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.