Oct 19, 2021

October 27-30, 1973: Indianapolis to St. Louis

ON THE ROAD WITH THE GRATEFUL DEAD

Maybe your friends have told you; maybe you've seen it pasted across a car bumper. Maybe you've found out for yourself by now. There is Nothing Like a Grateful Dead Concert.
Not, at least, if you are thinking in terms of the other concerts you have attended. The Dead do not put on a show. More accurately, a show simply happens when they are in town. When you attend a Grateful Dead concert, you experience an already complete phenomenon. In fact, if you are willing, you can become a functioning part of it, a living, quivering piece of the Grateful Dead.
To say that the Grateful Dead is a state of mind is certainly not the whole truth, but it is a part of the truth. Or to say, as I have heard it said, that the Grateful Dead simply is the truth is too ambiguous, but again it is a significant statement.
What I am trying to indicate is that the Dead mystique is a very real and important trend. Growing numbers of young people are designating themselves Dead Heads, and an increasing volume of print is being devoted to defining the phenomenon. And as I join the cast of writers that have tried to get the Dead down in newsprint, I find that it is nearly impossible to understand, and harder yet, to describe what it is about them that is so compelling.
Yet this is exactly what I propose to do. The only way that I can even attempt it is to give a piecemeal, perhaps impressionistic, account of my experience over the past week. Last Saturday I went to Indianapolis for a Dead concert, and I caught two more in St. Louis Monday and Tuesday. I met a lot of people both backstage and in the audiences, and it is these people who tell the story.
This article doesn't purport to be anything other than my own experience. That is all that I can honestly write. So take it with a grain of salt, or swallow it whole if you like. I am an unabashed Dead Head. 

* * * 

The story begins arbitrarily. A new album, Wake of the Flood, the first release on the newly-formed Grateful Dead Records, was available in Champaign October 15. The next day I carried it with me all over campus. 
Gala stops by the DI [Daily Illini] office to complain about a humor article that made light of astrology. I have never laid eyes on this crazy woman before, but I find myself sympathizing with her argument. She notices the Dead album in my clutches and exclaims, "Ooooo, the Grateful Dead are witches. None that sees them fails to succumb to them." "Succumb," I say, "is not the precise term."
But Gala, you were perceptive. They do have a serious effect on people. A lot of folks have been struck very deeply by them. If only I had the lyrics to the new album, maybe I could explicate it. It does seem that it leads in a particular direction; it almost tells a story.
The trouble is that they are not definite. Like all poetry, the language that they use is myth and symbol. No matter how synchronized the lyrics seem, they must remain ambivalent.
 
Flash ahead to St. Louis. "Jerry, it seems to me that the Dead are striving to lead us somewhere." The funny round head, hidden from the nose down by the coarse black beard, is nodding vigorously. I am sitting with the man who has been called the spokesman for a generation - my generation. "Well, what I want to know is, to be blunt...where?" The head-shaking stops and two T-shirted shoulders raise in a shrug. "I don't know. I don't know any more than you."

Taken as a whole the Dead lyrics do seem to be concerned with several recurrent themes. Gambling and gamblers play an essential role in the Grateful Dead world ("Jack Straw," "Me and My Uncle," "The Loser"). Traveling or running is another persistent motif ("Truckin," "Beat It on Down the Line," "Friend of the Devil"). Always death and the changes it brings are major concerns ("He's Gone," "Black Peter," "Cassidy"). Also the apocalyptic imagery is strong. Throughout the songs one is struck repeatedly by the thought that a terrible moment is coming, and that it will be followed by arrival in a new age of fertility and beauty. Perhaps "Ripple" is a thesis statement.
"Let it be known, there is a fountain,
that was not made, by the hands of men,
There is a road, no simple highway,
between the dawn and the dark of night.
And if you go, none may follow.
That path was made for your steps alone."
These varying motifs are part of what defines the Grateful Dead experience. They are motifs that also run very deeply through our own collective experience, both as humans and as Americans. "Me and My Uncle," a song not composed by the Dead, is an excellent example of the way that they utilize myth and symbol. Set in the Old Wild West, the song tells of a gambler who helps his uncle cheat some other cowboys at poker Then after the two of them ride off, he kills the older man, and rides to Mexico with the gold. The song rings true to us now because we can feel this kind of trend in our own lives and memories. The Wild West was a point in time and space that remains important to our present national character.
 
