"Deer Creek Memories"

© 1998 by Alex Kolker


For me, tour is always just one big blur while I'm rocketing through it. One day on tour is much like another: parking lot, concert, aftershow, sleep. On the other hand, each day presents me with so many new and different experiences that it hardly feels like the same trip from one day to the next. And when it's all over, and I come back home again, my pockets are always littered with scraps and bits and pieces -- ticket stubs, parking vouchers, scribbled set lists, credit card receipts -- which seem to have little to do with the trip I've been on. I took a camera on tour once, and shot two whole rolls of film, but all I got were forty-eight pictures of parking lots and traffic back-ups. This is one of the reasons why it's so hard to explain tour to someone who's never been on it, and why, as I sit down to write about everything Deer Creek has come to mean to me over the years, all of my memories come back to me in scraps and bits and pieces.

I missed the Indianapolis shows in the summer of 1989 -- the first year the Grateful Dead played Deer Creek. I'd been to a few shows within driving distance back in the late '80s, but I didn't do my first hard tour until the summer of 1990. It was, to coin a phrase, a long strange trip. Two-thirds of the way through it all -- after the shoe-melting heat of Kansas City, the GDP police state in Pittsburgh, the rain at RFK, and a heavy dose of New Jersey machismo in Foxboro -- I was ready for a few good mellow shows. Deer Creek, however, didn't sound all that promising. My tour buddies, Bill and Lenore, warned me that the summer before you couldn't even park at the Deer Creek Music Center unless you had a ticket. Since Bill was the only one of us with a ticket for the Deer Creek show, we spent the whole drive from Buffalo to Indy trying to come up with ways to sneak all three of us in.

As it turned out, we didn't need a plan after all. The year before, all the Deadheads who got turned away at the front gate had just parked and partied along the back farm roads of Noblesville, blocking traffic and making a general nuisance of themselves. The Deer Creek staff and the Noblesville Police Department learned their lesson that year -- a lesson other venues had learned before them: that it's better to just let all the Deadheads into the lots (charging them five bucks each for parking), and then at least they're all in one place, rather than out swarming all over the county.

But the ticketless hoards of the summer of 1989 left one lasting mark on the Deer Creek scene. Wandering around town with nothing to do, all of those loose Deadheads dumped a good chunk of money into the Noblesville economy that year, so the next year the locals were out in force -- renting out fallow fields for us to camp in, and selling water and sodas and fruit on card tables in their front yards. They knew that if they just treated the Heads right, everyone would be happy. For years, no locals were as friendly to and accepting of Deadheads as the ones in Indianapolis.

Bill and Lenore were selling T-shirts that tour, so we were making enough money to stay in motels. The motel they'd picked for Indy was particularly sweet. It was privately owned, so the buildings were a little more run-down than the Motel 6s we had been staying at. But there was a stove and a refrigerator in every room, and a pond with ducks in it at the center of the complex. And, best yet, it was only a fifteen minute drive to the pavilion. The place was full of Deadheads, of course, but the old ladies behind the front desk met all of our wildness and mayhem with an unshakable air of mild amusement. We ended up staying there every summer, every time the Dead played Deer Creek, until that last summer -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I don't have too many clear memories of Deer Creek from the summer of 1990. Too much of it is mixed in with my memories of the other ten shows -- the other ten scenes -- that tour. I remember the selling was good, if a little slow. People seemed happy just to sit out in the grass, and out by the edge of the pond in the front lots, and stare out at the lush Indiana greenery. There were more drum circles, more pot circles, less nitrous and fewer hassles than at any other show that summer.

I didn't get in to either show, of course -- Deer Creek was always the hardest ticket on summer tour -- but I spent two lovely evenings in the lots, chatting with Lenore while Bill was in the concert. In midsummer, the Indiana nights are cool and breezy. Out in the middle of nowhere like we were, the only sound all evening was generated by the band and the crowd. We sat out under the stars while the light snatches and scraps of music drifted over us.

