I am not mellow, and no one I know would call me laid back. I am possessed, however, of an insatiable zeal for education. And it was in this spirit that I traveled with friends to the Worcester Centrum in early November to hear the Grateful Dead.
The Dead, it need hardly be said, are a musical phenomenon without parallel in American society. A '60s band that plays to packed houses of kids often half their age, The Dead are more than a musical anomaly. For many fans, they are a way of life.
Okay, so maybe that's a little overstated. But the folks I know who are "into" The Dead--I'm sure you know some too--lend themselves easily to overstatement. The whole scene has become almost a cultural cliche, and certainly a musical anachronism, but I'm not going to get really mean because some of my Deadhead friends got me a seat on my school's "Dead Bus," which was informally run by several undergrads for transport to the concert. Tickets, I was assured, were no problem. Everyone scalped them at the stadium.
The bus, which turned out to be two vans, was indeed informal. Paul, the driver and organizer, said, "You can do anything you want, just don't blow anything out the windows, and if you can, wait until we get to the highway."
The students on the bus were mostly bonafide Deadheads, bedecked with traditional attire--ripped jeans, bandanas, Indian blankets, and tie-dye T-shirts. The smoke-filled vehicle soon pulled out of the city, bearing 13 excited Deadheads, and one slightly anxious me.
On the Massachusetts Turnpike our driver seemed to encounter some difficulty keeping the van between the little white dashes. As cars passed us two lanes wide on both sides, I began to calculate my chances of survival for the evening. If the cops didn't stop us, a concrete abutment almost certainly would. The three Dead fans in the seat in front of me hardly seemed concerned. They swayed shoulder to shoulder as we were gently rocked by the van's haphazard course.
At Worcester, we parked and parted, some for the Centrum, and others for the area outside the arena, where the culture of the Deadheads flourishes. In a cold drizzle, we circled the stadium once, twice and finally three times in search of tickets. Venders of everything from beaded necklaces to acid trips abounded, but tickets were nowhere to be found.
In a small parking lot close to the Centrum, diehard Deadheads had congregated with their vans and cars packed with Grateful Dead memorabilia. Some fixed dinner on small grills. Elsewhere reunions took place.
Here, the economy of this subculture thrived, as Deadheads sold pins, bumper-stickers, and T-shirts, hoping to make enough to cover gas money and the price of a ticket.
Some needed money for other reasons. One man asked for donations to help bail his brother out of jail--a cause to which many of the concertgoers seemed sympathetic as they stopped to give him spare cash.
The spirit of giving seems to pervade the Deadhead culture. When we ran into someone with two tickets for sale, I offered him $50 for both, even though we had previously agreed that we would go as high as $35 apiece. Startled by my reckless spending, he said, "Wait a minute, I'm not out to make a profit or anything. Take 'em for $45." After giving him the money, a friend said, "See? No one's here to make money. They just want to make sure everyone gets in!" Dumb-founded I took the ticket, and we headed for the Centrum.
What looked like two '60s leftovers huddled beneath an overhang of the Centrum, trying to escape the cold drizzle. Bearded and bedraggled, they each held small flowered signs which read, "I need one ticket." They joked with each other, and didn't seem the slightest bit worried abuot getting in. At a Grateful Dead concert, things just seem to work themselves out. Later on, I saw both of them inside.
Inside, Dead fans once again set up shop to sell their wares and talk to fellow Deadheads. Many of them were trading tapes, bootlegs of past concerts. Unlike other bands, the Dead don't appear to mind people taping their concerts. In fact, at most concerts a special section of the arena is set up just for tapers.
Perhaps the prevalence of bootlegging lies in the nature of the Dead's music. Its jazzy, ranging, individualistic style can't be captured on a single disc. Some Deadheads claim that no two recordings of one of their songs are exactly the same. As a result, many fans prefer bootlegs to authorized recordings.
The Dead have been known to drift into long jams mid-song which are sometimes electrifying and sometimes downright boring. Such is the nature of a band which experiments with its sound every night: taking musical risks is part of the Grateful Dead's style.
The concert began at 7:30, and included such favorites as "Kansas City," "Birdsong," and "Shakedown Street." The band also included a rousing rendition of "Good Lovin'."
The Grateful Dead have had a long and somewhat tortuous history. Present members of the band include Jerry Garcia on guitar and vocals, Bob Weir on guitar and vocals, Phil Lesh on bass and vocals, Bill Kreutzman on drums, Mickey Hart on drums, and Brent Mydland on keyboards. Of course, if you care about these names, you probably already know them. Pigpen, the band's original lead singer, died in 1973.
One highlight of the concert was Kreutzman and Hart's duet on "The Beast," a huge set of percussion instruments originally created for the soundtrack of "Apocalypse Now." The cacophany created through "The Beast" is a showpiece of the Dead's kind of musical power. "It's magic when you can bring 5000 people down to just the sound of your fingertip on a drum and then build it back up again from a whisper to a scream," said Hart in "Playing in the Band," a book by David Gans and Peter Simon.
Following the Beast Jam, Garcia began Space, a section of the show devoted to musical self-expression. In Space, each band member goes his own way, while staying in step with the thematical and musical tone of the moment. Space can be both beautiful and boring, but it is always different, a mark of the band's adventuresome style.
Most non-Deadheads don't know about all this musical experimentation. They--read: I--have come to associate the band almost entirely with drugs. That's not to say that such an association is inaccurate. As part of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury subculture in the late '60s, The Dead were typical of the bands on the psychedelic scene. The Acid Tests, in which the band participated in 1965, typify the Dead's connection with drugs. At the tests, different bands would get together, trip on acid, and play. In Gans and Simon's book, Garcia said, "The freedom was what I loved about it. When you're high, you might want to play for five hours, but sometimes you might want to stick your head in a bucket of water, or have some jello or something."
Today, Dead concerts are acid tests for many of the audience, if not the band. "Man, you've just got to get stoned to really get into the Dead," said one fan on the way to the show. At the concert, the show. At the concert, controlled substrances are sold everywhere. While some fans danced in the aisles, close to the stage and on the stairs, others simply sat in their seats, staring straight ahead, stoned out of their minds.
Wandering into a parking lot after the show, Deadheads were once again displaying brightly colored T-shirts. We examined several, before settling on an intricate design with a Grateful Dead skull and lightening bolt on it. The police soon began to close the Deadheads down, however, and we made our way back to the "Dead Bus." The groupies packed up, ready to head for New Jersey, site of the Dead's next concert.
Deadheads become part of the tour and part of the music, or so they would like to think. "Their music is special," said fan Matt Sperling. "Sometimes you can just stand there and listen to just Phil on the bass, and you become part of that bass, and you say to the person next to you, 'Listen to Phil!' and he's into Bobby, and he says, 'No, listen to Bob!' but no matter what, you're part of the song."
Many fans, in fact, feel as if they are actually part of the band. Carter Vincent, one such fan, said, "Just before they started, I said, 'They're going to play 'Shakedown Street' and then, right after I said it, they played it! It was amazing! I could just feel what they were going to play."
Unlike many pop bands, the appeal of the Grateful Dead is not dependent on flashy lights and stage shows; band members don't wear tight pants or leather collars, and they're not sex symbols. They're just a bunch of old-time rockers out there having fun. And their fans are determined to keep on truckin' with them, and have as many good times as they can along the way.