Flash to St. Louis. On Tuesday afternoon I am standing beneath the great arch, the Gateway to the West. Next to the many-styled St. Louis skyline it seems anachronistic. And yet I feel a great thrill to be standing on the banks of the Mississippi, another powerful American symbol, and looking westward, where a fortune could be made and lost in one day. West, where you couldn't trust your blood brother. The godforsaken promised land. And all symbolized by a river and a manmade monument.

Not only lyrics work in terms of symbol. Everything about the Grateful Dead is designed to give the audience free opportunity to make their own associations. The name Grateful Dead is a perfect example. It is pregnant with possible meaning; it is anything but explicit. Each person must make his own associations, and each person does so in his unconscious mind. The name was culled initially from a collection of ballads by the original ethno-musicologist, Francis Child. "The Grateful Dead" was one of ten categories of songs, and the songs under this heading were about ghosts who returned from the grave to conduct unfinished business. Altogether, a thoroughly mythical matter.
 
In the Dead Book: A Social History of the Grateful Dead, Hank Harrison takes us back to the day in Phil Lesh's house in Palo Alto when Jerry Garcia first ran across the words in a 1912 Oxford Dictionary. "His eyes fell upon the words Grateful Dead. There was a long silence... 'What do you think of this one Phil...THE GRATEFUL DEAD!' Phil fell off his seat in giddy rails of laughter; it had the right ring, something for everybody, an infinite array of association, Egyptian, Gothic, Mystic."

That is precise. "An infinite array." The artwork on the album covers, the lighting in concert, the musical forms. But the amazing thing is that the multitude [of] associations all seem to fit together in some kind of complicated pattern.
My friend Peggy is a design major who is amazed by the coordination of the visual effect. "Ask him," she said when she heard that I'd be talking to Garcia, "if there is some person who is in charge of all the design. Perhaps an agency or studio." "No," Jerry said, "there is no overall director. Everyone just does his job, and it generally comes out synchronized. That is the beautiful thing."
The Grateful Dead is a family that includes not only band members, but business people, sound and light people, the art people, and perhaps the audiences. Backstage the atmosphere is totally relaxed. Two long tables accommodate all the food and drink that will be consumed. The people all mill around, taking care of their jobs and talking to each other. In three days I hardly saw anything that might be called anger, or bitterness, or even bad disposition.
Not that there is no enthusiasm backstage. By the end of the second night in St. Louis, when the band had started to crank up to their closing tunes and it was clear that everything had come off well, the people got into a partying mood that matched the sincerity, if not the frenzy, of the audience. All around the people crowded into the spots where they could get a view of the band between the piles of amplifiers and speakers. I positioned myself to watch Jerry as he played a new riff to "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad," and found myself dancing with Kathleen, a girl from Sky-High Productions, the group that staged the show. "I'm so happy," she said, squeezing my arm. 

