Monday, September 9, 2013

Mapping the Unconscious

Specific Non-Specifics

Date: September 9, 1993

Location: Dayton, Ohio

Imagine if you will, a mid-size, Midwest, middle of the road, middle of nowhere university. A 17 year old man-child begins the first week of his freshman year. Imagine a classroom, History 101, in which the assigned reading included a giant piece of shit entitled the Great Cat Massacre. True fact. Stop imagining. First college course, first interaction with a professor. Please introduce yourself, tell us your name, where you're from, your major, and something interesting about yourself: "My name is Mitch, I'm from Chicago, Psychology major, and I need tickets to see the Grateful Dead in Richfield this weekend." Laughs from the class. Well played. Some guy named Franko approached me after class and said he might be able to hook me up with tickets, that he was gonna be in a drum circle outside the show, but that didn't pan out. So off we went. Snowpants, Durbin, Mama Cass, Doug Finn and I in Durbin's parents' brown Ford Taurus. His parents forbid him from going to the shows, as Durbin was on the soccer team and had practice that weekend, or something of the sort. Basically, they didn't want him to get on the pot and turn into a hippie. So naturally, he quit the team and we go the hell out of town. Sorry Durbin's. The Dead were doing a 3 show run in Richfield, outside of Cleveland, and we missed the first night, which was solid if unspectacular. We didn't have tickets, or drugs, except for possibly some Mexican ditch weed and a corn cob pipe. And we didn't have a place to stay, other than a pup tent that slept 4. But we had good vibes, man. The universe was in our favor.

We arrived in the vicinity of the Coliseum. I seem to recall a rural road-side ice cream stand in which hippies were cavorting about, and immediately scored tickets for around face value. Would you like some snowmen with that? Yes, three please. And off we went to find a campground. Then back to the parking lot, selling grilled cheese. I think our profits were stolen, never mind, onto the show. At this point, some of our fellow Dayton comrades had met up with us. The first set was pretty standard for the era. It featured the classic Stagger Lee/Queen Jane combo, but not much else to write home about. The second set is a keeper though. A unique setlist, with a mix of big Jerry tunes and more challenging Weir compositions. The set starts off with the angular and distorted Victim or the Crime. An unpopular and underrated song, Jerry keeps his head down for the first 11 minutes of the set, mapping the unconscious. This uncharted territory lead to an extended intro to Crazy Fingers, Jerry exploring a land where the backwoods melody of Friend of the Devil dances with the island rhythms of the Barrett brothers. Jerry springs to life just in time to tie it all together, delivering the first kaleidoscopic verse of  Hunter's otherworldly tune.

Your rain falls like crazy fingers
Peals of fragile thunder keeping time
Recall the days that still are to come
Some sing blue

Weir follows with the singular rocker Saint of Circumstance, a song that may not be among the most cherished of Dead tunes, but flowed perfectly within the context of the set. And then, Terrapin. From the Northwest corner. You know what I'm talking about. A sly Last Time emerges from Space. Although there was only one more song to come, Morning Dew is the crown jewel of any set. Typically excellent for the era, a song that in some ways got better as Garcia aged, bringing wisdom and weariness to his delivery. One of Garcia's many great signatures is when he would fan out chords at the climax of a tune. He delivers the goods on this version, building it up and blowing it out with some sonic fireworks. I even enjoyed the I Fought the Law encore. A show that surprises you in all the right ways.

Richfield Coliseum, Richfield, Oh. (Thu)
1: H. C. Sunshine, Spoonful, Stagger Lee, Queen Jane, Tennessee Jed, Easy Answers> Don't Ease
2: Victim> Crazy Fingers> Saint> Terrapin> Drumz> Last Time> Morning Dew E: IFTL

