"As Jesus Christ said, 'By their fruits shall you know them', not by their disclaimers."
I was born in 1963, which, it occurs to me, is a long time ago. Back in those days, John F Kennedy was just being killed and Bobby was still alive. I was oblivious to the Vietnam war. I was a kid in a conservative suburban family. I had plenty to eat. We had the dishwasher, the telephone, comfortable beds, etc. I recall the excitement the day we got a color TV. The machine was so heavy and ponderous it was best to have it delivered; especially since the technician would make sure it was working properly before leaving, as part of the purchase and delivery agreement. This was in the earlier days of color TV. Whenever a guy had to come and fix the TV they'd set a mirror up so they could sit behind the TV, where all the guts of the device were, and watch in the mirror the effects of their tinkering. It was considered normal in suburbia to have a console color TV in the house. When we were young, to the best of our knowledge, cartoons only came on the TV on Saturday mornings. The Road Runner cartoons were our favorites and would delight my sister and I to no end as we sat on the floor in front of that wonderful machine.
In Junior High School I was still politically ignorant (I began to get political ideas in my twenties, when the bliss of apolitical ignorance ended) and cared most about buying the same records my friends were listening to. It was my luck to have neighbors with good musical taste. To earn money I cut lawns in the neighborhood, taking for granted that my father let me use the power mower and family-bought gas to make money cutting lawns. I also took for granted that Dad and Mom drove my sister and I wherever we had to go. On Sundays when my paper route was heavier than my bicycle, Dad would fire up the Opel Station Wagon and drive me around so I could throw the papers from the back of the car. That was before unleaded gas. Before answering machines. When push-button phones were new. When the only credit cards were for gas or department stores or the much admired 'Diner's Club' card.
With the money I earned I bought a stereo. This was when High Fidelity was getting off the ground in a big way. You bought a turntable that was separate from the other components. Then you bought an FM receiver and a powerful amplifier. The matter of speakers was of utmost importance. Huge floor speakers were considered best and in those days were the only type of speaker that could handle the really powerful stereo amplifiers. This was a big step up from the 'record player' of youth. I can recall the family record player, which was a stout square machine about fourteen inches to a side, maybe seven inches high, with a handle and a fold-down lid and a clasp that could turn the machine into an easy Ėto-carry little bit of luggage. The Mono speaker was built in and was protected by a strong metal grill. The player would spin 78 RPM, 45 RPM, or 33 and 1/3 RPM. The older records were heavier, more brittle, and were engineered to be spun at 78 Revolutions Per Minute. Mom and Dad had some 78s. They were classical music and I never bothered with them. I was no Phil Lesh. I was more of a Dogsbody O'Reilly, a Ham-eared Smithwaxer.
Anyway, the thing is, when I had my own money, Dad would drive me to these stores that sold High Fidelity equipment, and watch as I spent my money on expensive Stereo Equipment. Dad would counsel me on thrift, but I had would protest, saying it was my money and extrapolating on the merits of these wonderful music machines that could reproduce music so well. He and Mom tried to make me understand that life was harder than it appeared in those days, that work was important for reasons other than buying records and bigger speakers. But I was oblivious. I bought better and better stereo equipment and when no one was home I could turn the volume up to ear splitting levels, yes, and listen to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple, Yes (the band called Yes) and such little known bands as Mountain and Uriah Heap. The turntable required a cartridge of high quality to be able to provide the fidelity we all needed and wanted in our music pleasure.
When the needle was moving through the first couple of grooves before the music started, you could hear the sound of the mechanical friction of the needle in the groove. Then the music would start. Some records were really important to me. Certain songs were portals to mystical immediacy. Deep Purple has a song called "Chasing Shadows" that always seemed to have some way of showing a truth that was not part of the physical package either of the record album or the actual vibrations of the sound waves, but was beyond. Other songs too.
School years found me rebellious, not knowing that education was something to be thankful for, not knowing what real hunger was, not knowing a damn thing about how good our life was, but taking solitary walks in the woods down the road and also on a couple of Boy Scout hikes in Maine finding that same spiritual transformation as I found in music. A feeling, a certainty, that there was much, much more than was evident through our five senses.
I think everyone has had the thought, "What is infinity?" And the next question, "What's on the other side of the universe? Where is the boundary of the Universe and what is beyond? How can there be a boundary, how can there be nothingness?" One's head swims.
Anyway, an incident that occurred when I was in college will stand as a sort of summary of the way I wasted my education and made a hash of my younger years while at the same time taking to it's logical end the pursuits that such a mystical and aloof Smith must get out of his system, assuming he has the luxury to do so, before coming to terms with responsibility and self-reliance.
