June 18th, 1993 was the last night of my first first-ever Grateful Dead mini-tour, a low-budget three-show overly-naive goofy-smile romp through the heartland of American northeast Deadheadedness-ness that showed me a thing or nine about unbridled joy, introspective grooviness and sheer, unadulterated fun.
When Anne-Marie, Jojo and I pulled into Chicago I immediately got us lost. Just as I eased my hippied-out Toyota minivan onto a random off-ramp my eye caught a sign that read “South Chicago” and Jim Croce’s street-level advice immediately sprang from my lips.
The south side of Chicago is the baddest part of town…
But it was too late; I had already pulled off. I veered into a gas station to ask directions and the girl in the heavily-fortified bullet-proof cubicle had no idea how I could get to Soldier Field from there. As I was walking back to the van a tricked out SUV with impossibly tinted windows pulled up and three big black dudes got out, all jingling full of Mr. T jangle. Biggest dude looks at me in my home-made tie-dye, then over to AMS and Jojo in the van and then back over at me again, stopped dead in my tracks. He started walking straight at me. “You going to that Grateful Dead concert over at Soldier Field?” he said, almost sneering. He kept coming at me, not smiling a bit.
We had heard that there might be trouble at the show this evening. The Chicago Bulls were on the cusp of winning their basketball Stanley Cup thing and apparently when they had won in previous years their fans had rioted, destroying cars, businesses, and people. Like, when their team won. Anyway, we had heard that they were calling out the National Guard to surround the Grateful Dead parking lot to save the music fans from the sports fans. Crazy that it came to that sort of thing, but thanks goodness for the National Guard.
Except I wasn’t at the lot yet. I was lost in a barren concrete dystopia staring down bad bad Leroy Brown, who by this time had his sunglasses off and was almost right in front of me. “I asked you, are you going down to that Grateful Dead concert?”
“Um, yeah,” I responded, shrugging. “But we’re kinda lost…”
“Well shee-it!” he yelled, throwing his arms wide and gathering me into an irrepressible bear hug that squeezed me small. “We love you Deadheads up here’n Chicago!” That could have gone either way, but like pretty much every other twist of fate on this trip the coin toss had once again landed in our favour. If I remember right those guys got us to follow them back onto the freeway until we were within sight of the massive venue.
The equally massive parking lot was indeed ringed with National Guardsmen standing at one-hundred-foot intervals but I can’t recall for certain if we parked there or not. That is, I can recall with good clarity standing at the van after the show and ‘m pretty darn sure that was in the lot proper, except a) we had no money (literally) and we would certainly have balked at the lot if there was a fee to park (and I suspect there might have been) and b) I know know know know know for a fact that we spent our pre-show time in a small auxiliary lot right next to Soldier Field. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t part of the official lot – it might even have been unpaved – and I can’t see why we would’ve been there unless we had parked there. And so goes the temporal fluidity that generally accompanies the flickering, strobe-like nostalgia of a Grateful Dead ticket stub.
There was a Chicago police officer sitting on an ATV at the entrance of the small, makeshift lot who was just sitting there with a smile on his face as a thousand freaky people did all their freaky things out in the open all around him. Just as I was staring with admiration at this rare mirror-eyed hero a hippie-dude walked by and turned to the cop with a laugh and a yell, “Hey officer, you wanna buy some acid?!?!” All these years later it still makes me cringe when I remember how the guy emphasized the last word by drawing out the “a”: Wanna buy some aaaaaaaa-cid?
The cop gave his head an exasperated shake and got off his four-wheeler. “Now, why did you have to go and say that?” he asked the dude, with clear disappointment in his voice.
“No man, I was just kidding! I was just…”
“Put your hands behind your back…” the cop insisted, “You’re under arrest for trafficking.” Then he did that cop thing where he looks to the left and to the right as he cuffs the guy, muttering stuff like, “I was just sitting there letting everybody go about their business and you had to go and…” while the poor stupid dude kept pleading, “I was only kidding man, please don’t arrest me…” He arrested him.
