I’ve become a Dead fan, I guess

Before James and I got together, I only had a passing acquaintance with the Grateful Dead. I didn’t own any of their music, but I could sing along with a few songs. I remember the day Jerry died, mostly because I was bartending back then and had a regular who I knew would be devastated and probably come have a few drinks that night. He was, and he did. I think I bought him a round.

Fast forward a few years, and James and I moved in together. As he unpacked box after box of cassette tapes filled with homemade recordings of live shows from all over the country/all over the past few decades, I realized his love for the band was extensive. Like, more than I loved Duran Duran in junior high (and for completely different reasons).

We listen to music a lot in our house. So it makes sense that over the past decade and a half, I’ve heard a lot of Grateful Dead music. And over time, my relationship with the music has changed.

Initially tolerated with a few eye rolls (and questions like, “How long is this song? Twenty minutes?”), the music became ubiquitous–and then unnoticed. Then at some point in the last handful of years, after seeing what remains of the band half a dozen times (in The Dead or Dead and Company iterations), I finally got it.

Grateful Dead songs, specifically of the live variety, are aural comfort food. Much like theatre, no performance is exactly the same. But there’s still plenty to ground you to other experiences with the music. Plenty to give you that sense of familiarity and togetherness.

Sold-out, tie-dyed, pot-smoking house for the Dead show at Shoreline Amphitheatre, across the street from Google, June 3, 2017.

I’ve seen a lot of live music in my life. A lot. And I’ve never experienced the kind of crowd that has consistently appeared for Dead shows in the aughts and teens of the 21st century (I can’t imagine what the crowds were like in the ’60s and ’70s).

The shows we saw in California last decade, before we moved out here, featured a vibrant parking lot scene. People selling “pizza” made on hotplates powered by a battery resting under their rusted-out VW van. (The pizza being a tortilla topped with watery pizza sauce, a sprinkle of pre-shredded cheese and a few slices of pepperoni.) Thin bed sheets spread on the ground and covered with beaded necklaces, glass pipes and crystals for sale. Stinky, barefoot children running around barely supervised. The dress code for old and young veering past the obvious tie-dye and into crocheted tops and jeans with patches sewn on. All worn un-ironically.

Dancing bear ears on a headband. A somewhat subtle nod.

The parking lot scene has been killed for the most part, but the fashions are still pretty amazing. And the lack of self-consciousness is part of the charm. Where so many people try so hard to be “separate” while being in a crowd (“Yeah, I’m at this Backstreet Boys reunion, but only to make fun of it.”), Dead Heads are all in. They love the scene, they love the songs, and they fucking love you, dude.

The guy in the blue and white cap had the best time of his life. All night.

I’ve never seen anyone get in a fight at a Dead show. If you ever have to lose your wallet, phone or keys at a concert, do it at a Dead show because you’ll quickly find a free beer, borrowed phone or ride home from a perhaps chemically compromised but big-hearted stranger.

The guy sitting next to us printed up his own buttons (two styles) with the date of the show on them and gave us each one.

There’s a dedicated music-nerd army of people at every Dead show who livestream the audio or even provide a video feed. You can go on a couch tour and follow the Dead from show to show, and there are plenty of forums online that share set lists and bets on what they’ll play next. Before we went to see the band last Saturday, I reviewed the set lists from the first few shows of the tour and was disappointed they’d already played a couple of my favorites. Which is when I realized–I have favorite songs by this band.

A little hard to read, this guy’s shirt says, “Mayer is Dead to me.” John “Your Body is a Wonderland” Mayer is touring with The Dead on guitar. Nicknamed “Mayernnaise” by non-fans, he actually works pretty well in the mix. And I know enough about the band at this point to have seen that shirt and chuckled. Life is funny.

The saying is “familiarity breeds contempt,” but that’s not aways the case. There are many things we dismiss out of hand that, upon closer inspection, actually have something to offer. They grow on you slowly, like the frog in the pot of water that’s gradually being heated, and next thing you know you’re boiling to death to the sound of Terrapin Station. And you realize there are worse ways to go.

Half the guys on this stage may be in their 70s, but they can still get thousands of people on their feet and keep them that way the entire show. And if they tour again next summer, we’ll be there, on our feet, all night.

free listening

img_2575I was sitting at my desk working on something meaningless (while thinking about things that have meaning) when I heard waves pounding the shore. The big, crashing, loud kind that usually precede a storm, though one’s not coming. Not a literal one, anyway. The waves were so loud, I was compelled to take a walk to see them. As each one ebbed back into the ocean, the rocks at the shoreline clinked against each other like the ice cubes in the large cocktail I’ll be having shortly. Combined with the dense fog we had this morning, it seemed like nature was trying to give us a bath. Wash the stank off.

I kept walking along the shoreline and eventually came across this lady. “Free listening” her sign said. I took a picture, planning to chronicle but keep moving as usual. But she looked so peaceful staring out at the ocean, so kind-hearted that I stopped and took a seat. I asked, “How’s business?” and she said it had been busy. That a lot of people wanted to talk. That the majority felt shell-shocked. Unprepared for the events of last night. Uncomfortable knowing there were so many people unwilling to publicly admit whom they were going to vote for, but vote for him they would.

No one saw this coming (well, except Michael Moore who called it months ago), and part of the reason is many voters were keeping this choice close. Where women were taking selfies in their pantsuits outside of polling places to celebrate voting for a woman for President, other voters were quietly pulling the lever for the other guy. Maybe it’s the secrecy of it that’s so creepy.

