Friday, August 3, 2007

Jerry Garcia Week: Part 1

Tribute to the immortal Jerry Garcia: Born August 1, 1942…Deceased August 9, 1995

My first installment, which was part of a larger essay, looks back at my first road trip to see the Grateful Dead. My final post during Jerry Week will be a look at how Garcia influenced Bob Dylan.


In Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, he sets the stage for his great American journey by stating, “And this was really the way that my whole road experience began, and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell.” My fantastic road escapades began on the morning of April 6th 1982. We had tickets to see the Grateful Dead at the Philadelphia Spectrum that evening, but a freak 18 inch snowstorm blanketed the town of Nanuet, New York, as well as most of the Hudson Valley. Though my friend Seymour had already taken the snow tires of his tiny white Honda, not going to Philadelphia was never an option. Our hearts were set on joining the wild scene that awaited us. After navigating through a treacherous 15 mile stretch of the Palisades Parkway, all roads were clear as the storm had spared New York City and points south. We were hooting and hollering as we made our way down the New Jersey Turnpike until we reached our destination, “The City of Brotherly Love.”

Once we arrived in the Philadelphia Spectrum parking lot, we were greeted by a swarm of tie-dyed vagabonds who were aimlessly making the rounds either looking for or selling anything from window pain acid to veggie sandwiches. An intoxicating aroma that consisted of marijuana, hash and opium smoke, patchouli oil, incense and burnt pretzels filled the air. A pretty, braless hippy girl was spinning around while flashing her finger in the air and repeatedly chanting, “Who’s got my miracle ticket?” Two young men wearing psychedelic-colored knit beanie hats were smoking a joint while leaning against the famous statue of Rocky Balboa. In back of them, a circle of long-haired screwballs were kicking around a hacky-sack and dancing to the funky rhythms courtesy of two Deadheads furiously banging bongos. Admidst the arcane madness, bootleg recordings of the psychedelic guitar wizardry of our hero, Jerry Garcia, was cranking out of every vehicle from pristine Cadillacs to rusty dilapidated Volkswagen Bugs. The “Summer of Love” was alive and kicking fifteen years later, in a parking lot in South Philly,on a blustery spring day.

Inside the Philly Spectrum, the carefree mingling of Deadheads instantly exploded into howls of ecstasy as the lights went out. Everybody broke out their matches and lighters; not for the band, but to spark a bowl or joint. Our fearless leader, Garcia, was armed with his trademark “Tiger” guitar and was wearing his customary black t-shirt and jeans. With his gold-rimmed glasses barely hanging on to the tip of his nose, he greeted us with a heart-warming smile and a traditional blues number in honor of the weather, “Cold Rain and Snow.” The band proceeded to whip through a 12-song first set that ended with “Might as Well,” during which Garcia bellowed, “Never had such a good time, in my life before.” The lights came back on, everybody was psyched. We knew the boys were on their game as everybody kept getting higher during the 35 minute intermission. It was impossible to avoid getting high, if you weren’t voluntarily partaking in mind-altering substances, you couldn’t escape the contact high or the musical ecstasy. It was palpable that something intense was looming before the lights went out and the band returned; it was like we were in the thick of it before it happened.

As if they were manipulated like puppets on a string, the crowd was up and dancing once Phil Lesh hit the thunderous bass note signaling the onset of the Dead’s funkiest dance song, “Shakedown Street.” During the final instrumental, Garcia traded rapid fire improvisational leads with keyboardist Brent Mydland before thrilling the crowd with a rousing display of electric guitar playing virtuosity. A couple of songs later, in his most angelic voice, Garcia sang the Dead’s epic literary masterpiece “Terrapin Station.” The ensuing drum solo was thrilling to percussion enthusiasts, but it gave the rest of us a chance to take care of whatever business needed attending: for some of us, this meant pit stops for beer or personal relief, for others it was an opportunity to recharge their buzz. The band returned for the grand finale as we experienced them segue from the psychedelic forays of the “Other One,” into their most vaunted spiritual “Morning Dew.” Garcia’s hands were a blur on his axe as he smoked our minds with the final climatic jam. The Dead proceeded to rock the faithful to the bone with a sparkling version of “Sugar Magnolia” as streams and splashes of hippy sweat came raining down on the Spectrum’s concrete floor. Bob Dylan’s, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” was the soothing encore that safely landed us back on planet Earth. The concert was the most thrilling spectacle I’d ever witnessed.

We felt like conquering heroes on the ride home – we had found paradise. In varies states of elation, the ride breezed by, until suddenly, Seymour’s Honda hit a Palisades’ Parkway ice patch sending us a spinning round and round,like a pair of panties in a wash cycle. The very weather conditions that nearly caused our deaths saved our lives as we ended up lodged in a snow bank a few feet from the imposing pines that line the parkway. Though tragedy was narrowly averted, I couldn't wait to go back, Jack, and do it again.

Three days later, on the way back from a Dead show in Rochester which featured an entirely different musical performance than the one we saw in Philadelphia, I plowed into a deer at a 70 MPH clip. After accidentally killing one of God's innocent creatures, I got my car patched-up and we were off to see our heroes in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. Fueled up on coffee and weed, I crossed the country with three of my best friends by my side. We saw places and things we’d only heard and dreamt about as Jerry’s guitar rang out from the speakers of my Chevy Caprice the entire journey. Once we reached Alpine Valley we were blown away by her lush green fields and crystal blue lakes as the intoxicatingly clean, crisp country air filled our lungs. We had the comfort of knowing that tens of thousands of our brethren were making the same pilgrimage. After our dazzling journey, the Dead rewarded us with a pair of scintillating performances that were distinctive; unlike anything they had ever done before or would do again. Not only were we experiencing America like Jack Kerouac had, but we were witnesses to musical history.

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