A Good Day Indeed

Sometimes you learn from books. Sometimes you learn from other people. Sometimes you learn directly, sometimes indirectly. Other times you learn just by watching, by noticing things, by asking yourself questions about them and trying as best you can to answer them . . . .

It was, as Vito Corleone might have said, an offer I couldn't refuse: free tickets to see Steve Winwood and the Dead at Saratoga . 'Got them for $5 each off a guy we know,' she said, 'but we can't use them. You want them?'

Sure ' mostly for Winwood, whose music I've loved since I was a boy: since we were both boys, really; he was just a teenager when he wrote and sang such songs as 'Gimme Some Loving' and 'I'm a Man' for the Spencer Davis Group. And it would be interesting not only to see the Dead ' while I never cared for their music, I'd always admired their musicianship, their improvisational quality and their ability to morph one song seamlessly into another ' but also to see the Deadheads and in particular the traveling carnival of enterprise that follows them around the country. One of my college housemates had spent the last years of his life as part of that carnival, selling Guatemalan clothing (among other things).

We left around 1:00 , filled the truck with gas, and headed up Interstate 88. The beautiful green rolling hills of upstate New York seemed to whiz by us, though it was really us whizzing by them. We made 'pretty good time,' as they say, until we got to Albany and made the connection to Interstate 87, also known as the Northway. As far as we could see, gridlock: as far as we could see, all three northbound lanes were chock-full of cars, trucks, motorcycles, mini-vans, and SUVs. Not only that, but many of them began engaging in a somewhat dangerous form of tag, weaving when they could in and out of all three lanes in a desperate but doomed effort to make 'better' time, as if being ahead of the next guy in a line going nowhere fast made him somehow superior . . . .

'Everyone's in such a hurry,' Bill said. 'If everyone would do the speed limit, I bet this wouldn't happen. But instead . . . .'

Car after car after car . . . mostly solitary individuals encased in both metal and mental isolation . . . all staring straight ahead at the cars filling the highway in front of them . . . impatient, angry, waiting for that moment when they could speed up, break away, give everyone the finger and get the hell out of there . . . .

Dinner in Saratoga , then the slow crawl out to the Performing Arts Center: thousands of people all trying to get to the same place. Parked the truck, got our folding chairs, put our rain gear in his backpack, headed through the growing carnival for the stage. Lots of older people, my age or even older, big old beer guts peeking out under old frayed tie-dyed t-shirts. Lots of kids in their twenties and younger, too, most dressed very self-consciously like hippies or, at least, like they thought a hippie would: fringe, sandals, tie-dye, granny dresses. 'If you ain't bald or gray or both,' I thought, 'you ain't no hippie, Jack. Why don't you kids get your own damn culture?'

But that just made me think about that culture, this damned, horrid 'Baby Boomer' legacy that has been so romanticized and yet has done such serious and powerful damage to us not only as a society but as individuals as well: the self-centered, self-righteous, amoral hedonism that today has become so much a part of our culture and thus our government. I thought about how fully I bought into it, accepting without question the pleasant-sounding lies and deceptions: Sex! Drugs! Rock and roll! Total freedom! Power to the People! The revolution, man! And now we can't get rid of it. Sometimes I think it's infected everyone, everything . . . .

We progressed through the growing crowd. 'Hash here,' one kept muttering, 'hash here,' almost under his breath. Another was offering, relatively sotto voce, mushrooms. Vendors had set up temporary shop along both sides of the walkway offering food and drink of many kinds: vegetarian burritos seemed very popular. Everyone seemed to be doing a fairly brisk business, and it was still early. Winwood would go on first, at 5:30 , with the Dead taking the stage around 7.

On one hand it all seemed very retro, very Seventies. It was almost authentic but for two aspects. First, there were way too many older people there ' way too many people my age and older. Back then, just about everyone at a concert was pretty much the same age. We almost never had a mix of old and young then like I saw at Saratoga .

The other aspect was harder to quantify. Sure, it sort of seemed real ' at first glance. But it wasn't. It seemed . . . planned. Artificial. An imitation, one totally lacking in spontaneity. Even the Deadheads holding up their index fingers ' that time-honored indicator of someone in need of a ticket ' seemed old, tired, planned, clich'd. I almost felt like we were in a play, like we were all vainly searching to regain those days when we were young and stupid and thought the world was about to change for the better: when we believed those shiny lies about ourselves, about our youth and our brilliance and how we were the harbingers of a new age ' the 'Age of Aquarius': 'Harmony and understanding, sympathy and peace abounding. No more falsehood or derision. Golden living dreams of visions, mystic crystal revelations and the mind's true liberation . . . .'

