From Ann Arbor, MI you can get to most East coast cities in around eight hours. We would cut across Canada to get to upstate New York and New England to save time and gas. This was before the scrutiny of the post 9-11 world and the terror of the Reagan court’s mandatory minimum sentences, which decimated thousands of Deadhead’s lives. Still, we would rustle up some button down collars and feign our best preppy college student appearances if we had to cross the border. This year we decided to hit the three night stand at the Philadelphia Civic Center, a small old theater near the art museum and the University of Pennsylvania. I recently heard that it has been torn down, but thirty years ago it was the destination for the fabulous freaks and delirious dancers of the Deadhead community, though no one said “community” back then.
Tickets and hotels were procured. The cheap rooms were all in New Jersey. We perfected our sore throat voices for calling in sick to bosses and professors. Marvin, a philosophy major, six feet tall, long brownish blond hair, thin as a rail and usually clad in a full length woolen poncho (he later added a carved wooden walking stick to the ensemble) provided the transportation. Our carriage was an ancient, medium blue Volvo which had no working heat, radio, blinkers or other “luxuries.” Well, actually, if you hit a good bump, the electric system would briefly sputter and start (until you hit the next bump). The driver’s window was a piece of plastic. The doors sometimes wouldn’t latch close and sometimes wouldn’t open. Marv invited our friend, Steve, a curly headed kid who was studying to be a history teacher. He was even skinnier than Marv, and wore glasses that always seemed to be sliding down his nose. Rather than push them up, he would crinkle up his face to inch them back a bit, giving him the appearance of constantly being either in deep thought or great pain. We rounded out our quartet with Andy, a rich guy with straight, black hair from New York who couldn’t decide if he wanted to be an artist, a dancer, an actor or an English major. He was an odd guy who seemed to try everything, liked nothing and was constantly complaining about something. He shunned away from anything that required actual effort. This month he was trying out being a Deadhead. I was skeptical of his joining our merry band of intrepid travelers, but Marv pointed out that the Dead experience was about inclusion and more experienced heads were obliged to be mentors to the nascent arrivals. Besides, he pointed out with a half smile, we needed his cash.
We left around midnight and cheered mightily as we crossed state borders and closed in on the city of brotherly love. I think we had a boom box for our musical entertainment. Andy asked if we were going to listen to the Dead the whole trip. Marv said no, but gave him the first of many stern glances that spoke volumes. We arrived at our motel, which was in about the same shape as our ride, without any major difficulties. The guy handed us our keys with a brief admonishment that he would be watching us, since we were obviously trouble. I beamed with pride at my newly found "outside agitator" status. We went up to the room to clean up, and were celebrating our arrival when Marv emerged from the bathroom wearing a green striped topcoat with tails. We were off to the show.
The parking lot was across the street from the venue and was filled with colorful, but dilapidated vehicles of every variety. If you ever wonder why people now sell beer in the lot, it’s because of me. I would always go up to the first group of guys I saw drinking and offer them a dollar (which was a good amount) for a brew. All was now grand in the world. Things got more crowded and there was a sudden scuffle as police were arresting a young girl for selling homemade t shirts from a back pack. As she was led away, crying, someone slipped their arm into the strap of the backpack and flung it high into the air. The incensed middle aged men in blue tried retrieving it as the hippies, who were half their age, played an enthusiastic game of keep away, tossing the bag over their heads and behind their backs while the crowd taunted and teased the cops. They finally left in disgust - the young girl having slipped away during all the commotion. With all due respect to the hard working officers out there, I think harassing a teenage girl with a sack of ‘fruit of the looms’ seems like a colossal waste of time. On the other hand, my admiration for the brash, protective nature of the Deadheads continued to swell.
We got inside the hall and I made a collect call home. I tried to keep my parents apprised of my whereabouts, but I didn’t like to tell them in advance, to prevent them from trying to talk me out of my plans. The conversation usually went something like,
“Hi, Dad, I’m in Philadelphia”
“What are you doing there?”
