Thirty three years ago, on a cloudy day at the Saratoga Performing Art Center New York, my long strange journey as a Grateful Dead fan began. The following my story of that show, the first of one hundred and eighty that I’ve compiled into a book that I’ve named “It Must Have Been The Roses”. I hope you like it and request more.
06-24-84: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga N.Y. (SUN)
Set 1: Dancing in the Streets, Dire Wolf, Minglewood Blues, Candyman, Me & My Uncle> Mexicali Blues, Ramble On Rose, Hell in a Bucket> Deal
Set 2: I Need a Miracle> Bertha> Playing in the Band> China Doll> Samson & Delilah> Drums> Space> The Other One> Wharf Rat> Sugar Magnolia
E: (I can’t get no) Satisfaction> It’s All Over Now Baby Blue
Last “Dancing in the Streets”: 07-07-81 (203)
Hi I’m George, a shy young looking 18-year-old kid growing up in Northvale, New Jersey, a small suburban town located fifteen miles due north of the George Washington Bridge. It’s the early nineteen eighties and I’m currently living with my parents and two younger brothers. We have a spacious four-bedroom tri-level featuring a 25’x 45’ built-in swimming pool with diving board and slide that’s the envy of the neighborhood come summertime.
I stand about six feet tall with a modest build, fair Irish-German skin and a thick brown haired mullet that I spike up to stay in style. Some girls have told me I remind them of Steven Tyler, but I don’t necessarily see it. I own parachute pants, white Capezio shoes and plenty of trendy sleeveless shirts. And although raised on The Beatles, Kiss, Stones, Doors, Rush, Southern and even some Acid rock, I find myself captivated by music television and the new bands being shown on it. I’m buying new albums from new groups weekly and my friends and I are regulars at some of the hottest clubs in Manhattan, with names like “The Peppermint Lounge”, “Danceteria” and “Starbuck’s”, where we get down to new wave, drink strong cocktails and innocently party with the drug of the day until eventually arriving home just before light. MTV’s overwhelming popularity has set a huge shadow on the grassy fields of Woodstock and the free love generation, to the point where those days seem unobtainable, unlikely to ever return.
Well those were my happening days of senior year, class of 1983. Everything changes when I leave for Lynchburg College in Virginia at summers end. I make friends there, but feel out of place with all the preppies and their plaid cloths dominating the scene. I don’t do well either, ending my first semester still a virgin, on academic probation. When I get back to Jersey for Christmas break, everything snaps back to the way it was before, and I’m happy once again. After the extended holiday I vow to concentrate and get better grades. It wasn’t
I’m expelled by the end of the week. It was a whole fucking thing. The bottom line is that I was lazy during spring break on my lame trip to Atlanta with my roommate Ray to see his parent’s new house where I never read the book. I looked at the Cliff Notes when I came back and allegedly lifted a line or three. I would have gotten away with it too if not for some other student who handed his paper in weeks after me with the entire page plagiarized. I went to academic court with nothing more than two character witnesses and one of them was my dad. They threw the book at me. Allowing me to come back after a year but that seemed like forever to me at the time.
When I arrive home in mid-May of eighty-four, I’m feeling surprisingly good about myself, despite my scholastic tragedy. A major factor is my acne, or lack of. Pimples that plagued my appearance for years miraculously cleared up after taking an experimental drug called Acutane during my whole last semester at Lynchburg. The drug truly helped me out of my shell, enabling me to view the world from a far more positive perspective. Another thing playing a role has to be my new marijuana habit. I was told by doctors not to drink any alcohol while taking Acutane, so after months of sexless sobriety I needed a release. I just couldn’t handle being straight, surrounded by a completely drunken and sexually active student body anymore. A couple of guys from Cherry Hill, NJ named Ron and Bill and other from Connecticut got me into it. While in high school I rarely smoked because it made me paranoid. It seemed to make my buddies happy though and I remained curious about it. Away at school I had nothing to be worried about in terms of being caught by my parents, so it worked. It took the place of alcohol, and with no hangovers. Haunting nervous feelings from the past were replaced with a sense of freedom and privilege. Now back in Jersey I’m interested to know if things will change since I’m smoking pot nearly every day now, just like my friends are.
Tom has been my best friend since 1979. He stands about 5’ 10” with some noticeably flabby weight to him, something he’s very conscious of. He has flat brown hair that flows down just past the ears and collar to frame his puffy cheeked Irish face. Picture a young Meat Loaf. He’s more of an Oscar than a Felix, meaning for instance he likes to wear his beat up Army jacket everyday, drinks regularly and pulls no punches. And like Oscar, Thomas has a soft side, preferring laughter to a fight any day.
Then there’s Beaman, a friend since 82. He’s a rare character, smart and full of personality. He loves rock music and knows a lot about it. He’s around 5’ 9”, with a good build, slight cleft lip and dirty blond curly hair. Cunningham came out as a bi-sexual to us about a year ago. He keeps it mostly to himself and gets more girls than all my friends combined, so it’s mainly overlooked. Occasionally my buddies and I will try to bust his chops, but Kevin has a strong outer shell and takes the ribbings well. In fact, he usually has quick and witty comebacks about our weak sex lives that shut us right up.
