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So Many Roads

The legacy of 500 Grateful Dead shows



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.


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