Remembering my first Grateful Dead concert on the eve of my last.

I’m reflecting on the eve of a trip up to Boston to see what will most likely be the last time I will see the original members (really just Bob Weir and Mickey Hart) of the Grateful Dead play together. I’ve been seeing this band off and on over the years and have been to almost 50 shows. It’s been quite I ride and I realized I never blogged about “my first show.”

It was my freshman year at Occidental College in Los Angeles. I took a road trip up North to San Francisco with four classmates in February of 1985. Mary was from the Bay Area and and offered to show us around. I was new to California so eager to explore Northern California.

We visited Berkeley and walked Telegraph Avenue hitting up book shops, Himalayan boutiques, record stores and cafes. I picked up an East Bay Express and saw that The Grateful Dead were playing a concert that evening in Oakland. I had no idea how to get tickets or anything so just went with the brilliant idea to ask the first person I saw in a tie-dyed t-shirt. It didn’t take long.

Random stroke of good luck because the guy we asked said he had two tickets and that he’d give them to us “at cost” because he was “burnt out from last night’s concert.” We bought the pair for $30 and Alison and I decided to go together to check it out while Mary went off to do something else.

The show was at the Kaiser Convention Center a mid-sized public auditorium built in 1914 near Lake Merritt in Oakland. I’m not sure how Alison and I got from Berkeley to the Kaiser, it might have been on the BART or maybe Mary dropped us off in her car. It’s hard to make out on the ticket but I think it says that the concert started at 8pm and remember wanting to get there before then.

Ticket stub, General Admission, $15

The Grateful Dead were not that popular in 1985. This was before Touch of Grey, their big hit that brought in the stadium crowds. I remember the scene being very laid back and people being really friendly. We wandered in and walked right up to the front rail, just a few feet from the stage. I was surprised at how empty it was, people were milling around in loose groups, chatting with each other. The last concert I went to was Oingo Boingo at the Universal Amphitheater in LA and this was a totally different scene.

I’m not sure when the band finally came on stage but when they did, I remember everyone commenting on Jerry Garcia’s red t-shirt for the Chinese New Year. He had always worn black t-shirts and I thought it funny that this switch to red was such a momentous occasion.

I was not familiar with any of the songs but was entranced with the way the band members communicated with each other as they played. Being so close, you could see them nod and wink amongst themselves as they shifted from one part of a song to the next, a secret conversation for those in the know.

The music progressed though a number of songs that told stories about cowboys and drifters but it wasn’t until the set closer, China Cat Sunflower segued into I Know You Rider that I understood why this band was so compelling. The interplay that I saw earlier was more focused as the individual band members fused into a unit, completely in sync, driving each other, and those around us, like an unstoppable train trundling down a track.

During the set break, Alison and I got to know the people around us. Everyone was so nice and seemed genuinely happy to see us, two starry-eyed novices, just happy to be there, soaking it all in.

When the lights went down for the second set, the drummers started going right into a thumping rendition of Samson and Delilah and Bob Weir played a gospel preacher to his flock. Jerry slowed thing down with a beautiful rendition of his soulful tale of forgiveness, He’s Gone and towards the end of the song, the sound guy started messing with Jerry’s voice, throwing it back and forth from left to right and back again. Bobby then snarled his way into the old Howlin’ Wolf song Spoonful and I was again, entranced as to how skillfully the band was able to weave one song into the next and transform themselves with each transition. It was less a series of songs and more a multi-act play.

I still didn’t recognize any of the songs but when the band settled into the bubbly textures of Eyes of the World I finally latched on to a melody I recognized. My dad had a copy of Wake of the Flood that he played from time to time so I recognized this tune and its refrain.

Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world
The heart has it’s beaches, it’s homeland and thoughts of it’s own
Wake now, discover that you are the song that the morning brings
But the heart has it’s seasons, it’s evenings and songs of it’s own

Eyes of the World

It was during Eyes of the World that, feeling peckish, I took an apple out of my backpack and started to munch on it. I distinctly recall looking up at Jerry, noodling his way through one of his riffs, staring down his nose through his glasses like a wise old man, he just looked straight at me and broke into a grin.

