I recently responded to a tweet I read about the Fourth of July ’89 show with “Imagine if this was your first Grateful Dead concert.” Yep, that was my first. While the saying goes for many topics, you never forget your first, the details today aren’t blade-sharp. But I will do my best to recount the feelings from the day. I attended the show with my brother so while writing this, I kept sending him text messages for clarifications. He wrote me back a long email with all his notes, so I have to thank him for all the research he provided for this post. Thanks, J’air.
I had only a single plan for the summer of 1989, which is the reason for this post. However, an influential school teacher had other plans for me. She was not only my dramatic arts teacher but also became a friend that year and encouraged me to not flunk out but also helped me navigate lots of teenage bullshit. I still feel very lucky to have had her in my life. At the end of the school year, she woke me up with an afternoon phone call to ask about my summer plans. Did I have a job or was I going on vacation? No, and sadly, no. Then, she informed me that she had already signed me up for a creative writing class she was teaching in summer school and another classmate had already agreed to pick me up in the late morning to ensure I had an easy ride to class. I groggily sputtered something out and before I could form words, she said “If your only plans are sleeping and partying, you may as well earn a course credit during the afternoon.” Well, that sort of inarguable logic is just UNFAIR. I agreed, but I told her that there was a Tuesday I wasn’t going to be able to make. July 4th, 1989. I wouldn’t be in class because I was trekking (fine, I was truckin‘) 123 miles in a southeasterly direction to celebrate American independence with roughly 80,000 other celebrants at (then) Rich Stadium in tropical Orchard Park, NY. As it was obviously the off-season, no, I wasn’t seeing the Bills depress their fans, yet again. I was seeing a little rock and roll combo called the Grateful Dead for my very first time.
I had put A LOT of energy into this event. As I told in my last post, it had been maybe 6 months since I had finally got this new (old) music and to see it live, to experience a scene I had only heard in dazzling reports from friends, was something that I was ready to see. I learned soon enough that while I was willing, ready wasn’t something that necessarily went hand in hand with seeing Dead shows. My brother found an ad in our local weekly alternative paper offering a bus and ticket package for Heads who wanted to go to the show. We secured a spot and waited for the day to come. When it did, we brought little more than cash. Those were the days – no phones, barely legal ID for the border crossing, nothing nearing sunscreen or a bottle of water. Hell, arriving with closed-toe footwear could be perceived with mistrust. We were handing our security to, well, literal venue security and the welcoming arms of the scene. The crossing was simple enough, just a dog escorted up the aisle of the bus, but we good Canadians wouldn’t think about trying to bring a little something to risk time in an American jail versus a show possibly spent sober. Soon enough, we were dropped off in the massive parking lot of the stadium under a pounding sun. Though I had just turned 18 a couple of weeks before, we started a search for some of those dollars beers we had heard about. I think that took around a dozen steps off the bus. No one was checking IDs in Shakedown.
My first impression of my first and probably most expansive Shakedown Street was awe. I knew that Deadheads supported themselves on tour by selling any necessity of the community, but I wasn’t aware of the preparation I saw. Army tents set up for wares and hangs, double-decker buses flagged with enormous tie-dyes, tables covered in stickers, pipes, shirts, jewellery and hats. Hawkers’ cries of ‘kind veggie burritos!’, ‘icy cold juices!’ ‘St. Pauli Girl!’ and of course ‘grilled cheese, two for a buck!’. And somewhere in the background, blasts of hissing gas and boom-box music wavering by the breeze. What no words or photos could prepare me for were the rich, ripe scents like that of an ancient Levantine bazaar; whisps and trails of patchouli and nag champa, cannabis and tobacco smoke, plumes of sizzling meat, peppers, garlic and onions, plus the odd whiff of urine and sun-roasted humanity. It was all here, people, noise and above all else, energy. A collective palpable hivemind murmur of anticipation, expectation and the promise of a lift above earthly restraints. Speaking of which, my next mission required less time to complete than my first. It took all of five minutes to hear the whispered word, doses. It came from a friendly fellow with a shock of curly brown hair who responded to my turned head with a nudge of his own. We met between two cars and after a very quick exchange and a smiling thanks, my deal went down and business was done for the day.
