When I was in high school, I didn’t like the Grateful Dead. Or at least I didn’t think I did. I didn’t really know that much about them, but was too wrapped up in all the punk and new age music I’d discovered during the year my family live in England to find out, and I thought they were old, passé. Hippies and acid rock were dumb, obviously so not cool as I so obviously was, sporting my wrap-around sunglasses and black mini-dresses with day-glo orange belts, while dancing the pogo to Devo.
Then, I went off to college and announced to one of my hall mates in my dorm my first year of college that I didn't like the Dead, and she did what many a Deadhead has been known to do when someone makes such a pronouncement. One evening, we were hanging out in her room, and she just put American Beauty on the stereo.
“This is really good,” I said. “Who is it?”
She just smiled a knowing smile and said, “The Grateful Dead.”
I was hooked. I never became what anyone would call a real Deadhead – stoned or tripping all the time, dropping out of life to “tour” the country with them, growing dreadlocks on my head and legs – but I did become a “fringe Deadhead.” I loved to see them live and preferred tapes of their shows over studio albums. And somehow, I always seemed to end up with housemates who were Deadheads or fringe Deadheads as well.
Unbeknownst to me, while I was making my way through college and trying to make it in the “real world” afterwards, a period in which pretending I had no family was de rigueur (well, except when my father came to visit with a bottle of gin and would take a select group of friends and me out to dinner), Ian was busy going off to boarding school, then to his first year of college, and then to South Africa for a while. Finally out from under the wings of his opinionated and influential older sisters, he was making his own musical discoveries. One of these was the Grateful Dead. When he came back to live in this country, he and I started going to shows together when we could (not easy to do when he was living in places like NC and OR, and I was in CT).
The best of these, we both agree, was Albany, New York. At that time, I was living with three other young women, which meant, of course, I was also living with their boyfriends. My housemate Jessica’s boyfriend was a decided Deadhead of the always-dressed-in-blue-jeans-and-tie-dyed-t-shirt variety. Jess was a fringe Deadhead like me, and the three of us caught quite a few shows together. We suggested Ian come up to Connecticut and then ride up to Albany with us for two nights’ of shows. Ian readily dropped everything – even abandoning the clingy, demanding girlfriend he had at the time, which was no easy feat, for the weekend – to come join us.
This was the first time any of us had ever been to Albany, and we all decided it was a really cool city, and not only because it was inundated with Deadheads. It had a distinct industrial downtown area where we immediately found a dive bar, straight out of a Richard Russo novel, that sold extremely cheap pitchers of beer and $1 cheese burgers during its happy hour. This was to be our “hangout” for the next two days when we weren’t actually in the coliseum.
The only problem with this bar was that the line for the women’s room, as is typical, guaranteed about a twenty-minute wait. Since Jessica and I were both drinking beer, it wasn’t long before we needed a women’s room with a two-minute wait, tops. We decided to turn the men’s room into just that, since its line was nonexistent. One “townie,” who was obviously not amused that all these out-of-towners had taken over his bar began pounding on the door. He was even less amused when he discovered it was two women who were making him wait. His anger found its scapegoat in the two men who were sitting at the table to which these women returned. I’m pretty sure that the only reason Ian and Neal didn’t end up having to defend the honor of their women was that there were two of them and only one of him (and also probably – although I don’t remember this, but it could easily have been the case – because Neal was such a happy-go-lucky type, he very well might have just smiled at the guy and said something like, “Don’t sweat it, man. It’s not worth it).
I have to admit I have no idea what was on the song list for either night’s show. I know we were diligently keeping those lists, though. I can also guarantee that Jessica and I (because we always did) engaged in the sacrilegious act of becoming bored when” Space” and “Drums” went on too long. I love percussion, but for some reason, I could never get into these long interludes (probably because I wasn’t busy tonguing tabs of acid before the show).
The ride home in the middle of the night after the second show turned out to be a bit of an adventure. Neal was the designated driver of Jessica’s little Toyota (God knows why. I’m sure he’d probably drunk the most). At some point, he realized we were running out of gas. I can promise you that the stretch from Albany, NY down to Southwestern Connecticut is not the sort of stretch that has 24-hour multi-service rest stops. It’s the sort of stretch that reminds you of nights around a campfire telling stories about The Hook and the mysterious young female hitchhiker who leaves her sweater in your car, and whose parents inform you she's been dead for ten years when you go to return it. Neal remained extremely philosophical and calm, as did Ian, but I – and I know it will be a stretch for you to imagine this is what I would do, but do – began freaking out, imagining ourselves stranded in the middle of nowhere, unable to reach anyone (this was in the days when only very rich people had what were referred to as “car phones”), and my losing my job when I didn’t show up at work the next afternoon at 1:00, which was when I was expected to be there. Jessica (she had the enviable ability to sleep anywhere, anytime), who had been sleeping, woke up and fed off my panic.
Just as Neal was saying he thought we could maybe go another forty miles or so, we saw a cop car sitting on the side of the highway. He pulled up behind it, which I’m sure surprised the hell out of the two cops sitting in the cruiser. One of them walked back to our car, and Neal explained that we were about to run out of gas. This first cop wasn’t very helpful, basically indicating we were S.O.L. Then he asked his partner who did happen to know of a 24-hour place that was within our 40-mile parameter. To this day, I’m surprised we weren’t all hauled to the county jail, as I’m sure after being at that show we reeked of alcohol and pot smoke, despite the fact we hadn’t had anything to drink for hours. Instead, they let us go on our merry way to find the gas station, and we did. The rest of the ride home was uneventful, but somehow, that last little bit of excitement seemed to help cement in all our memories the fact that this had been the best road trip we’d ever taken and the two best shows we’d ever seen.