A Bus Stops in Piedmont Park July 7, 1969
July 7, 1969 Piedmont Park with The Grateful Dead
(c) 1998 Patrick Edmondson (Excerpted from a longer work in progress)
You have to understand; it was the sixties. Things were different then. In Atlanta there had started to be free concerts held in Piedmont Park. At first they were only for special holidays, then there were concerts nearly every weekend. Soon someone figured out how to “liberate” electricity to the Pavilion and there was some music in the park almost everyday, officially permitted or not.
The quality varied widely from garage bands needing lots more practice to local heroes such as Radar or the unbelievable Hampton Grease Band, to up and comers The Allman Brothers. National acts showed up, too; which brings me to the point of the story I’m setting up here.
I have meant to write this down for a long time. Finally I did on 7/7/98. Days later I checked on the exact date of the concert. It was 7/7/69! (insert Twilight Zone intro here…)
The Atlanta International Pop Festival was held at Hampton Raceway in July 1969. It was such a large crowd – in Atlanta! Lots of famous musicans of that day and all days performed. A great time was had by all.
We were about to leave and saw a guy in a leather jacket. Painted on the back was, “I came from England to hear Led Zeppelin!”. Somehow it impressed us enough to stay to hear the unknown Led Zeppelin close the show; amazing performance!
People began to wind their way slowly back to the campground just lingering in the vibe of the evening, the music, and there being SO MANY HIPPIES; we aren’t alone!
Passing among the crowd were leaflets declaring simply, “Come to Piedmont Park Monday 1 PM”. Another band trying to get started we thought; but we had a feeling…and no one had work or classes Monday afternoon .
Monday about lunchtime we loaded up the Celestial Omnibus with our small circle of friends and headed off to the park, joining lots of other small circles of friends coming together in a temporal free-zone, our community, beginning to coalesce around the park. The Strip was for commerce with straights and all; the Park was for letting your freak flag fly without fear of the attacks still common from rednecks. Here, if only for the moment, weirdness was the standard, and we reveled in it.
The Celestial Omnibus was a hippie VW bus. My fourth bus experience. My first bus experience had been when a fellow Beatle maniac’s mother had agreed to drive the two of us 30 miles to the theatre showing “A Hard Day’s Night” a year before it would drag to our town. We went in a VW van, rare in South Georgia. On the way home we were in dreams of being the Beatles going to a gig; a great time! I thought this was the coolest mother to appreciate how much it meant to the two of us, even if adults sneered at her stupidity in indulging us. It wasn’t normal.
My second “bus” experience was years later. Not too much out of the ordinary happened in Tifton. The expressway was a new link to the outside world bringing the outside world in greater force than old Highway 41. I was killing time waiting on my friend Fred to finish work at the Royal Castle, currently THE In spot for burgers and fries after school, just off Interstate 75. Our band was to practice that night and I was impatient for him to come on.
“Man, you gotta come see these guys! “, a friend rushed in yelling. “A wild old school bus full of crazy people and loud music is stopped for gas next door. Hurry before they leave! You gotta see this!”
We all ran over to see. A commotion seemed to be erupting from this strange old traveling bus that was gassing-up at the Phillips 66 station. The bus itself was colored like a circus vehicle, which was what I had naturally assumed it was since this was still living under the spell of the button-down fifties. Anything so colorful just had to be part of a circus or a fair. And there were certainly people that looked like they were in a circus swarming out of and all over the bus. Most wore these coveralls. People would probably have been scared since they were acting so unusual if they hadn’t assumed from the vehicle and clothes that they were entertainers headed somewhere on the expressway. I just remember these weird expressions and some kind of excitement they generated.
Was it…? I wondered when I later read “The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test”. The chronology seems to fit but I am unsure, it was at least similar minded folks; still it was a seed. I thought how it would be neat to carry your friends in a rolling party.
Christmas after starting college came the third bus experience, Christmas 1968. A VW bus driven by Martin the beatnik gnome, the Cassidy figure in my life, spirited me from home. Friends from college headed to the Miami Pop Festival, living on the fringes. Incredible adventures. I lived them and I barely believe it all.
