Thursday, April 22, 2010

Grateful Dead Concert Cringe

Marty in 1994 sporting a baja hoodie. All set.

Marty cringes that I have been to a Grateful Dead concert and he has not. He spent his college years enjoying the mellow sounds of The Dead, but had put off getting to a show. The untimely death of Jerry Garcia in August 1995 made the experience impossible. Poor Marty had Dead tickets in hand for Madison Square Garden dated September 1995. Sigh. On July 16, 1994, at the age of twenty-two, I was more familiar with Cherry Garcia ice cream than with the musical genius icon named Jerry Garcia. But there I was at RFK stadium in the throngs, almost accidentally.

On that summer morning, my friend and roommate, Karen, was expecting an ex- boyfriend and his buddies. They were driving through the night from Boston to Washington, D.C. to see the Grateful Dead. They had extra tickets for us. Did I want to go? An afternoon with potentially cute guys? Sure. Why not?

A foursome showed up at 9:30a.m. in a real hurry. And they weren’t particularly cute. Karen and I were whisked into their Pathfinder without time to grab a bottle of water or sunscreen. The ten-hour tailgate waited.

Have you ever been to a treeless field in Washington D.C. in July? It is soupy. We were hardly early. We rolled up to a car/truck shanty village, inhabited by followers who had set up camp for the previous shows and lingered. The air in that field smelled like body odor, pot, cigarettes, gasoline, and patchouli oil. We parked next to a middle-aged man splayed out, sleeping on the dry grass, with his head dangerously close to the rusty muffler pipe of his van.

I knew at a little after ten o’clock, that it was going to be a very long day. My combination of heredity and life experience left me unfit for the role of joyful Grateful Dead follower. I’ll explain. I was born to a woman with a host of sensory issues. I have come to realize that these sensitivities are encoded in my DNA, and I too suffer variations on them. My mother, Pam, is overly aware of smells and temperature. She is incapable of participating in an activity like camping, or camping's younger cousin, tailgating. I have no special childhood campfire memories. Pam would never be subject to sleeping in a tent, with heat, insect, and intermittently- bathed (stinky) campers in her radius. She sprints from the assault of body odor in a public place. She refused to do business at the local bank in my hometown because she sensed the carpet was musty. On a recent visit with her, she became obsessed with a foul odor of unknown origin in her kitchen, and took to throwing straight ammonia all over the place, hoping to rid the smell. Forget camping. Pam will not even watch a movie that she thinks may have “rough terrain” settings. This includes any war, jungle, or prison movie. The Grateful Dead RFK tailgate affair would definitely qualify as “rough terrain.” Pam would be running, screaming, and scaling fences to escape.

I am not a fan of bad smells and humidity (who is?), but my primary sensory issue involves an intolerance to loud, live music. I know this to be a family trait, because I have witnessed my mother’s Italian relatives at weddings sitting at their tables (which are always unluckily close to the band) with their hands clapped over their ears and excruciating looks on their faces. So I have this genetic defect. It makes me a very infrequent concertgoer.

But there I was. The Boston boys began to set up camp.

One guy, Tom, jumped out of the car and immediately stuffed his face into a Ziploc bag full of mushrooms.

“I’m GOIN’ SOLO,” he exclaimed, smacking his friends’ hands in a high-five salute, and venturing off into the Birkenstock-clad crowd.

We baked in the sun. Hot, skin-blistering sun. The humidity felt like wet blankets. The creases of knees cried. Karen and I took to walking around, trying to create a breeze. The beers got warm. People-watching lost allure above ninety-five degrees. Finally, the sun receded and we filtered into the stadium for the show. Tom was still goin’ solo. The rest of us found our seats and the guys in our group were delighted by each song, racing to scribble down the titles in a memo pad.

“CHINA CAT!....I knew it! I knew it!” Yup, knew it.” Apparently, the song list is a surprise each concert, and predicting the ones Jerry will belt out is great fun.

It was still so hot. And loud. Too loud. I had the sensation of someone sticking a knitting needle in my ear and moving it around. To the untrained Dead ear, every song sounded similar and uncomfortable.

And then someone jumps. From the upper deck. A hallucinating wackjob thinks he can fly and lands on several people about ten rows in front of us. There are screams and commotion. Security guards rush down, followed by emergency workers. Three people are carted away in neck braces on stretchers. I now feel nauseous. My minor fears of heights and crowds have been updated to include a fear of a human being or other large object falling randomly from the sky. Once the injured are out of the way, the crowd returns to happy swaying. Karen and I head for the air-conditioned car. She tells her ex-boyfriend that we will wait there until the concert ends. He looks annoyed. He has clearly wasted good tickets on us. Somewhere up in Jersey, a twenty-two-year-old Marty Ryan (who I haven’t met yet) would have loved that ticket. He’s probably cringing when he reads this, thinking of us idling in the cool car, as the concert lifts the spirits of masses inside.

Long after the concert has ended, Tom is a no-show. He is still goin’ solo, and may never find us for his ride home. I fear that he may be dead. Maybe he was the guy who jumped! An hour or so later, he shows up, exuberant, ranting like a wild man about his amazing GOIN’ SOLO experience. Karen and I are impatient, and not impressed.

“Get in the car!” usually mild-mannered Karen screams at him. I am certain Karen yells this frequently now, in the same frustrated distress, as she attempts to get her daughters to school in the mornings up in Boston.

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  1. Ha! I can't imagine a place you belong less! I on the otherhand loved the show had a great goin solo experience where I danced with Jesus...Sorry Marty....

  2. Very original take on a Grateful Dead Concert!

  3. so funny Tracey. and for some reason I can't picture either of you rockin' out at a dead show.

  4. Ummm, it's Thursday, I need my fix of the weekly cringe, what's the hold up???!!! :o)

  5. OK now I have been introduced to "The Dead"- nope never had the honor

    Again I'm all smiles---Thanks

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