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It's 9:30 p.m., and San Diego's Gaslamp crackles with anticipation

"It seems like it's getting younger.”

Male/female relations in the Gaslamp are confused, fraught with miscommunication, resentment. - Image by Matthew Suárez
Male/female relations in the Gaslamp are confused, fraught with miscommunication, resentment.

It’s half past 9:00. The happy hour/dinner crowd is packing into their vehicles, creating precious new parking spaces for the new guard. Apart from a few locals blaring hip-hop from a boombox, the sidewalk of Fourth Avenue is mostly bare. Patrons are at their first destination for the night and are shifting in their seats.

I sing “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows. The crowd sings along, dances, and dispenses high fives in my direction.
Place

Sultan Baklava Mediterranean Cuisine

770 Fourth Avenue, San Diego

The street lights that give this neighborhood its name flood the street with a gentle glow. The trees lining the sidewalk are draped in clear Christmas lights that have just turned on. The air smells a mix of pastries and marijuana smoke; the former from Sultan Baklava Mediterranean Cuisine, the latter from a group gathered outside a convenience store. Top 40 hits from cars and passing bike cabs compete in a disorienting battle for sonic supremacy.

Tivoli is crowded, with almost as many baseball hats as there are heads.

On Fifth Avenue there are still children in Padres fan gear matching their parents. The only people who are outside and not in a hurry are the ambassadors of surrounding businesses.

Nicki Peterson: “As the night went on, the ties would come off, and they’d let out their inner animal, like werewolves.”

They’re all attractive young women dressed in Daisy Dukes and crop-tops or something similar. They dispense free-entry stamps to passersby in hope of getting a head start on becoming the “it” bar of the night. The storefronts are stacked with a series of hostesses greeting pedestrians in quick succession, giving the gauntlet-running pedestrian a sensation akin to celebrity.

Werewolf karaoke. The bartender greets me with an improvised sing-along to the Aladdin song.

As 10:00 approaches, Henry’s Pub plays a Tupac Shakur song like a challenge to the Gaslamp Quarter:

California knows how to party,/ Yeah California knows how to party...

Place

Tivoli Bar & Grill

505 Sixth Avenue, San Diego

Of all the places to party in the Gaslamp, Tivoli Bar and Grill is the oldest. Originally constructed in 1864 to serve as a feed store, blacksmith shop, and boarding house (then known as the Walker House), the building was rechristened as Tivoli in 1915.

“The great thing about the Gaslamp is that it’s always poppin’."

The bar has a storied history that includes facilitating prostitution, selling illegal alcoholic drinks in the basement during Prohibition, and hosting Wyatt Earp and his wife Josie. Photos of the couple join a menagerie of photographs depicting athletes, heroes of the Mexican Revolutionary War, actors, and the Romero family (which has owned the bar since 1972).

Omnia. “This looks fake. I’m keeping this. You can either leave now or we’ll call the cops.”

Tonight, Tivoli is crowded, with almost as many baseball hats as there are heads, many of them turned to the TV screens on the wall playing sports highlights. Colorful flags adorn the walls, while country-rock sets a relatable, down-to-earth tone.

The inside of Omnia consists of a circular dance floor, presided over by a somber-looking, goateed DJ.

“It’s not a remarkable bar, really. But it’s very chill and easy,” says patron Dan Quon, 35. Quon came to Tivoli after attending the Padres game. “It’s old-school. Nobody judges you if you order a Budweiser.”

Sidebar. Cocktail servers take a pass on wearing pants in favor of stockings and lingerie.
Place

Omnia San Diego

454 Sixth Avenue, San Diego

Other patrons, such as Miranda, 25, and her two friends Mariana and Diana, are waiting for business to pick up at Omnia (and other clubs. They order food from a menu replete with burgers, carne asada fries, and tacos. “It’s a good place to start the night before clubbing,” says Miranda. “It’s fun and the food’s good.”

DaVon from Sidebar confirms the preference for only girls.

By 10:45 the sidewalks are busy with the bustlings of nightlife. The down-the-middle outfits of jeans and button-down shirts are dwindling in the face of increasingly polarized outfits: the hyper-casual bargoers (baseball caps, shorts, T-shirts, beards), and the high fashion club crowd (evening dresses, ties, vests).