I have only one other memory of my first visit to Deer Creek. The second night, we had arranged for Bill to meet us back at the car after the show. Half an hour after the encore, the aftershow scene was in full swing, but there was still no sign of Bill. Lenore was beside herself, half with anger and half with worry. When Bill finally appeared out of the crowd, she made a lunge for him, but stopped short when she saw the tears in his eyes. He had taken off his Birkenstocks during the second set of the show, and one of them had walked away without him. It had taken him almost an hour to hobble back to the car -- barefoot across the sharp white gravel of the Deer Creek parking lots. Bill has never taken his shoes off at a Dead show since.

Like I said before, I don't get much of an impression of tour while I'm on it. It's only later, when all of the memories sort themselves out in my head, that I get a clear idea of what sort of tour I've had. The memories that stood out the clearest of all through that next fall, winter, and spring were those sweet and easy nights at Deer Creek. I had a job in 1991, so I couldn't go on tour that summer. The summer after that, though, I made good and sure I had the time and the means to make it to Deer Creek, which by that time had become my favorite venue.

That summer I toured with Bill again, still selling his T-shirts, and with his two friends: Sherry, who was selling tie-dyes, and Mike, who was selling his world-famous tape covers. The vending scene was a little tighter that year, with the event staff coming through every once in a while to shut everybody down. But by mid-afternoon the scene was in full swing and the party was on. Some enterprising gentleman even brought a crane out to the lots and charged people fifty dollars a pop to go bungie-jumping. He had a steady business going all afternoon, and Mike, Bill, and I spent much of our time watching various thrill-seekers and tripping fools drop and dangle from that giant rubber band.

As always, the locals loved us. There were WELCOME DEADHEADS signs as far out as twenty miles from the city. The old ladies behind the desk at our motel greeted us all back with the same bemused smiles. Even the waitresses at Denny's and the Waffle House were nice to us -- treating us like normal, paying customers, rather than like the sticky-fingered gypsy band most locals always saw us as.

Mail order had failed me that summer, so again I was shut out at Deer Creek. But Mike, who was also shut out, led me around to the back parking lot of the complex. There, staring up the hill at the back fence of the pavilion lawn, we could hear the concert almost as clearly as if we were inside -- and, as Mike pointed out, it wasn't as if there were anything happening on stage that we hadn't seen a hundred times already. A couple hundred Deadheads had gathered there to listen, and to dance out in the fields under the open night sky. Two or three security guards, stationed near the top of the hill, watched us with only vague interest.

When, after the show, we met up with Bill and Sherry at the car, they had someone else with them -- the Rainbow Chick. I don't remember her real name. Bill and Sherry had met her in the concert, and, when they found out she was living in the back of her truck, they offered to put her up in our motel room for the night. She was a tiny, rail-thin girl -- sixteen years old at most -- who had run away from home over a year before and had been on continuous tour ever since. We never found out where she got the truck. That night, her dark eyes shining through her dark, ratty bangs, she told us about last year's Rainbow Gathering, and about how much she was looking forward to the next one, which was only a week or so away. Her voice was soft and strained, and her words rambled. When I asked her what she was planning to do after Rainbow and before fall tour, she just shrugged her shoulders and said, "Something will come up. Something always does."

I was awake that next morning before everybody else, and I slipped out of the motel room so as not to wake the others. I wandered down into the motel parking lot and strolled around the Rainbow Chick's truck, peeking through the dusty windows. It was a flatbed mini-truck with one of those white fiberglass shells. The left half of the truck bed was piled with her belongings -- a duffel bag, a few buckling cardboard boxes. The other half was a tiny nest of cushions and blankets, barely long enough for even her small body. Looking at the truck that lonely morning filled me with an undefinable sense of sadness.

