Echoes and Reverberations: The Night of the Tripping Dead

The 11th grade Biology teacher once shared this insightful observation aimed specifically at those of us with long hair: "Sons, this country is divided into three groups of people: the people who shower before work (re: white collar workers); the people who shower after work (see "blue collar"); and the people who don't shower at all because they just don't want to work.

Thirty years ago this month, a band called the Grateful Dead came to Dallas and did a concert at Memorial Auditorium (aka Dallas County Convention Center)--and served as my informal introduction to the walking sewage people who were out reppin' that last group during the winter of late '78.

At 16 years old, I was still pretty new to arena rock shows; I wasn't at all familiar with the Dead's music, either, but I assumed that, with a name like "Grateful Dead", they had to be a heavy metal band like Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin.

It was my sister's first concert, too. She's always been a straight arrow. In retrospect, her even going to this show still makes no sense at all.

But let's just set that aside for a moment and ponder if, indeed, everything does happen for a reason.

First, let's set the scene in the parking lot before the show: lots of old VW vans with out-of-state license plates; barefooted women selling beaded necklaces and incense; and inebriated bikers burnin' rubber on the sidewalk. It looked like a traveling circus.

Where did these people come from? They didn't dress like us, or talk like us.

So my sister and I find a parking place and start to get out of the car. Ten seconds later a couple of bearded guys in green Army jackets head us off at the pass. Both are apparently very happy about something.

(This is probably a good place to context the limited cumulative totality of my experimental recreational drug use by this particular time, which really wasn't much: I had smoked pot a handful of times and nothing had ever happened. At least I didn't think so. I was a freak rookie; still new to everything, but open to almost anything. A blank slate and a clean brain. Bad grades and the lack of a hot girlfriend had shown me that sobriety was clearly pushing me in the wrong direction. But let's get back to the Army Jacket guys...)

One of them asked me, "Hey man, are you cool?"

How do you even answer a question like that? Who am I? The fuckin' Fonz?

I leaned way back and gave him the double thumbs up. Me: "Ayyyyy..."

Guy #1: "You need any Donald Duck?"

Me: "Uh, what was that?"

Guy#2: "Dude, Donald Duck!"

Me: "Like the cartoon character? Why would I need him?"

I had no idea what he was talking about. Didn't really like cartoons that much. Donald Duck just wasn't that cool to me. Didn't exactly know where the Army Jacket guy was going with this.

Guy #1: "Yeah, dude. Donald Duck."

He then reached into one of the pockets in his camo gear and produced a sheet of paper with dozens of tiny Donald Ducks in perforated squares.

Me: "What is that?"

Guy #2: "It's three bucks."

My sister: "Jeff, let's go."

Guy #1: "Dude, you can't fuck with the Duck."

Me: "I'm not giving you three bucks for a piece of paper with a bunch of Donald Ducks on it."

Back then, three bucks was a lot of money, see.

Guy#1: "No, man. Each one is three dollars."

Me: "What? Why would I buy a tiny postage stamp for three dollars? Stamps are like a dime."

Guy #2: "I thought you said you were cool."

Me: "Dude, I'm sure as fuck not a stamp collector."

Guy #1: "You know what? Fuck it."

He started to tear off one of the tiny little Donald Ducks.

Guy #1: "Here, man. Open your mouth."

Me: "How come?"

Him: "Just open your mouth."

Me: "Do I have to?"

Guy #2: "Yeah, man. Here. Eat this. Put it on your tongue."

Guy #1: "Come on, brother. Open wide."

I opened my mouth and he placed the tiny cardboard stamp inside.

Me: "This doesn't taste like anything."

Guy #2: "It's not supposed to."

Me: "When did people start eating postage stamps?"

My sister: "Let's go."

Guy#1: "Man, just find us again in a couple of hours and just slip me three bucks then, alright? Everything is beautiful. We're all in this together."

What was this guy even talking about? This shit was gonna bug me all night. I didn't wanna have to run into this yankee later and have him hit me up for three bucks to pay for the postage stamp he made me eat.

Me: "OK, yeah. Thanks or whatever. We're gonna go inside now."

Balcony tickets were like eight bucks. The floor section was all general admission and just looked weird to me. There were no rows of chairs. Where was everybody going to sit? The security guards weren't checking ticket stubs, so I ditched my balcony seat and headed downstairs to check out the scene.

