American Culture

Notes from the end of a long, strange trip

Steal Your Face 2For an early 90’s “Dead Head” i was probably among the exceptions. Never mind my cynicism, bitterness and general distaste for joining anything. I was second generation. The turn on was a peer playing “Workingman’s Dead” and me realizing that i already knew the words in my mother’s voice. My first tape was scavenged from my stepfather’s (i’ve known him my entire life, only the context of the relationship has changed) tape collection. 12/14/71 at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, he’d been at the show. It wasn’t rebellion in my family. But before my first show, an honorary uncle sat me down for a pretty serious talk. He stressed that seeing the Dead wasn’t about getting wasted; it wasn’t the scene. It was about seeing the show. The rest of it just came along with the communal-libertarian way it was.

So i saw them 35 or so times between 1993 and 1995 in the Midwest. I never toured. Seriously, by 1993 Jerry was too junked up and the band not nearly good enough to follow it around the country as a gypsy hobo. Besides, i had jobs and school. Deer Creek was my favorite, and i saw all the gigs there during those few years. Fittingly, that was the last place i saw them and by the time that was over, the band pretty much was too.

It was a fine venue to see the Dead on a summer tour: plenty of fresh air, big skies and an outdoor venue. That it was nestled in the middle of the Mellencamp country of pink houses and farm land made it surreal. The town of Noblesville , IN is not – exactly – a hippie paradise. I seriously doubt that the liquor store generally had cases of Sammy Smith’s Oatmeal Stout stacked to the ceiling or that the town restaurant usually ran straight buffet with tie-dyed servers. But it was not a simple situation of locals capitalizing on heads who needed to eat, sleep and drink. (They did, of course, and i’m sure that a great many vacation/Christmas funds were padded when the Dead came to town.) The locals charged a very reasonable fee to let the heads live in their yards. They served breakfast in their garages. Contact softened the face value differences, and it felt as if Noblesville welcomed the heads like an eccentric cousin. The Dead would be in town for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, meaning the heads were there all week. But it was in between the stupidly large weekend show crowds so it was as chill as thousands of deadheads could be.

By the summer of ’95 i was already pulling away. My sights were set on Europe, and i almost didn’t bother with Deer Creek for July 2 & 3 because i had a flight on the sixth. But i went for one last hurrah. Unfortunately, scheduling had put the Deer Creek shows on a weekend. The crowd was much larger than usual, and while i don’t remember the police presence being over-the-top, i do remember that nothing about the scene felt right. That might have had something to do with me having very little hair at the time and getting weird stare-downs for it…funny how judgmental hippies can be. But whatever, it was ugly bad craziness from the start. I kept hearing Gill Scott-Heron talking about hippies alienating themselves from everything except money with long hair, grime and dope. I had a ticket; wasn’t interested in getting out of my head; and planned on just seeing the show.

Deer Creek is your standard, Midwestern summer concert venue. Stage, pavilion, and a grassy hill topped by a fence. The back side of the hill is open, with the bottom forming the HQ for law enforcement and emergency services. It always tempted a few heads to see if they could sprint the hill and climb the fence before the German Sheppard caught them, but none succeeded. At least they hadn’t until that night when someone introduced teamwork into the equation. There had been lot rumors of something afoot and for people to meet at X spot at Y time. When Y time came, i was seriously digging on the fact that they were playing Dylan’s “Desolation Row” (my favorite Dylan tune). Not far into the song a few people came barreling down the hill through the crowd…different than the random hippie freak out run…then a cheer unrelated to the song rose up. I turned around to see people clambering over the fence. Others, on the inside, were busy tearing the fence down. The band almost flubbed the song.