Now I acquired my first car. A 1959 VW microbus that cost $100 and came with $150 worth of camping equipment, but could barely climb a big bump; my long bus trip begins. With Martin’s mechanical wizardry we gave it a motor and everything else transplant. My part was to paint the bus.
The name in psychedelic bubble smoke letters was “The Celestial Omnibus”. In Senior year English class we had read an E.M. Forster story, “The Celestial Omnibus”, about a bus that literally took you to literary heaven ; it remained corporeal as long as you didn’t doubt , but if you had doubt. It would come crashing back to normal life. That was much the aim I had for this vehicle.
Two fish twirled in the yin-yang replaced the VW circle to lead the way. The driver’s door got the zig-zag man, still hip code then. The opposite side doors got a reclining Mr. Natural with a speech balloon declaring, “Mr. Natural says…”. Fill in your own sage advice if you have any, Mr. Natural said only a fool would follow his advise anyway. We were subtle stealth hippies. We loaded up the bus and headed for the hills of Piedmont, park that is.
Upon arriving at the Park and parking by the Pavilion, we found…nothing happening. A beautiful July afternoon even if it had been a hoax. We were grooving on the park as other groups of our friends and acquaintances arrived. Many folks were left over from the Pop Festival still meandering onward.
The crowd was growing. Drizzling rain was welcomed. A community formed. Someone brought out a giant clear plastic tarp and threw it out for people to crowd under. The edges were tucked down and, this being the sixties, joints came out everywhere. Vision was soon obscured and it became a personal challenge to see how long you could stay before scrambling to the edge, poke out your head and gulp purer air before returning under the plastic.
The rain stopped and on a count the plastic was quickly pulled back at once. A smoke signal was released to Atlanta and everything began to shift.
Lovely hippie women in long skirts swirled and danced through the crowd stopping at various individuals. “Please open your mouth.”, they beatifically smiled. A bit of paper was placed on the tongue & and with a cheery, “Enjoy!” they would sashay away. There were also jugs marked “acidophilus cider” being offered for swigs.
Legend has it that this was a going away party for a certain teddy bear that had to be held a coast away from local authorities. After twenty minutes it was indeed a party with the only music coming from someone’s portable eight-track in the pavilion.
“Make way for equipment!” The crowd was parted so trucks and funky vans could drive up to the pavilion. As they were unloaded we watched for stencils to identify the bands. The Allman Brother’s mushroom, of course; Spirit; Delaney and Bonnie and Friends; the Chicago Transit Authority; The Hampton Grease Band; and some lighting bolt through a skull design.
When our friend Dan, just back from Fran Sanfisco, saw this,
he lazily smiled slyly beneath his round blue-smoked glasses and droopy ended mustache. His laconic drawl informed us, “Ya’ll are in for a treat. It’s the Dead.”
The Dead! San Francisco musicians, emissaries from the Tribes on the West Coast, free, here on a Summer Day in Piedmont Park! The Dead were of our culture, but we really considered them as of us rather than stars, an antithesis to the new culture.
Sixties roadies really worked. From installing the exact setup on varied stages once or twice a day, they evolved the process into balletic precision. Zen masters at work in a dance of their own devising. Barely giving each other a notice, they knew just when to put out a hand needed to help get amps, cords, drums and all into place. Everything seemed to grow almost organically as layer after layer of equipment was installed for various bands.
Soon Glenn Phillips prescient-electronica guitar yelps and Harold Kelling’s sweet melodies wove threads around sonic blues riffs from attacked guitars. Mike Greene, now the president of the Grammies, played and sang sweet harmonies to counter Bruce Hampton’s fabled screamed/sung dada linguistics and insane stage antics. Hampton and Martin had first met when they had been the weird kids at Georgia Military Academy where their parents had sentenced both to do time for being weird; a threat I also received.
With a little help from their friends with the paper and cider, this crowd was really getting into the music driving the musicians to redoubled efforts. Everyone was dancing and strolling about meeting or just smiling at people. Some sat in groups and communed with the music.
