“Sometimes the light’s all shining on me…other times, I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me…”
The sound, just for a brief second, was clear and I could understand the words. It was as if someone had pulled cotton out of my ears, just a momentary blast that brought me closer to the surface.
“…What a long, strange trip it’s been” And with that the cotton seemed to get shoved back in and all I could hear was the deep throbbing bass that pounded through the concrete walls and directly into my slightly swooning head.
Don’t ask me how my parents ever agreed to this trip…but in their loving naïveté, they signed off on it and the rest was a hot mess. We got word early in the fall that the Grateful Dead would be playing the Iowa City Fieldhouse in the spring of ’71. Bruce and Doug, both tenth graders, represented two of my more mature friends and this concert was all they needed to make life worth living. Bruce had been a fan ever since he first heard Friend of the Devil. Doug was Bruce’s best friend and sidekick, so that made it his mission too. I was the kid a couple years behind them in school, but hip enough to have a decent record collection and a growing knowledge of who was who in the rock scene of the early seventies. I had, in fact, earned my stripes on a warm fall afternoon the previous September when I read the headline telling me that Jimi Hendrix had died and promptly rode my bike onto the field at the high school baseball practice and announced it to everyone. I was like a carrier pigeon with a vocabulary. While the coach didn’t much appreciate it, the boys on the team did. From that point forward, I had become an ally in the rebellion against adulthood.
It was a chilly Saturday morning in late March when Bruce and Doug finally pulled up in his 1967 Blue Ford Mustang, fondly known as Marvel. Hopping into the back seat, I joined another friend, Mike, an ancient senior and lead guitarist in the local rock band for which Bruce sang.
By the time we finished the two-hour trip to Iowa City it was time to grab a quick burger and find our lodging for the night. We had been granted floor space in the dorm of another Van Meter legend. Steve was an identical twin and I literally could not tell him from his brother Stan, until they went to college and Stan joined the ROTC. Steve was the older brother of a classmate, so I knew him too and it was with great pleasure that we dropped our sleeping bags off in his room and went our own way.
Now, I may have considered myself to be worldly in a rock-and-roll sort of way, but I was not worldly in the way of college life. So when the boys walked into a liquor store a few blocks from the dorm, it was the only time I’d ever been in one without my dad. He was a connoisseur, so I had full knowledge of how the system worked when he was doing the shopping. But with Mike and Bruce leading the way, I was puzzled to see that liquor stores carried anything on their shelves besides vodka. Before I could even be consulted, Mike, the only one of us old enough to buy anything was walking us out with a grocery bag full of various flavors de jour for our merry troop. I had been casually grandfathered in on the liquor order and as such was told I would be allowed to have small samples of whatever was available. By the time we bought some mixers and headed back to the dorm room, small scraps of snow were beginning to spit from the gray skies.
My whole job for the rest of the afternoon was to keep the ice bucket full and the munchies nearby. What each person was drinking is blurred now, but I remember lots of orange juice, vodka, schnapps and a very lonely bottle of cheap wine that soon became my dearest friend. After a couple of happy hours in a sterile dorm room, it was time to work our way through the increasingly cold gray afternoon. Bundled up in my heavy parka, complete with a snorkel hood, I was set to battle anything…that plus my blood had been thinned to a degree I’d never before experienced.
Seating at the Fieldhouse was broken into two sections. Reserved tickets were given wooden folding chairs on the floor in front of the stage all the way back to the scaffold risers where general admission tickets took over. The four of us had made it to the point where we would be dead center in front of the stage, only the length of a basketball court between musicians and us. I marveled at what must have been several fifteen-inch speakers in the gigantic PA cabinets. It was hard to tell because each speaker was covered in some fashion or another by a thin tie-dyed fabric. It gave a slightly inebriated eighth grader the notion that he was in the hall of rock gods. Bright, multicolored lights spotted the stage and the double drum set waiting for the night to begin. Huge Fender amps created a wall along the back of the concert space. Even at this early point of the evening, the stage was alive with an assortment of free spirits that looked like they had a purpose up there. Either tuning guitars, or plugging in microphones, or just sitting on the drummer’s throne, occasionally slapping the snare and looking important while doing it. In a time when it wasn’t uncommon for people to smoke in public, the stage was already starting to drift into a fog of sorts…and the place was only about half full. Many of the chairs in the reserved section were still empty. I had grown up with two smokers in the house for most of my thirteen years, so I was well acquainted with what that smelled and tasted like. I wasn’t familiar with the sweet, herbal smell that now greeted the growing crowd, but I had a pretty good idea it wasn’t coming from the Marlboro Man.
Eventually the crowd filled and the lights dimmed. I was smiling for no particular reason as Bruce, Doug, and Mike bounced to the beat. Bruce and Mike looked around as if they were waiting for something to happen nearby. The Fieldhouse was still cold enough that I kept my parka on as I started humming whatever song was being played as part of the pre-concert filler. When the lights finally went all the way down and the crowd got on its feet to welcome the band to the stage, what seemed like ten thousand lighters torched simultaneously. Some song I didn’t recognize at the time began the show and we were off. Within a couple of minutes I could see the guy three people to my left passing something to Mike. He took a hit and passed it along to Bruce. He took a hit and passed it over to Doug. He took a hit and passed it along to me. It was the first time I’d ever really seen a joint. It wasn’t beautifully crafted but its sweet smell made me wonder what it would be like. I looked back at the boys, who were motioning me to get on with it and send it back their way. Having been an avid cigarette smoker for all of one week in sixth grade, I felt like I knew what to do. I stuck in my lips and pulled hard expecting the same guilty pleasure I had felt when I smoked Kools back then. When the smoke got about half way down my windpipe, it did an abrupt about-face and came gasping back out my mouth and nose in a burning cough. I handed the joint back to Doug who worked it back down the line to its owner. My eyes were now running as if I’d been kicked squarely in the berries. No matter how much smoke came wheezing out, half of it seemed to get sucked back in when I tried to catch my breath. My ears had taken on a ringing that was colliding with the guys on the stage who were too late in warning me about the evils of Panama Red. It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered The New Riders of the Purple Sage had preceded the Dead on the stage. Was I ever getting a hands-on education about purple sage.
