It’s been 24 years since my first Grateful Dead show. This piece, describing that day, first appeared on my website fourteen years ago. I have revised it somewhat but it’s mostly unaltered.
It began, actually, as most any other day in my high school career. But, as I lay in bed, ignoring my alarm clock and blinking the sleep from my eyes; an unsettling thought crossed my mind. It entered, echoed and hung there a bit like an early-morning winter fog.
“The Grateful Dead are playing tonight.”
This alone was not too remarkable as they played on quite a few nights of the year, even in 1991. On this particular night, however, they were playing in my town and I was not going.
I’d never been to a Dead show before; nor any concerts, in fact. This was due to various parental reasons and the fact that I had never found anything so worth rebellion that I’d test my parents crazed midnight curfew. So, on this day, I knew the Dead were in town and I shrugged it off and let it go. Clamoring downstairs, I threw Workingman’s Dead on the record player and commenced my pre-school ritual. June 14 marked the last day of school for my Junior year. I ate my daily frozen-waffle breakfast, hopped into my (Dad’s) Camry and headed to school.
Arriving a bit early, I strode into the theater room to catch up with the crew and see what was going on. Surely not everyone would be going to the show, and more so than exams, making Friday night plans topped my priority list. The theater classroom stood out as an exception of all the rooms in the school. In addition to the stage for performances, the room featured sofas and crudely overstuffed chairs rather than desks and their standard hard plastic seats. Instead of a room students loathed to enter; we actually spent extra time there.
Just as I plopped down into an overstuffed, funky smelling couch I saw some folks entering the room via the window, cigarette smoke clinging to their clothes. Jamey climbed in and, crossing the stage, addressed me.
“Did you get a ticket to the show tonight?”, he asked.
“Nope,” I said, trying to seem as if it didn’t bother me. Jamey’s Mom had bought his tickets and in fact bought her limit including tickets for his friends, brother and herself as she always went to the shows. For this and other reasons, we affectionately referred to her as “The Enabler”.
“Do you want one? Bill didn’t pay my Mom back for his Spring Cap Center tickets so she said he couldn’t have one this time. You can have his.”
I practically jumped out of my skin. Elated, I immediately said, “Yes!” so there’d be no chance for him to change his mind and rescind his offer.
“Great,” he said. “We’re leaving after exams.”
“No problem,” I said. I collected my bookbag and headed to class.
But there was a problem: my parents. They had always been quite adamant about their midnight curfew and if I was to go to RFK Stadium, there’d be no chance I’d make it home in time. I certainly couldn’t keep the car out that late without risking a loss of privileges so, I had some decisions to make. Not going to the show had become, rather than an accepted fate, an unacceptable option. It simply would not do.
I think I failed my exam that day. But I didn’t flunk the class which seemed to be what mattered. In my mind, while I sat at my desk, I worked out an elaborate plan that would get the car to the house and myself to the show before Mom & Dad ever noticed. The problem was that I had to tell them. I knew that this was my first and best chance to go to a Grateful Dead concert but, afterwards, I’d have to go home. Better to prepare the parents so that I’d be able to live with them in peace a while longer.
My plan seemed simple and not altogether devious. I’d call the house and leave a message stating that I had a ticket to the concert, I’d not been able to reach my parents at work and would be out late. Next, I’d get Jamey to follow me home as I dropped off the car and we’d be off to the show. The problem with simple plans is that little things can complicate them; such as my mother being home when I called.
“You’re going to see who?”, she asked sternly.
“The Grateful Dead, Mom. They’re a rock group. I’ll be a little late but I’ll come straight home after its over,” I said, trying to make my case seem harmless.
“I know who the Grateful Dead are,” she said, “and I don’t think I like the idea of you going to this concert.”
“Please, Mom,” I implored, not quite ready to beg with people standing around the pay phone, “I’m not going to get into any trouble. I’m not going to be out very late. And,” I’d saved this trump card for last, “Jamey’s mom is going too.”
