Tuesday, April 28, 2015

My Life With The Grateful Dead, Part One: What's In A Name?

I grew up in a household where many musical genres wafting through the air was a common thing. My father's interest was in the music of his youth from the 50s: rock and roll, and rhythm and blues. My mother was often heard singing Tom Jones or Helen Reddy tunes. My older sisters' were into the rock music of the day: mostly bands like Boston, Bob Seger, Foreigner, and Styx. Saturday's my sisters would dance to American Bandstand, while I, even in my youth preferred Soul Train, even though my first favorite band was Kiss. My Aunt Angie was working for Peaches Records, and brought me the first few Kiss records as a gift, when she came to visit one day. This was in the mid-70s, and every kid loved Kiss as far as I knew. We were living in Toledo, Ohio back then, and midwest rock was mostly what was playing on the radio. In the winter of 1975 my father purchased us a juke box, and had it loaded with classic 45s. It ended up in my bedroom when we moved to North Carolina in the summer of 1976, and the size of it scared the hell out of me, even though I loved playing every song on it over and over again.

We moved a lot in the 70s and early 80s. From Toledo, to Greensboro, North Carolina, back to Toledo in 1978, and onto Orange County in Southern California in early 1981, finally the Bay Area in late 1982, where I've lived ever since.

Other than family, music has always been my closest companion. Music is a constant in my life. I purchase vinyl every chance I get. I remember discovering The Beatles when I turned 10. They were amazing to me, immediately. And I felt this pang of guilt for "abandoning" Kiss for another favorite band, It wasn't long after that when I started listening to Led Zeppelin. By then I understood that one could have a few favorite bands. Today I have about 30, and it's ever evolving...as it should.

My parents divorced in 1984, the summer before I turned 14. I was living with my father in Concord, California, and he and I used to travel at least once a month to Rasputin Records in Pleasant Hill, a few miles down the road. If memory serves, on an early visit in 1984 I was flipping through records, randomly, when I came across "Skeletons From The Closet", by the Grateful Dead. Wow. What a cover. What a name! GRATEFUL DEAD! I had no clue what this sounded like, but I knew that I had to have it. The imagery on the cover, was nothing compared to the images the name of the band conjured up. I thought they would sound like hard rock, or metal. Being in middle school in the East Bay, I was listening to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest at that time. My first rock concert was Ronnie James Dio in November 1984 for his "Last in Line" tour at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. Dokken opened. I liked metal, still do, so I had to own that Dead album. I had to love that band. There was no escaping it. I hadn't even listened to one note, and I knew that I was going to be hooked, even though I had no idea that they weren't anything close to Metal.

I moved to San Mateo in the summer of 1985, and quickly found other Dead Heads living around me, including a head shop: The Magic Theater, on El Camino, which I frequented weekly for stickers, patches and posters. During the summer of 1985 a Wednesday afternoon radio show on KZSU-Stanford was playing full shows from the Spring 85 East Coast tour. That blew my mind! I recorded each week. That was how I started my taping/trading obsession.

I was working at Baskin Robbins ice cream in San Mateo, where I met Bob, who was a year older than me, and a few more years a seasoned Dead Head. I spent many hours at his house listening to the Dead. He owned a few shows, and many more Dead records than I had. It was with Bob, his younger sister Beth, and a few others, that I attended my first show on December 30, 1985.

Upon entering the Oakland Coliseum Arena, where just 13 months previous I saw the heaviest Heavy Metal band of the time, I noticed that this audience looked similar, but acted so very differently. Instead of the Metal Head anticipating the head banging that was to come, there were long haired Heads passing joints, and getting ready to dance and twirl. It was a very different vibe. I remember being very naive about the songs they might perform. I thought, like so many other acts, that the Dead would always play their "hits" for their ever-loving fans. I got excited to hear Truckin' specifically, and Sugar Magnolia, not knowing that they never perform the same songs night after night.

I'm not going to give a review of the show that night, though they did a very rockin' version of Sugar Mag's, they also debuted a great version of Dylan's Mighty Quinn. The next night the 2nd set was telecast on KQED. I was at a party with my dad in Brisbane, and a lot of the adults there were heads, so the show was on TV. I was firmly planted in front of the screen, grinning from ear-to-ear, while the adults laughed that a 15 year old was as into the Dead as I was. I video taped and audio taped that show, and shared it with Bob and friends for the weeks following. I couldn't stop playing it. Seriously, I memorized every note of it. Beyond hooked. I was hungry for every tape I could find from then on out.

Living in the home of my "favorite" band was quite advantageous. I hardly missed a Bay Area show until 1993, when it was obvious to me that the band was phoning it in. Jerry was way too strung out by that time. I actually walked out during Drums at my last show in May of 1993, and never went back until I attended the memorial for Jerry at Golden Gate Park with friends, including Zion Godchaux and his mother Donna Jean, who, along with her late husband Keith, were members of the Grateful Dead from 1971-1979.

Coming up in my celebration of the 50th anniversary of my all-time favorite band: My growing tape collection; dancing through the halls of the Henry J Kaiser Auditorium; getting my buddy to put his pants back on at Shoreline; heading out on my own at the tender age of 16 to Laguna Seca in Monterey for a weekend in the sun, and being in the Touch of Grey video; seeing the Dead on the road. Also, alerting Zion that Jerry had died, and my experience at the Jerry memorial with Donna Jean.

Hell's Kitchen with John Hell
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