Dead and Not Dead

Dead2-83-poleSee yourself in this guy riding the pole flying a Grateful Dead flag when the band played Santa Fe? Maybe if you launched your acid trip in the 1970s with no landing field in sight as the ’80s slipped in.

Or maybe you’re reminded of a free-spirited friend or the uncle about whom your parents stayed cagey, the one who “took a trip to Taos, and then we lost track.” No matter. Even without LSD, music can do this to you.

It’s a wonder more of Pharrell Williams’ fans aren’t locked up. Or John Philip Sousa’s.

When the Dead rocked and roiled the Downs at Santa Fe racetrack in 1982 and ’83, die-hard tie-dyed hippies and fellow travelers still populated northern New Mexico. Westering tourists and opera patrons kept a safe distance, of course, but still gawked at the hacky-sack kickers sharing the Santa Fe Plaza with viejos born in territorial days quietly swapping tales nearby. Farther north toward the Colorado border a few communes hung on, potent local marijuana began to appear after the grounding of the New Mexico-based Columbus Air Force, and psychedelic drugs still circulated if your connection hadn’t gotten busted, burned out, found religion or successfully laundered the barrels of cash and gone straight.

Santa Fe Plaza 1975. © William P. Diven.

Santa Fe Plaza 1975. © William P. Diven.

Few enjoying the reverie sensed this as the end times before Santa Fe tricked out as an international darling booting the old plaza retailers for high-end boutiques, galleries and, soon enough, more than a little faked turquoise and Indian jewelry.

The hippies’ heyday faded with the Vietnam War as the country sank into the war’s economic wreckage and the hammering hangover of anti-flower-child President Ronald Reagan. “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah,” went his oft-used laugh line as governor of California. No worry if his cultural references escape you. Reagan hardly evolved from his the black-and-white B-list acting days on his way to becoming leader of the free world.

I turn on my TV, the president comes on the news;
Says I got no satisfaction, that’s why I sing the blues.
Nancy says don’t get crazy, Ron, you know what to do.
Just crank that old Victrola, put on your rocking shoes

— “One More Saturday Night” – Bob Weir.

In those days before gun politics, Reagan and company triumphed by railing against the Three As: Acid, Abortion and Amnesty, by which they meant liberal youth, social liberals and the liberals who lost the war in Vietnam. Reagan pummeled President Jimmy Carter when the Georgia Democrat ran for a second term after pardoning the draft dodgers in a generous but doomed attempt to reunite the county after the failed war. Tub thumpers on the right still drum up the Three As today, only now it’s Abortion and Amnesty (for illegal immigrants) with Acid replaced by Arms.

Dancing to the Dead; Santa Fe 1982. © William P. Diven.

Dancing to the Dead; Santa Fe 1982. © William P. Diven.

So Reagan put the pot smokers and acidheads in their place while he campaigned to “make America great again.” And boy did the country feel high. Hippie posers, always more into the fashion anyway, moved to cocaine joining a mob with cash flow seeking an artificial ego boost. Snorting lines off a table at Bennigan’s drew askance looks only if you weren’t sharing.

LSD and its cousins burrowed further underground. For anything decent you buddied up to a chemistry graduate student, in say Boulder, or most any longhaired high school kid in a Hendrix T-shirt. The Dead and LSD shared common 1960s roots through soundman and chemist Owsley Stanley, but hawkers now strolling Dead shows lower their voices when asking “Acid? Mescaline? Psilocybin?” Supplying a black-market demand in return for off-the-books money is, after all, an American way of business not to mention Reagan’s way of peddling arms to Iran to fund black ops in Central America.

Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia; Santa Fe 1983. © William P. Diven.

Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Jerry Garcia; Santa Fe 1983. © William P. Diven.

The Dead only dropped in on New Mexico once before, playing the 1977 homecoming concert at the University of New Mexico (encore: “One More Saturday Night”) while refusing to set foot onto New Mexico State, the border cow college with a national reputation for mistreating rock acts. Jerry, Bob, Phil, Mickey, Bill and Brent made it up to us with three outdoor shows at the horse track in Santa Fe County, one in October 1982 and two on consecutive weekend days in September 1983. With the stage set against the infield, most of the crowd chose to gather on the track rather in the grandstand although the seats gave a better view of Santa Fe in the distance with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rising beyond.

The Hog Farm, a New Mexico commune with it’s own acid-laced California connection to the Dead, provided camping at $4 a head south of the Downs in ’83, so the party ran full tilt from late Saturday morning to early Sunday evening. I pitched my sleeping bag in the bed of a friend’s pickup truck and at 6:30 a.m. Sunday awoke with my neighbors to the B-52s blaring from a cassette deck at a campsite occupied by Santa Fe kids. Yells and curses from multiple directions didn’t quiet things, so a woman in our group walked over to a guy with his bag spread on the ground and asked politely if he would turn it down. When that failed, she tried again less politely yanking the speakers out by their wires and bringing the cassette back to our site where she savaged it with a hammer before returning the remains with its entrails dangling. The astonished kid never resisted, perhaps because she had a hammer and he was naked. Peace ensued for another three hours.

Over the course of the three shows the Dead played 65 tunes repeating only “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” and back-to-back “Mexicali Blues” and “Althea” in ’82 and ’83. (Set lists: 10/17/82; 9/10/83; 9/11/83). Rain interrupted the ’82 gig, but as the band fired up again a rainbow formed over Santa Fe.

After the storm. Santa Fe 1982. © William P. Diven

After the storm. Santa Fe 1982. © William P. Diven

Keyboard player Brent Mydland died from an overdose in 1990, and the Dead passed on when a heart attack felled Jerry in 1995 at age 53. The music, of course, never stops. Beyond Owsley’s contribution to the culture of a reported 1.2 million hits of LSD, he applied his sound skills in the 1960s to recording the Dead and many others from Janis Joplin to Johnny Cash when they played the Bay Area. Unlike most bands, the Dead welcomed fans with recording gear asking only that they not do anything commercial, which led to extensive trading of tapes among Deadheads and the preservation of even obscure concerts. And guitarist Bob Weir, bass player Phil Lesh, and percussionists Mickey Hart and Bill Kruetzman remain active with Weir the subject of a just released documentary “The Other One.”

Can you still find LSD with any bit of certainty it is what it claims? I’ll presume it, too, survived our never-ending war on drugs to become a throwback to an out-of-control and angry time filled with energy, passion and hope later derailed by greedheads and purveyors of flash and trash. From this distance of decades you can track the successes in civil rights and the environment as well as the monumental failures of the drug war, more foreign wars, dark politics and rampant apathy and cynicism. Out here we’re refighting the 1950s battle over adding fluoride to the water when what we need is an Owsley dosing everyone until they chill and forget what the ruckus was about.

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me,
What a long, strange trip it’s been.

-“Truckin‘” – Lyrics: Robert Hunter. Music: Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh. (First performed Aug. 18, 1970, Fillmore West, San Francisco.)

The Dead weekend ended with an encore of “U.S. Blues” and the shuffling trek to the parking lot. One heavily bearded hippie wearing an illegal grin spotted a convenient golf cart and decided to cruise instead. Soon to take notice was its owner, a uniformed and unarmed private cop whose turban identified him as part of the Sikh outfit known jestingly as Wrath of God Security. After a peaceful weekend the officer engaged in a foot pursuit soon taking the lead and bracing himself ahead of the cart with an outstretched palm and shaking head. The hippie braked, stepped out and resumed his stroll without losing the smile.

Sometimes you walk, sometimes you ride, or maybe you just sit, but even if you don’t know where you’re going, it’s still a trip.

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