A Stumbling Otis Original
In May of 1995 the Grateful Dead played their last show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Four months later Jerry Garcia would die of a suspected cocaine-induced heart attack. Though the legacy echoes on, the death of Jerry Garcia was essentially the coffin nail to one of the greatest phenomenon of modern human history. Quite literally this tiny handful of hippie musicians tapped into an energy unrivaled and spurned a migration only comparable to the wildebeest herds of the Serengeti; this isn’t spinnerhead bullshit, the numbers are simply that large. Listen, you don’t have to like the Dead, you don’t have to get the Dead but despite your personal visions of the cosmic, everyone should respect the Grateful Dead. They earned it. Im not going to lie, I’ve never been a huge fan of the music, I didn’t then nor do I now listen to it often. Its cool, it fine, I get it, its good in doses but I cant recite lyrics and frankly it starts to sound very much the same after awhile. However, I do admire what they created and much of what their message represented.Like any religion, political movement, or populist wave mostly it’s been bastardized, misunderstood, manipulated by is own selfish legion and brought to market by the Lords of Commerce. But what they came to represent was bigger than music, lifestyle, philosophy or any of the people involved. I have no intentions of trying to describe that force, a thousand books have already been dedicated, each both wrong and right. Its like trying to describe the epiphany of god or an hallucinogenic experience…..itsprivate to each individual and unknowable to the masses. This is merely my own tale of a day spent with the Dead where I experienced both the horrific and the sublime in the course of an afternoon, each element utterly crucial to the other.
Heaven, Hell and the Dead
Old friends had come to town for the show, crashing on available floor space in my apartment. We partied it up good, had fun, cruised the Strip, generally played tourist. The next day was the show, they planned to go out early and enjoy the carnival that is the parking lot experience but I had to work. I would drudge through my day fixing rich peoples broken houses then catch up to them at the show. Mind you this was before everyone had a cell phone, there would be fifty thousand spaced out loonies to sift through before I found my specific ones. It would not be easy but I was indeed up for the challenge.
I rolled up late in my old Buick, had to park miles away. I got as high as humanly possible, grabbed my ticket and what little spending money I could muster and started the long march. Walking through row after row of busted Winnebago and rusted wagon, seeing the remnants of grand parties recently abandon I was pretty jealous I had missed the festivities. Seasoned Deadheads are a very tuned in lot, perceptive beyond the everyday, an older hippie couple chilling and BBQing greeted me as I drew near.
“Had to work, huh. Well, don’t be bummed young man, there is plenty of party left inside,” says the random stranger from forty feet away. His lady, clearly once quite stunning, also smiled at me.
“Here kid, have a pull off this, it’ll help that smile,” as she handed me a clown face balloon. Being raised never to offend, also being one never to turn down free drugs I happily accepted, emptied my lungs and breathed deep…….WOWZA. I thanked and slapped five, off I floated toward the gates. The din grew louder as I approached. It was mostly empty outside the arena, with only a few ragtag groups milling about.
Walking around the mezzanine the crowd grew steadily thicker as did the smell of sandalwood, beer, frankincense, sand, sweat and mystery like some long lost post card from Persia. I still hadn’t seen the stadium floor but it smelled like when the magic of valkyrie carpets and the cloaked eyes of beauty enchanted the world with visions of a Middle East still romantic, still exotic and still something worth saving.
Dirty patch-work skirts and dreadlocks abounding, tribal hoops and sandals with tire soles; baggy jeans, short shorts, bikini tops, peasant dresses and linen, but also belted Dockers and Tommy Bahama, Wranglers and boots, Dickies, tuxedos, jester suits, caveman costumes complete to the club— old, young, rich, poor, black, Indian, Mexican, —the Dead draws them all. If you don’t know, have never been to a show one of the absolute keys you must realize is that the crowd at a Dead show is utterly and completely diverse. Though certainly there are plenty of the stereotypical, patchouli smelling hippies there are also buttoned down stock brokers, old black women, young frat boys, working men, hard core bikers, retirees in hotrod wheelchairs towing oxygen, babies in hand-knit slings, politicians, Jew lawyers, Korean cooks, welders, civil engineers, janitors and typists, executives sharing a joint with maids, dealers, tricks and pimps, and of course cops………. I don’t mean the ones cursed with security duty, those officers are needed. I mean the ones trapped in their obvious moustaches; sentenced to be those sorry fuckin storm-troopers assigned to blend in by wearing their satin team jackets in 100 heat……..Good luck with that ….. good luck indeed.
There were some where around fifty thousand impaired people in that arena. I had to find four.
So, I got a beer.
My cool ass, old German great-grandma knew a thing or two about hard work, and what she imparted to me was…..AVOID IT! That instead of frettin over your coffee all morning, just sit down, chew an oatmeal cookie and the coffee will likely boil perfectly fine on its own.
Viola, (that’s my great grandma) was a pretty smart old lady.
So instead of trying to filter through tens of thousands mingling bodies for my friends and my hits of waiting acid, I just found a spot and chilled. I was content to enjoy the movable feast, to steal from Henry Miller, of interesting and entertaining people endlessly milling past. A joint passed by, so with a fresh buzz, a cool brew and a stadium full of new friends I was clam happy.
Music started, it was band pretty obsure outside of a niche mountain bar scene based in Colorado, but their hybrid rock blend of horn and violin, guitar and the singers unique voice was bright, positive, groovy and danceable. Soon crowd was up and shaking ass, and I was too. Good music, good buzz, and dancing in unison with forty thousand smiling people is a happy spot to be in. I remember thinking, that this band would be really big someday— that obscure little band turned out to be the Dave Matthews Band. The Dead and that tour essentially launched them into your car radio.
