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The Grateful Dead Played My 30th Birthday

February 26th, 2012 · 12 Comments · Grateful Dead, Music, New York City, Real-life Adventure Tales

The Grateful Dead Played My 30th 


Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned At A Grateful Dead Concert

            The weekend of my 30th birthday, four old friends drove from Winnipeg to New York to help celebrate it, and the Grateful Dead flew in from San Francisco to play.

It’s a curious story how the Dead have ended up following this displaced Canadian around all these years.  I first heard them at an older friend’s house when I was about 16.  Of all the musical vibrations emanating through my teens, I’m still not sure why it was these guys who were strumming the rhythm of my inner pulse.  Why wasn’t it The Beatles, The Stones, Elvis, Bruce, or any of the other aural entities who captured my peers’ ears?  Why was it the Grateful Dead, a San Francisco acid-rock band from the sixties, and not some Canadian beer-rock band from the seventies?  I mean, I’d barely even heard of acid, let alone knew what it was, let alone done it at one of their concerts.  And I’d certainly never been to San Francisco.  Fifteen years later, I’m still amazed that what struck me then, continues to strike me today.

After I first heard this otherwise unknown band in Winnipeg, I held their sound between my ears and went off in search of their records.  The stores in my farm implement outpost didn’t have a Grateful Dead section.  Most didn’t even have them under “Misc – G.”  Finally in some basement New & Used joint I found one, and the journey began.  At the time, no one else I knew was listening to them.  I mean no one.  And since they weren’t on the radio or anything, it was difficult to put their records on at parties.  I remember it got to the point where I would plead to get one side played, which would give me a fix for the night.  Even then, before I’d ever seen them, or even thought that I would, I was living on nightly fixes.  Little did I know the size of the future doses.

The concept of seeing a band live wasn’t even in our frame of reference.  In Winnipeg, we weren’t too sure what a concert was, and were hardly aware that they existed.  So few tours came to town, the ones that did were more like a traveling exposition that everyone felt obliged to attend but didn’t quite understand.  And it seemed like the Grateful Dead were something that happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

But one afternoon, there in a 7-11 on the corner of this lily-white elm-treed neighborhood in a mid-western prairie town, I was flipping through a Rolling Stone magazine when I came across a two-page photograph of a huge crowd of people that looked like an aerial shot of Woodstockonly the caption read, “150,000 people rise for The Dead.”  I later learned this was the famous Englishtown, New Jersey concert, and I was looking at the heads of many of my future friends.  I remember crouching there, slurping a slurpee out of a plastic hockey cup with the condensation dripping to the floor, looking at this black & white spread of people pushing toward the stage, and realizing it wasn’t for Jimi Hendrix and a cast of hundreds.  “The Dead again?  Who are these guys?”  A hundred thousand was nearly the population of my town.  I realized then that something was definitely going on in America that we didn’t know anything about.

These odd little experiences began piling on top of each other out there on the frozen tundra.  There was the time that out-of-town band played at The Zoo and covered their tunes.  There was that poster on the wall at the babysitting place.  There was that chapter in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

After high school I bought a van, with my subconscious mind muttering, “This’ll get me to a Grateful Dead concert.”  The next spring, friends and I drove to Vancouver and settled in.  Before long, word filtered up that the band was playing in Seattle.   The show was sold out by the time we heard about it, but I remember phoning and pleading, and somehow getting to mail them a money order because the extra soundboard pulls or something would be going on sale in a week.  Either way, from our naive little apartment on the wrong side of the border we were able to procure our first tickets to a lifelong adventure.

The initial show was general admission, and there was this unusually comfortable conformity in the amount of space each person took on the floor.  The Deadheads we talked to all seemed surprised that this was our first show.  We were wondering, “What do you mean?  Isn’t it yours?  Why do these people all think this is strange?  Why are they grinning at us like that?”

