In The Shadow Of The Moon…. Remembering The Dead

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In Loving Memory Of My First Grateful Dead Concert
J.T. Hilltop

Lets not get too technical here, maybe I should call it the potential memory of my first Grateful Dead concert because it was after all over 40 years ago, and I was perceptually challenged in a profound way during that era from the fumes of heated cannabis plants and the ingestion of an array of mind altering substances. But its worth a stumble down memory lane just the same so here to the best of my recollection is my most sincere if somewhat warped and faded reflection. This is my account of the surreal experience of the very first of many Grateful Dead shows.

My best bud Kevin and I went to A&S to the Ticketron booth and chipped in to purchase one general admission ticket to see the Grateful Dead at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Even though it was only $6.50 at the time to us that was a lot of money. Over twelve lunch periods of not eating to stash the fifty cents from Mom. Sounds like no big deal but let me tell you not eating lunch when you’re in high school while studying the effects of smoking biodegradable sativa plants resulting in a case of perpetual munchies is quite a sacrifice. Besides that, we needed whatever money we could store away to buy some good pot and maybe a hit or two of something for enhancement. We were planning to weed and speed throughout the concert.

With only one ticket it was time for us to become resourceful and put our high school education to some good use. We took our one ticket to the school library where they had a copy machine which was free for students. Using our deductive reasoning we hatched a plan to copy the back and front of our one ticket. We then took the two pages to art class where we carefully cut the ticket front and back using what looked like an ancient hand guillotine or torture device from the dark ages for a very precise cut. Two sides of this cloned ticket were duco-cemented together. Using the blue and yellow colored pencils we colored in the bogus ticket to make an exact replica. Now we each had a ticket and could use the cash we saved for some buzz.

Neither of us could drive at night because we only had Jr. operators licenses so on the evening of the show we had to hitch a ride to the Coliseum. I was well seasoned at traveling BMT (By My Thumb) and while I wasn’t quite as prolific as say Sissy Hankshaw I usually fared very well at copping rides. It was a different era and hitch hiking was pretty common. Our first ride came quick but was with an off duty cop which sent shivers of paranoia down our spines. He turned out to be really cool and just lectured us a little on behavior of teens, littering, (or was it loitering?) and mundane teen crap. The second ride took a bit longer than we hoped in snagging but it was a lucky hit. We caught a ride with a van load of Deadheads that brought us all the way to the Coliseum laughing and smoking pot the whole ride. Kevin had brought a dime chunk of Blond Lebanese hash and a pipe but he kept that in his pocket. I had a two finger baggie of Hawaiian Gold weed from which I rolled two fat doobies to share with our hosts. By the time we got to the parking lot we all were pretty buzzed, and that’s when Kevin handed me the surprise hit of blotter acid. We were primed and ready to rock and within an hour we would begin tripping. Thanking our ride we split and surfed the lot in search of any friends that may be at the show so we could share our get high.

Having found no one we smoked a bowl or two of Kevin’s hash and went inside, moving quickly so the attendant had no time to inspect our tickets. Once inside it was time to find a place as close to the stage as possible to hear The New Riders Of The Purple Sage. We didn’t work too hard on positioning yet because that struggle would come later when the Dead played. We lit our weed and our hash sharing it with all around us an got lots to smoke from them in return. N.R.P.S. played a great set and Jerry came on playing steel guitar for a few tunes. It was pretty awesome but that’s not what we came for. As their set came close to its end the LSD began its magic by transporting us to another planet both visually and mentally. When the set finally came to its close we were tripping proper and had some time to kill.

We went out to the corridors around the arena to do some people watching which is normally cool, but has a heightened sense of uber coolness at a Dead show. A group of totally tripped out people were doing a trippers version of interpretive dance, making strange gestures that if done anywhere else most assuredly would have gained them admission to the loony bin. People everywhere with unusually huge smiles stuck on their faces talking, sharing one type of get high or another. Whippets, bongs, chamber pipes, chillums, joints, one or two 12 inch joints rolled in an Esmeralda papers, pills, tabs, or chemical laced paper being put in mouths and swallowed. Conversations involving what the boys would play or what they played the evening before at The Fillmore abounded. A communal sense of intense excitement as we all became as one, one group of collective conscientiousness anticipating the start of the real show, what we all came for. After a half hour of watching and chatting with strangers, and some even stranger strangers, it was time to find our spiritual spot inside.

