April 19, 2005

Sliding Door Moments: The Dead on the Corner

None of us knows how many such moments we’ve had: moments when the course of our lives could have been shifted by a small decision or turn of chance, as in the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow movie SLIDING DOORS, where her romantic fate is decided by whether or not she catches a train before the doors close.

We all have the big, obvious decisions – should I take that job, should I go out with that person? – and then there are the countless little moments that we’re never aware of. Perhaps by driving through that yellow light, you alter your timetable so that you miss a fatal accident ten miles ahead. The Butterfly Effect.

Some people believe that these branchings of fate are infinitely many and that all of these alternative life–paths actually exist in different dimensions. The Many Worlds Hypothesis. (To me, it sounds exciting but implausible: too wasteful a way to arrange a universe.)

The most interesting sliding door moments, for me, are the ones that we hardly noticed at the time but that grow larger in memory. I think I’ve just recently identified one that happened to me when I was 16, in 1968.

I grew up in the Bronx, and my friends and I would take the subway down to Manhattan every chance we could to search for adventures, which we never found. One of those jaunts was made with a friend of mine whom I’ll call Turk, who was a year older and a fair amount hipper than I was. It was night, and we’d spent all day downtown wandering around – probably seeing a movie and eating cheap food, I don’t remember – and it was starting to rain hard. (I seem to recall it was late in the year, but it could have been almost any season. I can only be fairly confident it was 1968 and not 1967 by estimating the historical moment in retrospect.)

So there we were at Herald Square, across the street from Penn Station, about to descend into the subway, when Turk points to a bunch of grubby–looking hippies standing on the corner across the street and says, “Hey, I think that’s the Grateful Dead. Let’s go over and say hi. They look like they’re lost. Maybe we can help them.”

To which I immediately respond with a grumpy: “No, let’s go home, it’s pouring rain.”

Turk made a halfhearted effort to persuade me, but I stood firm – partly because of an ingrained Bronxite wariness of approaching a group of seven or eight rather menacing–looking strangers on a street corner – partly because at that age I was a negativistic, withdrawn, despairing, lonely soul and would say, “No, why should I?” to any suggestion of fun or profit.

And I had absolutely no subjective sense of being excitingly close to rock stars. Rather, they looked like a bunch of scruffy guys who might do you harm. (Which, with their merrily cruel hobbies of shooting off guns at their ranch, and dosing everyone they could with acid, they were.) In autumn 1968, the Dead were not famous except on the West Coast. They had just released their second album, ANTHEM OF THE SUN, but both that and their first album were commercially invisible. Their name, which sounded incredibly weird at the time, was known, but they were considered an ultra–underground band that no one really listened to. Jerry Garcia’s name was known only as that of someone credited as “musical and spiritual advisor” on the Jefferson Airplane’s SURREALISTIC PILLOW. Within a few months, Turk would lead me to my first Dead concert at the Fillmore East, and it would become psychologically necessary for me to listen to ANTHEM OF THE SUN at least once a day for several years, but at the time of this encounter, I had never seen the Dead’s picture or heard a note of their music.

So that was it. We went downstairs into the subway station, and the subject of that non–encounter was never raised again between us.

But recently, thinking back, I have come to believe that Turk was very likely right – I think it really was the Grateful Dead, standing around wondering what to do next after being deposited at Penn Station on a low–budget road trip. The only specific visual detail of their appearance that stands out clearly in my memory is that one of them was tall and had a shoulder–length blond perm. That would have been Phil Lesh, the bassist. A couple of the others looked pretty tough – one of them would have been Pigpen.

So I’ve been thinking, what would have happened if we’d gone up to the Dead and said hi? Well, if we’d spent any time at all with them, tagged along -- as a teenager could actually do with the Dead at that stage of the counterculture – we would soon feel the first rush of 500 micrograms of the purest sunshine, manufactured by their engineer Owsley, the gold–standard maker of LSD in the U.S. And from there, who knows what would have happened? I was fascinated, and still am, with the psychedelic era, but I never did take acid and probably wisely so, given my temperament. If I’d suddenly found myself tripping in the middle of chronic adolescent depression, at the very least I would have had trouble getting home that night, and probably I would have been shaken to the core. For the good or the bad? Would I have become a psychedelic washout – would I be dead today, or struggling back from decades of psychosis, mumbling the wisdom of ancient Egypt to the customers at my newsstand? Or would I have become an insider with the Dead – writing some of their lyrics, publishing my memoirs, seeing God through my liberated consciousness? Would I have come to know my true powers – for God’s sake, would I have finally been able to get a girlfriend, which would in itself have changed the future course of my life and severasl other people's? – or would I have retreated further into my room and not said another word for years?

In retrospect, I wonder why Turk complied. If he was so keen on saying hi to the Dead, why did he let me persuade him? It’s not as if I had such a forceful personality. He was older, bigger, the leader. But I think that inside the adventurous person, there’s sometimes an unadventurous person who wants to be led away from danger. Maybe my hippie friend, too, wanted to get home and out of the rain.

Maybe I’m thinking about this today because Phil Lesh’s autobiography, SEARCHING FOR THE SOUND: MY LIFE WITH THE GRATEFUL DEAD is just out (it’s #70 on amazon). And it’s the group’s fortieth anniversary.

I think back on myself and laugh: that sullen, distrusting, snide little Jewish kid from the Bronx. Why did he close doors rather than open them?

What are your sliding door moments?