March 14, 2018

Travelin' Man


I've never been to Europe. I've never been to any other country other than Mexico, and that doesn't count because I was in Cancún.

Cancún, if you've never been there, isn't really Mexico at all. Let me put it to you this way: Taco Bell is authentic Mexican cuisine in Cancún.

It's not even real. It was a narrow strip of land until 1970. The population was three, literally. Three people lived on it. They all knew each other.

The Mexican government decided to turn it into a tropical paradise, and built nine hotels. Mexicans work at them. None of them live in Cancún. Nevertheless, we tried to embrace the cultural heritage of the place by going to Ruth Chris Steak House and the Hard Rock Café, and ogling jewelry at Cartier's. Karen had her eye on a jewel-encrusted watch but sadly, it only told time in Mexican or I would have gladly purchased it for her.

When we got home, I kept calling my friends in New York "amigos" until Karen made me stop.

Most of the places I've been to are places where the Grateful Dead have played. I inevitably make time to take a tour of some of the local landmarks and partake of the local culture.

OK, I'm lying.

When you are on tour with a rock band you check into the hotel, crash, get up around 6 PM, grab something to eat, go to the show, and then party all night. In a day or two, it's back on the road, where the process is repeated. You don't do much sightseeing.

Once I spent the night in the Sequoia Mountains after a show at Shoreline Amphitheater, outside San Francisco. "Wow, these trees are like, older than my parents!" exclaimed one of the hippie girls in the group. We ate at Taco Bell, by the way.

In Kansas City, I went out of my way to eat burnt ends, the crispy twice-cooked tip of a brisket. It was well worth it, but once I read that the end is "the fatty point of the pectoral," I decided against it. I don't do pectorals.

I was on the infamous Dead tour of 1989. Deadheads are like the "St. Stephen" character in the song: "Everywhere he goes the people all complain." As we rolled into Charlotte the signs in front of the motels and businesses said stuff like, "Deadheads Welcome Here," and "Jerry Slept Here."

"These people must be nuts," one of my traveling companions said. "They have no idea what is about to happen."

Because the band finally had a hit record, the ranks of the Deadheads had swelled considerably. They were not terribly well behaved and Deadheads do not play well with others.

In Atlanta, a lot of Deadheads fanned out around The Omni, the concert locale, and stayed there. There was food to be had along "Shakedown Street," an improvised neighborhood that pops up when the Dead play.

You buy stuff like patchouli oil, tie-dyes, ponchos (which you couldn't buy in Cancún), beads etc. And food. In those days "natural" and "organic" were still relatively trendy. A "veggie wrap" was a new phenomenon. I actually ate one, once, and only once. "There's no veggies in this here wrap," I observed.

In Greensboro, authorities made the mistake of letting Deadheads fan out across downtown. Later the estimate was at least 30,000 or more, far more than fit in the Greensboro Arena. The hotels were filled with Deadheads who smoked pot freely and played bongo drums in the lobby. Everyone had a bottle of something or other or even worse, a "wineskin" which contained god only knows what. The jail was filled in one hour.

Greensboro police were so overwhelmed that they gave up the first day.

Two days later, the caravan headed towards Pittsburgh. The Deadheads were front-page news all over the country. The police in the Steel City were ready. In fact, they had threatened to cancel the show until organizers intervened.

One strategy was to stop suspicious looking vehicles, which were owned by all of us, coming from Greensboro.

"Are you folks headed to the Grateful Dead show?" they would ask the occupants of a VW bus who were dressed in tie-dyes, the men with hair down to their shoulders. "Why no, officer, why would you possibly think that?"

Deadheads aren't your typical peaceful hippie-folk. Thus, when the scene at the Civic Center became too unwieldy, when the line that formed stopped moving because the police were a little too nasty, the Deadheads simply decided to take a shortcut —through the huge wall of glass. What happened? "Stephen would answer if he only knew how."

Karen wants to go to Istanbul — honest. "Are the Dead playing there?" I asked with all sincerity. "Otherwise, I'm out. That's way too dangerous for me."

rmurphy@indyeastend.com

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