“Before we go over your reviews, you need to ask yourself a question. Do you even want to be here anymore?”
This was my two-year performance review at the law firm. I wasn’t completely surprised by this question. At this point, corporate legal assistants either went on to law school or were content being paralegals for the long haul. I knew I wasn’t interested in either option, so it no longer made sense for me to work there. That wouldn’t be how my parents saw it, however. Without the job I hated, I couldn’t live in the city and I’d lose my medical benefits. I decided to play dumb with the Legal Assistant Coordinator as she conducted the review.
“I’m confused,” I said. “What did the reviews actually say?”
She grabbed one off her desk. “Rob is very intelligent and seemingly would be much happier doing something else.”
I couldn’t disagree with that assessment, but my vocational dissatisfaction was becoming more and more evident to all. She went on to explain that I was being let go, but would have two months to find a new job. After that, the firm would allow me to file for unemployment and I could buy insurance through a COBRA plan. I didn’t know how any of this worked, but knew I’d better update my resume immediately. After telling my parents the news, I quickly realized that this would be the only way I would ever leave. I was obsessively fanatical, extremely loyal, but also unwilling to admit to myself when something was clearly not working. I started going into the office on Saturdays to work on my resume since I didn’t yet have a computer. When I got to the “additional interests” section, it occurred to me that nothing I did outside of class during college would be appropriate to list. I had written for my high school paper and my essays were the only thing that saved my ass from academic probation in college. How could I make something of that skill?
In the same office where my mind had stagnated for two years, I started putting together a writing portfolio. I also started an online newsletter about the Chargers called Justice Is Coming. Since these were the days before blogs, I needed my buddy Eric to show me how to distribute it on the internet. I submitted reviews of recent Dead shows to the “fanzines” and even wrote a few special interest pieces for a few of the city’s free papers.
I knew I would still have to find a way to pay my bills, but it felt good to use my brain again. With the ability to file for unemployment on the horizon, I felt a little less stressed about my situation when the Dead’s summer tour arrived. After dates in Vermont, New Jersey, and Washington, I was eagerly awaiting my one real “destination show.” I was finally going to Deer Creek.
Deer Creek Amphitheatre in Noblesville, Indiana was the type of place the band had mostly outgrown by 1995. It had only had about 6,000 seats and room for another 18,000 on the lawn. Venues like that, especially on the East Coast, attracted far too many Deadheads by this point. The only reason Deer Creek was still an available option was because it was in the middle of the country. The band clearly enjoyed playing there and the shows there were some of the strongest each summer. One of my fellow Delts whose shock of orange hair and accompanying moustache earned him the nickname Yosemite Sam (Yo for short) told me he had lawn tickets for both of the Deer Creek shows that were scheduled for July 2nd and 3rd. I knew I had to make the trip.
A plane ticket to Indianapolis wasn’t all that expensive, even on July 4th weekend. Plus, I booked the cheapest motel I could find through the firm’s in-house travel agency. I figured I might as well use those privileges while I still could. I was about to leave work that Friday when I got a message that Yo couldn’t get there until the following morning. It was too late for me to change my flight, but figured I could occupy myself for a night. As I left work, I noticed a magnum of champagne in one of the vacant conference rooms. It was a closing gift for one of the firm’s major clients. I didn’t really like champagne, but liked the idea that some associate would be manically looking for it. I shoved it in my carry-on bag for the trip to Indy along with a Montecristo cigar I spotted.
My flight went smoothly and I was even able to share a few drinks with other Deadheads travelling for the shows. I hailed a cab pretty easily at the airport and I asked the driver if he knew how to get to the Imperial Gardens motel. I immediately started to get a very strange vibe.
“You in the service?”
I was thirty pounds overweight and wearing a Dead shirt. I was as close to being a member of the armed forces as I was to being on the soccer team in college. “No, I’m not. Why would you ask?”
“Usually the ones who go out to the Gardens are servicemen in town for the night.”
It only took a few minutes to get to the Imperial Gardens, but it seemed like another planet. It was like a trailer park without the trailers. Near the motel’s offices, there were three kids smoking blunts on the brick railing staring at me as I got out of the cab. I had a sinking feeling that there weren’t going to be any other Deadheads staying there.
I did, however, quickly understand the appeal of the Imperial Gardens for service members. There was a sign over the front desk saying that rooms were available for hourly rates. If you couldn’t find female company for the night, there were also VCRs behind the desk clerk for rent. I also saw a bunch of titles scribbled on formerly blank tapes, with the first being The Princess and the Penis. Although I did wonder for a second what the plot could possibly be about, I decided it was best to get into my room as quickly as possible.