Eyes blended into a Goin’ Down the Road, Feelin’ Bad which everyone sung together before the drummers took over and shifted over to a large marimba behind the stage and a long fretboard that I would later learn was called The Beam. The jungle sound of the marimba was fed through a echo delay and started swirling around the room again, this time more rapidly, not only left to right but also front and back to the point where you could almost see the notes swirling around the room. When Mickey Hart started to play the deep ripples of darkness from The Beam, all I could think of was the scenes of napalm dropped at dawn during Apocalypse Now. I later learned that this instrument was used on the movie’s soundtrack.

I’m pretty sure when the other members of the band came back out for “Space” I thought they were just taking a long time tuning up their instruments. The notes from China Doll emerged out of the fog and the musicians slowly resolved themselves back into a band. Brent threw himself at his keyboard like a man possessed during the next number, Baby What You Want Me To Do. Spit was flying and the Hammond B3 and its Leslie was in full, warbling bloom.

The second set finished with Sugar Magnolia and we got to watch Bobby make full use of the whammy bar on his guitar, jumping back and forth and flipping his hair back and lighting up the crowd and playing to his adoring fans.

Alison and I gathered our things and started to think about how to get back to Mary’s place in Marin. I had no concept of how mass transit was laid out in the Bay Area. Natives know how ridiculous I must have sounded when I turned to the friends we had made earlier and asked at 11:30 pm, “Which BART train can get us to Marin?”

Mass transit in the Bay Area is spotty, especially late at night. It’s non-existent if you need to get over to Marin, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. BART doesn’t go there and this was before Uber & Lyft and taxis were out of the question. You need to hop two bridges to make it back to Marin, it’s at least a 40-minute drive.

In hindsight I realize how extremely lucky we were when our friend turned to us and replied, “There’s no BART to Marin but I’m driving over there, where do you need to go?” It was at that point that I realized we didn’t really get an address from Mary. All we could remember was that they lived in a development called “Enchanted Knoll” which sounded ridiculous as soon as I uttered it. This was the before cell phone times so there was no referencing Google Maps or even texting Mary to ask.

Lucky again, our friend replied matter-of-factually, “Oh yeah, I know where that is.” We hopped into the back of her car and at 1 am or so we were skipping up the driveway of Mary’s parent’s house.

Every time I look back on this concert and how the stars aligned to get me there (and back) that night, I learn something new that makes it even more special. Remember the guy in the tie-dyed t-shirt that sold us the tickets because he was burnt out from the night before? Turns out this was the first concert of the year. The last time the band played was on New Year’s Eve!

Postscript: Many years later I found out that Joseph Campbell was in the audience the night of my first show. Here’s how the famed professor of comparative mythology described what he experienced.

I had a marvelous experience two nights ago. I was invited to a rock concert. I’d never seen one. This was a big hall in Berkeley and the rock group were the Grateful Dead, whose name, by the way, is from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. And these are very sophisticated boys. This was news to me.

Rock Music has never seemed that interesting to me. It’s very simple and the beat is the same old thing. But when you see a room with 8000 young people for five hours going through it to the beat of these boys … The genius of these musicians- these three guitars and two wild drummers in the back… The central guitar, Bob Weir, just controls this crowd and when you see 8000 kids all going up in the air together… Listen, this is powerful stuff! And what is it? The first thing I thought of was the Dionysian festivals, of course. This energy and these terrific instruments with electric things that zoom in… This is more than music. It turns something on in here (the heart?). And what it turns on is life energy. This is Dionysus talking through these kids. Now I’ve seen similar manifestations, but nothing as innocent as what I saw with this bunch. This was sheer innocence. And when the great beam of light would go over the crowd you’ d see these marvelous young faces in sheer rapture- for five hours ! Packed together like sardines! Eight thousand of them! Then there was an opening in the back with a series of panel windows and you look out and there’s a whole bunch in another hall, dancing crazy. This is a wonderful fervent loss of self in the larger self of a homogeneous community. This is what it is all about!

It reminded me of Russian Easter. Down in New York we have a big Russian Cathedral. You go there on Russian Easter at midnight and you hear Kristos anesti! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen! It’s almost as good as a rock concert. (laughter) It has the same kind of life feel. When I was in Mexico City at the Cathedral of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, there it was again. In India, in Puri, at the temple of the Jagannath- that means the lord of the Moving World- the same damn thing again. It doesn’t matter what the name of the God is, or whether its a rock group or a clergy. It’s somehow hitting that chord of realization of the unity of God in you all, that’s a terrific thing and it just blows the rest away.

Joseph Campbell and the Grateful Dead