Writer’s Note: It has been four long years since the remaining members of the Grateful Dead reunited to serve up their diverse, intricate style of improvisational music that fueled a culture and ideology of life during the 1960s. While the world has changed drastically since the cultural revolution of the 60s. The spirit of the scene driven by the music of the counter-cultural rock n roll band can still be seen living on in the hearts of Dead Heads everywhere. This could best be seen in April, when the band, now known as The Dead, reunited for the first time since 2004. I had the good fortune to catch four shows during the band’s month-long reunion tour, and I hope that through my own experiences, people will be able to see why there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.
It’s a 45-minute train ride into Manhattan the next day. Hawaii left for Ohio earlier that morning, and I was preparing to meet Rosalie and few other friends in the city before the boys took the stage at the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. There would be no backstage pass tonight and possibly no ticket at all, if I am not able to scalp one to the sold out show.
I arrive around 4:30 p.m. quickly finding my way onto the bustling city streets. My phone dies on the train, so I have no way of contacting Rosalie to find out where she and the others are located. I walk around the front of the venue signaling for a ticket, which entails holding one finger up to let people with extras know that you are looking for a ticket, while I keep my eye out for Rosalie.
After one failed attempt at buying a ticket off some shady characters, I finally run into my friends, Trey and Lee. They inform me that Rosalie is somewhere looking for tickets, and soon she appears out of the crowd with a surprised look on her face to see that I had found them amidst the chaotic crowd.
I find that only Trey has managed to scrounge up an extra, leaving us less than three hours to find three tickets amongst thousands of others Heads, who are also on a mission to obtain the same right of entry. Yes, we were certainly going to need a miracle, if we were going to pull this one off. We walk the perimeter of the building, where hippies litter the Manhattan streets figuring our best chance to achieve our miracle is to catch someone walking in.
A stocky middle aged man with slick, greased back hair, pink pants, and a shiny shirt (I am thinking this was his first Dead show), asks Rosalie if she needs a ticket. She jumps at the offer, purchasing it off him at face value, $100. After, we don’t know whether to laugh at the guy or praise him. We hear his daughter ask him if he is actually wearing the outfit to the show. Either way, it is certainly a sign that Jerry is looking down on us tonight.
With two tickets down and two to go, we walk around the streets, eventually meeting up with some of our friends from back home who are also looking for tickets. I decide that if for some reason I am not able to get in, I could at least rest easy knowing that the experience I had the previous night topped any other experience I would ever have. Or at least that is the impression I am under.
After two hours of roaming around the streets outside MSG, we have failed to get any closer to our goal of finding the coveted tickets. The streets become more and more hectic, as Heads make their way out of the pubs and over to the arena. We decide to try our luck across the street, where the Heads are entering from hoping that one of them will hold our miracle. We cut down a busy side street, fingers waving high. A middle aged man yells out to me, “How much is a ticket worth to you?” I say, “$100.” He agrees to my offer, and just like that I am in!
While I now have my ticket grasped firmly in hand, Lee is still the only one without a ticket. Rosalie and I are getting antsy. Show time approaches, and the prospect that Lee isn’t going to find a ticket starts to become more of a reality.
Showtime is nearly 10 minutes away when we finally decide to head in after deliberate buying two tickets off some shady character and selling the other. Just as we step into the street to cross over to the arena, a man appears beside us asking Lee if he needs a ticket.
“How much,” Lee asks.
“$100,” the man answers.
“Sold!” he says.
And just like that we’re in!
Showtime is quickly approaching so we hustle over to the arena’s entrance, hitting a wall of Heads harder to penetrate than the Gates of Hell. We eventually make it through the crowd, flashing our tickets, dashing up the a few flights of stairs, grabbing fistfulls of beers, and making our way into the arena just before the band launches into its opener, “Cosmic Charlie”.
We find four seats tosgether, which lasts through the opener before their owners appear to claim them. Finding ourselves forced into the stairway, we head down to the rail along the isle where a row of other Heads have congregated. It is interesting to me, because I have always heard how strict MSG shows are, but there doesn’t seem to be any order on this night. The only event staff present are the ones serving beer.
We dance along the isle for the remainder of the first set. The band drives through such Garcia classics as, “China Cat Sunflower”, “Shakedown Street”, and “Ship of Fools” and, “He’s Gone” before capping-off the first set with, “Cassidy” and, “Sugaree.”
As the set comes to a close, we exit back into the arena’s winding corridor searching for our friends from home, who have congregated at the Wharf Rat (a group of Heads that travel to concerts and choose to live their life’s drug free) booth. We watch our friend, Sam, who is recovering from heroin addiction, take part in one of the group’s rituals that involves passing a yellow balloon around to each Head who then announces how many days they have been sober.
Sam announces his more than one year of sobriety to the crowd, and we start hooting and hollering in support of our clean friend. While the scene can more often than not be a beautiful, loving collection of souls, we often forget the repercussions that drugs and alcohol can have on some of our brothers and sisters. We, of course, are far from model citizens, as we stand there high as kites. But it is nice to know that for our friends who have not been so lucky to escape the prison of addiction have a place to turn for support.
Our group has now swelled to more than 10 people, so we decide to head up the mezzanine to see if we can all find seats together. We settle on a spot directly behind the stage. I am skeptical at first, even though I have read that over the years some Heads believe the best spot to hear the music is from behind the stage.
The set is a powerful collection of Dead classics that include, “The Other One”, “Born Cross-Eyed”, “St. Stephen” into, “The Eleven” and, “Uncle John’s Band”.
While the set list is everything we could asked for, what may have made the experience of seeing a Dead show at MSG even more exciting than just being there had to be the energy that coursed through the venue. Jerry always said there was no place like MSG in terms of energy, and boy is he proven right. The lights cascade over the crowd revealing a sea of bodies flailing below, as the band charges out of, “Unbroken Chain” and into the Rolling Stone classic, “Give me Shelter”.
The band closes the show with an electric, “One More Saturday Night” that almost brings the building down and encores with the beautiful, “Broken Down Palace”.
We exit our seats in sheer disbelief over the show.
“Man I wish it didn’t have to end!” Rosalie screeches in excitement.
Outside, the energy from the crowd spills over into the streets of New York. We mingle below the towering sky line above meeting with friends and rapping about the unforgettable show.
We spend sometime huffing nitrous balloons in a parking garage, before we are cut off by a security guard who kicks out the dealer, who had only paid him off until midnight. Back outside MSG, the police have had enough of the colorful crowd and begin to force us off the arena’s concourse. I say farewell to my friends and make my way into Penn Station to catch the train back to Long Island.
The day has worn me down. I fight to stay awake on the 45 minute train ride back to my friend’s house. Heads of all ages are strewn about the rickety cable car. Some are talking, some are sleeping, and some are just plain passed out. While those of us aboard the train patiently await the arrival back to our ordinary, everyday lives, all of us share one common bond that brought us together on this night, the music of the Grateful Dead.