When asked his occupation, Paul Allen cheerfully answers “Living, brother.”
Place

Werewolf American Pub

627 Fourth Avenue, San Diego

Werewolf, a bar with a narrow entrance adjacent to popular dueling-piano bar the Shout House (655 Fourth Avenue) decidedly appeals to the former category. One of the bar’s main attractions, frequent karaoke, is in full use as a patron sings a full-throated version of “A Whole New World” from the Disney film Aladdin. As I approach the bar, the bartender greets me with an improvised sing-along to the Aladdin song, nimbly substituting the original words with standard bar greetings.

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I could show you some drinks,/ What is it you’d be liking?/ Vodka, gin, rum, and other things too/ What is it you want?/ A whole new world!

The bartender/songstress, Nicki Peterson, has been working at Werewolf for nearly a year. She describes the experience as “Like being in a functioning, dysfunctional family. We like to call ourselves ‘Masters of the Vibe.’”

The staff take pleasure in relating the supposed origin of the name. “All these businessmen would come in, and as the night went on the ties would come off and they’d let out their inner animal, like werewolves.”

For Werewolf patron Shelby Wead, 23, the staff’s commitment to casual celebration pays off. “Werewolf makes you feel special. They have a special birthday horn they just honked off for my friend. It’s always a celebration here. I give them five Yelp! stars.”

Wead picks up a bunch of balloons that was recently dropped by an exiting bridal party. She calmly asks to borrow my pen. I oblige. She then savagely stabs at the balloons until there are no survivors. She politely returns my pen and serenely sings along to the karaoke rendition of Stevie Nicks’s soft-rock classic “Landslide.”

“[Werewolf] is definitely one of my favorites,” says Nate Wilson, 37. His friend sings a light rendition of “I’m Yours,” and not wanting to miss out on the fun, I sing “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows. The crowd sings along, dances, and dispenses high fives in my direction.

We were all at the same party.

On a weekend night, one can expect a variety of street performers busking on the sidewalks of Fourth and Fifth. The sidewalks have hosted saxophone players, a percussion duo beating upside-down buckets, and singer-songwriters, to name a few.

Among the street performers entertaining the public tonight are Daniel Grok and Victoria Dovensky, both wielding acoustic guitars. Grok wears a blazer, button-down shirt, and a fedora. Dovensky communicates a hippie-chic sensibility in her floral skirt, dark jacket, and knitted hat over her brown hair.

“It can be a pretty off-the-wall work environment,” says Dovensky dryly. “I get harassed a lot. This homeless woman walked up to me while I was playing a Sheryl Crow song, and punched my guitar out of nowhere. It was crazy-rude, but I do give her props for a sharp sense of juxtaposition.”

The monetary reward for playing music in the Gaslamp is not high. Both performers report making anywhere between $85 and nothing for a full night of performing, averaging out to around $30. Neither reports being bothered by the low cash.

“What bothers me more than the money thing is that there’s no real music scene down here,” bemoans Grok before being interrupted by two male passerbys in their mid-20s who call out “Sublime! Sublime! ‘What I Got.’” Grok cheerfully obliges, starting the tune before the passersby continue their journey without tipping.

Grok finishes the song anyway.

Place

Fluxx

500 Fourth Avenue, San Diego

Place

Oxford Social Club

435 Fifth Ave, San Diego

I continue to Omnia, one of the Gaslamp’s most popular clubs. Just this April, Omnia was ranked first in Foursquare’s list of 15 best nightclubs in San Diego, beating out veteran Fluxx and newcomer Oxford Social Club for the number-one spot. On first impression, Omnia is structured as a series of lines outside and circles inside. The sidewalk framing Omnia facilitates three separate lines, all of which are thoroughly populated for most of the night. Prospective guests are organized into a hierarchy of VIPs, ticket-holders, and general admission.

A young man with two female companions ahead of me in the admittance line hands the doorman his identification. “This looks fake,” the doorman says bluntly. “I’m keeping this. You can either leave now or we’ll call the cops.”

