In March 1970, the Grateful Dead played at Kleinhan’s Music Hall with the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra in a “rock-classical fusion jam.” John Cage pieces and the Grateful Dead. John and I went with some of his Rockland friends, Keith and Linda. The only acid we could find was two hits of blue Pentagon, so we ate a half-tab each when we parked Linda’s car.
Kleinhans was the home of the Philharmonic and they didn’t have many rock concerts there. That night, it was mobbed. There were two distinct groups on line–the “Patrons of the Philharmonic” in full evening dress, and the acidheads, in full freak regalia. There was an air of expectancy and the smell of pot on line.
We got to our seats, but there was still time before the concert started. Keith and Linda wandered off to look for friends. John and I left our coats and made our way to the front of the stage to watch them set up. The Orchestra had the full stage, and the Dead had the right pit. Roadies were still moving amps and arranging drum traps.
“I wish we had some more acid,” I said to John.
“Do you need LSD?” asked a woman behind us. We turned. A short woman, with electric brown hair and a wire earring in her nose, was standing in front of us. She looked pleased with herself and very very high. She held out a small plastic box.
“How much?” asked John.
“For free,” she said. “They told me to give them out and I have.” Inside the box were about 20 peach-colored tabs, so fresh that the dust was still flaking off them. “They’re really good,” she said. I believed her.
We each took one and she watched us swallow. “Thanks,” I told her. She smiled proudly and disappeared. “Hey, wait,” I said, remembering Keith and Linda. Too late.
On stage, a roadie turned an amplifier up until the cymbals buzzed. We looked towards the sound and he grinned at us. It was certainly fresh LSD. The roadie turned the amp down slightly as the lights flickered.
“Where were you, man?” asked Keith when we got back. The houselights dropped before we could answer.
The laser lights went on to a collective “Wow!” and the evening began. There were four different lasers, each one tuned to a different frequency. At rest, they were circles of red, green, yellow and blue, but when they picked up a sound in their frequency, they formed changing wave patterns, like an oscilliscope. Not the Joshua Light Show, but cool against the white backdrop of the hall.
The “ting” of a triangle made us turn around. Down each aisle came a line of men and women, dressed in black and marching slowly in step as they tapped their triangles in unison. The Philharmonic filled the hall with odd screeching and wailing.
It was cold and lifeless and mechanical and it was scary. I looked for its heart and couldn’t find one. It was the revenge of the old order. All it wanted was death death death for everything including itself. The first acid started coming on and I knew that this music could kill.
Lasers clicked and buzzed. The hall smelled of ozone, the smell of burnt synapses. I wanted to run, but a dread fascination held me in my seat. Finally, when the triangle players filed out of the auditorium and the piece was over, the hall filled with scattered applause from the patrons. The heads looked stunned, plastered to their seats. Beside me, a couple of patrons in evening garb were looking at each other. They did not look happy, either. The woman was fingering her coat. They stood up as the four of us jumped to our feet.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” said John. He and Keith disappeared, so I stuck with Linda. I was beginning to feel the other tab. It was clean acid, a heavy dose, and I wanted to be with someone I knew. The background noise was a continuation of the music. I listened to the rise and fall of sound and tried to find the pattern.
“Oh wow, hey, there’s Monica,” said Linda and ran to the front of the hall. I followed. She started talking to one of the girls. I couldn’t follow, something about people they knew. It was like watching chickens, heads bobbing up and down and I laughed.
“Like birds,” said the other girl. “Pecking away.”
She was tall, nearly as tall as me, and her hair was wavy, dark brown and it framed her face. She had on a blue and grey striped turtleneck and dungaree bellbottoms. She kept snapping her thumbnail against her ring finger. She looked like a little girl at the wrong party. Her eyes had that same intense, liquid look that mine must have had.
We walked towards the front of the stage, close to the Dead’s equipment. Surfaces kept melting and lifting off the amps. I looked at her to explain, and in the time it took my thoughts to collect, her face went through about twenty different changes.
“What?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I’m…I’m…”
“Me, too.” She smiled. “We got some pink tabs that someone was handing out.”
“Look,” she said.
Bob Weir had come out on stage. He picked up his Ibanez and checked its tuning. His eyes were clear, but they were focused in two separate directions. He looked like he’d eaten a lot of pink tabs. Phil Lesh ambled on stage, wearing his glasses which he never did when he was playing. He stared into the crowd, his hands in his back pockets as he took its measure. Lesh once studied with Luciano Berio and wrote multi-orchestral symphonies that he couldn’t get performed. One day, Garcia handed him an electric bass and told him he was in the Warlocks. Lesh played for seven hours. The Warlocks became Kesey’s acid-test band, then the Grateful Dead.