For the second show, still ticketless, Mike and I hung out again at the bottom of the hill behind the pavilion lawn. The sound was great, and the people were mellow. It really was the next best thing to actually being in the show. I was having my usual good time, grooving along to the music, when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a couple of Deadheads make a run for the fence. The guards moved to stop them, leaving the other end of the fence wide open, and twenty or thirty other Heads started rushing up the unprotected side. The guards were hopelessly outnumbered, but not for long; reinforcements appeared out of nowhere, and soon the hillside was a battlefield. Waves of Deadheads charged the hill, and the guards and police scrambled to intercept them. For every Deadhead who made it over the fence, there were three or four others who got grabbed and herded to a holding area, where they were searched and arrested. And those Deadheads who did make it over the fence took pieces of the fence with them as they went.

I was appalled and ashamed. Here we had this wonderful, peaceful venue, where the locals were friendly and the scene was cool -- where you didn't even need a ticket to hear the show -- and here we were jumping fences and vandalizing the place, acting like children.

So I was surprised when, the next year, Deer Creek was once again on the summer tour schedule. This time, I brought someone along -- my new girlfriend, Amy. She had never been to a Dead show before, although she had listened to me rhapsodize about tour for over a year. I told her that if she was going to see a show anywhere, it had to be at Deer Creek. The first of the three Deer Creek shows was scheduled for the summer solstice, and promised to be a good one.

We met up with Bill, Lenore, and Lenore's new boyfriend Owen at our usual motel. We sat up chatting well into the night, and then slept well into the morning, before heading out to Deer Creek that afternoon. As soon as we got to the pavilion, Bill slung his backpack over one shoulder and hurried off across the lots to vend. We wandered down Shakedown Street with Lenore and Owen for a while -- the two of them hand-in-hand -- but we soon lost them in the crowd, and Amy and I were on our own.

It was unusually hot that summer in Indianapolis, and Amy and I, after shopping half-heartedly for a while, found a patch of grass in the shade and watched the scene go on around us. We were sitting just a few yards away from a drum circle of over twenty drums, and the rhythms were deafening and infectious. I had told Amy about the trouble last year, and warned her that the security might be a little tight this time around, but, beside the usual roving bands of pavilion security guards trying to shut down the vending, there was no real show of force from the authorities. It was the same old Deer Creek scene it had always been.

A woman wandered by offering hair wraps, and I bought one for Amy. What we didn't find out until it was too late was that the woman was so zoned out on Ecstasy that she could barely tie a knot. At one point -- watching a couple of tour dogs run by, and desperate to make friendly conversation with her customer -- the woman asked the nonsensical question, "Wow, man. Do you like dogs?" Amy couldn't come up with an answer to that one, and the woman was soon spacing out again anyway. Amy and I had a good laugh about it later, and it became one of our running jokes. The hair wrap was a pretty one, I have to admit, but it was much too loose, and unraveled after a few days.

Once again, mail order had failed me that summer, but I had told Amy all about the back fence area. Bill had a ticket, as always, so when we caught sight of him in the crowd about an hour before the show, we tagged along with him to the gate on our way to the back fence. We were halfway there when we ran into Keith, another friend of Bill's, who -- miracle of miracles! -- had two extra tickets for the show. He sold them to us for cost, and ten minutes later, for the first time in my life, I was walking through the gate and into the Deer Creek pavilion.

The three of us picked a spot in the center of the lawn right behind the taper's section. The pavilion was even smaller than I had imagined, and I considered myself lucky to get in. I have a tape of the concert now, and it's one of my favorites. The first set was nice, and great to dance to -- "Jack Straw" for the opener, "Friend of the Devil," "Loose Lucy" -- but the second set blew me out of the water. They opened with a smoking "Scarlet/Fire," and then went straight into one of the best (and longest) "Women are Smarter" I've ever heard. Amy -- as worn out as she was from the heat and all of the people that afternoon -- danced all the way through the set, and I was dancing right along beside her. During "Space," I stood staring up at the rotating floodlights on the roof of the pavilion and waited for the alien spacecraft to land.

