It always felt a little like being underwater down on the floor at one of the shows; underwater in an aquarium. The atmosphere was thick with people pressed close together and milling around trying to burn off nervous energy. Microphones sprouted in the center of the floor, the taper’s section, until there was a veritable garden of masts and mics about ten rows deep in front of the raised mixing board. The smell of cloves, patchouli, and pot hung in the air like fog in a river bottom. An occasional scream punctuated the chatter and drowned out the strange music playing over the PA. To a newcomer, they could be terrifying, but these were not screams of horror, rather of pent up psychic energy that had to be released lest the screamer burst. They were soul screams that sent chills down your spine. He took note that glow sticks were the new thing this year; Everywhere, the fluorescent rings and wands of light weaved and waived and wandered throughout the restless crowd. All the movement and energy made him think about the bubbles that first appear sparsely and slowly at the bottom of a pot of water that’s been set on to boil. As they heat, they multiply and move quicker and quicker until the whole pot is heaving bubbles. The crowd before a show always put that image in his mind. There was never a warm-up band. There was simply no need for one.
All of the sights and sounds and smells were familiar to him, everything on the outside that is. He had been to almost fifty of these. But something felt odd tonight; some gnawing on the inside that he couldn’t quite identify.
A head walked past and silently mouthed ”Doses”, only briefly catching his eye. He just smiled at him and shook him off. Doses, he had. Instinctively, he reached into the pocket of his jeans and fingered the shreds of paper; page trimmings from a sheet of blotter soaked in Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, probably three doses worth. These “scrap pieces” weren’t marked with little blue ”Earths” like the 100 hits on the sheet he’d scored earlier that day. These were just strips of paper like you’d tear off a ring binder. He went ahead and pulled out a slender shred and non-chalantly placed it under his tongue. Tasteless, he let the paper dissolve into mush, chewed it a couple times and swallowed. ”Around-The-World” it was called; only three days old, the length of time it had taken his connection to drive it from Berkley to Hampton. Maybe this will do the trick he thought, stifling the unspoken warning in his gut.
At a dollar apiece wholesale, the hundred-hit sheet would fund the rest of the thirteen-show tour. He knew he could easily sell it for minimum ten bucks a hit at the concerts. The investment of a hundred bucks would gross a grand and net him and Om nine-hundred. Plenty for the gas and cheap hotels they’d be staying in up the east coast. A large mark-up, sure, but this was the freshest acid he’d run across since the liquid they’d scored on the previous summer’s tour. Back home, he could have doubled the sale price. Om was also bringing some bumper stickers he’d printed up that they’d trade for food and pot. Plus, Om said he had nabbed some plain, white t-shirts from the gymnastics academy he worked for. For a little extra money, they could dye those and sell them to the locals who always came to the shows. So he figured that the finances for the 1986 Spring Tour were all set. First stop right here in Hampton, VA for three nights. The same venue where he’d come to his first shows almost four years earlier. He let his mind drift back to that first show…
He’d started with his buds from UNC up in the mezzanine seats, but by shows end had wandered down onto the floor somehow. From up top it just looked like the crowd on the floor was having more fun. The Dead never made the house set up individual chairs. It was all General Admission, so the floor provided lots of space for the all out dance-a-thon that most of the four-hour shows morphed into. Close to the end of the concert, he was dancing like crazy, sweating profusely, and smiling so hard his face hurt when the band broke into ”Good Love”,
Well, I was feeling, Oh so bad
So I asked my family doctor ‘bout what I had
I said now Doctor, (Doctor?)
Mr. MD, (Doctor?)
oh can you tell me?, (Doctor?)
what’s ailing me?, (Doctor?)
And he said Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah (YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH YEAH)
All you need, All you REALLY NEED
is GOOD LOVE,
GOT TO HAVE LOVE (Good Love)
GOT TO HAVE LOVE (Good Love)
Each time the chorus came around to ”good love”, the crowd on the floor screamed ”GOOD DRUGS!” as a substitute, and wildly flung their hands in the air like so many tentacles on one enormous greedy being ready to grab and gobble every illegal pharmaceutical known to man.
He was high and grinning at the crowd when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a bearded, shirtless hippy wearing a long necklace with one of those little tie-dyed knit stash bags fastened to it like you see hippies wear. And it was flopping and bouncing around as he danced. The guy was wearing nothing else but an American flag around his waist like a long, patriotic skirt. His face and long hair and beard looked like the pictures of Jesus you see everywhere.
