In the 60s, my father was a crew cut-sporting, hippie-hating Nixon supporter. I was a long-haired, Vietnam War-protesting adolescent. The only times we seemed to be able to come together was through our love of live music. I’m grateful for the opportunities he provided for me to experience many of the great jazz legends, including Louis Armstrong and Stan Getz. The music always transcended the circumstances in our lives. We drove over an hour to a show to see saxophonist Stan Getz the day after my dad caught me smoking pot in the basement. It was a very tense, quiet car ride, but we were still able to appreciate the music.
When I was 18, I fell in love with a girl in my art class named Marj. She had long blonde hair and wore hippie dresses and round John Lennon glasses. I wanted to ask Marj out and this would be my first date. What would we do? I thought back to past outings that stood out as special. I kept thinking about the live jazz concerts with my dad.
I perused the Chicago Tribune and came upon a concert listing for Miles Davis. He was performing with his famous “Bitches Brew” lineup. I bought box seats.
I showed Marj my Miles Davis tickets and said I had an extra. Would she like to go? Though she did not know who Miles Davis was, she saw the price of the box seats and said “Sure.”
I picked her up in my Karmann Ghia and we drove to Chicago. The temperature was dropping and my car had no heat. We found parking about six blocks from the Civic Opera House.
I knew it the moment I heard my door close. I had locked my keys inside! I was standing there on a cold windy street with a skinny shivering girl. Not sure what else to do, we took off running to the venue.
Once inside, my anxiety about my keys dissolved as we took in the scene around us. The art deco lobby was glamorous and luxurious. I felt like I was in Brussels or Paris.
The usher looked at our tickets and led us to our box. We were shocked that we had a little room to ourselves. On the door was a gold plaque. We were in television celebrity Phil Donahue’s opera box! We had individual comfy chairs with velvet upholstery and a perfect view.
Miles Davis and Bitches Brew was not entry-level music. It was Miles Davis at the peak of his experiments in electronic, rock-influenced improvisation. Even now, it sounds challenging and avant-garde to me. To Marj, whose favorite band was Three Dog Night, it was uncomfortable and incomprehensible. The show stands out in my memory as one of my top musical experiences. As a first date, it was a dismal failure. However, I did learn how easy it is to break into a locked Karmann Ghia.
Spring came around. I still saw Marj in class. She told me about a new singer she liked by the name of James Taylor. I was very excited to learn that he would be performing in Chicago. I bought two tickets and invited Marj. She accepted.
The stage was simply set with a stool and two mic stands. James Taylor shyly walked out with an acoustic guitar in hand and waved. He was wearing blue jeans and a blue chambray work shirt. His brown hair flowed just past his shoulders. He opened with “Fire and Rain.” He was humble. His voice was soft. His music was sincere, pure and unadorned. He captured our hearts and souls.
I wanted to appear artistic and bohemian to Marj so I had brought along a pomegranate. I hadn’t ever actually eaten a pomegranate and wasn’t sure how to peel it. I pulled apart the thick hard skin and red juices started running down my fingers. I got pomegranate juice on Marj’s dress. I didn’t have a napkin, so I had to head to the men’s room clutching a dripping red pomegranate.
That concert was the last time I asked Marj out. Later I heard that she had gone to see Three Dog Night with another guy and had a truly wonderful time.
I spent the summer before college working at a girls’ summer camp. I became enamored with one of the high school campers. Laurie had long dark hair and a grown-up figure. We kept making eye contact, but I was strictly forbidden from interacting with the campers. The last day of camp, before she boarded the bus, I got her phone number.
The next week I moved into my dorm at the University of Illinois. I had $300 saved from my summer job. I enjoyed my freedom and independence, but I had to be frugal. The Grateful Dead’s “Workingman’s Dead” album was the soundtrack of my summer, and when I heard they were playing in Chicago, I just had to go. I barely had money for a concert ticket and I certainly didn’t have enough money for a train ticket and a hotel room. So I took a long shot and called Laurie and asked her if she’d like to see the Grateful Dead – and maybe I could stay at her house?
I made a cardboard sign saying “CHICAGO” and began hitchhiking to Chicago. I had never hitchhiked before. I caught a ride from the fire chief of Effingham who was on his way to Chicago for a fireman’s convention. He dropped me off near Laurie’s school.
Laurie took me to her house and introduced me to her mother who was very nice. She showed me to the guestroom and gave me the keys to the family car; she didn’t want Laurie taking public transportation late at night.
We approached the box office. I hadn’t pre-purchased tickets. A sign on the window read “SOLD OUT.” I had hitchhiked all the way from Urbana to Chicago to a sold out show. I dejectedly turned and walked away. A voice called out behind me. “Hey! Here’s two tickets. You can have them!” It was a miracle.
The New Riders of the Purple Sage played a long opening set. We were getting close to the departure time needed to meet Laurie’s curfew when the Grateful Dead finally came on stage. We stayed for the first set.
The sight of Laurie’s father pacing on the front porch in his pajamas haunts me to this day. We blew curfew by two hours and he was about to eviscerate me for bringing home his daughter so late. My instinct was to flee, but all my stuff was in the guest room.
The next morning, after the angry father left for work, Laurie’s mother knocked on the guest room door and said it was safe to come out. She gave me train fare, drove me to the station, said it was nice meeting me and suggested it might be better if I did not come back.
My love of live music has persisted into my golden years. It seemed fitting when, just as with my first Grateful Dead show, I got into my last show, the 50th anniversary extravaganza two summers ago at Soldiers Field, with a free ticket.