Good Old Grateful Dead

Page 7 of 8

Ticket takers talk politely of "Mr. Ramrod" and "Mr. Bear"; in San Francisco Airport a pudgy waitress, "Marla" stamped on the plastic nameplate pinned to her right udder, leaves her station starry-eyed and says she's so glad to see them because she came to work stoned on acid and it's been a freak-out until she saw them like angel horsemen galloping through her plastic hell; Tom, his mustachioed face effortlessly sincere, gives a beginning lecture on the joys of Scientology, explaining that he hopes someday to be an Operating Thetan (O.T.) and thus be able to levitate the group while they're playing – and of course they won't ever have to plug in.

Pig lowers beneath his corduroy hat, grunting, "Ahhh, fork!" whenever the spirit moves, and the Bear starts a long involved rap about how the Hell's Angels really have it down, man, like this cat who can use a whip like a stiletto, could slice open your nostrils, first the right, then the left, neat as you please, and everyone agrees that the Angels are righteously ugly.

They miss their San Francisco connection and have to hang around the airport for a couple of hours, but that somehow means that they arrive first class, free drinks and all. With lunch polished off, Mickey Hart needs some refreshment, so he calls across the aisle to Ramrod, then holds his fingers to his nose significantly. Ramrod tosses over a small vial of cocaine and a jack knife, and Mickey, all the while carrying on an intense discussion about drumming, sniffs up like he was lighting an after dinner cigar: "Earth music is what I'm after" – sniff – "the rhythm of the earth, like I get riding a horse" sniff sniff "and Bill feeds that to me, I play off of it, and he responds. When we're into it, it's like a drummer with two minds, eight arms, and one soul" – final snort, and then the vial and jack knife go the rounds. Multiple felonies in the first class compartment, but the stewardesses are without eyes to see. The Dead, in the very grossness of their visibility, are invisible.

The plane lands in Portland. "Maybe it'll happen today," says Jerry waiting to get off, "the first rock and roll assassination. Favorite fantasy. Sometime we'll land, and when we're all on the stairs, a fleet of black cars will rush the plane like killer beetles. Machine guns will pop from the roofs and mow us down Paranoid, huh? But, fuck, in a way I wouldn't blame 'em." No black cars though, that day anyway.

Lenny has done some figuring on the plane. "Things are looking up," he says. "We ought to have the prepaid tickets for this trip paid by the end of next week." Jerry says that's boss, and the Bear makes a point of showing off the alarm clock he got in San Francisco. Lenny takes it as a joke and says just be ready next time or he'll be left behind. Danny Rifkin brings the good news that they have a tank of nitrous oxide for the gig. Everybody goes to sleep.

The dance is at Springer's Inn, about ten miles out of town, and they start out about 9:30. A mile from the place there is a huge traffic jam on the narrow country road, and they stick the cars in a ditch and walk, a few fragments in the flow to Springer's under a full yellow moon. The last time they played Portland they were at a ballroom with a sprung floor that made dancing inevitable, but Springer's is just as nice. It's a country and western place, walls all knotty pine, and beside the stage the Nashville stars of the past thirty years grin glossily from autographed photos – "Your's sincerely, Marty Robbins." "Love to Y'all, Norma Jean," Warmest regards, Jim Reeves. "You got a bigger crowd than even Buck Owens," says the promoter and Jerry grins. It is sardine, ass-to-ass packed and drippingly hot inside.

The band stands around the equipment truck waiting for the Bear to finish his preparations. Someone donates some Cokes and they make the rounds. "Anyone for a lube job," Bill calls to the hangers-on. "Dosed to a turn," says Phil. Jerry, already speechlessly spaced on gas, drinks deep. They are all ready.

It seems preordained to be a great night. But preordination is not fate; it comes to the elect and the elect have to work to be ready for it. So the Dead start out working; elation will come later. "Morning Dew" opens the set, an old tune done slow and steady. It is the evening's foundation stone and they carefully mortise it into place, no smiles, no frills. Phil's bass is sure and steady, Bill and Mickey play almost in unison. Then Bob sang "Me and My Uncle," a John Phillips tune with a country rocking beat. They all like the song and Bob sings it well, friendly and ingenuous. Back to the groove with "Everybody's Doing that Rag," but a little looser this time. Jerry's guitar begins to sing, and over the steady drumming of Bill, Mickey lays scattered runs, little kicks, and sudden attacks. Phil begins to thunder, then pulls back. Patience, he seems to be saying, and he's right: Jerry broke a string in his haste, so they pull back to unison and end the song. But Jerry wants it bad and is a little angry.

"I broke a string," he shouts at the crowd, "so why don't you wait a minute and talk to each other. Or maybe talk to yourself, to your various selves" – he cocks his head with a glint of malice in his eyes – "can you talk to your self? Do you even know you have selves to talk to?"

The questions, involute and unanswerable, push the crowd back – who is this guy asking us riddles, what does he want from us anyway? But the band is into "King Bee" by that time. They hadn't played that for a while, but it works, another building block, and a good way to work Pig into the center, to seduce him into giving his all instead of just waiting around for "Lovelight." It is like the Stones but muddier – Pigpen isn't Mick Jagger after all. Jerry buzzes a while right on schedule, and the crowd eases up, thinking they were going to get some nice blues. The preceding band had been good imitation B. B. King, so maybe it would be a blues night, Wrong again.

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