Thursday, July 23, 2015

Fare Thee Well

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words . . .

In the annals of You-Had-to-Be-There, my experience in Chicago, Ill. during the July 4th weekend of 2015 may top them all. It was as though I was transported out of time, body and space for a moment, shifting out of phase with the rest of life. In my pop-quantum physics understanding of the world, currently there is another version of me dancing to the strains of some powerfully evocative music on a stadium balcony with people from nearly every stage of my life. It is not an easy thing to achieve or replicate. How do they do it? In the annals of the Grateful Dead, once again, they proved to me that, “They aren’t the best at what they do, they’re the only ones who do what I do.”

As with shows, tours and experiences past, all hassles of planning, travel, social coordination, ticket fraud (yes, on the final night, one of our posse was told that his mail order was not valid!), work, all of it fades with the waning day. By July 5th, it seemed, all complications of sound, light and the chemical blend of musicians and audience had also melted away, leaving a band who could really play, or, in the parlance of loosey-goosey 1960s, a band who could really “get it on,” and get it on they did.

When the bright summer afternoon settles into evening, when the spotlights search the balconies for a deeper strain of humanity, when the energy coalesces around the pulsating stage, the thing that emerges is an indescribable animal of enormous proportions. The Grateful Dead is dragon mythology, an elusive creature at once sinewy and lithe all while being bloated and overindulged.  It is a fire-breathing beast of fierce love. It is something which passes through the band-audience synergy and emerges separately. It is stepping out of the way to serve the muse.

As with any art form, there are missteps and stumbles and glitches. Even at their peak prowess, the Grateful Dead could gaff like no other. This, however, is what sets them apart. In continuing to strive, to search, there are going to be moments of failure. They are not abject failures, though Bob Weir did have me worried in the spring of 2013 when he took a tumble at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester. Phil Lesh has been known to hit a weak spot singing. Mickey Hart has, more than once, stepped out of pace with his counterpart Bill “The Drummer” Kreutzmann. All in all, though, the pieces eventually fall into place. In the thirty-three years I spent in seeing this band, I have had more missteps than the band members ever had while on stage. Nowadays we call them “epic fails,” and I have had more than a few.

When it all locked in, it was easy to forget who was who and playing what. I was dancing, enjoying the moment, cruising on the energy of the experience. That is why the 1950s’ and 60s’ performance art events were referred to as “Happenings,” experiences of the moment. The Acid Tests were Happenings, and this was the final installment in that journey. Garcia, McKernan, Kesey, Owsley, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady, Mydland, Godchaux, and hundreds more contributors were not present, physically, but their presence could not be missed. The remaining artists piloted that bus furthur down the road for one last spin. It sure was an enjoyable ride. Thank you, all!

Phase 1: Santa Clara

As with many people who were excited for the Dead50 celebration in Chicago, mine came with full blown mail order and Ticketmaster anxieties. The amazing thing, is that that was back in January of 2015. It’s difficult to remember back that far, decorating envelopes, reconnecting with old friends, making plans for sleeping accommodations. As disappointment dawned on the many who were left without tickets, I felt blessed to have scored Chicago mail orders, something I had left to the hands of fate. Feeling sated with the coming events, I didn’t even bother trying to acquire tickets to Santa Clara. Then, a dear friend texted me.

“Wanna go to Santa Clara?” I was stunned. What to do? I had no idea how I could justify this to myself or to my family.  What would this mean for the travel plans I had arranged? How could the credit card handle this? Was this too self-indulgent? As these thoughts coursed through my head, my significant other, Nancy, basically advised that I would regret not going. She was right.

Three days after our final school meetings, I was on board a plane to San Francisco. The layover in Chicago seemed apropos, while the flight over the halophile red of Owens Lake east of the Sierras seemed ominous. 

The environmental news couldn’t help but signal the end of something, and yet I was traveling to California for a joyous occasion. It was all I could do to beat back thoughts of a pending apocalypse in the Golden State. In Palo Alto, then, how surreal was the cucumber water served in a carafe, even though I simply had ordered a Negro Modelo?

Wandering around Palo Alto less than 12 hours after having left Maine still strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. This is the Space Age, indeed. I am a space traveler. Having left the lush and chilly coast where the lupine and other early summer flowers were just beginning to peak, I entered what appeared to be full blown or even late-summer. The paint peeling colonials and ramshackle trailers of Downeast were replaced with terracotta tiles and fancy coffee boutiques. Everything felt surreal and polished. As my travel companions Cori and Piotr each arrived in due time, we tried to find food, calm and comfort, even though we were giddy with shock.

There was a lot of quiet serendipity happening for me the entire time I was in California. Constantly in the back of my mind were the origins of the Grateful Dead and the development of digital media Silicon Valley. They seem to go hand in hand. Palo Alto, a hotbed of forward thinking, digital entrepreneurial spirit also happened to be the home of Ken Kesey’s electric venison stew dinners and the Chateau, a notorious crashpad of late-Beats and proto-hippies, including drop-ins Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh. As if on cue during our second morning there, Piotr and I stumbled across the back alley which once housed Dana Morgan Music, the famed spot where Bob Weir first “accidentally” met Jerry Garcia.

While the entire Bay Area had been saturated in a swirling mix of the hi-tech revolution and psychedelic culture 50 years ago, the Grateful Dead inadvertently stumbled into a flashpoint role. I don’t mean flashpoint in any violent sense. Rather, they were at that bottleneck, the tight pinch of the hour glass, where 50s pop-Zen and Beat culture were squeezed through the tube of the Acid Tests. What emerged was writ large in Santa Clara 2015. Half a century after the Palo Alto and San Jose Tests, there we were, boogying in a giant football stadium tricked out with all your personal computing amenities. While there was no evidence of Kesey’s Thunder Machine, the stage set-up, multi-screen light show extravaganza and state of the art sound system seemed to be a culmination of this cultural intertwining and ever-evolving work. In a sense, this was the “Core Four” writing the last chapter in a career of Tests.