I don’t know where some people learned how to be hippies, but that kind of shit was never in my curriculum. The band finished the first set and, according to rumor, were asked to play the second so that what was happening in the lot wouldn’t get worse or spread inside the venue. House lights and the circling helicopter sort of killed the vibe, not to mention the band being noticeably pissed off. When it finally ended i walked up the hill. My friends told me not to go up there, but i got zero hassle from the SWAT trooper in full riot gear with a dog. The look of mortified anger on my face probably placated him (or maybe it was my lack of hair). I stared through a gaping hole in a wooden fence wrought by bare hands. Below was the aftermath of chaos. There were cops and flashing lights everywhere, streams of hippies and a few small fires to give it that dystopian gloss.

I learned about the rocks and bottles hurled at the pigs later. I heard of the flipped police car and multiple golf carts that were trashed. And a whole lot of people thought that it was pretty fucking cool until the next morning when the show for the third was cancelled. I couldn’t even look the locals in the eye. These people had put their prejudices aside and, i believe, had even come to like the heads. But all that was gone, and i felt guilty. Then i got pissed. And by the time we were driving home i wanted not-a-damned-thing to do with hippies anymore. Sure, i knew that it wasn’t everyone who did it but disillusionment comes easy for me.

The band wrote a letter to the fans reminding them that libertarianism only works if people don’t act like assholes. It could have been my mother’s favorite speech about privilege being in direct proportion to responsibility. I guess that i didn’t really care whether it fell on deaf ears or not. I was gone and nothing was gonna bring me back.

The news of Jerry’s death reached me when my girlfriend – who had come over to meet me and travel – called her parents from a payphone at the base of castle ramparts in Wales. She was inconsolable. I felt strangely relieved and struck by the perspective my surroundings gave the situation. Too many people forgot that there was a world outside of the tour and the “family”. They were a fine band that threw some of the best parties you could ever hope to attend, but you can’t make a life of partying. And in the end, you cannot paste over a life of partying by dressing it up as an experiment in communal-libertarian counterculture.

I think that the band was a victim of the hippie-chic movement. Too many trustafarians without honorary uncles to give them the old-school angle came on board. And for all the outpouring of grief at Jerry’s passing, i’ve always wondered how many stopped and thought about how we killed the man. That whole tour, but especially Deer Creek, must have broken his heart. I imagine that he dove deep into the junk, to the point that everyone told him he simply had to stop. He died trying to kick the heroin that had taken over his life without being able to turn to the ideal he’d based that life upon because that had been blown to pieces. After 35 years on the road the man could not have known anything else, but it had to have been clear that they’d never be able to go back out and have it be like it was.

But damned shames happen too, don’t they? I turned hard against the scene for a long time, and i didn’t listen to the Dead for a long time. I’ve come back to some degree. I love listening to a show from the 70’s while cleaning the house or driving. It feels like summertime, freedom, and innocence…even if it is innocence lost. But i’ve never quite gotten around to forgiving hippies. A hippie above the age of 40 has my instant respect. The youngsters, however, get the opposite until they prove otherwise. It’s too easy to grow dreads and stop bathing regularly. It’s too easy to cloak greed, shallowness, self-centered behavior and even violence with a veneer of outward style. Yeah it’s wrong and bigoted, but that’s what happens when you see the rotten end of an ethos brought about by jackasses of just such a description with your own two eyes.

I thank the boys for all the music they gave us, the good times, the trips, the friendships and the lyrics etched into my mind. And i’m still sorry that it ended the way that it did.

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortunetelling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

~Bob Dylan

32 replies »

  1. For the sake of history, you can hear the moment by following the link below. There’s a list of songs to the right, click on “Desolation Row” for the stream. At about 1:50 you’ll hear the first cheer go up, then the flubbing, then a huge cheer, and that’s the moment that the Grateful Dead ended.

    And if you care to read the infamous letter: (scroll down past the ads)

  2. Although I’m rather conservative, I always been a fan of the Dead and have enjoyed seeing many of their shows myself.. The reason I bring up the conservative thing is that many of my liberal friends find it to be somehow wrong that an evil person like me could enjoy their music, as some like to politicize music. Here’s a link to a person you’d never in a million years think would be a dead head.


