A Venice activist who battled the 1960s heroin epidemic finds peace, love and Rock Medicine still going strong at the Dead’s last California concert
By Thomas Pleasure
Nearly 35 years ago I took a road trip up north from Venice to attend my first Grateful Dead concert. I was never a Dead Head, but the experience made me a believer.
When the Dead added June 27 and 28 dates at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara to their goodbye “Fare Thee Well Tour” — the band’s final concert on Sunday in Chicago capping off an incomparable 50-year musical and cultural legacy — I was ready to boogie.
What a long, strange trip it had been that compelled me to first see the Dead and then revisit Dead Head nation for the band’s final California performance.
If it weren’t for the vicious heroin epidemic in Venice in the late 1960s, I might never have been exposed to the band.
As a ‘60s activist, I had been hired to evaluate the UCLA/Venice Heroin Treatment Project for the National Institute of Mental Health. At the time, heroin use had reached close to epidemic proportions and there were few treatment guidelines or standards. The only options were group therapy, heroin replacement drugs or, as I later learned, God.
Large numbers of Vietnam vets were coming home hooked. As part of my job I headed to the Bay Area for an emergency health conference on fighting heroin addiction. It was there that I met Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic (HAFC) co-founder Dr. George “Skip” Gay, a determined, long-haired health care activist dedicated to bringing medicine to people in need regardless of their ability to pay. Skip was a true frontline warrior to make health care a human right, not a privilege.
Skip and fellow HAFC co-founder Dr. David Smith wrote the book “It’s So Good Don’t Even Try It Once: Heroin in Perspective” in 1972. Despite the book’s dire warning, it did little to slow demand for the drug.
In 1973 Skip started Rock Medicine, a group of medical volunteers who provided emergency assistance at Grateful Dead concerts as an outreach function of the HAFC. With a handshake agreement, he and concert promoter Bill Graham began to deliver “non-punitive, non-judgmental healing — free, at point of care,” as Skip would say.
Each year thereafter, Skip asked me to join in Rock Medicine’s work at the Grateful Dead’s annual holiday concert. As a single parent who religiously delivered his progeny every Christmas to their Northern California mother, I finally decided to join Skip’s team and work The Grateful Dead’s 1980 Holiday Classic at the Oakland Auditorium — five shows in six days: Dec. 26, 27, 28, 30 and 31.
It was that week that made me a believer in not only Skip, but also the Grateful Dead. It was an all-consuming marathon musical experience filled with long improvisational guitar jams, insanely complicated drum solos, a swirling psychedelic light show and non-stop dancing among the crowd.
Those memories still alive, I put Santa Clara in my sites to pay homage to the Dead’s 50 years of playing the marching music for the peace & love brigade.
I didn’t listen to any music as I drove up the 5 Freeway. The San Joaquin Valley was pregnant with dark rain clouds until finally the sun broke through and the Santa Clara sky emerged a magnificent powder blue.
Curious about whether Rock Medicine had survived Skip’s death in 2002, the first thing I did at Levi’s Stadium was track down a woman wearing a medical badge. She took me behind Section 124 into an office packed with medical personnel dressed in blue tie-dyed tees, where she introduced me to Penny Miller, RN. When I asked Penny what had become of Rock Medicine, she laughed.
“Skip was my husband. I could not let Skip’s good work be lost,” she said. “That Rock Medicine provides on-the-spot medical attention saves public EMT services from responding; that’s a huge public savings. We now do 960 events a year.”
Penny explained that the HAFC had been absorbed into the larger nonprofit HealthRight 360 and that event producers cover the group’s costs for each event. Since 2012, Gordon Oldham has been the group’s guiding light, and Penny told me he even has a bicep tattoo of the original Rock Medicine logo that Skip had drawn.
But, she cautioned, “Tie-dye no longer defines us. Today, we’re also at San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade. We have enlarged our brand. We are way beyond the Grateful Dead days. Bottom line: We provide quality emergency care at the point of need.”
The Dead’s musical performance that night was more than I had expected. People danced in every space imaginable. At first I thought some dancers employing exaggerated movements were just being ridiculous, but they stuck to their weird routines the whole night. On and on they danced like dervishes. Several in my Tier 3 area were barefoot, dancing on the cold concrete for almost four hours, just like 1980. It was an ecstatic event. Everyone around me was laughing or singing.
With a synapse-popping lightshow displayed on screens all around the stadium and more than 60,000 Dead Heads singing as one, a woman on my right leaned close and said, as best as I can remember: “This is all so wonderful. I feel so great. The Supreme Court’s approval of marriage for everyone means everyone gets the benefits of love. Obamacare was upheld again, giving more health care to the poor who really need it. The president even sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ I feel so proud of my country. I haven’t felt this way in a very long time.”
I leaned back against her and asked her age. She said she was three months shy of 30, a musician headed to law school in September.
I think it’s safe to say the Dead live on in a new generation.
As for me, I played “American Beauty” non-stop all the way back to the beach.
Thomas Pleasure, author of “Venice of America: The American Dream Come True,” is currently working on a memoir titled “Autobiography of an Activist: A Serendipitous Journey from Brooklyn to Venice Beach.”