Shift to Indianapolis. I arrive early, but have two tickets to sell. It is raining hard at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, and by the time I've reached the door of the Coliseum, I am thoroughly wet. It is soon apparent that there are many more people with extra tickets than those with none. So pacing and shivering, and accosting likely buyers, I recall my friend Ed. One day he had hitched out of central Iowa in the midst of a blizzard at two o'clock hoping to make a seven o'clock Dead concert in Chicago. And he didn't have a ticket. Nobody thought that he would make it, but he returned with a ticket stub, and claiming that we had missed an amazing concert.
Finally I sold one ticket and decided to take the loss on the other one. I entered the Coliseum just as the Dead swung into "Promised Land," an old Chuck Berry tune. It is a good opening number for them, because while it's up-tempo rock-and-roll, it doesn't have the driving, repeatable refrain that marks their closers.
In any case the audience is loosened up a little. There are no reserved seats. In fact, on the padded floor, there are no seats at all. The floor is packed tight at the stage end, so I find a place farther back. For the most part I will be moving around anyway.
The Dead pause for a lengthy moment, presumably to decide on a song and an arrangement. The audience is impatient and around me I hear some early criticism. Finally they sway into a Garcia number, "Sugaree." Later they will play a series of three songs for nearly an hour without a stop. And all together they will play 24 songs in the course of a four-and-a-half hour show. "Sugaree" was worth the wait. Jerry appears to be in top form tonight, fast and innovative. His leads in the breaks seem new and exciting. There is no question of the Dead equalling the excellence of their albums. Live they generate a higher level of technique and excitement.
Next is the Bob Weir standard, "Mexicali Blues." On piano Keith Godschaux keeps up the boogie-woogie rhythm. From the audience all that is visible of Godschaux is a tangle of flowing red hair hunched over the keyboard. When the lighting changes the reflection off the Steinway makes the hair glow.
Weir may be a little tired. This is already the end of their second week on tour in the Midwest. But Bobby's characteristic mannerisms are still intact. With a little shake of his head his hair falls back away from his eyes. He emits a quiet whoop at the end of a verse, and lifts his right leg off the stage to give emphasis to a particular chord.
"Mexicali Blues" is seemingly sung by a man contemplating his own depravity.
"Is there anything a man don't stand to lose,
When the devil wants to take it all away?"
Like most questions that the Dead pose, this one is never answered. Instead, Jerry immediately falls into the slow descending run that begins the "Loser." It is the first slow, soul-searching song of the evening, and, in a way, it answers the previous tune.
"All that I am asking for is ten gold dollars
And I can pay you back with one good hand."
Garcia's weird controlled voice is convincing. I can close my eyes and picture the desperate gambler who has lost every cent he ever owned over a card table, but is still itching for that inside straight that will make him rich.
"I got no chance of losing this time.
No, I got no chance of losing this time."
To my right a tall skinny girl in a long green dress is swaying slightly to the easy rhythm. She passes me a bottle of wine. She appears to be the prototypical Dead Head. I can see that Garcia's melancholy lead is affecting her desperately. And the wailing guitar pitches are bounding around the inside walls of my head too.
When the song is over we begin to talk. Her name is Mariah.
"I've just been in Mexico for four months. Haven't seen the Dead since June."
"Are you from Indianapolis?"
"No, Philly. I just got here today to visit some friends, and they had already bought me a ticket. Four days on a bus from Guatemala. And I've got to head East again in the morning."
It is Weir's turn. He sings "Black Throated Wind," a slow tune about a hitchhiker on an interstate in the wind and rushing traffic. Towards the end of the tune, Donna Godschaux comes out on stage, her first appearance. Phil Lesh doubles over his enormous bass in a playful bow as she crosses in front of him. Donna is very pregnant ("Six months. We're expecting the baby in January some time."), and the crowd applauds her appearance. In white maternity dress she seems more than a little out of place on stage. She makes a self-mocking effort at dancing, but is obviously burdened.
But when they reach the chorus, and her throaty voice joins Weir's, it is clear that she is still strong. Bob and Donna make a vocal team that is every bit as perfected as Tammy Wynette and George Jones or Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens. Donna has been singing with the Dead for slightly more than a year now. Her voice was the perfect addition, filling out the upper end of the harmonies.
"And I'm out of money now," Mariah says. "But that's really not a problem. I'm only happy that I got to this concert. It makes that bus ride worthwhile. Have you ever ridden on a Mexican bus?"
"I can't say that I have."
"Don't, unless you're headed to a Dead concert, but even then you should get an early start. Mexicans have no sense of urgency."
Next the Dead swung into an up-tempo country tune, that is not on record, but must have been called "They Love Each Other." Through the mist of the colored light on stage I could make out the silk-screened Grateful Dead design on the backdrop. It is [the] Grim Reaper, facing away from the cloudy, turbulent waters - asking to be followed. The design was not there to promote Wake of the Flood; it was there because it belonged there. Just as my hand had found Mariah's waistline, just as she turned to face me, a young Hoosier kid intervened.
"Do you think they'll play 'Casey Jones?"
"Could be," I smiled, "but probably nearer to the end of the concert."
"Oh, well how 'bout 'Sugar Magnolia'?"
I split to look for our photographers, first making sure that my new-found Dead Head would not change places.
I was worried that I was missing my story. I wanted interviews arranged, I wanted people to take me aside and explain things to me, and I wanted the photographers to get the pictures that they wanted.
Earlier Rock Scully, black-bearded, energetic road manager for the Dead, had taken me aside. "Everything is pretty loose and you'll be with us for three days. If you stay cool you'll get whatever you want." Now I was unsure as I talked with a similarly uptight college journalist from Indiana.
My counterpart said, "Rock told me I would get an interview with Garcia. But I don't like the looks of it. We were thinking we might crash their hotel tonight - if there's a party or something."
The set culminated with a nice "China Cat Sunflower" and "I Know You Rider" with an unexceptional transition. The transition, in fact, was a disappointment, because the shifts from one tune to another are one of the hallmarks of the Grateful Dead genius. They require the utmost ability from each of the band members. Garcia can be incredible as he transforms one melody line into another, but without Weir flashing through his practiced chord changes, without Kreutzman breaking down and rebuilding the rhythmic structure, without everyone's careful and insightful support, the change would never come off smoothly.
It was hard to tell why it missed Saturday night. Maybe it came off too smoothly, like not enough chances were taken. The excitement failed to build for "I Know You Rider," a driving bass-pedaled traditional tune. After the four-part harmony conclusion, Weir announced the usual short break.
 