Anyway, she and I had a nice chat. It felt soothing, healing even, talking to a total stranger on a day when the country I live in feels a little strange. I thanked her for the conversation, trudged back to my desk and got back to work. But I felt a little lighter.

As the pendulum swings one way, it must swing back the other. I can’t wait to see the opposite end of the arc we’re on now.

don’t be a tourist

James at Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, August 2006. We were the only people there. Today, picture it with a hundred tourists, plus their umbrellas, blankets, dogs, screaming children, cellphones with no signal and abandoned food wrappers. The beach is two miles down an unmarked, one-lane road. On weekends, traffic makes it almost impassable, which really sucks for the poor bastards who live along the road. The parks system is considering closing the beach completely because the infrastructure can't handle the traffic.
James at Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur, August 2006. We were the only people there. Today, picture it with a hundred tourists, plus their umbrellas, blankets, dogs, screaming children, cellphones with no signal and abandoned food wrappers. The beach is two miles down an unmarked, one-lane road. The parks system is considering closing the beach completely because the infrastructure can’t handle the traffic.

A newborn bison was euthanized Monday because a couple of tourists in Yellowstone thought it would be a good idea to give the little feller a ride in their warm SUV (it was cold outside), causing the mom and rest of the herd to later reject it.

Tourists reaching the end of the Appalachian Trail are behaving so badly, the park is considering moving the end point to something a little less Instagram-ready in hopes of preserving nature.

A tourist was gored by a bison in Yellowstone while posing for a selfie just a few feet away from it. And a group of tourists who own a clothing store in Canada were just charged with violating Yellowstone’s rules for going off trail with their cameras to capture themselves near a beautiful spring. (Yellowstone seems to make tourists crazy. Or stupid.)

Last year, selfie deaths outpaced shark attacks for number of fatalities.

Heavy tourism is causing major damage to beautiful places around the world.

In California, Muir Woods has gotten so crowded the National Park Service has asked tourists to stop coming.

Key word for all these stories: tourists. Not travelers. Tourists. Tourists are people who bang and clang their way into a situation with no regard for where they are. Instead of Hawaiian shirts, bermuda shorts and socks + sandals, today’s annoying tourists are identified by the smartphones blocking their view. They’ll do anything for a great selfie or epic vacation pic. Going off trail. Getting too close to wild animals. Walking past numerous signs warning of danger or imploring them to respect nature. Thinking the rules of good behavior are for all those other people, people who aren’t as special as they are.

The biggest problem? Everyone thinks they’re special.

We see it every time we head to Big Sur. Tourists are crammed into every turnout or darting across the road without looking, many even leaving their cars partially on the highway while they glance at the breathtaking view then quickly turn their backs on it to take a picture of their stupid faces.

If you manage to find a turnout with room for your car, don’t look down when you get out. Since Big Sur is very rustic, there are few bathrooms to be had. So intrepid tourists are just letting ‘er rip in the turnouts, leaving their soiled toilet paper (probably napkins from the McDonald’s they had on the way down) on the ground along with their waste.

Here in the Monterey Bay, tourists in kayaks keep getting too close to wildlife, routinely trying to lure otters onto their vessels so they can take a picture. “Getting close to the locals!” the caption will say. Thumbs up, asshole.

As a glance to the right of this post might suggest, I take a lot of pictures that I then share on Instagram. I love being in a beautiful place or seeing something funny and sharing it with my family and friends. And I enjoy being able to look back through my posts to be reminded of the good times or mundane moments I chose to capture.

So I understand why tourists want to get that shot with the wind in their hair and the Bixby Bridge in the background. I get why they want to go off-trail in Muir Woods to find a green, quiet spot away from all the other tourists. I’m sure a bison that’s small enough to pick up and put in your car is incredibly cute (and makes for an awesome Facebook post). But in the quest to document how amazing these places are, these places are being ruined.

This isn’t just handwringing or pearl-clutching. There are demonstrable bad results from ill-behaved tourists. Emergency vehicles are having a hard time navigating side roads in Big Sur because tourists have literally blocked them with their shittily parked cars. On my favorite trail, tourists who don’t want to do the hard work of descending down the steep, sandy path keep walking in the grass on the sides of it, causing trail creep. In some places, the trail has grown as wide as a road instead of being as wide as your shoulders. Tourists are driving back roads and setting up camp where they please, leaving piles of poop and smoldering fires in their wake. Guess they think their moms are going to clean up after them?

The world needs more travelers and fewer tourists. Staying on the trail doesn’t mean you’re that trail’s bitch–it means you respect nature and want to preserve it for other people to enjoy long after the glow from your potentially awesome off-trail selfie has faded. It means if there’s no parking at the place you’d planned to stop, you continue adventuring on down the road–you don’t double-park with your rental car hanging its ass out on the highway. It means you need to stay at your hotel and drink coffee until you’ve done your morning business, you don’t drop trou in a turnout and leave a mess for the next person who comes along.

It means picking up your trash, not having fires when there’s a burn ban, letting wild animals stay wild, not climbing up or down something you aren’t capable of getting back down/up without having to be rescued, turning down your iTunes when you’re on a trail other people are using and realizing that everyone is special–thus, no one is special. We’re all hurtling through space on the same rock.

Let us be travelers, not tourists.