“Why else would I be here, I’m seeing Jerry”
“What about school?”
“Oh, well, um, school’s been cancelled this week because of a threat of nuclear holocaust”
I would hear a long sigh on the other end of the line and he would tell me to be careful and to call when I got back, which I rarely did.
We would usually ditch our seats and sneak onto the floor where there was more dancing room and the sound was better. Of course that meant you couldn’t leave for water because you might not be able to get back, which was good because you couldn’t get to the bathrooms, either. I couldn’t see anything, but that hardly mattered. A guy was dabbing fluorescent paint on people as they walked by. I gave him a friendly look that said, no thanks, but when he saw Andy, he laid a big glob of it on the tip of his nose, which caused us all to crack up. The lights went down and the band came on stage. Jerry had a habit of not looking at the crowd for a few minutes while he fiddled around with dials and knobs, tilting his head so his grayish black hair would cover his face. Marv thought this was kind of a diva thing to do, though no one said “diva” back then. He finally turned around, stretched his lips into a big grin and the magic began.
After a hot and sweaty first set the lights came back on and I saw a big pile of ice on the floor from someone who must have spilled a large soft drink. I instinctively scooped a big handful off the top and shoved it into my parched mouth. Andy recoiled in horror and looked to Marv who tilted his head a little and explained, “When you’re really, REALLY thirsty.” Late in the second set they played Morning Dew, which was my favorite song. I had never heard it live before, but had worn out the grooves on my Europe 72 album listening to it. I twirled, skipped and jumped until I had nothing left. I was elated that the first 24 hours of our odyssey went as smooth as silk stockings. Things were about to change.
Walking back to the car, we passed a dark, empty row of vehicles and noticed an older guy with a crew cut, in a blue windbreaker, punching an obviously inebriated concert goer, while yelling obscenities at him. Maybe it was the back pack scene from earlier in the day that motivated me, but without even thinking, I pushed my way between the two and started screaming at the guy to leave him alone. He stopped, muttered something under his breath, and walked away. My friends stood in stunned silence. Marv finally cleared his throat and asked what the hell had gotten into me? He pointed out that I never been in a fight in my life and that guy was probably a security guard and big enough to rip my head off with one hand. I didn’t really know how it happened either, but it sure felt good. Marv, still looking unnerved, didn’t seem to be sharing my enjoyment of evening. When I asked if he thought I was out of line, he pulled me aside and said, “Andy has decided that he didn’t really like the Dead and is flying home tomorrow.” My jaw hit the ground. I was amazed. Marv agreed to let him play some God awful disco mix tape on the way back. I gave him a quizzical look and he whispered to me that we didn’t have enough money for the room, gas and tolls without this poser and we were going to have to humor him for a while so he would give or lend us the cash necessary to get back home. Keep in mind that this was before credit card companies discovered that they could offer cards to penniless students, have them run up huge bills, and hold their parents accountable. We had no way, short of Western Union, to get money.
Back at the hotel, Andy removed any vestige of Deadness from his person – a bandana and a couple of stickers, I think – and became a whirlwind of phone calls and arithmetic. He, of course, had his parent’s credit card on him and had access to whatever funds he desired. He booked a flight and mulled over how much money he should bequeath upon us. Steve and I treated him like a bad smell. All I could think of was the pathetic bedwetters at overnight camp that couldn’t make it through the week (granted camp sucked, but still…) and cried until mommy came to rescue them. All degree of civility and politeness had broken down in our group. I wouldn’t even look at him. He gave Marv forty or fifty bucks based on some calculation of what he actually owed us minus his remaining tickets that he said were easily worth $25 each. I told him he was a dumbass and it broke the Deadhead’s code to gouge other heads by selling tickets for more than you paid for them. Marv, exasperated, reminded me that he could leave and not give us any money, in which case we’d be stranded.
