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Meeting the Dead

Sunsh Stein

A Memoir of Life on a Commune in the 70's

It was March, 1973 and after a late winter visit to New York City, we were heading back to the muddy March of our communal farm just outside of Gouverneur, the town we called home. The journey there included a detour to Utica to see the Grateful Dead. Johnny Warford had planned his New York City visit around this concert, and I'd decided it was a good idea too. During the winter months John had given me a solid indoctrination to the Dead and I was pretty psyched to check them out live. I really dug their sound, but I still couldn't get a grasp on John's need to listen to them constantly and to talk about them as though they were godly intimates. And the fanaticism that compelled John to drive five hours round-trip, deep into a North Country January to snow-belt Syracuse, to get tickets for a concert months away still escaped me.

We left later in the day than we had intended -- saying goodbye always took forever - and headed upstate in Johnny's green van, along with his Rubenesque-bodied young woman, Katie, and Ken Dubie, who was on sabbatical from our sister commune in Arkansas. We didn't get to Utica, some five hours away, until close to concert time. John had some money so we found a cheap motel to crash in for the night. He went in and registered while the rest of us ducked down out of sight in the van. With our night's resting place secure we headed to the concert.

"We're going to be late," John whined the whole way. "We should have left earlier. I knew this would happen." That we might miss the opening notes was his great fear and it made him extremely uptight. A normally laid back passive kind of guy, he had this unnatural obsession about the Dead.

"Relax John, we won't be that late," I kept telling him. "So what if we miss the first tune? No big deal, we've got the whole rest of the concert."

"You don't understand, Sunshine. I don't want to miss anything. Not one note. Not one guitar strum. Not one drum lick. Nothing!"

I thought he was coming dangerously close to being out of control. My words were heresy to him, and I, the former disciple, had become the heretic. John maintained his state of high anxiety until we reached our destination, one of those moderate sized arenas built by small cities to accommodate whatever comes through town, be it circus, rock concert or sporting event. A convenient free municipal parking lot sat across the street. He pulled the green van in and hollering "Let's go!" he jumped out and scurried away.

As we trailed John across the street Ken Dubie took a small pill out of his pocket. He broke off half, swallowed it, and handed me the other half, saying, "Here Sunshine, take this."

"Thanks," I said, and popped it into my mouth.

John's fears of being late were justified; the concert had started. We could hear the sounds of "Bertha" as the doors opened into the dark crowded hall. There were seats around the perimeter of the arena but the floor space was the place to be. Devoid of seating, it was packed with standing swaying bodies all facing mecca -- in this case, the Dead, who held forth from a stage at the far end of the room. The four of us linked hands, and with John leading, weaved through the crowd toward that mecca. Movement was slow and arduous but not impossible, people were pretty stoned and spaced out, physically in some spots as well as mentally. John was a gentle sort who didn't push or shove, but just politely glided us in and out of the openings in the crowd until we reached a spot about forty feet from the stage.

I'd been concentrating on getting where we were going, and now that we'd arrived I looked up. There before me I saw living breathing humans -- with quite visible facial features, bodily characteristics, and instruments -- playing music. Masses of speakers towered on each side of the stage and behind the band, spewing sound that filled the room and bombarded my brain.

And suddenly, wow! I was really excited. There was the Grateful Dead, the already legendary San Francisco icons, whose music had been played over and over and over - - on an outmoded eight-track tape deck powered by a car battery in a house with no electricity - - in an attempt to brainwash me into a state of slavish adoration of them. Now they were so palpably near and playing that very music, live and thunderingly loud. I looked at John and cracked a wide smile. He gave me a goofy grin in return.

I checked out the band members to see if they matched their pictures and instruments. First, was the triumvirate of lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh, all front and center. Behind them was Bill Kreutzman flailing away at the drums. Keith Godchaux sat at an acoustic piano on the left, his wife Donna, their backup singer, stood off to the right. They all looked exactly as they did in the photos, right down to Jerry's black T-shirt and sneakers. As I studied them they rolled into "Me and My Uncle" with Bob Weir singing this cowboy tale of greed. I was drawn to Phil Lesh, the skinny bass player with his deep rumbling sound.

As the concert went on I heard tunes I didn't know despite having been drilled pretty thoroughly on the Dead's repertoire. Several times I looked at John and mouthed, "What's this?" With a dreamy, shit-eating grin on his face he'd shrug and mouth back, "I don't know." After while I stopped asking and just got into each song, dancing around in my own little world, me and the Dead in my head, or connecting with one of the others when a particular moment worked some magic on me. When Phil Lesh began singing "Box of Rain" my eyes locked on him, lingering, letting his voice and bass playing sink into my body.

