On a Grateful Dead tour, you met the best people on Earth. People from all walks of life were drawn to Dead shows, the way Richard Dreyfuss was
drawn to Devils Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
But there were also narcs, feds, drug addicts, clinically insane misfits and jerks. There was a series of “religious” groups, like the Golden Roaders, selling backless dresses and Sufi spinning at shows. Then there were the Moonies, although I only saw them at shows in the Northeast, who were aggressive and deceptive, selling lame stickers and incense.
The Krishnas gave out free rice, but they also played their freaking tambourines and drums at sunrise to greet the day. Not a good group to camp next to. From Scientologists to evangelical Christians to mini-messiahs that paraded around in full regalia (mostly a robe, loincloth and a conch full of burning sage), there was no shortage of wackadoodles to join up with or be abducted by.
I know that I and hundreds (or at least dozens) of other Deadheads took it upon ourselves to be the ones to “look out” for the weaker ones as the scene grew exponentially and then collapsed upon itself. I am grateful for my time in that world, and recently I reflected on that journey—at least the parts I could remember.
09-06-80, Maine State Fairgrounds, Lewiston, Maine
I had, like, 20 or 30 Grateful Dead concerts under my belt, but this show in Lewiston, Maine, was my first outdoor show. Personally, my life was in a bit of a downward spiral. I was 18 years old. I had recently not graduated from high school. I failed gym—don’t ask. For good or ill, I still hadn’t found a steady girlfriend. Most of my buddies had left for college. I was reluctantly working at Swensen’s Ice Cream shop and dreading starting Kean University in Union, N.J. I only applied because my father thought I was mentally deficient. “Who fails gym?!” was the battle cry around the DNA household.
Entering Lewiston, it seemed as if the entire town was welcoming—or looking to cash in on—the invading horde. People were standing in their driveways offering $10 parking to anyone desperate enough for the promise of an indoor bathroom. Restaurants had “Welcome Deadhead” signs in their windows. The line of VWs, broken-down wrecks and school buses en route to the show was viewed as a parade. Children were waving. There was no undercurrent of judgment. It was a true community spectacle. Post-show articles cried about the wild atmosphere that the Dead circus brought to town, but they cried all the way to the bank.
I was used to people scampering to the stage and setting up perimeters, establishing little Trumpian invisible walls between their space and my space. This was different. This was my first outdoor show, and in the big field that had been in use since 1898, there was space enough for everyone. The Dead played for three hours, and it was a slice of heaven. An undeniable connection between fans, band and environment occurred. Gone was the cement underneath. I took my shoes off. This might seem, especially to my California friends, a simple enough move, but it was revelatory.
Unlike the Great Nothing in The Neverending Story, there was a great something afoot, and the music of the Grateful Dead was the conduit. And much like The Neverending Story, every person there felt like they were the central character in a cosmic tale. It was a grounding experience. The roles I played at home, mostly that of a lowly ice cream scooper with a GED, melted away. I felt lucky as hell to be there, and I knew I wanted more. Now, as many have argued before, it could have all been a dream brought on by hallucinogens and projected expectations. But the way I saw it, a dream was better than no dream at all—or, worse yet, suburbia.
10-11-83, Madison Square Garden, New York City, N.Y.
If I had to call one venue my home, it would be Madison Square Garden. I must have seen the Dead there 20 times. From my parents’ house, it was less than 40 minutes to get to the city and wind my way to Seventh and 33rd. In the world of concert experiences, MSG is a singular adventure. Opened in 1968, the roof was built with shock absorbers, so when the entire venue is rocking with 20,000 fans going apeshit, the roof literally bounces up and down.
I’ve been in a lot of coliseums, but MSG has that special feel of being a world-class stage where magic has occurred over and over again. The original space was five blocks away, opened in 1879, and featured people like Nikola Tesla. But from Ali vs. Frazier’s “Fight of the Century” to the Ringling Bros.’ home to the birth of Hulkamania, the “new” MSG has a thousand stories. It is every East Coaster’s mecca.
It should be remembered that, as reverential a space as MSG is, right outside the door is New York City, the city that never sleeps, the city with an incredibly organized police force that deals with crazies 24/7. So when the Dead came to town, they geared up. Yes, the cops could be helpful in their brusque, in-your-face NYC way. But every police squad needs to generate arrests, and Dead crowds were easy pickings.
On the street, 25 undercover cops were putting on their tie-dyes—that they had just confiscated—and walked around filling garbage bags with Deadheads’ crafts and shirts. Everyone knew it was risky to sell anything on the streets of New York, but Deadheads need gas money just to get to the next show, and often selling a few trinkets was the only way to do it.
