After eight years of blogging I am finally correcting a major oversight. I can’t very well be a late-Boomer Bay Area native and not write at least once about the Grateful Dead; it just isn’t done. So here goes.
The Grateful Dead were once as ubiquitous as tie-dye on Telegraph Ave. They played constantly, both locally and on tour, and their New Years Eve shows at the Oakland Auditorium were legendary. As a teenager I was too much of a musical snob to pay them much attention. Their music seemed rambling, disjointed, and not very interesting. But once in college I thought maybe I was missing out on something big—if not musically then at least culturally.
Dropping acid and seeing the Dead is what passed for a rite of passage in some circles. I had lost track of the number of friends who returned wide-eyed from what they termed a transformative experience at a Dead show. So in spite of the fact that I didn’t particularly like the Dead or want to try acid, I figured I should go to a show while I was still young and impressionable enough to “get it.”
The summer I turned 18 provided a fantastic opportunity. I was living in Berkeley, and saw on a telephone pole (a.k.a. the “internet”) a notice for a Green Tortoise bus trip to Alaska. The Tortoise was infamous, a company that converted old buses into funky touring vehicles. Outfitted with two drivers, a few seats in the front and a giant platform bed in the back, the Green Tortoise drove big, wild groups of people up and down the coast, across the country, and on other special trips.
This particular summer of 1980 they’d decided to go to Alaska for one reason only: the Dead were playing Anchorage on the Summer Solstice! How great would it be to drive a random bunch of freaks through Canada and the Yukon and descend on Anchorage for the show, while the sun never sets? Add to that visits to the Kenai Peninsula, Fairbanks and the majestic Denali, and it was hardly an adventure I could let pass me by. I spent the rest of my scholarship money on a bus ticket and a backpack, and I was in.
I didn’t know anyone else going on the trip, but that did not deter me in the least. I have never had a problem striking off on my own into unfamiliar places, making friends along the way. Unfortunately, it proved harder to do on this trip than I had imagined.
Three girls my age from Texas were my first disappointment. They wore makeup every day, didn’t read, and clearly were only interested in male companionship. A 33-year-old French Canadian playboy dealer who listened to Bruce Cockburn hooked up with one of the girls, causing a couple nights of great embarrassment for a grandmother traveling with her cute 9-year-old grandson. There were also a few older single men and women on the bus, an ex-felon or two, and a couple certifiable nuts.
I did make some friends, but there was no real easy bonding on this trip. When a guy wearing a poncho and cowboy hat and nothing else comes to breakfast with his bullwhip and starts yelling at people for no apparent reason, it sets up a tension within the group that is hard to overcome.
We stayed one night near Mt. St. Helens, where every surface in the campground was covered with a layer of ash from its recent eruption. Crossing the border into Canada took a while because of someone’s arrest record. But eventually they let us all through and we were off to the Yukon, where the road was still dirt in some places. I never imagined getting tired of seeing beautiful forests dotted with occasional deep blue lakes, but on this trip I learned that it was possible. The beauty and the distances were astonishing.
When we got to Anchorage, our first order of business was to find tickets to the show. Outside the auditorium was the usual phalanx of Deadheads from all over, sitting in line or playing frisbee on the lawns. As we went into the show our resident dealer doled out the acid, and I was on my way. It was now or never. I would either “get” this band or be doomed to the sidelines forever.
What I remember most about the concert was the bad sound. It was like a high school PA system cranked up past the boiling point. Relax, I told myself, just let the music wash over you. I knew how to do this, it wasn’t like I’d never been to a rock concert before. But the tinny treble, mushy bass and incoherent lyrics just went on and on, and didn’t do the band’s sloppy playing any favors. If there was a transformation going on here, it wasn’t into anything good.
My second strongest memory was the people. Beautiful people my age with wide-open faces who stared at total strangers like me as if we were newly discovered best friends. They danced up to me smiling, then whirled away when I didn’t meet their gaze with the same intensity of surrender. My big revelation that night was that this was not my tribe, though at the time it just felt like sadness and possibly failure.
I kept my revelation to myself and let loneliness wash over me. If I were back home I would have somewhere to go. Here in Anchorage I waited out the rest of the show on the sidelines, and walked back to the bus with the rest of the Tortoise travelers in the night’s continuous dawn.
The trip was life-changing for other reasons. I met a woman who studied herbalism with Rosemary Gladstar in Sebastopol. This was the first time I’d heard about Sebastopol, then a ranching town with a small enclave of hippies and herbalists. Eight years later I told my mother-in-law about the town, and shortly afterward moved there with my young family.
One Tortoise friend I stayed in touch with for a few years was Louie X. Heinrich. We were driving in his car across the Bay Bridge when John Lennon was shot, and shared our grief as his music played on the radio. Louie gave me a place to stay when I left Big Sur and settled in Santa Cruz, and our friendship included a funny ongoing game about being aliens and the general strangeness of humanity.
Louie died way too young, at 39, a fact I just learned while writing this piece. He never quite found his tribe, while I was lucky enough to fall into a great one in Santa Cruz by the time I turned 21.
As I write this in a Mendocino café, “Ship of Fools” just came on the radio. How fitting. The Dead as a phenomenon deeply affected an entire generation. But the shadow of all that openness and saucer-eyed belonging was an alienation and self-destructive urge that caused so many to lose their way.
I did not have the language and discernment at 18 to verbalize what I felt, but at least some innate stubbornness held me back from the lure of that experience. And I discovered Bruce Cockburn at the same time, which overall was a very good outcome. I wish I could say that Louie had the same good outcome, after suffering so much hardship early in life. I don’t know how he died, but wherever he is I’ll bet it’s a much better place.