Music critics and picky Deadheads will find a lot to complain about over the course of those first two days of music. In fact, to many, the Santa Clara shows were being whispered about as dress rehearsals for the big event in Chicago. Nevertheless, there were plenty of highlights: just arriving, finding some of our ever-expanding circles friends, being handed a rose upon entry, soaking up the environment, hearing Trey Anastasio nail some of the early Grateful Dead material, the miraculous miracle of the rainbow ending set one, night one, all worth our efforts. The serendipity and synergy effects were in full force like lightning leaving traces of ozone in the air.

During my layover the day before in Chicago, I had watched the television screen with amazement as President Obama congratulated Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the 5-4 landmark Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. It was a uniquely American moment beyond expectation. This moment was tempered with the solemnity of the funeral for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, but it also resounded a note of hope for me. No matter what the forces of darkness throw at us, we shall overcome all obstacles. Just as Richard Blanco had written for Obama’s second inauguration:

“hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.”

There we were at ORD, all types of people, watching these events together. Upon my arrival in the Bay Area, it took me a while to figure out the aggressively happy, toned dudes offering a cold beer to anyone and everyone passing them by on our CalTrain to Palo Alto. Could they be that excited about the Obergefell v. Hodges case? Is all of America celebrating I asked my fellow strap hanger? “No, man,” a dapper hipster in the seat next to me said, “It’s Pride weekend.” Oh, OK. And, then, toward the end of that first set on the first night of Santa Clara, a set which harkened back to the earliest days of the Grateful Dead (not one song penned post-1970 made it into the show), a rainbow appeared.

Had the crowd not been able to loosen up prior to this point, the rainbow certainly shook some cobwebs out. It was everything “beyond” that makes for a great Grateful Dead concert. How many times have I heard or read someone comment that this band controls the weather? The rain in Santa Fe in 1983? A cool breeze during a particularly spooky Black Peter on a hot day? Cloud to cloud lightning shows over a raging Saratoga or Merriweather or RFK? It is the type of unbelievable synchronicity that leads people to daydream that this aptly timed rainbow was manufactured, for what other explanation could there be? We, too, were overjoyed.

Sunday found us a little more familiar with the lay of the land in Santa Clara, though still wanting to find a vending lot. There was little to see in that regard. In the one grassy knoll we found, wandering without expectation, it was possible to run into old friends. I saw few. One auspicious run in was with Kevin, someone who I realized was present at my first show, Maine in 1982, and with me at my last, Oregon in 1995. It didn’t occur to me until Piotr and I had drifted our way back to Cori and the venue, leaving behind a purple glimmer of a Prankster eye or two in verdant space. Vestiges, vestiges.

Musically, I preferred night two of Santa Clara. Things had settled in for my crew. We had a better spot from which to enjoy the show–our own little balcony up in the “cheap” seats with a private bar, airport-style lounge and bathrooms, and it sounded great. We had our groove on much more, too, and the songs hit on some bouncier spaces of the 70s and 80s. Cori had been goofing on the lyrics to Hell in a Bucket all weekend, and when Bob Weir kicked it in, we were all smiles, dancing, bopping and spinning around. Yes! This is what we came for: the dance.

The second set of the second night was fantastic, if a little hollow in places. Like “thick air,” my understanding of “hollow” is difficult to express. Unlike Soldier Field, Levi’s Stadium seemed a little less than sold out. As a result, the sound had a chance to bounce around and find metallic rings and echoes, whereas a sold out stadium sound feels warmer to me, almost softened by the seamless crush of humanity. By the Half Step> Wharf Rat, though, I was so deeply immersed in the proceedings that I had arrived “there.” Time and space evaporated, and I was dropped into a slip stream of Grateful Dead that was beyond time and space. To quote Anastasio/Marshall, “I feel the feeling I forgot.” I was back in that enormous room, and they had facilitated this change.

The magnitude of being in a gargantuan stadium with 60,000 folks is difficult to explain. Much of what I was experiencing, energy-wise, was a bit off kilter. This was not the manic energy of a rambunctious, Northeastern crowd. Nor was it the surprise party energy that many a Colorado or Midwestern show once provided me. Is it because California now has legalized marijuana and a good portion of the audience is zoned out on all manner of edibles? Is it because this crowd still has monthly, if not weekly, shows by various surviving members of the Grateful Dead and other members of their of bands? No matter. We got what we came for, and we were able to give back what energy we could muster.

It is somehow fitting that my flight to Chicago the following day was graced by none other than Mickey Hart. Just about every member of the flight was tickled in some fashion. In the air, my seat neighbors, a delightful 60-something farming couple from Iowa, talked all manner of environmental concern. It was remarkable to be on the same page as someone in a conversation like this, let alone for four uninterrupted hours. How is that this form of dance, Mickey Hart’s menacing Beam and Billy Kreutzmann’s world beats, the deep tones of ethereal space and wonder of a searching Dark Star or mournful Wharf Rat, how is it that these things can bring us back to this one notion of caring? I have always felt it, the deepest tones of the universe, the core basic messages, the elements, the warp and woof that weaves us together.

Interim: Chicago Friends and Family

Landing in Chicago, it did not seem to strange to be making goofy hand gestures to Mickey Hart as he sat in his van waiting for luggage. Another goofball, he must have thought, as he offered me a fadeaway salute. Despite all the energy of the music in Santa Clara, the winding melodic threads and needlepoint stitching, it had been his segment with Bill Kreutzmann and Nigerian talking drum master Sikiru Adepoju which was still vibrating in my bones. Though Hart was his larger than life self 24 hours previous, we were now just two guys waiting for the next move in a busy July airport.

