I saw the Grateful Dead in concert for the first time in San Diego in 1993. I was twenty years old and eager to experience the mythical convergence of fringe-dwellers gathering for music, love and freedom.
I ceremoniously sewed a skirt by hand for the occasion and that night, adorned myself with beads. I packed my Guatemalan bag – the one with the embroidered hummingbird – and included my pocket-sized Tao Te Ching. Perhaps I’d have a culminating moment when it would be fitting to reach for ancient, inspiring words. I readied for an experience. Preparing to become changed through this unique musical experience I had only heard about.
Veteran Deadheads would nod knowingly when they heard this was my first show. Tales would unravel about the transcendent moments had with Jerry Garcia‘s guitar solo or Mickey Hart‘s drums. Typically, my most intimate moments with the Divine had been alone in nature. But I was faithful to the power of music and it seemed the proof was in the masses that had been following this band for nearly three decades.
I’d been touched by the music simply through the speakers of my car stereo. There was just something about Phil Lesh‘s bass line in Shakedown Street that got me.
As much as I appreciated the music, I was also looking forward to joining the flock of freaks, a group of people I perceived as being all-accepting and encouraging of others to be themselves. A diverse community where everyone was accepted and self-expression – no matter how different – was the norm.
In the dark of the night, the parking lot outside of the coliseum was a carnival of characters. College students drank beers and old-time hippies congregated in hand-painted buses. The vehicles created aisles that buzzed with bodies. Some wandered for the miracle of a ticket to the show. Others hustled goods – with everything from baskets of ‘goo balls’, to various substances, to handmade dresses. The rush of thousands of people gearing up for the main event was overwhelming. I knew I had wanted a taste of anarchy and freedom, I just didn’t know it would feel so wild.
I was dedicated to staying open to the chaos and finding my own rhythm in the madness. Once inside the venue, with the show fully underway, I found myself in one of the exit openings on a small ramp. Concert-goers were standing in any open space, watching the show or dancing in their own spaces. I had found my place that seemed just right for testing out my own kind of abandon. I was earnest in my desire to transcend self-consciousness. To reach down inside and let my true nature emerge. To dance as if no one was watching. If I couldn’t do it here with all of these flowering eccentrics, where could I?
The music boomed through massive speakers, vibrating through the concrete building and pulsing our bodies. Arms twirled, floor-length skirts swirled and I silently coached myself to just let go. Find oneness with the music. Close my eyes. Move.
Slowly I found my place. I was smiling. Dancing. In a world where my body and music had met in harmony. I felt the freedom in releasing just to be – whatever wanted to move in the moment – it was allowed. I was dancing, freely. It felt good. And then…
In an instant, the quickened flash of good-trip-gone-wrong collided into my feel-good world. Literally. A stumbling and disoriented young man came Dead-headlong, directly into me.
In hindsight, what I can ascertain is that our Hard-Time Friend was having a hard time. Stuck in the circular labyrinth of bodies on the interior of the concert hall, he was just looking for a way out. A light in the tunnel. My little exit-portal-turned-dancing-haven was his beacon and when he came upon it, he thrust himself towards it with everything he had.
There I am, in my green and red paisley skirt, eyes closed, letting go. And everything Hard-Time Friend has is barreling down the exit ramp straight into my sweet little world. I didn’t see him coming in time. And there was a full collision. He slammed right into me, landing on top of me and we skidded down, just a ways, on the cement ramp. My head had hit the pavement but not too hard. The back of my shirt was slightly torn.
We both lay there for a few seconds, stunned. Hard-Time Friend’s trip had just turned trippier. He was mortified. Mumbling apologies profusely. I was shocked. He made sure I was OK, but quickly moved on, in no condition to connect or really offer much to the situation. Other faces nearby checked in, gave smiles when I stood and then it was back to music.
I was determined to still enjoy the concert, trying to shake the visceral event that had just occurred. My mind couldn’t help but shame myself for thinking that I could really let go. The message that had just slammed into my being was that I was silly to think I was safe. You can’t ever just be free.
Looking back on this initiation to the Grateful Dead – my first time experience – I find it humorous and fitting. I’ve spent decades dreaming the ideal and then testing reality to see if I can live it. Of course I’d collide with the dense matter of the third dimensional world as I tried to transcend into realms of music and ether. I might as well have been a Wright Brother on a trial flight. These experiments can end in crash and burn. It’s par for the course.
What I didn’t know then, but I think I understand now, is that there is no shame in trying. It wasn’t that I was wrong in that exit portal trying to find a haven for my dance. It was the location that was less than ideal. I was just naive. These days, should I be seeking to commune with the Divine, I would not choose a thoroughfare of concrete slab. I may even keep my eyes open in the midst of 30,000 strangers. Not because I’m jaded, but because I’ve learned (a little) discernment.
So when is it safe to let loose and truly dance? Enlightened ones may say the opportunity is in every moment. Though that doesn’t mean I necessarily need to boogie down the aisles of Foodland on my next grocery shop. Freedom comes in many forms. Sometimes the most graceful moves are made within.
But I gotta say, I’ll never forget Phish‘s rendition of “Antelope” under the stars on a summer Vermont hillside. And there’s nothing like a little Michael Jackson in the living room with Jeb to set me free.
It’s always good to stretch beyond your comfort, take a little risk. But get your coordinates lined up. Make sure you’re inner compass is aligned with this earthly plane. Choose your dance space wisely. Avoid lingering in the exits.