  3. I’ve seen too many beggars thinking they’re hippies who, when they can’t get handouts, hit the ATM and pull out a grand for beer and dope for the next few weeks. There’s fewer of them than there were 10 or 15 years ago – or maybe I just see them less because I don’t live in Boulder anymore.

  4. Junkies, Rainbow family goons and career criminals, old sex predators on the prowl for young, dumb deadhead chicks, ruining what is left of their lives, running hustles and scams. I have never been so disgusted by a group of people as I was by rainbow family deadheads and their ilk, until I became politically aware, that is. Modern right wingers are FAR worse. Hey, the Dead were competent musicians who had a good thing going for a damn long time, and made a lot of money, but the environment they created and encouraged destroyed lives and minds by the tens of
    thousands, even though I believe they intended no harm. I run for cover whenever their stuff is playing. Always did. Never wanted to get infected by that horrible disease, deadhead-itis. A fate worse than death. I was, and still am, a classic rock kid who turned into a punk rock adolescent, and morphed from there into a blues-jazz-reggae-classical guy, but it is the punk rock ethic that stuck the most. I just could never stomach Rainbow family deadhead hippies.

  5. Howie said, “Modern right wingers are FAR worse”…Is that anecdotal, can you quantify that statement, or were you dipping in your stash at those concerts which caused some cognitive impairment?


  6. Nice post. Thanks. My framework as an old fart is different–seeing the Dead in the 1960s and 1970s was different from the 1990s. Well, the 1970s were different from the 1960s, and the high point, to pun a bit, because they had cleaned thenselves up, and gotten very tight as a group. I thought their 1990s shows were basically an attempt to get back to the 1970s, but they never really did. And the 1990s problems were the result of a lot of things, not just Jerry’s drug use–they were all older, and thrity years on the road has to take it out of you, especially for a band that was on the road as much as they were– you have to give them credit , I suppose, to have played in front of more poeple than anyone else in the history of the universe, as someone said. But there’s always a cost.

    I do have a bit of a problem with a bit of this, though. For one thing, I always react negatively when I hear people talking about hippies, My kids did the same thing–they hated hippies. Of course, it took me a while to figure out that the hippies they talked about were different from the ones I hung out with–and not in a positive way. Here’s a tip for everyone–the hippies disappeared with the 1960s. What came later was something else, and while I guess I underrstand why that 1990s brood were called hippies (and they called themselves that too, as if they understood what any of it meant), it was different.

    So why did it get ugly? When it got ugly in the 1960s and 1970s, it really was generrally the fault of the police. The race and class divisions, for those who remember back that far, were genuinely scary. This was no longer true in the 1990s, though, even, as Lex points out, in the middle of Indiana. For one thing, it was probably the kids of the police who were going to the concerts. I think about this from time to time–it’s one of the reasons we stopped going to conerts in the US, actually. I remember some very ugly scenes at a Little Feat concert that made me think “I’m way too old for this shit.” (Here in the UK it’s an entirely different story–whole families do concerts and festivals, and I swear for all the times I’ve been at Cropredy, the annual Fairport Convention festival, I have never once smelled any dope–everyone not only brings their kids, but their grandkids at this point.) Everything became some sort of confrontation, bred by some sense of entitlement. that emerged sometime between the 1970s and 1990s. I remember my kids, as young teenagers, going to a Green Day concert in Boston sometime in the mid-1990s that turned into a riot. I was not happy.