By this time I was pretty stoned; we had smoked some dubies on the way to the concert, and joints circulated freely through the crowd. Then there was whatever Ken Dubie had given me -- that was kicking in, sharpening my senses considerably and making everything look just a tetch brighter. This concert was getting to be better than I expected. Still it was hard to imagine that the Dead could possibly live up to the grandiose buildup they'd been given.

I loosened my feminist principles when Donna came front and center to sing "You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man." I yelled and sang and waved my fist in the air like all the other females in the place, and I didn't even have a man for someone to try and take, but who cared. Donna mesmerized me with her straight brown hair that hung to her waist and swung around making colored trails as she boasted of her own prowess over that of some unseen female competitor.

After a couple more tunes I decided that I wanted a closer look at them, these guys I'd been hearing about in unsolicited detail for a good chunk of the past year. So I struck out on my own, slithering through the crowd in the way my small size allowed me to do. Luckily it also allowed me to stand in front of a lot of people and not get them uptight because I didn't obscure their view. The press of bodies got pretty thick right up close, but I saw a small opening and wedged myself in. I stood and stared for a while, examining them, entranced. Well, mostly I drank in Jerry, Bob and Phil, watching them play and interact with each other.

They looked like just regular guys, but hype, and now pulsing music and drugs, also made them larger than life. Jerry Garcia was roundish and beatific, exactly as he'd been described. An unruly beard and mustache, along with his curly black hair, created a smoodgy halo around his head. With glasses sliding down his nose, he made faces as he effortlessly made his guitar sing. Weir, slim and trim, ferociously strummed the rhythm behind Jerry and wildly tapped his cowboy-booted foot. He was definitely a man on a mission. His long brown ponytail hung behind a head that bent over his guitar as though deep in study, while his hand continually moved up and down on the strings. And Phil, not at all out of the spotlight as they told me he'd be, but right up there, a skinny guy wearing glasses, with shortish blond hair, talking to the crowd. He cooly plucked those bass strings, not keeping the beat in a conventional way, but moving the music along with a force all his own.

I watched and listened as they raced through "Beat It on Down the Line." Next to me two teenaged girls stood mesmerized as Weir sang. "I can see the veins in his arms!" one breathed to the other. I looked; she was right. Not only could you see the veins in his muscular forearms, you could practically see the blood pumping through them. Weir was a handsome guy, but I was looking for musical fulfillment not sexual. I took her awestruck comment as my cue to return to the security of my hippie family. The closeness to the band thrilled me, but I needed to share this happening with the others.

I began weaving back through the throng toward where I hoped I'd left my family. I stumbled through some openings in the crowd, took hits on joints that passed by me, kept moving on a diagonal, and like a homing pigeon found myself back at the nest.

During my absence the music seemed to have gotten a grip on John, Ken and Katie. And why not, it was doing it to me, climbing up under my flesh, into my brain and caroming around my chest. No one spoke, there was no reason. The musical volume rendered speech pretty much impossible but none of us wanted to miss a note that was played anyway. How could we possibly have been so stupid as to arrive late and miss the beginning of "Bertha?!" 

Just after I returned to my family I heard my name echoing through the hall. The source of the echo came from the stage. The Dead were singing the words "here comes Sunshine" over and over. What was this? Surely it was something in my honor. I looked at John who grinned even wider and gave me his "I don't know" again. But I knew they were singing directly to me. This was my song. There could be no doubt. They were hip to my presence and were acknowledging our first live encounter. We were one, the Dead and I.

I'd been hoping for "China Cat Sunflower" into "I Know You Rider," two tunes that the Dead always ran into each other. They did not disappoint. I loved the contrast of these two songs. The music starts with a lilting beat, then Jerry comes in with these unintelligible vocals, singing what could be a folk or fairy tale, alternating verbal lines with his sinuous guitar lines. When he finishes singing his little story the music goes into a short spacey jam, then it builds, speeds up and shifts to just rhythm. Then Jerry, Bob and Phil's vocals come in for the start of "I Know You Rider," an old traditional blues piece. But the best part is the ending. There's this great buildup, the music gets stronger and louder, then stops, and there's just Bob, Jerry and Phil harmonizing the refrain repeatedly --"I know you rider gonna miss me when I'm gone," stretching out and repeating the "gone" -- the drums their only accompaniment. The drums stop and they sing the last line acapella, "Gonna miss your baby from rolling in your arms," where "arms" becomes a multi-syllabled harmonic word that takes on a life of its own. Then guitars, piano, bass and drums come crashing in. Using all the force of thousands of pounds of amplifiers and speakers, the music builds to this jump-off-the-cliff crescendo that every time I heard it, I wildly swung an imaginary guitar and wanted to jump all around from the sheer force of it. Now in concert that powerful ending shot through every part of me, making the hair on my arms stand on end and my whole body vibrate. I felt beyond orgasmic.

