There are two things you should know about me before we get into this story. One — I wasn’t alive fifty years ago. Two — I’m not really a Grateful Dead fan; definitely not what you’d call a Deadhead, at least.
But I’ve heard about one particular Grateful Dead show over and over since I moved to Louisville: the one they played at my alma mater Bellarmine University — then Bellarmine College — in 1968.
“It seems really unlikely, which is why I think I love the story,” said Kyle Barnett, a professor at Bellarmine who, later this month, is co-hosting a lecture with music historian Jesse Jarnow about that specific Grateful Dead concert.
If you look (and listen) around Bellarmine’s campus, there are nods to the show all over the place. It’s mentioned in campus tours; there’s a plaque in the university lobby that looks like the original hand-drawn poster for the show; Bellarmine Radio plays songs from the setlist.
But to me, it always seemed a little weird.
Why would a band that became an international sensation play at a small Catholic college in Louisville, Kentucky? Especially since the Dead only played eight total shows in Kentucky between their formation in 1965 and 1995 when lead guitarist and singer Jerry Garcia died.
“On what I’ve seen, my best guess is that it was a student programming board,” Barnett said. “They booked a number of interesting acts over the years.”
He continued: “I think part of the problem, right, is what do people think of as important to save for the historical record, and a Grateful Dead show wasn’t understood by the university as something that would be as commemorated 50 years later.”
But this random show lives on because of the Dead’s policy — or lack thereof — about concert attendees recording their shows.
“The band embraced what were then largely known as tapers with audio tape, reel-to-reel or cassette decks; they’d set up at the shows,” Barnett said. “This is something they encouraged.”
So, if you google “Grateful Dead Bellarmine,” there are a bunch of kind of fuzzy, bootleg collections of the music played that night. For Louisville Deadheads — even those who didn’t attend the show — those recordings hold a really special place in their collection.
One of those fans is Jim Kitterman, who lives in Louisville and refers to himself as a “Grateful Dead Encyclopedia.”
“For a period of five to six years, I was listening ten hours a day,” Kitterman said. “Outside research, I’ve read probably 15 books about the Dead, then I reached a point where I realized I was reading the same thing over and over in a different voice.”
Kitterman saw the band in concert 53 times, and though he didn’t personally attend the Bellarmine Show, he has listened many times to the concert. He’s also shared it with other Deadheads he has found along the way, like a man he met while donating blood post-9/11.
“This guy is sitting next to me with long hair and a beard, and he says to me ‘Man, I was at that show,’” Kitterman said. “And I told him the recording was floating around. He couldn’t believe it. After that night, I went home, found the tape and FedEx-ed it to him because I thought, ‘If anyone deserves to have this, it’s you.’”
Local fans, like David Serchuk, are still learning about that concert today.
Serchuk saw his first Grateful Dead show when he was 16 at Madison Square Garden.
“The music is so — the thing is so earthy and organic,” Serchuk said. “It’s like you could plant it and things would grow out of it. It’s not polished, but it is good.”
And just this month, he discovered the Bellarmine concert recording.
“I was like ‘Bellarmine? Are you kidding me?’” He said. “And they were hot. 1968 is what people called ‘Primal Dead.’ And they were smokin’. They sound like the band that put out ‘Live/Dead’ not too long later, which is considered one of the great live rock and roll albums.”
Serchuk has two kids, but says he’s alone in his love for the Grateful Dead in his family; over at Bellarmine, Barnett is hoping the 50th anniversary of the show introduces more students to the band’s catalogue and their impact on popular culture.
“I would say there are some students who were bonafide Deadheads,” Barnett said. “The rest of them are curious, but don’t know a lot.”
He’s started introducing them to the band by playing them the last line of the Bellarmine show: “You’ve just been victimized by the Grateful Dead.”