As I climbed the exterior staircase, I heard, “Sugar, you need company?” off in the distance. After closing the door, I immediately bolted it shut. I slid the chain in place as well even though all it did was remind me how often those things broke when someone kicked the door open in the movies. Everything about the room made me think that it could actually be a possibility. There was wood paneling on the walls, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the 1970s. An old Sony Trinitron was bolted onto the dresser. I supposed that if you opted for the VCR rental, they’d have to bolt that down too. With a weird combination of dread and fascination, I went to check out the bathroom. I assumed that would serve as a good barometer of how much trouble I had gotten myself into.
The shower head was mounted at a height that only a “little person” could enjoy and the bottom of the tub was covered in faded orange stains. I decided to lie down on the bed, but didn’t dare peel back the blanket. I felt like sandpaper, but I knew I made the right call when I spotted the little circled shaped marks in the ceiling. I assumed they were bullet holes but didn’t stand up to get a closer look. The bed would probably have collapsed anyway.
Every instinct told me to get the fuck out of there, but heading into the Indianapolis night didn’t seem so smart either. I had no idea what time it was, but I decided instantly to try to go to bed. I put my headphones on and cranked up a Dead tape on my Walkman. I was actually able to fall asleep pretty quickly.
I woke up in the middle of the night to the phone ringing. The sign behind the desk said that you needed to prepay in order to make outgoing calls, but incoming calls were apparently complimentary. I fumbled in the dark and grabbed the receiver.
“Yo, is Willie there?”
“Uh, I think you have the wrong number,” I replied.
“You mean Willie moved out?”
Before he could ask if Willie left a forwarding address, I hung up. I took the phone off the hook and left the receiver on the night stand. Sunday morning couldn’t come soon enough. I saw a liquor store within walking distance on the cab ride in. As soon as I thought it might be open, I decided to make a break for it.
I knew I’d need bourbon if I was going to sleep in that room for another night. As I approached the shelf for the Jim Beam, I noticed something different about the bottle. It looked cloudy, like it was made of plastic. I picked it up and realized that it actually was.
I was awestruck. The tag on the shelf read “Jim Beam 750 ml Lightweight Traveler.” I turned the bottle around to read the label. “Made from the highest quality ingredients, Jim Beam is the world’s finest bourbon. To drink Jim Beam is not only to taste its full bourbon character, but its rich American heritage. It’s perfect to take on the go for parties, meetings, and gatherings.” I couldn’t imagine a meeting you could bring Jim Beam into, but I clearly needed to step up my job search. I bought two bottles and headed back to the hotel.
I also picked up some breakfast at McDonald’s and waited for Yo to show up. I cracked open one of the Travelers and turned on the TV. Fortunately, 1977’s The Warriors was on. It was about three quarters through the movie when I heard the knock at the door. The combination of a great cult movie and the whiskey made me forget that I had shoved a chair under the doorknob for protection. When I opened the door, Yo saw the chair.
“What kind of place did you book us in? Wait, is that a plastic bottle of Beam in your hand?”
“Which question do you want me to answer first? The second one’s a lot easier.”
“Just grab your stuff and let’s head to the lot.”
The Deer Creek Amphitheatre was everything Deadheads said it was. After taking a two-lane road through literal cornfields, we parked. It was in a particularly scenic location, with a long grass parking lot abutting the creek. I leaned up against the trunk of the rental car to take it all in. I didn’t see any deer, but assumed they took July off. I reached into the Styrofoam cooler and found the bottle of champagne I swiped from work. I popped it open and decided to take a stroll around the lot.
By 1995, the parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts were no longer safe spaces for illicit activity. Local law enforcement even had actual sting operations set up by this point at many of the cities the band played in. I once saw cops in Charlotte putting on long-haired wigs and tie-dyes just to try to make some pre-show busts. Simultaneously, there were more people than ever coming to Dead shows only for the now-legendary party. Many of them weren’t even trying to see the show, just “the scene.” They wanted to get their kicks, consequences be damned. Two opposite trends were destined for a collision course. Sadly, Deer Creek was where everything came to a head.
As I walked the around the lot that Sunday, I already could feel the desperation in the air. People weren’t there just for the lot, they wanted to get into the show. There were the usual characters with their fingers in the air looking for an extra ticket, only twice as many as usual. When someone actually had one to sell, I heard more than one ticket seeker demand that it be “miracled” to them free of charge. Dead shows now seemed to be a right, rather than a privilege.
I saw a kid pass me by looking for spare change so he could stay on tour. That wasn’t unusual, so I kept on walking. That’s when he circled back and charged at me.
“What do you mean you don’t have any change!”
“Fucking yuppie, look at yourself!”
I didn’t even know people used that term any more. I looked at him and noticed that he had brand new Birkenstock sandals and the $35 tour shirts they sold inside the shows. He could have easily passed for a Pi Phi at Rochester.
“You’re walking around the lot with your champagne. I bet you’ve got a ticket for the show.”
I forgot that I still had the magnum in my hand. I didn’t think explaining that I stole it from a real yuppie would make any difference.
