Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Plenty Shakin’ on Shakedown Street
By Blair Jackson
The vending scene outside Dead shows started so innocuously. Before or after shows in the ’70s, if anyone was selling anything, it might be a handful of people peddling homemade T-shirts out of a backpack, or perhaps something small, such as pipes, stickers or low-key food items—brownies, cookies, etc. I remember buying my first Grateful Dead T-shirt—which depicted Garcia playing an acoustic guitar under the words “Grateful Dead” in nicely crafted American Beauty-like lettering—outside Manhattan Center in April ’71. In August of that year, I bought my first GD bootleg album outside Gaelic Park in the Bronx.
In ’72, “official” shirts started popping up inside shows—the initial wave of skull & roses Kelley-Mouse Monster Co. shirts, on light blue or white heavy cotton. I still have the tattered remains of my first skull-and-lightning-bolt shirt from that era (it wasn’t called a “Stealie” back then; that didn’t come into the lexicon until the design was used on the cover of the Steal Your Face live album in 1976). My shirt had that logo surrounded by marijuana leaves. Wow, what a rebel I was! (I’m joking.) I sure did love that shirt!
The first place I recall an actual vending “scene” outside Dead shows was the five-night 1979-’80 New Year’s run at what was then called the Oakland Auditorium (later renamed Kaiser Convention Center, a.k.a. “Kaiser.”). New Year’s shows were always a popular destination for out-of-towners, and unlike Winterland, which was located in a fairly depressed area of SF, the Oakland Aud. was adjacent to a small but lovely park—which turned out to be a perfect hangout spot.
We bought this beautiful tie-dye shirt, featuring part of Tim Gleason’s design
from the cover of Issue #2 of The Golden Road, in the parking lot of Red Rocks in September ’85.
That first year, a fair number of folks set up tents in the park, and having people there constantly over six or seven nights attracted vendors with crafts or food to sell. Suddenly, tucked in between the funky tour buses parked along the street outside the venue, there were trucks and vans equipped with stoves or grills selling hot food, and as the days went by, more people hawking wares from blankets on the grass—Crystals! Incense! Photos! Tie-dyes! I spent a lot of time out there before the first few shows, interviewing and photographing fans for a BAM magazine cover story published a few months later, called “Deadheads: A Strange Tale of Love, Devotion and Surrender.” It was quite a mellow and beautiful scene, even with the periodic downpours that soaked everyone that year.
The crowds outside Oakland Aud. increased with each New Year’s run, and by ’82, Dead shows in other places were also attracting more merchants and, increasingly, people without tickets who wanted to hang out at what was slowly but surely developing into a hippie bazaar. The first couple of years at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, the overflow was accommodated on a soccer field next to the venue, equipped with loudspeakers. Across the bay at Stanford, the sprawling, magical eucalyptus groves outside Frost Amphitheatre offered both parking and a great place to do pre- and post-show shopping—I fully expected to buy something from a Hobbit! Beginning in ’82, the Ventura County Fairgrounds provided camping for thousands of Dead Heads, and an enormous commercial scene sprang up there, as well. On the other hand, when we drove up to Eugene for shows at the Hult Center in the fall of ’83, there were very few people selling things; maybe because the venue was so tiny that not that many tickets went to touring Heads. Surprisingly, there were more outside the next stop on the tour, Boise, Idaho.
The number of people following the band for tours (or parts of tours) seemed to increase exponentially each year during the first half of the ’80s, and the scene outside of shows grew right with it, especially at outdoor places where the band played two or three shows in a row—Alpine Valley, Red Rocks, etc. But it wasn’t long before the parking lots outside arenas in more urban areas also started attracting large concentrations of vendors and the ticketless, who seemed content to immerse themselves in this tangential Dead world, dubbed “Shakedown Street” by many. Gone were the days when most of the craftspeople were hardcore fans looking to earn enough to go on tour and see more shows. Now, in addition to those good people, were many who followed the tour only to sell to the growing crowds outside the venues. Some clothing vendors set up huge booths with racks and racks of options, and food sellers had elaborate setups with multiple burners. Alas, the Shakedown scene also began to attract more drug dealers, who found a large and receptive audience for their wares among the curious shoppers, and that led to increased infiltration by Drug Enforcement Agency narcs and a large numbers of arrests—not good publicity for the band, to say the least.
