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've heard it used derisively almost exclusively: ie, "John Coltrane is a fine improviser on the saxophone, far superior to mere honkers like Clarence Clemens and others of that ilk".
I lean to the venerated Urban Dictionary as a resource:
ilk - Pronoun. Represents a group of items of the same type. Has a connotation of the type of group being of bad or questionable character.
Don't get involved with those of that ilk.
> "ilk". I'm pretty sure that word cannot be used in a positive light. :)
Actually, ilk is rather neutral:
ilk /ɪlk/ noun 1. family, class, or kind: he and all his ilk.
You're right, EyesDude, it was Hartford that was a guerrilla show. I've corrected that. For Nassau, they did try the selling-locally-only thing (or so Cameron Sears told me in The Golden Road), but they were not stealth shows...
Blair's "Love, Devotion and Surrender" article is in the Oxford University Press Grateful Dead Reader, and having loved it dearly back in the day I heartily recommend checking it out.
yeah, what a lovely venue. The thing I remember most is that, I think it was on the first night, people were dancing so hard the balcony was moving, like a slo-mo earthquake. But apparently the then-brand-new building had been engineered to withstand dancing Heads, because we lived to tell the tale.
"ilk". I'm pretty sure that word cannot be used in a positive light. :)
After coming out of my first real show in '89 at RFK there was a young kid who seemed like he came from the surrounding projects selling a shirt that said "Grateful Dead" with a skull with its tongue hanging out and and a dagger in the back of the skull. This kid must have thought the boys were a heavy metal band. In retrospect I should have bought the shirt.
nassau wasn't a guerilla show. i think it was (uselessly, in the middle of tour) hartford.
shakedown street in a nutshell:
in 1981, strangers would give you an imported beer. in 1988, strangers would sell you a budweiser. for $2.
Greek 1983 May three shows 7pm fri 5pm sat 3pm sun The only product outside the show were stickers for free from Mikal. Same with Ventura and Frost and Watsonville and at the New Year's shows there was a presence in the park in front of SF Civic (now BG), the next year were more and 1985 was the 20th anniversary And the Bay Area news channels (all seven) did full feature stories about the Band, the musicians, the fans and the touring. Best quote 'Yeah. There's a lot of lsd at the shows but we know how to handle it. We've been doin' this for years.' on Local Television on the 6 o'clock news. Guess the cats out the bag, now, nothin' left to do but smile, smile, smile. then the next summer the Dead tour with Dylan and his back up band Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. 100plus degrees on the East coast in June. It's amazing Jerry didn't collapse on stage, instead of two weeks after in Marin. But I digress, Irvine 1989, my girlfriend had about 80 pair of earrings she had left from a craft fair outing and we set up in one of the vendor areas and for three days sold earrings to wonderful people, thousands upon thousands passed by, a never ending parade of deadheads, so cool, so free, so pleasent, just hangin' out and then walkin' up the path and seein' the Greatest Band In The Land. But when we left after the last show on Sunday night, my friend had to walk in front of the car and move bottles to create a path so we could drive out of the lot, by the time we reached the exit there were dozens of other vehicles following our trail, Hippy Trails to You
'92,soldier field, my 2nd dead concert, i was still in the massive glow from the previous day's/night's festivities/concert (my first). we were about the 20th car in line to get into one of the large stadium parking lots that morning around 10. there was a loooonnnngggg line of vehicles behind us stringing back into other streets and the gates weren't supposed to open for another hour. the gates opened at 10 due to the tremendous jam of cars and -now picture this - a guy around 5'5" maybe 220lbs. with black,perfectly greased-back hair, in a blaze orange vest is trying to direct people where to park the moment the gates open, and i'm already thinking that this isn't going to go as planned. the first few vans park up front as directed and then about a dozen cars in a row go for the "outfield" and he's yelling obscenities at everyone of them. we can hear him, in our car, yelling loud and clear and it is obvious that this now red-faced control freak is about to get an unwanted lesson on gd entropy. he literally jumps in front of the 4th car in front of us to stop the nonconforming flow of traffic and then runs to the driver side of that car and starts pointing and yelling exactly where he wants them to go. Meanwhile, of the few vans that had parked where this guy had directed, one guy had already gotten out,went to the back of the van, got a bowl of water for his dog and started to brush his teeth (his own teeth, not the dog's : ) ) the head who is brushing his teeth makes contact with the driver of the next car, who has apparently tuned out the "type a" lot cop, and gestures to him to park next to his van. as the car pulls away to park,instead of going right as directed by the lot cop, he goes left and pulls in next to the van. the head is still vigorously brushing his teeth when the lot cop blows a gasket, runs in front of the next car, and is literally jumping up and down repeatedly, pointing at the head brushing his teeth, and yelling at the absolute top of his lungs, "LISTEN TO ME!,DON'T LISTEN TO HIM!, HE'S BRUSHING HIS F!@^!NG TEETH!", throws up his arms, steps to the side and continues, "PARK WHEREVER THE F!@K YOU WANT!, I DON"T NEED THIS SHIT!",then walks away talking to himself!!!!! (total elapsed time from the gates opening.........about 5 min..................hehehehehehehehe). : ))))))))))))))))) and after 20 years(what?), this memory still puts a major cheshire smile on my face, so if anyone involved recognizes this story, thank you so much for 20 years of laughs. god bless the gd! PS. as much as i loved (and still do) that entire antiauthoritarian sense, we always paid in full for legit tix.,even when things were super tight, knowing that this was an extremely generous band when it came to supporting charities. never got the whole gate crashing mentality...............always seemed like a thankless cheap shot to a band that went out of its way to keep tik. prices down when other 90 min. cookie cutter bands were happily gouging their "fans".