The tour lot, dubbed Shakedown Street, was a bazaar of crafts, food, drumming and anything you could imagine. It was our Silk Road. It was the original dark web. Over the years, I sold shirts, drums, these purple face masks you blew in that created a hypnotic experience, grilled cheese sandwiches, anklets (these were my bread and butter), hand-painted sun dresses and baby food. Some friends made a killing with Steal Your Face metal license plates. It was pure copyright infringement, but the profits were enormous. Some Guatemalan dealers made a mint at shows.
For most of the Deadheads trying to hustle a few stickers, it was dire straits to not sell them, so the risk was worth it. Being stuck in NYC after a show could be grim. One summer, I paid for the entire journey with just a few balls of hemp string and a big bag of African trading beads. Ninety percent of what you saw people selling was handmade. It was Etsy in real time.
I was 21. I had turned my life around. My dad had a string of heart attacks, my grandparents died, and something in my head clicked. Even though, in my first semester, I got a 0.00 GPA at Kean University, I finally “got” that if I just repeated back to teachers what they said to me, I could get an A. I decided I was going to go to graduate school in California, to be closer to the band, and doing well as an undergrad was my meal ticket. I was working full-time, going to school full-time and helping my family out. I was also ingesting everything that came my way.
Rumors were circulating at this MSG show, as they would at almost every show: songs overheard in sound check, possible guest appearances and Jerry’s health. I disregarded all the pre-show talk. I could give a wharf rat’s ass about guest appearances. I wanted the core band; everyone else was a distraction.
I was feeling my oats at this show. The crowd was on stun, and I sat in my seat like all the others through the first set. I almost bailed and went to the hallways where the real action was, but I wanted to actually see whatever the band had up its sleeve. Top of the second set, I decided I was going to stand for the entire thing. I let the people behind me know. I told them, “Look, guys, there’s no fucking way I’m sitting down.” At least everyone around knew I was a dick. In NYC, this is known as “being courteous.”
The second set rolled through “China Cat,” “Rider,” “Miracle,” “Bertha,” and still nobody around me stayed on their feet. People would get up and then sit back in their metal folding chair. Then the band broke it down, slowed it to a halt and drifted into a haunting “China Doll” (the band’s most personal song about suicide and depression). It appeared perhaps I was wrong, that maybe the boys were wrapping it up—but I still had a feeling.
Then out of space came the first notes of “St. Stephen.” They hadn’t played it since 1979, and suddenly everyone was on their feet. When the lyrics “In and out of the garden he goes” were sung, the Garden exploded. Twenty thousand people were now screaming along: “Wherever he goes the people all complain.” New Yorkers, the butt of everyone else’s jokes, knew better than most what this meant. Now we were all standing on our chairs, and the magic of Madison Square Garden was in full effect.
It was a supersonic jolt. Everybody behind me was smiling. Whatever neurolinguistic programs were running got a hard reboot. Although there was another Dead show at MSG the following night, and then two more in Hartford, Conn. (where they played “St. Stephen” again, my second and last time hearing it), this show was the peak, the pinnacle that Maslow runs on about. Was it their best show? No. Not even close. But for a short amount of time, something occurred that turned a coliseum of strangers into a community.
8-31-85, Manor Downs Speedway, Manor, Texas
Driving into Texas, I was following a black Porsche that was doing a cool 85 miles an hour. Following me was a Texas trooper. Flashers on, he motioned for me to pull over and went after the now accelerating Porsche. I had been in Texas for five minutes, and I had no intention of being arrested. I slowed down, saw the cop disappear from view and kept going. I was young and fearless. I also had a lot of weed in the car. It was the beginning of a
The temperature in Texas in late August borders between Holy Hell and Kill-Me-Now Hell. Not only was it sweltering, but massive storms extended to the horizon. I always wanted to spot a twister, and sure enough in the distance a black funnel cloud was touching down.
I finally got to Austin, and fell in love with the town. Lotta Heads. Plenty of bars. Music playing in the streets. Imagine the TV show Deadwood, if everyone in the town was on mescaline.
Manor Downs was being run at this point by Sam Cutler, ex-manager of the Dead and the Rolling Stones. So it was going to be a full-blown freak fest. Manor Downs is on the edge of town. It was Saturday night. Every cowboy and cowgirl within a hundred miles was coming to see the shindig. Time to blow off steam, Texas-style.
Upon entering, I noticed a Greenpeace booth. This was a good sign. This was before every organization in America had a clipboard on the corner and pestered you for a signature. Back in 1985, Greenpeace had serious cred. Besides the Rainbow Warrior, this booth might have been the only place it was disseminating info.
I bee-lined for the front row. I was going to go toe-to-toe with Texas. Saturday night, oversold show, front row, Jerry side. The energy was off the hook. Everyone in the front row realized early on that there was a 50-50 chance we would all be crushed to death. Keeping balance and helping anyone near you that dipped down was key, and went without being said.
The show started, and out came the Saturday-night party accoutrements. Booze, joints. But this was Texas, and, as you might have heard, everything is bigger in Texas. The joints were the size of a baby’s forearm, the Jack Daniels was in a gigantic, novelty-sized bottle—or maybe that’s just the way it comes in Texas. Everything was shared. We were the front-row army, locking arms and keeping the ship of fools behind us.