Moments after pulling away from the airport the next morning, things returned to the generally jolly state of the journey. We now had the glory of making Andy the butt of all our jokes, especially since Marv informed us that he had pressured Andy into forking over a few more bucks, partly by hinting that I knew where he lived in Ann Arbor and I was clearly crazy enough to do anything. We returned to the city and wandered, acting giddy and clowning around while looking at all the historic buildings. We had fun taking pictures of ourselves in front of landmarks and spent some of Andy’s money on a decent lunch. I saw the Liberty Bell for the first time. I don’t know if this is what the founders had in mind, but I was overwhelmed with the sense of freedom, power and ease that we were now experiencing.
I have no memories of the second show except to say that once you returned to the same spot, at the same venue, and saw the same people there from the night before, you felt like you owned the place. This was now your neighborhood and everyday was a block party. Feeling the lingering effects of travel, two concerts, 48 hours of nearly nonstop movement and the ensuing drama, we couldn’t wait to return to our suite at the flea bitten, blue light hotel.
We drove toward the exit, compiling a setlist, when someone ran up to the car waving their arms. “Hey, you guys are leaking something, I think it’s gas.” When I looked under the car I saw, not a drip, but a gusher. It was gasoline. Marv killed the engine while Steve saw a NJ plate pulling out and hurriedly asked if the guy could give us a ride. He agreed. We all sat quietly in the car, contemplating this unfortunate turn of events, while the driver talked nonstop in a thick “Joisey” accent. He was scalper, and seemed to feel compelled to explain to us why “scalpers are people, too.” I felt even worse about selling the two tickets for $25 each.
On a bus back to the city the next day, Marv couldn’t believe that Steve and I were going to spend some of the five dollars that we each had for food that day, on cigarettes. We decided to check out that morning, catch a bus back to Philadelphia, and bring our stuff to the Volvo, which was now a large suitcase on wheels. We figured that we could patch up the fuel line and leave after the show. Hopefully we’d be home by Sunday morning. We pooled our remaining money and tried to budget for the rest of the trip. Steve and I pointed out that the smokes would curb our appetite. We checked out the leak and realized that it was the fuel filter. Though all kinds of people offered us help, understandably, no one wanted to leave the lot and drive us to an auto parts store. One guy with Colorado plates pulled some extra hose and clamps from his trunk and gave them to us. I noticed a shoebox full of ticket stubs. He said he would tape some of them together if he was ticketless and try to walk quickly past the guards. Was there any length these guys wouldn’t go, to be in the same room with Jerry Garcia? Steve took a nap in the Volvo while Marv and I attempted to decipher the local transportation system and managed to find a car shop. They didn’t have the filter and, no, they didn’t know of any other parts stores. We’d have to find a Volvo dealership and they’d probably have to order it. I didn’t know much about cars but I had done a little body work to fix some rust. I had the bright idea of trying Bondo to patch the cracked filter.
We crawled under the car with some borrowed tools and worked in the heat and the dust until the small silver cylinder was completely covered with the reddish paste. We toasted ourselves with some parking lot beers and waited for the mixture to dry. Someone asked me what we were doing and I explained. He asked if we were going into the show and I laughed. “Marv” I said incredulously, “He wants to know if we’re going into the show.” Marv popped his head out from under the car and chuckled. “We might never see Ann Arbor again, but we’re going inside.” We decided to try our patch. Marv started the car. It held for maybe a minute when the leak returned. Marv read the can. “This mixture is soluble in petroleum products.” For a group of allegedly smart guys, we felt pretty stupid. We were out of ideas and out of time. Everything was going to be closed on Sunday and we had class on Monday. We had already missed Thursday and Friday.
