Monday, July 1, 2013

Ten Shows: Part III

To continue this bi-polar journey down my concert memory lane, I’ll revisit two shows from the 90’s that couldn’t be on more opposite ends of the rock and roll spectrum.

Grateful Dead, Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, Las Vegas, NV      6/26/1994
I was 9 months into my Navy tenure, stationed in San Diego, and basically, living easy. Yeah that’s right—in the military and living easy. There’s too much back story to account for exactly why I was able to surf daily, cruise Coronado on my bike, and generally fuck off most of the time, so let’s just leave it at that.
When I saw that the Dead were playing 3 nights in Vegas early that summer, well, of course I was going to go.
The initial plan was to drive all night Friday, arrive in Vegas sometime after sunrise, set up camp in the parking lot, and get a few hours of sleep before the festivities commenced. My buddy Robert and I arrived to find the parking lot secured (not opening until noon) and a battalion of police officers and sheriff’s deputies running people off the side streets, parks, empty fields, and anywhere else you might cop a squat adjacent to the stadium. Within 12 hours of arriving in Vegas, we had rented a room in town, gone to and from the stadium again (unable to score tickets for Saturday’s show) and were enjoying an enhanced version of the bright lights of Vegas.  
Fast forward to Sunday’s show.
It was Phil Lesh that coined the term “Mega-Dead” in those days. They sold out all three nights at a 50,000+ capacity stadium with thousands of people still out in the lot, unable to score tickets.  Robert and I filtered into the stadium and found our way into the grandstands, stage right, about ½ way up with a great view of the “Jerry Side.” They launched the show with a crowd-pleasing Hell in a Bucket, Bob Weir stepping into the rock star role early, working up the crowd and setting the mood for the 1st set.
During those last few years before Jerry died, Grateful Dead shows were mostly hit and miss as far as quality goes. If Jerry was in a particularly bad slump (i.e. in a bad way on the heroin he was using) the rest of the band would ramp up and carry the show along as best they could. This was quite the opposite of the many golden eras of the band’s past, where Jerry lived up to his early moniker of Captain Trips, leading the Dead along a musical adventure while shaping and guiding the songs as his 9 fingers worked effortlessly across one of his signature guitars.
In 1994 he was a shadow of that icon. Aged well beyond his 52 years, Jerry looked like a decrepitly obese rock and roll wizard. Stooped over his guitar I imagined he could collapse in a heap at any moment.
Yet a spark of the old Jerry graced the stage Sunday night. The licks flowed and the band fell in line, Phil trading musical phrases with Jerry throughout. And as the 2nd set segued from the compulsory drum solo, Jerry carried the band aloft into a crowd-pleasing Wheel and into Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, closing the show with Morning Dew. Emerging back on stage a few minutes later they tore into a rousing encore of U.S. Blues.
I caught the Dead a few more times that year. Overseas in Japan when Jerry died, I felt the loss as I would a family member. The Grateful Dead were a defining experience in my life; there were many moments when I felt I could throw it all away and get on that bus for good. The Grateful Dead’s music carried me through good times and bad and were (and continue to be) the soundtrack of many significant events in my life. That show in mid-1994 is a standout among my adventures with the Grateful Dead.

Bad Religion, The Blitz, Tokyo, Japan, (exact date unknown: 11/15/96 or 11/16/96)

I was never a huge fan of Bad Religion. They have a decently- gritty punk sound and I always liked their in-your-face, irreverent logo. Yet they aren’t the first band that comes to mind when I consider quintessential acts in punk rock. Arguably Bad Religion brought about a rebirth in punk rock in the late 80’s, but I think if anything they gave the genre a more palatable sound that led to the likes of Green Day and others creating and finding success in the diet-punk niche. Whatever the discourse, Bad Religion has an elevated status in the punk genre for certain.
I had been on a 3-month deployment aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Independence, and upon returning to our homeport in Japan, my squadron was ready (like every sailor on the ship) to let loose, blow off some steam, and consume as much booze as was humanly possible. Our barracks erupted into a free-for-all of drunken sailors, at, oh, 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon or so the day of our return. Just as things were really starting to get out of hand, one of our aircrew guys showed up with a handful of concert tickets.
“Who wants to see Bad Religion in Tokyo tonight?”
And with that I was off, Tokyo bound on the Sotestu Line out of Atsugi with a gang of drunken sailors.
The Japanese don’t do anything half-ass. I came to that conclusion as we approached the venue Bad Religion was playing that night- The Blitz.  Based on the look of the crowd, we could have been in L.A. or D.C., waiting to see The Germs or Minor Threat or any number of old-school punk bands. Replete with mohawks, Doc Martens, red suspenders, and ripped jeans, the Japanese had the details of punk fashion down to a science. There was enough leather in the venue to supply a dominatrix convention.
When Bad Religion took the stage, these Japanese punkers went absolutely nuts.  The mosh pit was unequivocally crazy— as intense if not more so than some of the whirling melees I’d bumped around in at punk and metal shows back in the U.S.  Elbows and knuckles abound, the stage dives also rivaled anything I had seen before. Security was surprisingly mellow: there were no warnings to kick out the occasional crowd surfer that went over the rail towards the stage—they simply shuffled them around and back into the fray.
Yet through it all, the Japanese crowd maintained their polite honor. One kid elbowed me in the pit a bit too hard—he asked if I was okay in broken English, a look of real apology on his face. I laughed and patted him on the back and went back to it.
The band put on a rapid-fire performance, the audience feeding fuel to the non-stop energy of the first note to the reverberated hiss and squelch that wrapped the encore. The show must have gone almost 2 hours, and I was exhausted and relieved as the house lights finally came up inside The Blitz. We shuffled out into the cool air and loitered amongst the slowly dispersing crowd.  A roadie or drum tech emerged from a side door of the venue with a handful of drumsticks and began handing them out. I sprinted over and got myself one, the wood flaked and frayed and chewed to near shreds: a visual demonstration just how hard these guys rocked that night.
Funny thing though, I never grew to really love Bad Religion, even after a stellar performance such as that. I have a few of their albums, but I don’t know if I would jump at the chance to see them again if they came through town. That night in Tokyo was just a perfect combination of good music and camaraderie at a unique venue in a faraway land.
If anything, Bad Religion proved to me that night that, despite many attempted burials, The Exploited-coined phrase was true: Punk’s Not Dead.