Last week marked the 30th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s two shows in Telluride. The band came into this beautiful box canyon and played in the shadow of some of the most majestic mountains in the country. It was the weekend of the “harmonic convergence,” a once in a lifetime alignment of the stars, forecast by the Mayan God Quetzalcoatl, marking the beginning of a new age of peace and harmony. It was a weekend that transformed many lives, and it changed mine forever.
And I wasn’t even there.
I only heard about how great the shows were from my friend John Kaplan, who I went to school with and who was a frequent touring buddy of mine throughout college.
“The Dead are playing tonight in Pittsburgh,” one of us would say to the other in those halcyon days.
“I can blow off class,” might be the reply.
“Me too, let’s go.”
Each of us would go to our respective cafeterias and pilfer as much peanut butter, honey and bread as we could so we could sell sandwiches in the parking lot to pay for our trip.
I spent the summer of 1987 living in Los Angeles, working as a production assistant on the first season of the television show “A Different World.” (That was a fascinating experience in itself but I’ll save that for another day.) I had only recently “gotten on the bus,” as they say, having seen my first Grateful Dead show a year earlier on July 6, 1986 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. (it was their last show of 1986, right before Jerry Garcia slipped into a diabetic coma that almost took his life).
I saw six shows on the spring tour of 1987 — two in Worchester, two in Hartford and two in Providence. All those shows were within a two-hour drive from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where I was a freshman — a veritable layup shot for a fledgling Dead Head.
When I arrived in Los Angeles, I felt like a prophet on the burning shore, as there were a slew of Dead shows on the docket that summer on the left coast. “West Coast Dead” was a different phenomenon from “East Coast Dead,” a much more laid-back scene, particularly distinguished by the ease with which you could move to the front of the crowd and get close to the action, especially if you had a joint you were willing to share.
I knocked out eight shows on the West Coast, three at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, three at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, and two Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead shows (one in Oakland, one in Anaheim).
I timed my drive back to the East Coast to coincide with three shows at Red Rocks and two in Telluride, a town which I had never heard of but had a mystical ring to it.
Plans for the Colorado part of my trip changed a bit when I started getting handed flyers at the very first shows of the summer with very explicit directions printed on them. “Please, do not come to Telluride if you don’t have a ticket.” That was the gist. The rest went something like this (and I paraphrase), “On August 15th and 16th, the Grateful Dead will play two shows in Telluride, Colorado. Telluride is a tiny town of only 1,800 people, with one road in and one road out. This show is completely sold out (it wasn’t, they simply held back tickets). The town can simply not handle 30,000 people showing up for it. Please respect the scene and do not come unless you have a ticket. Otherwise, the Grateful Dead will not be able to have special shows like the one in Telluride.”
I was only 19 in 1987, a veritable newbie to the scene. The last thing I wanted to do was bring it down by showing up for a show to which I was clearly uninvited. I wanted The Grateful Dead to be able to play special shows in tiny towns. Maybe I could go to one. After all, I had years and years of Grateful Dead performances ahead of me.
After the three-night run at Red Rocks, my friend John said to me, “Let’s go to Telluride.”
For once, I responded, “No way.”
“What, are you crazy?”
“I’ve only been told 20 times not to go to Telluride without a ticket. I don’t want to be a drag on the scene.”
I told him to have a blast and that I would see him at school when we reconnoitered and we could begin scouting out our shows for the fall tour. The choices were plentiful: there were five shows at Madison Square Garden in September and Jerry was doing a two-week run with The Jerry Garcia Band at the Lunt-Fontaine Theater in New York City in October. Manhattan was a layup — an easy two-hour, nonstop trainride from New Haven.
When we saw each other again, John told me about his experience in Telluride. He said that the music was average — the band had to stop and start over during the encore “Brokedown Palace” because they butchered it so badly. But when he spoke of the town, his eyes lit up. He told me of a place so beautiful it was almost impossible to describe except that the mountains were the biggest he’d ever seen in the Lower 48. He told me how he stayed for three days after the shows, and that the town was the most laid back place he had ever been. He concluded by saying, “Telluride might be the coolest town in America.”
In 1987, there was no Internet. I could not Google Telluride and see the beautiful mountains, read about the history, the ski area, the festivals, etc. I knew nothing about the place other than the Grateful Dead played there and I didn’t go.
I played hockey my entire life. I had skied only one time and it held very little allure for me. The bottom line is that if the Grateful Dead had not played in Telluride I never would have heard of it.
But John Kaplan had planted a seed. The mystique of Telluride grew in my mind throughout my sophomore, junior and senior years to the point that the first thing I was going to do when I graduated was go to Telluride to see the most beautiful and coolest town in America.
I drove to Colorado, over Ophir Pass and through the tiny mountain hamlet from whence the pass derived its name. I took a right onto State Highway 145 and marveled at the beauty of Mount Wilson and Mount Sunshine as I rolled down to where the highway hit the Spur. I took a right and headed toward the box canyon, enveloped by splendid peaks. I felt a sonic boom in my chest. It was October, and there were hardly any people in Telluride. I felt like I had found Shangri-La. I thought, “This is where I’m going to live.”
And 27 years later, thanks to a concert I never saw, I’m still here.