After fifteen minutes of strategic jostling, finding holes in the crowd and slipping in a shoulder or a leg to fill in a void and get closer to the stage we had our sweet spot. Just about center a bit to the right about 20 head lengths from the stage, great cosmic vibe and situated in between the massive speaker system. We staked claim to our territory by lighting some hash and proceeded to engage in copious amounts of smoking and toking, sharing it with all in our magic circle of Dead fans. As the lights dimmed drum beats broke through the crowd buzz and some guitar riffs filtered through the speakers. We were stoked now and the acid was in full flight. The universe was perfectly balance in that arena and everyone inside knew. The music began and it was a collective aura of Zen emanating from the crowd, nary a soul left unstoked nor untoked. I’m not gonna try and bullshit you about remembering the set list, so for the sake of my memorial account I will allow a collage of concerts speak to me as I generalize.

I was very fortunate to have caught the Dead while Pigpen was still with us and right at the onset he stole the show working us into a frenzy. The sound had a raw country edge to it with an accent of blues, Pigpen making his harmonica cry in emotional distress. The arena was dark with rolling flashes or colored lights, red, blue, yellow, purple all splattered about randomly reaching out into the crowds and moving around in huge oval patterns. The lights changed around us making our minds eyes congeal into a spin art of vision. Beach balls, balloons, Frisbees all hovered or soared overhead before moving on in some sort of cosmic endless search. The speaker system was blaring loud yet precise, I could hear and sense every note from every instrument. By the third or fourth song the mood had taken a slight turn as China Cat Sunflower began. Or maybe it was St. Stephan, either way the very moment Jerry hit the first notes my entire essence was sucked into another world. Of course the acid heightened my senses and I was tripping pretty heavy at that moment but Jerry’s guitar work infiltrated my soul and took over my body. Nothing else in the world existed, nothing but this magic pied pipers guitar solo. Jerry’s strings took on life, began breathing and pulsing, inter-twining its spiritually mesmerizing complexities with my hemoglobin and the music flowed freely through my circulatory being, now a part of my DNA leaving me feeling nothing short of ecstatic. Each note etched deeper and deeper into my soul and filled me with a sense of belonging, of completion as I became a small part of a living breathing concert with The Grateful Dead being the heart, pumping us life. I bobbed and writhed to the music along with thousands of other jubilant fans. I looked at Kevin and he was in his zone, oblivious to anything else, and a quick look around revealed a vast array of transfixed smiling faces all finding their very own space in time. The concert had been elevated from just another rock show to the ultimate rock concert.

They played about two hours and I never knew if we were in the middle of one song or at the end of another, and that was because they played songs within songs flowing back and forth as if in parallel dimensions. I can’t be 100% sure but I believe the last tune they played was the hippie anthem “Dancing In The Streets” with their own twist on it. They left the stage with everyone still pumped up an buzzed half out of our minds. The collective culture that pervaded took over our minds and our instincts kicked in as the entire crowd clapped, roared, whistled, and screamed begging for more more more!!!!! The level of our collective accolades escalated quickly to an almost ear shattering level, when the band returned. The screams of pure and genuine gratitude rumbled through my inner ears tickling the hammer and anvil, pounding on my eardrums, and trickling melodically down into my Eustachian tube forcing a good feeling over my soul and once again the band brought the music to life.

That was the first time I had ever heard the song “Morning Dew” and it was a gift of galactic proportions. What I found out later was the tune is about a post apocalyptic walk in the aftermath of rapture and the boys created the most haunting and mesmerizing sound I have ever encountered. It oozed apocalypse before I knew what the tune was about, again Jerry’s strings grabbing me and lifting me to another plane, an audio astral projection of the third, fourth, and fifth kind. It was followed up with a few more tunes as the band treated us to a lengthy encore fittingly ending with “And We Bid You Good-Night” It was an experience that even the most eloquent and descriptive words could barely hint at. One of the unifying chants of Deadheads is “There Is Nothing Like A Grateful Dead Concert” words to live by and I have chanted those words over and over ever since. I couldn’t possibly tell you which Dead show was my favorite but I can tell you this, after years and years of concert going when asked what my favorite show ever was I reply it’s a Grateful Dead concert, which one I’m not sure but definitely The Dead. I’m not an elitist, I love many other bands and artists, and many memorable shows including Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rolling Stones, and Neil Young, to name a few. I even took my son to some LollaPalooza Tours and a Warped Tour and I have always loved rock and roll and always will. I don’t get to nearly the amount of rock concerts I used to, but I go to as many as I can. Memorable recent shows include the Beach Boys reunion, Waters “The Wall” tour, an Phil Lesh an Friends, but in the end, as anyone who was lucky enough to have been to one Dead concert can attest, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert”…..Peace