What a treat it is to have an old friend pick you up at an airport. Whisked away to a lovely Rogers Park home, some eleven miles north of Chicago’s downtown Loop, it was a far more pastoral scene than one would anticipate. Doug and I had a late night catching up, recapping my experience in California, hitting on all manner of topics with a tasty single malt, no less. Some delicious home cooking, days wandering the neighborhood and parks, Botanical Gardens, and the next thing I knew, we were eating dim sum in Chinatown on Thursday. It was time to drop me off at the Hilton for the Ripple Dead50 pre-show party and the gathering of my tribes.

I say tribes, because one thing that has become evident in middle age is the expansive nature of our social circles. When first starting out, we had our summer camp, grade school, high school and college friends to run into at shows. Now, some decades later for many of us, there are spouses, children, nieces, nephews, exes, new partners, and even online friends. Lynne’s Ripple Dead50 Facebook community sprang up in the wake of the mail order ticket panic as a way to help folks consolidate information and share a positive attitude. As we know, too many online communities center around kvetching and negativity. No so for Ripple Dead50.

Their party was a smash, even if I could not handle all of the factors coming together in my little pea brain. Maybe I had too much too fast. By the time my East Coast posse arrived, combining forces with people I know from all over the country and some slight excess, I felt like the images of our legendary musical heroes crawling around on a train through Canada. Rick Danko trying to slither out of the bar car in Festival Express just about sums up my experience. Just shy of 50, I have to keep reminding myself that I am not 25. Oh well, it’s the spirit that matters.

From the Hilton, we made our way back to Rogers Park to stay with one of Nancy’s oldest and best friends. We had siblings, children, nephews, friends dropping in for Mai Tais and barbecue, frisbee on the beach, hot beverages, cold beverages, access to the L, dogs, and a lot of history. I know of few contexts where all these layers of our lives overlap as seamlessly. The images which kept coming to me were like Venn diagrams of my life, layering and overlapping again and again. Of course, there were so many people involved, overall, that many of my older touring pals and I never crossed paths. Some of us bumped into each other, briefly, while being pulled in other directions, graciously.

In fact, all of Chicago felt this way to me. Other than the minor logistical flaws of the first show’s egress, too few doors open after the show and the crush of humanity trying to exit, everything was copacetic. Hotel staffs were patient. Police were polite. And no matter how crowded a hallway or aisle became, the audience was sympatico. Step on someone’s toe? Apologize. “Sorry, man.” 9 times out of 10, the response was something like, “No problem.” Or, “It’s all good.” Or, “Pass on through, bro.” The city demonstrated just how to absorb and Tai Chi walk 100,000+ refer mad Dead Freaks in and out without a hitch.

Chicago is no stranger to festivals, either. There is always some block party spilling over into a music festival or large scale food event on any given weekend in the summer. The Museum Campus and Grant Park can absorb a lot of people. Traffic flows on Michigan Avenue, albeit slowly, but it flows. One of the more remarkable facts of this weekend, in this vein, is just how many pre- and after-parties raged from Wednesday through the wee hours of Monday. It was a giant event, and for the life of me, I cannot think of another city as prepared to take it all on as Chicago.

Late-Sunday through early-Monday morning, my gang could not tear ourselves away from the window at the Congress Hotel. With the Buckingham Fountain and flower gardens all lit up and the last vestiges of concert stragglers still spinning along Michigan Avenue, we never wanted to see an end to the greatest show on earth. There was yet more to see and do and we felt the pull despite the prescribed 7 am departure. We had hoofed the pavement hard but never regretted one city block of it–up to meet friends at the Big Bar in the Hyatt, strolling the River Walk on the once “Bubbly Creek,” admiring the architecture of Second City, home to the steel buttressed skyscraper. Well done, Windy City.

Phinal Phase: Soldier Field

Doug, my brilliant, frank host for the interim phase between Levi’s Stadium and Soldier Field, expressed how brave and bad ass the Grateful Dead organization was to host their Fare Thee Well concerts in the venue where Jerry Garcia made his last stand in 1995. That had been a tour of major disappointments and disasters, and we needn’t revisit that, here. However, his point is well taken. Of all the places in this country they could have chosen, there is something about this choice which suggests getting back on the horse.

Musically, I had left expectations behind long before arrival. This was to be a weekend which exceeded all that. However, there was always a hint of anxiety. What if the proverbial air was sucked out of the room? What if the gaffs outweighed the triumphs? What if the picky Deadheads, already cranky about the choice of Trey Anastasio on lead guitar and vocals, really did not like him one bit? Having been a fan of Trey and Phish since 1987, I was worried for him, not because I didn’t think he could meet my expectations. Rather, I was worried that his reputation would be forever marred by disappointing hundreds of thousands of jam-hungry fans.

I use the word “jam” offhandedly, too. In modern parlance, we now have a subgenre of rock known as the “jam band,” an atrociously cheesy title, in my opinion. If anything is going to make an urban hipster or music aficionado of any stripe sneer at a summer festival, leave it to the word “jam.” Another misguided notion is the expectation that everything must be some sort of improvisational soup spinning off aimlessly from a structured point of departure. When it comes to the music of the Grateful Dead, nothing could be further from the truth. Grateful Dead improvisation was always compelling because the structured melodies and strains of songs always lurked just below the surface of said improvisation. The more familiar one became with the music, the more assiduously one’s attention to the details could become. Changes were anticipated, and then delivered upon. When things did go off the rails into “free flight,” there could be a near audible gasp of recognition.

Phish is another story. Those four music nerds are capable of stepping off the curb of a song to a point of seemingly no return at a moment’s notice. In the 1990s, they could wander for up to 40 minutes at a time, far from anything recognizable, holding down a backbeat all the while. In the context of the Grateful Dead 50 celebration, fans wondered more about whether Trey would “nail” the structured parts required of the song catalog. In order for Terrapin Station to properly crescendo, for example, one must hit the parts Garcia carefully composed. The tension of a song like The Music Never Stopped depends on the audience anticipating the flip from spacey jazz wandering to foot stomping romp on the main melody.