Flash to St. Louis. After the first concert in St. Louis I went with some friends of mine from Iowa to a motel room in some suburb or another. Four of us, registered as two, and the heat couldn't be turned off so we turned the air-conditioner on. And the TV. All night movies, and memories, and visions. After a thankfully short flick about an acting police dog, a Western came on. A cowboy gunman was hired to find a prospector's brother who was lost in Mexico. But I fell asleep on the floor before he ever crossed the Rio Grande. 

The second set began with Jerry and Bob again alternating songs. They came out determined and they were extremely tight. The crowd perked up again and rocked through "Bertha," "Bobby McGee," and "Tennessee Jed." Then they led into an apparent river medley with "Playing in the Band." "Playing in the Band" is perhaps their tightest song musically. The complicated interplay of themes is finally supported by a rousing lyrical vocal that sounds almost self-congratulatory. It is a tune to celebrate by. This version was shortened and they went right into "Mississippi Halfstep Uptown Toodeloo," which is about a boy whose father left him on the day he was born. It ends with a slow but pretty refrain.
Across the Rio-Grandio,
A-cross the lady river."
Apparently the kid has split himself, in search of his father, and thereby, his identity. Without pausing they flashed into "Big River," a fast tumultuous song that unfortunately has never been released on record, although they have been playing it for at least two years. Finally they spaced out the rock and roll beat and somehow, amazingly returned to "Playing in the Band."
The Mississippi, the Rio Grande. Rivers are another significant Dead image. Possibly the reason lies in the nature of the waterways. Perhaps it's because they lead somewhere. In St. Louis Jerry was talking about the future. "I don't know. We roll like a river. We just ride out the course, and if we are headed in a particular direction, then it's irreversible anyway."
 
Another flash to St. Louis. Outside Keil Auditorium in a park Tuesday waiting for the final show. All around people are accumulating. Most of those that show up at noon for a seven o'clock [show] are genuine Dead Heads. A carload from Tennessee with the license plate JED share our bottle of wine, and a guy from Long Island showed up with a tape of Monday night's concert. A handsome, young, but decidedly down-and-out man stopped by. "I just signed with a barge to New Orleans, but they won't advance me any cash. You got some change for a meal?" I suggested that he pawn his watch, but he told me it had been a present from his ma. Later I was sorry that I hadn't bought him a bowl of chili. 

