Friday, August 9, 2013

Memoirs of a Hippie: Jerry Garcia on the Eel

Today is the anniversary of Jerry Garcia's death. He died in 1995.

Jerry Garcia
I remember what I was doing when I heard the news. I was cooking in a small cafe in Newton, Iowa going through the regular process of gearing up for a busy lunch rush. The radio was playing; every day we listened to the same channel, a local classic rock station called KGGO. Usually I ignored it, or at least relegated it as background noise, but my ears perked up when "Sugar Magnolia," came on. I thought was peculiar, as it seemed a strange song for this heavily formatted radio station to play. I'd heard them play "Truckin'" and "Casey Jones" before, but had never known them to dig that deep into the Grateful Dead vault.

The next song was "Brokedown Palace." This really had me spinning... And I knew then that something was amiss. I got a weird feeling, and even considered for a moment that somebody had turned the radio off and put a tape in. But that made no sense. Nobody else in the kitchen would have played the Dead, as it was just me and an older lady who clearly had no interest in the psychedelia genre, or the lifestyle of a hippie. She extolled the virtues of clean living to me on a daily basis, and probably considered the classic rock station to be be borderline acceptable at best. I was pretty confident that she didn't put a tape in, or change the station, or even recognize that the radio was playing...

After "Brokedown," the DJ came on and said that they would be playing Grateful Dead songs all through the lunch hour in honor of Jerry Garcia, "who passed away this morning."

I stopped what I was doing and stared straight ahead. Did I really hear what I thought I did?

About then a waiter walked into the kitchen, and not even really knowing him, I said to him, "I think I just heard that Jerry Garcia died.

"Yeah," he answered. "I heard that on the radio this morning as I came to work."

I was in disbelief. I had always figured that this day would come, but I kinda pictured myself being in the company of my buddies, sitting around on a patio somewhere with guitars and booze, mourning his life through celebration. But here I was in Newton, Iowa, away from all my friends literally without a single person close by that I could call or reach out to.

Completely zombiefied, I took off my apron, put down the knife in my hand, and left work. I drove it to my parent's house because I figured my mother would be home from work for her lunch hour. I remember walking into the house and seeing my mother in the kitchen. I walked to her, and gave her a giant hug. I cried like a baby.

I don't think that until that point, she had any idea how much his music had meant to me.


Ironically, my favorite Jerry Garcia moment happened on tomorrow's date, August 10th, in 1991.

I was 23 years old. I had driven with my buddy Nick out to California to see some shows at the Cal Expo in Sacramento and the Shoreline Amplitheater in Mountain View. After a shenanigan-filled road trip to the west coast, we made it to the San Fransisco, with a few days ahead of us before the shows at Cal Expo. We had time to kill and explored the coastal life of mid-California. San Fran was an absolute blast.

We lingered around the Haight-Ashbury district like any good young hippies would, and spent a couple of nights in Golden Gate Park on a sleeping bag under a giant evergreen. It was there that we met a group of homeless California hippies who told us about the Jerry Garcia Band playing up north on the Eel River that following weekend. It wasn't on our agenda, but we had nothing but time. The Cal Expo shows were to start early the next week, and perhaps a trip up north was in order to get us primed. We decided to go for it.

Our morning view in Golden Gate Park
We drove up north a day early, and spent a few minutes at the Point Reyes lighthouse that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. We arrived at French's Camp by early afternoon, and pulled into the entrance.

There was one problem. We didn't have a ticket to the show, and in order to get into the parking lot, you had to provide a ticket. To make matters worse, this show was sold out, and there was none available. We were forced to turn around and re-evaluate our situation.

Slightly distraught, we decided to drive north to the next town, and come up with a plan. When we got to Garberville, we pulled into a small cafe parking lot where we instantly saw some other heads. They didn't have tickets to the show either, but they had a plan. They were going to park their vehicle at the cafe and hitchhike down to the show. Then they were going to take their chances and climb the mountain that surrounded the venue, and drop into the Eel, and swim to the sacred concert grounds.

It seemed perfect. What the heck, Nick and I decided. We'd do it too.

We parked our car and walked out to the highway to thumb a ride. The other group had left, so it was just Nick and I. We had just gotten to the highway with our thumbs out when a white Chevy Blazer pulled up next to us. It was the Sheriff of Humboldt County.

"Going to the show at the Eel?" he asked us.

"Um... Yeah." was our reply. I expected to be scolded for hitchhiking on a public highway thus ruining our entire plan. But that didn't happen.

"Get in. I'm driving right past there!"

It was unbelievable. The sheriff was giving us a ride. In the back of the blazer was part of a drum set, which he said was his.

"I used to go to these shows all the time." He told us.

When we got to the road that led to French's Camp, he pulled over and let us out.

"Thanks for the ride, Sheriff!" we said.

"No problem! Enjoy the concert!"

We got out of the Sheriff's Blazer and made our way down the road towards French's Camp. It's a very mountainous area, and the road led through a pass that basically took you to the backside of the mountain. At that spot was where you had to reveal a ticket, or be forced to turn around. Several paths led off of the road up into the hills, and when we found one that offered sufficient cover, we took it. It wound itself around the hill, and slowly, we travelled up the mountain. We had our back packs with us, our sleeping bags, and just a bit of food. We derived a plan to get to the summit, and see which direction we needed to go to get to French's Camp. We would then set up camp and in the morning make our way down to the river, drop in, and swim to shore.

