Wednesday, February 9, 2011
My time with the Dead: Jerry was Santa's doppelganger and that woman should have had a shirt on
I saw the Grateful Dead a handful of times in the nineties and I if you've never been, then it might be difficult to appreciate the sensory assault that was a Grateful Dead experience. From the onset, my nose was put on high alert for the smell of patchouli and the hanging stink of unwashed hackey sack players. I must admit, I had no real prior knowledge of the Grateful Dead or their history outside of their lone hit on VH1 "Touch of Grey" that garnered them the unwanted attention of a great deal of jocks and weekend anarchists who saw a weekend of the Dead as a weekend of unbridled bedlam and debauchery. I knew the Dead's following had a penchant for VW's, not shaving (this was particularly evident in the female portion of the fan base who almost all had me beat in their wealth and volume of body hair), and drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.
In the interest of keeping it real, I should say that my main initiative in going to the Dead shows at the Silver Bowl was to sell LSD in hopes of turning a large enough profit with which to buy a bass amp. Not my finest moment, but at least it wasn't heroin or crystal meth, two drugs that are generally frowned upon more so as they've taken out more of your favorite musicians and actors than hallucinogens. From what I saw though, the lone upside of crystal meth is that your cd collection will always be alphabetized and your house will be clean. You might be emaciated and losing teeth, but your house and record collection will be in order. But really, if someone wanted to be hallucinating while mulling over why Bob Weir wears such short shorts or while the mandolin player takes a nine minute solo, all the while Smurfs are afoot, is that so bad?
So there I was, in the Silver Bowl parking lot, waiting for the show to start while I sold LSD to the Birkenstock wearing masses. In an effort to maintain quality control and be able to sincerely vouch for the illicit hallucinogens I was pushing, I gave my friend Robert a complimentary hit from my sheet of acid I had purchased at a wholesale price from some man who looked like he had little regard for general dental hygiene as his mouth looked like a lonely graveyard. I forget what cartoon was on the acid, but I always loved how people who manufactured LSD thought to turn the wholesomeness of childhood cartoons on its ear by placing the likes of Felix the Cat, Strawberry Shortcake and such on sheets of acid. Shortly after Robert took the acid, it was determined that I had been burned by that toothless hippy, putting the score at Hippies: 1, Luke: 0. Fine I thought, I'll sell the bunk acid at a bargain basement closeout rate, then beat it.
As I sold my LSD I walked around the parking lot to bask in the glory of what was referred to as shakedown street". People selling pot brownies of questionable potency, mentioning that the THC the buyer was looking to ingest was "in the butter, man", and that you weren't actually about to buy a really expensive, impotent brownie. People taking hits off balloons filled with nitrous oxide, promptly erupting in violet laughter shortly after. All types cooking anything vegan, raw or otherwise with only the thought of generating enough money to make it to the next stadium to repeat the process.
In a instance that may have been registered in the Cock Blockery Hall of Fame, I was offered a chance to tag along with my friend Randy (a girl), in addition to her friends Junebug and Love (also female) on the next Summer's Dead tour. They told me I could make grilled cheese sandwiches to earn my keep. I figured the grilled cheese market had surely been cornered by some entrepreneur in a Santana shirt, but I believed I could add something to the well worn art of placing cheese between slices of bread. I considered the law of average and how I stood a sizable chance of hooking up with one of them (marginally realistic) or maybe all three simultaneously (right up there with being knighted or driving a Ferrari on my ain't never gonna happen, buddy list). I liked my chances of success on all accounts while following the Dead in a VW van that had undetermined abilities to take us from Vegas to New York and back, and so I asked my mom if this was cool with her. Like the dictator in an apron she was, my mom slammed down an iron curtain of denial and said "Really Luke, think about what you're asking. I'm going to send you off with three girls to follow the Grateful Dead? No. Stop asking." And just like that, I was shot down. No hippy foursome, no grilled cheeses for the masses.