The young man steps out of line, and his companions surrender voluntarily.

The inside of Omnia consists of a circular dance floor, presided over by a somber-looking, goateed DJ and circled by private tables reserved for VIP guests. The curved bar stands directly across the floor from the DJ station. Purple and pink lights flash along to electronic dance music. A staircase leads to an almost identical second floor featuring glass rails lining the VIP tables, where patrons can lean over and watch the dance floor below populate and build to a candy-colored frenzy. The third level leads to a rooftop patio, complete with its own bar and DJ, and significantly more cigarette smoke.

Ryan Sandahl and his husband Sam are enjoying people-watching on Omnia’s top floor. They normally spend their time in Hillcrest where they live but come to Gaslamp once every couple of weeks. They say it provides an opportunity for a sort of cultural vacation.

“We don’t feel like we really know the straight world that well,” says Ryan, 36. “I think there’s something about hetero masculinity that makes some [gay men] uncomfortable. It’s, like, ‘I don’t know if I’m making the straight guys uncomfortable or not.’ So we really don’t interact much with the straight world, which makes coming down here a nice glimpse into that world. Gaslamp’s like one big singles’ club.”

As Ryan finishes his point, I am approached by 27-year-old Shasta Thomas, asking if I would like to have a drink with her and her friend. She tells me her goal for the night is to make sure her friend has a good time. We stand in line to get on the crowded dance floor, waiting for the current occupants to exhaust themselves and make room. Upon entering the dance floor Shasta takes both my hands and guides them to unexpected places.

For many singles in the Gaslamp, male/female relations are confused, fraught with miscommunication, differing goals, resentment, and hope. Not sure how much the alcohol helps.

The Quarter crackles with sexual energy. Advertisements, music, promoters, and outfits donned by male and female patrons all seem chosen with sex appeal in mind. However, very few women are satisfied with the way men act in Gaslamp, and vice versa.

“I generally have very bad experiences with guys in the Gaslamp,” Miranda from Tivoli told me. “Around here, guys are spoiled and entitled. Ruthless, really. If you don’t give them what they want they become very rude and say you’re stuck-up.”

“It’s, like, I’m dancing, and all of a sudden there’s a crotch in my butt!” adds Miranda’s friend Mariana. “I’m, like, ‘no, no, no, no!’ and the guy starts gagging at me! Can you believe it? Gagging, like he’s gonna throw up on me if I don’t do what he wants. I just want to have a good time and dance, but the guys act like you owe them something.”

Many men express frustration with the difficulties of finding a mate in the Gaslamp. The phrase “stuck-up” came up quite a bit. Some were even happy to demonstrate their wooing methods for me.

“You want to know what Gaslamp girls are like?” asks 21-year-old Fluxx patron Michael Sinclair. “Hey! Hey! Come here for a minute.” Sinclair calls to a passing woman. She passes without breaking stride and calmly lifts her middle finger as she recedes into the crowd of smokers populating the sidewalk.

“That’s Gaslamp women right there. Not standoff-ish. Downright stuck-up! The girls are attractive — you’d better be attractive. Even then, I consider myself attractive, and I’m having a hard time.”

I resist the instinct to suggest revising his wooing methods.

Kevin Nuñez, 23, has been in the Navy for three years and has resided in San Diego “for about a year.” Nuñez came to party with two Navy friends after the Padres game. His demeanor is fun-loving and breezy as he says the Gaslamp is his favorite area in San Diego. But when the subject of women comes up, he becomes suddenly pensive.

“Well, the girls here are kind of...standoffish.”

When asked to describe a preferable scenario, Nuñez smiles: “Free access.”

While complaints about the lack of reciprocal interest were the most common among men, some had a hard time finding someone they liked for other reasons. “There are a lot of attractive girls, sure. There’s just not enough professionals,” says Quon (a 35-year-old lawyer) before adding, “I mean, I would still bang a lot of ’em.”

Rosie Hammond, 23, reports feeling frustrated with flirtatious men in the Gaslamp. But she admits that she enjoys it when they buy her drinks. “They feel like they have the power to just barge in and present themselves to me. Their game is weak, and I don’t want their game. I like the drinks, though. Only two groups of guys bought me drinks tonight. Can you believe that?”