”Whoa! Cool!” he thought to himself in his drugged state, ”Jesus is here!”
He was about to find out he couldn’t have been more right.
Thinking about his first shows helped ease his tension for a little while until suddenly the dose started kicking in. ”Damn, that’s quick! This is fresh,” he thought, ”better buckle up! We’re fixing to leave Kansas, Dorothy!” He hadn’t eaten all day; too keyed-up about the concert. That accelerated the acid racing through his nervous system and hi-jacking every neuron and dendrite in his brain. He tried to relax and look cool and realize that people really couldn’t hear his mind working, but soon he couldn’t get control of his thoughts. Within just a few minutes he couldn’t remember how long he’d been standing in that spot; hours it seemed. Nor could he recall exactly why he should still be standing there? He looked around at all the foolish people so stoned out of their gourds they were still acting like the concert was about to start, but surely after that much time it was already over wasn’t it? I mean, the house lights were up, and that weird music was coming out of the PA. He tried to remember what the band had played, but came up empty. His legs and body were tired, and he was sweating like he’d been dancing, but he looked around and noticed that the tapers still had their booms up. They’d be breaking down their gear if the show was over, wouldn’t they? Onstage, there were just a couple of the road crew tapping microphones and tearing duct tape to hold down cables, so it seemed there was still going to be a show.
He shook his head and blinked several times, trying to clear his mind and get reoriented in time. ”Shit!” he thought to himself, ”I’m plastered!” He dared not look anyone in the eyes anymore, (you never know who’s a NARC), and he knew his eyes must be as big as freaking saucers. Looking down, he saw that his red tie-dyed shirt was moving like he was under a big unseen fan. He even looked up, but all he saw was a latticework of catwalks and what looked like tiny stars a million miles up in the dome overhead. He had the thought that he was going to need to find somebody with pot to stand near so he could try to tone this down a notch.
He closed his eyes and was back in the room in the little beater motel with the guys from Berkley. He remembered pulling the five twenties out of his pocket and the one dude, TJ, taking the sheet out of its little greeting card envelope and shaking the trimmings into his hand. ”Here man, you take this, on the house.” He took the strips into his outstretched palm and after looking at all the one hundred little earths on what felt like perforated card stock, he slid the sheet back into the envelope and stood to stuff it into the front of his shorts. He put the shreds in his pocket. Replaying the scene in his mind, he remembered the big picture window looking out of the shabby motel room on the ground floor. ”Damn it!” he thought, “they never closed the freaking blinds!” How could he have been so stupid! Shit! SHIT! All at once he couldn’t escape the idea that he’d been set up. He could picture the whole parking lot from where he’d sat on the bed in the motel, and how he’d stood right up and tucked that envelope right into the front of his shorts like he was on a freaking movie screen or something. If he could see out, he knew they (the NARCS) could see in. They were probably in a van or something. How could he not have noticed? How could he have been so freaking stupid?!?
Coming back to himself on the concrete floor of the coliseum, these thoughts raced through his mind producing total panic. Why hadn’t they arrested him yet? He turned that over for a while, slowly turning in circles and checking out the people around him on the floor, looking for NARCs who couldn’t possibly fit in down on the floor. He tried to come up with an escape plan, but he couldn’t finish an idea. And his damn shirt was waving like a flag by now. I mean it was MOVING! That’s a dead give-away, he thought to himself. I gotta get rid of this. He tore it off and flung it into the crowd in front of him. Instantaneously, the lights went down. ”Did I do that?” he thought, ”just by taking off my shirt?” Somebody let out a blood-curdling soul scream.
Wild cheering erupted from the front now. The bubbles were crashing into each other, and the pot was going to boil! As if in a dream, he watched Jerry, very far away pick up Tiger and turn his back to hunch over his amp stack. ”BOOM!” ”BOOM!” ”rat-a-tat-tat”, pierced the air as Mickey and Bill tested their drum mics. Phil’s bass belched out a few notes he could feel. ”Whew,” he let himself breathe, ”finally”.
