Tuesday, December 9, 2008

the first concert I saw was the Grateful Dead in '93...

Fall 2008 has been a great time for me for big rock concerts, especially ones with a jammy bend to them. I've seen the Trey Anastasio Band twice (Trey is the guitarist of Phish for those not in the know) and Phil Lesh and Friends seven(!) times (Phil Lesh was the bassist for the Grateful Dead for those not in the know.) And these big shows have been mixed in with many smaller club and bar shows. The last big show of the season is coming up for me this Friday December 12th when I get to see Neil Young at the Spectrum here in Philly.

Neil at the Spectrum will have special resonance because after 40 years of hosting everyone from Zeppelin, to the Stones, to Floyd, to the Dead, Springsteen, and Phish the arena is slated for demolition in 2009. This will probably be Neil's last show there. And it might be my last time there as well. And I've got floor tickets too!

The Spectrum is gonna be imploded to make way for a retail complex (Yay! God bless the capitalist spirit!) Though who knows if people will actually be buying stuff in 2009 with the way the economy is heading.

So with all these big rock shows in recent memory and one big one coming up, I figure it's a good time to recount my 1st ever big rock show: the Grateful Dead in 1993.:

A few months ago right around the 15th anniversary of its occurrence, I downloaded and listened to this show, from Madison Square Garden, September 20th 1993.

It went something like this:

1: Touch of Grey> Greatest Story Ever Told , Row Jimmy, Race Is On> Dire Wolf, Memphis Blues> Lazy River Road> Johnny B. Goode
2: Samson &Delilah, So Many Roads, Truckin> He's Gone> Drumz*> Other One*> GDTRFB*> Morning Dew
E: Baba O'Riley> Tomorrow Never Knows
*with Edie Brickell on vocals, (last time "Race Is On" was played was 05-04-91)

You folks at home can listen along to the show too, as a streaming source or a download in a variety of qualities:
[Grateful Dead Sept 20, 1993 soundtrack]

I've had a cassette copy of the show for over a decade, but it'd been a while since I'd given it a spin. Listening back it was obvious that it certainly was not a flawless show. The cracks/heroin were beginning to appear, but there are plenty of moments of "this is why I like the Dead!" And the show is very special to me because it was the only time I got to see the Grateful Dead. Many times since Jerry Garcia's death I've seen different configurations of GD members performing (most prominently 43 performances and counting of Phil Lesh and Friends!) but I only saw the original, legendary band once.

Since the band was legendary, and the show was a very important moment in my life--- seeing one of my all-time favorite bands as my first big rock concert--- it's worth writing down everything I remember before it all fades into old age and ether.

I got to got to the show thanks to my dad. He was a complete non-fan, certainly no Deadhead trying to teach his offspring what "good live music" was. Being dragged to a show by Deadhead parents was the way a lot of my peers got their first dose of live Dead. But my dad took me for my 14th birthday because he knew the Grateful Dead were the band I most wanted to see at the time. And he knew he could at least tolerate the GD's music, which he often heard coming from my bedroom.

Taking me to the show still stands as one of the coolest things my Dad has ever done for me. He even went through the complex mailorder process to get the tickets via the official Grateful Dead Ticket Service. As a result, I ended up with a great looking embossed ticket full of sparkles and GD iconography. This is so much better than the generic ticketmaster stock.

Of course I still have the ticket. I keep all my stubs. It was the first in an ever-increasing collection that now numbers in the hundreds and weighs about 5 pounds:

These are all my enduring memories of the evening:

Dad and I took the train in from Somerville, NJ to NYC Penn Station, literally right below Madison Square Garden. Deadheads were all over the platform in that quiet suburb. I remember in particular a middle-aged woman with long straight hair wearing a close-fitting white sweatshirt with the artwork for the Shakedown Street album printed in black on the front. On the platform the Deadheads stood in small clusters discussing the eternal jam band question, "what do you think they'll play tonight?" Switching trains in Newark, I remember lots of denim jackets and vests covered in GD patches on the platform. A man with tall rainbow-colored socks and Birkenstocks got on the same NYC-bound train as us.

On the train ride back to Somerville, after the concert, the conductor repeated each station stop numerous times in a very slow and deliberate manner. After many years of the Dead doing week-long Fall residencies at the Garden, the NJ transit works were probably used to the hordes of Deadheads, many in altered state of mind. With the condescending-style of the homeward-bound station announcements, I think the train workers were on one hand making fun of the fans and on the other hand just trying desperately to get to the end of the line without encountering a slit-eyed beardo in a wrinkled tie-dye still in one of the seats, saying "hey man, where are we? Did I miss the Westfield stop?"

For the show I wore a tie-dyed shirt I'd made the previous month at a Catholic boys summer camp and an olive drab lightweight coat that was a bit heavy for late September weather. In my coat pocket I had a copy of Willa Cather's My Antonia which I had to read for Mrs. Gottlieb's honors English class. I also had a white handkerchief with me that I ended up dropping on the floor of MSG. My Dad told me "just leave it. It's dirty."

Going into the show I knew a little about Deadhead culture and the band's setlist structure. I knew from the books I'd read that the band hadn't played "St. Stephen"-- perhaps my favorite Dead tune at the time--- since 1983. I knew that if the band played it tonight, it'd be a big deal. I knew the setlist was completely different from night to night and that without warning the band would reintroduce songs into the repertoire that hadn't been played live in a decade or more. So hearing "St. Stephen" that night was unlikely but not an impossibility. Of course it didn't happen, but the hope stuck with me to the very last note of he show.