Well, from the moment they shot out of the gate with Box of Rain, I could sense a different power and intentionality than had been evident in Santa Clara. Phil began the proceedings with Box of Rain, the last song the Grateful Dead had played in Soldier Field in 1995: talk about hopping back on the horse. From there on out, I knew that these were going to be intentional and considered and meaningful shows. Trey had a lot of pressure on him, and he was delivering the structure with a little extra sauce. Holding the intensity and pressure of the music together in a gigantic stadium is no easy feat as the sound wanders off into the stratosphere. The compression of an enclosed space is lost, and there are plenty of ways to be distracted.

I can’t say that I saw many “intense” stadium shows back in the Grateful Dead’s heyday. These four come to mind: JFK in Philadelphia, 07/07/89; Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, 07/06/90; RFK in D.C., 07/12/90; Rich Stadium in Buffalo, 07/16/90. I had tried before, and I tried again, but the stadium vibe never really caught fire like the little coliseums and hockey arenas dotting the landscape east of the Mississippi. My experiences in the summer “sheds” like Deer Creek and Alpine Valley were far more successful. So, for these guys, the Core Four originals with three hired guns, to pull off a coherent, powerful, emotive and cathartic tribute to the music which has meant so much to so many for so long in a gigantic football stadium is remarkable.

Musically, the fact that the old was sprinkled in with the new brought the necessary gravitas to the experience. Phil Lesh, for one, never held back from reaching into the depths of the Grateful Dead’s murkiest psychedelic corners of the catalog. What’s Become of the Baby, Mason’s Children, New Potato Caboose, Golden Road and Mountains of the Moon all harken back to an alternative, neo-Victorian, Art Nouveau, Bay Area, late-60s life that is now mythical and ethereal, a life whose remnants are quickly evaporating. Lesh coaxes the last vapors of a time engulfed in self discovery and mystery, a darker corner of the 1960s feared by many and rarely explored as deeply as it had been by those who stood before us now. Peppering those touchstones among the more raucous and familiar “newer tunes” evoked a depth and weight achieved and articulated by a relative few hearty souls.

Like the fireworks that graced the show’s climax on July 4th, and the surplus which emphasized the setbreak on July 5th, this was a band who lit a community fuse. They brought us together, and together, we all made the music, filling in gaps where need be in our own heads. We danced as if in an embrace, swaying to a melody of our own American imagination. It is a dance of possibility despite the technical limitations. It was a big parentheses around an era, though such punctuation is always followed by an ellipses of fading time. Best of all, as Bob Weir led everyone through an eerie rendition of Attics of My Life, the final song, accompanied by a slide show of band members past and present, I decided right then and there that it was a tasteful tribute. There was no hyperbole. Never once did a cheese ball utter anything close to the rock cliché, “Hey Chicago, do you feel alright?” It was simply time to let the words speak for themselves, hug and take a bow.

In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me


Monday, June 22, 2015


As many folks prepare for the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary, I just thought I would share a few thoughts on that scene and what it has spawned in today's America.  It is an organization whose influence continues to be palpable, all these years later.  Cheers to that.

Head shaved and a big pair of Doc Martens on my feet, I was traipsing around a Grateful Dead parking lot looking for a friend who purportedly had an extra ticket for me.  It was in November of 1985, and I had no idea what was happening to me.  My sister, who had a ticket, helped me search.  As luck would have it, Hurricane Juan was dumping rain on the city, and all of the deciduous trees seemed to be pinned sideways to ground, branches and the few remaining leaves undulating.  The winds dropping from the clouds were warmer than the street-level air.  It was All Saint’s Day, Dia de los Inocentes.

We never did find my friend.  Instead, we were helped by an extremely electric, aware and psychedelic couple who seemed rather old.  (My best guess is that they were in their early- to mid-thirties.)  While we roamed the lot a bit together, the guy was curious to know about my knowledge of and interest in the Grateful Dead.  I had been on the lot a few times, even seen a show in 82, but I was fairly nonplussed. It was a mysterious culture that seemed to be of another era.  I did want to see the show, though.  The lot was deserted feeling, mostly because people were cowering in their cars to avoid the monsoon.  It was not the festival environment I had come to expect.

Long story short, the older gentleman broke me into the show.  It was not entirely the most legal of entries, but it would do.  Fully paranoid of being caught–the only shaved head punker inside the venue–I flipped up my hoodie and drove myself into the mass of humanity on the floor of the Richmond Coliseum.  Up a few rows on the opposite side of the floor, I slipped into an open seat right next to a classmate from high school.  “Dude!”  It spooked me, too, because as the notes of Cold, Rain and Snow chugged my legs into action, it felt natural, as if I had been there before.  To quote Yogi Berra, it was “déjà vu all over again.”

It was not until the next spring when the all the particles collided and aligned.  It was March of 1986, and heads from all over the country had set up a tent city surrounding the Hampton Coliseum.  I now understood why, I got IT, and I dove into the scene with zeal.  While sharing a nearby hotel room with friends, what felt most authentic to me, most attractive, was the paved tarmac camping city around the Coliseum.  The wide array of food aromas–falafel, Italian sausage, beans and rice, grilled cheese–mixed with the wide array of smokes–tobacco, pot, Nag Champa, sandalwood, pine incense.  It harkened back to some fall New England day, even though it was March in Virginia and the forecast was not good.

It is amazing to me that throughout the early-1980s, the Grateful Dead lot scene was so far under the radar that it was allowed to flourish on its own.  Food vendors, hawkers of tie dye T-shirts and tapestries, sticker mongers, Ecuadorian sweater and Guatemala clothing traders, all set up shop amongst various jewelers, stained glass blowers and other artisans.  People sold iron candle holders with cut out patterns to illustrate predawn walls.  There were wind chimes, hacky sacks, musical instruments, hats, blankets, and, yes, psychedelics.  One didn’t need to search for that.