With a sigh, she relented and I felt free. I’d naturally omitted the fact that we were driving separately and not likely to spend much, if any, time with his mom but, these were details my mother didn’t need. She would be worrying enough.
Bill, on the other hand, only had to worry about a ticket. But that did not last long. During the course of our short school day, he tracked down a couple of older girls he knew and easily copped an extra ticket. (If only it was always that simple.)
We dropped off my car on the way to the highway and piled into Jamey’s station wagon- “The Shakedown” (the genesis of the name is shrouded in history but it had clearly come from the Dead’s song of the same name.) Shakedown was an old grocery-getter with lots of room and a cigarette-smoke funk. Jamey drove that car far and wide with plenty of room for the crew. Songs and great adventures were concocted within and many a dull night faded away on those four wheels. The five of us sprawled comfortably- with Jamey driving and Chris in the way back- and we trucked on toward downtown D.C. from our suburban ennui to urban action.
Barreling in on I-66 we aimed for the cross-town route which, in retrospect might not have been the quickest path but probably saved the day. We got somehow got a little lost until a kindly Jamaican cabbie gave us clear directions and an accent to attempt to perfect for the duration of our drive.
We followed his directions, and knew we were on track when we hit the traffic. I felt giddy, though I tried to contain my excitement for the sake of not losing my cool. The clock read three-thirty and we were blocks from the stadium. As I have learned often since that day, just when you think things are perfect… something comes up.
This time, steam came up. Lots of it; billowing out from the edges of the hood like a smoke machine at a Pink Floyd concert. Washington D.C. is hot in the Summer and this day came as no exception. The smoldering tarmac of the streets only served to double the heat and The Shakedown’s idling engine struggled for a bit then fought back. That’s when the radiator hose blew.
Fortunately, there was a gas station on the next block and Jamey eased the wagon into their lot. It didn’t get easier yet. We pooled our monies and found we had just enough for a hose but couldn’t pay to have it installed. The nearest parts store (3 blocks down) was about to close and, we had no tools.
Someone ran down to get the hose and Jamey assessed the installation. He determined that we could re-use the clamps from the old hose but we still needed a screwdriver. The gas station attendant seemed amused by our predicament as he stood in his doorway smoking a cigarette. Two deadheads rolling past in the traffic offered us a ride in the back of their truck but, we could not abandon the Shakedown. Finally, after some polite pestering on our part, one of the mechanics took pity and helped us to install (read: installed) the hose. By four-thirty we were broke, back on the road and, snarled in the traffic which snailed along painfully.
Eventually, however, we parked and tumbled out into the lots. Chris and Bill had missions to attend to. Jamey wanted to go in to see the opening act, Dwight Yoakam. We all decided to meet at the seats and I set out with Mike to simply wander around and check things out.
We split a soda as the 90+ degree heat and generous sun blared down upon us. Coming from Virginia & through the city, we’d parked on the north side of the stadium in the paved lots which offered little relief from the afternoon swelter. I, having never been to RFK before, tagged along with Mike; absorbing everything. I found myself astounded by the scene. A large movable party right here in my town. We walked about and I saw jugglers, vendors selling anything of any value and many things of none at all. I was also amazed that, despite the swarms of people all around, my general crowd-phobia never even tingled. Mike bought a bracelet for his girlfriend (not much money left after fixing the car) and we paused a bit to kick some footbag with some friends.
By the time we got inside the stadium I felt as high as a kite but had not ingested a thing. Yoakam had finished his set and we found Jamey sitting in his seat with his mom and brother. The rest of our crew filtered in by showtime. Jamey and Bill noted the stage setup, commenting that they hadn’t seen a stadium show since Brent had died and weren’t certain where the band members would be standing. I had not heard about Bruce Hornsby playing in the band and; when he came out, I started hopping up and down giddily, no longer caring what anyone thought.