Now, it was time to look at some local fashions so my brother and I started shopping for shirts. That summer, the first Batman movie came out so the only design I remember us purchasing was an old-school Batman logo that read ‘Fatman’. Sorry about the body shaming, Jer. During our stroll, we bumped into our old friend, Richie, the friend who had a hand in making a Head outta me. We joined him in his walk of Shakedown as he peddled tie-dye shirts, happy to have a veteran to show us a bit around the scene.
As we walked through the lot with Richie, he gave us some lay of the land. “Don’t buy any weed here, DEA is everywhere” he said. I chuckled knowing I was done with all my nefarious dealings for the day. We walked past the longest lineup I saw that started at a five-foot-tall tank filling balloons. “Nitrous oxide. Hippie crack” Richie said. I made a note of that, and of the mean, sketchy guy manning the nozzle. We stopped to grab a grilled cheese and a beer before heading in and leaving the scene behind.
As we got closer to the stadium, the opening act 10,000 Maniacs was already playing on stage. I had been a fan of their music before but today, I only had one band on my mind. On the other side of the turnstiles was all manner of Deadhead humanity, from the ethereal dancers in the concourse, swirling around and around and somehow not puking their guts out to bikers most definitely not spinning like peaceful dervishes. In between, were many like me, teenagers and 20-somethings in lot shirts, tie-dyes, bucket hats. It was a mix of the last gasp of preppy-wear splashed with a dash of popular counterculture. If Altamont signalled the end of the sixties, I’ll take the liberty and license to call this show the beginning of the end of the eighties. Personally, this show was a great beginning for me and this epochal moment had little to do with it being my first Dead show.
The year after this, I was entering my last year of high school and the future felt precarious. I had no idea what the nineties would bring or where I’d be. I had no idea what I would do after the next year. I was pretty sure college or university was out of the question, mostly due to having no idea what I would go on to study and not wanting to commit the time and money ( I didn’t have) to uncertainty. Thinking about this now pricks up my anxiety a bit, but back then, I think I thought it was exciting. And my chief pursuits were still pleasure, which I would find in the nascent days of the nineties. I had no idea that I would see the Grateful Dead nine times in the following year, and only four times again before Jerry Garcia’s death. I had no idea that my messing around with my brother’s cheap electric guitar would lead to me begrudgingly taking up the bass to play in my first band that first year of the nineties. I had no idea that I was going to be a bassist much less discover an instrument I not only would come to love but discover as one of a few things that I was born with the ability to do really well. I knew that what I had found in this music was opening me up in glorious ways and here I was, about to be hit in the face with it.
I don’t remember much these days about those shows I saw back then and certainly, I have only one setlist I can recall from memory. But I don’t have to consult the internet to remember that after the band came out and a literal ROAR rose, I heard the first notes of Bertha. Not a bad one to be handed at show number one. Better than Let The Good Times Roll, for my tastes. Any further mention of setlist or performance comes from watching this show while I write. I also want this to be a memoir of the experience and not of just the setlist.
While our assigned seats had us in the lower bowl, back in those days, the only thing separating an outfield ticket from a front-row seat was moxy and ingenuity. So, getting down onto the floors was a mission accomplished. The view it offered was of tens of thousands of people in 360º rising up from the floor over a hundred feet to see silhouettes of upper-tier dancers spiralling against a blue sky. It was at this time that things were kicking in and something new was beginning. The floor was starting to feel a bit intense so we headed back to our seats. The rest of the set, as many people know, had a solid Cold Rain and Snow, a song I don’t think I appreciated then as much as I did now.
