Final chapter in my “long, strange trip” to Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary “Fare Thee Well” shows in Chicacgo, July 3-5, 2015
The 1991 Mile High show was the last time Albert got to see the Grateful Dead. Sara had made it to her one Dead show, and was done. She cheerily sent me out to later shows, saying, “Have a good time — but be careful!”
My buddy, Gordon, had decided he was through waiting for the Dead to make it back to Texas. He decided to set his sights on one run per year with simple requirements: 1) at least two shows at the venue; 2) general admission to increase chances of a good spot; and 3) it had to be somewhere Southwest Airlines flew to from Austin to keep airfares down.
In fall 1992, he called me with a set of tickets for the December shows at Compton Terrace outside of Tempe, Arizona. Sara was pregnant at the time, with the baby due in 2 months, but urged me to go and enjoy myself. A lady I worked with likewise told me, “Go and enjoy your last run as a non-father — your world is about to change forever.”
For most of my Dead runs, I acted as instigator, and then someone else (usually Albert) activated the plan. This time, Gordon made it even easier for me, with everything already set up. So I relaxed and was getting stoked about going to the shows, when Gordon called me Thursday night before our weekend shows.
Distraught, he told me his grandfather had died unexpectedly, and upon getting the news, his father had a heart attack, and Gordon didn’t think he could go to the show. He and his brother, Jimy, who had been planning on hitting the show as well both needed to go to be with their family.
But Jimy knew how long Gordon had been scheming to get to the show, and how badly he needed it — especially facing such a loss and crisis. So Jimy volunteered to give up his tickets and go to the family right away and insisted Gordon should go to the shows as planned. He could fly out on the red-eye Sunday night after the show and that would put him with the family by Monday morning, with Tuesday set for their grandfather’s funeral.
So Gordon and Mike, (remember Mike from the Houston show? yeah, same one) taking Jimy’s place, headed out to Tempe Friday and I would join them on Saturday. When they picked me up from the airport, we decided to take a swing by to look at the venue before dropping my stuff at the hotel. We never expected to accidentally get fed into a one-way stream of cars actually flowing into the Compton Terrace area.
Suddenly, we were at a checkpoint heading into the parking with no turning back. As they pointed us towards parking spaces, we realized they were parking all the cars head-in with no space for rows between any of the cars. As soon as you were parked, you were locked into place with no way out — a major clusterfuck, too late to avoid and no way out now. Too late to worry about that now, so we wandered over to wait in line.
We’d hoped this early start would earn us a spot fairly close, but there was a section for higher-priced tickets up front, so while we managed to get fairly close, we were way off to the side. Most importantly, though — we were at the show.
Gordon worked in electronics and worked sound and lights for theatrical productions, so he was always great to have at a show. As the band took the stage and tuned up, Gordon peered at the stage. “Wait a minute,” he said, “There’s no monitors on the front of the stage…they must be using those new, in-ear wireless monitors,” he mused, adding, “Cool!”
That first day, they gave us the goods, including “Tennessee Jed,” fulfilling Gordon’s song-wish for the day. At the end of the day, they sent the crowd out singing with “The Weight” as an encore and we all streamed out to the parking clusterfuck.
Take a load off Annie
And put the load right on me.
Being gridlocked in place for a couple of hours after the show wouldn’t have been so bad if we had anything like food, water, or beer — but we didn’t. We became some of those lost Deadheads walking the the parking lot, desperate and looking it.
Everywhere people had been cooking and serving food before the show, no one seemed interested in doing that now. Bunches of people milled about behind the tables where burritos and such had been offered for sale earlier, but any food was pretty much being consumed by the people there.
Beers were easier to find, but it was frustrating to pay 2 or 3 bucks a bottle when Gordon and Mike had already stocked up before our forced immobilization. I have no idea how long we stayed in that parking lot that night, because even as the outside cars pulled away and the clusterfuck slowly untangled, we were embedded in the middle of it.
Two-day runs allow you to adjust your plan and tactics, so Sunday, we made sure to take adequate hydration and food. We were determined to improve our spot in line — but as usual, everybody else must’ve figured that, too. At least the venue staff handled the parking right on Sunday, leaving rows aplenty for easier egress after the show.
Gordon, especially, but Mike and me as well, complained about being so far off to the side it impacted the sound, so we gladly gave up closer stage proximity to get a spot mid-line between the speakers. This pushed us further up the grassy sloped field, but the music sounded so improved, it was worth the swap.
Waiting for the show to start, I overheard someone talking about people they’d run into and I heard the name “Marty.” I asked and sure enough, they were talking my old buddy Marty from Oakland who was at the show — somewhere, not that I was likely to find him. In fact, I thought I might have seen Marty peeking out from some sort of VIP area directly under he stage behind some curtains on Saturday.
Second day shows always feel somehow more celebratory. It”s as if the first day reunion energizes the crowd, and the the next day, we can revel in the fun more thoroughly. Garcia was in fine form, but his health scares mid-80s lent added poignancy when he sang the old Rolling Stones song:
This could be the last time
This could be the last time
May be the last time —
I don’t know.
After the show that night, Mike & I took Gordon to the airport, then returned to the motel for a night’s rest before heading home the next day.
