still dead, part two

Still Dead After All These Years
Part 2 of 2: The Thereafter

The longer we wandered through the tent city, the more comfortable I felt. It was a community with a few well-understood, unspoken precepts: music matters, do whatever you want, states-altered-of-consciousness-yes, be nice to everybody, and purchase a Grateful Dead T-shirt.

We passed a woman with traditional 60s hippie garb–circus ringmaster-type gear combined with accessories your great-grandmother would have worn. She was walking through the crowd with one finger in the air, which announced her desire for one concert ticket. A ring-laden hand carried a sign that read, “I am waiting for my birthday miracle.” As we stood in line to go in, one of the many T-shirt sellers was exhorting the crowd and holding up his wares. “Green eggs and ham T-shirts!” Another man held a sign that simply read, “Free sexual acts.” I realized then the survival value of  my little “Baked, Not Fried” promise. Many others less protected had shot straight into the fried category.

Inside, huge tie-dyed banners festooned the periphery of the stadium. Dennis had the presence of mind to steer us out the 95-degree heat and into the zone where the seats were shaded. We looked down on thousands of deadheads crammed onto the stadium floor, and then across at thousands more on the opposite side. Stitched together, the acres of tie-dyed cloth we were seeing could have dressed a 600-foot-tall flower child. Dozens of colored balloons bounced gaily through the crowds. It was hard to imagine primitive games of football taking place in this same location. Helmet-headed muscle-boys tackling each other–it was too horrible to think about.

Like everyone else, we had arrived hours early, but it didn’t matter. Dennis and I needed time to psychically adjust to the 25-year time differential. It produced a strange kind of jet lag that made me feel both younger and fossilized at the same time. The people sitting around us seemed to have always been there–encased forever in a twilight zone Dead space.

The concert began mid-afternoon. First the Indigo Girls, then the living legends, still Dead, plowed through a number of familiar tunes, a few new ones, and some covers. But that wasn’t where most of my attention was. I was watching the guy down the row from us with the hand-crank soap-bubble machine. The faster he cranked, the more little bubbles poured out and wafted through the crowd, each reflecting the sun in  a sheen of color. I also watched the people sitting close to us who carried in their hands freshly plucked sunflowers on three foot stalks. They brandished the flowers meaningfully as if they were potent symbols that spoke volumes to those who looked into them, and perhaps they did. I appreciated a man walking down an aisle wearing a plastic cone-head. And the guy in front of us who held a colored scarf up in front of his face, just to watch it flap in the breeze, just to see the patterns move, just to experience the awesome reality of it as the Dead provided a soundtrack.

Beside the stage was an area set aside for the Left Stagers. These are the stalwarts who dance for hours without stopping: waving their arms and spinning in berserk ecstasy. Plugged into a cosmic source, their energy never fades. When the Dead did the obligatory space-music portion of the show, the dancers found it hard to move in time with random spurts of noise, but they did their best. Some gave up, but several met this challenge by striking a single dramatic pose and holding it as long as possible.

For the legions of deadsters, the band could do no wrong. Whether the group was taking a break off stage or Jerry Garcia was knocking off one of his trademark guitar riffs, it didn’t really matter. It was all an exercise in being there. And when the music ended late that afternoon, there was a gradual realization that it was time to be somewhere else. The caravan would slowly dissolve and reappear at the next venue.

After we’d taken a final quick walk through the sideshow outside, Dennis and I found a trail by a river that led back toward our car. It was an idyllic scene–clumps of people in paisley and velvet strolling beside the rolling water. A barefoot woman wearing a long dress approached us from the direction of a remodeled school bus parked among the trees. She was carrying a box full of foil-wrapped falafel sandwiches for sale. I let her pass by till I suddenly realized the opportunity I was missing. I ran back and purchased a sandwich, still warm from the stove on board their bus. I held it and savored big bites of  nostalgia as the time trick ended and we reentered the 90s.

Where had I been all those intervening years? Between youth and middle age? Between being there and being here? I once read that the 90s are just the 60s standing on their head. So all I needed to do is turn over? I pondered these and other questions as I fingered my cardboard talisman and started up the riverbank toward the car.

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