    Is it ok to blame this on Reagan as well? I hated the 1980s–after a decade of everyting getting better, they got worse again, and everyone got mean again. And it wasn’t just the Dead audiences, although I can understand the turning away–I suspect there were just as many drug burnouts and ugly scenes among the Metallica audiences as there were among the Dead audiences (although I can’t prove this, never having been to a Metallica show). There are certainly enough examples of this sort of thing across the rock spectrum to make me think it was more of a 1990s thing than a Dead thing. Yes, following the Dead around provided a platform for uselessness and burnout. But the 1980s and 1990s were when all those meth labs started sprouting in places like, well, Indiana. The 1980s were when drugs really did get out of control, and by the 1990s the wreckage was plain to see. But in their defence, I would imagine that the deadhead audiences, whatever their failings, were not the ones who were cheering W on when he decided it would be a really neat idea to invade Iraq. And I doubt it’s because they were too out of it to notice.

    I have no idea if it’s better now, frankly–I live in the UK, and the only US concert I’ve been to in the past eleven years was Phish at Great Woods this year (Fathers Day present!), and the audience mostly looked like mutual fund lawyers. And they were very polite to us, obviously concerned that we might keel over any minute.

  7. First, thanks to all who’ve read this. It is obviously pretty personal, and it’s long too. Three cheers for everyone who made it to the end.

    The Grateful Dead were apolitical. They certainly attracted more “liberal” types than “conservative”, but anyone could be a head or enjoy the music/shows. The band rarely, if ever, made political statements. The letter i linked to is probably one of the few examples of the band verbally describing what they wanted/expected/etc from fans. And if you take out the specifics, it is a condensation of what can only be called libertarianism. Eg. “over the past thirty years we’ve come up with the fewest possible rules to make the difficult act of bringing tons of people together work well…”

    And i have to ask this question: can a philosophical libertarian be political?

    Sure, Ann Coulter would be welcomed at a Dead show. But it would be assumed that she’d play by the rules; i.e. she won’t harangue or report the person next to her smoking a joint and not bothering anyone. Again, this is libertarianism in so much as it means letting people do what they will so long as it doesn’t cause injury to others. Joseph Campbell saw a show once, and he described it – rather gleefully – as a modern incarnation of the Dionysia. He didn’t mean a replica, but that special place/time within society where inhibitions could be let go and where the normal rules of society did not hold. In other words, a little bit of freedom.

    Wufnik’s right about using the word “hippie” carefully, and i agree with his definition. But during the ’90’s a whole lot of people affected the hippie thing and it’s hard to develop a separate name for them. The problem was that it was an affection of style rather than substance. And it most certainly was not only the heads. Actually, the ugly hippie was far easier to see at Phish shows of the era.

    And if you ask me, the 90’s were a horrible, rotten, no-good, naval-gazing decade across the board. A lot of the original hippie generation were pursuing everything that they had supposedly stood against in their youth instead of teaching their children well. That goes quadruple for Mr. Clinton.

    • I don’t know Lex. You don’t have to make overt political endorsements to be political. I know that people of all stripes have been Dead fans and have been welcomed, but that “play by the rules” thing matters. The rules of Dead culture were decidedly socially liberal. Spoken or unspoken, broadly understood, shared communal values ARE political.

  8. I dunno, it’s a hard choice–the 1980s with Reagan and Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, or the 1990s with Gingrich and Delay and Falwell and Robertson. It’s kind of like being forced to pick sides in the Iran/Iraq war. This past decade, of course, is beyond description.

  9. Sam, that’s very true. And there’s no doubt that the overall lean/direction of the head community was very liberal….ish. But i’m going to stand by my description of communal-libertarianism, because what was important was the freedom to do your own thing while remembering that you were part of a community. (so i suppose that it was social libertarianism)

    For example, the Wharf Rats were a group of recovering addict heads. They were at every show and would gladly help anyone get straight, but you never saw them giving lectures on the evils of drug use. To straight or not was a matter of individual choice.

    What i mean by “political” is being actively political or attempting to persuade/force others to see things your way. If that’s the baseline, they were apolitical. Without a doubt, the band and most of the heads voted liberally…on the other hand, a great many of the heads probably never voted because they purposely dropped out of society. During the last election, the survivors became political and pointed out that if all the heads had been voting all along, they could have turned a few elections.