The Allman Brother’s blues flowed in accompaniment to a glorious sunset. The multi-rhythms of Berry, Jaimoe, and Butch set waves of energy moving through the people. Duane’s heartbreaking solos merging with Greg’s plaintive vocals touched your soul.
Strange trap set on stage; two big bass drums mounted slanted sideways over the regular trap set. Older bald head, eyes electric- Ed Casady pounded like a spirit possessed wailing the enigmatic Spirit lyrics. “Fresh Garbage” introduced by stepson Randy California’s tasty guitar licks interwoven with keyboards and mingled voices created a feeling like a strange and enveloping tapestry.
The party was in full swing as Chicago Transit Authority’s brass led melodies created “Saturday in the Park” on a Monday evening.
With the night came more magic. Dan got a cot from the Celestial Omnibus and lay in the open with a sign saying “Feed Me.”. Throughout the rest of the evening innumerable paper bits, a few joints, and a few female breasts were inserted in his smile. Gabi and I being purists who endured eating Morning Glory seeds to get to the natural source, passed on over five hits to he and Ronnie.
Now the Dead began to tune. Word spread through the telephone pipeline to the suburbs; A beckoning from the bathhouse pay phones.
As the crowd grew the officers of the law had at first grown tense. Since the crowd was all peaceful and grooving together; a gathering of the tribes, they relaxed.
Love really began to prevail. Dealer’s opened their stores and set phalanxes of joint rollers to work. Cops asked for some of the cider, were warned and tried it anyway. They let pretty women try on their hats. They danced and let people decorate them with flowers and incense. They winked at people passing joints and even took mostly ceremonial hits at first. Cops got kissed. Soon cops were joining the circles around water pipes.
“I can’t do this any more!” yelled one young cop as he tore off his uniform. For his trouble two hippie women soothed him under a hedge by the stonewalls. Giggle, moans, and body parts occasionally protruded from the shrubbery during the rest of the evening.
The Dead began playing I watched a skinny longhaired guy in hanging jeans climb a scraggly elm in front of the Pavilion. He sat on the one branch protruding vertically about 15 ft. from the ground. It didn’t look like it could possibly hold even his weight. We watched in expectation of his imminent descent
The rhythm seemed to get him before gravity. Unbelievably he let go of the main part of the tree and stood erect on the limb. He began to sway with the music and shift from foot to foot. Then he jerked still and stayed as paralyzed for a few minutes. Just as suddenly he began to prance and gyrate wildly breaking laws of physics.
I glanced at him every few minutes from then on. He continued to be a marionette pulled by every chord Jerry played. Finally I looked back and he was gone without a trace. I asked but no one around saw him ever come down…
It was midnight and Dead had played most of the songs for which they were becoming known and they stopped after about three hours. But now more equipment was added to the stage?!
Most of the musicians retook the stage to play with the Dead. Big horn section, background singers, eight drummers, a bass quintet, and Harold Kelling, Glenn Phillips, Duane Allman and Dickie Betts, Delaney Bramlett, Chicago’s guitarist, Randy California, and Jerry Garcia trading and interlacing lead lines.
This was a two-hour shakedown song before they settled into “Dark Star” experimentation. This became a rock symphony full of the once and future hits of all concerned.
About 3:30 AM Jerry’s guys shifted to their closing song. Coda after coda rang into the darkness of Atlanta’s late July night stillness.
The musicians hung out a while. No one wanted to leave and break the spell. We watched the roadie’s performance as they prestidigitate loads of equipment into their small spots within the trucks and vans. When loaded, these spirited away into the night. Only naked bulbs over the pavilion competed with the moon. Light around both seemed to hang in solid Van Gogh visions of colors streaks.
Cops and the crowd felt the shift back almost to the normality we had forsaken for a while. All our faces had been stolen.
We collected our stimulated to satiation group into the Celestial Omnibus. Dan’s face became animated, “Was I right?” He had been. it had been a night to live in memories. We’d forever know that skull split by a lightning bolt.
(c) 1998 Patrick Edmondson
(First published in Smash magazine, Excerpted from a longer work in progress)