Part 5 of a brief recounting of parts of my personal long strange trip to the Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary “Fare Thee Well” shows in Chicago, July 3-5
“Fuck you, Albert! Fuck you!” I slammed the phone down.
Albert had called with good — no, great! — news that he’d scored tickets for the Dead shows at the Greek Theater in Berkeley that summer (1986).
The Greek shows ranked right up there with Red Rocks in terms of high holy days for devout Deadheads, with a reputation for relaxed but energized shows in their own backyard.
Naturally, Albert was bubbling with excitement. “I’m looking at your tickets right here in my hand,” he practically gushed. “Southwest Airlines has a package deal on flights and hotel for San Francisco so Monte and me already have a room. All you need is to get there.” That’s when I cursed him and hung up. There was no way I could afford to go. I was broke, working part-time and trying to do freelance video work — which turned out to be more free than lancing.
Twenty minutes later, I called him back. “Okay,” I said, “I cannot afford to go. There’s no way I can afford to go. But I can damned sure better afford that than I can afford to listen to you after you’ve gone to these shows — count me in.”
I convinced Billy the Kid to come along. The week before going, I decided to try and re-connect with Marty, one of the folks I first met at that 73 Chicago show who became a good friend. Sure enough, he was still in the Bay Area and headed to the shows, so we set up a rendezvous after the first night.
This was my first Dead flight-trip rather than road trip, and I had great fun seeing other Deadheads piling into the plane with lots of reunions among friends. When we stopped in Phoenix, Lynn and his wife and Dolores, and their toddler son all boarded as well, also on their way out to the shows from San Antonio. Touching down at SFO, we met Albert and Monte in a growing sea of tie-dyes and tour t-shirts and headed off.
The Greek Theater proved as amazing as we’d heard, and the boys were definitely at home, bantering with the crowd in between songs. When Weir sang, “I Need a Miracle Every Day!” with the crowd shouting along, I grinned big-time, recognizing mine for the day right then and there.
Chants of “Let Phil Sing!’ were just starting to become commonplace at shows. At one lull between tunes, it became noticeably louder till Bobby turned to the microphone and said, “If you’re talking to the bass player, he’s tone deaf and has been for years,” cracking Phil and the other guys up, like sharing an inside joke with thousands of friends.
They capped that incredible opening night with a rousing encore of “The Mighty Quinn,” and we went looking for Marty where he told me to meet him after the show. But when you haven’t seen someone in 9 years, an awful lot of people kinda sorta look like them, but aren’t. Eventually, we spotted each other and headed off into the night.
Billy and I stayed overnight at Marty’s place in the Oakland hills, along with a handful of some of his other friends, some local, some in from afar. “Another Picky Deadhead” read the bumper sticker on the car of one local friend, Bobby. “Yeah, I know I’m spoiled — but some shows just are better than others,” he shrugged. Smiling, he added, “So you gotta go to as many shows as you can.”
For three-show Greek runs, the Dead staggered start times through the weekend: Friday concerts started at 7, Saturday’s at 5pm, and Sunday’s at 3pm.
Day 2 of any run feels you’re re-entering familiar territory. You know what the venue looks like, you know what the band sounds like — last night, which could be entirely different from tonight. This time, they built further on the fun from the night before.
Where we’d been on the far left of the audience the night before, I roamed around more on Saturday night. Like Red Rocks, there were no bad seats, just further away, and the sound was great wherever you roamed, but best at midline between the main speaker sets. I wandered up to the top grassy area to enjoy the view of the distant bay and the Bay Bridge over the top of the Greek columned stage.
After the show, we wandered off with Bobby and two other friends, Joanna and a woman whose name slips my mind. We drifted westward across the bay and kept going till we ended up around a campfire on Baker Beach, south of the Golden Gate Bridge, making s’mores. After awhile, Joanna drove me & Billy back to her place in Bobby’s car, and we left the other two snuggling under a blanket by the fire.
Sunday morning, we took champagne & strawberries out to our beachside buddies. Bobby was somewhat chagrined, as somehow his pants had gotten kicked into the edge of the fire and burned badly without them noticing, necessitating him wearing the blanket until he got some more pants.
One more show to go!
“Shit!’ Billy said, stopping suddenly as we walked towards the ticket gate. “I left my ticket back at Joanna’s place!” Bobby and I looked at him, and he shrugged, “Guess I’ll see you guys after the show.”
Both Bobby and I turned and went through the ticket gates, but somehow I immediately lost Bobby once we were in. Looking around, I realized that once again, I was alone in a crowd, so I spent that sizzling first set wandering around looking for Albert and Monte.
During break time, I ran into Lynn and a friend hanging out along the rim around the pit area. I loved running into Lynn, the complete opposite of a picky Deadhead. I especially loved seeing right after a show and asking him what he thought, because the answer was always the same: “Best fucking show I ever saw in my LIFE!”
He and his friend wandered off, leaving me scanning the crowd for Albert or Monte or atone else I knew. Then I spotted Albert dead center in the middle of crowd in the pit, not more than 30 feet back from the stage, waving wildly for me to come on down.
Getting there took me most of the rest of the break. The pit area was packed tight with groups of Deadheads on blankets. Folks looked at me like I was crazy trying to get past or through their group. But I’d just stand there awhile patiently, then explain I had a friend closer in, and either they let me past them or I’ll just stand there with them. They’d eventually let me pass.
When I got to him, Albert actually had plenty of room right beside him. Wanting a better spot on this last day, he woke up determined to get there early for just this kind of spot. Monte chose instead to stay behind, so out of the 4 Austin “starters,” only Albert and I made it that last afternoon show. After a blistering second set, they encored with “U.S. Blues,” and most folks started to leave. But the guys was not through yet, and came out for a second encore, letting Phil sing “Box of Rain” for a sweet parting surprise.
