Here's something that's been said at least a few million times: I will never forget my first Dead show. I was 15 years old and had already left home. I'd made my way to California from the east coast, looking for all the things I'd read about in Kerouac's books and all the things I'd heard about on the albums from the 60s. I was trying to escape the narrow trajectory that had been laid out for my life. I didn't want to study so I could work so I could save so I could retire so I could die. I wanted to customize my experience of life. I wanted to travel and write, play music and live on the beach. And I wanted to do it without worrying about money. Basically, I wanted to be a hippie. So far, the hippies I'd met had been the freest people I knew. They lived on the beach, in the parks or in vans. They played music, painted faces or made jewelry to get the tiny bits of money they lived on. Nobody told them what to do or when to do it. They were living my ideal life, and it was no coincidence. It had been the older hippies in my hometown who had given me the books and records that had sent me out west to begin with. So I finally found myself living with these people.
I went to Rainbow Gatherings, where thousands of us would converge and camp in the woods. We made our food from scratch and bathed in the river. I played guitar and learned to make hair wraps and beaded necklaces. I smoked pot, took mushrooms and acid, and learned to find my own private gods in the smallest moments. I had long discussions with my friends about love and the universe and the beautiful, natural order of all things. I danced the night away to outdoor drum circles and acoustic jam sessions. I plunged headlong into the lifestyle I'd always dreamed of. And all along the way, I kept hearing that the Grateful Dead shows were the place to be, the cultural mecca for everything I identified with. I liked the band and had a couple of their albums, but had never been to a show. That summer, some of my friends from the beach were headed up to northern California for some shows and invited me along.
We had been working on Venice Beach, selling buttons for a guy named Jerry. He had a button-making machine and made thousands of them. From pictures of rock singers or peace symbols to slogans, pot leaves, you name it. And it was our job to stand on the beach, where the buttons hung from a huge sheet of burlap over a plywood frame, and sell them for a buck or two each. At the end of the day, we'd get a bit of pocket money and some food for our trouble. The other guys' names were Gemini and Shroom. Nobody on the scene ever used real names. I was going by Mojo at the time, a nickname I'd picked up performing Doors songs on the boardwalk.
Anyway, Gemini and Shroom had grown up together somewhere in Kansas and came out to California together for all the reasons I did and everybody else did. They wanted the same dream, music and sunshine, girls and beers. They didn't want whatever people had wanted for them back in Kansas. So they packed everything into a van and rolled out west. They had been living in the van, and I had been crashing on my older brother's couch, which felt every bit as cramped (my welcome had worn out in minutes). Things weren't working out too well for any of us, and one day Jerry came up with a plan. He suggested that Gemini, Shroom and I all move into his house out in the valley. We could pay our share of the rent by manning the button stand and helping out with the chores.
He drove us out there to check it out. It was a large place, where we would each have our own room. We all loved it and agreed right away to move in. The next day, I proudly loaded all of my possessions from my brother's place into Shroom and Gemini's van and we took off for our new home. I was excited to spread out into my own room for the first time since I'd left home. My parents had mailed everything I'd left behind to my brother. So I had a full bed set, a stereo, a bunch of books and cds that had all been collecting dust in boxes at my brother's place. It was great to see it all again. I felt that I had accomplished something somehow by achieving this type of stability on my own terms. I carefully unpacked and arranged everything in my newfound space.
A couple of days later, Jerry announced another idea. We would all go up north in his van for the upcoming Grateful Dead concerts and we would sell buttons. He was sure we could get 3 to 5 dollars a piece for them at the shows, and we could all make some easy money. The plan sounded good and the shows sounded fun, so we all enthusiastically agreed. But a few days later, when it came time to leave, Jerry informed us that there would have to be a change. He could no longer go with us to the shows, as he had a business obligation in LA. But he encouraged us to take the buttons and have fun up there. So we took a few backpacks full of buttons and headed up north in Shroom and Gemini's van.
The drive went by quickly. We smoked joints and blasted music all the way up the coast. When we arrived and pulled into the entrance for the amphitheater, it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. There was a mobile Rainbow Gathering happening right there in the parking lot. There were hundreds of vans and school buses lined up, with crowds of people in front of them all. They were dancing, singing and selling handmade souvenirs. Row upon row of the lot was like this, everybody smiling as far as the eyes could see. Music played from everywhere. The air was dense with pot smoke and incense. We walked around for a few minutes and, during that time, somebody walking by turned us on to some acid. He didn't stop, didn't introduce himself or ask for any money. He just said, “Open your mouth” and turned us on. It was liquid from the vial, right onto our tongues, and it didn't take long for the effects to kick in.
The parking lot quickly became a psychedelic carnival. Colors and sounds swirled around us in fast-forward and in slow motion. Things became unrecognizably warped and then suddenly clearer than they had ever been. Common objects became beautiful or ugly, then vanished altogether. Soon, we were inside the show. I don't remember anymore what songs they played that night. I laughed and cried and rolled around in the grass on the hill. I blew kisses at the sky, hugged the ground and danced with everybody at once. I shed my every attachment to time, money and measurement. I smiled like a child and twirled around in a field full of other children.