First I'll say that, the first time I saw the musical band which this story deals with, this Grateful Dead, I was still in High School. A friend and I went to the concert and walked excitedly all around the arena listening from different places in the long-defunct venue that was known as the Spectrum in Philadelphia. We walked around behind the stage, way up on the second level or something. No one was seated back there, and we could see the band clearly, albeit more a perusal of their gear and so forth than how they were managing their instruments. But it was all a great thrill, and in the spirit of this great evening I let loose with my very best howling yell of glee, a big whoop. I guess such whoops, when directed towards the stage from behind, are much more audible and also far less frequent than those from in front of the stage. At any rate, Jerry (Garcia) turned around quite deliberately immediately after my whooping howl and looked at us for a moment, wondering perhaps what sort of hell hounds were lurking in the seats behind him. Then he nodded in what appeared to be agreement with the intent of my outburst, which was pure exuberant enthusiasm for the music and for all things harmonic and loud, and then he turned back to the crowd in front.
Somewhere around 1983 or so, when I was a dilettante and dissolute student of the liberal arts at West Virginia University, the Good Old Grateful Dead came to Morgantown West Virginia for one night, playing in the big hall where I'd had Phys Ed classes. It was a great venue, and a great crowd. I'll say this: it is well known that due to reckless and heavy dangerous-drug use, not always even remotely intended for the furthering of intuition or further understanding of anything, the Good Old Grateful Dead were known to have the frequent "Bad Night", where the music just wasn't happening, where the energy of the band was dissipated and flat, and where the ticket-buying concert-goer was disappointed. These bad nights were so opposite the nights when the Grateful Dead were "on", that there seemed to be two bands almost. I was lucky, in the half dozen or so times I saw the band, they never disappointed. Such was the concert in Morgantown. A blow-out. A high-energy lift-off. The album that had the new song "Throwing Stones" on it was about to come out and I heard the song for the first time that night. What a great song.
One of the things about the Grateful Dead is that they were followed by a retinue of enthusiasts, many of whom were avid LSD users. This meant that one was among interesting company when attending the concerts. At one concert in Philadelphia, in the days when the cops turned a blind eye to the goings-on in the parking lots of rock concerts (it is hard to imagine, I guess, if you never saw it, the "containment" policy strictly enforced, that is, people smoking pot openly in the parking lot, totally un-afraid of arrest, but if they ventured across the street in so bold a fashion, brandishing their marijuana cigarette, they were fair game for immediate arrest or at least the confiscation of their weed), I saw a guy in a van who had a full-sized tank of Nitrous Oxide wrapped in a blanket. A five foot tall pharmaceutical grade tank of laughing gas, and of course when it's dispensed too quickly the tank freezes. There was a line of people leading to this van, is what had draw my attention to the van. I watched as people either paid a dollar for a balloon full of laughing gas, or traded a joint, or a hit of blotter acid, or whatever, and the guy was doing a roaring trade until the tank froze up. I walked away as I saw him hacking the frozen blanket off the tank with a large lock-blade hunting knife. Commerce. The wheels. Many deadheads were that type of rough and ready individualistic hound who would travel with their individual tools and all kinds of resourceful tricks up their sleeve, for instance silk screening and tie dying in hotels and selling their shirts in the parking lot outside the concert.
One time a pal sold me a Chevy Nova for very little money. The only trouble was, the car was still registered to his ex, who had moved to the Caribbean and was not available to sign the car over. When the inspection and registration stickers on the car expired, it became too much of a liability to drive it much. I was living in the town of West Chester, and had to keep moving the car from parking lot to parking lot to prevent too close scrutiny of the car and possible towing for abandoning an unregistered vehicle and all that.
Once I had the car parked in town in front of the pizza place on Church Street. I was at a party which was being thrown by some folks who were celebrating the fact that the Grateful Dead were playing in Philly. As I walked back to the car, I met some Deadheads attired in their traditional bright and wonderful clothing. A couple guys and three girls. They were following the Grateful Dead around the country, and after striking up a conversation with them as we walked along the sidewalk, I learned that they were without a car as theirs had dropped it's guts on the Turnpike on the way to Philly. Their ride was abandoned by the Turnpike, Probably towed by now, the authorities finding the detritus of the Deadheads. I sold them the Nova for one hundred cash, which I was pleased to see they were able to produce by pooling their cash. I told them it was registered to a person who had left the country. I told them the stickers were expired. But for a hundred what do you want? They were eager to buy the car. Phony stickers are probably not hard to come by if you travel in the determined touring circle. They had no problems with a totally orphaned car. They were glowing with appreciation at the transaction. I was satisfied too.
But when the Grateful Dead came to Morgantown, I was the owner of the old Opel Station Wagon my Dad had sold me. It was my pride. That car was the greatest. It went over hill and dale, asphalt, gravel, mud (not too deep), and field, it was a champion, it was a red car, a coffee achiever. And it was a compact Station Wagon of yore. Vintage 1974, when small cars were not as common. But it was not as small as a hatchback. I had slept in it many times. You could stretch out in the back when you put the back seats down, if you stretched diagonally.
