Looking at me now, you’d think that my thirty-something years as a Deadhead have been a sort of lesson in consistency. But that’s not the case. There were a number of years when I didn’t actively listen to The Grateful Dead.
Join me, readers, as I turn another long story into a two-thousand-word post.
Back in the fall of 1991, barely 20, I was living and working in downtown Toronto. On September 16th, I was scheduled to start a new job as a shipper/receiver for an alternative book and magazine company. I’m only aware of the date because I went to see the Grateful Dead for the weekend at MSG 2 days before my start day. I also wrote a journal fairly regularly back then, which I used for clarity in this post.
Less than a half-hour after arriving home, the most important romantic relationship of my life ended. Being an absolute wreck, I called in sick and even though I started that job the following day, my heartsickness remained. As I spent a fair bit of time both trying to restart and unweave my life from my former partner’s, to say I was distracted would be an understatement. My obvious lack of focus was going to get me fired and I quit that job just before that happened. But one thing I found comfort in among the shelves was the Directory of Intentional Communities. A catalogue of communes, this book grew my interest in communal living in a rural setting far away from the urban heartbreak from which I couldn’t slip away. Feeling that a lonely Toronto winter would put me into an inescapable depression, I sent a number of letters out. I got a reply from Alpha Farm offering me a week’s visit and gladly wrote back with an approximate date of arrival of early February of the following year. I set all the plans in motion and awaited this journey. Being too poor to fly out to Oregon, I opted to take advantage of a Greyhound offer that was something like less than $50 between any two points in the USA.
My brother drove me to Buffalo, my disembarkment point and scene of a couple monumental Dead shows. I got on THAT bus and started a 5-day journey that would be a totally separate, perhaps-even-longer blog post. I’ll leave most of that story aside but where the story picks up is shortly after hitting the road. My route was something like Buffalo > Erie > Cleveland > Chicago > Omaha > Cheyenne > Salt Lake City > Oakland > Eugene. After the first three stops, the bus was full of a bunch of young hippies heading west. Chet, an obvious Head smiled and sat down next to me where we made our introductions. Over the course of the next several days, we spent a fair bit of time together, wandering around when there was a long layover, playing hacky sack, tossing a frisbee around and sharing a bit of pot we both had brought for the ride. He was heading to Oakland to catch the Jerry Garcia Band and meet some friends. I was going to learn shortly that there was more of a story to his long journey from nowheresville Pennsylvania. We had a few laughs, including a stoned walk through Temple Square in SLC. As we crossed the Sierra Nevadas into California, I decided I was going to hop off the bus to join him at the JGB show before starting a new life in Oregon. The Dead weren’t on tour at that time so it was my only chance to see a west coast show. Little did I know, the next 48 hours were going to be some of the most unforgettable and not in a great way.
We got off the bus in Oakland on Feb. 7 and started a half-hour walk to the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium to hang out before the show. I asked Chet if he might want to share a hotel room for the night to which he agreed. I was eager for a hot shower and a horizontal place to sleep. When we arrived we met up with his friends Chris and Quill. We tossed our backpacks into Chris’ VW bus and toured Shakedown. It was a much different scene than I was used to. Lots of older Heads, bikers and spun wooks to use the parlance of the community. I bumped into an acquaintance from Toronto, amazingly, who was selling PB & J burritos. He gifted me one. I easily found a ticket for the show and proceeded to while away the day until showtime with a few Anchor Steams. Chet seemed much more on edge than he had during our trip out west and he occasionally ducked away to ‘meet friends’. Many of you are seeing where this is heading. In the moment, I did not.
We poured into the venue and I eagerly awaited my first and only Jerry Band show. Soon enough, the big man came out with Cats Under The Stars for a perfect start to my first Jerry show. It was a much mellower show than I was used to with covers like Lazy Bones and Shining Star. As a Canadian and a Bruce Cockburn fan, Waiting For A Miracle was a highlight of the night for me. I returned to my seat after a washroom trip to find that my jacket had been lifted. Luckily, the pockets were entirely empty. Not a very kind happening, brothers and sisters. But the show ended with the perfect What a Wonderful World, even though what would follow for me was neither perfect nor wonderful. I lost and then found the guys I was with, which was necessary as everything in my life currently sat in a parked VW bus. Our group had grown in size and sketchiness. A couple who had clearly met that night and under the influence of what I assumed was MDMA were with us. A road-scarred tour troll named Dave was ranting and rambling all the way to our destination, the EZ 8 Motel. At this point, dizzy with exhaustion after 5 days of sleeping seated on a moving bus, I just wanted a bed and to get back on the road to Oregon. As we entered the room, I found the real reason for Chet’s trip to California. He was a drug dealer back home and he had made this trip to resupply. In short order, Chet pulled out thousands of dollars from his fanny pack, while Dave pulled out a full ounce of crystal MDMA and a thick stack of sheets of LSD. My stomach dropped as I realized that here I was, far from home in a different country in a squalid motel with the biggest drug deal I had ever seen unfolding before me. Visions of DEA agents smashing through the door were flooding me with anxiety, but exhaustion overpowered it. The last thing I asked of Chet was to please wake me to get me back to the bus station. I fell asleep as the party raged.