On the way out, as we're struggling to find our marbles, there he is, lying on the floor: Jim. We had no idea what we were doing, where we were going, let alone who we were, and Jim would be the one to lead us home. A plastic action figure, with knee high boots, ruffled shirt, and flowing cape, he had an air of confident amusement about him. We entrusted him with our lives, and in turn, our belief brought that little plastic man to life that night. You see, he needed us as much as we needed him. To believe. And just as the Velveteen Rabbit became real, so too did Jim, as he took his place behind the steering wheel of the Taurus, and guided us back to the campground that night, all the while the Doors' When the Music's Over blared out the speakers. Driving down the back roads of Ohio, no idea where we are, Jim leading the way, The Lizard King imploring him to take us where we need to go. Of course, there's the campground. Jim drove straight there without making a single wrong turn. Just as we arrive, Hard to Handle from Bear's Choice starts to kick in. We rock it it out to the end, and gradually dance our way out the sun roof and around the campground, miraculously grateful we made it. Other than sitting around the campfire, I think I spent most of the night in the bathroom staring in the mirror and FREAKING OUT!!!!! Somehow, all our new Dayton friends made it back to this campground as well. As a relatively responsible person who is usually aware of what is going on around him, I still have no idea how not only they, but we, made it back to the campground. Even more amazing, these folks continue to be my friends to this day. Talk about your cosmic bonding experiences.

So the first night we had 2 pieces of the white paper. That means the second night we should eat 3 snowmen, right? Or something like that. Regardless, there will be marbles. I should have known what we were getting into from the scene we witnessed on the way in. There he was in all his glory. Shirtless, greasy pony tail half-way down his back, camo pants. A beer in one hand, spilling about. One foot bare, and on the other a giant plastic cup, loudly slapping the pavement as he marched about in circles. The Anti-Jim. He was shouting something. It was hard to make out from far away, but it seemed he needed help. A crowd had gathered at a safe distance. As we got closer, we were able to decipher his anguished plea: "I have a ticket, but I don't have any shoes! They won't let me in without shoes! Does anyone have any extra shoes!" No one was interacting with him. He was too comical and fearsome, like a cross between a hyena and a drunk clown. Just hysterical and puzzled laughter. We'd all heard of people asking for extra tickets, drugs, etc., but not shoes. And a new tale of lore was born, years later to turn into the famous "Ludes for shoes" line. Hope he made it into the show, but if not I suspect he managed to have a good time.

 The first set started out hot with an excellent Jack Straw. Easily the greatest show opener in the Dead's repertoire, this one featured a little extra mustard from Jerry, giving you hints that this would be a special night. This was followed by a rare and lovely They Love Each Other. The rest of the set was solid, particularly a Ramble on Rose featuring Jerry on the midi trumpet. I could see those blaring notes bouncing off the back walls of the coliseum. Take me to the leader of the band, indeed! I called the Bertha set closer. It wasn't something they had been doing, mainly a set opener at that point in their career, but I could just feel it coming. Maybe it was the snowmen. But again, this night had something special cooking.

Second set we went into the stands behind the stage, and enjoyed the view from there. On the plus side, it was about as close as you could get to the band. As for the minus, it was disorienting, at least from where my mind was bent at the time. China Rider and Way to Go Home were straightforward enough, but things took a weird turn with Corrina. Again, not a great song, but one with potential to get interesting, as it did on this night. They took the tune out into open space, but the band eventually settled on a new song, although at the time my mind just could not comprehend what was going on. The crowd was cheering, the band appeared to be acting in sync, gesturing, and singing at the same time. But as far as I could tell it sounded like some distorted version of Shakedown St, turn the wah up to 11. At first, it's just weird. You don't know what's going on. Then before you know it, you're the only person in the whole world, left out of the eternal joke, which, coincidentally, happens to be on you. BWAUAUAUAUUA. SCHWINGINANANANANA. MYNONONA. The crowd goes wild, reacting to something. Will this hell ever end? What was that? I'm starting to hear something, everyone, all together now: "Oh-oh, what I want to know, how does the song go?"

This is the cosmic joke that happens at Dead shows and similar altered experiences: everything in the universe lines up perfectly to let you know what a complete fool you are. As if Robert Hunter had written those lyrics 25 years earlier with me and my trip in mind, before I had even been born. And yet there were likely dozens if not hundreds of other people in the audience that night having a similar transcendent experience with the tune. Although the lyrics likely meant something completely different to them in the context of their experience, the Dead had the ability to make experiences feel like they had been created just for you. Specific non-specifics is the language that hypnotists use. Speaking specifically about very vague things, in order to awaken the unconscious, create empathy and trust, and make subjects more likely to respond to suggestions. Politicians do the same thing. And so did great lyricists like Hunter. For example, from Box of Rain: "Look out of any window, any morning, any evening, any day. Maybe the sun is shining birds are winging or rain is falling from a heavy sky." Either the sun is shining, or it's raining. It's day, or night. Either way, but you can picture it clearly. And from UJB:

Well, the first days are the hardest days,
don't you worry anymore
When life looks like Easy Street
there is danger at your door
Think this through with me
Let me know your mind
Wo-oah, what I want to know
is are you kind?

