A Day at a Dead Show
Six years after Jerry Garcia's death and the disbandment of the Grateful Dead, I still miss the fun of seeing the band live. A Dead show was so much more than the actual concert, though. The Parking Lot Scene had to be experienced to be believed. Come with me now...
It's 11 A.M., and I'm glad you got here early! The show doesn't start until 8 tonight, but we need to get on the road so we can get a good spot in the lot. Let's pile six people into my brother's Ford Explorer and head on up to Alpine Valley. On the way, we'll see lots of vans, Volkswagen beetles, and '70s cars with plates from across the country - covered with Deadhead stickers! "Fat Man Rocks On Tour," "Bound To Cover Just A Little More Ground," "The Phil Zone," "Weir Everywhere" "Garcia Later," "We Will Survive," "Peace Through Music" and various combinations of dancing bears, skeletons, turtles, and the Dead's skull and roses logos adorn almost every car. If we're lucky, we'll pass one of the famous painted buses like "Terrapin Trailways."
All right, it's 1:30, we've made it into the Green Lot, and the party is just beginning. A virtual village has sprung up overnight. The cars are from everywhere. We're parked next to a Land Rover with Minnesota plates, and this being Wisconsin, there are many plates from Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana; but in front of us is a VW bus from Maine. Walk between the cars and you'll see Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Missouri, even a few intrepid travelers from California and Oregon. Many cars fly flags for easy indentification; tie-dye ones with peace signs, mushrooms, and bears are popular, but you'll see the American, Mexican, and Irish flags too.
There is a wide mix of dress styles in this lot. Many people simply wear tie-dye T-shirts and jeans, or old show shirts like the ones for sale, but others really "dress the part." The women wear sleveless dresses with high waists and very wide skirts, all the better to spin with. Native American-inspired tops are very popular, as are hemp clothes. (If this were a winter show, you would see a huge variety of heavy woven South American sweaters.)
Music blares from every car speaker. Very few people play the studio CD's; almost everyone is listening to tapes of old Dead shows. The Dead allowed audience taping, you know. I can hear "Black Peter" playing to the left, "Scarlet Begonias" to the right, a Drumz from 1977 in front of me, and is that Santana I hear behind me? Sounds familiar, but maybe it's Widespread Panic. A person with a guitar is trying to sing "Ripple," pal, you're no Jerry Garcia! We decide to listen to one of my brother's show tapes and soon "Jack Straw" joins the mix.
Dogs are everywhere. There goes a man walking a beautiful purebred Golden Retriever, while a lab mix sleeps under a tent. A Boston Terrier is trying to steal food. Still others run loose in the lot. How they manage to find their owners again, I don't know. A woman steps out of a bus and calls "Casey Jones! Here, Casey Jones!" and six dogs come running.
Everything and anything is for sale in this lot, including food. The people in the car next to us (the VW van with the Florida plates) are making tofu sloppy joes and selling them; I pass on that but trade some Diet Coke for a kind veggie burrito, greeting the sellers with a "Hey Now." Other fans are cooking and selling felafel, Lucky Charms treats, grilled cheese, and hamburgers. Many are selling beer and pop out of coolers in the back of their trucks.
I then go to look for T-shirts; the official Liquid Blue designs are always popular, as are handmade tie-dyes, but there are lots of "illegal" ones, too. These usually involve a cartoon character from the general popular culture with a quote from a Dead song. Calvin and Hobbes is very popular now, as were Ren and Stimpy just a few years ago. This one has Calvin & Hobbes dancing wildly, with the caption "Heads all empty and they don't care!" (a quote from "Sugar Magnolia"). Here's Hobbes sleeping in a parody of the "Cats Under the Stars" logo. Here's Bart Simpson with dreadlocks; here's Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown with "That's right, the women ARE smarter!" Dr. Seuss is also very popular; this shirt has a variety of Seuss characters and the caption "Don't tell me this town ain't got no heart." I decide to get that one and walk back to the car, passing several vans in which people are selling jewelry, handmade pipes, dream catchers, and concert pictures.
I guess at this point I should address the drug issue. Yes, there are drugs in the lot. People smoke marijuana; people sell hash brownies and "ganja goo-goo balls" (laced peanut butter balls). "Nitrous balloons" (balloons filled with nitrous oxide) are for sale. Magic Mushrooms are consumed. Presumably, people sell and use hallucinogens as well. But not everyone does it. Some people just want to enjoy the day
It's amazing how peaceful this little community is. There are no fights. In ten years of attending Dead and Dead-related shows, I never saw one fight in the parking lot. People have few inhibitions, just walking up to strangers and starting conversations. Often this ends with an exchange of addresses for tape trading or a ride to the next show.
Over in a shaded grove of trees, the drum circle has started. People have brought talking drums, djembes, congas, bongos, claves, rainsticks, shakers, whistles and bells, and some just come to dance. I head over with my bongos, but soon get caught up in the dancing and chanting. The drummers all are wondering the same thing:wouldn't it be great if Billy and Mickey came out to join the circle?
Back at the car, one of you is asleep. Two others are playing frisbee with the neighbors in the van with the Georgia plates. A rather lost-looking Deadhead is walking through the crowd shouting, "Nathan from Michigan, where are you?" Someone else has struck up a conversation with a new friend, who is on tour all the way from Massachusetts. They're discussing what songs they think will be in tonight's setlist. "We're about due for a Bertha opener." "I hope they do Wharf Rat, they haven't done that since Buckeye Lake." "I'll be happy just as long as they do ChinaRider." "You think tonight's the night we finally get a Saint Stephen?"
All this, and we're still three hours from when the gates open! What could happen next? Wait, who's that big guy with the grey beard over there buying a Liquid Blue "How Sweet It Is" shirt? Could it be? No! it couldn't be...really?
Six hours later, we leave the arena, walking back to the car with the crowd. Everyone is hugging and asking "Did you have a good show?" "Did you catch those Phil bombs during Space?" "Man, that was a great Scarlet/Fire, wasn't it?" "Have you seen Joe? I lost him in the intermission." "Who was throwing those marshmallows?" "I think I saw God during Drumz." "Could you believe how the crowd cheered when the moon rose?" The drum circle, a little smaller than before, has started back up. Someone has set up an Indian teepee; our friends from Massachusetts have decided to leave that night and drive halfway to the next show in St. Louis. Nobody wants to leave, though, and as we drive out of the lot and head back to Chicago, we look just one more time for someone with a dancing bear license plate holder, waving as we pass them...
The Grateful Dead may be no more, but the parking lot scene (albeit a little smaller in scope) continues at shows by the Other Ones, Phil Lesh and Friends, Phish, Widespread Panic, the David Grisman Quintet, and any other band that Deadheads enjoy. Have a good show!
(c) 2001, Becky Banfield, for Dos Gardenias Productions