What I later discovered, doing anecdotal and print research about my experiences, was that Dead tour was a final outpost for 60s counter culture.  Moreover, Jerry, Bob, Phil and Bill the Drummer had been instrumental in shaping the actual Acid Tests.  The more I learned retroactively, the more things came together.  I had been meaning to read Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and when I did, more pieces fell into place.  Kesey, Babbs and Gretchen Fetchin’.  Owsley.  The Joshua Light Show.  Intrepid Trips.  The Freak Brothers.  All of the bits and pieces of counter culture lore I had picked up in my short 19 or 20 years suddenly coalesced around the Grateful Dead, and it all made sense.

First, Kesey (for lack of another “catalyst”) took all the older counter culture material he could find, and then he put it in the Cuisinart that was the Acid Tests.  This experiment spawned the San Francisco sound and scene.  This psychedelic culture took the world by storm, affecting, as Tom Wolfe would put it, everyone from LBJ to the Beatles.  Suddenly, every show, even pop ones like the Association, Kenny Rogers, Sonny and Cher had to have aspects of the technicolor dream woven into the act.  Everything does go better with Coke?

Music halls flooded over into the parks, and then Lou Adler and John Phillips took it outside in an official capacity in Monterey.  Suddenly, it seemed, the Newport Folk Festival merged with the Human Be-In and the Acid Tests all over the country.  Psychedelic music festivals were all the rage.  One could even argue that they reached a crescendo in 1973 with the Summer Jam at Watkins Glen.  Not as widely known as Woodstock or Altamont, the yin and yang of 1969, Summer Jam collected some 600,000 fans for a mere three bands: the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and the Band.

Sure, there were dribs and drabs of fests after the Summer Jam, but the world had begun to shed the skin of the psychedelic 60s.  It was “back then,” a time of idealism and dreams replaced by cocaine, disco, punk, New Wave and yuppies.  The only place someone like me found counterculture community in the 80s was in the hardcore scene.  It flashed brightly in the late-70s and early-80s sky, as SST producer Spot once said, “Like a f&%*ing comet!”  By the time I started going to see the Grateful Dead on the regular, they were seen as vestigial fall out of the 60s.  I recall one journalist describing how the Grateful Dead refused to let the 60s die; instead, they just dragged it around with them.

With this as the prevailing cultural sentiment, despite profitable ticket sales, the Dead and their fans began to come under the gun, receiving all manner of grief.  Jeers became local police departments cracking skulls and clearing lots.  Bill Graham’s ability to secure four days of on-site camping was all but squashed.  The Drug War stepped up on the scene in terms of Federal agents of all sorts infiltrating.  Alpine Valley 1989 was one of the final camping lots that I can recall.  Autzen Stadium in Eugene was the 90s’ benign exception to the rule.  Reagan and Bush did not want psychedelic hippie festivals flaunting impropriety while seemingly ignoring the Protestant Work Ethic.  “Get a haircut.”  “Get a job.”

Rolling Stone recently published an article detailing the rise and fall, and rise again, of the music festival.  They ascribe much of the return and resurgence to Coachella (1999) and Bonnaroo (2002).  Of course, 80s summer events like DC’s Rock Against Reagan, Humboldt’s Reggae on the River, Veneta’s Oregon Country Fair, Vermont’s Bread and Puppet, and others, all carried bits and pieces of the political activism, counterculture and collectivity which made the history books a mere decade prior.  Interesting 80s gatherings were far more underground, and the mainstream gatherings–the US festival, Live Aid, Farm Aid–were anything but psychedelic.

Then something funny happened demographically.  In the 80s’ dearth of psychedelic counterculture, where the Grateful Dead were the only ones left standing, a new music emerged.  Unlike the Pebbles variety of mid-60s psych pop, bands like Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, Aquarium Rescue Unit, the Samples and Phish were also showing up on the club circuit.  Late-Boomers and GenXers partial to the 60s sounds, who never got a good taste of the pre-75 scene, began gravitating toward these bands.  The Grateful Dead exploded in popularity for many of the same reasons, and these cultural vines began to intertwine.  Like it or not, the H.O.R.D.E. tours of the early-90s were dubbed “neo-hippie.”

At the same moment, an excess of popularity and an excess of zealous law enforcement was shutting down the Grateful Dead community as many of us had known it.  No longer was it a safe environment for camping travel, nor was it an easy ticket.  In many ways, the authorities were successful in smashing that scene to pieces; the psychedelic scene dried up and the dark stuff, the white powders, replaced it.  Many people I knew stayed away from shows on the East Coast because they were simply sketchy and too much hassle.

Quietly, in the background, Phish was out there having their own field trips.  Playing in and around Burlington, VT, the house parties and backyard parties, Pete’s Phabulous Phish Phest, Amy’s Farm, laid the groundwork for an amazing trajectory and pattern of future events.  By the time we fast forward to 1994, just as authorities all over the country were “harshing the Deadhead mellow,” Phish was destroying minds in amphitheaters from which the Dead scene had been banished.  Then, Summer Stage at Sugarbush sparked a new level of possibility: 10,000 phans on a rural and remote field in beatific surroundings!

By then, a Phish monster had been awakened.  1995: crazy summer tour with two night Sugarbush stop, is this the birth of the Phish festival concept?  1996: the Clifford Ball. I’ll leave it to the experts who were there to testify as to what this experience was like or what it meant to people.  Suffice it to say, this was not a H.O.R.D.E. stop with multiple bands.  This was not a proto-Bonnaroo with air conditioned V.I.P. and a catch as catch can line-up.  Rather, this was pure psychedelic dance party gone festival.  This was at a time when options were few.  For many a Phish phan, this was the heyday, a seminal moment.

