The Day The Concerts Died
A Tribute To The Grateful Dead
By Michael A Scanlon
August 12, 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Jerry Garica. RIP old buddy, I never got to meet you, and yet, you felt like an old friend.
For the uninitiated, the Grateful Dead were certainly special for their music, and their music carries on thanks to both The Tapers and the band. The Tapers, as they were known, were the DeadHeads who lugged around sophisticated analog recording equipment from show to show. Mind you, with most bands, you get caught recording their concert, the best you can hope for is a not-so-gentle escort out the front door you came in. You might also get arrested or even sued.
Not the Dead. They (brilliantly) told their fans “Sure, you want to make a recording, we’ll not only let you do it, we’ll carve out the best space on the floor and let you sit there.” (The dancers knew the best sound was behind the tapers, and even better, since you couldn’t see the stage very well behind all those dozens of mics, no one else went back there and you could twirl away.)
So we all owe the Tapers a huge debt of gratitude, because thanks to them, you can listen to any show the boys ever did. And they did a shit ton.
And it was the shows that really made the Grateful Dead into a unique experience.
We called ‘em shows, not concerts, because to call a Dead show a concert would be like calling beer a drink. Sure, beer is a drink, but its so much MORE than just a drink. And so too were Dead shows far more than just a concert.
The parking lot for any Dead show usually opened at 10AM, and there would be a line out front ready to race in and jockey for the best parking locations. Mind you, these concerts were typically at 7PM local time.
These early arrivers were mostly vendors, DeadHeads who scratched out a living by selling burritos or lyric books or, let’s admit it, drugs, to concert goers. The legit vendors arrived early to stake out the corner lots at the key intersections. You know the old adage, location, location, location.
By Noon, the place would be hopping, and by 4PM, the parking lot would be packed. You could buy anything you need in those parking lots, except love. The love was free.
The love was all around, the love flowed freely, and the love was expressed constantly and in unique and beautiful ways that made you glad to be alive. The guys, we’re guys, so we were, by and large, more downlow about it. Smiles mostly. Some hugs. But the women. Oh, those lovely hippie chicks!
Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t sexual in any way. I never saw a topless woman at a Dead show, I never saw a couple “doing it” at a show. And to use a modern phrase we didn’t have at the time, the love was gender non-binary.
I can’t tell you how many random interactions I had with beautiful women at dead shows that left me smiling. I don’t think I ever even got a kiss, but then again, the love was flowing, and on more than occasion, I was tripping. Or as we liked to say, “tripping my balls off.”
I saw the band 19 times. I think I found acid at two shows, the rest, I had to merely smoke copious amounts of weed. That wasn’t hard. At all. It was everywhere, and it was all shared.
I did get dosed in the summer of ‘90 in Pittsburgh. It must have been 98 degrees that day. Old Three River Stadium. In the parking lot, some guy my buddy found had some liquid LSD (“really good shit” I believe was his marketing pitch) for only $20. I gave him the money. He goes “I’m gonna pour one hit in your hand, as soon as I do, like it right up, don’t spill it or anything.” So he pours it in my hand, and I immediately lick it off my palm as he says “Oops, that was more like one and a half. Oh well, it’s on me. Enjoy.”
And enjoy I did! Crosby, Stills and Nash opened up that night. The rumor du jour did not, unfortunately, come to pass. Neil Young was not there, or if he was, he chose to be a spectator. No worries, CSN rocked it just fine. Worth the price of admission alone. A few things were consistent around the controlled mayhem of a Dead Show, and one of them was that you always got a great opening act on any summer stadium show.
The summer shows were always the craziest, because football stadiums can hold 60,000, 75,000 people. I never went to any Chicago shows, but I heard they’d exceed 100,000 people. And that’s just ticket holders inside. More people would come just to hang out in the parking lot, perhaps hoping for a “miracle,” a free ticket, and a reference to one of the greatest songs the boys performed, I Need A Miracle. So many of us would sing along to that crowd fav “I need a miracle EVVV ry day!”
I got a miracle, of sorts, once. It wasn’t technically a miracle, because I paid for the ticket. It was a miracle, because I was standing out front of the basketball arena in Charlotte, NC, with everyone streaming past me and going in. It was looking bleak. My friends had long headed in. I had written down their section, just in case. I had $20 to my name. (Good thing I had a ride back to Virginia!!)
