Friday, September 13, 2019

Late at night while washing dishes I had an insight that the Grateful Dead’s peak years of cultural influence were not the ‘60s but the ‘80s.

When I got into the Dead I thought I was late to the party. The ‘60s had happened, the ‘70s too. Jerry fat and gray. I wasn’t around for the Acid Tests, the Be-In. The Fillmore, the Carousel, the Avalon. What could it have been like to go to a concert on a Tuesday night, get dosed by Bear and wind up naked in the park, not lost and despairing but with a dozen kindred souls, all laughing ecstatically, scrutinizing the straight world as it awoke to go to work and not giving a fuck except about the universe? This happened, I know. But not to me.

Shows seemed to occur on the fly yet were promoted—and so memorialized—by gloriously psychedelic posters. Cost a buck to get in, maybe five or maybe nothing. For years this band had played in parks, on the street, on campuses, all the while revolution in the air. I know—I saw the pictures in the books. How I wished I was there. All the clothes were cooler. The hair. Everything was happening and nothing was predictable. You could probably go right up there and sit on that stage if you wanted, by the tangle of cables and the speakers with the tie-dye grilles.

When their audience got bigger the Dead responded in kind: a sound system three stories tall, shows that lasted hours and hours, long weird Dark Stars. Egypt on a lark. I missed all that, too. Now the band seemed diminished, constrained; endlessly touring the hockey arenas of the United States, subject to regulations as to when to stop. Set lists, though still varied and unique, had acquired a creeping formality: some songs were openers, some closers; there were first-set songs and second-set songs and everybody knew the encores. The weirdest music all tidied up and filed away in the middle of the second set. There were tendencies for certain sequences. Tendencies for sequences of sequences. Ronald Reagan was president; nothing was happening and everything was predictable.

I got it on good authority that Jerry was a junkie and I thought, my God. The darkness of it. The coldness. In my naive head all filled with flowers it seemed like a betrayal.

But the music was still there. Jerry bent at the neck, playing furious triplets in dorian mode. The drummers never hitting anything at once. Or on the one. Phil. There was a careening, dangerous quality to the music—dangerous in the sense of something big that’s falling over—that could be quite compelling if you were so inclined. And quite not if not, which kind of proves the point. Turns out the formality provided a context, a foil. The deviations, the surprises, they meant more than mere chaos ever could.

In fact the Dead were never more powerful and influential. They reached many, many more people than they had before. If you were a kid in Pittsburgh, or St. Louis, or Santa Fe, you went to the Dead show when it came to town. Like it or not. There weren’t a lot of kicks to be had in this country in 1983. No Instagram and nothing on TV. If you wanted to do anything interesting you’d better see the Grateful Dead.

It only took a few influential stoners to go at first, then next time ‘round there’d be a horde: younger siblings, someone’s preppy girlfriend and all her friends, jocks who got drunk in the parking lot. And this cycle of influence was a machine: for years the band played up and down the East Coast every spring and fall, through the middle of the country every summer and on the West Coast all the other time. It would be difficult to not go to a Grateful Dead concert.

And everyone took acid. Didn’t matter if they liked the band or not. Many did, but for sure many didn’t. I remember the scene at the Springfield Civic Center in the spring of ‘86. I went with my Deadhead friend Bill like always but there were lots of others from our school. Being a devotee I hoped pridefully that they’d get it, that their minds would be blown by the music. Of course they didn’t give a fuck—except maybe one or two that did. There was always the one or two. But most of them were there because it was there, man. I recall watching a friend, a popular kid whose tastes ran toward the Hooters and Crowded House. He roamed past circles of dancing hippies, bemused, while his best friend sat nearby, cradling his LSD-exploded head between his knees. What the fuck were they doing there? Wrong question. How the fuck could they not be there?

The Dead in fact instilled in the American adolescent a reflex for taking psychedelic drugs and going to the coliseum, maybe telling off a cop or two, then finding their way home Gonzo-style to put the pieces back together. Wake up late for school and mumble at their moms. Kids began to do this at every show—not just the Dead. When Iron Maiden came to town, same thing. Clapton, same thing. The Police, Def Leppard, Bad Company. Didn’t fucking matter. No matter the music, no matter the culture it was intended to represent, when performers looked out from the stage they saw thousands of dosed-out teenagers whose perceptions and reactions could not be relied upon too well. The Acid Test continued.

This was the true influence of the Grateful Dead, and their legacy too.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

TROOPS

The nurse looked and clucked in horror.