My eyes started playing tricks on me. Stuff started to blend together in spastic fluidity. There was way too much love here. That made me restless and uncomfortable. And thirsty. And slightly scared. All that.

And why was there no opening act? Did we miss them? Why were all of these people so happy? Where were all the people who usually wear the black concert t-shirts? What was all this paisley tie-dye shit? Why are all of these people barefoot? Do they not own shoes? Do these people drink their own pee?

God fuck me if it didn't look like Woodstock on some end-of-the-world shit. Everything around me started to throb and vibrate. Then dots. Circles and dots. I remember looking up at the lights in the round ceiling and thinking we were all in a giant spaceship. Gravity and inertia gave way to a bizarre rack focus vertigo. Then more dots. Each step forward seemed to feel like a high-wire balancing act. Lots of randomly grabbing strangers and spilling their beer.

"I'm so sorry, my head is on fire," I'd say to each of the freshly tackled.

Alien Pancho People passed burning joints my way and I had a hard time judging the distance between our hands. My arms felt really long. A woman who looked like a fat Janis Joplin offered me some popcorn. I stood there mesmerized; holding it my hand, amazed at how light is was. "Wow, man," I remember bleating out loud towards no one in particular. "When it's a solid kernel of corn, it's heavier. You can really feel it. Then you throw it in some oil, heat it up, and it becomes... this. This amazing thing. It's bigger, but it's lighter. Dude, it's atomic. It's like a little bomb."

Chewing the popcorn was a major tipping point. I could feel each individual molecule being ground smaller and smaller between my teeth. I forgot how to swallow and had to spit it all back out into my hand. Then I looked at it again and put it back in my mouth.

I was teaching myself how to eat. In front of a Fat Janis Joplin and a UFO full of hippies from Up North. This all seemed really profound at the time for some reason.

Of course, I had no idea that I was tripping on acid. I wouldn't have been street smart enough to even make the connection that acid was actually LSD. Never mind processing the idea that it was Donald Duck who would eventually help me touch the face of God.

Life had just taken on new meaning. I was seeing things for what they really were.

Did some serious thinking about ice. Did you know that ice is actually made of really cold water? I know. Hard to fathom.

Then somebody pointed at my shirt and said, "Oh, man... that's heavy."

What was heavy? My shirt? What did he mean by that? Did he mean literally? I took my shirt off and held it in my hand to see just how heavy it was. I was convinced that it was going to levitate skyward. When it didn't, I was profoundly disappointed.

The universe had failed me.

The guy came closer and said, "Dude, I'll give you five bucks for that shirt!"

Me, in an effort to save the universe and have three dollars on hand should I run into the Army jacket guys again: "OK, sure!"

Now I was half-naked in a giant flying saucer, chock full of freak twerps and twisted hippie chicks. I tried to find somebody who would sell me their shirt for two bucks, but no one would take me seriously. The math was unfathomable; in was in debt to a stranger and I had sold my clothes to cover the nut. I slid into the men's bathroom and attempted to fashion a crude blazer out of brown paper towels and dozens of KZEW "Zoo Freak" bumper stickers, but I didn't have much luck with the sleeves.

(Note to self: Don't ever sell the shirt off your back. For any reason. Especially in December.)

Finally the house lights went down. It felt like all of the blood in the top half of my body dropped with the darkness straight down to my legs and feet. Something serious was happening. I didn't know what it was, but it definitely felt like I was turning into a new form of plankton. At least it was easier to blend in and hide in the dark.

The band started lazily tuning up their instruments. I remember thinking to myself, "Why didn't these guys do this during sound check? Don't they have roadies?"

Pling. Pling pling. Pling pling pling.
Huge drum set, but nobody really playing them, just little tinkling bells. It was like they hated their instruments and didn't want to play them. Pling. Pling pling. Tinkle tinkle.

It went on and on and on. For like a week or so.

I spent that time hurdling the quivering obstacle course of bodies, artfully weaseling my way through the musty throng and eventually ending up with both arms draped over the barricade near the front of the stage. Burly security guards sized me up and unanimously looked to take me down.

