Memories of life on tour, plus the truth about that legendary Santa Cruz Acid Test
As the Grateful Dead play their Northern California farewell shows at Levi’s Stadium this week, it’s clear that there are as many different reasons Deadheads loved the band as there are Deadheads.
There were plenty of people who treated shows like athletic endurance competitions, as in “How many shows have you seen?” For others, it was about the shared transient community, the easy access to psychedelics and ecstatic dance. For me, it became about answering the three questions my father had told me were the only questions worth considering: First, where did we come from? Second, why are we here? And third, where are we going?
Turned On, Tuned In
Suburbia in New Jersey in the 1970s and ’80s might have been the most boring place on the planet to grow up. But one summer evening, while playing backyard basketball, the neighborhood weed merchant turned me on to the music of the Grateful Dead and to the pleasures of Nepalese hash-balls—he was a high-end guy. Thus began a 20-year journey chasing and sometimes finding the most mysterious band in the world.
The Grateful Dead were the adventures of Huck Finn, Buckaroo Bonzai and Tintin all rolled into one. The tie-dyed circus stood in stark contrast to the monochrome Pine Barrens of Reagan-era Jersey. Dead shows were a traveling caravan of characters that scanned like a Philip K. Dick novel on DMT. I was hooked.
When asked by the other kids in high school what the shows were like, I would say things like, “At times it was pure revelation, a revealing of layers behind layers of realities, the multiverse in all its complexities.” This might be why my teenage social life was wildly awkward.
But UCSC Grateful Dead archivist Nicholas Meriwether firmly endorses the idea that Dead shows had more going on than meets the eye and ear. “A lot of Deadheads were on a quest for transcendence,” says Meriwether. “The Grateful Dead used old-fashioned human ritual, elective ritual and communal music making.”
Political anarchist Hakim Bey theorized about a social construct where there is a nonhierarchical system of social relationships. He called these uncommon environments “temporary autonomous zones.” According to Meriwether, this is exactly what was happening at Dead shows.
“There is a constellation of ways that we describe ritual, certain kinds of performance, music, improvisation, and a variety of things that socket together,” says Meriwether. “The amazing ability of the Dead is to fuse all of these separate things and make it accessible to a popular audience. The Dead were not exclusive. Anyone could participate in it.”
Not since the Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece have that many thousands of people entered a transformative zone through dance and music. “They managed to continue to court the muse and create that kind of magic even when they were playing a 60,000-person stadium, which is extremely difficult,” Meriwether says.
Everyone else who was playing 60,000-seat arenas in the ’80s, from Madonna to Pink Floyd, had their shows choreographed down to the microsecond—every spotlight, every song transition, everything. “That, in part, is a response to the kind of pressure, the kind of money, the kind of stage fright that kind of show creates,” Meriwether explains. Phrased that way, the Dead deserve enormous credit for just being able to walk out in front of a sea of people and try to make it new every night. Nobody else in rock ’n’ roll did that, but the Dead did it every night—or failed gloriously trying.
Living on Tour
Traveling to Dead shows was fraught with peril. Situations tended to get hairy on tour. And it was in those extreme moments that a person’s mettle was tested. It was a coming-of-age experience that lasted generations. When society doesn’t offer ritual to its youth, they will create their own, and, at times, Grateful Dead shows were like Lord of the Flies on Molly. Other times it was more sublime.
My mom thought I had joined a cult. In her mind, I preferred traveling to see a middle-aged Mexican dude play guitar than hang out with her. My vegetarian diet, dreadlocks, VW vans and tour girlfriends did nothing to ease her worry.
I loved the adventure of traveling around the country with an ill-formed misfit posse. Gas wasn’t as gouging at the pump as it is today. Back then, I could travel across the country and back with just two balls of hemp string and a bag of African beads as my only means of support. One tour, I only made anklets. I would sell them for $10, or $15 installed. I wasn’t getting rich like the tie-dye and Guatemalan merchants, but it was enough to get to the next show.
Everyone called us hippies, but I thought the entire experience was totally punk rock. All of the anti-stagemanship of the performers, the anti-trappings of the culture, the band’s refusal to substitute hype and flash for substance, Jerry Garcia’s complete refusal to be a leader. It all seemed to fly in the face of what I heard hippies were supposed to be about. Amongst the throng, there were at least 50 Shades of Deadheads, but one thing that drew us all along was the music.
Acid Test Revisited
For every Deadhead who was there to raise their consciousness and have a wonderfully healthy spiritual time, there were also those there just for the party. That goes all the way back to the Acid Tests. Originally, the pranksters thought that LSD would be good for all people. Then, they encountered genuine psychotic people who should not be taking LSD at all.
Legend has it that the first Acid Test took place in Santa Cruz at “The Spread.” Novelist and prankster Ken Babbs now lives in Oregon, where the intrepid traveler is writing his memoirs—and Babbs’ account differs from the acknowledged history. This is from a short essay Babbs wrote for this story:
“It wasn’t really an Acid Test, per se. We hadn’t started doing them yet. It was a Halloween party. The Merry Band of Pranksters was actually a band, for we played instruments in a bizarre fashion, calling our music a form of nonverbal communication. I played the electric bass, Kesey the electric guitar, George Walker was on drums, Gretchin Fetchin on electric piano and Mike Hagen was also on guitar. We had the instruments set up on the living room of the house and went outside to commune with the moon and form an Om circle, holding hands and ommmming till we levitated a couple of feet off the ground. We settled back down and heard music coming from the house. We went in and saw that the band called The Warlocks were playing our instruments and singing through our microphones. We dug it a bit and then slowly moved in and started taking over.”
As the night progressed, the conversation got heady:
“Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady were there that night. Very late, we lay on the floor holding microphones and rapping long nonsensical poetical free jazz that morphed into deep religiosos when we started talking about meeting on the other side and if we believed in it or not. Cassady, the Catholic, said, ‘Doggone, dogma, dog man.’ Kesey, the Baptist, said, ‘Want to fervently believe.’ Babbs, the delayer, said, ‘Won’t know till we get there.’ George Walker, putting it off, said, ‘How about it Allen, what’s the Buddhist take?’ Ginsberg didn’t hesitate. ‘There was a chicken on the side of the road who saw another chicken on the other side. ‘How do I get to the other side?’ he yelled. The other chicken yelled back, ‘You are on the other side.’”
I asked Babbs what happened next. “Dawn crested on the eastern ridge and everyone packed up and went home, leaving not too bad a mess, only a three-day job,” he says.
So beyond the party, the lot and even the drugs, what was it all about? There was a feeling many Deadheads had that something, well, extra-special was happening when the Dead with Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead, were playing.
Almost four decades later, I can honestly say that I learned almost everything I need to know at Grateful Dead shows. Does it answer the three questions my pops told me I need to always ponder? Perhaps. It’s still evolving, but here’s what I got:
1. Where do we come from? As near as I can figure, we are GMOs whose originators/scientists/farmers/gods are purposely obscured.
2. Why are we here? The only reason we are on this planet is to help each other and keep ourselves entertained until the originators show up again.
3. Where are we going? This one’s easy. Space. But before that, drums.