When Bill and I first started making plans for summer tour of 1994, each of us had other friends who wanted to come along for the ride. But one by one these friends dropped out, until finally it was just me and Bill. We agreed that it was better that way -- we could catch up, relive some old memories, and create a few new ones.

Bill lived near DC, so I drove in and stayed at his place for the RFK shows. We sold a good number of his T-shirts and saw a couple of good shows, despite the rain. Deer Creek was the next stop on the tour. It was a good ten-hour drive from DC to Indy, so we planned to head out for Indianapolis early the next day, to get us to our motel in the early evening. But Bill -- his life in its usual disarray -- still hadn't packed, and he still had "a few" errands to run before we could get underway. He dragged me shopping across the Baltimore-Washington corridor all morning, and then I sat there in his apartment and watched him pack all afternoon. We didn't actually start out until eight o'clock that night. We arrived, burnt out but triumphant, at six o'clock on the morning of the first Deer Creek show. We checked into the same motel as always, and collapsed into our beds.

We woke up late that afternoon, and didn't make it to the pavilion until almost six o'clock. We were absolutely the last people into the lot that day. The parking attendant took our money -- half the usual parking fee -- and then just waved us over towards the clump of trees right by where she was standing. This put us right by the back entrance to the complex, so we weren't going to have any trouble getting out of the parking lots that night, but it also meant that we were parked as far away from the pavilion as you could possibly get and still be in the Deer Creek Music Center.

It was a long, slow walk across four parking lots. But once we got to the pavilion itself, we discovered that our forced march was far from over. Concerned about security -- two years after the fence-jumping mob of 1992 -- the Deer Creek authorities had decided to set up a temporary security perimeter fence that wrapped all the way around the back end of the lawn. You had to show a ticket to even get into this secure area, and then you had to walk all the way around the pavilion to the front gate to get into the show. We passed uniformed police officers and guard dogs all along the way, and I found myself wondering whether they were trying to keep everyone else out, or keep us in.

We got through the gate -- finally -- and collapsed on a convenient spot on the lawn. The show proved to be more than worth all the exercise. The boys were hot that night, playing bouncy renditions of "Big River," "Maggie's Farm," and "Tennessee Jed" in the first set. The second set didn't seem all that promising at first, especially during a half-hearted attempt at the Beatles' "I Want to Tell You." But then they broke into a wandering, spacey "Playing in the Band," which faded into a cosmic "Drums" and "Space." I could feel the music lifting me, the random notes pulling me out of my body. "Space" faded, in turn, into a mournful "Wharf Rat," which seemed to go on forever but still didn't last long enough. They ended the set with a triumphant "Not Fade Away" and played "Rain" for the encore. Bill and I left the pavilion with our skulls still tingling.

We had only been awake for a few hours, and we weren't at all tired. We hung out in the back parking lots -- watching the vending scene swarming around us, and listening to the disco music playing over the Burrito Van's loudspeaker -- until the Deer Creek staff started herding everybody out. In the middle of the usual chaos on the way out of the complex, we met up with a kid who couldn't have been more than eighteen or nineteen. He said his name was Skeeter, that he was camping out in some farmer's field that night, but he had gotten separated from his friends and didn't know how to get back to the campsite. Since Bill and I had nothing better to do, we offered to give him a ride and help him find his friends.

For the next hour, the three of us merrily cruised the back roads and two-lane highways of Noblesville, Indiana. Twice the road we were on faded out into nothing in the middle of some farmer's field, and three times we found ourselves driving past Deer Creek Music Center again. Skeeter didn't say much, but Bill and I were having a grand old time just being lost. It was almost a let-down when Skeeter recognized a road sign and, after a few right turns, we pulled into his campsite.

As soon as we parked the car, Skeeter dove into the darkness, and we never saw him again. But Bill and I paid the five dollar parking fee and hung out in that campground all night. Again, like with everything else on tour, there was nothing to do and everything to do all at once. Half the people camping there that night were coming down off of acid, so there were all sorts of weird, wide awake people to meet and talk to.