Rosie, her two friends (who preferred not to be identified), and I were then followed down Fourth Avenue by a man in his mid-20s wearing gym shorts, white sneakers, and a large white T-shirt, who repeatedly asked the girls where they were going. Rosie told him to get lost. When he stopped, she turned around and beamed a smile and a wink in his direction, eliciting another wave of fruitless come-ons.

The consensus of the girls I spoke with was that men shouldn’t expect anything sexual on the first encounter. Mariana says her perfect man would be “someone who just wants a conversation, you know? I just want them to ask nicely. Engage me as a person!”

For those wishing to limit the male attention offered to them, 27-year-old Page Graves offers a helpful tip: “If you tell them you’re married, they back off.”

Some, like Werewolf patron Wead, find perks in the flood of male attention. “I mean, I don’t mind. Some hot guys buy me some drinks. So what? I mean, I was a stripper for three years, so there’s that.”

Among those surveyed, women reported spending anything from nothing to $100 for a night in the Gaslamp, while the figure for their male counterparts ranged from $50 to $250.

Place

Side Bar

536 Market Street, San Diego

On a Saturday night, the cost of a drink at Side Bar ranges from $6.66 for a Budweiser to $150 for a shot of DeLeon tequila, with similar and higher prices found elsewhere in the quarter. If you’re not lucky enough to find street parking, then you either pay $10 for parking or pay for an Uber ride. Given the alcohol involved, the latter method has become the overwhelming favorite. After 11:00, entrance fees can range from $5 to $100.

Alexis Reidell, 22, reports that she never spends any money in the Gaslamp Quarter other than on transportation. “People buy me drinks, naturally. Even if I insist that they don’t, they usually still do. So I let them. I never have to pay cover either, so it’s pretty good.”

Gabriel Velazquez, 25, who lives at the intersection of Third Avenue and Market Street, found his own way of mitigating the cost of a night out. “My friend and I just walk to the Ralphs across the street and get these terrible eight-dollar bottles of vodka or whatever’s cheap that day. We take a bunch of shots in our apartment and then stumble out into Gaslamp madness and see if we can get in anywhere before they start charging a cover, then stumble home at the end of the night without paying a cent. It’s pretty sweet, but we do have to pay $1700 a month for a one-bedroom, so I don’t know how cost effective it turns out to be. You’d have to party a lot to break even with that strategy.”

Fluxx promoter Karen is not surprised by the gender spending disparity. “I do feel badly for guys’ wallets. They get the rough end of the stick on that one. If you’re a pretty girl, you don’t have to pay for [anything].”

At Fluxx, located at the intersection of Fourth and Island avenues, girls get free admission all night. If a guy tries to come in on his own after 11:00, “He’s paying 20 to 30 bucks at least.”

The practice of adjusting cover charges for certain patrons that might be perceived as more desirable tends to have malleable rules and many approaches across the Quarter. The topic seems to make some in the industry uncomfortable.

“Well...you know it’s been proven that more women means better business, so it’s good for the atmosphere to maintain a certain ratio,” says Side Bar club manager Damon M. Welch. He speaks in a calm and deliberate voice, through a full, trim beard that leads to a shaved head. He is quick to add dimension to the process.

“It’s not just a guy-girl thing; it’s more about the vibe and look of the group. If they’re all in dresses and suits, we’re more likely to let them in.”

Welch also expresses annoyance at any assumptions that might be made about the process.

“There’s a lot of entitlement downtown. A lot of girls just assume they’ll be let in for free, but that’s not really our game.”

Says Side Bar door host Justin Slack, “It really depends on the night. There are no hard rules or anything.” Slack estimates that on a Friday or Saturday night (if not packed) a man could gain free admission if accompanied by two girls. “A lot of the time, I’ll even hook up a couple.”

I decided to put this to the test. I came back when Slack was not on duty. I asked two groups of girls if they would accept me into their party, with the second group — a party of three girls joining a larger party inside — obliging, even buying me a glass of sparkling wine after I gained free admittance in their company.