The opening notes of Cold Rain & Snow rang out, sending the audience into a roar. I beamed. This was a song I’d hoped for, as their first album held a slot in high rotation on my record player. The crowd began pouring through the gates and onto the field. Folks seeking more dancing space began folding and piling up the chairs which had been setup on the grass. No one could remember chairs being setup in any of the years prior and it seemed to have been a foolish idea to put them out. (The chairs didn’t show up ever again at an RFK Dead show.)
Someone in our group suggested that we join the herds pouring onto the field and I nodded, smiled and went along. We made our way towards the field and as we reached the lowest section of seats, we saw that the gates were now blocked by security types. Folks were no longer simply flowing past so we decided on a different route to the floor: over the rail.
At the lowermost seats we found a waist-high rail and a five foot drop. Piece of cake aside from the six-foot-five, two-hundred-twenty pound event staffer on the other side. I balked as my friends jumped, dodged, and ran into the crowd. Not to be left alone, I took a breath, climbed, and jumped only to feel the rather strong left arm of the event staff stopping my forward progress. Just as I was preparing to surrender he lunged to his right and I slipped him and into the crowd where my friends waited.
We moved forward until we were just ahead of the soundboard in front of Phil Lesh and made ourselves at home. The first set turned out to be a rocker with a Jack-A-Roe, Big River, Tennessee Jed, and Black Throated Wind. Every bit of it dazzled and enthralled me. Songs I’d never heard (Wang Dang Doodle) seemed so familiar to me that my feet and hands knew just which way to step and swing. I danced, twirled and, jumped with joy.
When Row Jimmy set in I grew an even bigger grin. I knew the song from Wake Of The Flood but this was different. What I knew as a bouncy, mid-tempo ballad had been swung out and slowed down to a river-flow tempo. The harmonies and solos washed over the stadium and enraptured the audience. The bleachers bounced a slow loping gait as the dancers seemed locked together in groupminded unison. Jerry’s solo carried forth now as a midi-flute echoing in my ears as time became fluid and stretched out before and behind me.
When the song came to a close, I could’ve gone home right then a happy young man. But not for a million dollars would I have left. Having listened to the band for several years you could have called me a Grateful Dead fan that morning. But that night, I became a Dead Head. And the evening wasn’t even over yet. They closed the first set with The Music Never Stopped (the irony of which never ceases to amuse me) and returned after a lengthy break.
Set Two began with a bang and did not let up for a minute. Help > Slipknot! > Franklin’s Tower floored me. The live power of such music already so potent on LP drilled into my head. I even heard Jerry mess up the lyrics to Franklin’s (not the first nor the last time he did that, of course) and felt pleased with myself for knowing so well what was going on despite my newbie status.
Estimated Prophet came next and I got spun by the convoluted rhythms and intertwining bass and guitar lines. Those guitars and keyboards twisted together right on into Dark Star! I knew this to be a treat and I got my dance on, savoring every note. Everyone was happy and sharing what they had and following the band into space. The Drums/Space segment had me furthur amazed as this was not something I’d really heard on the records (even on Dead Set they didn’t begin to capture it). Space gave way to a touching Stella Blue which ended as Bobby tore into a rousing Lovelight closer. I was groovin’. The whole place was rockin’. When they wrapped that up, I could’ve gone for another five hours.
But there would only be one more song that night. The band returned for their encore and killed me by performing Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. This number played the whole dynamic spectrum from whisper soft to wailing peaks. And then, it truly was over. We regrouped, headed out to the car and drifted slowly home.
My folks asked me the next day how I’d liked the concert and I smiled and told them that it was excellent. Behind that smile and simple response, the truth was that it was one of the greatest nights of my young life and would drive future events for many years to come.
Grateful Dead 1991-06-14 RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C. Set One: Cold Rain And Snow, Wang Dang Doodle, Jack-A-Roe, Big River > Maggie's Farm, Row Jimmy, Black Throated Wind, Tennessee Jed, The Music Never Stopped Set Two: Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower, Estimated Prophet, Dark Star > Drums > Space > Stella Blue > Turn On Your Lovelight Encore: It's All Over Now, Baby Blue