4th of July Weekend 1971 with The Dead

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An excerpt from the Hardly Working chapter, “Go West Young Man.” Attending the final performance of the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West………..

The line waiting to get into the Fillmore reeked of patchouli oil, righteous b.o., reefer and incense—the absolute freakiest freak-show the culture could assemble. There were be-robed gurus, dirty-footed flower girls, speed freaks, acid heads, dropouts, used-to-be-clean-cut-but-now-zonked-out-ex-varsity-athletes and assorted expats from the small towns and suburbs of America, wearing fringed vests and patched jeans, high school band jackets, puffy sleeved Zorro shirts, tank tops, granny dresses and threadbare thrift store garb adorned with feathers and buttons and beads. And many headbands. It was a scene to make most older Americans shake their collective head in befuddlement and beeline for the liquor cabinet. My reason for coming to San Francisco was to simply experience what was out there. This was definitely out there: a laid-back utopia to some, a dystopian anarchy to others. There may never have been a time so dominated by youth.

Security that night was provided by the Hell’s Angels, the respected, feared, and often reviled biker gang that began in Oakland and had now achieved an ironic, almost heroic status with the peace and love crowd. They too were non-conforming California originals who thumbed their filthy noses at anything remotely bourgeois. During the Dead show, I bumped into an Angel as he took a long pull of something in a paper bag. He grunted. My Angel moment.

 “Dark Star!” yelled someone from the audience. “Morning Dew!… New Minglewood!!…play something heavy!” Would the performance go on forever, until the building levitated, nirvana achieved? Would the secrets of the universe be revealed to the faithful? Every single person in the joint was high and dancing—or doing what passed for dancing—blissfully shrieking, jumping up and down, gyrating, undulating, inhabiting their own time and space, communing with the spirits, achieving ecstasy, until the entire place melted into a screaming Edvard Munch scene. Visitors from another planet would have been confused. Middle American suburbanites would have been terrified. George Washington might have wondered if crossing the Potomac had been worth it. This wasn’t the revolution he had in mind.

Many hours into the show, Brian and Sally told me they were going back to the apartment. I assured them that I could find my way home—although I had little sense of where the Fillmore was in relation to the apartment on Cole Street just north of the Panhandle—but I didn’t care. I would find the way. I would improvise, like the Dead. With about a thousand other zapped souls, I stayed until the bittersweet end, adding my whoops and exultations as the swirling pageant of sensory madness throbbed, as each song started and swelled and petered out or hit a dead end only to be resurrected by Jerry or Phil or Bob. Jerry the hipster shaman displayed the constitution of a long-distance runner or one who knew the right chemist, never leaving the stage, playing with The Rowan Brothers, then the New Riders of the Purple Sage and finally a few hours with the Dead. Johnny B Goode was the last number and I’m not sure how much more I could have taken.

Somewhere between midnight and daybreak, I loped out of the Fillmore into the other world of an early morning city, quiet and surreal; where tomorrow had already begun and yesterday seemed a thousand years ago. I managed to snag a ride with some revelers in a pick-up who were headed to a donut shop near Sally’s apartment. The way. I passed on the donuts and scrambled home. When I woke up the next afternoon, Jim Morrison’s Parisian death was in the news but all we talked about was the Dead. It was the final performance of the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore West.

My 1970s philosophy

author’s 1970s look