The first group I asked declined not out of “snobbiness” or being “stuck-up,” but because claiming me as a member of their party would have added a $400 spending minimum for their table. One of the girls, wishing to be identified only as Kate, showed me the text message exchange between herself and Side Bar promoter DaVon, and sent me a screenshot of the conversation.

After establishing the identities of both parties, DaVon confirms that there will be only girls at the VIP table being reserved for Kate’s birthday party. Kate answers that there will be seven to nine girls and two guys. DaVon responds, “If it’s all girls, I can do a comp which is completely free and you just pay $70 in gratuity. If there’s any guys at the table, it’s a $400 minimum spend.”

“We’ll be just girls then,” reads Kate’s response. She invites me to visit their table later in the night if I gain entrance.

Place

Tin Roof San Diego

401 G Street, San Diego

Tin Roof has a consistent $5 cover for men and free entrance for women on weekend nights after 11:00, whereas Omnia charges a flat cover for all patrons that ranges from $20 to $100, depending on the night.

Side Bar is a popular lounge and dance club that features moody red lighting with spotlights that dance to electro-pop, and cocktail servers who take a pass on wearing pants in favor of stockings and lingerie. Black and white erotic art (mostly females in various states of undress) decorate dark, brick-finish walls.

Side Bar manager Welch says, “Our most common problem is over-intoxication. We’re all certified to look for signs of being overserved.”

Welch explains that employees judge from a combination of posture, gait, and speech to determine if a patron has had too much.

Another problem Welch has to deal with: fights.

“Contrary to popular belief, we get way more fights involving women than fights involving men.... Usually it’s baby-mama issues — ‘She’s going out with my man!’ ‘She gave me a dirty look in the bathroom,’ stuff like that. Women can be brutal.”

I order a drink and make small talk with a girl at the bar and am approached by Rome Mirzai and Zahel Cueras. “Hey, bro, just a suggestion, but keep a close eye on that,” says Mirzai as he motions to the wallet still in my hand. “There are some shady people in this area who will try to take that in a second if they get the chance. Just protect your stuff.”

As I leave Side Bar, SDPD Sgt. Dan McClain and four other officers are in the process of bringing a handcuffed man in his mid 30s with a dark complexion and a thin, stylized goatee, from the back of a police car to the back of a prisoner transport van with white walls that call to mind a narrow version of the stark white room at the end of 2001: Space Odyssey.

McClain is part of what the San Diego Police Department calls the Gaslamp Enforcement Team, which is made up of eight full-time officers and a supervisor. On weekends, two officers are often added to the lineup for extra support. They primarily oversee the vicinity from the intersection of L and Fifth Avenue up to Broadway.

“Our responsibility is to keep the patrons down here safe,” says McClain, who declined to comment on the incident in progress. “But I’ll tell ya, we see a bit of pretty much everything down here.”

McClain reports that the most common issues the Gaslamp Enforcement Team handles are alcohol-related. They try to anticipate potential problems by identifying patrons who exhibit the signs of over-intoxication. “The guidelines can be kind of vague, but we look for people who seem unable to take care of themselves.”

Despite these occasional problems, the Gaslamp is described affectionately by its patrons: young, exciting, touristy, laid back. Clubgoer Mariana comes for the variety and reports that the Gaslamp is the only area in San Diego where she can party, dance, and be “fancy” simultaneously.

The Gaslamp is the neighborhood of choice for Wead also, who frequents it every weekend and on some weekdays. “The great thing about the Gaslamp is that it’s always poppin’. I can come down on a Monday at 2:00 p.m., and there’ll be people getting good food and drinks. It’s the place to come for an elevated experience.”

While the most common complaint relates to parking — a commodity that elicits fierce competition — many expressed a preference to socialize in other areas of San Diego for a variety of reasons.

“The restaurants are doing really well,” says Quon, “but it seems like the Gaslamp is getting younger, and a lot of people are getting turned off. It’s annoying.”

Quon’s statements sound more like the sentiments of an older man than a 35-year-old lawyer. Several other patrons expressed a similar take. They prefer what Quon refers to as the more “sophisticated” and “educated” crowd in South Park or Normal Heights.

