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Truckin' in Sweden

What a "big drug party" looks like in Nerdville.

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The old Swedish couple -- think Ward and June Cleaver, post-retirement -- looked around the train nervously. You could see them processing: "We're on a train, we're in Sweden, but these are not Swedish people. They're colorful, and loud, and they smell." Their polite, somewhat forced smiles said, "Nice doggie."

The conductor came through and had to step over people to make it down the aisle -- people and backpacks and guitars and blankets -- and when he reached the older couple, the gentleman touched his arm and mumbled something Swedish.

To hear the conductor's response, think Swedish Chef on The Muppet Show (bork bork bork!): "Yorgy borgy dorgy," he said, "dorgy borgy Grateful Dead borgy borgy." The throng of hippies burst into laughter, and just then, the train started to roll.

Yes, the Grateful Dead in Sweden. The boys played a lot of places in 30 years, including Memphis, and every place seemed odd at the time. But it's tough to imagine an odder place for a Dead show than Stockholm. It's the cleanest, most orderly, most sane place you can imagine. But in early October 1990, the Grateful Dead rolled into town to kick off their third and final European tour. Somewhere around 700 Americans joined them, tie-dyes and pipes and all.

The Stockholm paper had a big story about the Deadheads, and when I asked a local what it said, it became clear that it was the Standard Deadhead Newspaper Story, translated into Swedish. "Big drug party," the guy told me. "People with no jobs, only travel and music." Amen, I thought.

The show itself was at the convention center, in a hockey rink next to the main building. The place held maybe 7,000 people, which in 1990 was anywhere from a quarter to a 10th the size of arena the band was playing back in the States. This was one of the main attractions for the folks who made the trip well, and Europe, I suppose. They played -- played the hell out of, in fact -- a place in Berlin that held 5,000 or less. In Hamburg, the venue was even smaller, and it was barely standing when they left.

In Stockholm, the show was terrible. Word was they were jet-lagged. But the Dead had a way of doing that: get everybody excited, play a big stage on a special occasion, and then fall apart. Their magic couldn't be called on; it happened when it happened. And it didn't happen in Stockholm, which no doubt left the Swedes who attended wondering what these crazy Americans were up to.

But Stockholm offered a memorable scene. It seems that while the Dead were playing the hockey arena on a Saturday night, over at the main hall Young Life of Sweden was holding its national convention. Now, chances are that the reader of this column knows what a Deadhead is and considers it an odd critter. Chances also are that the reader would look at a gathering of Swedish Young Lifers and think, What a bunch of nerds.

So imagine, if you will, giggling Swedish nerdettes perusing a selection of glass pipes from a young (white) man with dreadlocks. Imagine a bow-tied young gent breaking through the wall of fear to try his foot at hackey-sack -- and to find that his soccer background helped a lot. Imagine the occasional, spontaneous, ever-growing "woo-hoo!" that would sweep through the Deadheads, fueled by the occasional, spontaneous group realization that We're in f--ing Sweden to see the Dead!!!, leaving the Young Lifers looking (and in some cases running) around, wondering what was happening.

Inside the show, the Americans quickly figured out something really exciting. The Dead, who distributed many of the tickets themselves, had conspired to put all the mail-order tickets -- all the Americans -- up front. This left the Swedes, ever orderly, in their seats up in the risers.

Two highlights of the evening: One was when some clever Head figured out that the only thing separating us from the ice of the hockey rink was a green carpet, which could quite easily be rolled back. It had never occurred to the folks at the Stockholm Convention Center that this would be a problem, since they don't really throw "big drug parties" for people who "have no jobs, only travel and music." And by the time a back corner of the arena had become a run-and-slide bonanza, the security team had apparently adopted a strict policy of keep to the risers.

The second highlight was during the encore. The band was playing a rocker called "One More Saturday Night," and they had finally found a smidgen of a groove, and everybody was hoppin' and boppin' and runnin' and slidin', and I looked to my right, and there were two young Swedes, one in a dress but no shoes and the other with a bow tie recently undone, dancin' like fools and admiring each other's moves in a way that I knew was not approved of over in the main hall.

We caught each other's eyes, and we all threw our hands up and yelled, "Woo-hoo!" And I thought there just might be hope for this country after all.

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