I'm sure there were people there who weren't having a profound experience, but they were grossly outnumbered. The overarching sentiment was that all of us were doing the same thing, providing for each other the safety from judgment that we all required to let go of our nightmares in public. It was like a massive group therapy session taking place on a cosmic level. All around me people went through stages of religious release, giving all their preconceptions over to a unified vision of beauty and love. There was no longer identity or ambition. Everyone rejoiced in their equality and freedom. I remember thinking: ‘This is what churches should be like.’
Eventually, the show ended and the people filed back out into the parking lot. The carnival was still in full swing, and so was the acid. I found myself sitting on the ground, looking into the big green eyes of a beautiful girl. The freckles danced around on her cheeks. I tried to tell her that I'd never seen anything so lovely. She just laughed and took my face in her hands. She kissed me and smiled some more. I remember saying to her "I don't even know your name." She just put her finger on my lips and carefully explained, "All of this is the same. Me and you and the universe are all the same thing. We don't have to have names." I couldn't remember having heard anything so true. I decided that I was in love with her.
Suddenly, I felt a hand under my armpit. It was Shroom pulling me to my feet. Gemini was there too and they both looked upset. They were like a vortex of dark vibes in what would otherwise have been a field of sunshine blossoms. "Look at me!" he said. "Jerry fucked us.” Gemini, who was pacing around behind him, kicked a trashcan and several people around us were temporarily disturbed. I looked back down at the ground and the girl was gone. "Listen!" Shroom continued, "I just talked to him." He was speaking to me from another world, but I started to grasp what he was communicating. Jerry had taken off with all the stuff we'd left in his house. Our guitars, our cds, our furniture, everything. "It wasn't even his house," Shroom explained. "It was just a scam." It took me a few more minutes to understand. "But we have his buttons!" I protested. Shroom laughed coldly and informed me that it had only cost a hundred bucks or so to make all those buttons, and we had left thousands of dollars worth of shit in that house. We officially had nothing to go back to. Shroom and Gemini still had their van but didn't intend to drive it back to LA anytime soon.
I didn't want to hear any more. This was exactly what I'd been escaping from for the last couple of hours, a world defined by possessions and rip-offs. I didn't want to be around anyone who was kicking trashcans and getting angry about objects and lies. I couldn't wrap my head around any of it. I started shutting it out. I vaguely remember Shroom saying something like "Do whatever you want man, but we're outta here." I was at a major spiritual crossroads. There are millions of people who stop right then and say to themselves 'I have to grow up. I have to stop fucking around at concerts and working on the beach. I need money and security. I'm calling the cops,' but my head went fully in the other direction.
I looked up at the stars and thought of the girl I'd just been talking to. Then the stars poured into my eyes and filled me. Then they exploded back out of me again, leaving nothing inside. I saw how the truth of everything pours into and out of everyone at all times, whether they notice it or not, and I knew that I was in the right place. These people were my family. This experience was absolutely critical in my attempt to understand life. My emotions were like fireworks. I mourned for a suitcase containing poems by a childhood friend who was in a mental hospital. I yearned for the heart of the girl I'd just been in love with for a few minutes. I cried out in the beauty of my righteous anger at Jerry for wasting the good fortune of friendship on money and opportunity.
I rubbed my eyes and looked around. I recognized nobody. I didn't really even know where I was. I only knew that this night had been more important to me than all the other nights that had gone before it. And then it hit me. This experience didn't even have to end. It was happening again in some other city less than 24 hours later. I managed to get myself up on top of a concrete partition in the parking lot, and I yelled out to the people around me. "Hey everybody!" I screamed in desperation, tears flowing down my whole face. "Who wants to go to the next Grateful Dead show?!" The crowd hooted and hollered. Some laughed and clapped. "C'mon everybody! I'll meet you at the next Grateful Dead show!" Again, everybody cheered. The crowd could have been anywhere between 30 and 3,000 people. There was supportive energy all around me.
What I didn't realize then, was that all those people were already doing what I had just proposed. I hadn't invented the idea of following the Grateful Dead on their voyage of escape from hollow values, on their quest for truth and beauty. There were tens of thousands of people that had been attending all their concerts for decades. But on that night, the idea was brand new to me. I could go to the next Dead show, and the one after that, for as long as I wanted to feel this way, which seemed like forever. Somebody in that parking lot gave me a ride to the next show. I finished out the California leg of the tour before returning to LA. I briefly tried to go back to school, but the following spring I was back on tour and remained there for a couple of years. It never ceased to be a place where people could choose to have the revelatory experience instead of the one that had been prescribed for them.
This year, the Dead toured again, almost 15 years after Jerry Garcia's death. I went to see them with a buddy of mine who used to be a tour-rat as well. We took our girlfriends, who had never been to a show. There were lots of people like us, old clandestine hippies with short hair and unexpressive clothes. But there were also the wide-eyed young faces. We saw teenaged kids throughout the parking lot getting high on their first personal revelations, having their own customized religious experiences, rejecting the boundaries of their former lifestyles to elevate a common cause. 20 years after my first show and some 43 years after they started, the Grateful Dead concert is still a holy place. It still represents an outlet for the pursuit of things spiritual and philosophical. It is still somewhere where a young person might trade in all his possessions and attachments to embrace the possibilities of his world, and share them in bliss with a parking lot full of his fellow man.