Notes from the end of a long, strange trip

Steal Your Face 2For an early 90’s “Dead Head” i was probably among the exceptions. Never mind my cynicism, bitterness and general distaste for joining anything. I was second generation. The turn on was a peer playing “Workingman’s Dead” and me realizing that i already knew the words in my mother’s voice. My first tape was scavenged from my stepfather’s (i’ve known him my entire life, only the context of the relationship has changed) tape collection. 12/14/71 at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, he’d been at the show. It wasn’t rebellion in my family. But before my first show, an honorary uncle sat me down for a pretty serious talk. He stressed that seeing the Dead wasn’t about getting wasted; it wasn’t the scene. It was about seeing the show. The rest of it just came along with the communal-libertarian way it was.

So i saw them 35 or so times between 1993 and 1995 in the Midwest. I never toured. Seriously, by 1993 Jerry was too junked up and the band not nearly good enough to follow it around the country as a gypsy hobo. Besides, i had jobs and school. Deer Creek was my favorite, and i saw all the gigs there during those few years. Fittingly, that was the last place i saw them and by the time that was over, the band pretty much was too.

It was a fine venue to see the Dead on a summer tour: plenty of fresh air, big skies and an outdoor venue. That it was nestled in the middle of the Mellencamp country of pink houses and farm land made it surreal. The town of Noblesville, IN is not – exactly – a hippie paradise. I seriously doubt that the liquor store generally had cases of Sammy Smith’s Oatmeal Stout stacked to the ceiling or that the town restaurant usually ran straight buffet with tie-dyed servers. But it was not a simple situation of locals capitalizing on heads who needed to eat, sleep and drink. (They did, of course, and i’m sure that a great many vacation/Christmas funds were padded when the Dead came to town.) The locals charged a very reasonable fee to let the heads live in their yards. They served breakfast in their garages. Contact softened the face value differences, and it felt as if Noblesville welcomed the heads like an eccentric cousin. The Dead would be in town for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, meaning the heads were there all week. But it was in between the stupidly large weekend show crowds so it was as chill as thousands of deadheads could be.

By the summer of ’95 i was already pulling away. My sights were set on Europe, and i almost didn’t bother with Deer Creek for July 2 & 3 because i had a flight on the fifth. But i went for one last hurrah. Unfortunately, scheduling had put the Deer Creek shows on a weekend. The crowd was much larger than usual, and while i don’t remember the police presence being over-the-top, i do remember that nothing about the scene felt right. That might have had something to do with me having very little hair at the time and getting weird stare-downs for it…funny how judgmental hippies can be. But whatever, it was ugly bad craziness from the start. I kept hearing Gill Scott-Heron talking about hippies alienating themselves from everything except money with long hair, grime and dope. I had a ticket; wasn’t interested in getting out of my head; and planned on just seeing the show.

Deer Creek is your standard, Midwestern summer concert venue. Stage, pavilion, and a grassy knoll topped by a fence. The back side of the hill is open, with the bottom forming the HQ for law enforcement and emergency services. It always tempted a few heads to see if they could sprint the hill and climb the fence before the German Sheppard caught them, but none succeeded. At least they hadn’t until that night when someone introduced teamwork into the equation. There had been lot rumors of something afoot and for people to meet at X spot at Y time. When Y time came, i was seriously digging on the fact that they were playing Dylan’s “Desolation Row” (my favorite Dylan tune). Not far into the song a few people came barreling down the hill through the crowd…different than the random hippie freak out run…then a cheer unrelated to the song rose up. I turned around to see people clambering over the fence. Others, on the inside, were busy tearing the fence down. The band almost flubbed the song.

I don’t know where some people learned how to be hippies, but that kind of shit was never in my curriculum. The band finished the first set and, according to rumor, were asked to play the second so that what was happening in the lot wouldn’t get worse or spread inside the venue. House lights and the circling helicopter sort of killed the vibe, not to mention the band being noticeably pissed off. When it finally ended i walked up the hill. My friends told me not to go up there, but i got zero hassle from the SWAT trooper in full riot gear with a dog. The look of mortified anger on my face probably placated him (or maybe it was my lack of hair). I stared through a gaping hole in a wooden fence wrought by bare hands. Below was the aftermath of chaos. There were cops and flashing lights everywhere, streams of hippies and a few small fires to give it that dystopian gloss.

I learned about the rocks and bottles hurled at the pigs later. I heard of the flipped police car and multiple golf carts that were trashed. And a whole lot of people thought that it was pretty fucking cool until the next morning when the show for the third was cancelled. I couldn’t even look the locals in the eye. These people had put their prejudices aside and, i believe, had even come to like the heads. But all that was gone, and i felt guilty. Then i got pissed. And by the time we were driving home i wanted not-a-damned-thing to do with hippies anymore. Sure, i knew that it wasn’t everyone who did it but disillusionment comes easy for me.

The band wrote a letter to the fans reminding them that libertarianism only works if people don’t act like assholes. It could have been my mother’s favorite speech about privilege being in direct proportion to responsibility. I guess that i didn’t really care whether it fell on deaf ears or not. I was gone and nothing was gonna bring me back.

The news of Jerry’s death reached me when my girlfriend – who had come over to meet me and travel – called her parents from a payphone at the base of castle ramparts in Wales. She was inconsolable. I felt strangely relieved and struck by the perspective my surroundings gave the situation. Too many people forgot that there was a world outside of the tour and the “family”. They were a fine band that threw some of the best parties you could ever hope to attend, but you can’t make a life of partying. And in the end, you cannot paste over a life of partying by dressing it up as an experiment in communal-libertarian counterculture.

I think that the band was a victim of the hippie-chic movement. Too many trustafarians without honorary uncles to give them the old-school angle came on board. And for all the outpouring of grief at Jerry’s passing, i’ve always wondered how many stopped and thought about how we killed the man. That whole tour, but especially Deer Creek, must have broken his heart. I imagine that he dove deep into the junk, to the point that everyone told him he simply had to stop. He died trying to kick the heroin that had taken over his life without being able to turn to the ideal he’d based that life upon because that had been blown to pieces. After 35 years on the road the man could not have known anything else, but it had to have been clear that they’d never be able to go back out and have it be like it was.

But damned shames happen too, don’t they? I turned hard against the scene for a long time, and i didn’t listen to the Dead for a long time. I’ve come back to some degree. I love listening to a show from the 70’s while cleaning the house or driving. It feels like summertime, freedom, and innocence…even if it is innocence lost. But i’ve never quite gotten around to forgiving hippies. A hippie above the age of 40 has my instant respect. The youngsters, however, get the opposite until they prove otherwise. It’s too easy to grow dreads and stop bathing regularly. It’s too easy to cloak greed, shallowness, self-centered behavior and even violence with a veneer of outward style. Yeah it’s wrong and bigoted, but that’s what happens when you see the rotten end of an ethos brought about by jackasses of just such a description with your own two eyes.

I thank the boys for all the music they gave us, the good times, the trips, the friendships and the lyrics etched into my mind. And i’m still sorry that it ended the way that it did.

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortunetelling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

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~ by Lex on August 13, 2009.

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