High Times Greats: New Year’s Dead

Writer Steve Bloom’s May, 1991 account of a failed attempt to see the Grateful Dead on New Year’s Eve.
High Times Greats: New Year's Dead
High Times/ Ed Bender

In the May, 1991 issue of High Times, Steve Bloom writes about trying to get in to a Grateful Dead show on New Year’s Eve. (He failed.)

I had neglected to tell my friend Ed a little dark secret of mine. I figured it wouldn’t matter. I was absolutely convinced that, miracle of miracles, we’d find a way to get in to the New Year’s Eve Grateful Dead show at the Oakland Coliseum—despite arriving without ducats.

But we failed, and so there we were sitting in our rental car in the parking lot, listening to the show on the radio. There was only one word for our collective state: bummed. I decided to confess.

“I probably should have told you that I generally don’t have very good luck on New Year’s. In fact, I have a history of bad New Year’s Eves—ever since the parties we had. Those were the best New Year’s Eves.” (Ed and I grew up together in New York. We threw a series of deranged New Year’s parties when we were in college.)

“You’ve had bad New Year’s Eves since?” Ed asked.

“Ever since,” I said. Ed couldn’t hold back a big laugh. “Can’t remember a good one.” And he laughed again.

“Since you were 17?”

“Right. Forgot to tell you that.”

Now you tell me.”

We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I came up with the plan to hop the airbus and join our Deadhead family in Mecca for the New Year’s shows. Ed immediately fired out a money order for tickets. I called another friend who lives in the Bay Area and asked him to make ticket inquiries on our behalf. Then I went to High Times editor Steve Hager and suggested the magazine send me out to California to cover the shows. “Got tickets?” Hager wondered. “Not yet,” I said. “We’re taking care of that. Don’t worry.”

Ed’s ticket request came back empty, but my friend was able to score a pair for the Friday night show. (New Year’s Eve was Monday.) We were in. We were booked.

Friday morning, December 28, Ed and I took off for Cali. It had snowed pretty heavily the night before, but the runway was clear. We landed in Oaktown three hours before showtime. It didn’t take long for us to run into the hemp folks on the vending lot—Jack Herer in one corner, Cannabis Action Network in the other, both doing their own thing.

The highlight of a rather laid-back show was “China Cat Sunflower,” which opened the second set (amazingly, Maria and Rick of CAN both predicted this would happen). We hung out in the hallways with the space dancers and spinners, with children and their folks at a makeshift Rainbow-style Kid Village. The mellowness—quite a change from East Coast harshness—was contagious.

The news that Branford Marsalis—the brilliant jazz saxophonist who guested with the Dead in April ’90—would be opening the New Year’s show topped off our heady day. I’ll keep this story short. A few years back, I interviewed Branford for an article about his mo’ famous brother, Wynton. Since then we’ve become friends, chatting at Knick games, even throwing a football around one Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn. When I heard Branford was in town, I figured I was in. Miracles do happen.

The next day, I tracked Branford down at a nearby jazz club where his quartet was jamming nightly. After staring at me quizzically (like, “What the hell are you doing here?”), he asked, “What’s wrong with the Knicks, man?” In between sets, Branford explained that “Dark Star” is his favorite Dead song and the main thing he likes about the Dead is “their vibe.”

About the upcoming New Year’s gig, Branford told me, “We go on sometime around eight. Other than that, I don’t know jack. I think I’m playing with [the Dead]. It’s up to the cats.” Would Branford be my miracle passage into the Coliseum? “It’s gonna be tight,” he cautioned. “I’ll help you if I can. If I can’t….”

On New Year’s Eve day, Ed and I visited High Times’ Guru of Ganja, Ed Rosenthal, who lives in Oakland. He gave us a tour of his magical cactus garden and some words of advice about attending New Year’s shows without tickets. “I won’t do it,” he said. “It’s too depressing if you don’t get in.” What bothered me as we searched for the freeway was if the Guru of Ganja couldn’t cop a New Year’s ticket, what made us think we could?

We had two plans: The Branford plan, and another that involved hooking up with Brett, a friend’s brother who had promised me his spare ticket. Both fell through. Apparently, I didn’t make Branford’s ticket cut. Adding insult to injury, Denis McNally, the Dead’s publicist, scolded me for relying on a musician for tickets. “There isn’t a spare ticket in the house,” he said, walking away. As far as the other plan was concerned, we never did find Brett.

Depression quickly overcame us. Slowly we walked back to the lot, where thousand of ‘heads were celebrating the beginning of the show. Suddenly, it dawned on me that we weren’t exactly going to miss the concert. Every colorful car, van and bus in the lot was tuned to KPFA, the local station broadcasting live New Year’s Dead to the entire country and probably a few others. The squeak of Branford’s soprano sax tweaked my brain. We walked on.

There was only one way to salvage the situation: acid and burritos. We surveyed the lot, checking for the familiar sight of Lee’s double-decker, veggie-chow wagon. It didn’t take long to spot it. Lee, Keith and others inside were partying hard. They invited us in (we stayed for most of the night). As the seven-hour show progressed, we drew solace from the ’heads around us. They too had been shut out, but “bummed” and “depression” didn’t seem part of their vocabulary—at least, not on this special night. We banded together—as those inside undoubtedly were doing—raising our spirits to rare heights.

The music certainly helped. After a surprising electric set that featured guitarist Robin Eubanks, Branford joined Jerry, Bobby, Phil, Bruce, Vince, Mickey, Bill and guest drummer Olatunji for two spectacular sets. “Eyes of the World,” “Dark Star,” “Drums,” “Space,” “The Other One,” “Not Fade Away” (great tribal dance/chant, closed the show), “The Weight,” “Johnny B. Goode” (encores). Jerry, Phil, Branford and Bruce got lost in the stars, improvising most of the night. An unwieldy, complicated fusion of styles, New Year’s Dead reveled in the past, present and future. It left me hopeful that this sort of musical summit can happen more than once a year.

But I still wished we’d gotten in. The CAN crew didn’t even bother trying; they went to the Red Hot Chili Peppers show in San Francisco instead. Now I know that acquiring New Year’s Dead tickets takes almost fanatical advance planning. There’s something painfully democratic about having to compete for tickets like everyone else. If only I’d listened to ticket maven David, who advised me to start scouting for tix the moment we touched down in Oakland….

Well, that’s all bongwater under the wharf now. Wish me better luck next year. Even if it is New Year’s Eve.

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