PLAYING IT STRAIGHT
One has heard about this place. This is where the big rock groups play, where little girl groupies jump up on the stage and do terrible things, where you can get high just breathing the air. In we go, The Kid and I, past a flock of scruffies soliciting "spare tickets." Paranoia! I'll be the only person in the place without knee-length hair. I'll be mistaken for John Mitchell. Charles Manson will step to the microphone and announce that a straight has been spotted in Row E, will everybody please kill him. And The Kid - he is not mine, he has been entrusted to my care, how can I take him back to his parents in Connecticut with frizzed hair and needle-tracks all up and down his arms? What the hell am I doing here?
What I am doing is walking into what used to be a fancy movie theater - a "picture palace," they probably called it when it opened in the 1930s. Now it's the Fillmore East. Long upgrade through the lobby. We wander a while, looking for a friend who is supposed to be here tonight. Occupancy by more than 2,438 people is unlawful and dangerous.
It's filling up fast. This truly is a politer generation. When one is jostled, the jostler says, "Excuse me"; soon one finds oneself replying, "That's okay." I don't feel all that out of place. The median age is nineteen or twenty; most of the hair is my length or a little longer.
Once again my theory is confirmed: It's not the hair that matters, or the clothes - it's the eyes. Most of the kids have bright, alert eyes; a minority have vacant, wandering eyes and with them the slack jaw and adolescent spine-slump of absolute Weltschmerz, utter defeat. You saw the same eyes, jaw, slump in my own adolescence, on boys who wore ducktails, kept their Marlboros in the rolled-up sleeves of their T-shirts, and hung around on corners.
We find our seats with the help of an usher who, like all the ushers here, wears a white T-shirt with the word PLEASE stenciled across the front and a peace symbol on the back. The lights dim; matches flare and the smell of cannabis drifts through the air. A pleasant-looking kid in a CCNY shirt asks if we have anything to smoke. We haven't.
On the stage, darkness made visible by the red jewel lights of the monster amplifiers that stretch in a row all the way across. Figures bumble back and forth, adjusting things, fetching and carrying. At last (only ten or fifteen minutes late) the stage lights come up and there stand the Grateful Dead. Only they aren't the hard-rocking Dead yet; they open in their soft-country persona of Bobby Ace and the Cards from the Bottom.
The music is, except for the bass, unamplified, with vocals in close harmony - pure country. I want to watch the band but I'm distracted by the light show, giant splashes and patterns in constant motion projected on a stupendous screen at the back of the stage. It fits not at all with the clean, precise, rather modest country sounds, this holdover from the acid-rock days of the mid-Sixties when everything was psychedelic, including the Dead.
Psychedelic they no longer are. Three or four songs in, they go very gently into "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" - the first country song I ever liked. With that, they have me. We wander around the country together until the set ends with "Uncle John's Band" from their album, Workingman's Dead (which buy). The song is a joy - straight, unpretentious, cheerful (but not bubble-gum "happy"), a confident invitation to relax and listen to the music.
Intermission time. We go in search of our friend. The lobby is jammed; the upstairs lounge where refreshments are sold even worse. I like the refreshment stand - at what other concert hall in the city may one buy eleven different flavors of yogurt? We struggle back through the crowd. I've stopped noticing the kids. I suppose I feel at home.
The second set brings us another facet of the Dead: the New Riders of the Purple Sage, an electric country group, led by Jerry Garcia on electric steel pedal guitar (that's the instrument responsible for the high, shimmering twangs that are the trademark of "hard," Nashville-style country music). No harmonizing now; all the singing is done by one Marmaduke, a good enough country vocalist who sounds, in fact, like he has an electric steel pedal of his own, right in his larynx. I don't much care for this set - the music is too hoked-up, not simple and direct the way I like my country.
Another intermission, still no friend, then the third set. This is what the crowd's been waiting for: An electric sign descends from the flies - "GRATEFUL DEAD." Off we go - hard, hard rock with all the amplifiers burning up. For the rest of the night, the whole house is on its feet, clapping and swaying. One kid a couple of rows away from us jerks his body in a steady rhythm, eyes closed, head lolling - but then he's been doing that most of the night, probably through the intermissions too. He and one very stoned shorthair in the lounge are the only freakouts we've seen all night. Everybody else is in touch with the music.
Which is good rock, every once in a while slightly countrified. I watch them play (damn the light show!) - not perform, just play: Garcia is on a regular electric guitar now, pulling unbelievable sounds out of the thing. He stands, perfectly relaxed, his great teddy-bear head nodding slightly, absorbed in what he's doing. The two drummers are perfectly together. Everything is effortless. There is no self-conscious thrashing around: the music comes through clear, without the veneer of hostility and anger that is the stock-in-trade of so many groups. Playing it straight has been the keynote of the whole evening (the only political manifestations I see are a Black Panther leaflet crumpled up in a urinal, and a showing, during one intermission, of Nixon's Checkers speech, at which the audience hoots predictably, not at all thankful that we have a New Nixon now).
The end. Prolonged gratitude from the audience; one encore (they've been playing for six hours) and then we file out. It's long past dawn; the concert began at midnight. We head for the First Avenue bus, and there, waiting at the stop, is the friend we've been looking for.
"I'm sorry they weren't better tonight," he says right off. We liked them fine. On the ride uptown, he explains why they weren't better. He takes the Dead very, very seriously - just a few days before, he quit his job in the climax of a religious afflatus in which the Dead represented Christ and the Rolling Stones, Satan.
"I can't see making a big religious thing out of it," The Kid says later. Or revolutionary, or whatever, I add mentally. Play it straight. Out of the mouths of fifteen-year-olds.
(by C.H. Simonds, from National Review, January 12 1971)
Thanks to jgmf.blogspot.com