da boyz

There Is Nothing Like A Grateful Dead Concert

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Rock Is The Dead
Standing about five rows back in front of the stage at The Nassau Coliseum. Small talk abounds and the loud crackling stereo system cranks out some generic rock tunes. The roadies spend about twenty minutes setting up but it seem more like an hour. No matter, the time has come. The lights are dimming and the band is about to take their places on stage. Mostly everyone begins making bets on what they’re gonna open with as the stage gets pitch dark. The hum of the crowd builds as it gets closer and closer to go time. Bill and Mickey tap out a few drum rolls as they position themselves at their drum kit thrones. Keith is at his piano which has a steal your face skull flag draped over it. Donna can be seen walking on stage and Phil is back by the speakers. Bob and Jerry’s silhouettes walk on stage and we are ready! Most of the time after the first five notes everyone knows what the boys are going to play. Tonight was no exception and they opened up with a rousing cover of Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land”. The music has already lifte our souls into a new dimension. So good we don’t even need drug to feel high, but of course we consumed so much by now our brain waves are stumbling around. From that they sear right into one of my favorite Dead tunes, Sugaree, and Jerry was smoking tonight. I don’t mean he was smoking pot although we all assumed he was, it’s a term for when Jerry was especially on fire. Jerry plays improvisational tripping music and no song is ever exactly the same. Tonight he had a sort of Spanish sounding twist to his playing but the notes were uper crisp and clear and you can feel the notes bending.. The trademark of all Grateful Dead shows is when Garcia begins strumming his improv jam and he goes off into space. As he plays a cosmic snowflake of sound erupts into an iceberg of joyful soul tickling music. Jerry’s playing is like a super melodic interpretation of Jimi Hendrix. If a kaleidoscope could make noise it would sound like what flows from Jerry’s amplifiers. His strings hypnotize and separate our mind from our bodies. Lift and separate, not just a Playtex claim, a mindfuck reality at a Dead show. Some of the jams were so long and spacey you completely forget what song you’re listening to until they went back in to finish it. Sometimes they would even change to a different song in the middle, trance off into space and then finish that song before returning to the original one. It was like being on a musical roller coaster, full of surprise turns, dips, and so many tempo changes you could loose your equilibrium in a flash. Jesus shit man, this is it. This is what its all about, rock and roll at its ultimate. The mind altering effects of the Orange Sunshine are accentuated by the music. The trip peaks as stacks of big ass speakers, gigantic stereo amplifiers, blare music so loud I can feel the hammer and anvil shake loose in my middle ear. The music coming from those amps create an almost demonic possession that sucks up your essence and takes you over the top. Fuck the exorcism I don’t ever want this feeling expelled from my body I want it to enslave and possess my soul forever. Carrie, Ken, Sue and I did not utter a word during the show but gave hand signals indicating how un-fucking-believable it was. Jesus shit man, we’ve got the music, the hallucinations, the dulled senses bordering on numbness, the feeling of love and togetherness. There really is nothing quite like it anywhere. Thousands of people concentrating the collective consciences on one very powerful wave length of unity. When we are tripping, listening to live rock and roll, and we are mere droplets in a massive sea of love. We understand the concept of nirvana, the oneness of existence, and the music helps us transcend all the dimensions we know of and opens our ears and eyes to new ones. The universe is in perfect balance inside this concert hall and it is filled with love, and peace, and a sense of completion. It is filled with rock and roll. I mean it is all about the music, but not just music alone. It is everything that goes along for the ride. The best part of it is that it has just begun.
The show continues with “Birdsong, Mexicali Blues, They Love Each Other, Jack Straw, Stella Blue, Big River and Casey Jones, each tune whipping us into a deeper frenzy than the one before it. Beach balls take to the sky and bounce around in endless search of destiny. Bob Weir walks up to the microphone and announces that they are gonna take a short break, and the lights come on. Our minds are humming and our ears are ringing as our min and bodies dance freely.
The entire Hall is alive with the buzzing of thousands of ecstatic bees engaged in small conversations, nobody aware of how loud we are speaking because our ears have a dull but constant ringing. We don’t even notice. Now The four of us can talk, and most of the conversation centers on what we had just experienced. Carries favorite was Stella Blue, Sues was They Love Each Other, and Kens, no surprise to me, loved Mexicali Blues the best. I prattled on and on about Sugaree of course, but the talk was all about the show. The lights, the Grateful Dead skeletons, the songs, whatever it was it concerned something we had just seen and/or heard. “He whose true spirit dwells in that of a Grateful Dead Concert knows true bliss inexpressible through words.” That was one of my sayings, a bastardization of a Herman Hesse line from the book “Siddhartha” that had become my bible. All kinds of chatter filled the room, as joints and pipes were passed among strangers. If you lit a joint, you passed it to your friends, and they passed to whoever was next to them. It was like getting a smorgasbord of buzz. Someone next to me would pass me a joint of real good gold pot, next someone passed along some crap green Mexican, then maybe a lucky shot of incredible Thai stick, and every once in a while a chamber pipe filled with hash. I wondered if the owner ever got the pipe back. That’s why we always rolled joints. A half hour later, our buzzes restored to ecstasy and fully refreshed, the lights once again go off.