The spun and/or drunk Deadheads in our row made fun of my Dad for being so old, though he was actually 5 years younger than the bearded fat man on stage. One of them mockingly said to my Dad, "what do you normally listen to? Herb Alpert and the Tijiuana Brass?" To me, I think they said something about popping my cherry, not that I knew what that meant.

My dad was excited that he was familiar with the openers of both sets; "Touch of Grey" because it was the Dead's only top 20 hit and that song was hard not hear if one was alive and aware in the mid to late 80s; and "Samson & Delilah" because it came from a folk-blues song that my dad knew from the Peter, Paul, and Mary version. (Incidentally, arguably the only cool concert my Dad saw in his youth was P,P &M at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens with Simon and Garfunkel as the openers(!)) I remember him at MSG singing along to the chorus, uncharacteristically with fist the air: "If I had my way!"

I knew Deadheads wrote each night's setlist down as the show unfolded, so I brought a little spiral notebook to write down what I knew of the set in a hand made crooked by the lack of light. I also knew that in the middle of the second set there'd be a percussion duet followed by a freeform ambient/non-melodic jam. I knew this segment was known as "Drums/Space."

But I still asked " what is this?" to the guy next to me during most song sin the first set until he he said (with slight annoyance) "let's just compare notes after the set." My knowledge of the Dead at that point-- the very beginning of my freshman year of high school-- was patchy at best. I think my GD collection of the time consisted of a well-worn cassette of the Best of/Skeletons From the Closet. That collection was the first Dead recording I ever got. It was the first for a lot of people. It contained everything by the band that I'd heard on early 90s classic rock radio. WNEW on a beat-up 1970s radio was my introduction to the band as I painted Dungeons & Dragons lead miniatures in my parents' New Jersey garage.

I also had Live/Dead (I'd heard of the mystique of "Dark Star" so I had to check it out), In the Dark, Europe '72, and the oddball choice for 2nd ever GD recording in my collection --- One From the Vault. This archival release of a complete 1975 concert was a 12th birthday present that I asked for and received as the first CD I ever owned.

I think I asked for it because of 2 things:
1) I wanted a GD CD with a "Steal Your Face" logo because I loved the design. Of course this logo appeared on One From the Vault. The SYF was what first made me look into the Dead after seeing Tim Jellison (an 8th grader when I was a 6th grader) wearing a SYF tie-dye at a gym dance. I immediately loved the design before evening hearing the band, but even in the infancy of my 70s rock research I'd read numerous times that the original Steal Your Face album--on which the logo very prominently appears, thus giving the design its name -- was awful.
2) I'd heard a version of "Sugaree" on some sort of Jerry Garcia radio interview/special and really liked it. And I knew One From the Vault included a version.

In addition to One From the Vault I also had a cassette of the Blues For Allah album (mildly redundant since OFTV includes superior live versions of every track on it.)

So by age 14, I was certainly a bit more than a novice. I had intimate knowledge of some obscurities, but was also ignorant of some staples--- "Dire Wolf"? never heard of it. "Row Jimmy"? what's that? A real Deadhead could sing every word to these, but I wasn't there just yet.

I remember at one point, before the show or between sets, I told my Dad I wanted to go down to the floor and touch the stage. This was my first rock show, so the whole idea of barriers between stage and crowd and not being able to get to the floor with a 300-level ticket was foreign to me. I half-remember making it to the floor as far as the soundboard. Maybe I got that far because I looked like exactly what I really was, "just a kid," six days away from turning 14.

During the show some tall bearded guys were dancing off to the right of our seats near one of the exits to the hallway. They were eating what looked like brownies with cellophane wrapping. I don't think I knew about "pot food" yet..

I'd never heard "Row Jimmy" or "Memphis Blues" before the night of the concert, but they had such catchy repetitive choruses that I found myself singing along in the Garden before the songs were over.

The song I was most excited hearing that night was, "Truckin.'" I loved its rebellious travelogue narrative. I remember the lights shining in spiraling patterns on the stage left 100&200 sections during "sometimes the lights are shining on me." And I heartily sang along to the most famous of all GD lines, "what a long strange trip it's been!" even though my own Dead trip had just begun...

The one truly unique aspect of this show in the Grateful Dead's history was the one-time-only guest appearance by Edie Brickel doing vocals on a couple of songs. At the time I knew her one big hit, "What I Am" with the New Bohemians but I don't think I figured out for certain who the mysterious long-haired woman on stage was until months later. At the time I thought it might have been Donna Godchaux, back-up singer for the Dead from 1972-1978.

At one point during the show, my dad went to the bathroom, leaving me alone in the seat. While my dad was gone, a woman from the row in front of me turned around and said, "do you want to get blunted?" She held out what I assumed to be a marijuana-filled cigar. This was the first time in my life I'd ever been offered drugs. I could've taken a few ineffectual cough-inducing hits before Dad got back, but I declined the offer without any internal conflict. I really didn't want to smoke ANYTHING. Within two years I'd be calling myself "straightedge" and going to punk and hardcore shows in suburban basements, backyards, and Elks Lodge halls.

After the encore, as the lights were coming up, the Deadhead who I looked to for setlist help turned to me and said, "you just saw a good one."

On the way out of the Garden, I remember someone selling presumably unlicensed t-shirts in the stairwell. Heading back down towards Penn Station I also picked up a couple handouts. One was a religious tract from the 12 Tribes hippie Christian community/cult. And they've had a presence at just about every GD-oriented concert I've been to since then too. Just two months ago, I ran into 12 Tribes literature-distributers outside the Dead reunion Obama campaign benefit concert at Penn State.

That night I also picked up a handout for the new Dicks Picks series of archival live CDs. Volume one from December of '73 was do out later that year. I gave my mom my allowance money and she ordered it for me with her credit card.

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