But then, his mind went off on it’s own again. That gnawing was back, worse than ever. He remembered the motel, the imminent bust. There was just no getting past the fact that he’d screwed up and been way to casual and trusting at the buy. Where would the cops catch him? Wait a minute! Suddenly it dawned on him. He had nothing on him but the few remaining trimmings in his pocket! They didn’t have anything to bust him with except that. He thrust his hand in and pinched the remaining slivers between his fingers. He shoved them in his mouth but he had no saliva to moisten the paper with. The previous dose coupled with his anxiety had completely dried his mouth. He closed his eyes and held the wadded up paper behind his clenched teeth. He pushed it around with his tongue and tried chewing from side to side, but there was nothing to give it any taste at all and his mouth remained dry. He finally bit down on it as hard as he could and pushed the little dry wad to the back of his throat with his finger. He looked up at the million mile high dome again and gulped hard.
The band was tuning still, taking forever. ”Jerry and the Tune-Ups” he thought. But he felt like his troubles were over when a joint was passed to him from a couple on his left. Holding it up, he arched his eyebrows, nodded a little bow of gratitude and took a long draw. He looked over to hand it back, but they were gone. (Had they really been there?) He held the vapor in his lungs as long as he could, but he didn’t want to be standing there with a lit joint in his hands. Not when he had just eaten the last incriminating evidence the NARCs could pin on him. He thought about stubbing it out on the concrete to save for a little later, but he was still too paranoid to be holding anything. So he took a step to his right, found the wildest looking deadhead he could see and bumped his elbow, the joint pinched between his fingers. When the guy looked around he offered it to him, ”Here man, take it! Enjoy!” Huge grin, bobble-head nodding, bony hand snaking out to snatch the smoldering joint, and it was no longer his to worry about.
”Alright,” he almost said out loud, ”let’s get on with the show!” A smile even crossed his face.
Rick and Ron are going to give you up, his mind told him then. He saw it clearly now. They had the sheet. He’d brought it back to their room after the buy, and they had told him they’d ”test” it tonight, and maybe sell a couple hits at the concert. The idea they were considering was buying the whole sheet from him for a thousand and then bring it back to Charlotte to sell for more than he could get on tour. They weren’t going to any more shows after the three in Hampton so if they bought it, he and Om would have the cash they needed and nothing in hand at the other cities. But these guys were new to the whole Dead scene. In his mind, he knew they were going to get popped, and he knew they’d squeal when that happened. The NARCs would cut them a deal to drop a dime on their connection for the sheet, which was him. Oh Shit!
”Sons-of-bitches!” he thought to himself, but now he was really afraid. Like he could ever have really trusted them. Like he could really trust anybody in this whole stinking world. His shirt was gone and with it the rippling hallucinations he’d been having. What else could he do to disguise himself? He pulled the bandana off his head and shook his hair out. Had he been wearing it during the buy in the motel? He thought so but couldn’t remember straight. What would they do to him? His friend and travel partner Bas_ had pulled 25 years in Richmond for just 25 doses. He was tied up with four times that much.
Just then, a wall of sound enveloped him and Bobby growled,
Well, I was drinking last night with a biker
And I showed him a picture of you
I said, “Pal, get to know her. You’ll like her.”
Seemed like the least I could do…
…and those crazy, eerie dark chords were playing, and Phil’s bass was thundering, and those two drum sets were crashing, and he was listening as hard as he could for some message to come through the music; a message to help him escape his coming doom. And everything was one big soup of frantic motion. The pot had boiled over! Everybody was dancing like mad, his favorite thing to do in the whole world, but he was glued to the spot where he stood. Around him a sea of color, a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds, and he felt a little dizzy and a little sick when he gazed up at that dome again. But it had somehow receded and was much farther away, or else he’d gotten very small, and somehow he knew that the world outside of this kettle no longer existed, whatever and whoever was trapped inside it was all that remained, and he couldn’t quite get his mind around that when the chorus came,
I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe,
But at least I’m enjoying the ride.
At least I’m enjoying the ride!
At least I’m enjoying the ride!
And a thousand voices all around him screamed in unison:
“Ride! Ride! Ride!”
Then, all the commotion ceased for a brief moment, and there was total silence in his head except for the One Voice that would change his life forever. A simple, reasonable question was all It asked,
”Are you having that much fun?”
And at that moment, from the depths of his very soul, he knew that the Voice was God, and that he was condemned. He was going to die and he was going to hell and God was completely just to send him there. All of the actions of his selfish existence had paid the price of the ticket for this last carnival ride and it wasn’t going to stop until it reached the one destination it could stop…the gates of hell.
