Saturday, January 8, 2011

Memories Of My First Grateful Dead Concert

What makes me think of this now? Well, i think of it often. Music has been so closely twisted with all the important moments of my life - the insignificant ones too, honestly. And of course then it often seems that the music was the importance of the moment, and the rest somehow got tied to it. And some vanished from it - but the music remains. And that year - 1988 - was such a crucial one for me. So many firsts that year. Lost my virginity, became a vegetarian, escaped from Catholicism. And i saw my first Grateful Dead concert. It was April 7th, 1988 - at the Centrum, in Worcester, Massachusetts (the city of my birth).

I had wanted to see the band for a long time. I first listened to them in 1982, when i was ten. Actually, that's not true. The first time i heard them was 1978, but i wasn't aware of who they were at that time. But i remember hearing "I Need A Miracle" on WAAF, the local FM rock station. The bus driver would play that station on the way to school. Well, one of the bus drivers - the Good Bus Driver. He liked WAAF, and he liked it loud. So did we. And i loved "I Need A Miracle," but it wasn't until 1982 when my cousin (who is three years older than me) got "Skeletons From The Closet" for Christmas that i really listened, that i put the name to the sound. Because by then i had heard the name, but had assumed they were something harder, something i wouldn't like. But holy fuck, i remember listening to "Casey Jones," and thinking, "This is folk!"

That year, 1982, i saw my first concert. It was Heart, with John Cougar (not yet Mellencamp) as the opener. It was with some reluctance that my parents took my brother and me to this show. And it would be the only one that year. I think i might have asked to see the Dead, but maybe not. The first year that i'm certain i asked to go was 1985, when i was thirteen. But my parents - who are terrified of drugs - said no fucking way. No fucking way again in 1986. In 1987, the Dead toured with Bob Dylan, and i thought, "Okay, finally, i can go," because my parents have several Bob Dylan records. But no.

So the next year, 1988, when i was sixteen, i didn't ask them. I asked the guy who cut my hair to get me a pair of tickets. Kind of odd, now that i think of it. I mean, you associate the Dead with long hair and all. But yeah, the guy who cut my hair was this seriously cool guy who had ticket connections - some woman he knew, if i remember correctly. Anyway, i got a pair of tickets. I think they were sixteen dollars. I asked this girl Cindy Hawes to go with me. I didn't even know her. I don't think i'd spoken a single word to her, but i thought she was adorable. So i went down to her locker one day and asked her if she liked the Grateful Dead. She said yes or sure or of course or something positive like that, and so i asked her if she wanted to go to the show with me.

Cindy lived in the next town over, in a dome. It was the coolest-looking house i'd ever seen (and maybe still is). It was set off the road a bit, so you had to go up this long dirt driveway to get to it. But yeah, it looked like a beehive or something. Her parents - her mom, actually - drove us into Worcester. By this time, i'd been to quite a few concerts at the Centrum. And the routine was you'd go get some food and a soda at the mall across the street before the show. The mall was always its most crowded before a concert. So Cindy and i walked into the mall, expecting masses of people. And there was no one. I mean no one. Not a single fucking person. Dead fans couldn't have cared less about the mall. I think that was the moment i realized i was in for something special.

I owned five or six Grateful Dead albums by then, and there was a weekly Dead radio show on WZLX (which was my station of choice - no longer WAAF), so i knew a lot of the music. And of course "Touch Of Grey" had been a big hit the year before. Actually, the day of the concert i was in biology class, holding my tickets, and someone said to me, "You know, they might not even play 'Touch Of Grey.'" As if that was a reason not to go. I was like, "Of course i know that." I didn't care if they played that or not. I didn't care what they played. Well, actually, i hoped they'd play at least one or two songs from American Beauty, which was already my favorite record (still is).

Anyway, the band opened the first set with "Touch Of Grey."

Everyone was up and dancing. And we had plenty of space, because - silly us - we actually went to our assigned seats. That's something i wouldn't do much afterwards, but at the time that's what we did. The folks who had the seats near us clearly had decided to move closer, so we had plenty of dance space. Only, Cindy had busted her leg, and so she wasn't dancing all that much.

This was the first concert that i ever saw in which the band did two sets. And no opener. No bullshit. Just Dead. I wandered around a bit during the set break, and found people sort of camped out in the perimeter where the concession stands were. These folks looked like they hadn't been inside yet. Some, i think, were asleep.

The second set opened with "Sugar Magnolia," a song from American Beauty, so i was ecstatic. And it went into "Scarlet Begonias," another song i absolutely fucking loved (and still love). What i wasn't prepared for was "Space." Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart finished their drum solo (a highlight for me, as i had started playing drums a couple of years earlier), and the rest of the band came back on stage and went into the section of the concert known as "Space," which is this wild (sometimes good, sometimes not-so-good) improvisational piece. I was so blown away by it that i was certain that it was the climax of the show. I fully expected the concert to be over when they finished "Space" - and so was totally shocked when they went into "The Wheel"' and then a few more tunes before ending the second set.

The encore that night was "Box Of Rain," also from American Beauty.

This concert - though, honestly not the best by Dead standards - sort of ruined me for other, more standard shows. They set the bar higher. Around that time i was finished with contemporary pop and rock anyway. Contemporary pop music went horribly wrong in 1986, and i had gotten into a lot of 1960s music at that point. And in 1988 and 1989, i got really into the Boston folk scene, which was amazing at that time. Lots of people were just starting - Ellis Paul, Jon Svetkey, Jim Infantino, Brian Doser, Patty Griffin, Marty Sexton, The Nields, Brooks Williams, Cheryl Wheeler, Fred Small, Dar Williams.

Music was changing. That is, my musical world was changing. And the Grateful Dead were a big part of it. I managed to catch another forty shows before Jerry's death in 1995. Not nearly enough, if you ask me, but i did get to see them in a number of different places - Foxboro, Pittsburg, Raleigh, Washington D.C., Orchard Park, Hartford, Albany, New York City, Boston, Baltimore, Eugene, Mountain View, Oakland, Portland. Lots of great memories. I don't know if Cindy ever went to another show. But the girl i took to my second show - Chelsea (named after a Joni Mitchell song) - definitely stayed on the bus. I ran into her a few years later during those great Boston shows of 1991. I was happy that she was there, because i had given her my favorite T-shirt (a "space-your-face" themed tie-dye). I wonder if she still has it. Okay, she almost certainly doesn't still have it. But hell, i still have my first Dead T-shirt, though it's almost completely fallen apart. I got it in 1986 or 1987, and wore it to my first show - it says, "Twenty years so far."