It was about an hour before the show. In addition to not having a way home, we had no place to stay. Anxiety worked its way into our heads. Steve remembered that he had a high school friend who went to college in Philly. We found a pay phone in a restaurant lobby. Steve called the University and looked up her number. In a moment that could have been pulled out of the movie, “Animal House”, he told her that he was in town, and yeah, sorry he hadn’t talked to her in three years, but he needed a place to sleep, and, by the way, could she find a place for his two friends, also? The guy was smooth in a goofy sort of way. There was a long, awkward pause. Finally, she said we could sleep in the lounge at her dorm. We were set. We put our transportation and shelter problems on the back burner and enjoyed the show. Strangely, I wasn’t worried anymore. We’d figure something out. I was completely submerged in the mindset of the music. Just keep truckin’ along.
We bopped and whooped at the concert as if we didn’t have a care in the world. After the short walk over to the University, we entered the hall through a back door and were led up a couple of staircases. We found ourselves on modular couches in a large room full of windows. There was even a shower. I looked out over the sparkling city lights while guitar riffs, snare drums and crooning harmonies reverberated in my head. I told myself that there was no way I wasn’t doing this for the rest of my life.
We woke on a cool and grey Easter morning and headed back to the lot. A few stragglers were still there, but the whole city seemed deserted. I suggested that our only hope was to use the hose and clamps and bypass the filter. It almost worked but we needed one more large hose clamp. As we stumbled around the vacant parking lot, Marv shook his head and exclaimed, “No way!” There at his feet was a small brown vial containing a white powder. We had no money, no food, no car, but, we now had cocaine. Marv pocketed it saying we should definitely hold on to this, in case we could trade it for assistance of some kind. Steve commented that it was weird how many taxis drove by considering there weren’t any hotels or attractions nearby. We followed their path until we saw the cab garage a block away. We entered the front door where they told us they couldn’t help us. Marv tried to argue, but, remembering he was now packing dope, and we were trespassing, he quickly gave up. Steve heard some noise as we walked outside and opened a door. It was the repair shop. We convinced the mechanic that we were in dire straits and begged him to sell us a hose clamp. We started digging in our pockets for change when the guy handed us a fistful of clamps and told us to scram. We short circuited the fuel supply and gas now flowed freely into the engine without losing a drop. I leaped in the air. We wasted no time in returning to the highway. We were three young men heading west.
The ride home was tiresome, but full of banter, until Steve and I fell asleep. As we approached Toledo for the final dogleg of the trip, Marv said the car was running rough. It occurred to us that a decade or more of crud from the gas tank was now entering the engine, unfiltered. We got off the highway and tried to proceed at a slower speed on the secondary roads. My weary eyes strained to see the atlas and find a route as the light faded. Marv announced that we couldn’t stop because the car would stall. He had to floor it to go 35 mph. We were about 45 miles from home. He was cautiously crashing lights and stop signs, trying not to conk out the engine, which was now sounding like a chainsaw. The law of averages finally caught up with us and we got pulled over by a squad car. That’s when Marv cried out, “Shit, I dropped the coke!”
With flashlights all over us and cops shaking their heads at the condition of our once proud assemblage of Swedish technology, we considered our options. Marv couldn’t roll down the driver’s window, as it was a sheet of plastic. If he forced the door open, the drugs could fall onto the policeman’s feet. Steve decided to get out on the passenger’s side when I noticed the cop outside my window started to rub his finger along the snap on his holster. I only had one thought in my head. I was so glad that I got to see Morning Dew before I was locked up.
Marv climbed out the passenger door. You could tell he sensed an unfavorable outcome to this encounter. He told the cops that there was probably a hundred things that they could arrest us for, but we were college students on the last stretch of a thousand mile trip and if they just let us drive back to Ann Arbor, we would junk the car and never pass through their lovely town again. And that’s exactly what they did.
As we pulled in front of his house an hour later, Marv ran out to hug his girlfriend. Blurry eyed and beyond exhaustion, physically and mentally, I just started walking home, without even saying goodbye. Marv called out for me to wait. He asked if I was all right. I looked at his strung out face and back at the dying hunk of rust on the street. I said, without any expression, “So when does summer tour begin?”