Tuesday, February 20, 2007

MY PREVIOUS NEVADA ASSIGNMENT

Greetings from Carson City, Nevada.

I'm here covering the Democratic presidential forum for The New Mexican.

I was musing this morning over on my Legislature blog that the last time the paper paid me to go to Nevada it was to cover The Grateful Dead in Las Vegas in the summer of 1994.

Just for the heck of it, I dug up that old story and will reprint it here:


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 3, 1994


Las Vegas is typically thought of as a harsh desert, in geography and so far as rock 'n' roll goes.

It's a city where, since the decline of the Rat Pack, third-rate lounge crooners like Wayne Newton have taken on the mantle of royalty.

It's the city where Elvis Presley went to die, artistically, at least.

But for the past four years, Las Vegas, the city of glitz, has played host to an annual onslaught by one of the most un-Vegaslike bands of all time, the good old Grateful Dead.

The Dead played in Vegas for three nights last weekend. I was there, along with photographer/crony Alec Walling and his brother Will.

Unlike most rock groups, the Grateful Dead is not just six musicians and a handful of roadies. Like some kind of twisted children's crusade, with the band comes thousands of loyal Deadheads.

The Deadheads, in full tie-dye regalia, fill the less-expensive hotels; they go in droves to stuff themselves at the $2.39 Circus Circus breakfast buffet; they crowd casinos like Slots-a-Fun, which offers 75-cent imported beers and cheap hot dogs.

They sometimes get dirty looks from pit bosses or cocktail waitresses and expressions of horror from nice, normal middle-class tourists.

The annual gathering has all sorts of potential for a major clash of cultures. And yet in many establishments there are printed signs welcoming Grateful Dead fans. ``Aw, they're people,'' said a 40-ish hotel security guard. ``Like any group of people, most are all right, and a few are pains. I haven't had any major problem with the Deadheads. Sometimes when they are all standing around together you have to tell them to move along. And sometimes you have to tell them they have to put on their shoes and shirts if they want to come in the hotel. But no major problems at all.''

In other words, the land of Frank, Dino and Sammy is amazingly tolerant of the followers of Jerry, Bobby and Phil.

Of course not all Deadheads are long-haired, freewheeling youth who make their living selling unauthorized Dead T-shirts in concert parking lots. At various times during the weekend I met a high school teacher, a court reporter, a law student, a primatologist (he studies monkeys) and an assistant district attorney from Phoenix, who said his fellow prosecutors make fun of him for going to Dead shows, though the public defenders think he's cool.

I had not seen the Dead since 1983, the last time they played in Santa Fe.

I decided I couldn't pass this one up. I had to find out what draws the Dead and its enormous following to Las Vegas.

I pondered the lyrics of several old Dead songs in which gambling is a recurring metaphor, the deadly poker game with "Dire Wolf," the desperation of "Loser," in which the narrator begs for a loan, promising, ``I've got no chance of losing this time.'' I considered the concept of the "Wheel" as related to roulette.

During one of Garcia's inspired guitar solos during the Friday show, a more sinister line of thought entered my mind: Vegas, the city designed by the Mob and built with Teamster Union pension fund money, represents something alluring and corrupt about the American spirit.

Therefore, the annual Dead shows might just represent a tainted side to those old hippy purists, the Grateful Dead, millionaires who charge their slavish fans $30 per head per show. You don't see Garcia standing in line for a $2.39 breakfast.

Perhaps Vegas represents the Dead shaking the hand of P.T. Barnum, as they sing in "U.S. Blues. "

And what about the Deadheads? Is there any real difference between an elderly housewife from Bumpoke, Idaho blowing her pension on nickel slots and the pie-eyed, tie-dyed Deadhead holding up a finger and a sign reading ``I Need a Miracle'' in hopes of someone giving him a free ticket?

Fortunately, Garcia's guitar solo took me to higher ground. A recent Dead song scoffs at "Easy Answers," but sometimes the easy ones are right.

Asked why he thought the Dead does so well in Vegas, Rob, a 30-year-old high school teacher from Dallas, said, ``I think it's just that it's a party town.'' A town that is open 24 hours a day, allows people to walk the streets with open bottles of booze and has flashing neon signs rivaling a psychedelic light show is bound to appeal to Deadheads.

In what other city in the world could a group of 200 or so scuzzy-looking kids gather in front of a bar on the main street, beat drums and dance all night long? That's what the scene was like in front of Slots-a-Fun early Sunday morning.