When the Dead started into "He's Gone" I found Mariah again. "You've returned," she said. We shared an orange, and she told me about the UFO that she had seen at the Dead concert in Washington D.C. last June. "It just settled down over the Stadium and took in the concert for about a half hour. It was during 'Dark Star.'" Later Michael, from Iowa, would tell me about a dream his brother had had. "He was at a Dead concert and a UFO came down. The Dead unzipped their skins, revealing that they were actually fish people. Then they disappeared, and the flying saucer flew off, beeping a horn as it left." Later yet I repeated the dream to Jerry, and he laughed, saying that it was a conceivable eventuality.
"He's Gone" became "Truckin" became "The Other One." It was a beautiful sequence that was equalled in intensity by a similar series Monday night. The second time they started right into "Truckin," and finished with "The Other One" and "Wharf Rat." Both nights these sequences provided the highlight of the concert.
I left Mariah at the close of "The Other One." It was a sorrowful parting considering we had met less than three hours previously. Her head was ringing with Dead images just as mine was. And though we'd never met before, and aren't likely to again, we both felt like we knew each other well by the end. There was something magical about the way our lives had crossed.
During "Sugar Magnolia" I worked my way backstage. In the lobby I passed a young kid wearing a Leon Russell shirt. "Sugar Magnolia" closed with its usual double ending. The Coliseum went dark and Weir mumbled his thanks to the audience.
Immediately the entire audience lit up matches and clamored for more music. "Casey Jones," "Saturday Night," "Johnny B. Goode." The entire crowd was screaming out their favorite rockers. But the Dead did a surprising thing. They stepped back up on stage and played "Uncle John's Band," a slower, more subtle song with symbolic lyrics revolving around a musical image. They even jammed on the melody for a while before finishing up.
Altogether it was a low-key, but interesting ending. In St. Louis I asked Jerry about it, and as usual his answer was enigmatic.
"We've finished with weirder things than 'Uncle John's Band' before. It's simply a matter of playing what is right at the moment. And that is mainly determined by what's happening on stage. In other words, we just do what we want to."
"Surely you must cater to the audience to a slight degree at least. Why, for instance, do you close so often with 'Casey Jones'?"
"We hope that the audience will like what happens naturally, but it all starts on stage. Sure a lot of people come only to hear 'Casey Jones,' but there are others that come only for 'Dark Star.' We play what seems right at the moment. All the decisions are made on stage." 

The second night in St. Louis they did play "Dark Star," a song that is considered by many to be their most complex and interesting. Like most of their spacy jams the success of "Dark Star" depends both on innovative individual work as well as group dynamics. Garcia's guitar is outright exciting as it produces ominous, foreboding tones. Kreutzman's drumming is perfect both in accompaniment, and as a lead instrument. Lesh, Weir, and Garcia all turn inward and face Kreutzman during the crucial segments. The stage is crossed by white spots that seem to create stark contrasts on stage. The four in the center of the stage seem suspended. Kreutzman's face particularly appears to have been moulded from clay. The mustache is almost too tidy.
Sitting on the floor about twenty rows back, I am looking up at the immense ceiling. It is a pale blue shade, stirring up within me visions of the infinite. The sky. The night. The abyss. If a UFO had access to this space, surely this is the appropriate time for it to appear.
The Dead move right into "Stella Blue" from "Dark Star." The lights turn blue with a tinge of red from a side spot. Garcia plays through the understated chord changes, and the yearning melancholy of the song captures the audience.
And for my part, I seem to be arriving at an understanding. The musical is magical. I would be perfectly content to float forever underneath the expansive ceiling. No external force could move me to break the beauty of the moment. Not hunger, not fatigue, not even an itch on my ankle. The very air is magic. It is the medium that transmits this music to my ears. I can see it. I can see colored specks of Grateful Dead air. If I had some kind of sealable container, I would scoop up a quantity of it. I would take it home and set it on my dresser.
"Dust off those rusty strings just one more time
Gonna make 'em shine."
Or maybe I could fill a gas canister full of it so that I could breathe it in whenever I chose to. So that all the spaces in my head would be filled with vibrant Dead air. I guess that would make me a bona-fide Dead Head. Maybe all Dead Heads live and breathe in Dead air. Maybe it's simply a matter of wanting to. Yes, I can visualize Mariah riding north on a Mexican bus, alive in a Dead world.
The shift from "Stella Blue" to "Eyes of the World" is amazing. "Eyes" is built on a Latin bossa-nova progression. I can't even remember how it was accomplished, except again the lights strike me. Red and purple flow together in an explosive blend. And traces of the rest of the spectrum. The whole scene is self-contained, complete. Only it is a fragile totality - like a soap bubble. It could pop in a second or fade in an hour. I am insecure about it like I am about a pleasant dream that I can feel escaping.
Finally the sound dies, leaving only Weir's guitar. He is fingerpicking through the Old English Prelude to "Weather Report Suite." "Suite" is the perfect conclusion to this hour and a quarter of continuous music. By itself it is almost a musical odyssey, but placed at the end of a series it completes the cycle. In Part II of 'Suite' the tune changes to a lyrical Mexican theme, and ends finally with the loud assertion that, "I am. I am. I am."
It is the snake biting his own tail. It is the great mandala. It is the picture, the symbol for that which is whole. 

