As we started up the mountain, the band settled in for the drum solo.
We were two guys on our way to meet other guys for a campout. The band was the Grateful Dead, blowing minds in some hall years before. I had told Rick that I'd play him some of my life's soundtrack to show him what I've been talking about all these years. But the Dead always had a knack for failing expectations, for playing poorly at big moments, for leaving people wondering, good or ill. So I wasn't sure how it would come out.
Up to that point, it had been a happy time in the car and on stage. The driving was straight and flat, the music was lively, the conversation was kickin'. Rick was tapping his feet, and the road was our dance floor. But as night came on, the hill became a challenge, the turns were filled with trucks, and the groovy guitar vibes gave way to a pounding, primordial beat. The travel gods, playing stage managers, even cued some fog.
Winding through traffic, up an unfamiliar hill, struggling in lower gears, I had faith that we'd get through it. I knew too that the big, happy music would come back. Rick had gotten quiet. We were beyond the thrill of leaving and, apparently, nowhere near the satisfaction of arriving. We rose into thicker fog.
The drums bled into bizarre sound effects -- echoes and screeches and howls and explosions -- and the last light of day was snuffed out in the rearview mirror. I couldn't see the next turn. Some trucks were on the shoulder with their hazard lights going. The music was a formless mass of weirdness -- tempting to turn off but captivating in its insanity.
I expected Rick to ask, "How long does this part last?" Other friends had asked the same, when crowds of Memphians made concert-runs to Atlanta or St. Louis back in the day. My parents had asked too, when the Dead played The Pyramid. But music and the road aren't meant to be comfortable and easily understood; if that's what you want, stay home.
Besides, I've known for years that there was some mystical connection between my stereo and the road -- even city streets. How many times, as I pulled into a parking space, had the song ended in that instant? How many times did a musical moment accentuate a big view? Or a favorite song come on at a happy time? I had faith. And I had a mountain to get us over. I left Rick to his own experience.
After a period of darkness and silence, there was a moment when the fog seemed to thin, when the signs said things would be going down soon, and when the band -- without stopping -- looked around and took a deep breath. Deadheads learned to feel that moment. I remember first-show friends picking up on it and asking me what was happening. They said it was like watching a game that you had never seen before; you knew something was happening, or about to happen, you just didn't know what. I said, Relax, none of us did.
I put the car back in fifth and slipped it into cruise control.
As form emerges from chaos and speed picks up, the human vibe comes alive. Rick fed off it without really knowing it. He chose that moment, anyway, to restart the conversation. I don't recall the words -- my mind was in the hall of yesteryear, moving toward the front -- but I noticed Rick had started tapping his foot again. They were playing some jazzy stuff now, and Rick is a jazz guy.
By the time we entered the first big straightaway and I let the engine wind out a little, the Dead had worked themselves into a dramatic, Spanish-style frenzy. Whatever we had been talking about became irrelevant, and Rick -- the groove had gotten to his head and was working its way into his shoulders -- looked at the stereo and said, "Damn. They're rockin'!" I turned it up a smidge.
We could see lights in the distance, and we knew we had friends there. The trip was almost done, but the music owned us. The band by then was playing flat-out rock-and-roll, showing no mercy whatsoever, and we had the volume up and the windows down. The bass thundered, the guitars wailed, the drums lashed. We turned heads in whatever town that was, and we didn't give a damn.
I made the turn for the campground, the band crashed a final chord, and the crowd was yelling its lungs out. The sign said eight more miles, and the band came out for an encore.
They closed that show with a thumping Chuck Berry song called "Let It Rock," and the final BOOM went off, on cue, as we arrived in a cloud of dust and half a dozen friendly faces looked up from the fire. "You guys were having fun," they said. I looked at Rick, his face plastered with a boyish grin, and said, "That's what I've been talking about."