So I went to a pre-concert party being conducted by my good friends Fred and Chip. One of them had a cousin who was a hard core New Orleans Dead-head. He was following the Dead on this tour with a gaggle of like-minded friends. About ten or twelve of them. Long haired quiet guys. Far out dudes, way out. The party had far more beer than was necessary, kegs of some form of the ebon ale, the beer dear to our hearts, and we applied ourselves to the hops with fervor. I outdid myself, drinking far more than was necessary, determined to do my part and then some. I was wasted. Drunk. But the excitement of the event gave me a second sort of wind that cut the grog-ifying effect of the lush and kept me ever alert and ready for action. This was good thing, because when I noticed it had gotten dark, I looked around to see who needed a ride to the concert, and saw that I was the only one left who had a car. In fact, in my oblivion, I hadnít noticed that, aside from me, the only remaining celebrants were the crew from New Orleans.
These guys were super intuitive, and I guess the reason they didn't talk much was they didnít seem to need to. The description of the effects of LSD that I've heard most often and by the most reliable sources are that those who take LSD enter the realm normally only attainable by those who would otherwise have to spend arduous months or years of intensive meditation and some kind of discipline like Yoga. And one of the attributes of that realm is a tendency toward some degree of telepathic ability. This group of guys from new Orleans appeared to be pretty heavy ingesters of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. Maybe it was their telepathy. Maybe it was the simple fact that they weren't stupidly drunk and knew I was the last one there with a car. In any case they already seemed to know that I was the driver for this trip when I said too loudly in my drunken enthusiasm, "Who Needs A Ride!?!?!?"
It was amazing to me the way these guys could arrange themselves in such a way as to all fit in the car. And they did it without saying a word. I was not able to close the back door of the Station Wagon. The back door of the Station Wagon in the up position was like a huge red flag saying, "This vehicle is irregular." In addition to this, two acid-addled Deadheads were seated next to me, while a solid mass of quietly longsuffering deadheads were jammed in the back like firewood. If this were not enough, the one rear tire was almost flat, the air having been forced out of it by the excessive load of the musical enthusiasts it bore. But this deterred me none at all. I was hell bent. I had a plastic 16 ounce cup of beer in my hand, which, having already ingested an intemperate amount of the foaming golden ale, I was not able to quaff and was unwilling to pour out the window. This would only be a problem should an agent of the law take our vehicle to task. As we approached the stadium, the traffic slowed to a crawl. There were police directing traffic, and I had to drive past at least one of them at close quarters, moving so slowly as to be going slower than an able bodied adult can walk. I held the cup of joy out of sight and expressed my hearty gratitude for the officer's assistance as we passed. He pretended not to see or hear me, since to acknowledge our presence would be to require that we be stopped and fined for an overloaded vehicle and general weirdness. And the traffic was too heavy to make such a routine stop. The only laws being broken, as far as he could see, were customs of seating and a severely and dangerously over-loaded automobile.
When we turned into the stadium complex I was becoming impatient to get inside. I was familiar with a large field to the right of the entrance and, as soon as we gained entry into the driveway, with a traffic constable waving me forward, I turned abruptly right and went down a short embankment and into the field. I wanted to put enough space between my self and the police that they'd not bother with me, but I was soon mired in grassy mud to the axles. The traffic cops could care less if some fool with a load of hippies had gone into the muds of the archery range. At any rate the car was definitely stuck. We had arrived. We all slopped to the stadium through the mud.
The deadheads soon went their own astral way once inside the stadium. I saw the concert in a wonderful state of adrenalin-laced stupor. It was a great concert. Bobby sang "Throwing Stones." The band played so many old favorites that the crowd were beside ourselves. An interesting thing happened when the Dead were on stage and playing well in front of hundreds of acid-headed hound dogs. It's a high energy event, is all I can say. It's like a convention of the best of all possible worlds, never mind that it rests on an illusory chemical chimera that dissolves on the tongue and only lasts for twelve hours at a time.
Anyway, when the concert was over I went back to my car. As I approached in the darkness I saw that the guys were waiting for me. I was thankful for their loyalty, as it took all their might to free the car from where it was set in the mud. The ride back to Fred and Chip's was similarly uneventful, these guys were wooden Indians. They Knew, but they weren't talking.
I left the cosmic crew and the car at Fred and Chip's and went the rounds of that hilly college town hitting various parties to howl with pals. When I returned to good old Fred and Chip's place in the weary dawn, they were bedded down with their respective girlfriends, but there was still activity in the house. It was the guys from New Orleans, seated silently in front of a wall that they'd patterned with a bunch of day-glo Deadhead stickers the size of a quarter. All these little glowing colorful circles, with the weak light coming in through the windows and the lamp casting it's glow. These guys staring at this wall, not speaking. They were awake all right, and didn't appear to be silent due to fatigue. Then one of them peeled a sticker from a sheet and placed it into the pattern on the wall. For another moment they were all silent. Then they broke into appreciative and celebratory laughter at the addition to the pattern. Just a bunch of regular Joes.
I think I missed my morning class that day, but I'd been part of a cultural howling of some depth and scope.
COPYRIGHT 2006 DOUGLAS CLOUD ALL RIGHTS RESERVED