Later I was sitting on the ground talking to a couple of people when a girl walked over and asked if any of us had a CB radio in our cars. Ah, the pre-cellphone days. “No, sorry,” I responded.
“Well, I really need to find someone with a CB radio,” she said, looking around. Then back at me: “Would you hold my snake for a few minutes while I keep looking.
Oh. I hadn’t noticed but she had a little snake wrapped around her wrist, like a baby boa constrictor or some such thing – what do I know – that was two, maybe two-and-a-half feet long. “Um, okay, sure,” I replied. I was so damn friendly back then. It was crazy just how knee-jerk agreeable I was. I took the snake and the girl ran off. Coincidence or not I don’t know, but the two people I had been talking to got up and left shortly after. And there I sat with a snake slowly coiling and recoiling itself very snakily around my arm. Now, I don’t have a phobia of snakes per se* but I’ve never liked them very much and the longer I sat there the more the snake started freaking me out. I soon wanted nothing more than to fling the critter away and run but this was someone’s pet and I agreed to watch it for her. I did everything I could to ignore the snake; meditative breathing exercises, emptying my mind, thinking of England, anything. But a snake writhing along your body is very, very difficult to ignore. It was certainly above my mindfulness abilities at the time.
Anyway, the girl eventually came back and retrieved her snake. I don’t recall if she ever found someone with a CB, but she probably has a cellphone by now anyway.
But what about the show you’re asking? Well I’m sorry but a Grateful Dead concert generally comes with a lot of accessories attached so these things tend to run long, okay? Anyway: I had a great time at the show. Being the The Police fan that I am I was of course very excited to hear another Sting opening set (he was opening most of the tour and we had seen him at our first Dead show a week earlier). Though he had the energy level dialled down a bit he delivered another good pile of music peppered with several songs from his former band and I loved it. Jerry even sat in for the last tune!
Then the Grateful Dead came on and thrilled us all, as they tended to do.
Soldier Field is big, man. Like 70,000+ big, and we were in the second-last row, dead centre. It felt like we were a mile from the band. Just as the second set got started with Box of Rain it started to pour down. From our vantage point on top of the world it looked like a wookie flood receding from the stage as thousand and thousands of people left the floor in search of dry seats with an overhang. We figured this was an excellent time to upgrade our seating so we raced down the stairs to the vast floor and salmon-ran our way towards the front. By the time the band launched into Iko Iko the rain had stopped, I had lost my companions, and I was in the sixth row.
Playing in the Band, Uncle John’s Band, Watchtower, Lovelight, it was all so very great. I always love Drums and I was very, very much up to the interior cranial challenge of Space too, so it was just an epic set from up there, in there, everywhere.
After the show I remained separated from Jojo and Anne-Marie and without a dollar in my pocket to buy a grilled cheese on Shakedown I made my way back to the van and sat on the bumper to wait for my friends.
Now, when I say we had no money I mean: we had all-but-none dollars and little cents. At this point I think we had maybe twelve bucks between us. One thing I remember for absolute certain: we didn’t have enough gas money to get us back across the border, and we were supposed to be driving back that very night.
So I was pondering that and the snake and the cop and that dude that got busted and the show and the universe and everything else as I sat on the bumper of my van. “Hey man,” someone said, breaking my reverie.
“Oh, hey man,” I answered. It was the guy parked next to us. “Nice necklace,” he said. I had been idly fingering a soapstone carving that was dangling around my neck. I had carved it on a long, intense day off from tour in a state park somewhere along the way and I had been trying to sell it ever since. Somewhere on my lifetime list of things to do was a line that read “sell something on Dead tour” and at this point in my life I still hadn’t. “Thanks! Do you want to buy it?” And you know that guy told me he was about to jump off tour and he always made a point of buying something in the lot and he hadn’t seen anything he liked yet and he really liked it and yeah! He gave me I think $15 for it. I may not recall exactly the dollar figure but I remember that once he drove away I started literally jumping up and down with joy. I was shaking my fists and hissing “Yes! Yes!” over and over again, oh I was so happy! I couldn’t wait for Anne-Marie and Jojo to get back and when they did I told them what had happened and that we now had enough money to get home and the three of us danced and danced in front of the van. God, what I would pay to see a video of us just then.
