A Grateful Day In The Garden

Watching the Dead from an MSG skybox in 1982

Billy Sternberg’s Dead ticket for MSG 9/22/82

“Hey, Wild Bill,” said the voice at the other end of my dorm floor’s phone. It was my cousin, Bruce. 

This was the first call I got my Freshman year, 1973, at Syracuse. Bruce and I worked at our family shoe store together and played ball after family occasions. We played soccer at summer camp. He embraced me after I fired in an insurance goal in the color war championship game. We also played soccer for rival high schools. I watched him from the bench, a senior busting his butt fruitlessly. But we were a stronger team, beating them readily. Bruce and I acknowledged each other after the game but walking off the field a winner was better. 

Bruce didn’t want to go to Syracuse. He deplored what he characterized as “Jewish American Princesses.” But he’d come down from Oswego if I’d front him six tickets to see the Dead at Syracuse’s War Memorial. I was welcome to join him and his crew who’d drive down. I got another call a few days later. It was my father. He couldn’t speak; which was out of character. He handed the phone to my mother who told me that Bruce was killed in a car accident in Oswego. His car’s driver tried to make a turn off the highway too quickly. The next day, when I was home in Queens for Bruce’s funeral, I told my father I’d laid out $60 for Bruce’s Dead tickets. He said, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” He took care of it by asking his brother, my Uncle Jerome, for the $60. Jerry, sitting in his chair grieving, got up, gave my father three $20s, making clear that money wasn’t the order of that day.


AUDIO: The Grateful Dead at the Onodaga War Memorial in Syracuse, NY 9/17/73

Despite my having just started at S.U., and, Bruce’s disinclination toward its women, people at S.U. knew him. Faces that were brand new to me at S.U. came down for the funeral. When I got back to Syracuse the news of Bruce’s death had spread. People were more sympathetic to me than my father was. Weeks later, I got back to the dorm from wherever. Friends on my floor were whoopin’ it up, shouting, “What a fuckin’ amazing show!”  I’d completely forgotten. They’d just seen the Dead. I felt more bitter than bittersweet but I hadn’t dropped the Dead from my playlist. Hell, I’d even traded a new copy of The Grateful Dead double live album for an old copy, and a double sided Exeter Basketball T-Shirt. But Bruce’s death had taken its toll. Seeing the Dead didn’t seem likely anytime soon. 

A decade later, September 1982. I saw a full page display ad in Sunday’s Times: The Grateful Dead were playing Madison Square Garden. I was sharing a summer house with several Syracuse friends. It was a co-ed house, literally on a Fire Island beach in a family friendly, yet frequently drunken section called Ocean Beach. (Read: drunken because they had an ordinance against eating ice cream on the street.) Many houses were shared, one person secured a house and eight, mostly singles but some couples, shared it on alternate weekends. “Herc,” as he was called, a Syracuse guy, rented our house. He was its caretaker. He rented beds to others to cover his expenses. But he took a risk if he couldn’t fill the beds. There was a separate group upstairs. They called us The Moles because we were downstairs. We called them The Holes because they were assholes.

I was a TV buyer at BBDO Advertising that summer with a few years on Madison Avenue under my belt. One guy in the house,  known simply as “The Guy,” went to Syracuse. He shared an office at Lever Brothers with Jim, whose father’s family, it turned out, had long ties with my mother’s. I’d been invited to many events while at BBDO and since NBC had a Madison Square Garden sky box, I turned and saw Herc first. I asked him if he wanted to see the Dead assuming I could get the sky box. He totally wanted to go. I felt Bruce’s pall fading away and called NBC, feeling a unique opportunity to see my first Dead show and not have to fight a stoned crowd. The sky box, I well knew, had a dedicated elevator and the corridors would have enough security for the huge numbers of executives’ kids who’d be there, too. Yet getting the tickets was easier than I thought. Right after asking for them, NBC’s head of sales left NBC to be my boss at BBDO. The first thing he did was give me the tickets!

Grateful Dead Fall Tour ’82 backstage pass (Art: Ron Hart)

On the day of the show, I called Herc at his office before lunch to set up a plan. His office said that he wasn’t there and took a message. I called again around 3 pm. He still wasn’t there. I called at 5:30 pm. I still hadn’t heard from him. The show was called for 7:30 pm. I said, “Screw this guy,” and went to plan B. “Wheat” lived on 16th Street and 5th Avenue. “Sky” lived on 11th and 5th Avenue. They were The Buffalo Boys. We met through high school friends. I told both Sky and Wheat that I’d give Herc more time but once I flipped a coin that was the decision I’d abide by. When I never heard from Herc, I flipped the coin. I had to tell Sky that Wheat won. He never believed that he got a fair shake on the coin toss. (Later, I took him to the sky box to see The Kinks.) But I remember seeing the Dead from the sky box, wondering how Bruce would rate the venue versus his favorite, the Fillmore East. 

Wheat and I had a good time, leaving Sky to cry in his beer. But I got a totally unexpected earful the next morning. My home phone rang early as I was getting ready to go to work. It was Herc screaming a blue streak. He demanded to know where I came to fuck him; that he hadn’t checked in with me was irrelevant. We had plans! What he was doing wasn’t my business. He went to will call and didn’t understand why I didn’t leave his ticket there. My objective was to avoid fighting to get to Will Call and then to the sky box elevators. Herc was invited only because we happened to be in the same place at the same time. Yet, he expected I cater to him as if he were a divine being. The other summer housemates were less objectionable. Jim still works with “The guy.” “The guy” married a Buffalo gal. They see Wheat. Sky has flown the coop. As for Herc, on September 19, 2005 the Securities and Exchange Commission settled charges against Gary Herwitz for insider trading in advance of Howard Stern’s $500,000,000 contract with Sirius Radio. 


WPLJ Welcomes The Grateful Dead (Art: Ron Hart)


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Billy Sternberg

Billy Sternberg graduated from Syracuse University's Newhouse School. He bought national TV commercial ad time for American Home Products. Their brands ranged from Anacin to Chef Boyardee to Black Flag Roach Motel. After that, he bought national TV time at Ogilvy & Mather for American Express, Kimberly Clark and Owens Corning Fiberglas. Because of this he was gifted many tickets to many events.

2 thoughts on “A Grateful Day In The Garden

  • April 30, 2020 at 7:11 am

    I so enjoyed this story. “How I came to be at this particular concert with these particular people” is a powerful lens. And the O. Henry ending about Herc was quite a surprise. I hope he and all the others turned out ok and may Bruce’s memory be for a blessing.

  • April 30, 2020 at 8:59 am

    My first 2 concerts were the Grateful Dead in April 1982 (Syracuse war memorial) and Sept 1982 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. Terribly sorry about your cousin.


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