Just as the Phish festival machine was taking flight, Ken Hays, John Dwork and Sally Mulvey were organizing the core roots of what would become the Gathering of the Vibes.  In 1996, a year after Garcia’s passing, the trio held the first gathering, then titled “Deadhead Heaven,” at SUNY Purchase.  After moving around a bit, the Vibe Tribe has settled into P.T. Barnum Park in Bridgeport, CT where they now regularly draw upwards of 20,000 revelers.  Wavy Gravy holds court, and various members of the Grateful Dead community cross-pollinate with their younger counterparts.  One could easily see, for instance, Scott Murawski playing with the Billy Kreutzmann Trio, only to step onto the adjacent stage and continue playing in the Mike Gordon Band without missing a beat.

By the late-aughts, 2008-10, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the amount of festival scenes which had surfaced.  Whether wandering a Phil and Friends, Ratdog, Furthur, TAB, MGB or Phish lot, I would be buried in fliers for festivals like Wormtown’s Strange Creek (MA), Harry’s Hill (ME), Mountain Jam (NY), Nelson Ledges Grateful Fest (OH), All Good (WV & OH), Wanee (FL), 10KLF (MN), The Hangout (AL), and the list goes on and on.  

There are so many new festivals seasoned by the original experiences which defined Kesey’s Acid Tests that it boggles the imagination.  Zane Kesey (Ken’s son) made a recent appearance at the Gathering of the Vibes on the “prank” replica of Furthur, named Further.  If he wanted to, and if he was properly funded, he could simply drive from festival to festival all the way east from Oregon, continuing the circuit back home out west.  There, he could drop in on Horning’s Hideout or the various unnamed gatherings currently taking root.

What is amazing, instructive, even, is that the Reagan/Bush Drug War machine sought to stamp out this culture.  Rumors abounded in 1988 or so that New Jersey State Troopers were profiling Deadheads on the JTP.  Skull and Roses sticker?  We’ll pull you over, search your car and haul you off.  Psychedelics on board?  Kiss your world goodbye, sometimes for as long as twenty years.  The DEA, too, was targeting the Dead lot.  Many unlucky, young heads were coming of age in the world’s largest prison system.  U.S. Blues, indeed.

In 2010, walking the aisles and pathways of the Nateva Festival in Oxford, Maine, a friend and I marveled at what we saw.  Kids, 25 years our junior, were grooving to the sounds of Phil Lesh and Bob Weir only to seamlessly transit over to a late-night EDM or dub party.  Rave meets bluegrass festival meets psychedelic love-in all in one.  Much the way Phish’s mid-90s festivals pointed in a new direction, Nateva felt like it was part of a giant stirring of the gumbo.  Young freaks can now freak freely from festival to festival if they have some angle, some business, some way to make it all happen.

What had dwindled to an underground, undercover secret society in the mid-1980s has now sprung up in new forms all over the country. While the DEA and other agencies were putting the bootheel on the Dead scene, what they didn’t realize was that they were spawning new scenes to spring up elsewhere. Each little piece of the broken glass was a seed waiting to germinate in new soil. Take a tour of Denver’s microbreweries and pot shops, and experience a living, breathing example of how a persecuted culture regrouped and redefined itself on a legitimate scale. Municipalities which had once shunned the likes of Deadheads in the VWs and customized school buses would now welcome a psychedelic festival nearby. Glow sticks, tie dyes, face paint, spinning hordes, what will this new wave of this festival generation spawn? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


The longer I teach, the less I feel I know about the profession.  The more stuff that is dumped on my plate, the less I understand and the less time I have to process what has even happened to me.  Time is this vortex that just sucks us along, and the more responsibilities, the more juggling, the less reflection, pondering and knowing.  NWEA, Common Core, PSAT/SAT, Smarter Balance, new evaluation systems, Power School, Mastery Connect, Google Classroom, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), all of which, of course, align with 21st Century Learning Standards.

Some days, I stare wistfully at the Edward P. J. Corbett book Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student that sits lonely on the corner shelf.  I think, if only I could simply focus on the structure of an argument, help students practice writing the strong sentence, the smooth and linked paragraph, the syllogistic logic driving the majority of our public discourse, that would keep things simple.  After all, isn’t that the most practical outcome of an English class?

When the dust of my despair settles, a funny thing happens.  I notice students.  There they are, day in and day out.  OK, it’s March in Maine.  Therefore, some students are out for family vacations in Orlando because travel packages are more affordable when not coinciding with February or April breaks.  Still other students are out because they feel like it, and parents endorse staying home or going wherever it is they go but to school.  For the most part, though, there they are, day after day, in sickness and in health.  There I am, too.

Many days, if I take a mental inventory, it is staggering how many students are coming from a single parent household.  Several of those students are late or tired due to having to care for siblings.  Some are working nights to help defray the expenses of running a household.  Many haven’t had a good night’s sleep, eaten much beyond high fructose corn syrup and milk protein, found the time for anything but extracurriculars or done anything but worry about the adults in their lives, adults with serious challenges, adults on whom they are supposed to depend.  What appears to be a dull consistency in my classroom, day after day of Hamlet or the exploration of literary devices in modern American poetry, may actually be a blessing.

The most remote, uncomfortable or wiley teenager seems to appreciate something as simple as the daily greeting.  “Morning.”  “Huy.”  “G’day.”  “Nice to see ya.”  Basic nods and acknowledgements which require no response seem to be the stock and trade of my business, even more than feedback on essays, barrages of standardized tests, quarterly grade reports.  I don’t even remember my own high school grade reports, at all.  What I do remember was my photography teacher greeting me day after day, no matter how I had behaved the day before, always ready with a kind word.  I remember that 30 years later.

