November 11, 1970, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I just turned 18, free and alive, pursuing any adventure that came my way, when I heard about the Grateful Dead playing in the adjoining neighborhood of Borough Park.
It was Alison Steele, The Nightbird of WNEW, New York’s progressive rock station, that set me on this journey. In her breathy sexy voice that elicited untold erotic fantasies from high school boys throughout New York, she implored the faithful to descend on the 46th street rock palace, or Bananafish Garden as it was also known, to catch the Grateful Dead. All I knew of the Dead was that they were from San Francisco, where I wanted to be, and that psychedelics flowed freely at their concerts. That was enough to draw me.
“The flutter of wings, the shadow across the moon, the sounds of the night, as the Nightbird spreads her wings and soars, above the earth, into another level of comprehension, where we exist only to feel. Come, fly with me, Alison Steele, the Nightbird, at WNEW-FM, until dawn.”
I had a problem. I only had $2.50. The ticket was $3.75. I had no issue bumming the difference. I panhandled shamelessly and gave money away with abandon. I had a job serving hot dogs, burgers, donuts, and coffee at the Nedick’s at the 86th street R station, Brooklyn, across from the Optimo cigar and magazine store. I saved enough to splurge $30 for an authentic WW II Bomber jacket, required for true high school activists, a pair of black motorcycle boots, and a pair of tight Levis jeans, with the snap button fly. “Steal This Book,” by Abbie Hoffman was my bible.
I pleaded my case at the ticket booth. I’m a little short, I said. The guy, thin, long hair uncombed, in a tie dye t shirt said, “It’s free. Go on.” “What do you mean?” “No tickets,” the guy said. “Everybody gets in free. Peace.” He gave the peace sign. I returned the salute.
The theater was trippy. At its inauguration, on October 9, 1927, according to the Brooklyn Eagle, 25,000 people came to what was then called the Universal Theatre, the first “atmospheric” theater in New York City. It was designed to look like the night sky in an Italian garden. The illusion was ameliorated with a projection of clouds across the ceiling. That phantasmagoric feature was long gone, the ornate frescoes were worn, the carpet was frayed, and a bunch of New York mostly teenage extroverted ‘hippies’ – or, greasers on acid – were running around in gleeful abandon. A smattering of people were at this Dead concert, a fraction of what the 2,675-seat theater could hold. People were dancing everywhere. Plenty of space to revolve in your own orbit and melt with another orbit and join the whole. It felt more like a party than a concert. As soon as I walked in I knew I’d been anointed.
On the Bus
I noticed the rotund guy with the wide smile out of R. Crumb. He was at the end of the concession stand in the lobby, which seemed harsh and garish with licorice, chocolate, and popcorn. On the glass countertop was a jug. The R. Crumb character nodded to the jug and the plastic cups next to it. I spent hours at Gem Spa at St. Marks and 2nd avenue, the source for underground media. The East Village Other, Berkeley Barb, Rolling Stone, and Ramparts. I knew about the acid tests. I flowed to the jug. R. Crumb met me there. He turned the spigot, and a couple of ounces of Kool-Aid came out. He handed it to me. I downed it all without hesitation.
“Enjoy your trip,” my new friend said, and I was officially on the bus to never ever land.
I toured the theatre, feeling the walls, tracing the statues, and absorbing the felt on the back of the chairs. l understood somehow too deeply than I was able to access that there was no separation between people and things. I did not exist, or my existence was of minuscule importance, or equal importance to everything else, living and inanimate. I was not the center of the universe, and that was okay. The music offered protection and guidance. I rode along as colors began to melt and that feeling in my tissue signaling the dissolution of ego and thought and identity and place. It was as close to home as I ever felt. Was it religion or a cult or simply a promise that there was a better place, beyond strife and doubt, injustice?
The New Riders were playing Glendale Train and a benevolent-looking, scruffy, cosmic-faced, denim-clad Jerry Garcia was on pedal steel sending out vibrations. I roamed around by the stage and looked them all in the eye. There was no separation between the band and the rest of us.
When the Dead opened with Casey Jones the universe cracked open and I walked through. We went from the grit of a cosmic saloon to a rocket into space. I saw the clouds swirling on the ceiling and the stars and flashes from around the Dead, the pure joyous sun of Jerry Garcia’s face.
Joints were passed around. Pot smelled different then. More of a homegrown smell, earthy, pleasant, and thick. I couldn’t smoke. It was too much. I went as far as I could. When Garcia sang “out in the cold rain and snow,” I felt the chill and saw the snow. It was like northern lights, bright, colorful impressions flashing, melting, adopting a new shape. Every word of every line had a profound meaning.
What is a Balloon?
What is a balloon? You contemplate this at a Dead concert. I thought that everybody in the theatre had touched every balloon that was bouncing around and we were all joined in ephemeral space through balloons. The balloons were like atomic matter. Eventually, the balloons wind up on stage, and the band is joined by us and the balloons. This sounds like gibberish but anybody who’s been to a Grateful Dead concert will swear by the unifying and healing power of a balloon. This was before the era of heavy stage shows, big lighting, pyrotechnics, huge screens, and super sound systems. A balloon was the connective tissue of the crowd. Simple. Elegant.
The Dead exposed me to an alternate reality that persists 52 years later. The tribe spans generations now and the Dead are inculcated into the culture. Practically every MLB team has a Grateful Dead night and the Yankees, Red Sox, and Giants had a Jerry Garcia bobblehead night commemorating Jerry’s 80th birthday. The Port Chester Fire Department (next to the Capitol Theatre) transformed the firehouse into a gang of Deadheads (you have to watch this video).
Bill Walton, the legendary pro basketball player, says he went to more than 800 of the 2,300 Dead concerts, a record for live performances. He talks about Jerry Garcia as if he was the Messiah who came to take his children home (Uncle John’s Band, Alpine Valley, 7/17/89). For many of us, he was, and is, and the music never stops because the pure joy and abandon, and optimism of a Grateful Dead concert is unparalleled in my experience. It’s a religion, an epiphany, a way of looking at life that doesn’t fade away.
Dead at 70
You never know what experiences are transformative until you have some perspective. Fifty-two years after that tripped-out concert/dance party at Bananafish Gardens I have no illusions that Jerry Garcia is the messiah, rather the contrary. He was a tragic figure with terrible medical issues and awful addictions that finally killed him at the age of 53. Other Dead members didn’t fare well either: Pigpen drank himself to death at 27. Keith Gochaux died in a car accident at 32. Brent Mydland OD’d at 37. Vince Welnick killed himself at 55.
Garcia sang sad songs. He crawled deeply into those songs. You could see it and feel it. Yet, every Deadhead will tell you that the one word that describes the Dead experience is JOY.