Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dead Days

If you haven't seen it yet, you better check out this photo project assembled by the New York Times (god bless'em) in which they invite readers to send in their personal photographs from Grateful Dead shows. It takes you on this great, faded-glorious and democratic journey through the years-long subculture of space noodling and noodle dancing. If you were ever part of it, you'll invariably see some snapshot of your own youthful past. In my case, the late 80s/early 90s, before it all went kaput. In the captions, they never once mention drugs, but you can plainly observe that almost everyone in the pictures is stoned. Though I still have lingering feelings of embarrassment and self-loathing about my Grateful Dead past, I figured we should talk about this, because it's funny and we're old now. And we're all friends here, right?

I first heard the Dead when a stony, crusty friend played "Dire Wolf" on a cassette tape in my dorm room in 1989. I immediately hated it. Sounded like bad country music. Then I went to an off-campus party a week later where the first thing I saw was a sundress-draped girl putting mushrooms on a peanut butter sandwich. The guys who owned the house, Will and Dave, were campus legends for having seen more Dead shows and taken more acid than anyone ever should or could. Their black Labrador retriever was named Space. Next thing I knew I was taking my 14th bong hit in a 30-person hippie circle in a tapestry-covered living room while listening to "Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad" and I was hooked (the abundance of smiley-flirty bra-less girls didn't hurt). In any case, within six months I had my own case of bootleg tapes. I saw them for the first time at Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts in July 1990. We had bought some tickets from a scalper in a McDonald's not far down the road. It was 95 degrees out and we drank beer and smoked pot and then scored some whippet balloons, which basically put me into a wobbly, tweaked-out first-man-on-the-moon condition while I stumbled around the scorching, dusty parking lot gawking at the dirty hippie bazaar. Next, we met a seedy guy in a red VW who was selling large quantities of acid. My friend bought a sheet while I kept a bloodshot eye out for the fuzz. As if. The tabs had blue unicorns on them. I took one about 30 minutes before showtime. My friend and I got in line, giddy. The ticket-taker tore my ticket to see if it was real -- it wasn't! Of course it wasn't. My head kind of imploded temporarily and I stumbled away in a confused daze, back into the now-explosively chaotic parking lot. My friend and I decided to wander around separately and meet up later. Ha! Minutes later I was offered a sandwich from a random dude sitting in a small circle of hippies next to another VW bus. I sat down and next to me was an old quasi-homeless burnout in his late 40s with a bandanna around his head. He was rocking back and forth and complaining nonstop about his miserable life and how everything had gone wrong for him. His story struck me like waves of emotions pounding on a rock. Vibes. Sad, pathetic ones. I asked him if he wanted a hug. He did. "I'm sorry, man," I said, hugging him as the smoke from tofu hot dogs burning on the mini-grill wafted over us. It was as incredibly intense as it was ridiculous. I got up and wandered around some more until I saw my car. I got in and locked the door. I wrote in my notebook for maybe an hour and a half -- drawings, poems, observations, philosophical ramblings. Eventually I went looking for my friend. When I found him, we heard tell they were about the let people into the show for free for the final 45 minutes. We rushed into the gaping coliseum door and ran up some stairs and the next thing I knew I was staring out at 90,000 people roaring and sparkling like confetti. Helicopters circled the sky shooting purple laser beams. The stage swirled. Jerry was a solitary speck. Goin' down the road feelin' bad... They closed with "We Bid You Goodnight," which I loved. When we got back to the car, everyone was wasted and I was the only one fit to drive. Me! I remember how much concentration it took to keep the tail lights in front of me from fanning together into fractal patterns. I had to slap myself and roll down the windows. We drove all night up I-95 to get home to Maine. The clouds in the dawn sky kept forming Jerry Garcia faces with long flowing beards (that's when I knew my brain was tapped out of interesting hallucinations). The boy that my parents saw the next day was sunburned, bleary, greasy, wearing beads and a dumb steal-your-face t-shirt and generally giving off a bad funk. Two days later my dad found the notebook lying around in my room and read it. Let's just say there was a crisis around the Lefty homestead until I returned to college (where my friend still had the sheet of acid and we both nearly failed out that semester as a result). I stopped listening to the Grateful Dead around 1993 and have since dipped back only briefly now and then. It's hard to separate the songs from the memories. But hearing "Attics of My Life" while peaking on acid was a highlight of my youth that I like to remember. Eyes closed, I soared through a white marble palace of multicolored windowed vortexes and was dipped in a golden lake of infinity. Felt pretty good.

You also don't want to miss this related Times article, which takes you down the wormhole of Grateful Dead taping and "best show ever" arguments among hardcore heads and how the myths of Cornell '77 and other "greatest shows ever" actually occurred because of non-musical events (when a sound engineer's home went into foreclosure, hundreds of hours of beautifully-mixed original tape were sold off, including Cornell '77). The podcast that goes along with it is four Deadhead nerds, including Ben Ratliff, geeking out in a way that is simultaneously embarrassing and awe-inspiring.

If you've got a story -- and don't lie, you know you do -- post it.

1 comment:

Lefty said...

My memory served! Here's the set list for July 14, 1990 at Foxboro, from the moment I crashed the gate:

Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad
Throwing Stones
Turn On Your Lovelight
The Last Time (Stones cover)
We Bid You Good Night

Amazing: You can listen to the entire show.