When much of the flimflam of assessment strategies, reporting and accountability blows away like so many autumn leaves, we will still be there.  Teachers will greet students ready to go, a fresh start every day.  Students who make their best effort to show up will be treated with that daily respect that they deserve.  Nope, it’s not assessable.  No, it’s not on the standardized test.  Yes, it is about accountability.  Day in and day out, we are accountable to each other, directly.  The relationships we build, ultimately, I am now convinced, are what matters most.  Everything else is a passing acronym.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Knuckleheads by Jeff Kass

by Jeff Kass
Dzanc Books, 2011
soft cover, 250 pages, $9.99

At risk of offending New Critics from the 1930s, it is easy to venture that Jeff Kass intended Knuckleheads for the average guy. There may be an outside chance that this collection of short fiction may reach the women who love these average guys, but the percentages might be low. To glean as much as possible from Kass's pages, one must enjoy the detailed depiction of sinew surrounding a scapula or clavicle tearing and popping, repeatedly. The reader should identify with excess sweat, teeth grinding frustration, desire with nowhere to go, half-nelson and noogie stupidity, not to mention a genuine desire to find acceptance. Above all else, it is this latter emotion that most pervades Kass's collection.

Whether it is the middle and high school subterranean boys of "Basements," or the middle aged yearners of "Mylar Man," "Drowning Superman" and "The Naked Guy Is Dead," Kass depicts males who hover on the periphery, yearning for acceptance. The awkward teen boys of "Basements," collectively scouring their neighborhood for adventure through pool hopping, poker, turntables, make out sessions, always have an eye on whether or not they fit. In a genuine way, Kass's characters and narrators, especially, are both inside and outside simultaneously. It is an angst often ascribed to teen boys, as if some miracle of community belonging happens after the age of 20. It doesn't, and to Kass's credit, he depicts middle aged characters still pedaling through a cul-de-sac of insecurity and desire, youthful anxieties more accepted than resolved.

In "Mylar Man," Kass's late-30s protagonist yearns for his brother's wife. The brother in question is an unemployed, marginally schizoid man who collects balloon rubbish. His internet blogging, environmental crusading world is a sad depiction of youthful idealism gone horribly wrong. The narrator has loved Mylar Man's–the "Old Goat," as he calls him–wife since high school. Kass manages to link that youthful yearning with the incomplete dissatisfactions many middle aged men face, simultaneously making a mockery of and paean to such desires. The consummation leads nowhere but back to those sweaty weight lifting benches of middle school basements.

"Drowning Superman" and "The Naked Guy Is Dead" each depict the alienation and anxieties of marriage in such a way as to capture a kid trapped in a middle aged man's disappointment. The stories, however, do not disappoint. In "Drowning Superman," Kass's protagonist drags around beach blankets, books and a rubber coated Superman statuette on a Martha's Vineyard vacation. The statuette provides the only pleasant shared time between Jay and Calista. They would throw it into the pool and watch their son Jesse dive for it. There is more than a little bit of the baseball card and comic book collecting boy in Jay bubbling up to the surface. When he has to dive deep to find this toy, lost in a Vineyard pond, the parallels between father and son surface. So, too, in "The Naked Guy Is Dead"; only, in that story, it is the protagonist's own innocence and hope sinking to the bottom of an impenetrable pond. Husband and wife have only one tragedy and one innocent memory left to provide them they buoyancy they need.

No matter what the age of boy or man Kass depicts, stylistically this fiction is still tethered to his natural home: slam poetry. There is a breathless quality in all these depictions of buried desires and ranch houses and wrestling matches where even winning is not enough. There is a restlessness and angst which few men openly depict. The familiar scenes of locker rooms, golf courses, blacktop four squares games at recess and sneaking out at night will continue to resonate into this new century. Whether it is a gearhead in the back of English class or a befuddled, middle aged man trying to figure out how he arrived at this stage in life, Kass's Knuckleheads is a book which will prove to be as difficult to put down as the remote. Why? Much like the elusive Fred Exley, Kass captures something inherently grungy, bumbling and altogether honest about what it means to be an American male.

The Light Between by Terry Blackhawk

The Light Between
by Terry Blackhawk
Wayne State University Press, 2012
soft cover, 104 pages, $15.95

Elegiac, thoughtful, keenly aware of environment, playful. These are just a sprinkling of the words which come to mind regarding Terry Blackhawk's masterful collection of poems, The Light Between. Divorce is another word, a word linked to the elegiac. Rather than praising the lost marriage, rather than elegizing that or the man, Blackhawk manages to praise and elevate the awareness of loss, the keen return to the senses, the reawakened awareness of life's fragile fabric. In the midst of all this, there is plenty of room for wordplay.

Assonance and alliteration, internal rhyme, enjambment, these elements of Blackhawk's lines pull the reader along, or pause him, based on the patterns of thought-breaths the writer inscribes. Word play, too, helps wind up the momentum. A pattern emerges: Blackhawk juxtaposing homonyms, prefixes and suffixes, roots. The effect is a gallop with occasional jarring misstep or sharp rock to call attention to the finer detail. In "Torque Dancer," "what can / the opposable thumb oppose? His whole / body's in opposition" (Blackhawk 61). Three uses of this same word call attention to that creation of contrast in both dancer and writer. When describing concerns about tinnitus, Blackhawk's doctor claims it to be "a phantom phenomenon–lost hearing / reminding the hearer of itself–lost sounds / trying to make themselves heard" (32). The argument is circular and dizzying, much like the cochlea or "Chambered Nautilus" of the title. Best of all, these musical notes spin and swirl the tone of each poem, evoking an inner mysticism or uplifting praise in even the most mundane. Who knew a hearing test would lead back through a spiraled line of reference, landing on chambered shells, crickets, delicate evenings, a young child, memories of a lost marriage?

Thematically, a sense of loss pervades this book and renews the wells of hope. Despite the agony, there is a beauty to be found in empty bedsheets, in the space between the signified and the signifier. In "Belle Isle Solitary: New Year's Eve," Blackhawk's narrator walks alone, observing the river, a kayaker, a freighter, ice, delighting in the surprise beauty of a day on earth. It is a solitary activity, and there is a "you" with whom the poet wants to share. It is both the reader and the absent life partner alluded to in the beginning of the book's cycle. It is her other, dialogic half and Medea's Jason, missing in action, run off with a princess. The wistfulness of it all, contained within and spilling from the poet, well, "I call it mi vida, / even this loneliness, even if I carry / only half a song" (Blackhawk 42).