As it was, the Bulls lost that night (though they won their annual pennant or whatever a couple of nights later) but they cleared the lot in a hurry anyway. No matter, it had started to pour rain. It was so bad that I wanted to wait a while before trying to drive but when the man says clear the parking lot you clear the parking lot. Sucking fumes we found our way back onto some sort of intra-city highway and I remember being white-knuckled at the wheel trying to make sense of the thick river of rain pouring down onto the van. And then good old Jim Croce jumped in to save us! I started in with the first line quietly, leaning up towards the windshield and grinding my teeth. “The south side of Chicago is the baddest part of town…
“And if you go down there you better just beware…” Jojo and AMS jumped in together to join me, “…Of a man named a-Leroy Brown…”
We got louder and louder and laughier and laughier and it did wonders for our nerves. It made us so confident that when we came to an underpass that dipped down to become a huge car-eating puddle we bit our bottom lips, crossed or fingers and gunned it. We half-drove and half floated that tin box-like van past cars that were shored up on either side and you never heard a louder chorus than when our front tire hit solid pavement and pulled us up on the other side.
“And he’s bad (bad!) bad (bad!) Leroy Brown!!!” I’ll never, ever forget it.
I don’t now where we slept that night but it was probably back in Canada. I can tell you that even after selling my necklace we didn’t have near enough gas money to get back to Ottawa, not even to Toronto where we had lots of friends who could have helped. We ended up taking advantage of a rather tenuous connection: Jojo and I had met a guy named Felix in Thailand and he lived in…was it London, Ontario? Anyway, he had given us the address of his family’s campground. He wasn’t there when we pulled in but his dad was. He let us stay the night and gave us $20 taboot and we made it home just fine on that.
Ah, Dead tour…
*My dad had an insane – and I mean insane – phobia of snakes. It was probably the strongest phobia I’ve ever seen anyone ever have towards anything. He couldn’t even look at a photograph of a snake.
I feel like I’ve told this story before, but here goes: Despite countless threats to the contrary my dad never, ever hit me, not once. Except there was this one time, but I don’t think it should count at all. I was about nine years old and my dad and I were in a store together when I saw a box of rather realistic-looking rubber snakes. I was fully aware of his phobia but I didn’t fully grasp the extent of my father’s serpentine fear. I was about to find out. “Hey dad!” I cried holding the rubber snake out towards his turned back. He wheeled around to his smiling, whimsical son and when he saw the rubber snake he did several things simultaneously. In an instant he let out a yelp like an injured wolf that doubtlessly caused the entire store to turn in our direction, he also brought his left arm up to his face and buried his eyes in the crook of his elbow, and simultaneously his right arm – his thick, biceped truck-driving furniture-moving strong, strong right arm – shot straight out at me, his hand contracted into a thick, steely fist. His straight-arm punch (did I ever mention that my dad was a bona-fide barroom brawler? For realz, like Fight Club without the club) went right through his prey – the rubber snake – and continued into my chest. And when I say his fist “continued” into my young, flexible ribcage, I mean continued. I swear to you he almost punched a hole right through me. I was breathless twice over – once of shock and again of, you know, having my breath physically punched out of my body.
To this day nobody has ever hit me harder than that, though many have tried. Still though, it doesn’t count. My dad never hit me. Even that other time was more self-defence than anything.
(Incidentally, this is the first concert ticket stub I that ever lost. As far as I know it never made it out of the show. I’ve lost surprisingly few ticket stubs over the years, three or four…five tops. I keep the lost ones in a whole separate album.)