I was standing there on the curb, with the number one finger up like all the other hippie bums, begging for a free ticket. There were far more of us than available tickets. As you’ve probably guessed, my one finger meant I just need one ticket please. I just need a miracle.
Suddenly, this couple stopped. The guy told me he a ticket left, one ticket. He didn’t immediately offer it to me. I started telling him how badly I wanted to get in, how all I had in the world was $20 but I’d gladly give it to him for the ticket. He said he could see I was really passionate and a “true Deadhead.” He sold it to me for $10. He could have easily gotten $50, even $100 for it. I hugged him like I’ve never hugged a strange man, before or since.
I ran toward the gate, finally got through security, and as I’m walking the concourse amongst my fellow Heads the band broke out into “Feel Like A Stranger” to open the night. The place went wild. I felt like a stranger, surrounded by people I didn’t know, but strangers I knew I could love and trust.
I danced all the way to my friends seats, where they were pleasantly surprised to see me.
That was Spring 1995. It was a tough time for me, financially, and I couldn’t swing the summer tour, so I had to sell my Orlando tickets.
The Grateful Dead distributed tickets in a unique fashion. The lines must have gotten too unruly, the way all the other acts had to sell tickets, with teens lining up overnight at the local department store waiting for the TicketMaster mainframe to warm up and hopefully work
The Grateful Dead had a very strict system, which was kind of ironic, very un-Dead, but you know, money. You had to go get a money order for the exact amount, and you had to use a 3X5 index card and you had to include a SASE. They had to keep those hippies in line!
So when Winter 1989 went on sale, I mailed in for tickets for the first time. I had been to a few shows at that point, but had never ordered my own tickets. I went for the Grand-daddy of all shows, their fabled New Year’s Eve show they did every year in their hometown of San Francisco. They wrote me back apologizing that Dec 31 was sold out by the time they got to my request. But I did get tickets for the 28th. (And damn it, too broke to find transportation to Cali over winter break in college, I had to sell those tickets. They guy who bought ‘em said the show was “awesome.”)
The point is, I think that got me ranked on their system or something, because I never got denied tickets, and people often got their money orders back with no tickets. Not me. I’d order tickets, and a month later, one day, bam, Dead tickets in the mail. It was like Christmas. My friends took to giving me cash and orders (“Get me one for each of the first three days of the four shows at the Cap Center this March.” “OK dude, but you gotta drive.”)
I’ve always regretted selling those Orlando ‘95 tickets, because unbeknownst to all of us, Jerry up and died suddenly in August 1995.
Rumors that the band wanted to break up had swirled for years. And they seemed to grow throughout the Nineties, and you couldn’t tell if that was natural – they obviously weren’t getting any younger – or borne out of some truth. Or both.
I had a very reliable friend who claimed that Bobby Weir was getting regular action from a chick with whom he used to do it. They were still on good terms, the way a guy and a girl who had casual sex together and aren’t yet married can in a way that a guy and a girl who dated, can’t. You know what I mean?
Anyway, he swore his source was right there, on the inside, no rumors, no translations, he was getting the actual inside word from the family. And the word was that all of them were over it, but none of them wanted to be known as the Yoko Ono of the Grateful Dead. So in a way, Jerry liberated them all by speedballing his ass to heaven.
That August day, President Clinton and his team made some snide remark about drug use that day when they praised him, as one should, when one comments on the passing of any human. Jerry was no ordinary human. He was an artist among artists. He was one of the greats. The snide remark could have waited a day, couldn’t it have? No one was talking up speedballing that day. Indeed, Jerry may have been into it, but I never saw anyone speedball at a Dead show.
I was on the road that day, that wretched, awful day in August ‘95 when concerts died for me. I was over 2 hours from home when I got the word, and the whole way up I-81, racing back to Blacksburg so I could grieve with my friends, I kept looking for a car with a dead sticker in the back window. See, that was the code to show we were cool. Many of my friends said I was stupid, that I was asking to be pulled over by a cop, which never happened, not because of the stickers anyway. Probably didn’t help any when caught speeding, but the stickers themselves never got me searched or anything. And good thing.