And that was all happening before Garcia got sick in ’86 and the band hit the Big Time in ’87 following his recovery and “Touch of Grey” and all that. As we discussed a bit in a previous blog, that’s when Shakedown Street and the whole touring economy really exploded. Cities and venues found themselves completely overrun for days at a time, mostly with people attracted to the hippie city that sprang up like fast-growing mushrooms. A place such as New York City, where the Dead played Madison Square Garden, would barely show a ripple of the alien invasion more than three or four blocks away from the venue, but in Alpine Valley or Hartford or Atlanta or the Greek and Frost—oh, my God! By ’89, the Dead were banned from those last two wonderful spaces, and the group’s management was meeting serious resistance from many other municipalities.
In response, the Dead booked “guerrilla” shows in Hampton in October ’89 and Hartford in March ’90, where the concerts were announced just 10 days in advance and tickets were sold only to locals (supposedly). Camping and vending were formally banned on those tours, which seriously affected the Shakedown scene. The Dead also took the curious step of finally trying to enforce the copyrights on their logos (after mostly ignoring that issue), resulting in some bad blood between longtime low-level shirt and sticker makers and the Dead organization. The little guys (correctly) believed they were being punished for the transgressions of true bootleggers. But the crackdown did have the desired effect of keeping some of the hordes away—at least for a little while.
Here’s our good buddy Dick Latvala
at Cal Expo, date unknown, sporting a hand-drawn T-shirt depicting Blondie and
Dagwood outside a Dead show selling veggie sandwiches
and looking for tickets. Photo: Regan McMahon.
I feel as if I didn’t personally see the problem at its worst. At general admission shows, I was typically waiting in line hours before the show rather than wandering the lots looking for cool stuff. And after most concerts, I just wanted to get home or back to my hotel room (if I was on the road) to continue the party with my pals. At the few reserved-seat shows we had in the Bay Area—at Shoreline—the vending was mostly inside the venue and controlled. But whenever I did cruise the endless rows of booths and blankets outside shows, I enjoyed it immensely. It got harder to find my favorite T-shirt makers, but I often did anyway, and it was always fun to make that connection with those true artisans over the months and years. We always wanted to see the latest designs from Dennis Simms and the good people from Red Bear Designs, Spectrum Batiks and a few others. We still own a few of each’s shirts.
Most of the changes that were made at the beginning of the ’90s in an attempt to better control the scene outside, didn’t seem to stick. Shakedown kept on growing and was still pretty out of control until the end of the Dead. The nitrous oxide problem grew steadily the last few years (though I don’t think it had been taken over by organized crime yet), and the ticketless continues to descend on the lots wherever the Dead turned up. We won’t even get into the Tour from Hell in ’95, which presented one problem after another outside shows, though more from gate crashers than on Shakedown Street.
Garcia’s death put an abrupt end to the serious Shakedown scene. I gather some merchants accustomed to making their living on the road following the Dead decided to glom onto Phish, String Cheese Incident and other bands of that ilk, but it wasn’t the same. Still, as the years have passed, the scene outside some shows by The Dead and Furthur has grown again—and become a problem again in certain places (such as Calaveras in 2010 and Monterey in 2011).
I still don’t spend a lot of time there, and the people I used to buy shirts from have long since left that life. But sometimes it feels like a nice link to the past, seeing all those tie-dyes and Guatemalan clothes and hearing hippie girls calling, “Kind veggie burritos!” It wasn’t always good for the Grateful Dead world, but now it’s one colorful vestige of those days that has carried through good times and bad.
Let’s hear some of your Shakedown/vending/parking lot stories. I know you got ’em!
I still have the ones I bought!
I have seen what looks lilke the same tour rats at String Cheese and Phish, guess nobody ever really "Keep Your Day Job"
I also really enjoyed the Shakedown Streets on tour, which is where you would often find you friends before and after shows. During the Fall ’83 East coast tour I helped a friend sell her 8 1/2” x 11” photos from the acoustic shows at Radio City, nice photo but what was unique was that she hand printed all the ’82 sets lists on the back. Very small, delicate printing and they sold quite well, wonder how many are still out there. It was a fun way to meet new people milling around the lots before the shows. Another great Shakedown Street memory was at Rich Stadium, 1990, it was the last show of the tour for my girlfriend and me. After the show we wanted some food before starting our drive back to Florida and found a curly fry stand. Handed the guy our $4 for two cups of hot fries, he looked up and smiled, “Smitty is that you” he said, ya it’s me and I found two old friends that moved to Colorado from Vermont in the mid 80’s and hadn’t seen them since the SPAC show in 85’. Needless to say we didn’t get very far on our drive to Florida that night, partying and reminiscing about past tours. The Curly Fry guys stayed on tour until the end, me Summer ’90 was my last of 29 different tours. It was always amazing that the people who made Shakedown Street a possibility managed to make it back tour after tour.