Amazingly, it worked just like that.

Aireal view of French's Camp on the Eel River
It was dark when we made camp that night in a secluded spot at the top of the mountain. We had spent most of the afternoon and evening climbing to that point, and we were tired and hungry. The next morning, we packed our gear and headed down a path. There we met some of the people who were in the group that we talked to in Garberville. There was hippie hugs and laughter, and just an overwhelming feeling of euphoria.

One of the guys, who regularly attended shows on the Eel, told us what to expect. "If you see somebody wearing a yellow shirt, go the other direction." he warned us. "That's security. Sometimes they are cool, but most will kick you out of here. We are at a point now where it's not public land anymore. We are basically trespassing, and they do have security up here to stop freeloaders like us from getting into the show."

They were still laying around their campsite with all of their gear unpacked. They didn't seem to be in any hurry, but Nick and I decided to keep on moving. We started back on the trail.

After an hour or so of walking, we came to a fork in the path, and we had to make a decision. Should we go right or left? By now we could hear the festivities in the campground below us (we couldn't see it at this point) so we knew we were close. Then suddenly, our worst fear happened. A guy in a yellow shirt was walking towards us up the path and he saw us. We kind of stumbled for a second or two, and then we froze. The man approached us. We were caught.

"Hey guys," he said to us. "You better keep moving. If you go right, there's a spot you can leap into the river and swim to the shore without being seen. If you go left the guy will stop will stop you and escort you off of the mountain."

He was one of the good guys!

"Thanks, man!" we took the path to the right towards the river. The friendly security guy was correct. There was a nice level spot which sat on a cliff overlooking the Eel River. We were about 15 feet above the water and it was just narrow enough that from our height, we could lob our gear across it without landing it in the slow-moving water. It made a cloud of dust as it thudded onto the sandy shore. We could see people, but no security. There was a hell of a party going on across the river. People were waving at us, and being cool.

"The water's deep enough!" one assured us. "Jump!"

We leaped, and with a thunderous splash, we landed in the cold mountain water. It was incredible. We swam to shore, and sure enough we were in the venue. Everything else was now just a formality. We had made it to the Promised Land,  French's Camp on the Eel River. In a few hours we'd be watching the Jerry Garcia Band play.

I was in Hippie Utopia.

French's Camp on the Eel River in Humboldt County California
(Photo by Kim Salloway, courtesy of The Jerry Site)
This venue is unlike any I have ever been to, before or since. There was basically no security inside. Everybody was so righteous, and it must have come to be expected, and they must have deemed security unnecessary. The crowd was extremely friendly, very cool, laid back and full of life. People were climbing to various heights on the cliff wall and leaping into the water. The sound of drums and electric music filled the air, as did the smell of incense and other exotic aromas.Tye dyed flags were flown, and fires raged, despite the heat of the California sun. Strange shadows seemed to beckon us. There were no strangers, we had all arrived to this place in peace and unity.

It was in my young Iowa mind, the epitome of California.

We walked into the fenced in area where the stage was set up. This was a Bill Graham production, one of his last. He died in a helicopter crash just a couple of months later. A band from the San Fran area named Klan Dyken was playing, and they were to be followed by Paul Kantner, of Jefferson Airplane fame. Then, it was Jerry's turn to take the stage.

Getting into the concert area wasn't a problem. A ticket to the parking lot meant a  ticket to the concert, and if you were there, nobody was asking questions. I think I saw Ken Kesey hanging out, and also Wavy Gravy, to whom I introduced myself. The crowd inside the fenced area was extremely laid back, and I was able to walk up to the stage and hang out with out being pushed or leaned on.

Which leads me to my favorite Jerry moment...

He and his band were playing a blistering version of "Lay Down Sally." I walked up to the stage until  was standing about 5 feet from Jerry (no security). He was lost in a solo, and I wanted to hang around just long enough to make eye contact. As he started to sing the second verse, he looked down, saw me and smiled. He must have seen my beaming face, because he then winked. I felt a sensational rush move through my body (no joke) and I just stood there and stared at him until the song ended.

Jerry playing French's Camp at the Eel River in 1991
(Photo by Kim Salloway, courtesy of The Jerry Site.)
I had seen him play about 25 times prior to this encounter, but never at close range. It was odd to watch him in person from that close. He is a human, but yet I found myself considering otherwise. His presence was enormous, and his aura was as bright as the sun. Completely fulfilled, I left the stage area and joined Nick back a bit further in the crowd.

That is my favorite memory of Jerry Garcia. Sometimes I am surprised at how badly I miss him.


Pertinent link: The Jerry Site



Anonymous said...

Nice story, check this out...

Anonymous said...

Hello my name is Dennis Daryl Shamblin. Please read my new novel Surviving Bigfoot and the Dixie Mafia. The book is available through Amazon.

Anonymous said...

I might have been one of those people you talked to in golden gate park. I remember the dew off those trees in the park hitting my head. Went to the eel had a ticket though, but you could do whatever you wanted at that campground it was awesome. That is a totally lost time.

Unknown said...

Simply wonderful story; pure and heartfelt with a sense of enduring youthful wonder and openess and joy. Thanks. All the best