His life started flashing before him, not like in a movie, with scenes and such, but glimpses and remembrance of opportunities he’d squandered, wrongs he’d done, and the singular, insipid foolishness that his lifestyle had harmed no one but himself. And then his words attacked his memory; all his many, many, endless foolish words. The way he could talk and bend logic, and reason away faith and God, and all the stuff he’d labeled myth and nonsense. And how he’d made fun of the preachers on campus, and on tv, and how he’d gone to Christmas Eve services this past year with the guy he’d lived with high on cocaine, and how they’d come home to do more coke and laugh at Jim Bakker and PTL, and how even that night with his heart beating out of his chest, he’d mumbled a false promise to God that if he kept him alive he’d stop doing coke, but that wasn’t true either. He’d laughed and mocked and considered himself so damn smart and above it all, and now the last laugh was going to be on him.
He thought about lying to his grandparents, and not paying for the car they’d bought him. Leaving town and going clear across the country on his hippy pilgrimage, and driving it north into Wyoming to evade them when they’d flown out to Denver the summer before to reclaim it when they’d learned he was on tour following the Grateful Dead, a “cult”, around the country.
And he thought about that trip out west and Yellowstone, and the Grand Tetons, and the double-rainbow in the Idaho sky, and Coos Bay, Oregon, and Donner Pass, and the river in Truckee, and camping in the Redwood Forest, and the two weeks in Mt. Shasta, and the concert on the side of the ski-slope and all the amazing things he’d seen, and people he’d met, and the times he’d had, high times, good times, fun times, but…that question was haunting him.
”No!” he screamed, ”There’s not that much fun in the whole world to go to hell for! You can’t have that much fun!”
He found himself in the bathroom somehow, sweaty hippies crammed in on all sides. No music was playing so it must have been the break between sets. He didn’t know if he’d blacked out after the opening song. He was just amazed to be conscious that he was still alive; one heartbeat away from hell, but still alive, nonetheless. He looked up into a mirror and saw a complete stranger. It was as if he was looking at someone else’s form. He couldn’t even look at this person in the eyes, whoever it was; chest panting, ribs showing, sunken cheeks and hollow, blood-rimmed eyes, wild, wavy hair all over the place, with a matching red beard that was soaked with sweat. He leaned over and splashed cold water onto the strangers face. When he straightened up there was still no spark. He knew it was his body, but he knew that person was under judgment and the sentence of death, of death and hell.
Back out in the hall, carried along by the current of faceless, nameless people, he could feel that they knew it too. He no longer belonged. He no longer fit. He was no longer ”enjoying the ride.”
By the time the second set started, he’d somehow made it upstairs, drifting like so much human flotsam on the tide of beaded, bearded hippies. The current deposited him at a vantage point above the mass of swirling deadheads on the floor. He was miserable. All he could think of was his guilt. He was condemned and guilty as charged, and he’d somehow thought that God was okay with all of this. ”How deceived could I have been?” he thought to himself.
When the band opened the second set with China Cat Sunflower, he wasn’t surprised. In October of the previous year, he’d gone out of his body and nearly od’d when they’d opened the second set with this same song in Charlotte, his hometown. He felt like the same thing was going to happen now. The only thing that kept him from giving in to that feeling was how terrible it all sounded. It was like the band were all playing the same song but each one of the six at a slightly different rhythm or a slightly different key than the other five. It was sheer cacophony! It was painful to listen to it and to have to watch the people around him and on the floor below, jerking and twitching and gyrating and waving their skinny arms with the bracelets sliding all up and down their skinny wrists, and whirling in circles with their skirts spinning out like a child’s top, and the glow sticks splashing dabs of moving color everywhere. He hated every bit of it. He no longer belonged.
Just then he looked up to see a scrawny guy with a little goatee, grinning like an imp with rivulets of straggly hair cascading over his shoulders, hopping towards him. He positively glowed when he shouted in absolute glee, ”There’s that China Cat!”
And the little imp glided over to where the condemned man stood as if they’d have one last bone dance before the execution. And he looked vaguely familiar, and he realized it was Don Bas_ who had travelled with him that entire summer when they’d gone everywhere from Boulder to San Francisco to Houston together; but no, he faintly remembered, Don was in federal prison in Virginia for selling acid to an undercover cop at the Richmond show the day after Halloween and biting the cop’s thumb in the back seat of the car. So who the hell was this??? And he was more confused now than ever.