This is the point. The Grateful Dead have been developing a collective personality over the last ten years. They have undergone multiple changes and experiences since that day in Palo Alto when Jerry hit upon the name. The Trips Festivals with Kesey's Pranksters, the busts, the deaths, the ripoffs. They have suffered and they have succeeded. They have been vilified as false prophets, and honored as "signposts to a new age."
This much is certain. The Grateful Dead are the only remaining remnant of the visionaries who migrated to San Francisco in the last half of the Sixties. They are the last of the bands that arose in those optimistic days. And long after every sensible commentator has declared the era to be dead, the Dead are only now achieving full recognition.
As a band they are more together musically than ever before. As a business unit they are beginning to come into their own. And as a family with a common dream they have never been so large nor as tightly knit.
Carl Jung introduced the term "individuation" to a non-grateful world. He meant that every person must go through the life cycle and eventually arrive at an identity. Individuation is the process of becoming oneself. The Grateful Dead have individuated as a band, and now their lyrical, musical, and visual symbolism indicates that they have arrived at their identity. Naturally that identity is not something that can be stated in precise language. I asked Jerry if he could try to put his finger on it.
"No, I don't even try anymore. If it can be done at all, then it's up to the writers to try. We just are what we are, and we are very happy about it. I will say this. For us there is no Grateful Dead. I mean, we can't go to a Grateful Dead concert. It's only something that we are collectively. It's not enough to say that it is art. It is, but it's more than that too."
After "Weather Report Suite" the concert ends quickly. "Goin' Down the Road," "Johnny B. Goode" in fast succession, and "One More Saturday Night" as an encore. The crowd is reluctant to let them go, and so am I.
The thought crosses my mind - they are playing in Evanston Thursday. But my return ride to Champaign is waiting. My Grateful Dead trip is temporarily over.
 
Flash ahead to the eventual perpetual Grateful Dead concert. Mariah is by my side. Michael, Peggy, even Gala are there. Jerry, Bob, Phil, Keith and Donna have no intention of moving on.
"Come hear Uncle John's Band
Play into the tide.
Come with me or go alone,
He's come to take his children home."


(by Dani Ruby, from the Daily Illini, November 3, 1973)
 
 

2 comments:

  1. The Daily Illini was the student newspaper at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Dani Ruby went to three Dead shows in October '73 and wrote a lengthy piece for the paper, one of the best Dead articles of the year. He doesn't say when he'd become a fan, but obviously he's very familiar with their albums, he's seen them before, and he studies their lyrics closely for themes & meanings.
    Overall, he tries to explain the significance of the Dead & the experience of their shows & why people become such devoted fans. As an account of the tour it's chronologically a little jumbled, but he gives some close descriptions of these shows (mostly 10/27 & the second set of 10/30), along with some details of the other fans and the backstage scene. There's a brief interview with Garcia, which isn't used very much. (Maybe he couldn't talk for long, though I can see how Ruby's earnest meaning-of-the-Dead line of questioning might have bored Garcia.)
    Many interesting points here, but I'll just mention one of my favorite bits, the fan visions of UFOs descending on Dead concerts. Garcia, of course, says it could happen.

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  2. Dead Sources will resume in January.

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