The first shirt you mention is the one I was talking about, too... the one I bought outside Manhattan Center... though now you've got me thinkin'--maybe I bought mine at those same '71 Port Chester shows (I went two nights) but maybe I wore it to Manhattan Center...
My first Dead T-shirt was bought on the street outside the Capitol Theater, Portchester (welcome back Capitol) Feb. 71. It showed Garcia playing an acoustic guitar, all green print on white shirt. Kelly/ Mouse - American Beauty style lettering "Grateful Dead".I wore that shirt at Veneta 8/27/72. It's in the movie. My second Dead shirt was the same as Blair talked about, Pot leaf with "alembic skull" or Owsley's design.I bought that at Kumkwat Mae the Grateful Dead family owned store in Fairfax in July 72. A couple of the more fond "shakedown" scene's I remember were Santa Fe (9/10,11/83). Also Red Rocks June 1984. Both were assisted by the Hog Farm. In 84 they had the amazing "Pigpen" t-shirt that was a benefit shirt for the Rex Foundation based on the portrait of Pig on the back cover of "Workingman's Dead".
After way over 200 shows I don't think I ever even heard the term Shakedown St. referring to the scene until after Garcia died.
Up until the mid 90s we spent a lot of time on the scene. The time travelers and other coincidental incidents that occurred there were highly educational and tuned me in to aspects of the universe I never would have understood without those experiences. I figure I spent more than a year of my life in total in Dead show parking lots. Pretty good for a person who was also employed the whole time.
Merriweather '85 had the best parking lot scene of anywhere on the planet ever. There is just no earthly way to describe all that went on there. It would be quicker to say what did not. It would be a short list. Hershey right before it was very cool too. Camping on the manicured lawn with the amusement park in the background knowing the next stop was a blissful point in life.
The biggest lot ever was Buckeye in I think it was '91 That place was so huge and the lots were separated by woods and were just random fields all over the place. That was the only time we had to spend a long time to find the car and were not actually sure we would find it.
Atlanta had a very cool Shakedown St. with the coolest cops. I saw some playing in a band with heads one year and another year one stopped me at a corner after the show to check out my '66 Bonneville that I toured in. He says, " Damn. You can hardly hear it runnin. 65?" I say, "Yes sir keep it right on '65." The light changed before I realized he was talking about the year of the car and not how fast I should be goin.
Philly was the ultimate scene. I know it was Filthadelphia, but the edge to that whole thing and the abundance there was so spectacular. One year we were hanging in the back of my Subaru Wagon with the hatch open and this Ryder truck pulled up in the lane behind us. Two guys who I guess were undercover cops got out, opened the back of the box truck, pulled out about 12 nitrous tanks and opened the valves on all of them simultaneously. The back of the car rapidly filled with nitrous. They never really looked at us. We stayed there as long as we could but eventually had to stagger off to remain conscious. The Hulkomania show where they were coming out as we were going in was also something totally nuts. The look on their faces as they emerged from that place with a sea of heads jamming the whole place up...
Deer Creek in the early years was also very cool. Until you had to leave. At least one year they ran dogs through every single car on the way to the highway. Unless you happened to have a German Shepherd in yours. The risk/reward was too great for them at that point.
Time Blender - I'd like to take that ride again!
