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!
Dennis Simms is an old friend of mine. He did some excellent shirts, the best of which (IMO) were designed by my friend Jim "Phin" Urban. Then another friend, Karen, started designing and selling shirts. Y'all might recall some of her designs from Bay Area shows in the early 80's. One was the Modianos cigarette paper logo with a skeleton reading the paper. Another, for Chinese New Years, had an I-Ching/Stealie design in the center and dragons surrounding it. Anybody remember those? How about you, Blair?
The parking lot scene at Boise in 1983 was pretty cool, until the local police showed up and started hassling folks about open containers, but then a funny thing happened; one of the cops got out of his car and started walking around warning people about their open beers, and while he walked around a bunch of freaks plastered his cruiser with tour stickers. The look on his face when he got back to his car was like a miracle ticket: priceless.
I remember reading somewhere -- perhaps from our man, Blair Jackson -- that Bobby donned a baseball hat and shades, hopped on a bicycle and tooled around the lot/scene/shakedown. I'd imagine he and/or other members (except Jerry -- too recognizable no matter the extent of the disguise), must've done the same or similar forrays into the scene. I also recall seeing a picture of Phil outside of (i forget . . . Duke Univ. or Charlotte -- one of those SE places) w/ some 'heads in the lot/outside the venue.
Can ya shed any light or tell us a story or two, Blair if ya got any -- would love to hear it!
Always love this blog -- great little sidetrack / detour from my work.
My wife didn't know about the Dead until she met me. Our first "Family" show was Furthur in Broomfield. It was cold outside and we got a wool hat for her, to complete the look and keep her warm. I'm pretty sure a hot grilled cheese helped take the chill off. Before the show started, some youngster from California was showing off(bragging) about his party favors and I thought my prim and proper bride was going to freak. Once the music started, she looked at me with a smile that told me she "got it." Guess a warning would have been appropriate.
i remember this guy that was walking around the parking lot at the alpine shows in '89 and he had shaved off all the hair on one side of his head and half of his beard, the remaining half was very long and he had this little keyboard that he was carrying around that he was using to sample peoples dialogue and play it back and distort it and mess with it...for me the parking lot was always about the characters...the weirdos who were creative and adept at "tootling the multitudes" in true prankster spirit.
i remember this other guy on the lawn inside of a 1990 deercreek show...he lays out this blanket on the hill and then pulled out these weird homemade dolls that were naked and anatomically correct.complete with genitals and he lined them up on the blanket like they were part of the family and ready for the concert...then he pulled a polaroid camera out when the music started and he would dance in front of people and take their picture and put it in the brim of his hat still dancing while the picture developed..he also had these white t-shirts and he was writing the setlist on them as it happened in big letters.maybe this fellow was nuts but i thought he was great.my friend was tripping pretty hard that day and the whole thing had him laughing like hell.there was this other guy in anne arbour in 89 who was wearing these fantastic huge clown shoes and my friend asked him "those are pretty cool but how do you dance with those things".i used to think to myself jerry would like some of this inspired weirdness...good memories.
would have been most welcome in the parking lots - post concert (or,for that matter, parking lot location services!). oh man.................where the hell did we park????????? took us an hour and a half to find our car once...............never been so happily lost...........
me too, me too!! The one nice thing about going to only several shows in the early 90's is that every show was looked upon with great anticipation; there were no expectations laid upon any one show to bring me the set list i wanted to hear the most; it was simply knowing that,once again, i would be in the company of fellow dead lovers and a much anticipated concert. the parking lot actually started on that finest of all days: the day the tickets were procured. daily smiles from ear to ear would accompany until the concert arrived! trite explanations were given to non-heads as to the display of daily jubilation, knowing that they would not understand and that it would take too long to explain. and,finally, on that blessed day, the drive to the concert was pure seretonin!!!! complete and pure childhood happiness!!!!! with the knowledge that soon you would be in a world of kind folks that "got it" and "got you" at the same time! where you could let go and be understood and be forgiven for anything peaceful that happened! anything! would the weather be good? hope so, but it didn't really matter because all was good in this most blessed universe known as the gd scene.
everything that one could and couldn't imagine was there in that parking lot. the sights, sounds and smells were uncommon and,at the same time, most welcome as senses were newly flooded and expanded. meeting someone new / learning something new was inevitable! all of lifes physical and mental needs could be met within just a short walk and,with a hug or the shake of a hand, the deal was sealed. how many different state plates did you count? who can remember??!!! lol the best part of the parking lot for me was this: everyone knew that within just a few short hours the best was yet to come and it was already so good that all one could do was smile, smile, smile!!!!!!!!!!!! how much better could it get? you just wait and see!!! there's no end my friend. as far as you want to go. and it's all gonna go down soon enough!!!! that anticipation; that beautiful anticipation in the parking lot of what was to come! those were some of the most beloved,fuzzily memorable summer days of my life. i will always cherish the parking lot scene for what it was; it's own unique and not-to-be-missed show that was completely worthy of an admission price itself.
PS .after the chicago shows, cops on horseys were freaked out by all the kind freak on their way back to the parking lots who wanted to pet the big ol' beautiful four-legged critters...... wanted to pet them lots n' lots.......hehehehehehehehehehe. GOD BLESS THE GD PARKING LOT SCENE!
but i won't!
at least not now...
nice read Blair!
what about amazing performers! "Invader from Space" for example, on the battery-powered electric guitar and roller blades, and full-on freak-out clothes, up and down the west coast in the late 80s. That guy was amazing! Zappaesque quitar runs...
Im going to start off saying that I was too young to ever see GD with Jerry, so I definitely was not one of the people who crashed the fence at Deer Creek in 95' but I have been to many Phish shows there and that Shakedown street is always a great time. The smell of all the food cooking, the smell of different kinds of smoke in the air, the variety of t-shirts, pipes, art-work, etc. is really amazing to me. Its always a little world that exists but only for a very short time before the shows and always leaves me wanting more. I always wonder what a GD dead show would have been like before or after they were mega stars but Im grateful for them helping to contribute to such an interesting, unique scene. If there is a "Shakedown Street" type town that exists without being attached to a great band, please show me the road there!