”I feel like the devil,” he finally admitted to himself. And as soon as he’d thought it, magic dust fell through the air, like an invisible fairy godmother had emptied her wand onto everything. He could see the air shimmering and glimmering with the magic particles. And in one beat the band was perfect, and the lights shone out from the top of the stage, and he could feel it again, I mean REALLY FEEL IT! And this weird beared creature was bouncing up and down in front of him, smiling his head off like it was the greatest possible climax of joy. And he smiled a little, and let himself start to sway and rock with the syncopated rhythm for one brief moment, and then an eruption from somewhere deep inside him, ”NO! NO! I WANT THE TRUTH! I WANT THE TRUTH!” Was he shouting? Could Don’s twin hear this outburst? He didn’t know, but in that moment, the band sucked again! Like they’d never rehearsed the song before. And the air was cloudy with somebody’s cigarette, not magic dust. And the smell of the smoke was acrid in his nostrils, and made his stomach nauseous, and he would have given anything for a drink of water.
The next thing he knew, he found himself outside. There was still an outside! He was on an incline heading down. It was the ramp from the coliseum down to the parking lot. He could hear the muffled song playing from behind him inside,
”Go! Go Johnny Go, Go
Go! Go Johnny Go, Go
Johnny B. Goode…”
The concert was over because he knew they only ever played that as an encore. What now? He started to shiver because it was drizzling rain and he’d thrown his favorite shirt away. It was only a few degrees above freezing. Even though he’d managed to escape from the ”bucket”, he had absolutely no illusions that he had escaped from hell. He was being pressed down the incline that would spill them four abreast across the sidewalk and out into the parking lot in a few dozen yards. Some headlights were already on, and some speakers were already blaring more dead tunes. The circus was going to go into it’s next act right out here he knew full well. He couldn’t remember where the hell they’d parked. He’d pushed everybody to get there early and indeed they had. There’s had been the first damn car in the lot early in the afternoon. Then they’d all freaked out, figuring they were sitting ducks to park so close to the front, so they’d circled the place about a hundred times (that wasn’t conspicuous!), before blending in with other early arrivers. But he didn’t’ really want to find the car, fearing he’d die in a car crash. Maybe his heart was finally going to give out, it was certainly beating hard and fast enough
He stumbled ahead. His mind was numb and devoid of every thought except the certainty that he was going to die and that he was going to hell. Probably tonight, but definitely soon, he knew. He was supposed to rendezvous with Om and Rich and Deb after the show and they had talked about drinking Becks in the parking lot and then grabbing something late to eat at The Jewish Mother before heading to the hotel on the other side of the bay-bridge.
He didn’t want to drink, didn’t want to eat, and didn’t want to see his friends. He was cold and alone and disenchanted with his whole life as a deadhead and small-time dealer he’d spent three and a half years cultivating. Every single choice he’d made on that journey was going to land him in an inescapable hell.
When he first saw her, he was repulsed. ”Another hippie chick,” he thought, ”just what I need.” But she was unavoidably in his path standing at the bottom of the ramp. She held a lime green Day-Glo flier aloft in her hand. He shuffled a little sideways to avoid her but she anticipated his movement and stopped him dead in his tracks. She pushed the folded paper into his hands and stood there in the drizzle. She looked up at him as he focused on the words written on the fluorescent paper,
”How Much Are You Worth?”
Lovely, now the cosmos was taunting him, he thought, what a sick joke! He rolled his eyes and almost threw it on the ground, disgusted with himself, with the girl, the parking lot scene, with the idea of his own complete and utter worthlessness.
And then he unfolded the paper and saw the picture.
It was a bleeding hand, pierced by a nail, fastened to a piece of wood.
The caption beneath the picture read,
”God thinks you’re worth the death of His Son”
He doesn’t know how long he stood there staring at that picture and bathing in the radiance of the most beautiful words he’d ever seen. He wasn’t cold anymore, or high, or scared. He was incredulous that at that moment, at that place, at his most broken and destitute, his life was forever changed.
”Do you want to be saved?” the girl asked.
”Oh yes!” he said without hesitation, ”Yes I do!”
And they bowed their heads while she led him in a prayer of salvation, to the God of Love, Father of the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Who, even though this story happened 28 years ago, today, still seeks and saves that which is lost.