Likely the biggest musical adjustment I had to accommodate was that the majority of the live music I had heard from the Grateful Dead was from the 70s. That was the era I loved most then, and still now. My appreciation for later era Dead was something I didn’t find until much later. Again, this predates household internet by a decade, so it was hard to even get setlist information until after tours were over, much less hear the music. There was no Relisten or archive.org. Nor the ability to just find any damn show you want and angrily throw your hands up when all there is of a chosen show is a low-quality audience recording.
I can imagine my attention wandering during Walkin’ Blues. Still, my least favourite genre of Dead songs is the blues songs. Next up was a thoughtful Row Jimmy; if forced to choose possibly my singularly favourite song. But not likely back then. So young, so much to learn. Following was a standard Bob Dylan cover, this time When I Paint My Masterpiece. The Grateful Dead was my introduction to Mr. Zimmerman’s music. Finally, a song I loved was started. Looks Like Rain is a massive cheesy dollop of a Bobby love song. I was happy to hear it but had to question my senses when rain actually started to sprinkle during the song. It was my first glimpse into the serendipity that happens around this band. A bopping Deal closed the set and I set off to get a drink.
Touch of Grey started set two as I headed for my skyward destination. I think I was more taken at this first-ever Dead show by the surroundings, the moment and day and, to be honest, the LSD molecules swimming through my body. It was almost too much process but wasn’t quite overwhelming. I knew I was somewhere that I belonged but maybe I was unsure of my place. I continued to question this until I heard the notes of Terrapin Station. I talked about the first time I heard this song in my last post. It was grounding to hear it live. I don’t know how few tapes I had since I became a Deadhead. I probably had a single version of it from that show I first heard it on. But in the moment, seeing Jerry Garcia dig into that emotional well to sing and play this song and to be surrounded by many thousands of people feeling the same, I knew that I didn’t need to find a place. I was there already. The set continued along with my personal trip. My brother recalls me being especially tuned in to the collective vibrations (my phrase) during Drums/Space. Out of this came an unlikely I Will Take You Home, a song that registers in different ways among Deadheads. I was taken by the song, likely due to my state at the moment, but this moment was all it took to make this song special. A second Dylan cover came next, which was forgettable to me. But the Morning Dew that followed took me back to that first listen of the song that made me a Deadhead. Watching it back now, I get all the chills that ran up my spine that night. To hear and see Garcia strain the final verse out before the breakdown with a powerful belt and play a rapid solo up to the last fret of Tiger, it was clear this was meaningful. And the closing lyrics made me again ponder my place in all existences. My place at this show among 80,000 people, my place in the world, my place in my family. Who and where ARE we? I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. Or any way.
Thankfully, I didn’t have time to ponder the trajectory of my thoughts because I realized that no matter, our love will not fade away. I found my dancing shoes and my mainspring was moving again. While Not Fade Away is a fun song, it’s probably wasn’t on my must-hear list. But this night, watching Jerry and Brent trade off licks and beam at each other with huge grins, it was clearly a special rendition on a special night that would soon come to a close. Even as a Deadhead without yet a full show under his woven belt, I knew that only one song was going to close this show. U.S. Blues was the final song of this special night that was capped off with fireworks, which from our position closer to the back of the venue was framed in alignment with the stage. It was a glorious tableau to freeze before we had to race back to our bus, as per the strict instructions we were given by the bus captain.
We hustled out but not before I grabbed a quick balloon to see what hippie crack was all about it. I was treated to a fistfight in the line that shook me to some dark truths about the scene. I finished off the balloon, giggling at the trails of brake lights as the bus pulled out of the Rich Stadium parking lot. I was heading back home, back to the rest of my summer with a handful of lot shirts and a brainful of memories that would fade from sharpness.
That day, what I experienced with the scene felt just dangerous enough to keep me interested. The music was the reason for the gathering but the assembly around it is what held the fascination that no book or telling could convey. What I did know was that I would be back again to this rolling circus. And, I thought, I would be better prepared for that next time. But what I actually did learn was that that was akin to preparing for an oncoming wave. There’s nothing to stop the wave from hitting you. All you can do is bend your knees and move with it.