June 15, 2015
The Grateful Dead are turning 50 this year, and a party is in the works for the July 4th weekend at Chicago’s Soldier Field. I too am turning 50 this year, and I’m more than happy to share the celebration with them.
I’ve shared a lot with the Dead over the years. It started quite by accident, way back in August, 1982 in Veneta, Oregon, home of the Oregon Country Fair – or as us high school kids called it: When the Hippies Came Town. I was working at the local Dairy Queen, and ratty-haired freaks in flowing clothing had been wandering in all day. Of course my coworkers and I were curious why these hippies had come back to town – the Country Fair had ended a month ago. I recall this one lanky guy with a turban of dark dreadlocks cradling his head telling me, “It’s the greatest show on earth. An experience you’ll never forget, and can never get enough of. You should come over and check it out.”
And that’s exactly what I did, thanks to a coworker’s boyfriend who mistakenly showed up at that DQ an hour too early to collect her – right at the moment that I was finishing my shift. So we tooled on over to the Country Fair lot to see what we could see. I remember sun reflecting off the long line of chrome motorcycles parked in the grassy lot, how we meandered into the concert unchecked, the craft booths lining the perimeter selling things such as hair wreaths of dried flowers. Most of all, I remember the dancers – this one blonde girl in particular, twirling circles in her paisley halter dress, hair streaming out behind her like the tail of a comet. I do not remember the music.
Another three years would pass before the Grateful Dead whirled onto my radar again, and that too was a serendipitous accident – or fate, depending on how you look at it. I was in L. A. at the time. One of the security personnel I worked with ran another outfit which provided security for the Dead’s Ventura concerts. When he mentioned his upcoming gig to me, I did not recall the band’s name from that concert in Veneta three years before, but this coworker was convinced I’d like what I saw and offered me 4 backstage passes. Who would turn that down – for any band?
My roommate and cohort in all crazy adventures at the time promptly borrowed the American Beauty LP from our local library. Music is what kept our hearts beating in those days. Beatles, Bowie, Stones, Doors – we immersed ourselves in it all, drunk on an era we could only imagine, saddened that those days of beauty and freedom were long gone. Two flower children, born 20 years too late. The Grateful Dead tunes we listened to from that scratchy LP did not evoke the same sense of wonder. They were okay, we supposed, or at least good enough to hitchhike up to Ventura to see a show.
I don’t recall even trying to go backstage. Walking through the crowd was like a carnival fun house filled with smiling hippies, beautiful freaks that welcomed us into their space, taught us to dance from our heart, and cracked our minds wide open. The music was all right too. Turns out these Dead guys were “good enough” for that friend and I to hitchhike all the way up to Tahoe the following month and down to Chula Vista the month after that. Good enough that, by winter of the following year, we quit our jobs, sold most of our worldly goods, bought a VW Bus, and “dropped out” to follow their tours across country.
The friend fell in love, her first true love, and we didn’t end up traveling together on tour, but we still saw each other regularly at concerts. The world that we dropped into was quite a place, filled with the most free-thinking, generous and beautiful characters I’d never imagined. I put nearly 40,000 miles on that bus over the next 18 months as I toured back and forth across country on America’s blue highways, selling bead work to pay for gas and food. Though I never had a ticket ahead of time, I boogied my way through 100-some concerts, venues such as Brendan Byrne, NJ; Hampton, VA; Alpine Valley, WI; Red Rocks, CO; and Angels Camp, CA; and each one felt like home. I learned to fend for myself and live life on the road, to adjust that VW’s engine valves on the fly and to navigate my own path. I learned to enjoy life deeply, and I learned that detours were an integral and inextricable part of living, no matter which direction they veered.
I didn’t realize the lessons I was acquiring at the time, or how those years prepared me for the next stage of my life – dashing off to Europe in search of adventure, landing in a traveling circus, and spending then next two-plus years with an even zanier cast of characters, one of whom I would fall in love with. My own first, and only, true love. Things didn’t always work out as I hoped during those circus years, in fact, sometimes things went very wrong. But they did work out, due to those years on Dead Tour, a strong thirst for life, and the fortune of sharing that path with someone I loved.
The centrifugal force of the circle of life is drawing me “home” again. This July, as the Dead take stage at Soldier Field, I’ll be there in the audience, with that “love of my life” at my side, waving my freak flag wide and high. And I will feel immensely grateful for one last party with the counter-culture which provided the lessons I needed to make my way in a traditional world.
Fare thee well ~