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Deadhead Phase

I heard the studio version of Uncle John’s Band in Mike Lowe’s car on the way home from high school during my sophomore year. Mike, who was known as the Master of the Mixtape, had curated a “Classics” series based on vacations he’d taken with friends. Classics: Aspen must have had something to do with a ski trip, but it didn’t scream “mountains,” with the obvious exception of John Denver. In addition to Rocky Mountain High, there was Slip Slidin’ Away by Paul Simon, Danny’s Song and House at Pooh Corner by Kenny Loggins, Father and Son by Cat Stevens, Your Song by Elton John…you get the idea. As precocious a music listener and concert-goer as I was, I’d had limited exposure to 70s singer/songwriters, and was blown away. I wore out my dubbed copy of Classics: Aspen and dug into many of those artists including the Dead.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I knowingly attended a Dead concert. A kid from the stoner crowd – who wore an army jacket embroidered with mushrooms that he insistently characterized as toadstools – gave me a tape of the 12/31/86 New Year’s show from the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in Oakland, and it spoke to me. That, combined with the reports I was getting about the anything-goes parking-lot scene, made it inevitable: on 3/17/87, Brad Carter, Casey Higer, and I maneuvered for hours through stop-and-go traffic to the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater and our first official show.

Irvine ’87 was the first Dead show I attended by choice, but not my first show overall. On 9/5/82 – when I was 13 years old – I caught the second half of their performance at the first US Festival. That, you need to know, is a legendary claim to fame, and I have my mother to thank: she was willing to schlep out to San Bernardino and endure the searing heat and thronging masses because she wanted to see Fleetwood Mac. Of course, I would rather have attended either of the other days, but you take what you can get when you’re beholden to a cool parent.

I later learned that it wasn’t a typical Grateful Dead scenario. First, it was in the morning. Second, it was truncated to six songs in the first set and and six plus drums/space in the second, which is why the audience chanted “One more set! One more set!” for half an hour after the second encore. That incantation is pretty much what I remember from the Dead portion of the day, but I also remember Jackson Browne introducing Somebody’s Baby by saying “it’s the song they play every time that chick gets laid” in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which had been out for about a month. That may have required some explanation!

Anyway, I was hooked after the Irvine experience, and spent the next few years conspiring to attend more shows. It wasn’t always easy in high school because, although I was mobile, I had to have permission. All of California seemed to be in bounds, however, and I made it as far north as the Bay Area: Ventura, Mountain View, Oakland. I still regret missing those Dead/Santana shows at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds, but I wasn’t permitted to skip out on my SAT prep class. In hindsight, I’m glad I took the SAT seriously, because things really started to open up once I went to college. While I never exactly followed the band, I did travel about as far/wide as you can travel in the United States: Oregon, Maryland, Atlanta.

As noted above, my interest in the Grateful Dead extended along two vectors: the music and the scene. From a musical standpoint, I’m all about the songs, especially the Garcia/Hunger songbook. The drums/space section never turned me on particularly, and the solos/jams could meander. I’m super-into Jerry Garcia as a musician and sage, though, and I liked the ensemble playing, especially when they were firing on all cylinders. It was most exciting to me when someone like Bruce Hornsby or Branford Marsalis would sit in, because they added new color and seemed to bring out the best in the band.

Many fans mark their favorite shows by song selection or some subjective measure of transcendence. Senator Al Franken, for example, goes on and on about this version of Althea in Long Strange Trip, the recent Amazon documentary:

I admit, I have obsessed over set lists and specific performances. John Shleton reminded me fifteen years after the fact about the time I got into a semi-heated argument about what they were going to open with that day, or what they opened with on some other day, or something similarly nonsensical. That’s embarrassing, but I don’t mind bragging about the time I saw them play an electric version of Ripple for the first time in literally 28 years on 9/3/88 in Landover, MD. Supposedly, they pulled trigger because a terminally-ill Deadhead requested it through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. I don’t know if that’s true, but they never played the song again after that.

Along the same lines, I deeply regret missing the surprise show where they billed themselves as The Warlocks and played Dark Star for the first time since 1984. I vividly remember a phone call from some Boston friends, in which they announced their intention to pick me up in Washington, D.C. on the way to Hampton, VA. I passed – possibly out of a sense of academic responsibility at the beginning of my freshman year of college – and missed out on a madcap adventure. At least, that’s how I remember it. But it can’t have been that way, since that well-documented show was in October 1989, and I only went to school on the East Coast through May 1989. How could I have had it wrong all these years?!?

When I wasn’t attending shows, I was listening to bootleg recordings. This was, of course, before you could listen to every Dead show at archive.org or wherever. Taping was legal, but the tapes weren’t for sale; you could only acquire them by barter. Thus it was necessary to seek out collectors, which meant new friends and date-like encounters. The first time I met my longtime friend Vic, for example, we traded tapes at Maria’s Italian Kitchen. When I say “tapes,” I mean cassettes: Maxell XL-II 90s were the coin of the realm and – for a long time – there was nothing I coveted more than blanks. Eventually, I had quite a collection, with an emphasis on quantity over quality, and some of the sleeves featured trippy designs that I colored in myself.