Mid booty shaking groove, someone tapped me on the shoulder, this time it wasn’t another doobie passing freely by, it was my gang. Great Grandma had it right, the coffee usually boils itself.
My crew had been cruising all day, playing their part in the wacky fantastic, they had been fully engaged for hours, pupils and smiles tell no lies. Those kids were tripping and I was jealously behind.
“Its been hard but we’ve been saving half our tabs till we found you, this is perfect the Dead will play in about forty five minutes,” said Jore. Just about right for the LSD to peak. Out came the Homer Simpson acid, a full dose for me, second half for the gang, long with it came a fresh pipe to bridge the gap and a full beer for fuel. It burns a lot of calories to dance your fucking ass off for 3 or 4 hours.
So we danced, and laughed, made friends, shared the intertwined mind. It was one of the best times of my life. I felt true, deep, joy that is very, very difficult to imagine if you’ve never felt that connection. I wont try to describe the hallucinogenic experience— you just have to have it to know, and I very sincerely believe everyone should, at least once. There is a reason that virtually every tribal culture the world over has some form of vision quest as an adolescent right of passage; by pushing your mind through that ethereal keyhole you became privy to knowledge not typically sold off the shelf.
This is no sales pitch, doing acid isn’t a joke, you better strap the fuck up because a taste of the universal mind can be a whale, that little canteen sip can turnout to be a tidal wave, and it can drown you just the same. It can nourish your cerebral garden or wash you to sea……. it depends 110% on YOU. Which is, of course, the lesson, the gift or curse LSD holds. You learn something about your self that will never, ever leave you. It is glimpse of your own soul, I bullshit you not.
That is exactly what happened nearby. The joyous mood disintegrated in waves, literally. A darkness hit the crowd like a wind, people soon started to scramble away as if from an unseen inferno. A physical hole developed in the crowd, people were pushing, struggling to be rid of that horrible feeling inside. The drugs had made us all conduit for raw emotion, what had been glee, was replaced with dread. It like a cloud over the sun. Soon the situation became clear, standing in the center of the growing circle was a woman loosing her mind.
A middle-aged Asian woman, skinny and totally naked was overdosing. As she cycled between hysteric shrieking, gibberish and gibberish in Chinese you could see a large green wad of partially melted capsules still on her tongue. She tore her own skin , would then flop to the ground start masturbating furiously, then just as quick hop back up to charge toward the nearest person pleading for help, then back to yelling, flopping, tearing at her flesh. She was alternating in and out of sanity. This unknown woman was dying and living again in fleeting patches right before us. Her eyes were solid black pupils. Her gaunt body was skeletal and ugly locked in clinching spasms. It was like the entire force of the Universe was trying to push itself out through her pinhole soul, like she was the hood ornament on the sum of all galaxies and the force as just to great. It was eating her alive a cell and a thought at a time.
The whole crowd was witnessing a march into madness. The blackness of it like pins in our minds…… it was ghastly, easily the most hideous event Ive ever witnessed.
The paramedics arrived in only a minute or two, though to those watching it seemed like hours. She was triaged and whisked off, to his day I don’t know if she lived, died or was forever lost to insanity.
A collective sign of relief filtered through the crowd, it was like a sliver had been removed from our brains, but all was not well. People were huddled together crying, heads were buried in shoulders, a rift had shattered the joy of the space. Uncertainly and sadness itched on the skin. You could almost see it spreading, a disease of sorrow until very faintly music could be heard. A lone twinkling of sound trickling to our collective ears.
Completely unnoticed Jerry Garcia had walked out on stage alone with an acoustic guitar. I don’t know if the band had been told of the OD event or if his wizardly senses were just attuned after decades of uniting with crowd after crowd. He didn’t say a word, just played lullaby soft. The music did his talking, at first it said, “I know, I know”, on he played, soon the tune changed to repeat, “its ok, we’ll be fine, we are together, we are here, we are with you”. The people could hear the message, I heard the message. It was combating the pain, washing the darkness way, the tears started to dry. The desperate clutches became hugs, the anguish eased into bereavement fading further into remembrance. On and on that old hippie played like a piper of the light leading his people back from night and into the shining day
After a while the other band members came back on stage but didn’t play, they just sat listening to the escalating dirge, the stadium was silent to the whisper. Only that phoenix guitar could be heard, both laughing and crying, knowing each person, kissing every cheek, rubbing every shoulder, squeezing ever hand, repairing fifty thousand minds.
Suddenly the band crashed in, the shock of sound startling at first but it was traditional Grateful Dead damn funky jam, the sadness was slain! The Happy was back undefeatable and proud. The crowd danced again, rescued from failure.
For hours the band played, the people shimmied and spun, laughing and tripping. Then at the end I experienced one of the best moments of my life.
The music had ended but someone started to beat drum, a big, flat natural skin drum and as the people filed toward the exits they all started to join in unison. Whether it be a stomp on the stairs, a hand tapping on a steel rail, claps, fingers on the backs of the seats or simple a slap on the thigh EVERYONE was in perfect rhythm, perfect harmony. No commands given, not directed or instructed, it just happened. Fifty thousand strangers able to blend together perfectly synchronized without a single word of communication. We felt like one, we were unified, we were powerful. Smiles and waves passed across the stadium seeming no further than feet, we were whole together and anything seemed possible.
A measure of the human potential when petty disagreements are set aside and a little joy is allowed to shine, or at least proof some booze, weed and good tunes is a pretty damn fine time.