It's a Buck Dancer's Choice, my friend,
better take my advice
You know all the rules by now
and the fire from the ice
Will you come with me?
Won't you come with me?
Wo-oah, what I want to know,
will you come with me?

Goddamn, well I declare
Have you seen the like?
Their walls are built of cannonballs,
their motto is Don't Tread on Me

Come hear Uncle John's Band
by the riverside
Got some things to talk about
here beside the rising tide

It's the same story the crow told me
It's the only one he know -
like the morning sun you come
and like the wind you go
Ain't no time to hate,
barely time to wait
Wo-oah, what I want to know,
where does the time go?

I live in a silver mine
and I call it Beggar's Tomb
I got me a violin
and I beg you call the tune
Anybody's choice
I can hear your voice
Wo-oah what I want to know,
how does the song go?

Come hear Uncle John's Band
by the riverside
Come with me or go alone
He's come to take his children home
Come hear Uncle John's Band
playing to the tide
Come on along or go alone
he's come to take his children home  

Some of the lyrics speak directly to the listener, with vague suggestions and images that conjure up individual memories. The specific elements of the song are really more impressionistic, as few people know what a Buck Dancer, Beggar's Tomb, or wall of cannonballs are without doing some research. We're left to our own devices to create the scene. I'm not sure how much of that seeped into my unconscious during my eternity in deep space, but I sure was glad to hear those familiar words that gave me something to grab onto and bring me back to earth. Like a cosmic lifesaver.

The rest of the set was solid, but the real standout was the rare and soulful Attics of My Life. I wasn't expecting this one, and my fried gourd sure did need those soulful voices and reassuring lyrics to gently land me back in reality. Again, specific non-specifics.

In the secret space of dreams
Where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told
And the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine
You dreamed of me

I can't recall if there were any antics after this show. We were all a bunch of freaked out little babies. We found Mama Cass, who had drifted off mid-second set. She had been taken in by some kindly hippies who kept her sane by feeding her a steady diet of hash and nitrous. Time to go back to college I guess, but a whole new world had opened up to us. I had been to Dead shows before, but always in my hometown, going back to my parents house afterwards. This was a whole other animal. Garcia used to talk about feeling obligated to provide the Grateful Dead experience, as there were no other opportunities left in America for the kind of experiences they provided. It was a hero's journey, both externally and internally, some weird combination of On the Road, Stand By Me, or insert your own adventure.

Richfield Coliseum, Richfield, Oh. (Fri)
1: Jack Straw, TLEO, Rooster, Tom Thumb Blues, Ramble On, B. T. Wind, Bertha
2: China Cat> I Know You Rider, Way To Go, Corinna> Uncle John> Drumz> Wheel> Watchtower> Attics> NFA E: U. S. Blues

For the Dead, it was the beginning of the end. In my mind, these shows were excellent, but clearly they pale in comparison with the peak of the band. As you can see in the videos, Jerry spends much of the time awkwardly hunched over his guitar, though his playing is sharp. The next shows I saw in Spring of 94 also had some excellent moments, but the decline was significant and rapid. But for my group of friends, these shows, and the few more we got to share together would be some of the great bonding experiences that unite us to this day. Amazing that we all found each other that first week of freshman year, and so many of us are still in touch 20 years later. If the Dead shows hadn't happened, we probably still would've connected, but I'm not sure the memories would've been so profound, the experiences so insane. This was the catalyst.

Thinking back to the dorms freshman year, the other kids had Billy Joel posters on their walls. Did they have similar life altering experiences at Joel shows? Try listening to We Didn't Start the Fire on acid some time. You'll never come back.

Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnny Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, Television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe

There are no specific non-specifics in there. It's just a list of shit. Verbal Diarrhea would've been a great name for that album. He's trying so hard to say something profound, but it's just a coke-fueled grocery list through all the important things he can think of.

Eat a dick piano man.