Growing up in the rural suburbs of the southeast, the culture and music of the Grateful Dead was, for a while, the perfect accent to the drugs I’d discovered from about 1988-1996.
I grew up an hour south of D.C. and had been into D.C. hardcore and skateboards. When I started doing drugs, the reggae that Bad Brains played began to make a lot of sense. Suddenly I was seeking out reggae albums instead of punk. I went to a Burning Spear concert at the University of Maryland around ‘87. I had a floppy mohawk and ended up smoking the biggest joint I’d ever seen in my young life with two really cute hippie girls. They were cute, minus the dreadlocks, armpit hair, and dirty-ass toes sticking out of the Birkenstocks. When the show was over we went outside to their Jetta and smoked more. One of the girls played a live tape of the Dead—from when I don’t know, but it didn’t sound as country as I’d always thought it to be. The Grateful Dead had made it to the periphery of my attention. By the time I got to tenth grade, I started to notice girls I really hoped to fuck were wearing Grateful Dead stuff and all kinds of hippy shit.
Deadhead girls, at least the ones in school, were not dirty like the girls at punk shows. They were generally athletic and clean, but they liked to smoke pot and drink beer. The punk rock girls started looking more and more depressed, dark and angry.
So by 10th grade, I grew my mohawk out, and by the spring my hair was close to my waist. It started as an interest in girls, but the more weed I smoked, the more of my friends turned into deadheads, and the punk and goth kids started to fade out.
At first it was something refreshing. My deadhead friends seemed to be more into having a good time. When I was hanging out with punk kids, we were always vandalizing shit. I got arrested for breaking into a school with my skateboard. With deadheads we only worried about getting busted for weed. I was still kind of pissed off pretty much all the time, though. I was a pretty angry kid, and as long as my hair grew, as much bud as I would smoke, I was still always kind of pissed off, and the malcontent and vandal never really died. I did get into the music. I started listening to live recordings of shows, and reading up on the history of the band. And in 88,’ almost 16 years old, I went to my first Grateful Dead show at RFK stadium in D.C.
RFK was the football stadium for the Washington Redskins. It seated over 50,000. These seats would all sell out for Dead shows, and they would open up the field for a free-for-all general admission. I didn’t know at the time that Deadheads would literally travel and follow the band all across the U.S. in the spring, summer, and fall. When I got to Northern Virginia, just across the river from D.C., I was struck by how many VW buses, bugs, and Volvo wagons from California, Oregon, and Colorado were backed up and shutting down the flow of traffic in our nation’s capital.
I was struck by how the air everywhere, miles from the stadium, smelled like a thick mixture of pot, BBQ, patchouli oil, body odors, and beer. Back then, the first time I smelled “that smell” that every Deadhead knows intimately, I liked it.
Back then. By the time I got to the parking lot of the stadium, I was with some friends. We had split one tab of acid 4 ways and had been steady smoking on a half ounce of weed since 11:00 AM. We got into the parking lot, and it changed my life. I was stoned out of my mind, tripping a little bit and stumbling around in a sea of drumming, dancing, singing freaks. As far as I could see, as long as I wandered, was long hair, smoke, tie-dye, bells, boobies, falafels and beer, joints, bongs, drums and drum circles. I had found Utopia, although I didn’t take into account that the 200,000 plus people in a facility built for 50,000 were all full of piss, shit, blood, cum, and vomit.
Almost twenty years and some fifty-plus shows have passed since my first show, but nothing in my memory can compete with that first show. I smoked from so many strangers’ joints inside. The massive stadium was full of changing colored lights that picked up on the thick smoke hanging over the stadium. During intermission a spontaneous drum circle broke out in the hallway. People started dancing with each other at random; security guards hired by the stadium even started dancing. I was so young and high that the scene made me cry and dance. I was hugging strangers and kissing women I never met. I started making out with this one really pretty girl with dirty (I mean DIRTY) blonde dreads.
She smelled like pot, beer, patchouli and armpit, but she had amazing eyes with no visible iris. We started shoving our tongues into each other’s mouths as we danced. I was groping her and slid my hands up and down her tank-topped sides. My thumb ultimately landed in a thick, dank patch of stinky armpit hair, which shocked me out of my buzz a bit, and I went back to my seat.
The second set—which I learned is the trippy set—opened up. The band goes into this free-form drum set, which blends into a freer-form jam with the whole band called “space.” During space, everyone seems to dance themselves into a slow-motion, twirly trance. It’s kind of beautiful and terrifying to be in a massive architectural structure with 60,000 people, most of who are totally stoned if not tripping too, watching them flail their arms and hair around something like a person with Parkinson’s doing tai chi.