  10. @jeff watson: That’s like asking someone to “quantify” the statement that the sky is blue on clear days, or that Zeta Reticuli is far away. Look at the world around you, listen to Beck, Malkin, O’Reilly etc.
    Yes, right wingers are truly awful people who care only about themselves and couldn’t give a flip if the entire world burns, as long as they don’t have to pay taxes. Clear enough? BTW, What concert?
    I certainly did not mention any.

  11. @ Howie:
    You said, “. I just could never stomach Rainbow family deadhead hippies.” You can’t stomach right wingers, or many left wingers….for all of the celebrated liberal tolerance, you seem to be lacking in that department.

    Your contention that right wingers are truly awful people who only care about themselves shows a sense of naivete and a distinct lack of intellectual rigor…is that what they teach in public schools these days?

    As for the rest of your statement, it’s so lacking in any coherence that no response would even matter. Very sophomoric thinking on your part.

    As for quantifying that the sky is blue on clear days. any first year physics student can tell you that the sky is not blue and only appears to be at times. As far as Zeta is concerned, if you can’t quantify the distance, you shouldn’t even be bringing it up

    Luckily, I don’t listen to people like Beck and O’Reilly or any pundits on either side. For every Beck, there’s an Olbermann and it’s all tit for tat.

    As far as the concert is concerned….you did respond to an article about Dead Concerts, and mentioned your disgust at certain types of people who were in attendance. You wouldn’t know about these people to have an opinion unless you attended a concert. There is a good chance that maybe you get your information secondhand, through the filters of other people that have been there and done that. Whatever….your lack of compassion, empathy, and your hatred of others makes you a very pitiful individual. I feel sorry for you.

    Enough of wasting the time of the hosts at S&R, as I don’t have the time or wherewithal to engage in a threadfuck.

    • For every Beck, there’s an Olbermann…

      The technical term for this is “false equivalence.” The fact that two people are disagreeing with each other doesn’t mean they cancel out morally.

  12. Sam, You’re right.

    They don’t cancel out morally as Beck is right most of the time and Olberman is only right when he says, “This is Keith Olberman.”


    • Just wanted to get you on record as supporting a guy who agitates for violence against those he disagrees with. I’ll give you credit – you’re not shy about what you’re proud of.

  13. I would like to see concrete evidence where Beck agitated violence against those he agreed with in his own words…show me the a youtube of him agitating violence. I would be very interested.


  14. Sam,

    Those links are just a bunch of liberal interpretations of what others are saying about Beck. Show me where Beck, in his own words, incited violence. No lawyering up here on the definition of agitation, just show me the video of Beck inciting or advocating violence. It’s that simple


    • It’s not that simple, actually.

      First off, all those links except two have audio or video clips of Beck saying some pretty outrageous things – and one of those has the link to a clip. One of the links has him joking about poisoning Nancy Pelosi, which is the closest that he comes to outright advocacy of violence. He says essentially the following: states who don’t like the federal government have the right to secede, those states have the constitutional authority to enforce that right with militias (suggesting, but not outright stating, that violent secession would be OK), that the President is a “dangerous” person, compares the Administration to vampires that need to be staked through the heart, and some interesting if circumstantial evidence that the tea parties have been partly organized by Beck.

      None of that is a direct incitement to violence of the “go out and kill Obama” variety. But if it’s Beck’s shtick day in and day out (and I have no desire to find out – I’ll leave that to others who have a stronger constitution than I), it does go beyond mere metaphor and start to tread into dangerous territory.

      Beck is a smart man – I can tell that from what I’ve heard and watched tonight. He’s smart enough not to directly encourage rebellion or murder. But the territory I suspect he’s in, based on all those links, is much like that described in the movie The Accused – he’s not the criminal himself, but he’s not preventing the crime as it’s committed and may in fact be cheering it on.

