Greek Theatre story
Someone on a mailing list for scholarly Dead heads (yes, shut up) asked for stories about Dead shows at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley in the 1980s. I offered to tell one. Names have been inadequately disguised.
It was the summer of 1987. A year earlier I had driven most of the way across the country (before driving off the road near Gillette, Wyoming), and flown the rest of the way to start my post-graduation life in San Francisco, crashing with a bunch of friends of mine, known as the Geebens, who had graduated, or dropped out, the year before me and were at the time crammed into a tickytack rental in Diamond heights.
Since then the Geebens had rented two houses a block apart from each other in the neighborhood of UC Med, near 9th and Judah, in the inner Sunset. Our two largish Victorians had become crashpads and launchpads for a wave of friends visiting California for New Year’s shows or on wanderjahrs or on graduation. We eventually instituted a two-week rule to prevent permanent occupations by the less well motivated.
We really learned this lesson after NYE ‘86 when some friends of friends were still staying with us in February. You know the old joke about “how do you know a Deadhead has been staying in your house?”
So, back to summer of 1987. One of my friends who had taken a year off or otherwise contrived to stay another year at Princeton after I graduated in ‘86 was coming out to SF. I forget how or whether I knew this, but I probably had some kind of heads up. One way or the other, I got a call from the airport from Steve Capacole, a rotund, balding redheaded Italian-American from Philly whom I had met the first week in college when he found the grand piano in the lobby of my dorm and was casually rehearsing classical pieces while hungover and stoned kids lounged on couches grooving to it.
We weren’t superclose but we had stayed friends and were part of the same larger group of folks mostly centered around Terrace Club at Princeton (where Phil Lesh, the Dead’s iconic bass player, performed with his two sons at the 25th reunion of that same class of 1987 last year).
Steve hauled his bags out of a cab and rang our doorbell. I helped him carry them up to the landing as he jabbered about his plans for the summer or for the rest of his life. He had asked our mutual friend Ted Normaux how to get set up in San Francisco and Ted had told him to present himself to me and “Crumlish would take care of everything.” The way Steve told it, the more he asked specific or anxious questions of Ted, the more Ted simply replied “Crumlish.”
I told Steve the deal. Two weeks on the couch and then you find your own place. He was game. History (or at least archive.org) tells us that this was Friday and I have no good explanation for what I was doing sitting around my house on a Friday as I’m pretty sure I did already have a job at that time. It may be that my tentative plan to see the Greek shows had included preemptively taking a “personal day.”
Regardless, and granting me some leniency for reconstructing the facts based on memory combined with the internet’s cloud brain, let’s just say it was Friday and I had a plan, which I shared with Steve.
I told him he was free to do whatever he wanted. Travel is tiring and if he wanted to crash or explore Golden Gate Park I’d point him in the right direction, but I allowed that I had a plan of my own and he was welcome to join me on it. I suggested it might not be a bad way to spend his first day in California.
While getting him baked from our six-foot bong, “Sam,” I told him that the Dead were playing at a place called the Greek Theatre in Berkeley this weekend, that I did not have tickets, but that it might be fun to head over there on public transportation and take our chances. I have a good feeling about it, I told him.
He was a bit bemused by the randomness of it, but I told him about serendipity and how if I was meant to go to a show it usually worked out, and so on, and so Steve was ready to put himself in my hands.
First we had to sort of drift downstream toward the east bay. I took us out to Irving Ave to catch the N-Judah, an adventure in and of itself and part of my constant routine back then (commuting downtown as well as heading to Oakland or Berkeley for Dead shows always started on the N-Judah). Once downtown we switched to BART to head across the Bay and even though it was still just midday you could see other Deadheads in full regalia heading the same way.
Meanwhile Steve was catching me up on his own musical education. That past year a treasure trove of old Pink Floyd live bootlegs had shown up and he had done a lot of listening, telling me about this or that show in 1974 and the psychedelic space and noise explorations done by the band at the time. I was probably framing the Dead as one of the few remaining rock bands that still improvised and went “outside” at the time and he was kind of fighting back with his Floyd. I told him I’d love to hear some of those shows.
He told me other stuff, too, like the gossip from people who barely knew me, that I had “taken too much acid” my last year in school, “and I had changed.” This made me laugh. I told him I had taken a dump this morning and this had also changed the course of my life from that moment on.
We got off BART in downtown Berkeley, which is a nasty depressing place, and headed over to the campus. I knew the general direction more than the necessarily best way to get to the Greek, and at some point we found ourselves kind of climbing a piney slope of some sort. There were Deadheads also coming down the slope and one of them, a middle-aged-ish woman in a tie-dye hailed us from above and asked if we needed tickets.
I told her we did and she said she had two extras, and she’d sell them to us for $17.50. I gave her two twenties and told her to keep the change. She insisted on giving us back $5 and reminded me that Deadheads don’t scalp tickets. I turned to Steve and raised my eyebrows, as I had told him something similar when I suggested that finding a way into the show was probably going to be copacetic.