“Well, yeah, but . . .”
“Do you even like the Dead? How many times have you seen them?”
“Tonight will be 138.” I thought that would shut him up.
“Yeah, fucking yuppie, of course you have. How else could you afford all those tickets?”
This kid was probably from some middle-class suburb, just like me. I might have been older than him, but there was no way I was going to sit here and defend my right to be at what I could never had guessed would be my final Grateful Dead concert. I sure as shit wasn’t going to speak for “the Establishment” that I was no part of.
“If I’m a yuppie, where’s my yuppie job? Where’s my yuppie wife? Where’s my yuppie family?” I just walked away and decided to tell Yo we should just head in. There was nothing left for me out here. This entire incident should have served as an omen, like when Mick Jagger got punched in the face by a fan on the way into Altamont. “I hate you. You’re so fucked,” the guy supposedly told him.
It was a good thing we decided to get on line. They had metal detectors in front of the gates, which I had never seen at a show before. I saw similar looks of confusion on Deadheads’ faces during a pat down better suited for a super max prison. Deer Creek was supposed to be a haven, not whatever this was.
The show started normally enough. The band opened with “Here Comes Sunshine” with the houselights still on. The lights also stayed on for the next song, which seemed odd. Our spot on the lawn was so great, however, that I didn’t question anything. I had never been so close to the stage with a lawn ticket and the slope of the grass was so gradual that there wasn’t a bad spot anywhere. There was a ton of empty grass behind us leading to a wooden fence right out of Tom Sawyer. I couldn’t imagine it would keep too many people out of the show, but also couldn’t imagine a situation where it would have to.
“I guess a lot of people are stuck outside,” Yo said.
“It’s better for us,” I replied, since we had so much room to enjoy the music.
Every now and then, however, I’d hear a roar from behind us. It sounded like some giant beast was beyond the fence. At first, I thought it might be the Jim Beam playing tricks on me, but it was definitely getting louder. When the band covered Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” the roar became a monstrous cheer. Yo and I moved back a little on the lawn to see what was going on. In one of those cosmic coincidences that seemed to only happen at a Dead show, Bob Weir was singing about the riot squad being restless and needing somewhere to go when people started jumping the fence.
We couldn’t actually see what happened next, but people were screaming, “they broke through!” within seconds. This wasn’t all that surprising since sticking it to the man had always been a part of the hippie ethos. Forcing concerts to become free festivals dated back to Woodstock.
I looked back to the stage to see if the band was going to make some sort of an acknowledgement. The lights were still on, which I assumed would now be the norm for the rest of the show. They kept playing, so I wondered if they were even aware of what had happened. Yo and I tried to back up a bit more but more people were filling up the lawn now. Any idea I had about moving towards the chaos evaporated when I saw people were running from security while holding pieces of the fence in their hands. One guy almost trampled the baby sitting on the blanket in front of us before her parents swooped her up. This was starting to get really ugly. Now I wondered if the band was afraid to say anything or stop playing to keep the crowd from really rioting. They played a more few songs before ending the set.
During the break, I heard different accounts of what had caused the crowd tear the fence down.
“The cops let this attack dog go after this guy with dreads and that’s what did it.”
“No, man. The dog belonged to the dreads guy and they were trying to cuff him. When the dog ran off, he ran and they went after him with batons. People were rushing up the hill towards the fence to check it all out.”
We couldn’t move back for the second set, so we decided to stay put. There was no official announcement, but we figured we’d get the real story afterawrds. As we walked back to the car, we saw what was left of the fence. The jagged shards that remained in place seemed like a metaphor for the anger I experienced in the lot. We were about to take a closer look at the wreckage when our eyes were filled with the remnants of the tear gas.
Suddenly, the Imperial Gardens didn’t seem quite so dangerous. I figured we’d better head to the show earlier the next day. When we got to the lot the following afternoon, however, there were sawhorse-style signs saying it was cancelled altogether.
“No way,” I told Yo. “The band has never cancelled a show because of Deadheads.”
But it was true. When I saw all the news reports after returning to New York, I learned that people were throwing bottles at the cops and lighting the security golf carts on fire. To top things off, Jerry Garcia had apparently gotten a death threat before the show. He refused to cancel, but that was the reason the houselights were on. It was never confirmed exactly what had caused the riot, but the amount of security needed for the death threat undoubtedly left a lot less to patrol the fence. Still, who could have predicted the cops would need to defend it like a medieval moat?
Entertainment Weekly and MTV ran stories in the weeks to follow about how this would be the end of Dead tours or how there was a curse following the band and its fans. That seemed like a stretch, even after Deer Creek. I was more than a little relieved when the fall tour was announced later that month, even though I knew I’d be out of the job by September. As I bought my ticket for the six shows that fall at Madison Square Garden, I hoped I’d have a plan together by then.