I’m going to Hettinger, my hometown, today. Class reunion. A chance to see many old friends. But I’d rather be in Chicago. Let me tell you why.
Just about exactly 20 years ago, on the morning of July 8, 1995, I was sitting under the Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, reading the St, Louis Post-Dispatch and sipping coffee, when I noticed a lot of long-haired freaky people in tie-dyed tee shirts and red bandanas wandering around the park. I wondered if this was a normal summer morning in St. Louis which was not noted, in my mind at least, as a real hippie kind of town.
I figured it out as I paged through the paper. A story on one of the inside pages said the Grateful Dead had just concluded a two-concert set there, and these were the remnants of the 50,000 or so “Deadheads” still hanging around town. Further down in the story, I read that they were opening a two-concert set in Chicago that night. Well, the only thing on my agenda for the day was to decide what to do that day. I decided Chicago, just 300 miles north, might be a good place to go.
I was about halfway through a two week driving trip between the end of one job and the start of another, a palate-cleansing exercise I have always performed between employment gigs. I changed jobs pretty frequently during my working years, growing tired of routines or searching for a few more bucks for my travel/concert budget. I’ve always taken a few weeks to make a clean break before starting over. This time I had set out for Hannibal, Missouri, to see Mark Twain’s home, a worn paperback copy of Hucklebery Finn, my book of books, beside me on the seat of a brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was also loaded with a lot of camping gear.
After doing that, and getting a full dose of Huckleberry History, including an overnight sleep near the bank of the Mississippi, I’d headed into St. Louis the night before, arriving in time to eat a late supper and a make decision to take a hotel room for a shower, which I needed badly.
Now, a good night’s sleep under my belt, I checked my maps and realized that Chicago was just 300 miles away, five or six hours at most. I hiked over to my Jeep, took off and headed north on Highway 61, destination Soldier Field, Chicago. Me and hundreds of “Deadheads” in Volkswagon microbuses and various other tie-dye painted jalopies, windows down, driving below the speed limit, clouds of smoke pouring out the windows. I never did figure out how they supported themselves, much less found the money to buy concert tickets, gas, dope and veggie burritos, but thousands of young people, even as late as 1995, traveled around the country, following the band, seeing as many concerts as they could. I was not one of them.
I’d never seen the Grateful Dead. I’d meant to, but the occasion never presented itself. I really wasn’t a huge fan of their music, but they were not just about the music. I’m sure the concerts were great, musically, but it was the spectacle of the band and Jerry Garcia, the larger than life image they projected, that drew their millions of fans. That and all the dope smoke in the air. The Upper Midwest was not really Dead Country. I guess they must have played in Minneapolis or Denver, but I never got there. And right then, in 1995, you never knew how long they would be touring—they’d had a fitful career. So this was my chance. I guessed there would be tickets on sale for a place as big as Soldier Field when I got there.
I managed to score a hotel room at a Holiday Inn not far from the concert site and walked to Soldier Field. I spent the late afternoon and early evening watching 50,000 or so people troop in through the gates, as I wandered around the parking lots, with hundreds of other Deadheads who were trying to score tickets, muttering “Looking for a miracle, man,” and “A lid for a ticket.” Alas, I had neither, and there were no tickets to be had anywhere near me. As concert time arrived, I sat down in the parking lot, leaning against a lamp post, clouds of marijuana smoke mushrooming around me, and listened from outside, with hundreds, maybe a couple thousand, other disappointed all-aged rockers.
I don’t recall much of the rest of that trip, just that I got home in time to start my new job working as a magazine editor for Lee Enterprises.
“Next time they’re anywhere near me,” I said to myself, “I‘ll catch their gig.” Everybody needs to see Jerry Garcia once before they die.
Or before HE dies, as turned out to be the case. That concert was the last one the Dead ever did with Garcia as the star. After the concert, Jerry Garcia went to California and checked himself into a rehab facility to get rid of his heroin and cocaine addiction. And of all things, he died there of a heart attack. Not a drug overdose. A heart attack! At age 53. I guess kicking the habit was just too much for him. My concert list is long, but Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead are not on it.
But, now, 20 years later, almost to the day, the Dead are back together, minus Garcia, and are playing at Soldier Field. Tonight, tomorrow night and Sunday night, July 3rd, 4th and 5th, they’ll be rocking Chicago again, and I will be in Hettinger, North Dakota, attending my 50-year class reunion. (Go ahead, take a break and do the math. Yep, I’m that old.)
I’ll guarantee you, if they had announced the concert before we planned this reunion, I’d have moved Heaven and Earth to change the dates of the reunion. And I’d have been in Chicago tonight. Maybe. Soldier Field seats about 60,000 for concerts. Ticket prices ranged from $60 to $200 when they went on sale earlier this year. There were 400,000 ticket requests to Ticketmaster. About half were lucky to score a ticket, some just to make a profit. You could buy a ticket for $15,000 today if you knew the right people. Jerry Garcia wouldn’t like that part.
The gig is not without some controversy. There will be plenty of Deadheads there, while others are boycotting, saying it just ain’t the same without Garcia. The New York times has a pretty good story about it.
And if you want to see some of the magic, here’s a link to a rough video of an old concert. First, grab a bottle of Ripple and whatever else you were taking when you listened to music in 1978. Then sit back and enjoy. It’s at least as enjoyable as any other fireworks you might see this weekend. Happy Independence Day.