The next part of Steve’s California adventure was standing in line all afternoon for a Dead show, and seeing the parade of people arriving, looking for tickets, losing their shit, playing games, and so on. This gave us plenty of time to catch up and also gave me a chance to fill him in a bit on what to expect at the show: The two sets, the first a bit more folky and restrained than the second. The dissolve to drums and space. The acid trip-like arc of the show. At some point, knowing me, I probably dosed. I don’t think Steve did but maybe.
When the doors opened we ran in with the crowd and found great seats down low in the bowl of the Greek. Even though I was still pretty new to California myself, I took great pleasure in Steve’s appreciation of the aesthetic joy of sitting in that location, with that picturesque classical backdrop, anticipating the sunset to come against the clouds, hills, hint of Bay.
This reminds me all of another Greek show, from around roughly the same time, maybe the next year, when I was leaving the venue with some new friends who were staying with us that next summer, agreeing that not only had the show been amazing but that it had been one of those occasional ones that bumps you out of a rut and reminds you that no, you don’t just think this is a pretty cool band with some great songs and a jammy sounds etc. but that this was some world-altering shit. We remarked on how one problem with cassette tapes is that they were just so infinitesimally *smaller* than the sound at the show, with so many nuances leeched out. We compared it to looking at a xerox of a Rembrandt.
But back in 1987 the show was about to start and the place was bubbling over with anticipation. The opening chords announced that they were going to start with Touch of Grey, the current “hit.” Steve turned to me all excited to say “I know this one!” and don’t laugh because familiarity is a very comforting touchstone when entering such a strange world. Believe me, when my first Dead show opened with Dancing in the Street and closed with Satisfaction > Baby Blue, those landmarks anchored my entire sense of the day.
I’ve recently gone back and listened to the first set of this show. I had to find it (and the year) based on my memory of only a few things: The opener, the second set opener, and something about space. Not only was I surprised (and a bit perplexed) to see it was a Friday and not a Saturday, but I also was a bit deflated to see that the setlist was utterly mundane and routine for that time. Of course I have noticed the phenomenon before that you can’t judge a Dead show by its setlist.
What comes across today on the pristine board/audience recording on Archive.org is just how crackling with energy the show was; how clear, detailed, present, and “on” the individual performances were; how the monstrous synergy of the Grateful Dead beast took itself out for a romp through its own familiar catalog.
There was a point, perhaps in the set break, when one of the experienced Deadheads with an acid twinkle in his eye in the row in front of me, someone with whom I kept exchanging wide-eyed glances at exquisite moments, turned to us to say “Jerry is using all of his artistry tonight,” and I agreed that was apt.
Check the show out yourself. Maybe you had to be there.
What I do know is that at the end of the first set, Steve was basically a convert, utterly convinced that this was a thing and he was doing it. I’d gotten other friends to this point, especially after the exciting crescendo at the end of a first set. It’s a bit of a crossroads: some plunge in deeper, becoming Deadheads or at least fellow travelers who smile knowingly when certain sounds fill the air. Other turn back, fearing the loss of their identity in cultlike abandon, or clinging to their punk or anti-hippie identity.
Another friend of mine, Jeff Speck, who I met out here and who turned me on to all the SST music I had missed while being so heavily into the Dead my last few years in college, told me about seeing the Dead at the Greek when he was a student at Berkeley (or shortly after) and really hating it, all the hippie shit, the stupid dancing, the endless meandering wanky jams. It was the opposite of everything he prized and admired about punk. Until some moment in the middle of the show when he suddenly realized how rigidly he was holding his body, how tightly he was resisting the urge to let go and give in and let loose, how afraid he was of looking foolish. So he let it all go and became one of those rare hippie punks who has all the fun.
When the second set started I took a profound didactic pleasure in the fact that they were starting with Bertha. I always considered Touch of Grey an update to Bertha, another attempt (successful this time) to have a hit with that opening riff. I thought this was a great pivot to take Steve back from the newbie MTV-hit level of appreciate to the deeper shit.
Once again, looking at the setlist, I do not see some epic symphony coming out of space or anything that appear superficially mindblowing (I plan to listen to set two later today), but what I can tell you is that as the band eased into drums and then space, bringing us all along on the ride from rock ‘n’ roll through African riddims and then to the edge of 20th century noise, there was an instant where Steve turned to me his face all flushed and shouted maniacally in my ear:
“This is better than Pink Floyd! THIS IS BETTER THAN PINK FLOYD !!”
What more is there to say? The show came down from its peak like they all do. We chatted with our new friends, meandered our way out of the venue, found our way back to BART, swam upsteam to the N-Judah and Steve probably slept the sleep of the blessed that night. (Pretty sure I needed to stay up a bit longer.)
I think that’s my best Greek Theatre tale, and really all it is is about one guy’s perfect first day in California.