Bill and I started out by a campfire, hanging out with a few somber Heads from the area. While we were sitting there, chatting aimlessly and chucking sticks into the fire, a befuddled blonde in shorts and a half-shirt staggered over. She was carrying one of those plastic water jugs, and she asked me if I could unscrew the lid for her. Never one to deny the wishes of a damsel in distress -- particularly one who was drunk and scantily-clad -- I did as she asked. The jug was half filled with vodka. The woman then produced a chunk of watermelon in her other hand, and started squeezing the juice into the water jug. "I needed a mixer," she slurred to me.

I caught a glimpse of Bill over her shoulder during this delicate operation. His face was split with a grin of mixed delight and disbelief. I, for my part, had never seen anyone try to juice a watermelon bare-handed before, but sure enough she wrung that thing right down to the rind, swaying the whole time so that only half of the juice made it into the jug. She thanked me with a sloppy but stunning smile, and then staggered away into the darkness, leaving the rest of us to chuckle and shake our heads. When Bill and I saw the woman again, a few hours later, she was throwing up at the edge of the woods.

Bill went off to talk to a few good old boys drinking whiskey in the back of a pick-up. I, for my part, kept company with two college students from upstate New York, one of whom was tripping so hard he couldn't talk without stuttering, as if all of his words were trying to force themselves out of his mouth at once. We found a nitrous dealer -- a surly man from Massachusetts -- and the three of us split a few balloons. Then my two companions took me over to a friend's van, and one of them pulled a small animal cage out from behind the van's front right tire. In the cage was a breeding pair of white mice with a new litter, born that morning. The friend had asked my two companions to keep an eye on the mice, and make sure that the papa mouse wasn't eating any of his children. One of my companions pulled papa out of the cage while the other counted the babies. When all of them had been accounted for, we put the cage back under the van and started passing papa around, letting him climb all over us, and feeding him pieces of grass. I had one of those odd moments that come to me on tour every now and then -- when, just for an instant, you can see yourself from the outside, and you don't believe what you're doing. There I was, sitting in the dirt at a campsite right along the edge of Interstate 69, hanging out with two guys I've never seen before or since, with a rodent running up and down my arm.

Dawn came slowly. As it got lighter, the truckers speeding up and down the interstate could see us, and they started leaning on their horns as they went by just to make sure that none of us was resting too easy. I found Bill, and we headed back to our motel room, our heads foggy with sleep.

The other two shows at Deer Creek that summer were also great. The second show was mellow, and Bill and I, exhausted from our adventures the night before, found seats for ourselves under the pavilion roof and just let the music wash over us. The last show was hot and magical -- impossible not to dance to -- and Bill and I sat out on the lawn with twenty friends we had never met before and had ourselves a blast. But it is that first show, and the campsite afterwards, that most stick in my mind. I have never had such a singularly satisfying day on tour before or since.

For the summer of 1995, it was just me and Bill again. We arranged for me to drive in to Indianapolis and pick him up at the airport. But Bill -- same old Bill -- missed his originating flight out of Baltimore, which made him late for his connecting flight out of Pittsburgh. There were no other flights into Indianapolis that night, so US Air flew him into Dayton, Ohio, and then drove him to Indy from there. He arrived, three sheets to the wind and four hours late, having lost his return ticket and his prized Orioles baseball cap along the way. We were off to a great start.

I had been late making our motel reservations, only to find out that the Shriners were holding a convention in Indy at the same time that the Dead were there. I had called six motels before finding one with any available rooms. We ended up paying more than twice what we usually do, even though the motel in question didn't have any of the luxuries to match the price. But what the hell -- we were in Indianapolis again, and so were the Dead.