After a summer of starving out west, I ended up in college in New York, whereupon the Dead promptly came to town for eight shows at Radio City Music Hall.  Suddenly the phenomena I’d brushed up against in Seattle was in town for a fortnight.  What were once misunderstood expositions was now a visiting circus!  And what a spectacle it turned out to be, with the camped-out American hippies pulling off a coup at music’s Palace of Versailles!  This was the sacrificial whiplash of my indoctrination, where The Innocent Canadian gets snatched up and flung through the American Animal House Fraternity, with everyone plastered on a 20 year bender of social freedoms.

And now, on this most recent birthday weekend, as I danced across the threshold from my first three decades and into the next, the house band was playing once again.

My old school buddies from Canada and I arrived in the parking lot at noon for a 7:00 show, joining tens of thousands of tailgaters already in full twist.  Every car, hatchback and van was smothered in transparent Dead decals, every window exposing the backpacks, cloths and gear of a moving army with too few vehicles.

Various periods of the band were playing from stereos in every direction.  Wherever we stood, dancing licks from some incarnation would dominate, until we wandered on and a different one would weave into focus.  The most deadicated were blasting crystal-clear speakers perched on rooftops, inspiring you to linger a little longer when the tune was sweet.

There we were, broiling on the blacktop of a steel-filled parking lot in the devastating heat of a Greenhouse summer, with beers and juice were for sale every few feet, and grilled-cheese sandwiches twice an aisle.  The visiting foursome had never been to a Dead show before, and despite my fervent preparations, they were still stunned silent.  But after we had encircled the Giant coliseum once, they seemed to have internalized the dancing shuffle and oft-interrupted pace, and were singing the collective tune of the kind, kind day.

Granted, there were overripe school kids guzzling beer, and here we were in our thirties, but there was no question that they were us and this was the culmination of a personal dream.  From those little tid-bits in a 7-11, and chance platters at a pal’s place, I was finally able to pull a group of old friends into the Kaleidoscopic Dancehall after all these years.  I’d spent much of my teens trying to convince everyone we should move to California.  The Great Migration never took place, but now some latter-day version was.

The long, circular asphalt stroll somehow condensed the years gone by.  Here, far from the madding Mounties, were free-styling Americans ─ that most shocking group in the eyes of Cautious Canucks ─ who were smoking joints, tossing frizbees, and GOING FOR IT, something that’s as foreign to Canadians as all-English labeling.  Here were my four porcelain-white brothers a million miles from the jaywalking tickets of home, sashaying through the breast bouncing, sun worshiping euphoria of a world they’d never seen.

I wish I could have time-traveled the optimistic faces of my youth into the land I discovered later, but then who doesn’t?  In New York I was able to find what we’d been striving to build on our own on that frozen permafrost.  I’ve never been able to share, except on occasional weekend outings, the findings of my Expedition South of the 49th.  But now, here we were, crossing the boundary between the plans of our twenties and the work of our thirties, and the faces and flames were together once again to share it.  It’ll be a different picture at the next decade’s dawn, but for now, as youth was burning away like that last slurp of gas from an empty tank, at least the car was full of the same faces as when the journey began.

Not everything was perfect.  It was stupefyingly hot, and a couple of the gang didn’t quite get The Big Picture, but that’s part of it too.  It’s what we are not that defines us as clearly as what we are.  We weren’t of one mind back then, and we weren’t that weekend on the tarmac.


But what we were was together, and if there’s anything homo sapiens crave, it’s more of the same.  If you can gaze into the human mirrors of your childhood every couple of years, you’re never going to grow too old, or wander too far astray.  If you can’t tell how fat you’re getting by trying on your pants, invite your soulmates over for coffee and check the waistline.  You can be full of shit, but they’ll see it.  You can blow your balloon as full as you want, and they’ll pop it.  Your carefully stacked rationalizations will topple in a breeze of your own reflection.

And it’s a joy.  It’s a joy when you wake up to find you that you’ve been doing something right all along.  And it’s even a joy to see where the sails need trimming.  Only old friends can bring that into focus.

And so it is with any band, … or novel, or movie, or canvas.  Good art grows with you.  If it’s real, it’s there for a lifetime, and you’ll grow up in its landscape.  Charlie Parker when you’re 50, or van Gogh at 60, will still inspire a celebration of life, but they’ll be in a different shade than today.  All the tingles you ever felt are still there for the rekindling.  The masters of eternity knit with the golden thread of our spirit, and have weaved a little of each of us into their song.


= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

For a reprise of the Jerry Happy Birthday Adventure, check out the 2014 Not Fade Away story.

Or here’s the Merry Pranksters at Yasgur’s Farm Adventure.

Or here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming book on Kerouac, the Dead and Kesey — arriving at Red Rocks for a show in 1982.

For more Adventures in Music — you may want to check out the (Route) 66 Best live performances ever captured on film.

Or the New Orleans Jazz Fest ride.

Or the night Dylan showed up at Springsteen’s show at Shea Stadium in New York.

Or when Neil Young returned to Massey Hall in Toronto.

Or Paul Simon doing Graceland in Hyde Park in London.

Or Furthur came back and reprised the Dead at Madison Square Garden.

Or when the Dead, Janis, The Band and others took the Festival Express train trip across Canada.

Or the night I was hanging with Dr. John’s band in Toronto.

Or here’s the day I finally “got” Bob Dylan

Or the night we all lost John Lennon


by Brian Hassett

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12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Megan Reese // Feb 27, 2012 at 1:01 PM

    ahhhhh Giants Stadium … this was the year before our “reunion” 😀
    Thanks for showing me The Magic, Mr. B!
    You brought me home. 😉

  • 2 Joe Myles // Feb 28, 2012 at 11:24 PM

    Great recap!! And Grate week-long adventure that started with that boat cruise in the harbour and it was Pie’s first show … and he kept saying, “This is the biggest party I’ve ever been to in my life!” 🙂
    Thanks for turning us on to the Scene! Life was never the same again!!

  • 3 Dunc Lennox // Feb 29, 2012 at 7:09 PM

    I shoulda made that birthday trip!! Sorry I missed it — but it sounds like you guys were waving that flag wide and high!!

  • 4 John Cassady // Apr 2, 2012 at 10:42 PM

    Grate tale of discovery. It was a little quicker access for me with my dad hanging out with them …. but I’m sure glad you found your way!
    “People joining hand in hand
    while the music played the band …”

  • 5 Will Hodgson // Apr 4, 2012 at 2:12 PM

    “…chance platters at a pal’s place …”
    Glad to have been of assistance. 😉

  • 6 Ben Kleiman // Apr 7, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    You got into these guys way before I did — and it was too late by then. They must have been exciting and so LIVE in concert. REALLY interesting players. Thanks for turning me onto them, albeit posthumously.

  • 7 Albert Kaufman // Apr 17, 2012 at 5:21 PM

    An oldie but goodie … I remember you sending me this about 20 years ago. Grate tribute to a Grate band. I miss the days of taking a 75 cent subway and getting tickets for $5 outside MSG. Glad we rode the ride all those years we did. Thanks for capturing it and taking me back.

  • 8 Dan Neil // Apr 17, 2012 at 9:20 PM

    “When you get confused, listen to the music play!”
    Thanks for 11/11/85!! What a long strange trip it’s been!!!

  • 9 Alex Nantes // May 5, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    ahhhh ha-ha-ha-ha !!!!
    You took me to my first show!! Dosy-doe and a campground till dawn! As they say …. “There’s NOTHING like a Grateful Dead concert!!”
    Thanks for sharing then and now — let’s doob it again sometime!!

  • 10 Stacy Anthony // Jun 14, 2012 at 2:54 PM

    Thanks for the time travel. This is one of my favorite stories I’ve read of yours. But now I’m jonsing for show!!!
    Furthur on up the road …

  • 11 Chris Welch // Mar 13, 2013 at 8:11 PM

    So THIS is what the fuss is all about!!!
    Thanks for the explanation. I think I sorta get it now. 😉

  • 12 Juliana Moreira Leite // Sep 20, 2013 at 9:17 PM

    I saw the Dead live twice, when I lived in San Diego the first friend I made was a Canadian deadhead named Tracy,, she took me to see them and for a young Brazilian girl like me it was an awesome and magical experience 🙂

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