      While I realize your personal ideology rejects this entire concept, standing by while a crime is committed makes a passive observer partly guilty of that crime, at least according to most of the accepted rules of decency (and are partly the basis of Good Samaritan laws, especially those with “duty to assist” provisions).

  15. I didn’t see y’all making a big issue when the movie, play and books came out advocating and describing the assassination of George W Bush. How about Randi Rhodes statements advocating killing Bush on Air America? How come none of you came out against that…I certainly didn’t see any scribe on S&R telling the liberals to chill out. As fair minded liberals, I would think you would come out against all of that and take the offensive against violence in any form., Or do you condone violence when the folks don’t agree with you?

    I looked for the Pelosi link…could you provide the raw footage, not buried under editorial or shopped? If the link exists, could it have been in an Olbermann or Michael Moore style jest. or are conservatives just not given the same latitude as liberals?


    • First, Randi Rhodes’ call to kill Bush, the book “Checkpoint,” and the British movie “Assassination of a President” all predate S&R’s founding – the latest came out in September ’06 while S&R came online in April ’07. So it makes sense that we wouldn’t have commented on any of them. If you do a search for Air America or Randi Rhodes, you get a total of four real responses for the first (five hits, of which one is “repair America“) and none on the second. Rhodes was fired for her inflammatory rhetoric, as well she should have been (IMO, and not speaking for the rest of the Scrogues on this). As for the book and movie, they might be defensible in the same way that burning a flag in protest is defensible, but not having read or watched them, I’m unwilling to either attack or defend them.

      Second, most of us aren’t “turn the other cheek” liberals here, and I thought you’d been reading our stuff long enough to recognize that fact. Coming down against violence in any form is not part of the liberal canon, and conflating pacifism with liberalness or progressiveness is flat out wrong.

      Third, we’ve banned people for advocating violence here, and the vast majority of those bans have been on commenters who advocated violence against conservatives.

      So implying that we’re somehow hypocrites doesn’t square with the facts of the matter at hand.

      Now, do you care to respond to my point about how those cheerleading for violence are partly responsible for the violence that happens as a result of the cheerleading? Or are you going to attempt to distract us again?

  16. But when I was stalked and threatened with violence from one of your readers on July 17th, and I mentioned it to the editors at S&R, I didn’t hear any outrage from the editors, or even get the dignity of a response, which suggests that some violence is OK. Sometimes, actions or inaction’s speak louder than words. .

    I will say that I appreciate the way that you handled the guy who threatened me in June as I haven’t seen him here, and assume you must have banned him. At least you showed empathy in that case.


    • Jeff, I missed the “stalked and threatened” part. So I went back to the comments of that day and reviewed the exchange I believe you’re referring to:

      I find no evidence of “threaten.” As for “stalk,” the smack talk that was going back and forth went something like this:

      Jeff: You hiding behind a psudonym which makes you a coward.
      Knowdoubt: I am hiding because some people scare the shit out of me. And then an offer to exchange addresses.
      Jeff: I’m the Jeff Watson in New York.
      Knowdoubt: Pass, and signoff.

      I’m not sure the actual events there support the claim that you were either threatened or stalked. And if you felt in danger, then your decision to say “hey, I’m in New York” seems … curious.

      Still, if you filed a police report let me know and I’ll give them a statement and provide the links they need to investigate.

      I can find no other dust-ups on the 17th that you seem to have been a part of.

  17. Sam,

    I sent y’all a note which you blew off. That’s fine by me as I’m used to different ideologies being an excuse for bad manners.

    About the NY thing……if you read the exchange carefully you’d get it. No curiosity there…he asked a question and I answered it.

    He went over to my blog and threatened me directly, and the problem was solved very quickly without any fuss.


    • A threat on YOUR blog is not OUR issue. And you can notify all you like, but if there’s nothing to it…

      As Mike says, we seem to have wandered away from the subject, which is Lex’s outstanding piece on the Dead. All further comment here will be about that.