The stage is pitch black dark but we can hear the instruments getting warmed up as a renewed anticipation hangs like a cloud of smoke. Or maybe it really is a cloud of smoke, a sweet earthy smoke. The stage fills up with a neon rainbow of flashing multi colored lights and right on cue the band all begin the first tune. The Dead open up the second set on a bit slower pace to build up to a telepathic mind fornicating guaranteed to please. “Mississippi half step” into “Me and My Uncle” into “Row Jimmy Row” into “Dark Star” as if it were one long song. In the middle of “Dark Star” Jerry went into what felt like a half hour “space jam” which goes so far off the path that everyone in the building forgets where they are until he hits a familiar riff that brings us all back together in an instant. Phil Lesh starts playing some unfamiliar bass chords and Keith plays some soft piano rhythms as Bob, Jerry, and Donna appear to be talking. Maybe they are deciding what they will play next, or maybe they are just talking bullshit to each other. Could be they’re sharing some drugs, who knows and who cares? The only thing on our minds is what’s coming next. I tried to yell to Ken over the buzz of the crowd, “Jesus shit man, I hope they do ‘Eyes Of The World’” to which he yelled back “Man I’m hoping to hear ‘Going Down The Road.’”. We were both wrong but certainly not disappointed as Bob Weir came forward and they did a rousing version of “El Paso”. I loved the way they went back and forth between Bobby songs and Jerry songs. This was a Bobby song and a crowd favorite. Jerry jammed a flamenco-oriented jam allowing us to see his Classical Spanish talent and no sooner did it end when we were already jumping to “Eyes Of The World” with another long space jam in the middle. When it wound down the band took another very short on stage break, and seemed to want to change the tempo. At the very first note the reason for the pause became crystal clear. It was a Jerry song, a very haunting version of a post apocalyptic tune called “Morning Dew.” I felt this was Jerry’s best song vocally, and his guitar strings just wrapped around your soul and sucked a feeling of deep sorrow and sadness onto the stage with him. His guitar was crying at the devastation his eyes were seeing, ears hearing, and soul feeling. It was the most emotionally stinging song I ever heard, yet instead of sorrow or regret it filled us up with hope and joy, as if the words bounced off and only the music remained. When it ended, the lights went off and the band walked off the stage, and we were left with a vibrating sensation wishing this had never ended. But the Dead always do encores and the louder we begged the better the aftershow. The hall filled up with clapping, and whistling, and screams of delight and approval. The chant began to take shape in the form of “more more more.” The stage and the hall were still in the dark and we continued chanting until the sound of a drum roll erased the chant and replaced with a most enthusiastic and incredibly loud collective scream of approval. The colored lights on the stage went back on, and the band took their places. We had gotten so loud that no one knew which song they were playing until we calmed enough to hear “Blossoms blooming and I don’t care”. In an instant we knew it was another fan fave called “Sugar Magnolia” and we erupted into cheering and jumping mass of teenage energy sensing an end to an evening most of us wished would go on forever. From Sugar Magnolia they went into the tune Ken was hoping for, “Going Down The Road And Feeling Bad”. On stage Donna came forward on this and was really getting into it, pulling her extremely long blond hair up over her head and letting it fall a few times as she belted out some back up vocals that were more like musical notes than words. Jerry took control of the mid jam and it was his best of the evening. I don’t remember ever seeing Ken jump quite so much before. He normally got into any show we went to, but whether it was the acid or, the fact that it was most likely the last show we would ever go to I guess I‘ll never know. Whenever he went jumping around with such reckless abandon it made me happy and proud to be with him. Like that wasn’t enough, they continued the encore with one last tune to finish out our night. Bob Weir really let loose on “One More Saturday Night” to the ecstatically rambunctious delight of the crowd. Upon the last note Bob Weir walked to the microphone and said simply “Good Night Long Island, we love you.” Donna stood center stage blowing kisses as the band turned and walked off the stage. A very hopeful crowd tonight, we all started chanting and screaming and clapping again as if another encore might be coming, but all the lights went on, a signal that the show was officially over. We all stood with our brains vibrating and our ears ringing, this time so loud we couldn’t hear much of anything else. We decompressed for five minutes before even trying to speak, and even then our throats were sore and horse from yelling non stop, and our ears were ringing too loud to fully comprehend the words at all. The music had ended but between the drugs, the LSD, and the pure energy of Grateful Dead rock and roll we would remain in an electric state for hours. Fucking A, there really is absolutely nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.