“Dude, check this out.”
With that, the kid from the lower bunk opened his briefcase. It was brown vinyl, but made to look like leather. There were stickers plastered all over it. These were either bands he’d seen in concert or whose shows were stacked inside. The Who, The Stones, The Police, as well as guitar gods like Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana caught my eye instantly. Some of the stickers were promos from FM stations welcoming these acts to places like Madison Square Garden, Brendan Byrne Arena, or Nassau Coliseum.
But the briefcase’s exterior was nothing compared to what I saw after he flipped open those two latches. If hanging with Greeny and Tap was musically illuminating, this was fucking mind blowing. The tapes were in alphabetical order, with each artist identified by a different font. When you flipped the cassette over, you found the source of the tape and “generation” of the recording. The bands I listened to driving around in high school weren’t still playing together, but this kid had recordings of them in their prime. The Doors, Led Zeppelin, David Lee Roth-era Van Halen: they were all there. I also noticed a lot of Bruce Springsteen shows. During the summer a few years before when Born in the USA was everywhere, I decided he wasn’t worth exploring. I mentioned this to the curator of the collection.
“You need to see The Boss live. His early albums were amazing and the shows after Darkness on The Edge Of Town were fucking legendary,”
“So can I…like…borrow these to copy?”
“Sure, Rob. We share the same bunk bed. I’m not worried you won’t give them back. But I’d prefer to do the dubbing myself.”
He then reached under his bed and pulled out two single tape decks, connected by a gold-plated cable.
“They make these high-speed double decks, but they can’t copy for shit.”
“So how can I get copies of the tapes I want?”
“Just have your parents send blanks to camp. I’d recommend Maxell XLII-90s.”
As I thought about how I could get my mom to go to Crazy Eddie’s and buy me a case of cassettes, I noticed about fifteen Grateful Dead shows in the middle of the collection. I was about to ask about them, but figured there was only so much I could absorb in a day.
My love of the Dead didn’t take shape until later that summer, the last one I spent at Camp Birchwood. Like many Northeast summer camps, Birchwood was nestled in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. The summer of ’87 was my “waiter” year, which was a position of prestige at Birchwood. We were the oldest kids at the camp and all the other campers looked up to us. We also received a small paycheck for our work in the mess hall, and our parents even received a discount for the summer.
What really made being a waiter so great, however, was the freedom and privileges that came with the job. We woke up early to serve breakfast and were therefore allowed to go back to sleep while the other kids had to go to their first “period.” In fact, our entire schedule was essentially voluntary. If we wanted to take out a sailboat when we were supposed to be at basketball, we could. Mostly, though, we would use that freedom to do nothing at all. The counselors were just a year or two older than we were, so we’d often get high or drunk with them during the day.
But it was the music once again that truly opened doors. I finally came to understand the genius of Springsteen’s aforementioned Darkness tour, but the Dead spoke to me the most. It wasn’t the beer or weed that caused me to appreciate their music, although I’m sure it made me a little more open. Even after hearing my counselors play them every day the previous summer, I still couldn’t quite get a handle on them. Sometimes they would sound like a country band, other times blues, and sometimes I had no idea what style they were playing in. Everyone told me the only way to really appreciate the Dead was at a show. They not only allowed taping at their concerts, but even encouraged it with a special section behind the soundboard. Once again, it seemed like everyone else who appreciated it was in on some amazing inside joke. To get the best Dead tapes at Birchwood you needed to go to “Arby.”
Richard Arbogast was the counselor in charge of all of Birchwood’s waterfront activities. During one of my free periods, I waded down to the lake to pay him a visit. As I neared the boathouse, I heard music blasting from two speakers set up outside. I climbed the wooden stairs and got a whiff of strongest pot I had ever smelled. I knocked on the door, but it just swung open with a giant creak.
Arby had a blue bandana covering his head like a pirate. His red hair spilled out from underneath. He was leaning back in a rocking chair as I entered the room.
“Heeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyyyyy…you’re that Gross kid, right?”
“Yeah, I uh, wanted to copy a few Dead tapes from you.”
“Sure. What are you into?”
I had no idea what he meant.
“There are all sorts of Dead, Rob. There’s the crazy psychedelic stuff of the ‘60s, the countrified period of the early ‘70s, the intricateness of ’72, and the jazzy playing of 1974.”
I had no idea Arby had such an extensive vocabulary and could never imagine all these adjectives describing the same band.
“The Dead are the most documented group ever. Practically every show has been recorded by someone. But at the end of the day, they’re just America’s greatest dance band.”
When I didn’t respond, Arby reached under a table to grab a cassette.
“You look like a ’77 guy, at least to start. Play it from ‘Bertha’ all the way through.”