When the show concluded, I thought to myself, “ I made it. I’m a real deadhead now.” And I decided to dedicate the rest of my life to being a deadhead.
We left the show, following a long, slow moving cattle-like line of people into the parking lot- which had grown more chaotic and carnivalesque than when we were out in it earlier, I realized I had to piss. I was still tripping a little and quite high, and the need to pee was ruining my buzz. There were so many people that I felt timid pissing outside, so I told my friends I was going to go to the port-o-potty. I waited on line and talked to some older hippy about how great Jerry sounded tonight. I told all sorts of stupid lies about how many dead shows I ‘d been too and made what I think was a good case for looking like I knew what I was talking about. In my defense, I was sooo high, that it was like the drugs were talking and not me. As the line moved closer to the port-o-potties, I would hear screams and gasps coming out of there.
“Dude, hold your breath, bro, it stinks to high hell in there!”
When my turn came, I looked at the port-o-potty and realized I was tripping a little harder than I had originally thought. It was tall and blue, down towards the bottomed there were (what I hoped was) smears of mud. As I walked towards it, my heart starting beating faster, with a mix of trippy fear and relief that I was going to pee. About two feet away, a warm wall of indescribable stench slammed against my face. I turned around to catch a quick grasp of air- noticed like ten thousand people behind me- and held my breath. Then I lunged for the door.
With my held breath, I stepped into something that looked worse than what I imagined an abortion clinic dumpster might look like. There were piles of beer cans, bottles, hot dogs, veggie burritos, t-shirts and tampons everywhere.
The floor was soaked in various excrement, as was the toilet. I felt a deep sense of gratitude, that what I had to do in there didn’t require my sitting. Excitedly, with my breath not being very patient, I pulled out my dick and started to pee on some beer bottles on the side urinal while I stared into the dark toilet. I was in a state of combined disgust and fascination as my heart was pounding and my breath was fighting to get out. Staring into the toilet as I was peeing, I noticed there was so much shit in there, so much garbage, clothing and debris, that it was forming this peak that was about to crest the opening. I started visualizing how many people had pooped there. I imagined if I had to poop there that I wouldn’t sit down, but I would stand on the rim of the bowl and let em drop. Then I noticed a lone Birkenstock sandal sticking out from a pile of toilet paper, tampons and beer cans next to the bowl. My piss stream was still coming out pretty strong and my held breath was now struggling with a desire to laugh.
And then, as I was staring at the shit-mountain in the chasm below, I noticed it move, it moved again, and again, and I realized I was looking at a giant octopus.
In shear terror, I broke my piss stream, put it away, and ran outside- nearly slipping in sludge, gasping. I looked at the crowd before me and shouted, “Y’all do NOT want to go in there.” They responded with cheers and laughter “WOOOOO-HOOOO BRO !” This got me over my timidity of pissing in front of crowds. I got back through the lot to where my friends were. There were so many people dancing, cooking, listening to music, drinking beer and smoking weed that the crowd was not moving anywhere. We stayed there for a few more hours and got really, really high. I had a cozy feeling that I found the place where I belonged. The octopus in the toilet escaped my memory in the short term, but twenty years later it really stands out.
Most of my ambition over the next seven years or so revolved around the Grateful Dead. While I was in high school, I only went to local concerts in D.C., Richmond, and Hampton. Going to local shows meant it was easy to navigate around the port-o-potty situation. I was usually gone for an afternoon and night, to return to my mom’s clean toilet and shower by the next day. It was when I began to tour that things got dirty.
If you’ve ever been to a Dead show, or any other large scaled music festival event, there is a very specific, unforgettable multi-layered odor. The odor varies a lot, depending on the weather and the town you’re in.
If it’s in October and it’s cool outside you notice the combination of charcoal barbeque, burning sage, incense and weed with patchouli oil. The concerts in cool weather are the best. The cool weather brings out the people who are most interested in the music. The ones who are only interested in partying tend to stay in. When the spring comes, the smells are mostly the same, until things begin to warm up. That’s when the body odors come in. As the air gets warmer, people sweat more and bathe less, because there’s less opportunity to when you are tripping and have to get to the next town for the next show. The availability to bathe is also limited to what campgrounds have showers with hot water; because you are too poor to go to a hotel. If you have money, you want it for concert tickets, and drugs. I am proud to say, in the years I was going to shows and touring, the longest I went without a shower was three days. I know people who have gone longer than three months. When the summer comes, the smell of armpit, piss, stomach acid and shit almost manage to overcome the sweet smell of weed and patchouli. In the summer, more people come to party. They all have to piss and shit and there are nowhere nearly enough port-o-potties to accommodate, so there are turds in the oddest places. The heat and humid air tend to hold bodily smells longer. People who know that smell often develop a very strong psychological connection linking patchouli to all the shit and garbage.