......were SPAC in 88 and the forementioned Oxford Plains. The scenes were laid back, minimal hassles, no humidity, great deals, friendly older non-violent balloon guys.....and lots of great clothing optional swimming in Saratoga in the natural spring water with cool beers and the kind. the last JFK show shakdown scene in philly was downright dangerous as I recall...cops on horses all night....I saw a guy OD on a pitchers mound in that big park around 5:30 AM after the show-bad news, man. The weather almost always impacted Northeast Spring and Fall shakedowns-if it was both cold and rainy, the shakedown scene around arena's was alot "thinner". I always fondly remember the freakshow on the lawn of the Connecticut capitol building in April 88....we were so bad and unwelcome !!!! After the Monday night show the ground was just a mess...lots of vending and unruly behavior. During my first shows in the fall of 85 and summer of 86, I didn't fully appreciate the scene.....i regret that a little now.
saw a pizza oven in back of a pick up truck in dc in 95 summer saw these kid drumin on trash barrels in the lot they were really good. i went to three shows six months apart fall 79 spring 80 and fall all in maine labor day with the dead and levon helm in lewiston maine.i didnt know i was a dead head for a coup;e years latter
I started seeing the Dead in '84. My first show that year at Pine Knob had sparce vending, but was still enough that it was a unique experience for me. For all I knew, I was going to see an oldies band from the 60s who had a couple of songs that got played on the radio. Little did I realise that my life would change forever, for the better!
Fast forward to Alpine Valley '86 and '87, my next to forays into the experience, and there was a bit more of a scene, but still not overwhelming. The aspect of onsight camping was interesting to me as it created more of a festival atmosphere.
A year after that, and the Dead having had a bonifide huge hit album and song, I attended Buckeye Lake in '88, and we arrived fairly early into a farm field type parking lot across the street from the enterance. As the morning progressed into the afternoon, we ended up being parked right smack dab in the middle of the biggest Shakedown Street I never could have imagined. It was literally a wall of people selling everything imaginable like food/drinks, cloths, jewelry, artwork, drugs, cars and probably even a kitchen sink or two ready for installment into a VW bus. We were parked so deep in the pit that we were commited to the lot until the following day. Add onto that a 110 degree day and 98 degree night and holy molie, it was just beyond nuts. Everybody had fireworks too. Sheesh...
By '89, I started to go to more than one show, or run of shows a year. That spring in '89, I attended Ann Arbor and though a considerably smaller scene, was still thriving none-the-less. I went on a t-shirt buying binge at those shows. So many great designs. I think I got my first Dupree's Diamond News letter in the lot at those shows. These two shows immediately followed the Pittsburg riot shows that made national news, so the police presence was much higher than normal. I remember watching police dressed in tie dyes busting people left and right. I also remember seeing a guy in the lot who looked to me like Wavy Gravy dressed as a clown. Don't know if it was actually him, but the resemblence was uncanny.
My next show was the middle night back at Alpine Valley after not going in '88, and man oh man, what a complete change to that place from '87. The parking area was now surrounded by a 12 foot fence, so the campers couldn't camp and vend on the golf course anymore.
My next shows after that were the '90 spring Omni shows, and the camping and vending scene was considerably more subdued temporarily.
I've seen much large and smaller camping and vending scenes at shows after that, but it was a big shift from the madness for a minute.
Incidently, I've never camped out at a show. We always either had hotel rooms, or just drove back home afterwards. Buckeye Lake '88 was the closest I came to overnight camping, but that was only because we got trapped in the thick of the scene and had no choice but to wait it out.
I haven't had a chance to see Further yet, but for the most part, The Other Ones, The Dead, Phil & Friends, Ratdog ect have for the most part been somewhat smaller vending affairs, if any at all. I attended a few Phish shows up to about '98, then lost interest in them. It always felt like the idiots who ruined the scene were, for the most part, the ones who gravited towrads the Phish scene. The ones who trashed the lots, disrespected the locals, crashed the gates ect.
I always felt that it would have been great if more of the Deadhead tour head vendors and campers would have gravitated towards The Allman Brothers fter Jerry died. They were, and still are, in my opinion, a better band than Phish, String Cheese and what not. Like the Dead, they have soul. These other bands are souless noodlers to me, that compromises depth and content for uninteresting explorations. Don't get me wrong. I thought Phish had it going on musically up until the album Story of the Ghost. They completely lost me after that.
I wish somebody had a camera and eventually posted that picture(s) here on dead.net.
Fun subject, Blair, Thanks!
The few Shakedown Streets I was in Philadelphia, it didn't seem so great.
The last one, for The Dead tour 2009. was a let-your-hair-down-just-as-long-as there's-no-violence-or-any-other disturbance. I don't remember seeing any police in a in-your-face presence on 05/02/09.