Window stickers, bumper stickers, the most common was the steal your face logo, the skull with the lightning bolt through it you may be familiar with. Over the years, some more subtle symbols came forth like the dancing bears and the roses. Like everything else about the band and the scene, it was all beautiful.
Driving home, I didn’t see a single Dead sticker. News moved slower in those days, before the internet and cell phones, but it didn’t move that slow, and I think by Noon, all the Dead heads were at home mourning.
And on that long lonely drive home, I kept thinking “I’ll never be able to go to a large concert again. Nothing will compare.”
About a year later, I mustered up the faux interest to try another major concert. It had been a while. I had seen my share of local acts – The Kind, the Blacksburg Dead cover band, were my favs – but I just couldn’t bring myself to experience another major act in a sports stadium.
In a sense, it wouldn’t be fair. Who could compare to the Dead? (The answer – No one.) I was worried I’d be too disappointed.
But about a year later, I got a chance to go see the great Jimmy Buffet live. We showed up a little early, walked in, waited, had a perfectly adequate concert performed for us, upon the end of which we walked to our cars and waited in a long line to go home.
It was such a let down. The Dead had ruined concerts for me, there were no two ways around it. I continued to support local acts. In 1997 I moved to Colorado, and in my first years here, I had some great moments at The Bluebird and The Ogden Theatre. And some places I’m not sure I ever caught the name of!
In 2016, my oldest was 15, and he wanted to go see The Who. My first thought was, wow, I did a great job raising my son, he likes The Who! My second thought was Hell yeah!
Once again, the standard concert style unfurled. I showed up to a parking lot full of cars and nothing else. Not even a solitary food truck.
The strangers all around us did not speak to us, and us not to them. Shit, no one even tried to pass me a joint during the show, although I suppose that could have been because I was there with my teenage son. (And yes, I would have politely declined. But it’s nice to be asked!)
I keep thinking another band will recreate the traveling magic. Phish got close in one sense, but they didn’t in another. I’m not really an expert, having only seen them once, finally, in 2016, here in Colorado. (Commerce City baby!) And I hear String Cheese is super cool, I never made my way to one of their shows, so I can neither confirm nor deny.
In summer 1991 – or was it 1992? – a group of us went to the Horde Tour. This was a relatively new concept, multiple bands in a show of its own name and design. We signed up because we really wanted to see this new band called Phish, but it turned out Merriweather Post Pavilion was one of the few stops they didn’t make that year. (Our consensus was that the third act was best. We had to look them up. Some guys from Georgia called Widespread Panic.)
Panic had great shows, I know. Amazing, trippy music. And I’m not saying there wasn’t any love there. It just didn’t compare. And would it kill some of you Rastafarians to pull a cooler out of your trunk and spend a few hours selling cold soda (yeah, soda) from the back of your car? A little service here!
Ah, what do I know any more? I’m 52, and twenty years of scrapping and struggling to support my family has beat me down and left no time for staying cool. And frankly, I’m not sure that desire is still there even if I could revert back to not having a life.
So maybe it is out there. Maybe there is a traveling flea market with a circus-like atmosphere, touring America one big city at time, a swirling hive of activity around a great musical act. And if there isn’t, there’s no reason one couldn’t arise out of this new normal. People will want it more than ever.
Another random Dead show memory: The Grateful Dead never played the same song the same way twice. It was part of the charm of the shows, the need to tape every show. Sure, some shows were shit. The boys would be the first to admit it. But some shows were magic.
Each song sort of played out the same, where they began straightforward enough, singing the initial lyrics and what-not. But every song had a place where they would allow themselves to drift off and play off each other and see where the mood swept them, musically. It was like watching Picasso paint. Jerry, over there on our right, would turn to his right, to see his fellow guitarists, Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. Phil, on our left, would turn to his left. Poor Bobby, he always had to look back and forth. What’s Jerry strumming? Where’s Phil headed? I suspect they could have done just as well blindfolded. Maybe even better, I mean, they were making music after all, why did they need to see each other? I think it was mostly to take turns on “lead” so they each knew who they were following. Did it always go perfect? Oh God no. But hey, it was a Dead show. Perfect wasn’t what you encountered along the way. Love and spontaneity were much more valued than cold perfection.