After I had sold off my sheet of fake acid, Robert and I went into the show. Our combined knowledge of the Dead's repertoire was maybe 2 songs, so we were at a disadvantage in terms of being able to appreciate what the Dead was doing. But to the uninitiated, the Dead looked like a bunch of guys from the movie Cocoon playing in a band fronted by a guy that looked like Santa, only after Santa had been present at the Kool-Aid Acid Tests, Woodstock, done yards of hits of acids, pounds of cocaine,weed and his one true love that would come to ultimately bring the long strange trip to a short, obvious conclusion, heroin. Even in his sixties, Jerome Garcia thought it wise to ride the H train from town to town, stadium to stadium. It's when Jerry decided that he wanted to tell Casey Jones to put the brakes on the H train that things went sour and Santa's doppelganger went to the big drum circle in the sky. William S. Burroughs theorized that if a junky remained in a state of perpetual kicking, he'd live exponentially longer through bypassing the withdrawals. Look at Keith Richards and you have to wonder if fully embracing the raging freight train that is a lifetime of excessive ingestion,injection, inhalation and copulation and try to say that there isn't something poetic about sticking to your guns, even if they're fully loaded with vices.
The shows that I went to were on a particularly sweltering weekend in May in 1995 and the heat inside the stadium was accentuated by things I'd never seen at 15 and probably will never see again. I was standing next to a woman who was easily over 200 pounds who was topless. By my estimate, her boobs probably found their way onto her lap sometime while Reagan was in office and she decided to birth the little hippies that were running around her sometime after that. She had a head full of dreadlocks and repeatedly took impressive, heroic hits of a joint. In the distance you could see a line of mic stands hoisted in the air by tapers hoping to capture the show. I could appreciate this. That was one thing about the Dead, that for all their mass merchandising and excesses, they still tried to bring a spirit of their early DIY ethics with them and allowing their fans to tape their shows was an extension of their ethos.
The Dead were impressive players who worked off vibes, feeling and the innate senses band mates inevitably develop over the years, resulting in marathon shows that routinely doubled the duration of most touring bands' shows. Their shows were broken into sets and when they broke for each set, you'd see a sea of people drop to the floor of the stadium to resume a mass smoke out that left such heavy clouds of weed smoke billowing out of the Silver Bowl, you'd thought someone had given tickets to arsonists, and they were having their way with one of the Dead's many t-shirt stands where you could buy a shirt with any combination of dancing skeletons, turtles or bears to commemorate a weekend you probably couldn't remember much of.
And there I was, in the thick of it. The Deadheads were generous were their drugs, you couldn't deny that and at some point someone passed me joints, acid , mushrooms and a balloon of nitrous oxide which I had to pass on as even though I knew I was subjecting my brain cells to adverse conditions, I didn't want to bring the holocaust to a full bloom. I can't recall what drug it was that turned my brain, if only momentarily, into pudding but I found myself in a situation of territorial pissings when I was so high I accidentally stepped on someones blanket, yes blanket, that was laid on the stadium floor and the angry man that looked like an old prospector told me to "step off the blanket".
I eventually found myself back in the parking lot, stumbling from grilled cheese vendor to VW bus converted into an apartment, garage, marijuana dealers office and place to wax poetic about the beats. By sheer chance, I stumbled across a friend who had been attacked in the only way you can be attacked by Deadheads, they had weaved extensions into her hair, gotten her really high, slapped a tye dye on her and had her espousing the glories of free love. She offered to extend some of that free love in my direction and I then knew while I could embrace the times and do copious amounts of drugs, I couldn't shag my friend in the back of a VW bus. For a number of reasons, but mostly the drum circles and nitrous vendors would have proven to be way too distracting and in my state, I'd have seen a garden gnome pull a zipper down the middle of her head and climb out of it.
So, I saw the Dead and they were great! Their fans, for the most part save for the guy that looked like a prospector and the 3 people that sold me fake drugs (yes, after being burned I was glutton for punishment and proceeded to buy 2 more sheets of fake LSD, so in regards to that, Hippies:3, Luke: 0) were awesome. I got to thinking about the Dead and I realized that there were more punk rock than you realize. They were never commercially popular in the pop radio sense, but they kept trucking, doing their own thing oblivious to the rest of their world. I do think what they became was an adulterated version of what they started off as, and that probably added to their end. That the band became this juggernaut of a touring machine, with a mass following knowing nothing else, there might have been an assumed obligation to stay the path.
Did I get my bass amp? No, I'm bad with money and I spent it on drugs, shirts, food, jewelry and gave some to some friends. But I did get an amp eventually when I got a job making pizzas where as luck would have it, I ended up working with a displaced Deadhead who was still coming to terms with the untimely death of his patron saint Jerry. I look back at the shows I attended as reasons for why I'd never make it as a drug dealer and if you're going to assume a career as a junky, stick it out to the wrinkly, Keith Richards "ma, he looks like he was embalmed" ending. Cause you know, if you stop the train too soon, who's gonna sing "Friend of the Devil"?