If you’ve ever seen the classic Woodstock documentary, then you know the final scene in the end when the camera people are shooting the grounds as the hundreds of thousands leave. Every dead show, I’ve been to, every campground I’ve stayed at while traveling to shows looks worse than the Woodstock grounds when the deadheads leave.
It’s funny because deadheads usually have “love your mother” bumper stickers on their cars. In Atlanta one time we stayed at a campground that had hot showers advertised. This was an especially good thing because this was the time I’d been three days without a shower. There were 150 campsites on the ground and literally thousands of heads camping out, playing guitars, beating on drums and tambourines, fucking, smoking weed and shooting up, taking ecstasy. We got there so stoned we didn’t set up a tent. I partied for a while and just threw my sleeping bag on the ground and crashed under the stars. I woke up very early the next morning, dug a clean pair of underwear and a towel out of my bag, slipped on my Birks and quietly made my way to the showers. It was barely daylight. I walked through a sea of tents littered with beer bottles, clothes, and varied garbage. The stench was thick in the Georgia morning dew.
It started to bug me that this so-called utopia I’d found was mostly a bunch of trust-fund kids who liked to party and leave waste in their wake all around the country.
When I got into the shower room, the stench concentrated. I felt crusty and was determined to get clean; no matter how bad it was in there. I passed by a mirror and didn’t recognize who I was for a second. I had a sparse, patchy beard, which grew, mostly under my neck. I was wearing this puffy black cap, with a rainbow striped underneath that I kept my hair tucked in. I took it off and this tangled mess of dread-like locks fell out. I was happy to get in the shower. The showers were each in separate stalls, separated by walls that were about knee-high above the ground.
There was trash all over the floor, mostly beer bottles, Styrofoam cups, some balled up clothes in the corner of the room. There may have been what was a condom hanging over an over-flowed trashcan, but I just tried to ignore it. I didn’t really want to know.
The stench was strong and dank, but I hadn’t had a shower in three days and I was not going to let anything get in my way. I kicked open the door to a little platform and the shower was in a smaller room beyond the changing place. To my chagrin, I found the shower stall was a bit more than ankle-deep with backed up water and the floor of all the showers were connected to the same drainpipe somewhere. I took my clothes off, but left my sandals on, stepped into the murky water and turned on the shower. Of course it was a weak stream of cold water. It took me a while to muster the nerve to get completely under the water. I stood there for about fifteen minutes, naked, except for my sandaled feet underwater, shivering. I finally got completely under and tried to scrub myself the best I could, as I had no soap. I stayed under the water for a while, and I got used to it, it started feeling good. I was beginning to feel fresh, ready to get stoned and eat, then drive up to Charlotte for another show. As I was standing there, I was horrified to see what I first thought was a water rat, but turned out to be a lone turd, float under the wall, drift on past my feet and under the next door. I almost started crying. I went back to the campsite in a bad mood.
My friends Matt and Ryan were up cooking breakfast. It was two-day old black bean burritos from a cooler that we’d all been eating from two days straight.
They were being heated up in a pan over a propane burner. They didn’t smell so great so I smoked a joint with Ryan to work up and appetite. The burritos tasted OK. In fact, I ate two and I was stuffed. I drank a Sam Smith Oatmeal Stout and felt the dank heat of the morning coming on. We packed up and headed to Charlotte. I didn’t tell anyone my turd story, but I kept thinking about it the whole drive. We smoked pretty much the whole trip, and about halfway through South Carolina, Matt pulled out a bag of mushrooms. I don’t know why I ate them. I was already having a bad day. I was too stoned. My stomach didn’t feel great, and that goddamned turd from the shower wouldn’t leave my memory. I kept looking down at the dirt in my toenails imagining that there was shit packed in there, and it was freaking me out. It was also, seriously 100 degrees outside. But for some reason I thought it might be a good idea to eat mushrooms.