God, did I ever wanna rock out. Enough of all this dickin' around already. Strap on your shit and make some noise, you smelly old hippies! Sheesh!

But hold on a second. These guys didn't really have long hair or wear hip-hugger bellbottoms like Tony Iommi or Jimmy Page. One of them was fat. Another was wearing a tie-dyed Izod shirt. I didn't like the cut of their jib. They were fucking with us. I could feel it. Pling. Pling pling...

This fluid tuning thing was starting to sound like electric running water. People in the crowd stood there either waiting in rapture or sleepwalking through the storm. I started thinking that I was going to drown.

So this is what it's like when you're glad you're dead. I think I get it now: the Grateful Dead!

But can these guys solo like Jimi Hendrix? He was dead, too.

Come on, dudes. Can I get some distortion up in here? Crank shit up. Were they ever going to play a real song? Is that fat guy in the band really wearing glasses onstage? Is he serious? And what happened to my sister? What were we even doing here anyway? Neither one of us had ever even heard this band. This was getting stranger by the minute.

Why does the guitarist in the tie-Zod keep looking over here and sticking out his tongue at me? At 16, I had yet to ever make eye contact with a rock star during a concert before. Yet this was no golden moment. He looked like a yuppie Satan.

Stop leering at me, demon!

Was this really happening? Does he want me to tune his guitar or something? Is he gay? Just play a song already! Then, just like that, the band put their instruments back down, walked off stage, and the house lights came back up.

I turned around and saw that everyone in the building was looking at me. Holy shit!

"What did I do? I didn't do anything! I didn't do it! I swear to God I didn't do anything! Please don't take me away! I'm freaking out!"

A strange woman with hairy armpits heaved a flannel truck stop blanket around my shoulders and started hugging me. I remember thinking, "I've never been hugged before, have I? I don't think so, no."

I was afraid on multiple levels; the emotional roller coaster was veering wildly off the tracks. Looking deeply into my eyes, that notorious window to my soul, the hairy hugger emphatically intoned, "Don't worry, man! It's just intermission!"

I had never been to a concert where the group took a break in the middle of their set. It freaked me out. Was this even a real band? Why was everybody still staring at me? Would somebody please find my shirt and buy it back for me? Could they please turn the fuckin' lights back off?

The spaceship was starting to spin now. Giant balloons bounced and drifted above our heads and looked like planets trapped inside our vessel. Writhing, twisted bodies were strewn all over the floor; the throbbing mob of humanity was a revealing microcosm of this sweaty and soapless world.

I was trapped in a living Salvador Dali painting. The world had turned frightening and weird. Nothing was what it seemed.

Hey, that guy looks like a duck-billed platypus! Or maybe Donald Duck is really a human! Oh, wait. That's a woman. Jesus, just get me out of here and back to my bedroom in North Dallas! I need my headphones and a vinyl copy of Deep Purple's "Machine Head". These fat hippies and their water music were obviously incapable of Real Rock.

In the interest of wrapping this shit up, let's temporarily suspend the space-time continuum and get the fuck out of there. Fast forward with me now to a decade and a half later.

OK, new scenario: late-90's's, and I'm rollerblading on the bike path near the boardwalk in Venice, California. Every weekend, thousands of people gather here to sell bad art, hand-blown glass pipes and rinky dink trinkets--and also to do the drum circle thing on the beach at sundown.

I stopped to chill for a minute right next to a ripe posse of Gen X Deadheads peddling cassette dubs of old shows.

To strike up a conversation, I mentioned to one of them that I was at that Dallas show in the late '70s. Turns out he was from Dallas, too, only he was just too young to have actually gone to the concert.

Him: "Dude, you were at that show? Are you serious?"

Me: "Yeah, Christmas 1978."

Him: "Man, that show was legendary. It was like one of the worst Dead shows ever. I know people who won't even trade tapes of that show because it was so bad."

Me: "Really?"

Him: "Oh, yeah. It was terrible. That show was such a nightmare they wouldn't even come back to Dallas for like 10 years after that."

Me: "Wow. Why? What was so bad about it?"

Him: "Dude, apparently there was like some weird guy standing in front of the stage fucking with them all night... flapping his arms at Bob Weir and screaming that he was Donald Duck."--Jeffrey Liles

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Jeff Liles