My First Concert
My next confession is not embarrassing at all. Most of us are embarrassed by our first concert, because it almost always reflects our (pre)adolescent taste in music. Most of have, for our first concert, someone like The Bay City Rollers or New Kids on the Block. So we kind of mumble it if asked, and never bring it up on our own.
Not me. My first concert in one of the rare items in my personal history which has consistently added to my cool quotient. My first concert was The Grateful Dead. In 1970. At the age of 12. With my parents. Can you get much cooler than that?
(Okay, if your first concert was the Beatles, yes, you’re way cooler than I could ever hope to be. Even if you saw the Beatles because of preadolescent taste in music.)
Not that I was ever that cool, really. I didn’t even know who the Grateful Dead were. Nor were my parents that cool; they didn’t know who the Grateful Dead were either. We were on vacation, visiting friends of the family. Visiting, in fact, a minister (okay, a Unitarian minister, but still...) who happened to have excellent musical taste, and turned my parents on to all sorts of great music. And he had a great family activity planned for out visit -- a Grateful Dead concert.
And so I found myself, at the age of 12, in a college gymnasium, faced with a spectacle far beyond my comprehension, but amazing nonetheless. The Dead didn’t even go on until midnight, and then played until 3 am without (or so it seemed to me) even pausing to take a breath. The only song I can say for sure that they played was “Dancing in the Street” (which I probably recognized from the Mamas and Papas). Looking back, I can’t say how much, or even whether, I was impressed by their music, but I was sure impressed by their stamina.
We (the audience) had pretty much free run of the whole place. My brother and I even walked backstage to watch the lightshow being produced. Much of it was done with glass dishes of cooking oil and food coloring, placed on overhead projectors (just like they used in our school), so that the ever changing patterns were projected onto sheets hanging behind the band. Each projector had its own operator, who provided his or her visual interpretation of the music the band played.
At twelve I was oblivious to all the pot smoke which must have filled the auditorium. But I certainly noticed the woman in a dress so low cut her breasts were almost falling out.
And my parents? After the concert, they quickly bought the Live/Dead album.
Since then, I have had a mixed attitude towards the Grateful Dead. I have always liked them in theory, the theory being that every concert should be a unique experience. Too many bands learn a single set list, and then play it night after night after night. I have long felt that concerts should have at least some spontaneity, for the sake of both the audience and the band. The Dead have always epitomized in concert spontaneity.
In practice, however, I often found them, frankly, boring. Just too mellow for my taste. This was especially true during my punk rock college days, when I dismissed them as “fat, old and boring,” and wore a T-shirt with “There’s nothing like VD either” (a play on the slogan, “There’s nothing like a Grateful Dead concert”) scribbled on it.
So I didn’t go to another Grateful Dead concert for almost 20 years. I next saw them in Irvine Meadows in 1989. And then two shows in 1992 at the Oakland Coliseum. I definitely enjoyed all three concerts, yet none of them even rank in my top ten. Although one of the Oakland shows comes close, simply because they played both “Mama Tried” and “Maggie’s Farm,” two songs I never expected to hear. (Only with a band as unpredictable as the Dead could the set list help determine how good a concert was.)
In fact, in both settings (Irvine and Oakland), the extracircular activities outside the venues were as entertaining as anything inside. In Oakland, the parking lot was one huge party. They were there for three nights, and I only had tickets to two shows, so the third night I just hung out in the parking lot. Vendors sold souvenirs and T-shirts and food and alcohol, pretty much everything one might want. At one point during the concert, someone held a rave in the parking lot, with DJs blasting loud techno music.
In Irvine, the authorities prohibited camping in the parking lot. So everybody moved to a nearby park, where we spent the entire night playing cat and mouse with local police. The police attempted to break up any parties going on in the park. But the partying was decentralized, a number of small groups scattered throughout the park. Whenever the police would break up one group, everyone would just disappear into the bushes, only to regroup somewhere else. This went on for much of the night. That was the last time the Dead were allowed to play in Irvine.
And the first concert of my own choosing was Blood Sweat and Tears, not too embarrassing, but not worth thirty years of bragging rights either.