10/12/68 Avalon Ballroom “it’s a foxtrot, and also a ladies choice”
In a way, this is my Deadhead origin story. It's 1989. I was 14 and had just discovered “classic rock." My native musical tendencies at the time, trended around 80s hip-hop (Run-DMC, Beastie Boys), thrash metal (the big 3) and various NWOBHM—particularly Iron Maiden. The weird, disturbing/cartoonish/horror iconography and imagery were important to 14 year old me ( I guess in a way, I was primed for the Dead.)
Anyway, around this time I had an older cousin who hipped me to Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, and The Doors. Also, that summer was the 20th anniversary of Woodstock, and MTV aired the Wadleigh film I think several times. I was absolutely spellbound. I taped most of the film to a VCR cassette and probably watched Alvin Lee and Ten Years After’s blissed out performance of I’m Going Home
everyday for like 3 months. I wanted Alvin Lee’s whole Woodstock vibe injected directly into my veins. I had become a wannabe hippie.
This neo-hippie vibe seemed to infect my whole friend group. We all read the Beats and Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and traded 60s/70s tapes—Floyd, The Who, The Doors, Cream. We of course started smoking pot and spending hours spacing out to psychedelic music or re-watching Fantasia, Heavy Metal, or 2001 for the umpteenth time. It was all way more interesting than Motley Crue or Winger or Bon Jovi or whatever the fuck MTV was doing.
And of course, I had heard of Grateful Dead by then—I was like 12 when “Touch of Grey” was a hit. And they were a big mainstream rock band in 1989. The news ran segments on them when they came to the area.
But initially, I thought they were kinda lame and corny--like the Beach Boys and Kokomo. Sure, the imagery was dope—like one would expect from a metal or hard rock band. But the Dead were definitely and (for me at the time) disappointingly not hard rock. And those Dead guys for sure did not look like the bad ass dudes from Slayer. From what little I heard, I was not impressed. But how to access the good stuff I knew must be there?
In a way I am a little envious of young people discovering music today. It’s all out there. Want to get into Bob Dylan? You can spend a long weekend online listening to his discography and reading countless essays about his art and emerge as a fairly knowledgeable Dylan fan 3 or 4 days later. The Dead may take a bit longer to fully grok, but all the shows are online and there is no shortage of info about where to start. These days, an intrepid neophyte could get a broad understanding of the Dead in a week or two.
In 1989, I was flying blind. It’s weird to think about how differently we used to conceptualize and listen to rock music back then. At the time rock music was rooted in mystery and scarcity. I was limited to the maybe twenty or so cassettes I had, which I listened to over and over and over again. All I knew about rock music was what I saw on MTV, read in Spin or Rolling Stone, or heard about from friends, older cousins, and siblings.
So when I looked to get into the Dead, I had little bearing for which to set my course. I picked up Aoxomoxoa at the mall because the cover looked cool. And…it was okay. Look, compared to some of the other classic rock era albums I had been exposed to by that time it just didn't really rock or roll very much. At the time, I much preferred Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum
to Aoxomoxoa (and I kinda still do).
Anyway, fall of 1989 was the beginning of high school. New people and new cliques. This kid who became part of our group had a Deadhead older brother in college. And he had the goods. For the price of one or two Maxells, we could get a bootleg. Since I knew next to nothing, I asked for a show he liked. He gave me an aud from a 78 show (a show I actually like now!). At the time however, this seemingly failed even more than the Aoxomoxoa album. The sound was muddy and murky, and some of the songs reminded me of Jimmy Buffett on quaaludes.
But side 2 of tape 3 was called “Filler: Set 2 Avalon 1968.” It listed four songs like this: “Dark Star>St. Stephen>Eleven>Death What the fuck is this? Filler? I wanted killer, and now I was getting filler? Hmm. I’d heard of Dark Star. I knew St. Steven from Aoxomoxoa. “Death” was certainly intriguing. Alright, let’s give it a go…
… (cut to scenes of dude’s face melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the guy’s head exploding in Scanners, the scientists learning to talk to the UFO in the last act of Close Encounters, the Sasquatch/mushroom scene in Tenacious D’s Pick of Destiny, Andy Dufrane standing in the rain after escaping Shawshank)
… THE SHOW
This is it. This is where I GOT IT
. 10/12/68 is what turned the worm for me. Actually, it was just the first set at first, though I was able to get the second set a few weeks later—ah, yes, thank you, this is the bus I was waiting for…
This is pure, uncut Primal Dead. For me, this show is exhibit A of Jerry Garcia as a swaggering gun slinging guitar god. His playing is full of snarling psychedelic attitude and creativity (I think he’s playing a Les Paul here?). You know how Phish people used to refer to “Machine Gun Trey?” Yes, well, here we have Flame Thrower Jerry.
Let’s consider Grateful Dead in the fall of 1968. This show occurs at a time when Pigpen and Weir had presumably been kicked out of the Dead. In the days leading up to the Avalon shows on the 12th and 13th Jerry, Phil, Mickey and Bill were kinda sorta rethinking the Dead line-up w/the “Mickey and the Heartbeats” shows played at the crosstown Matrix on the 8th, 9th and 10th.
Indeed, Pig did not play on the 10/12 Avalon show. For his part Weir does what he can rhythmically as Jerry, Phil, Mickey, and Billy lay waste to all before them. I mean, you’ve got to love a band that fires a dude and then just lets them stick around and earn the job back. Knowing the back story now, this show almost seems like some kind of trial by fire for ol’ Bob. I mean, imagine trying to keep up with this music? In short, this is elemental, fire-breathing psychedelic acid rock played by young men with something to prove.
The Dark Star is early—not as open ended as 72-74 Dark Stars. The Live/Dead version, recorded about six months later, is perhaps more mature and developed, but this one has off-the charts energy and inventiveness. This is my favorite of the early Primal Dead, pre-72 Dark Stars.
I think The Eleven here is an all-timer. Jerry and Phil conjuring viscous curlicues of dark light while Bill and Mickey lock into some kind of inter-galactical syncopation. And the Death Don’t Have No Mercy is just phenomenal. My personal favorite. Jerry really goes for it—he never apes the blues, but he makes it his own. Really passionate guitar playing and even more passionate vocals.
Like the Dark Star here, The Other One would range farther (furthur? lol) out in the future, but this version is just a snarling beast, dripping with liquid magma and unrelenting energy. Likewise, the jam on New Potato Caboose scales the holy psychedelic summit of bliss.
For personal reasons, of course, 10/12/68 is one of my favs. This is a great show to check out if you are looking for raw, primal 60s Dead—an interesting companion to Live/Dead.
It’s also a good gateway show, especially for rockers. I got a few hard rockers turned on to the Dead through this show. The balls-out energy and talent is palpable. Years ago, I played The Other One from this show to an Army buddy who likes metal like Mastadon and Opeth. About halfway through he low whistled and said, “Goddamn, that hippie motherfucker is playing the shit out of that guitar. Gotta respect that.”