Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Jerry Garcia is Gone (and Fillmore East will be no longer soon),

Jerry Garcia is dead and Fillmore East may be torn down soon. The end of an era, of which I was no longer a part when the Grateful Dead came upon the scene.

But there is a particular place for them in my heart, because I took my wife-to-be to a Grateful Dead concert the day we met. In 1968 the Shaeffer beer people sponsored summer concerts in Central Park, and when we got there, the Wollman Rink was filled. We found a spot on the hillside outside, and drank Merlot out of paper cups and held hands while listening to the mellow music.

Mellow is the operative word. I'm not that knowledgeable, and much of the information comes from my "Deadhead" friends, aged 50 to 20, college graduates and professionals who attend concerts whenever they can.

The appeal of the Dead is on several levels. They are not greedy, and tickets are resonably priced and sold directly, through their own hotline; they allow concertgoers to record, and encourage exchange of tapes; they are friendly and keep in touch with the fans through newsletters, announcements, electronic mail and Internet.

They are also held in high esteem because of the funds they contribute to environmental and health causes, dedicating a portion of the gate to the Rex Foundation they support.

Musically the Dead are warm and folksy, the beat is good, though the tunes are not memorable ; the lyrics are clear and understandable, most of the time; the counterculture message is not raucous and aggressive. The message may be ocassionally overly masculine (" Let's share our women and wine"), though they have counterbalancing tunes. The Dead do not glorify drugs, despite their known drug affiliations. (Three members of the group besides Garcia have died since 1973, with drug overtones - Pigpen McKernan, Keith Godchaux and Brent Mydland.) In fact, "Casey Jones," the song with a drug story ("driving that train while full of cocaine") may be seen as moralistic - Casey wrecked, and many died. This is not the pleasure-bound LSD message that observers have detected in the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and the farfetched connection to drugs in Peter Paul and Mary's pleasurable "Puff the Magic Dragon," still occasionally disputed.

The Dead were originally backed by the LSD manufacturer, Stanley Owsley, in the middle 1960s, and Jerry Garcia was a drug user for some 30 years, graduating from LSD to cocaine and heroin. "Get high and drop out" was the image they projected, not so much by their attitudes but as evidenced by their groupies, often entire families with children, who might take off a summer and follow the Dead from concert to concert. Some took off years. At concerts some followers would be reduced to begging, standing with a finger raised, mouthing "I need a miracle (free ticket)," until someone would contribute one. This added a new word to the language.

The Dead traveled a lot, in the '90s giving up to a hundred concerts a year. The crowds recently had degenerated somewhat, to the point that a concert at the Deer Creek Amphitheatre in Noblesville, IN had to be stopped when intruders without tickets broke through security. Another at Highgate, VT produced violence. Ticketless fans in St Louis Riverport Amphitheatre outside St. Louis sufferred injuries and some died, when a pavillion collapsed. The Dead issued a stern caution over Internet, telling the fans to control their brethren, and ordering the ticketless not to come, else the touring life of the Dead would stop.The people whe want to get thrashed, throw bottles and do what they want were warned.

These incidents were no accidents. With the passage of time the composition of the fans is gradually experiencing a change.The mellow oldtime followers reliving the '60s are giving way to more raucuous young intruders. The scene is changing, the spirit of the kind, giving, communal '60s that the Dead project is dissipating. With its spirit, Jerry Garcia, gone, the band may be dissipatiing too.