The Dead in particular epitomized those days, that mode of thought, and had from the time they lived together in Haight Ashbury and played free concerts in the park. It's not about the money, man ' it's about the music. The music will set you free, man . . . .

I looked at my ticket: $37.50 to sit on the lawn. I would never have paid that. It was $52 for a seat in the amphitheatre. I would never have paid that, either.

We approached the gates. Lots of people and lots of 'security.' Bill was told he couldn't take his backpack in. It didn't matter that we only had rain gear in it. It could have been a bomb! And they have rules! Bill tossed me my raincoat and told me to go on in ' it was almost 5:45 and he knew I didn't want to miss Winwood's set. 'Sit somewhere in the center. I'll find you,' and he headed back to the car.

I moved on. Another security guy frisked me and checked my raincoat. Apparently a lot of crazed mass murderers frequent such concerts. He found no weapons on me. I wondered what would have happened if I had been carrying my Swiss Army knife. I know we're supposed to be grateful for such 'heightened awareness' of terrorism. We're supposed to think it's all for our benefit and it keeps us secure. But I don't. It's not just that it's a stupid, purposeless waste of time and energy. It's that it also keeps that fear near the surface of our consciousness. To the best of my knowledge, no one in the line was caught with a single weapon of mass destruction under his coat (nor has, as far as I know, the entire humbled nation of Iraq , but I digress) ' and we, no doubt, have the fearless Saratoga security team to thank for that.

One more checkpoint: the ticket taker. At least, that's what they used to do ' take the ticket. I hadn't been to a concert for quite some time, and I have to admit I was kind of surprised at the high-tech scanners held by the people letting us through the final gate. You held out your ticket and they scanned the barcode at the bottom. It was the first time I'd experienced such a method.

And it will most likely be the last.

The person with the scanner ran it over my ticket once, then again, and finally pronounced that 'it's been scanned' and that I couldn't go in. My free ticket was apparently a fraud, a counterfeit. It was no good. It almost made me laugh ' the first time I go to see the Dead, that most representative band of the Sixties counterculture, of peace and flowers and freedom, and I'm caught in a high-tech scam. I felt as if Jerry Garcia himself ' the man who refused to play Woodstock until the band got paid in cash up front ' was keeping me out, saying: 'Not until you pay the $37.50, man . . . .'

Never. I'm not paying $37.50 to be treated like a suspect, to be treated like a potential terrorist, to be scanned and frisked so I can sit on a lawn in the rain with thousands of other sheep to hear aging millionaires play aging songs to make even more money than they already have. The dream, as even John Lennon had to admit, is over.

I started back, scanning the crowd to catch Bill. Once I did, we turned around to head for home. 'It's funny, isn't it,' he said. 'The Dead have had a lot of trouble with counterfeit tickets. But that's what peace and love is all about, right?'

I thought as I watched the headlights clog the three northbound lanes that there would be about 30,000 people there to watch fewer than 10 perform. What causes such a lopsided phenomenon? It's electricity, it's Power, that allows us to know who Winwood and the Dead are, to know and possess and love their songs. It's Power that's made them rich and famous, and Power that is making them even richer. It's Power that is driving all those automobiles forward on the Northway, 70 miles an hour each in the rainy New York night. It's all wrapped up together, isn't it: the annihilation of space by electricity and the automobile, the American need for Power, the bloody destruction of Iraq, the repression of civil liberties, the frisking of music fans, the addiction of people to their passivity, their mobility and their music? Why do we all want to get away? And why do we want to go so fast? Maybe Pascal was right: maybe all of man's unhappiness does stem from not being able to remain quietly in his room.

We neared home. We filled the tank again. A friend of ours was playing at a bar just off the highway, so we stopped in, had a few beers, caught the first set. They played great, especially when they launched into a couple of my faves: 'Unchain My Heart' and 'Summertime.' Neither Winwood nor the Dead could have played nearly so well. And besides, they were right there in front of me. They were people I knew, people I'd played with. There were three in the band and maybe 20 in the bar. It cost us nothing to get in. We had not been frisked. We had not been scanned or scammed. There didn't seem to be a terrorist or a hippie anywhere in the place. The bar owner joked about proofing me but he didn't. A stranger shook my hand, told me he'd seen me play there and that he thought I was pretty good.

We left. As he dropped me off, Bill said, 'I got half the day off, we had a pleasant drive to someplace we hadn't been in years, and you bought me dinner. We talked about interesting things and had some beers, you got complimented out of the blue, and we saw a good band. It was a good day.'

A good day indeed.

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Craig Russell's picture
Columns on STR: 35

Craig Russell is a writer and musician in upstate New York.