Smile Politely

The desert

What is it to come back from a vision quest without anything to show? Tourism, I guess, the scourge of the earth and harbinger of its destruction. When one must pay $15 to enter the desert, when even in the most isolated of places the vapor trails and whispering grumble of airline traffic never ends, when young mothers in shorts and sunscreen allow their pre-school daughters to run through the hazardous cholla trails barefoot while they take iPhone shots of the cute cacti, it is hard to acknowledge the God one might encounter in silence.

The man is eating a plate full of scrambled eggs, fried flat like a pancake and smothered with a thin layer of the mostly-meat chili from Pete’s Greek Diner. I imagine it is a house specialty. I cannot help but imagine what it must do to the mind.

He is ranting to the unsmiling, patient woman sitting across from him. She doesn’t respond or react. He is a member of a proud conservative political spectrum.  Everyone else is an “asshole,” the word most easily picked out of his broadcast, language which adds troublesome efforts to my digestion. 

There is a marine base in Twentynine Palms, California, largest military training area in the nation (and the largest US base in the world), and too many tattoo parlors for what is a sparsely populated town only twice the size of Rantoul.

The quest was not simply for God.  This is an autobiography overdue.  A decade was lost or jumbled and for reasons I cannot state, I have wanted to put memory into order for some time.  There was prison in 1969. I remember that much clearly, shouting to my father as they led me from the courtroom, “It’s just another experience,” which I doubt was much consolation to him. It wasn’t for life, but as things turned out, it rather was.

Following that was the decade when things got fuzzy. Cross-country jaunts to California, hitchhiking journeys through Central and South America, communes we didn’t even consider communes, scrap metal industry and coal shoveling gigs, a long series of portable typewriters, beer brewed in bathtubs, multiple trips to Europe, developing a first name basis with Manhattan, screening rooms, a couple of university degrees (with majors plucked from a hat), self-medication from farmacias in Mexico, back room bars, glitz and shameful gluttony…  You know, the usual, culminating in marriage once 30 rolled around. The thing is, there was never any money. I don’t know where everything came from other than that very God, still waiting somewhere in the desert, patient as the woman in the diner.

I wanted to put together these shards.  Apart from the desert, the return to Los Angeles was to find the lost key to those misplaced years. There was a bungalow in Venice where I I lived for a while with Don, whose later schizophrenic collapse I attributed to his dabbling with the esoteric religions of L.A.

And I found it, intact but now blocked from the sidewalk by a fence. Venice itself – like Manhattan, like everything now in America and most likely the world – has become a symbol of itself, a replica, a Disney, the vision of a gone memory, and for sale.

Today in Venice, the smell of patchouli incense wafts onto the ocean walkway, along with the streaming sounds of the quintessential hippie band It’s a Beautiful Day singing “White Bird.” But there is no vinyl, no beautiful blue 12″ jacket, and nothing will make it 1969 again, only the theme park version.

Still, I had found the place. The Venice post office remains the same old building facing at an angle, its back to the circus and the oceanfront. Next stop, Pasadena.

Somewhere in Pasadena I had attended a Grateful Dead concert that was more like a mass levitation than any earthly musical event, a solid block of bodies and smoke rising as one into space. This is all I remembered.

I found the Rose Palace, site of many Dead and Led Zeppelin concerts in those days, where giant floats now are constructed for the annual Rose Bowl parade.  I walked in through the “employees only” door. No one minded. The construction workers inside confirmed that concerts had been played there. But it didn’t seem right. I remembered an ornate staircase.

The only other information I could find of a Dead concert in those years was at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, although it is footnoted as one of the “lost Dead concerts.” No recording or official set list exists. Driving down East Green Street, I dismayed to find situated at the address only newly constructed buildings, certainly not the site of an ancient Dead concert. But on second drive by, I saw the old auditorium nestled back a bit from the street. This was the place.
I got out and walked around, tracked down the manager who, of course, was too young to recall, but willingly searched the records. Tickets to the concert had cost $4. I smelled the molecules of the place, and conjured up traces of the past.

Having confirmed the event, I scoured the Internet to find one attendee’s set list and several other descriptions that concurred with my experience: Bob Weir speaking with “wonderful weirdness” into the microphone; Garcia engaging the crowd and turning on the house lights “so we can see you, too;” people walking around more than watching, some removing clothing; the smell of the ocean rolling in on a breeze after the music stopped. “I became of every nerve in my sphincter,” wrote one fan who was 16 at the time. I distinctly remember disappearing, evaporating, about the time when Weir played some strange note and “Cosmic Charlie” segued into “Alligator.”
The concert took place on September 25, 1970. I now had a date from which to proceed.

I know I should compile this information into a private file, for my eyes only. That would be the proper thing to do, not unlike the effort of those artists who built an entire gallery of art works underground in an abandoned subway station in Brooklyn. The works are still there today. There will never be a Disney version. The works were never to be seen or reviewed or sold or explored, just created. In this, there would be a purity that any revelation soils.

One shouldn’t flaunt one’s invisibility too much. It defeats the purpose. I should bury this entire story. But, at some point, it became too late to turn back. The autobiography holds earlier secrets, secrets that took place here in Illinois before I was born, secrets that will be divulged.  You see, strange reader, right here in Central Illinois exists the “origins of dropout culture in America.” Google that phrase and you’ll find Champaign County and dig a little deeper to find the country road where I was born. The Grateful Dead came late to the party.

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