``The natives are restless tonight,'' joked a 60-ish hotel doorman across the street from the wild bongo donnybrook as the sun began to rise over The Strip. He was clearly more bemused than outraged. There are limits to Vegas' tolerance, however. Just a few feet away from the drum corps, a police officer was handcuffing a groggy young Deadhead who had committed the crime of sleeping on the street. But Vegas cops have a comparatively good reputation among Deadheads. Bob, an Oklahoma Deadhead in his mid-30s, said the Vegas police are great compared with the South Carolina state troopers who pulled Bob and his wife over earlier this year. According to Bob, when the officer saw the grinning skull decal on Bob's van, he radioed his dispatch, ``We got a couple of Deadheads here,'' and searched the van for drugs.

``All because we happen to like a certain band,'' Bob said. Indeed, recent articles in Rolling Stone and Details magazine document how federal drug agents have concentrated on Grateful Dead shows to make arrests for LSD sales.

Although a sickly sweet aroma could be smelled in many sections inside the Silver Bowl, there was no blatant drug trafficking in the parking lot, although when Alec was trying to sell an extra ticket, one young Deadhead who ``needed a miracle'' offered him a hit of acid in exchange. (Alec just said ``no.'') But attending the Dead concerts in Vegas was not all fun and party.

Sometimes it seemed like some kind of initiation, a brutal preliminary for a vision quest. And, of course, Vegas itself, with all its flashy temptations and subliminal messages telling you, ``Don't go to bed'', is a weird endurance test, especially after driving all night to get there, as we had done.

Temperatures in Las Vegas that weekend reached 119 degrees and remained in the mid 90s even after midnight. Although the Dead did not go on stage until just after dark, the opening act, Traffic, played in full sunlight. At the edges of the stadium floor, friendly Silver Bowl staff members squirted grateful Deadheads with hoses.

Seasoned Vegas concert-goers knew to stock up on bottled water before each show. Many brought spray bottles or squirt guns to share a little moisture with others. Then there's the sheer intensity of dealing with a crowd of 30,000 or so. Even though the Dead (and other bands) these days have giant video screens so you can see what's going on down on the stage, there's just no way to fully enjoy a concert from some distant bleacher. I actually tried it for a while during the Saturday show. It felt like watching television.

No, I've got to be down on the field, as close as possible, even though it involves scrunching into a sweaty maze of human bodies. This is not recommended for the claustrophobic.

There is another reward for those who venture onto the field. It's a good feeling to be accepted into the bosom of Deadheaddom.

In the past I have been a little harsh on the Deadheads, calling them tie-dye zombies and the like. But having spent a weekend in Vegas with them, my opinion has changed.

Sure, the ``I-need-a-miracle'' kids in the parking lot get tiresome. Some of them tried to make Alec feel like an evil bloodsucker about selling his extra ticket at face value, although they had no problem with those who sold 50-cent squirt bottles for $4. But the miracle moochers are just a tiny fraction of Deadhead Nation.

Having been to the Lollapalooza festival in Denver last year, as well as various smaller ``alternative'' rock shows, I have to say that the young Deadheads are far more open, friendly and tolerant than the Lollapalozers.

In Denver last year, I truly felt like a fish out of water because of my age.

There was so much ``more-alternative-than-thou'' attitude and pre-fab obligatory Generation X angst among the Lollapalooza crowd, I had little desire to get to know the little cretins.

At alt-rock concerts, ugly gaggles of short-haired machos routinely shove their way to the front of the stage.

At Dead shows there are those who worm their way through the crowd to get better spots. But if a Deadhead steps on your foot doing so, he or she apologizes.

This struck me on Saturday when the crowd was singing along withUncle John's Band. There's that line that goes, ``What I want to know is are you kind?''

Then there was a decal being sold by a Deadhead in the parking lot. It simply said ``Mean people suck.'' That reminded me of the shirtless goons who pushed my daughter and anyone else in their way at a Pearl Jam concert. Those guys weren't cool. I'll take kindness any day.

In short, a major part of the Deadhead code is an almost childlike dedication to simple decency.

In a city like Las Vegas, human decency is sometimes harder to find than a shady parking spot. Maybe that's why Vegas welcomes the Dead.


Alec took this shot of me and Elvis on our 1994 trip to see The Dead in Las Vegas

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