I check my spam folder as a procrastination exercise. Nothing legitimate, nothing new from that Estonian hacker trying to make me think he’s watching me. Just parking deals at JFK and LGA. Discounts at the go-kart track.

Awoke to someone using the whole keyboard at the end of a tune, rumbling bass notes. I had been dreaming about moving out of a house and writing songs at the same time. The songs, two of them, were turning out well except I was having trouble rhyming “morning.” The line was something like, “And if we’re still together come the morning,” and I wanted to avoid rhyming it with “warning” ‘cause I’ve done that already in another song. Can’t have two morning-warning songs. But what else? All I could think of was “adjourning.”

Monday, September 09, 2019

We sat at the bar with money in dwindling piles, like gamblers with their chips. The team was losing, losing, losing and then it was winning, and then it won. We talked about music and restroom hand-drying technology.

We joined our families outside. The sun moved slowly. Maybe sometimes not at all. Finally we said goodbye to our friends who are moving and then we left.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Blink

I don’t know whose idea it was. Maybe mine. But one night we got drunk like we did a lot of nights and drove the back roads home. At a fork there was an orange-and-white striped barrel with an orange light on top, blinking stupidly into the dark, guarding nothing, warning of nothing.

We stopped and I got out. No cars around, no houses. I grabbed the thing—could it even be lifted? Was it weighted with cement or somehow affixed in place, per some regulation? No. I had it in my arms like it was waiting to be taken. I carried it back, hurriedly, conscious now of the illicitness of my deed.

I placed it in the trunk and we drove off, happy, laughing. Satisfied. A fuck you to the Man under cover of the night.

At home we displayed it in the kitchen for a while. We formed a circle around it and watched it blink at us. We laughed. We stopped laughing. We drank. We laughed again.

Finally we dispersed and I took it upstairs to my room. I examined it in the quiet and the solitude. It blinked relentlessly. If I focused on the light everything else around it disappeared. I could almost hear it. Feel it. I put it in the closet and went to bed.

I awoke fitfully before dawn, disturbed by an alien presence, menacing and nameless. The light was pulsing through the gaps around the closet door, filling the darkened room with orange bursts. It seemed to have grown brighter in the night. Stronger. I pulled the covers over my head.

In the morning I opened the closet, hoping somehow it’d be gone. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. I opened the window and leaned out. There was a basement window well below, maybe five feet deep. I dragged the thing over and heaved it out. I watched it fall heavy through the air, wobbling a little. It landed softly, quietly, in a bed of copper-colored leaves. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink. I went down and buried it good under the leaves and dirt. Soon winter would come with ice and snow. We’d all move out eventually. Get married, have kids. Careers.

But the infernal blinking would go on and on.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Having curious fantasies, daydreams, at work that while I’m focused on my screen someone will walk up from behind me and punch me hard in the back of the head. This act will be outrageous, of course—others will look in horror, will intercede to help me, to confront my attacker. But on a certain level it will also be deserved.

I navigated the mists of perfume and miscellaneous promotions at Macy’s to find my way upstairs to buy a blazer. All was calm up there, sales associates hanging out, gossiping lightly. How could this still be a business? Every other brick and mortar store closing doors.

A woman assisted me in a pleasingly unhurried, uneager fashion. She seemed to have been there, pacing these same aisles, for decades. Try this size, looks good, do you need a shirt? I realized yes but not a moment before she asked. She left me to browse the racks, instructing me to come back to her for help, not any other clerk. We all know how it works.

At the end I bought what I wanted to buy and I guess what she wanted me to buy too. I applied for the credit card just to get the discount, just like everybody knows. She noticed we were born the same year and expertly punctuated our interaction with a gesture of informality: “You’re as old as me?” Smile, nod, we’re not getting any younger.

She does this for a living.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Summer is the time for sickly drinks: white beer that tastes a bit like puke; thin, acidy rosé. These aren’t my favorite drinks but they must be drunk abundantly in summer.

We took the bus back down to the beach after dinner, to go to Funny Land. A big family got on, grandmother, mother, kids. A loud, misbehaving girl; a quiet, sweet one. Another with a wooden leg. I wondered what their lives are like.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The plane from the tail cam looked Christlike in the rain in the morning.

Outside you couldn’t see anything but the wing. The instructions regarding step here, don’t step there. For maintenance personnel and monsters from the Twilight Zone.

Charles de Gaulle smells of piss and perfume in equal measure. The piss has gotten more pronounced over the years, renovations deferred, maintenance budgets cut. Rate your experience with a sad face or a smile.

The jetlag dreams were difficult. An enormous project at work, as big as the sky, impossible to complete. But I had to try.