In "Lot's Wife" the wistful becomes more resentful and coarse with anger. The pillar of salt provides a nice double entendre, melding Biblical allusion with desire: "Drop by drop, grain by // relentless grain, salt / trickles down my corroded / breasts and thighs" (Blackhawk 55). Decay and loss is still the pervading theme, the devouring sentiment, even as needs persist. Goals, once seemingly so simple to achieve, evade our grasp, and "I've no magic / to turn mirage to marriage / again" (Blackhawk 55). By linking mirage and marriage through alliteration and consonance and spelling, the notion of illusion rings out. And how is it, then, that we (re)build relationships? It is disturbing at closer examination: the devastating desire for union which transforms one to salt, all in pursuit of a shimmering, unobtainable haze on the horizon. It is youthful idealism; "Once I believed in / the sweetness of salt. // Now all I know is its burn, / its millions of tiny flames" (Blackhawk 56). It is an all consuming pain, and it is enough to make one want to turn toward the four noble truths.

Thankfully, Blackhawk's poems are filled with the renewal possible in life. The natural world, the birds and ever renewing life cycles which surround us, provide the hope of simply what is. Blackhawk allows those truths into her heart, and those truths seep through the poems reassuringly. "How soft / And suggestible we are, to let the mere notion / Of a thing tremble in us" (Blackhawk 77). And how vulnerable we are to allow ourselves to actually believe in our own creation, our own notions and desires. In the end, Blackhawk returns to the green canopy of trees, to the birds and the breeze. There, in the natural world, in "the nothing that is" (Stevens), lies a no-mind renewal. There, "Beyond the margin of trees, / clouds carry our names" (Blackhawk 85). That ethereal truth, ever slipping away as we observe it, might just be enough.

Elegy for the Floater by Teresa Carson

In the spirit of turning over new leaves for the new year, I am going to try and be more regular with postings.  For the next few weeks, this will include posting stuff I have which has been collecting dust.  Why not put it out there, right?  I'll kick this off with a review of what is a very powerful book of poetry.

Elegy for the Floater
by Teresa Carson
Cavankerry Press, 2008
soft cover, 84 pages, $12.80

Teresa Carson's Elegy for the Floater is a collection of poetry at once raw and refined.  It is brutally gentle, a caress with broken bottles, a kiss of pavement.  The paradoxical contrast of it all is best captured in her poem "I Made Fifty."  Cataloging a list of Carson's potentially fatal choices during her years of risk, she elicits a sort of survivor's guilt from the grand scheme of her early life. The pall of her older brother's suicide hangs over everything, and he never had a chance to reinvent himself.  The poet did.

Long after reading this collection, it will be difficult to shake the catalog of images surrounding Carson's brother, Joe.  He was afflicted with "chronic psychophrania. . . . / stank, saved bottles of pee, / kept getting arrested. . . . / [and] looked like he slept / under cardboard, on subway grates" (Carson 11).  He committed suicide by jumping off of a bridge with chains wrapped around him, chains weighted down by cinder blocks.  He was a fan of Houdini, but Joe never could escape.

While these poems catalog a variety of experiences in Carson's life, it is the collection, as a whole, which becomes the elegy for Joe.  The collection contains praise and love and wistful nostalgia for an epoch of Carson's life which was fraught, undoubtedly, with sorrow, anguish and elation.  There was the "Summer 1969" freedom of joining "runaways who squatted / in Lower East Side buildings, panhandled / by subway stairs, walked barefoot on hot sidewalks" (Carson 29).  The illusory, hippie dream is immediately shattered in the subsequent poems which detail the systematic ways a late-20s, married drifter/addict rapes the 15-year-old, runaway Carson.  The darkness and the light intermingle.

The wild freedom of Carson's youth has an edge worthy of shared shelf space with the darkest visions of Lou Reed's Velvet Underground or Jim Carroll's twisted Catholic boy.  Carson writes that her "Catholic-school uniform excited him," her predator "boyfriend," that is.  "He'd pick me up from school, drive to secluded places–like the deserted strip / under the Turnpike extension or woods in Staten Island. / Afterwards he'd drop me off two blocks from Belmont–I didn't tell him / exactly where I lived" (Carson 34).  Those lines from "Tramp" detail a mix of self-awareness, shame and abuse that live vividly in the poet's present some 40 years later.  Her youth was filled with a risk-taking freedom borne of neglect.

The youngest child of 10, a father living full time with his girlfriend, a mother ravaged by years of child-rearing, neglect and emotional abuse, a schizoid older brother wandering the streets, Carson portrays a 15-year-old self who, yes, is legally liberated.  However, that liberation has come with a price: "Large holes / in walls, no furniture, unclean, / not much to eat in house, / burns paper in the toilet bowl / to keep the bathroom warm" (Carson 46).  She can risk everything because everything has derailed already.  Carson's home unravels, and her clinical renderings of these memories add to an overall mosaic image of a familiar splintering.  It is a wonder that Carson made 50, true, or that her brother, Joe, lived as long as he did.

Despite the brutality, there is a poignant delicacy to these poems and memories.  Like the way a diamond is forged through the extreme pressure of adversity, Carson's poems are forged without fear.  Whether taking on workplace gender discrimination as a phone installer in the '70s or examining the autopsy report of her brother's suicide, Carson's pen shies away from nothing.  That lack of fear allows her to burnish words, to polish sentences and make beautiful what might otherwise be horrifying to examine.  Carson leads the reader into a story that begs to be heard, that commands attention and does not let go.  Only on the final page do these words appear: "Rest quietly, my brother" (Carson 96).  Only then is the requiem complete.