Saturday, May 5, 2007

Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Good. (Albany with Emily).

I can’t remember the first time I ever heard the Grateful Dead but I probably wasn’t that impressed. Maybe the song Truckin’ was played on the radio when I was very young, but if it was it never registered with me and the first time I can remember actively sitting down to listen to the band was somewhere around ninth-grade, which would have made me fourteen. A friend of mine had scored this amazing record collection from a guy who was going to medical school, a collection which included records by Traffic and Big Brother and the Holding Company. One of these albums was The Dead’s Steal Your Face, and I remember being not very impressed and slightly bored with it. At the time, my sister was bringing home new music from England and I was enamored by the Clash and XTC along with the testosterone-conjuring thump of Led Zeppelin and The Who. If a song was going to be ten minutes long, it had to be angsty, like Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, and the Dead just seemed too damned relaxed. The lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, rarely used distortion on his guitar, in fact he played cleanly and melodically, and the songs were about an imaginary American landscape, part Grant Wood, part William S. Burroughs. At the time, Whole Lotta Love was what I was more readily able to relate to.

This feeling stayed with me through high school and into college. My first year at college I met people who were into the Dead full bore. Still, for me, my feelings about the band stayed the same. Here we would listen to bootleg tapes, and I was always annoyed by the tinny quality of the recording and the incessant ringing of the ride-cymbal heard above all the other instruments. I was also gaining contempt from Deadheads who could name obscure set-lists from fifteen years ago and who snuffed my one single Dead album, the very un-cool Grateful Dead’s Greatest Hits.

After returning from Africa after six months, where I gratefully embraced reggae, I went to see the Dead for the first time. After that, the fringe skeptic in me evaporated. To be truthful, and this is going to sound typically male at best and chauvinistically piggish at worst, I was charmed by the thousands of free and happy young women present at the show. Young women, smiling at me—for whatever reason, and running into old friends and feeling a community spirit in the summer heat had me hooked. Plus I was starting to get into the music. I had the rollicking neo-blues number US Blues in my head for about a week:

I’m Uncle Sam
That’s who I am
Been hidin’ out
In a rock-and roll band

Its little phrases like this that got me deeper into the music. Soon I became one of those guys who played tapes for neophytes and sniffed with contempt at people with common official releases from the band. Well, maybe I wasn’t that bad, but I did get pretty serious about it.

[I just want to take a second and say something about the Grateful Dead and drugs. I believe some people might automatically associate the two, and with good reason, that was a large part of the culture. It was a part of the Dead culture which did damage to the band on an individual and community level. The scene outside a Dead show could be fun, but it could also attract a lot of shady characters, and this always caused problems for the band. Not all Dead fans used drugs however. I know one person, Emily knows him too, who went to several of the Dead’s highly regarded concerts for years and has never used a drug in his life. He still remains a fan to this day.]

So Emily and I arranged to go see a show together with her friends Jessica and Neil in Albany New York. I was entangled in an ill-fated relationship at the time, and had to petition a long time in advance for the opportunity to go, but my girlfriend was friends with Emily which gave enough reason for me to break away. Trust was always a problem in that short-lived affair. Turns-out it wasn’t me who needed to be mistrusted.

So I arrived in Albany, and I can’t remember exactly how I felt, but I imagine that I felt like I always do when starting a pleasure trip, elated! I met Emily in Stanford Connecticut, that’s where you were living Emily, right? I was introduced to Neil and Jessica that night and after talking to them I realized that they were big fans, but not elite about it. I’m refraining from using the term Deadhead, I can’t really explain why, I think its because Deadhead is a term used by people mainly who aren’t fans or a way to identify people who are fans right away, like: “He’s a real Deadhead.” After that first recognition, the term doesn’t get used as much.

We left the next morning and drove up to Albany in Neil’s car. I remember one trip I took to see the Dead in Hampton Virginia in which I went with possibly the most uptight people in or outside of the Dead community I have ever met. I made the unforgivable faux pas of considering what the Dead might play and what I might like to hear, and the driver, a pre-med student, sarcastically claimed that he wanted to hear an hour version of Dark Star, the Dead’s most notorious jam. It felt very oppressive. We roomed with a taper (a person who was given special permission to tape the concert) and he personally accosted me because he didn’t know me. The people I did know vouched for me, but I always felt relegated to pariah status.

Absolutely the opposite with Jessica and Neil. One of our first conversations was about the music and what we might hear at the show. Neil had been to over a hundred shows, but he didn’t wear this on his sleeve, and he patiently listened and commented on what might be a possible choice on the set list and what was unlikely. I wondered if they might play a song called Black Peter. Neal thought about it and said, yea, they might play that one.