Next is Kevin C. He’s already a legend in Tom’s eyes before I’ve ever seen him. Apparently this guy was racing his 73’ Camero on the Garden State Parkway one night at speeds of over 150 MPH with police in hot pursuit. Something out of the “Blues Brother” movie from the way Tom describes it. He would get away and hide in a stranger’s driveway, but the cops were right back on his tail as soon as he tried to leave and make it back home. He ultimately crashed making a right hand turn into a telephone pole nearly maiming his cousin Victor in the passenger seat. The police came close to beating Beamen to death for leading them on the multi-township chase, then fought over which municipality would get to arrest them.
I first met Kevin at one of the Who shows in Shea Stadium during October of 82’. Turns out he’s a good guy with a great wit. He stands 5’ 9”, has a thin build, large nose, long dark Italian hair and all the body hair that goes along with that. He’s really into chicks and to his credit is having the first real relationship out of any of us with a girl worth boasting about.
One random night Cunningham brings up the Grateful Dead. He says, “They’re playing in Saratoga, about 3 ½ hours away this Sunday and my brother’s going.” “Does anyone want to go?” I ask, “Are they still around?” The words Grateful Dead sound so from out of left field to me. I imagine a small oldies revival show for ex-hippies turned corporate mouthpieces, lying on blankets or sitting in lawn chairs sipping wine out of plastic cups, while their new BMW’s await them in a nearby parking lot. Cunningham has credibility though. The year before he asked me if I wanted to go check out a band called U2 at the Capitol Theater in Passaic on the same night of the show. I said, “You Who”? “It’s a school night?” “I don’t know?” But with a little persuasion he convinced me to make the effort and what a pay-off. U2 blew the roof off the former vaudeville theatre and I left knowing I’d witnessed rock history in the making. With that in mind I agree to go and the rest of the guys follow.
The six of us are in the Northvale Shop-Rite parking lot at high noon on the fateful day. It’s overcast in the low seventies. Kevin and his brother Mark have volunteered to drive their cars. Mark’s a bigger, older version of Kevin, with darker hair and no cleft lip. He’s a seasoned deadhead who seems excited about being our tour guide. So with coolers packed and anticipation mid to low we hit the road. I’m in Mark’s car with Beamen and Tom. On the way up the Thruway Mark talks about the Dead experience and plays bootleg tapes that sound horrible to me. This “Sugar Magnolia” from one cassette is just hissing, rendering it barely recognizable, nothing like the studio version, which is awesome. Mark insists we wait to light up until we reach a certain bridge just past Albany. He says we need to pace ourselves for a long night. We wait and arrive stoned.
We drive up to what looks like the entrance to a lush green state park at around 4:00 PM. We pay a few bucks and proceed past this big Saratoga Performing Art Center sign then roll down a long and winding road lined with these huge tall trees. It’s enchanting, but dark and ominous like Hansel and Gretel’s forest. We continue driving for a while until we come across a small remote grass lot with woods surrounding it. here are only about 20 other cars in here. I guess it will be a low turn out. Mark leaves us within fifteen minutes to look for friends. I stay around the car playing Frisbee with Tom and Beamen while Kevin and Tom’s younger brother Matt or “Matty” go for a walk. Matt’s only sixteen, tall with long straight blond hair, a trim build and an easygoing personality. The girls like him. He also just happens to have a young 60’s rebel spirit about him and hates MTV. He’s actually really looking forward to this, and I’m not sure why. I mean the 60’s are over, right?
It starts raining after a while, prompting Tom, Beaman and I to jump in Kevin’s Dodge where we roll up a dry bone. We’re baked by the time Matty and Cunningham get back twenty minutes later. Kevin through a crack in the driver’s side window tells us he has some doses. “Doses, what’s “doses”? I say. “Its acid” he explains, “Let’s trip!” “LSD???” I’ve never done LSD before, nor did I think it even still existed. I’m very apprehensive about taking the legendary drug. I’ve heard some crazy stories of people jumping off highway overpasses thinking they could fly only to be smashed by the traffic below. I’m curious however, so with the rain pouring down, sitting in a friend’s car stoned, having no idea where anything is or what to expect, I decide to go along with the majority and drop.
After another thirty minutes of hanging out drinking beers in the cars we start walking towards the show. We have to trek a good half mile, through woods and over streams before getting to a clearing where hippies are gathering from every direction, creating what looks like a big wet mass of colorful confusion. The rain continues to stream down. People start yelling and howling. Butterflies take off up in my core like never before. I can feel the dose planted in me starting to sprout. Mark guides us through the entrance gate without a hitch then down a sloping lawn that faces a huge brown covered pavilion with several thousand filled seats underneath it. I can see the stage at the bottom. We stop halfway down a packed lawn, stage left and wait for the show to begin.