Garcia came out on stage and plugged in. The crackle made Lesh snap out of his reverie and he went to his amp and picked up his bass. The three of them stood in front of us, facing each other in a triangle. Garcia started playing a bluegrass run that turned into a blues.
He popped an E note and Lesh syncopated the beat as Weir jumped in with an E7 shuffle. That summer, when Workingman’s Dead came out, I immediately recognized “New Speedway Boogie” as that E7 shuffle. I always thought they’d discovered it that night, but probably not. Someone called “Five minutes” and Garcia descended in a series of steps to meet Bobby’s closing E7. I shivered with the chord
“I’ve got to go,” she said.
“This is going to be good. Want to sit with us?”
“Sure. I just have to tell Monica. I’m Matisse.”
“Danny.” I walked her to get her coat. When we got back to our seats, the seats beside me were empty.
The Dead wasted no time. The houselights went off, the lasers clicked on, and the spotlights came on to Bobby already singing at his mike. “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be,” he sang and we all screamed. They had time for only a short set before the jam and every minute counted.
“Not fade away,” sang Garcia.
Lesh and the band took off without even a second chorus. I stood up because I had to dance, but no one else was dancing so I sat back down again. It was hard to stay still. The band came back together on a single note.
The Dead were soaring. The Patrons were entranced. The crowd was loose enough to go anywhere and the band headed straight for the center. Lasers crackled and buzzed. Bus came by and I got on / That’s when it all began …
By now, we were all dancing. I’d hear a change coming up, they’d play it and Matisse and I would look at each other and smile. You, too? Uh huh. They crashed into feedback and I took her hand. Her thumb moved continuously with the sounds, feeling the touch of my skin. I held her lightly trying not to break it. Then there was drumming, with the Philharmonic’s drummer sitting in, tuxedo jacket open, tie undone.
And then Pig Pen was howling the climax to “Lovelights.” A roadie lit a cherry bomb. The bang came right on cue, showering the front rows with silver spangles. Or maybe not. The room was still melting, like the skin off silver wire when you heated it with a torch.
“And leave ’em on,” shouted Mickey Hart into the mike over his traps. There was an instant of silence and we roared for more.
“The Grateful Fucking Dead!” shouted John. Two rows in front of us, two patrons, a man and wife, caught themselves clapping wildly then looked around. We looked at them and they looked back and laughed.
“That was the best I ever heard them,” said Linda as we walked to the lobby for Intermission. Everyone was grinning. I couldn’t stop even if I’d wanted to. The patrons stood in groups, chattering wildly and you could see a change in them as well. Coat were open, ties were loose. The women’s hairdos were coming undone. If they could be touched, they could be changed.
In the lobby, John was speechless for maybe the first time since I’d known him. Monica saw us, waved, and came on over. Matisse said something to her and to the guy who was with her. Then she walked back to me. It was time to get back to our seats
The jam was all right, but it didn’t have the power of the Dead’s set. The Philharmonic was divided into two sections and the Dead made a third. They played space music, like the Cage piece, but friendlier. Another band, The Yellow Brick Road, played also, but they had nothing. It didn’t work as well. Every time the guitars would establish a clear melody, the Philharmonic would shriek and noise would drive it out. It was the old order putting up one last ditch fight. By the end, it was clear who was winning.
No dancing for this one. Matisse and I held hands through the piece. She kept squeezing my hand when something happened on stage. When the jam was over, there was scattered applause and shouts for the Dead, but the houselights stayed on, and finally people began to leave.
We ran into Monica in front of Kleinhans, just as they were leaving.
“Peter went to get the car,” Monica told Matisse, though she was looking at me while she spoke.
“You can come with us,” I told her.
“OK,” said Matisse.
We were on the street by then, and a Volkswagen pulled up to the curb. “You sure?” asked Monica. Matisse nodded. The same guy who’d been with Monica during the break was at the wheel. He leaned towards the window. He was thin and hard looking and his hair was as long as Weir’s. “Get in, Stephanie, we’re leaving,” he shouted.
Matisse bit her lip and reached for my hand. “I’m not coming, Peter.”
I put my arm around her as though I knew what was going on. Monica and her girlfriends piled into the back of the Volkswagen and Peter shouted something that I couldn’t hear as they drove off.
“What was that?” asked Linda.
“A mistake,” said Matisse. She looked at me and we started walking towards Linda’s car, a little in front of the others.
The thought of the two of them in bed together made me feel terrible. She touched my arm. “Don’t worry. Peter doesn’t do anything with you, he does it to you.”
The car looked small and uncomfortable. “Want to walk?” I asked.
“It’s five miles,” said John. “Forget it.”
“Sure,” said Matisse.
“See you later,” I told John and Matisse and I headed down the street, the brownstones and leafless trees friendly and inviting.