Dead - continued

The Rolling Stones were at the Academy of Music, and we, members of the impromptu Washington Square Photographers Club, left the Park to check out the scene. The mobs around 14th street were stupendous, and the best view was off the parking lot on 13th. People there stood for hours looking at a dressing room window, where Mick, Keith, Brian Jones and Charlie Watts would take turns sticking out their heads and waving at the crowd every ten minutes. Girls would scream and go crazy ("Did you see, he wavved at me!"), and in between you could make conversation and take pictures. Soon we got tired of the groupie atmosphere, and moved back to the Park, where life went on. Bo Diddley was playing on McDougal, the Cafe Wha' had poetry readings, and the best bluegrass was around the fountain, where Roger Sxxxtaub held forth, nose in the air, playing clawhammer and progressive bluegrass banjo, as his fancy dictated. The air was charged with energy. Rawbone guitar people walked around, boots still dusty with Texas cowdung (I was gonna write a song about that), looking for groups to sit in with. It was the hot August of 1964. The Beattles had landed in February, and had a concert at Carnegie Hall, and would play the Shea in 1965 and '66, but the Stones were not at that level, yet.

On a side path Italian Joe held forth with his mandolin, singing songs of Sorrento and Napoli, surrounded by the old Ginzos from Mulberry Street, one eye out for the cops. When they approached, he would duck behind his supporters, who would engage the uniforms in loud banter. In later years Joe became more brave and greeted the guardians of order with his song:"Viva,viva,viva,va, viva la polizia!" Fred McDarrah was around, with his camera, recording the scene for the Voice.

Guitar groups played, on and on, around the fountain, dawn to dusk. Today you would pay though the nose to hear this quality. "There was a house in New Orleans, the house of Rising Sun," another Brits' (Eric Burdon and the Animals) smasher crossed with "If I had a hammer." "Wanna do hamburger?" was a neat way to get started on a sequence. The kids came from all over, not just Canarsie but also Ivy League. Kerouac was still a topic. Flower children were there - the young girls, not knowing but sweet. Street theatre - Big Brown held us enthralled, when he marked off a huge circle on the street near Judson Church and harangued, cajoled and bewitched us with his monologue. I wish I had taped some. It was magic.

Dave the banana man had a shtick, to make fun of drug control. "Smoke bananas" was the general theme. He kept it up for several years, and had a band which marched in parades, Hippy Hill Easter celebrations, and eventually cut a record on an adventurous label. I used to run into him in subsequent years, at the Strand Bookstore, when he worked in Wall Street bucket shops, in the orange crate act, gulling innocent dentists into daring penny stock investments.

I hung around in the Three Walls Impro Theatre club on 9th Street run by Hilly Diamond, who for many subsequent years has been the king of CBGB/OMFUG, a cultural citadel and a historic feature of the city. I haven't been in touch with Hilly for 25+ years, but the memories of the past are sweet. There was a beautiful lovelorn girl at Hilly's whom I took on a double round-trip on the Staten Island ferry to cool her mind. (Those were the days when I could clean my senses by either a Staten Island ferry trip, or a visit to the Rose Garden in Prospect Park Botanical Garden, or by letting myself be surrounded by the dancers at Bougival, a Rodin picture at the Met. There is an aura about some Impressionist paintings, make no mistake about it. Some day I will tell you about others who have it, such as Karl Knaths. When we returned to Hilly's, another friend, the chef and a partner at Penguin, a fine restaurant, decided to treat us to a dinner. Long Island duckling is a good antidote to sorrow.

I had some limited skills at the guitar in those days, so Hilly bought one and I strummed it at the bar, "To the tables down at Morey's" being my thing. We used to do a smartass version of "On top of old Smoky" with Hilly's little boy. And when the kitchen was low in potatoes, I'd walk over to Balducci's, which in those days was a canvas covered outdoor market on 6th Ave, and sling a 100 lb. bag on my back and bring it in. Oh, the simple pleasures of the poor people, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot.

My high-class hangout uptown was Pierre's Au Tunnel, on 49th St., where I drank burgundy and exchanged witticisms with the off-duty Breton hotel people of NYC.
Once, a drunkie from the Midwest asked the hostess where she's from, and the bar exploded when she told him "Cas-cuyette," which I had translated to me as "breaker of the testicle, you understan'."

I have not walked to and fro, talking of Michelangelo, but I have rolled my trousers and walked on the beach (more fractured T.S.Eliot, not a great husband but a hell of an image maker).

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