Things were OK for a little bit. We were listening to good tapes, and the traffic was flowing. Other deadheads were passing us, cheering, on the road and I was getting excited about Charlotte. I’d never seen a show in Charlotte and I was wondering what they were going to play. My buzz started blending into a very mellow trip. The music seemed longer and stranger, but warm. The colors in the sky and trees seemed more vivid and things were turning out to be pretty good. Suddenly we slowed down, and then we stopped. Traffic came to a dead halt about six miles out of town. The wind blowing in the car was replaced by stifling heat, my mushrooms were kicking in strong, and those beers and burritos I ate for breakfast started rumbling and wanted to get out. I needed to shit. My intestines were angry, and the shower-turd came back to me like a bad dream. The road we were on was in the middle of nowhere, with large open fields on either side. Everyone in the traffic jam was headed to the show. There was no way I could jump out of the car and shit; there were no trees or anything to duck behind. I would just be showing everyone at the concert my exploding bowels, or my face in the 100-degree heat. The panic started in. “Let me out of the car.” I said. I was in the back of a stinky crowded hot Jetta, I was tripping and I had to shit, BAD. I got out of the car and looked around. A mile or so up the road was a gas station. I told my friends “there’s a gas station up there, I gotta shit BAD, I’m gonna make a run for it, stop by and get me if I’m not waiting for you when you pull up.” And I started running in the heat, with sandals and angry diarrhea trying to get out, tripping on mushrooms.
As I ran hippies were screaming out of their cars at me “WOOOO HOOO!” and “RAT ON BRO! GO GIT IT!”
I was sweating and shaking. I actually started praying. “Please God, please, please just let me find a toilet and I will stop sinning.”
As I was about to explode, I turned into the lot of the gas station and ran to the toilet around back, which was fucking locked. I just kicked the door open and scanned the room; a toilet backed up, full of other people’s shit and toilet paper, about an inch of piss all over the entire floor and a fairly cleanish looking sink. I ripped off my shorts, hung them on the doorknob, ran over to the sink and let my ass completely explode all over it for about three minutes. Sweet God almighty, what joyous relief. Ahhhhh, oh yeah. Thank you God. When the waves of explosions were over, I noticed the roll of toilet paper across the room was soaked in piss. Fucking bastards. I stayed here hunched over for a minute, with no pants, and shaking while looking for something to wipe with. Nothing. I turned around and looked at the sink. It looked like someone slaughtered a barrel of eels. I felt deeply sad for the poor guy who was getting paid to clean the restroom. I saw myself in the mirror and remembered the raggy hat on my head. I took that off and wiped my ass with it the best I could. I left the bathroom and Matt and Ryan were waiting for me in the Jetta. “Where’s your hat dude?” Ryan asked. “You don’t want to know,” I told him. He had a good laugh over that, and I got back into the car. Traffic was moving and we got to the show. It was the most miserable time for me ever. I was tripping. My stomach was still rumbling. I didn’t have my hat and my ass itched. And I couldn’t stop thinking about that creepy turd in my shower.
I did this for about seven years. I had some really good times, some amazing times, but I did too many drugs. I had countless boring, vapid conversations about energy, the weather, the guys in the band, astrology, karma, vegetarianism, Krishna, blah, blah, blah.
It really started to bother me how conscious deadheads all claimed to be, but what wasteful dirty bastards most of them I had been getting to know over the years really were. In 1995 I went on my last tour, the east coast run in the summer. I didn’t know it would be my last, I didn’t know Jerry was going to die. It was mostly a good time, but the last show I went to was in Pittsburgh. We got lost driving in and of course we were stuck in traffic. Same routine. Traffic jams full of stoned screaming hippies. When we got to the stadium, the radio said “the Deadheads have caused the worst traffic jam in the history of Pittsburgh”. This of course was cause for everyone to scream and lay on their horns for about a half hour. We were routed to an annexed parking lot, fenced off from the main lots, DIRECTLY BEHIND A ROW OF PORT-O-POTTIES. I just kind of smiled with resignation. I got out of the car with my friends Jessica and Ryan. We sat on the back hood of the car, drank beer, smoked a joint and watched people struggle getting in and out of the porta potty. The stench was unusually awful. The screams got louder as people started coming out. Eventually people started pissing in between the johns, guys with their dicks towards us, women with their asses. The porta potties were too nasty. Some fat lady hiked up her big Indonesian sundress, to bare her hairy legs and ass, and just let out buckets of poo. We just sat there tired and laughing.