000 watts.’ I immediately corrected him and said, ‘You mean 1,200 watts.’ We had been playing gigs with a 60-watt PA, so 12,000 watts seemed like enough power to blow up the Earth.”

The Dead didn’t exactly blow up the Earth—in fact, the crowd was pretty thin by show’s end—but Griesbaum was impressed.

“The only thing crazy or radical about it was the length of their songs and the level of improvisation,” he said. “It seemed to me that every now and then a sound guy would go up on stage and take a guitar and play, and the other guy would take a break. It was so nonchalant and, in that way, it was just really cool.”

High Time
The Grateful Dead show didn’t make any money. They were paid $2,500—a few hundred more than what was taken in. The show didn’t sell out, what with tickets being an exorbitant $3 each.

But 50 years later, the concert still resonates as a memorable day in the university’s life.

In February, Bellarmine associate professor Kyle Barnett brought in DJ and author Jesse Jarnow and Griesbaum, who has become a musicologist, for an event dedicated to the concert. Music from the show was played thanks to Bear’s obsessive
taping habits.

Nearly 200 people crowded into Hilary’s to remember the show and ground it in Bellarmine history.

“It wasn’t the only concert of interest at Bellarmine, but this one seems incongruous in terms of how Bellarmine is seen,” Barnett said.

“Personally, I don’t find it so unusual. Bellarmine has never been one thing. The Grateful Dead show points to what else we have been—and what else we might be. I like that the show is a surprise to people. Remembering it is a way to say: ‘Do you think you know Bellarmine? There’s more to complicate what you think you know.’”

For the Grateful Dead, it was just one show in yet another gymnasium, a blip on the band’s micro-dosed radar. But for everyone else involved, it meant a lot.

“I don’t have one negative memory of it,” Bardisa said. “Except for the Coke cup.”

By Jeffrey Lee Puckett, a longtime music and pop culture writer who once tripped over a Deadhead in Freedom Hall.

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