I have plenty of music-related and show-specific memories, but the lasting impact of my Deadhead phase has more to do with the company of my fellow travelers: friends and the freedom of young adulthood. For example, none of us has forgotten the time we took the long road to NorCal, stopping regularly at baseball diamonds to play Over the Line. There’s also the football game at Laguna Seca, the BART ride to Berkeley after the Kaiser show, the wrong turn onto a ghost freeway in post-Earthquake Oakland, and – although you had to be there – the keg of beer we outfitted as a cowboy.

Here’s one of my favorite anecdotes: we drove from Los Angeles to Oakland without without a thought for where we would stay during the annual New Year’s extravaganza, i.e. the most popular band in the country’s four most popular shows. The hotels/motels were booked, obviously, and you couldn’t camp in the parking lot at the Oakland Coliseum. I remember sitting on the hood of our car on some desolate side street, wondering how we were going to get out of this mess, when an RV rolled my way. As it came into view, I realized that my friend was driving. In a timely display of creativity and craftiness, our advance scouting party had rented it – using a fake ID since we weren’t 21 much less 25. Don’t worry, we returned the vehicle in mint condition.

It was while we were tooling around the Bay Area in our RV that we almost got killed at Fisherman’s Wharf on an abortive trip to Alcatraz. In keeping with our logistical cluelessness, we didn’t know you had to buy advance tickets. When they turned us away, we tried to talk our way onto the ferry in the most obnoxious way possible. Later, while we were plotting our next move from a pay phone, a huge longshoreman approached Todd Spector and said: “I’m going to rip off your head and shit down your throat.” I’m not kidding, that’s exactly what he said! He was the son of the ill-used Alcatraz ticket taker, and he and his also-huge longshoreman sidekick weren’t messing around. Eventually, we talked our way of it; all that remains is a humiliating story of youthful entitlement. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Grateful Dead defined my friendships in 1988-1989, when I went to school on the East Coast. Stripped of my identify as a Southern California beach kid/volleyball player – that dog didn’t hunt at Georgetown – I had to re-invent myself. I remember feeling genuine relief when, during the first dorm meeting, a guy introduced himself as a Deadhead. This was probably unnecessary given his long-haired appearance, but it provided a useful entreé and we went to a bunch of shows together, including the Ripple one detailed above. (FYI, that guy also figures heavily into my Bluegrass Phase). More generally, we and a bunch of others who emerged that first weekend in Landover, MD spent most of that year picking Dead songs in dorm rooms, and we’re still friends today.

My Deadhead Phase ran its course in the early 90s, when the excitement wore off. The parking lot scene was legitimately out of control, I’d heard the songs a lot of times, and there was other music to obsess over. Unlike those who transitioned from the actual Dead to Dead-indebted “jam bands” like Phish and Dave Matthews, I gravitated toward the indie rock end of the spectrum, including Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen/fIREHOSE, and Camper Van Beethoven. I also liked the atmosphere of the small, dark clubs that hosted alternative shows: they were so much more personal/intimate than the increasingly crowded/hectic stadiums. I should probably also cop to not wanting to be part of the mainstream, which embraced the Dead with a vengeance in the early-mid 90s; I usually move on from bands when they get “too popular.”

Although I stopped organizing my life around their shows, I NEVER stopped liking the Grateful Dead. Even now, I listen to their music regularly, through my curated Spotify mix or when there’s a big event like the official release of the legendary Cornell 5/8/77 show on its approximate 40-year anniversary last May. In recent years, I’ve read a bunch of books about them – I recommend A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead and This Is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead – and watched the various documentaries, including Long Strange Trip and The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir.

Just yesterday, I saw Dead rhythm guitarist Bob Weir sit in with Steve Earle and Buddy Miller at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco, which sent me into a nostalgic frenzy. I jumped up when he walked on, and immediately started trying to guess what song he was going to play based on his warm-up noodling, just like I used to do at Dead shows. I was a decent prognosticator back in the day, but my skills have atrophied, as evidenced by my inability to identify I Know You Rider before they started singing. In my defense, the Dead never started Rider from scratch, but rather transitioned from China Cat Sunflower. I’ll get it next time!

Places I’ve Seen the Grateful Dead

Anaheim Stadium (Anaheim, CA)
Autzen Stadium (Eugene, OR)
Cal Expo Amphitheater (Sacramento, CA)
Cal State Dominguez Hills (Carson, CA)
Capital Centre (Landover, MD)
The Forum (Inglewood, CA)
Frost Amphitheater (Stanford, CA)
Giants Stadium (East Rutherford, NJ)
Golden Gate Park (San Francisco, CA)
Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center (Oakland, CA)
Irvine Meadows Amphitheater (Irvine, CA)
Laguna Seca Raceway (Monterey, CA)
Long Beach Arena (Long Beach, CA)
Oakland Coliseum (Oakland, CA)
Oakland Coliseum Arena (Oakland, CA)
The Omni (Atlanta, GA)
Shoreline Amphitheater (Mountain View, CA)
Ventura County Fairgrounds (Ventura, CA)

Bob Hillman Administrator

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