I looked at the tape in the scratched plastic case. All it said was “Englishtown 9/3/77, II.”
I put the tape in my Walkman for my walk back to my bunk. As Arby predicted, the freight train of drums and crunchy chords that signaled the opening of “Bertha” sucked me right in. When the pianist slid his fingers across the keys, they really did sound like America’s greatest dance band before they even sang a note. With the Adirondacks laid out before me, I knew I needed to hear more of this stuff. I spent the rest of the summer borrowing and copying Arby’s collection after asking my parents to make a few more trips to Crazy Eddie’s.
Finding the best tapes was like collecting baseball cards or comic books, except these treasures didn’t lose value outside their packaging. The music within was recorded in places I’d never heard of, like Winterland Ballroom or the Fillmore East. These were foreign lands as far as I was concerned, although I was unaware at the time that the Dead had actually played in Alaska, Hawaii, and even Egypt.
They believed in magic that could only be made in the moment. It didn’t happen every night, but when it did, it was more potent by far than anything that could be cooked up in a recording studio. That’s why people tried to see (and tape) every show. How else could you be sure to capture the magic when it happened? Like my promise to become a Chargers fan, I had to see the Dead when they played Madison Square Garden that fall. I didn’t know how I would get tickets or who I would go with, but I knew I had to be there.
Fortunately, two of my fellow waiters were getting a “Deaducation” at the same time I was. Arby told me about them during one of my visits to the boathouse. Stoney was a sandy-haired kid from Long Island who could funnel beers faster than anyone at Birchwood. Rose was a pint-sized kid who also lived in Westchester, although a little farther south in Scarsdale. We were drinking Genesee Lights in the camp’s weight room, which was more like a gazebo with dumbbells and benches, when we decided to all go together. The “Shakedown Street” from Philadelphia ‘85 was blasting while we talked.
“Some kid at my high school scalps tickets,” Stoney said. “We’ll just need to pay like fifty bucks to get ‘em.”
Rose spoke next. “But don’t they only cost like eighteen fifty? That seems like a lot.”
“No way,” I interrupted. “We’ve gotta do this. I think they’re playing on the weekend, so my parents will let me go. Let’s drink to it.”
All three of us drained our Genny Lights and knew we had a plan for that fall. However, I still hadn’t met a girl. Fortunately, Birchwood had always had weekly “socials” with its sister camp across the lake. As waiters, we got daily “porch nights.” If you couldn’t find a girl to talk with, you’d have nothing to do for two hours. At least you could boost your confidence with Genny Lights and there was always music playing.
I was leaning against the railing one night when one of the more popular waitresses approached. Maybe the confidence I was gaining from all my new “interests” was apparent when Wendi finally introduced herself. Somehow, the fact that it was spelled with an “i” made her that much more alluring to me.
She was Jewish, as were almost all the girls at Birchwood’s “sister camp,” but had all the features of the classic shiksa. She had dirty hair, blue eyes, and the slightest sprinkling of freckles on her sun-kissed skin. Most importantly, she had the firmest set of breasts my young eyes had ever seen
“So, uh, where are you from Wendi?”
“Long Island. You’re Rob, right? Where do you live?”
“Chappaqua. It’s north of the city, if you know anything about Westchester.”
I wasn’t sure how to counter the resulting awkwardness, but she luckily had a solution.
“Do you want to take a walk with me?”
As we went towards the road that led back to the boys’ camp, she grabbed my hand and shoved her tongue into my mouth. We kissed for a while after that and then she sent me back to my bunk walking on air. We never spoke about our feelings and she never even revealed why she came up to me. I couldn’t have cared less. Almost every night we engaged in what I would later come to know as foreplay. Animal House, and all those awful rip-offs that followed, taught me that I had reached rarified territory. When Wendi eventually let me move my hand under the cups of her bra and later put hers inside the waistband of my boxers, I felt like my team had won the Super Bowl. Of course, I could only assume it felt like, given my choice of football team. My physical satisfaction was intensified by the fact that I was finally living the life I saw on the screen.
When I lost my virginity to Wendi later that summer, I naively assumed we were getting serious. The sex seemed great, but how would I be able to tell? Movies had taught me that just getting a girl was the goal. My mom always told me, “You like to put things on an imaginary shelf so you can forget about them, but that’s not how life works.” Maybe this was why I never considered that Wendi wasn’t really that into me. I was just happy to be having sex.
Predictably, we lost touch after the summer. I was disappointed at the time, but mainly because I’d have to find another girl who’d pay attention to, let alone sleep with, me. Maybe my mom was right. At least I was going into my junior year no longer a virgin and had a Grateful Dead concert on the horizon.