Part 3 of my reminiscences from my road to the Grateful Dead “Fare Thee Well” shows
The full-page ad said it all: the Grateful Dead were coming back to Austin!
Maybe the Dead heard the pleas of all the the Texas Deadheads — that would be the magical explanation. The real explanation involved Sam Cutler, their former road manager, and his purchase of the Manor Downs horse racetrack.
They’d played Manor Downs before, back in 1977, but, as luck would have it, I was in the Bay Area that time. This time, in 1981, they would play on the 4th of July. What’s more, they would play 2 days earlier in Houston, so I could catch back-to-back shows. My double-dose of Dead in Boulder convinced me that catching more than a show at a time really enhanced the whole experience, as they rarely played any tune twice at the same place.
Manor Downs tickets were no problem and my friend Duane scored me a Houston ticket. When Jeff said he was driving down to the Houston show, that solved the semi-permanent transportation problem.
What I didn’t know at the time was Jeff is notorious among his Deadhead friends for never arriving on time to a show. We made it to Houston in plenty of time, sure, but when we went to pick up his cousin Greg, Greg’s mom asked, “You boys hungry?” The next thing I know, she’s got us sitting at a table for some dinner as I nervously kept checking the time. Sure enough, we arrived late — and still had a great time! (set list)
The return of the Dead to Austin required celebration, so we threw a “Pre-Mortem” party on July 3rd at our house there on Christopher Street. The next day we headed out to Manor Downs for a tremendous 4th of July show from the boys plus some amazing fireworks.
1982 — A more and more Deadheads sought to follow the band on tour — tour heads — living on the road and selling wares in the parking lot, hassles arose with venue operators and official merchandise partners as well. Policing the parking lots just couldn’t be done, but the line was drawn at the ticket gate: no outside sales inside the venue. The main target: t-shirts.
Well, for the 1982 Manor Downs show, Michael Priest designed a shirt that did get the rare official approval for on-site sales of this t-shirt and poster.
Unfortunately, word had not filtered down to the guy from the Dead crew who ran across my friend Roy selling the t-shirts and posters at an official booth that day and the guy just blew up. Roy described how he went completely ballistic, screaming obscenities at him about having him arrested, despite Roy’s protestations about having approval.
Finally, the guy stormed off, swearing to bring back a security team to kick his ass outta there and confiscate his shirts — only to return shorty thereafter to apologize profusely.
I’ve got to admit, I don’t remember the 83 show too well — it followed close on the heels of my first Red Rocks run (story to come), so the Manor Downs experience remains rather blurry in my memory. Thanks to the tons of Dead tapers, though, I’ve been able to listen to this show for years. Imagine my delight in finding this video, sending me tumbling backwards through the time tunnel of technology to allow me to see the whole show that I’ve mostly forgotten.
As part of the 20th anniversary tour in 1985, the Dead once again paired a Manor Downs show with a Houston show. My buddy Albert and Billy the Kid and I — the crew from our first Red Rocks run in ’83 — planned to head down that day and meet up with our recently married friends, Kate and Scott — their tickets were my wedding present. Though Kate was a long-time Deadhead, this would be Scott’s first Dead show.
Billy, our driver, had to wait on a paycheck before he could leave Austin. And his paycheck was running late. With time ticking down, I went through a series of slow freak-outs about getting to the show on time. An hour passed, then two, as I watched the clock and called Billy every twenty minutes or so. Finally, I told Billy that Albert and I would just drive down in my van, and he could follow us and meet up at the show.
Good plan — until my finicky VW van flaked out as we drove through Smithville. My shade tree mechanic skills were failing me and my frustration rising, especially watching Albert not freak out at our delay. He seemed so oblivious to our possible stranding I could hardly stand it. Eventually, something I did got us up and running and back on the road again — but only after 45 minutes of tinkering.
The show was at the Southern Star Ampitheater, located inside Astroworld, which made for a surreal vision from our general admission seats up on the grassy slope — a backdrop of fake mountains, towering spires and roller coaster loops looming on the horizon behind the stage. Unfortunately, we did not plan enough time to enjoy any other aspects of the amusement park — we’d come for the show.
But I was so frazzled by the struggle to get there and focused on making sure Kate & Scott enjoyed the show (they did!), I didn’t let the music sweep away like it usually does. Sure, I enjoyed it, and definitely enjoyed watching Scott get his first dose of live Dead — but I know the show was better than what I personally experienced. It’s always your own Dead show — you can only enjoy it from your own perspective, so my favorite show might be your least favorite. Albert loved the Astroworld show!
I do recall watching Deadheads leave the park on the walkway crossing over to the parking lots. With the park closed down, the fountains that spouted water from small pools during amusement part hours were stilled, and a number of people who had been on the road for some time were taking advantage of the available water: soaking their feet, washing their feet, washing their hair…
Who would’ve thought that Jerry’s birthday show in 1985 would be the final Dead show at Manor Downs? We were getting seriously spoiled and I guess we thought that streak would last forever.
The funny thing about the Manor Downs shows was the actual performances kinda fail to be memorable for me. Maybe it was being in the old home town, or maybe it was the size of the crowd, or summer shows with vast quantities of beer in the sun — I don’t know, but these shows started to feel too big.
From parking in the surrounding fields — a fire destroyed several parked cars one year, and lots people’s memories revolve around searching for lost cars after the shows — to sprawling crowds only half-listening to the music, it seemed harder and harder harder to really see the show. More and more newbies came to the shows, but less and less for the music or the band, mostly just for the spectacle.
Still, some stellar moments stand out clearly, brightly shining in my memory. That last Manor Downs encore opened with Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me”
She can take the dark out of the nighttime
and paint the daytime black.
Then, of course, they closed with “One More Saturday Night” (it was Saturday), and headed down the road — never to return to Austin.
TO BE CONTINUED