Such a long long time to be gone…
and a short time to be there
The rest of Sunday blurs out in my memory. Billy actually had a great time playing frisbee throughout the show on the adjacent soccer field where they had run speakers from the stage. “Best sound I heard all weekend,” he said. Albert and Monte had to fly out that evening, but Billy and I crashed at Marty’s again. Bobby had foolishly volunteered to drive us to SFO for our early departure. What none of us had counted on was Monday morning commute traffic, even on the San Mateo bridge. We arrived curbside just minutes before our flight, so had to hustle to make the gate in time.
This time, everything felt different. I flew out alone and only went for Saturday & Sunday, meeting Marty after the Friday shows. We walked over to someone’s house nearby for the after-show party, but my energy felt ever so slightly out of sync.
I shouldn’t be here, I kept thinking. My niece, Jessie, was fighting recently-dagnosed brain cancer and here I was, skipping her 5th birthday. I felt off-kilter the whole weekend, knowing that, and also, not having a travel buddy on this run.
Marty was hosting a bunch of friends in from Minneapolis, huge fans of the Radiators, who called themselves “Fish-heads.” I especially remember Steve, a trim-cut fellow who worked for Northwest Airlines in their home office. He freely acknowledged that he decided to work in travel precisely so he could get to Dead shows wherever and whenever possible, and chose Northwest so he could reach both coasts with equal ease.
Saturday morning, some of the Fish-heads and Marty and I headed over to Golden Gate Park for a free concert to celebrate the end of the 1988 Soviet-American Peace Walk — remember the Soviet Union? Organized by Pete Sears, the event had a long line-up of Bay Area heavy hitters, including Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen, and others.
Jerry and Mickey joined Zero (with Steve Kimock, Martin Fierro, John Cippolini in his his final appearance with Zero) for a short set, eventually joined by other guests including Merle Saunders, Marc Beno, and “Snortin’ ” Norton Buffalo for several songs, including this Leadbelly classic:
Jerry and Mickey got a police escort back across the bay for that night’s show, but we had to make our own way. Thanks to Marty and some friends waiting in line, though, we snagged a place way up in front, more to the right this time, deep in the thick of it as the band roared through another amazing set.
Shouts and chants for Phil had become routine by now, but Bobby leaned over and said, “Hey, I got an idea.” We leaned in to hear. “Start yelling for this weird song I heard on a rehearsal bootleg…kinda like Mickey rapping…” and shouts out, “Only the Strange Remain‘!” A couple of us joined him the second time, then more joined till we had about 10 people yelling, “ONLY THE STRANGE REMAIN!”
Mickey heard us and cracked up, saying something to Kreutzman, who stepped out from behind the drums to say something to Weir, likewise cracking him up. “Hey, maybe they’re getting Mickey a mic!” we laughed. But that request would remain unfulfilled — until 1996 when it eventually appeared on Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box.
I was really getting into the music, when Brent started singing the lullaby he’d written for his two young daughters:
Little girl lost in a forest of dreams..
It’s dark and cold and it’s damp with dew.
Hoot owl hoots and for a moment it seems
Something big and cold’s got ahold of you…
..and I lost it. I lost any grip on anything other than a sudden hard and deep sorrow and pain and fear about Jessie’s cancer. The music rolled over me, soothing me somewhat, and I noticed it — somewhat. But it was too late, I’d lost it.
Leaving the theater, I lost everybody I’d been with throughout the day. I’d lost my way, in more ways than one, and couldn’t find the car, so I lost my ride back to Marty’s. Wandering the Berkeley streets alone near campus, no doubt I looked like some derelict Deadhead but I lost any concern what anybody thought. Desperately, I called for rescue and Bobby reluctantly broke away from the party at Marty’s to come get me.
While everyone else at the house was buzzing around, still excited about the show, I sat down at the kitchen table, staring at a hydrangea flower there, unable to think of anything but Jessie.
The shape and structure of the hydrangea looked like a brain to me. I sent a psychic plea and prayer out to the universe to grow Jessie’s brain healthy again, like this flower, restoring anything lost to the tumor or the treatment.
It took me a long time to fall asleep that night, long after all the revelry died down.
Sunday morning, we headed out for a leisurely breakfast. We picked up to-go plates to deliver to some friends holding a spot in the line (instantly making them the envy of everyone else in line) then headed back to Marty’s to get ready for the show.
Once inside the theater a little later, we set up in the middle-back portion of the pit, spreading out blankets to claim our spot. Barb, one of the folks who moved from Minneapolis to California recently, took me aside before the show got going. “I know you’re struggling…but you’re really you’re bringing everybody down.” We walked up to a shady spot up top as she asked, “Do you think Jessie would want to spend all weekend bummed out? or would she want you to enjoy the music and your friends?” She was right of course, so Barb talked me through some relaxation exercises with guided imagery to help me mellow out. It kinda worked, at least for awhile.
Sunday was a great sunny show. I know some Deadheads hate day shows, greatly preferring the nighttime. But this was one of those unbeatably beautiful Berkeley afternoons, and the boys gave us a great show, from “Foolish Heart” to “Not Fade Away.” Barb’s guided visualization exercise helped me relax and enjoy it, sure, but… I never completely shook the feeling that I was not supposed to be there that time. That ’88 Greek run’s closing encore left me standing there with tears in my eyes:
Fare you well, fare you well —
I love you more than words can tell…
Jessie died before her next birthday — but that’s another story.
Next time I see you, Jessie, I promise I’ll stay longer.
TO BE CONTINUED