Eventually the coughing subsided, but didn’t go away completely. I would be caught off guard and hack up a puff from my freshly singed lungs. The ringing in my head grew worse and had evidently awakened the contents of my stomach. Bruce got up to go to the bathroom and I decided I needed to go along as well. I wasn’t sure why he felt he needed to hold onto my coat, but hold on he did. We walked about a hundred feet toward the edge of the risers when my brain rolled over and made me walk it again. In front of me, I could see the men’s room only a few feet away, but in my mind I was still a good forty feet behind my body. Something had kicked in and that outlaw Panama Red was about to steal my head. I’m pretty sure I got my pants zipped up before we left the men’s room, but I was no longer in control, so it’s all pretty much speculation.
By the time Bruce had my body half way back to our seats, I could feel the conversation in my stomach now turning into an intense argument. I stood at the corner of the bleachers, Bruce patiently standing beside me, and gazed across what used to be the reserved section. Things didn’t look the same and I didn’t trust my own reality anymore. Where there once were rows and rows of neatly lined up folding chairs filled with fans, there was now a wasteland of openness filled with hippies and smoke. Around the floor, I could see four or five small dark mountains. The folding chairs had been unceremoniously removed and clumsily stacked. The whole concert had apparently become general admission as people were now pouring out of the bleachers onto the floor to get closer to the stage. Bruce was about to join them when I made a U-turn and grabbed the nearby trashcan with both hands. The day came rushing back at me in a Technicolor yawn. My knees buckled and my nose was now running with whatever hadn’t made it past my teeth. Bruce looked at me and looked at the stage. He paused, reached for me and helped me sit down next to the bin.
“Stay here,” he said. “You’ll be alright. I’ll be back to check on you in a couple of minutes.”
Any reference to time was pointless, because in my mind, I was just leaving the bathroom and hadn’t yet made it to the trashcan. I had no idea what he was talking about. I just knew that wherever I was, was the perfect place to sleep. As I wiped my nose and mouth and pulled the furry snorkel up over my head, I distinctly heard a voice saying, “Man, I feel just like that guy looks.” I felt pity in my heart for the guy being pointed out.
I thought I was asleep, but I’m pretty sure it was a different form of unconsciousness. I could feel people shuffling by, occasionally tripping over my outstretched feet. A blast of song would penetrate the hood on my parka and I’d wonder why the stereo was up so loud. Suddenly I was brought out of my miserable slumber by a gruff voice with strong hands…four of them.
“Come on buddy, let’s get you out of here.” I opened my eyes to see not my returning caregivers, but two largish gentlemen in official looking uniforms. Something registered in my cloudy mind that this might not be a good thing. They pulled me to my feet and set me off on a path I was clearheaded enough to believe would be prison for life. I had no words or strength to do anything other than be their “buddy” and do what they did. To my surprise, I was not hauled outside to a squad car but taken through a door where the bright lights were enough to start me on a second path toward sickness. Before I could give that much thought, a cup of water was placed in my hands with the command to drink it. My rugged friends herded me toward an examination table and bid me goodbye.
“Stay here, buddy. They’ll take care of you.” Seems like I’d heard that before and I was wondering if I was now stuck in a nightmare. A man with glasses and a light blue shirt with some symbols on it quickly scurried up to me and put his hand on my forehead while simultaneously pulling my left eyelid up and shining a flashlight at me.
“OK, pal…whatta ya on tonight? Uppers? Weed? Acid? Do you remember what you been taking?” He seemed sincere and priestly, so I thought I could confess to him.
“Boones Farm?” I replied.
“Boones Farm?” He echoed.
“Yep… Boones Farm… Strawberry Hill… I think.” I tried to squint my eyes but the light and his thumb was moving between them too fast for me to outmaneuver him.
“You mean you’re just drunk?” He asked sounding terribly disappointed.
“I am?” I returned his question with my own.
“You are!” He switched off the light and released the current eyelid. “Why don’t you finish your water and just lay down over on that cot?” He politely suggested.
And sleep I did. As mentioned at the beginning, I would occasionally get an aural glimpse into the greatness of the Dead live and in concert. But these were short-lived and more interruption than pleasure to my suffering head. It was later in the night that Bruce, Doug, and Mike finally found me. Not where they expected to, of course. In fact they let me know that they had gone all the way back to the dorm in hopes I had found my way there. They retraced their steps to the Fieldhouse and finally asked security about some kid wearing a puke-stained parka that had been parked by the trashcan near the bleachers. The particular officer in this case had seen the cops haul someone of that description out in handcuffs earlier. Maybe they should check downtown. Thankfully for me, they checked the first-aid room prior to the jailhouse.
As I grew older, my love for the music of the Grateful Dead only got stronger…to the point where I have a recording of my then five-year-old son singing Friend of the Devil. I regret that I only heard bits and pieces of their concert, but I still have a great deal of fondness for what a long strange trip it’s been.