We stayed at a motel outside of town. I can’t remember a thing about it except that they brought me hot tea when I ordered tea in the diner. I had forgotten that I wasn’t in the South anymore where you get iced-tea in the same circumstance. We spent very little time at the motel, a local bar becoming our point of recreation when we weren’t at the concert, and the community feeling came back in the middle of downtown Albany where we would walk from the bar to the arena and back.

I remember one such walk being interrupted by a very strange sight. Two Deadheads (I know, I used the word) were having a loud argument over the sanitation of their van and a dog that was owned by one of them. The dog apparently wasn’t van-broken and the argument was looking like it might escalate into violence. It was strange to hear two quasi-hippies yelling at each other. “Well, man, you’re dog is totally bumming me out!” “yea, well, you’re feet aren’t smelling a lot better man!” Stuff like that.

The bar where we took up residence was a local taproom, a blue-collar watering-hole, and the locals looked bemused and tolerant of all this hippydom. They must have realized the cash that this three-night event was generating. Rolling Rock beer was phenomenally cheap, and I remember drinking pitchers of it and being quite happy by the end of the first night. Albany, out of any place I ever saw the Dead except possibly Maine, was the most friendly to the concert goers. Part of the reason the Dead were able to play in the brand new Knickerbocker Arena was that the mayor of Albany was a long standing Deadhead himself. He’s in good company. Al and Tipper Gore, Bill Walton (NBA), Phil Jackson (former Bull’s coach) and Patrick Leahy (Senator from Vermont) all profess to being fans. It’s rumored that Ann Coulter is a fan as well but I’d prefer to keep that a rumor.

One of the things I always forget about when I go to concerts, although not so much any more, is how much beer you drink. This creates a nice buzz, but it also creates a need to relieve yourself every three and a half minutes. At the little bar-away-from-home, the line to the men’s room was always long. The afternoon before the second night, the line was even longer, and it got passed back that there was a biker holding things up with a lengthy stay on the men’s room’s only dubious fixture. The line started moving again when the patrons started to use the sink, and by the time I got into the little closet-like space the Biker was directing guys to the sink and stating “You’ll have to go in there man, I’m all tangled up in blue here.” It was the most appropriate use of a Dylan lyric I had ever heard.

The actually concerts were hazy, but I remember hearing good versions of many favorites. Emily, Jessica, Neil and I all whooped when Jerry Garcia yelled “I wish I was a headlight, on a north bound train!” We zoned out during Space, an often boring exercise in experimental noodling that actually served a purpose. Back in the 60s, psychedelic drugs were part of the Dead experiment, in fact the Dead was the house band for the Acid-tests in San Francisco, so the mind-melting theme now translated into these long sound-scapes. After they were finished they would usually start a rollicking jam or a hyper-melodic song like The Wheel. I read once where the second set of a Dead show was supposed to act as a practice in deconstruction, where the normal form of music would break down, and then reform as something new toward the end. The listener’s consciousness was supposed to do the same, and possibly it did, but cheap beer wasn’t aiding me in any way with the experience. I suppose you needed something more intense for that.

But the music and the fans and the days spent in Albany with the patient Neil and Jessica were great. By the end of the second night, coming out of Space the Dead started playing a slow number that I was slow to recognize. I noticed Neil pointing at me and then giving me the thumbs up. I realized he was mouthing the words “Black Peter!” They were playing song we had talked about in the car.

There is no question that the Grateful Dead holds as much importance for me today as it did then. I could go into a long description about what the band means to me, but I’ll spare the world of that. Emily and I had a great time that weekend, and she provided me refuge from a confused time when I thought I was something that I wasn’t, in love. I was able to, in Albany, break away from constricting ties both in my personal life and in my previous conception of other Dead fans. This show was a ray of hope, and I’m glad I enjoyed it with Emily.


Emily Barton said...

Boy, if the line to the men's room was that long, the line to the women's room must have been even worse than I remember. What fun to read. I never knew that your love of the Dead was as slow to come as it was (at least you had the excuse that you were somewhat familiar with them when you claimed not to like them). Funny, I don't remember the motel at all either.

linser said...

I loved going that Jerry Garcia concert at Hampton Roads with you. Hey, at Albany was there a long line of bongo players outside with a guy tweeting away on a harmonica at the end?

hasmits said...

I really don't think Ian should go to a Grateful Dead Concert -- he is only six years old!