We slept in that morning -- or, rather, I slept in and Bill slept it off. We didn't make it to Deer Creek until mid-afternoon. It was great just to be on the lots again, back in the scene. Bill had his T-shirts, and I was selling some handmade jewelry, but neither of us was working all that hard. Lots of people were browsing the vending stands, but hardly anyone was buying. Bill and I met people, sat and chatted -- we even ran into Kathy, a friend from tours past. Kathy had come in from Maryland for just that one show, because that night was her thirty-fifth birthday.

At six, Bill and I packed up our merchandise and wandered with Kathy over to the show. Once again we had to march all the way around the back of the pavilion, but I noticed that this year the stadium guards outnumbered the police. I didn't think much of it at the time.

The show was a good one -- a Rex benefit -- and they played a lot of older songs. But what I remember most about this show is the same thing everyone else remembers. Late in the first set, there was a roar from the crowd at the back end of the lawn. Everybody turned to watch hundreds of Deadheads flowing over the back fence. I was disgusted enough with the fence-jumpers, but I was even more ashamed of the people who were cheering them on. And if so many Heads were making it to the fence, I wondered, how many of them were getting arrested on the way? Even then I couldn't have imagined what was actually going on outside.

Once again, a lot of the Heads who had gone over the fence had taken pieces of it with them as they went. At one spot they had torn down an entire six-foot section, support beams and all, leaving a gap that two security guards stood cross-armed in for the rest of the night.

They did it again, I kept saying to myself. I can't believe they did it again.

When, in the middle of the second set, I heard the same cheer start up at the back of the lawn, I didn't have the heart to turn around. There was nothing going on behind me that I wanted to see.

Jerry didn't play during "Space" that night.

It was twenty minutes after the encore, as Bill and I were trudging through the darkness of the back lots looking for our car, that we first heard the rumor that the Dead were canceling the next night's show. We didn't believe it at the time.

Half of the people we heard the next day -- at the hotel, at breakfast, over the radio -- said that the show was canceled that night, but the other half insisted that the show was still on. It was only when Deadheads started coming back to the hotel, saying they had gotten to Deer Creek but the police had turned them away, that Bill and I knew.

Only then did we get the full report of what had been going on outside the pavilion while the fence-jumpers were breaking in: tear gas, police dogs, Deadheads throwing rocks, just like the Florida show a few month earlier, during spring tour. A lot of Deadheads I met that day blamed it on drunk farm-boy locals, but everybody knew better. One of the prides of being a Deadhead used to be that we didn't need cops around because we were always able to police ourselves. It was starting to look as if we couldn't manage it anymore.

Bill and I spent that sour day in our hotel room, painting T-shirts and watching the Wimbledon quarter-finals on TV. That evening, we splurged on a bottle each of Kaluha, Bailey's, and Grand Marnier and drank B-52 shooters well into the night.

At the next show that tour, at Riverport Amphitheater in St. Louis, the police wouldn't let anyone into the complex without a ticket. The process was so time-consuming that traffic backed up onto, and eventually all but clogged, Interstate 70.

Inside, there were guards in every aisle of the parking lot shutting down the vending. There was no scene at all -- not even any drums.

The show that night was, to my surprise, fantastic. But the riots of two nights before were still in everyone's mind. In the second set, the band played a pointed "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" -- a song we could all sympathize with -- followed by an accusatory "Throwing Stones," and ending up with a conciliatory "Not Fade Away."

As we left the show, the only Deadheads standing out on Shakedown Street were volunteers handing out leaflets -- an open letter from the band warning us that if there were many more riots like the one at Deer Creek, the band might very well decide to stop touring. I wouldn't have blamed them if they had.

And then, a little more than a month later, Jerry was dead.

Jerry's last show at Deer Creek never happened. And it was all our fault. Even if the band does continue to tour without Jerry, even if Indianapolis lets them play Deer Creek again, the last time Jerry played at Deer Creek was a nightmare.

Our last Deer Creek memory diminishes all the rest.


All texts on this web site are © 1998 by Alex Kolker. No portion thereof may be published or distributed without his expressed written permission. But ask him -- he's a reasonable guy.