And I was tripping.

The little pill Ken Dubie and I had popped was some sort of psychedelic; it added an extra jolt of electricity to the experience.

I looked over at Ken. "I'm tripping!" I screamed with delight.

He smiled a slow sensuous smile, reached out one of his long arms, and squeezed me. An otherworldly happening was in progress for him too. This wasn't a full-blown trip -- we weren't tripping our brains out, but it was safe to say that we were higher than most kites. Colored sound waves floated out of the speakers and drifted past me. Phil's bass pulsed through me and became my heartbeat.

The Dead didn't stop playing after "I Know You Rider" but moved right into "Playing in the Band" and closed the first set with it. I threw myself into John's arms. "Omigod!" I breathed. He beamed with an utterly stoned look on his face, and he wasn't doing any drugs.

In the beginning of the second set they did a bunch of tunes I knew, so I sang a lot and continued smoking whatever anyone passed me. Then they started playing something I'd never heard, singing about plows, and fields and the woodcutters daughter - a country message, so I knew they were still singing to me. Then they stopped singing and started jamming, and next thing I knew they were playing "Dark Star," one of their more out there pieces, taking it into a lengthy spacey jam. It had musical twists and turns and near silences where you thought it was going to just die out, but then one of them would pick up the dangling thread and weave it into some new exciting musical sphere. I saw god several times as this jam ran its convoluted course. They ended it singing something about waking up to find out that I was the eyes of the world. At that point I felt sure I was.

When the concert ended and the whooping and yelling and clapping and foot stomping and match lighting brought nothing but the house lights coming up, the four of us sat on the floor to absorb what had just happened and to let the crowd thin before attempting an exit. We leaned against each other, dreamily lolling around, feeling blissed out, when we heard a commotion behind us. We turned to see a naked guy running around flapping his arms and sort of dancing, or maybe he was a chicken. I didn't think much about it. I was still pretty high and having never been to a Dead concert before I just assumed that this was typical behavior. John, on the other hand, jumped into action. He grabbed a coat from the floor and ran toward the guy. He slowed as he approached him and gingerly put the coat over him, all the while talking gently. "Here, put this on. Everything is going to be fine." Then, as he walked him around with an arm on his shoulders, he said coaxingly, "Come on, let's find your clothes. We've all had a good time and we want to come back tomorrow and have another good time." After a few minutes some people claimed the guy and got his clothes. With the situation under control and the crowd considerably smaller we left.

Back at the motel we fell haphazardly on the two double beds and laid around for a while giggling. Then John and Katie undressed and got into one of the beds together. Me and Ken Dubie took the other. Even though I'd only met Ken that week in the City, I knew all about him, as I did about everyone else at the Arkansas farm where he lived. And sharing sleeping accommodations was as commonplace as sharing everything else in our lives - our motto being communal is communal is communal -- so we got into bed together without question or much awkwardness.

Ken Dubie was a quintessential hippie man. He parted his long dark red hair in the middle and it hung in two braids. His full beard and mustache surrounded a mouth that spoke with a Texas twang. He wore a string of beads, smoked a lot of dubie, had a gentle demeanor, and large work-worn hands. He was laid back and believed fully in our hippie mission.

"That was the most spiritual experience I ever had," Ken drawled.

"Amen," said Katie.

"Yeah, it was a total religious happening," I sighed.

"I knew you guys would love it." John was floating from the concert and from our reactions.

Lights out.

Preliminary sexual rustlings from the other bed.

"I'm exhausted, but wired," I whispered to Ken. "Have you come down yet?"

"I'm still buzzing some."

"Yeah, so am I."

"I'm so glad I decided to come home with y'all." He put his arms around me and pulled me to him.

"Me too. Everyone's gonna be so excited to see you and have you with us for a while."

"You know, Sunshine, I'm real happy we shared this experience."

More noises from the other bed.

We kissed. Those work-worn hands started working my body. I liked Ken and I liked his looks. I wasn't ready for the evening's events to end. 

"Sunshine, do you have any birth control?"

He scored points with that question. "Yeah."


We let the Grateful Dead continue their magic.