Well, that was not the last time for us. Gordon kept up his vigil for shows meeting his conditions, and called me about catching 2 of the 3 shows at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in Las Vegas in June 1994 and off we went again.
Once again, though, I had to fly out at a different time. Gordon was heading out on Thursday to meet up with Jim, a friend of his from New Orleans, so they could get checked in to the hotel and check out Las Vegas. I would have to wait till Friday.
Sara had flown to New England to see her dying step-father, leaving me to take care our one-year old, Lucas. She would return Friday afternoon, but we’d miss each other in our travels. On Tuesday, Lucas got sick enough they sent him home from daycare. I saw my plans unraveling if he didn’t get better before Thursday, as there was that gap in either Sara or I being there to take care of him. He got better though, so I dropped him at day care Friday morning, headed to the airport, and hoped that Sara made it home in time to pick him up.
Gordon and Jim switched hotels Thursday, since the cheap-rate hotel was, well, cheap-rate. They decided it looked way too scar to want to return to after the shows, so they upgraded a bit. I dropped my bags off, and we got ready to head to the stadium — Gordon wanted good seats and would not be denied this time. We were using his old Manor Downs plan wherein he would act as the “runner” to go in spread a blanket (only thing he carried), and we were carry everything else in afterwards.
See, being a sound man, Gordon sought the sweet spot for the sound: mid-line between speakers, just in front of the soundboard. This trip, Gordon nailed us great spots there in that sweet spot both days. Mind you, he was so obsessive about his role as runner, he had perfected a bedroll carry for the blanket and practiced thrown it out to quickly spread out on the ground. He was obsessive about that — and highly effective. Thank you, Gordon, for those Las Vegas “seats.”
It was hot as blazes that day, reaching up to 120 degrees at one point. It may be a “dry heat,” but that’s hardly solace. There were showers all around the edge of the field, but even if you drenched yourself there, you were dry by the time you got back to your spot.
When it’s that hot, nobody really needs a “warm-up” act, but Traffic opened for the Dead both days and they sure sweetened the show with a tasty treat at the beginning. By the time the Dead came out, the crowd was moving in a mellow mood, ready to rock.
This time, we were close enough to see the interplay between band members as well as soak in the superior sound. And they delivered the goods again, from opener, “Let the Good Times Roll” all the way through to closing the second set with “Standing on the Moon.”
Standing on the moon
With nothing left to do
A lovely view of heaven
But I’d rather be with you…
They encored with Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” to sent us out into the night — “Go, GO, Johnny, go, go, GO!” they exhorted us, and off we went into the Vegas night.
Gordon and Jim wanted to hit some casinos and entertainment like they’d done the night before, but I was so exhausted from the whole week, caring for a sick son, the flights and the show and begged off. None of us went out that night, but Gordon did practice his blanket unfurling, shaving several seconds off his time.
We were only going to 2 days of the 3-day run, so Saturday was our closing show though the band would play on Sunday as well.
Traffic opened again, and like most bands other than the Dead, they repeated their set. Deadheads groaned quietly, but when Jim Capaldi started to tell the exact same anecdote the exact same way, the groans really rose up. Stopping suddenly, he said, “What? You say you heard if before? You heard it yesterday?” Then with a leer in his voice (not easy to pull off, but he did), “Were you even here yesterday? Are you sure?” bringing a round of laughter before he finished the story and the band settled back into their groove.
We all settled into a groove with the Dead stretching their musical legs. The first set eased us into the music and got everybody grooving’ and movin’. Then the second set gave us that near seamless flow of songs we’d come to expect as Deadheads.
After closing the second set with “One More Saturday Night” (of course), they came out for an encore and played “Liberty.”
Ooo, leave me alone
To find my own way home
To find my own way home
I’m gonna find my own way home
And then they were gone.
Leaving the stadium that day, Jim pulled out a little bird whistle. As we walked acoss the field and up the step to exit the stadium, he would whistle these quick little loopy notes. Every time he did so, people would look around, puzzled but smiles. “I just always wanted to be one of those guys who, you know, did something — some sort of gimmick to make people smile,” Jim explained
It worked like a charm. As we were going up some stairs in a mass, Jm would whistle and this one girl about 20 feet ahead of us would respond, laughing loudly, then saying, “Do it again,” so he would. Pretty soon, everyone on those steps had an extra smile.
That was the last time indeed. After 22 years of catching shows (not as many as a lot of Deadheads) and countless adventures and pleasures (these blog entries don’t tell the half of it!) I’d reached the end of my personal “long, strange trip” with the Grateful Dead.
I’ve still been chasing that dream, though. Albert’s gotten us out to a show from the Other Ones (1999), a couple more Red Rocks runs, for the Dead in 2003 and Furthur in 2010, and now, I’m writing this from our hotel in Chicago as we get ready for the final run, the “Fare Thee Well” shows.
Gotta go — the “Fun Vortex” surrounding the shows has already started to open up, swallowing the surrounding area, already inundated by Deadheads. We reach critical mass this evening at 7 and seek to re-open that rip in time-space fabric to tumble through into the endless show we’ve all been attending all along.
See ya there!