It’s common to label the Dead a psychedelic rock band, a ’60s relic and a jam band. Lesser known is that they were also a kick-ass country band. That night, pumping out Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash, the Texans crowed, caw-cawed and hooted, and the electricity was jumping around the crowd like a frog in a hailstorm.
The second set ended with 15,000 people clapping along to the Buddy Holly song “Not Fade Away” until the band left the stage, leaving drummer Mickey Hart conducting the 10-gallon crowd with just one drumstick. Then he left as well.
The show ended. Pleasantries were exchanged. Suddenly, I lost my bearings. Where was the Greenpeace booth, had they already packed up and left? My foot hit a piece of wood. Looking down amidst the mud was scattered debris. The Greenpeace booth had been shattered, decimated, and was already decomposing in the mud. It wasn’t ominous, it was Texas, and that’s just the way they do things.
Sitting on the hood of my car in the middle of the cornfield like something out of Hee Haw, young Texans began popping up between the stalks, adjusting overalls straps, pulling down shirts and blouses. The cornfields were full of people fucking! And at that moment I finally understood Texas. Nobody, and I mean nobody, parties like Texans on a Saturday night.
10-25-1985, Hollywood Sportatorium, Pembroke Pines, Florida
By September of 1985, I’d made it to California. I was living in San Francisco’s Mission District with my brother and his wife. That lasted about two weeks. It ended with him, naked, pinning his wife to the ceiling. I’m pretty sure it was real, but it also was a good stunt to get me to leave. A childhood friend was going to Dominican College in San Rafael, and before you could say “Aoxomoxoa,” I was living right between the Grateful Dead studio and office. So now I was hanging with my childhood buddy in Marin, painting apartments, chilling out with John Cipollina (our roommate’s brother was his manager) and decompressing by hiking Mount Tamalpais every single day. I don’t know about holy spots and vortexes, but
Mt. Tam is very special to me. I had no desire to go back to New Jersey, but life is funny that way.
This next part is hard for me to write about. Long story short, I made a phone call that interrupted a friend’s suicide attempt. I felt obligated to fly back to New Jersey. She was stuck in the mental ward for a week. While there, I met her estranged father, and he told me I could stay in his Florida condo for a few days if I needed to get away.
Well, the Dead were playing two shows in Florida, so I agreed. He might have never done anything for her, but I was going to take advantage of this opportunity. I’m sorry to say that Deadheads will capitalize on misfortune if it leads to seeing a show.
Florida was the Orange State, and I was coming with orange sunshine. If you removed all of the tourists, gangs, spring breakers, and old people from Florida, it would still be the weirdest state in the country. It’s the land that’s weird. It’s spongy. There’s a higher and higher percentage of water in the landmass that increases until you hit the Everglades. Alligators, pumas, panthers, poisonous snakes and bugs the size of your fist abound. Florida would be overrun with wildlife in a week, given the chance.
There were two shows in two days, about seven hours apart. The Sportatorium was a monstrosity. The acoustics were terrible, and it was evident somebody built this place as a cash cow rather than a sacred—or even comfortable—space. I didn’t care. My mind was full of thoughts, and I needed to unravel my helix with my favorite band in the world. That night the band spoke to me.
Now, did Deadheads really believe that the Dead, or specifically Jerry, was sometimes communicating with them? Short answer: yes. Short response from you: probably disbelief, possibly even scorn, like, “What, are you crazy?” I get that. Believe me, it has swirled around my head for decades. It seems that saying the band “communicated with us” and is too narrow a way to talk about it. There was a something. How each person interpreted it was up to him or her.
Was it at every show that this something happened? No, which is one reason Deadheads went to as many shows as possible: to increase the odds of catching it.
Once, at a show in Laguna Seca, I had the privilege of spending some time with a Navajo chief. He said his tribe is called Dineh. I kept thinking he was saying DNA. Eventually we figured it out and had a laugh. He told me that the Deadheads were part of the Navajo prophecies. He laid a story on me about how once the rainbow people gather, the buffalo will return.
Were you expecting something more nuanced? It’s prophecy, people, it’s supposed to be cryptic!
Another time I saw writer Joseph Campbell at the Palace of Fine Arts. It was a symposium called “From Ritual to Rapture: From Dionysus to the Grateful Dead.” It was Campbell’s belief that what he witnessed at some recent Dead shows in Oakland, where Campbell and I locked eyes for a while, was an ecstatic movement, a Dionysian catharsis, where, through dance, music and intoxicants, transformation was happening.
All right, I’m with you, this could all be bullshit. But I’m also a Deadhead who saw some wild stuff.
Santa Cruz-based DNA has been published internationally since 1989. He currently produces several comedy festivals and believes in community out of chaos.