And woke up to the sound of a door shutting and an old VW bus starting up. I leapt out of bed, stepping over a used condom and sleeping people. I stopped them and asked for a ride to the bus station. I was refused but managed to get a ride to the nearest BART Station. I was feeling a mix of anger and relief as I was free of a scene that scared the hell outta me. However, what stood between this moment and my desire to start a new life wasn’t a lot better. Since I’ve used up all my credits to make a long story longer, I’ll just say that Saturday morning in downtown Oakland in February 1992 wasn’t a picture of bucolic beauty, not unless your pastoral scene is hard drug-ridden. I cocooned myself in the bus station reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and drinking bus station coffee for breakfast while I waited to head north to a new life. I was not in good spirits, despite being back on the road to my new life.
I felt somewhat betrayed by the scene I had just left. I had greatly valued all the things it had taught me just a few years earlier. I learned about music and improvisation. I learned about whimsy and magic. I learned so much about community that I had travelled thousands of miles to find it in a larger, more fulfilling sense. I had shared moments of wonder with hundreds of thousands of strangers over 15 life-changing concerts but that scene had taken me too close to an edge that revealed lifeless darkness. The edge had always been something perceptible in the Dead scene but it was a fun danger, like watching a highwire act at a circus. However, I saw something on the other side that was cruel and uncharitable.
I know it’s not fair to blame the band for what I now felt. It was their scene, but it wasn’t their scene. We had made it what it was. I had made it what it was. This realization also revealed to me that the band wasn’t quite the imagined collection of soulful individuals that I had come close to worshipping. You can’t have light without darkness but you also had choices. And at this moment, on that plastic bus station chair, I left my Deadhead card. I didn’t want anything to do with it anymore. I didn’t care about the scene, the drugs, the shows, the band. I had to move on.
But the one thing that never left me, even in moments where I was the most cynical about my previous life as a Deadhead was the music. The songs would never leave me. Like the bones under my flesh, they were a part of me that no struggle would ever separate. They may have stopped continually playing in my head like a signal from deep space. But they weren’t gone. They were merely dormant. For the next two years, the closest I came to listening to the Grateful Dead by choice was the Old And In The Way cassette tape, my old friend Dave had made for me before leaving home. Ignoring the band and scene was made easy even in the Dead stronghold of Oregon when my fanaticism focused on a little modern quartet from Vermont. That made this pivot seemingly simple.
I lost track of the band for what felt like a long time. However, two years later, after I had left the intentional community that made most of who I am today, after finding and losing an even more profound loving relationship and solidifying me from a teen to a man, I heard the news that the Grateful Dead were returning to Eugene. On 8/21/93, Autzen Stadium hosted the band and I said fuck it. Buying a single ticket from my new favourite music store on E. 13th Ave., I headed to a Dead show by bicycle alone. Somewhat like old times, I saw so many people I knew. However, these reunions were goodbyes. By this time, I had decided and arranged to head back home to Toronto. Perhaps it was due to another love lost, but my post-commune life filled me with a new sense of loneliness only magnified by a friendless college town on summer break. I have very little recollection of this show and listening to it now doesn’t reveal many gems. The band was by this time mostly flying on autopilot than making daring aerial stunts. But I had a good enough time that I bought a ticket in the lot for the next day.
10 days later, I was crying, crouched outside of the Eugene Airport, heading back to Toronto. I was sad to be leaving a city that never really felt like home, but a state that did. I loved my 2 years in Oregon and leaving felt like a failure. I felt like I hadn’t really launched, merely orbited that new life I was seeking. But I also knew that home was home. My support was there, and my family was there. Even though I had found those anew, once gone, I felt lucky to return to the originals. As I sobbed and wiped my eyes, a stranger came up to me, knelt down, smiled and rubbed my shoulder. I looked up and thanked her. It warmed me and felt like a fitting end to my life in Oregon, where I had felt so much warmth and love from new friends.
It would be a long time in Deadhead years before I started listening to the band again. And it would be longer still until I would retrieve my membership card. That story has already been written.