“Gaslamp just tries too hard. It comes off as desperate.”

Hearing Gaslamp patrons describe the nightlife neighborhoods of San Diego is like a study in collective word association. While the Gaslamp Quarter is described with words like “fancy,” “young,” “exciting,” and “touristy,” Normal Heights, South Park, and Hillcrest are described as “refined,” “trendy,” and “sophisticated.” Ocean Beach is invariably described as “chill” and “laid back.” The most reliable neighborhood to adjective pairing is Pacific Beach and the word “douchey.”

The specificity of “douchey” to refer to Pacific Beach was intriguing. The Google definition of “douchey” reads “(Typically of a man or his behavior) obnoxious or contemptible.” I did not find one person who compared Pacific Beach (referred to as PB by everyone under 30) favorably to the Gaslamp or any other popular neighborhood.

This definition holds up when descriptions of the PB area became more elaborate than the standard adjective. Twenty-two-year-old birthday celebrator Alexis Reidell, a Pittsburgh transplant who does clerical work at an investment firm, believes that, given the legitimate complaints about the behavior of some men in the Gaslamp, she is grateful not to deal with the men from PB.

“At least the guys in the Gaslamp aren’t as bad as PB guys. PB guys are just the worst! All they do is…”

The rest of her description can’t be printed here.

Even those with complaints about the Gaslamp reported positive feelings about the area, and sometimes wistfully recounted favorite memories related to the Quarter. San Diego Zoo employee Page Graves, 27, summed up the dominant sentiment:“It’s fun, and there’s a little something for everyone.”

Last call rings out at 1:30, with all bars closing at 2:00 a.m. per California state law — although the Let Our Communities Adjust Late Night Act was proposed in February by state senator Scott Weiner, and if passed would allow local governments in California to extend last call until 4:00 a.m.

At 2:00 a.m. the streets and sidewalks are packed with Uber cars and recently ejected partiers, many of whom would continue to party if they could. Groups of patrons line the sidewalks facing the street, brandishing cell phones like a well drilled army, filed in ranks while they wait for rides from Uber and Lyft. There are some last-minute attempts at flirtatious interactions by frustrated single males. Savvy patrons watch their steps for vomit.

Place

Gaslamp Pizza

505 Fifth Avenue, 2, San Diego

By 2:45, the crowd has thinned out to a few romantic couples enjoying their first chance at seclusion. Some have relocated to Gaslamp Pizza, which has been serving Gaslamp patrons for the past ten years. Gaslamp Pizza is one of a handful of establishments open until 4:00 a.m. and provides a sanctuary to those who want to eat, finish conversations, and sober up before the trip home.

Paul Allen, 36, makes a habit of coming to the Gaslamp streets to make large bubbles with his “giant bubble maker.” The bubbles produced boast a two- to three-foot diameter as they float gently across the mostly deserted streets. The few remaining passersby either chase the bubbles in giddy excitement or calmly enjoy their quiet journey to the pavement.

When asked his occupation, Allen cheerfully answers “Living, brother” and lists his residence as “wherever the hell I decide to sleep that night.” Dressed in a grungy black jacket and green military-style backpack, he dips his bubble maker into a bucket of soapy water.

He says he makes a ritual of the activity almost every night because he likes to see people run and chase his bubbles. He pauses, and his blue eyes shoot me a mischievous glance from a stubbled face before adding with a wry smile, “But I mostly do it for the women.”

I walk the last two blocks to my car, and one of the illuminated bike cabs approaches, playing the familiar slinky piano plucks and confident bassline of Tupac’s “California Love” for the second time of the night, like an answer to its own question.

California knows how to party,/ Yeah California knows how to party.

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Cassie and crew at the Las Vegas Sphere.
Cassie and crew at the Las Vegas Sphere.

Basketball great and San Diego icon Bill Walton died on May 27. The next day, sports commentator John Canzano posted an interview clip on TikTok in which he asked Walton how many Grateful Dead concerts he had attended. “Not enough,” replied Walton, before recounting that his first Dead show had been when he was in high school. “I was 15. I’m listening to FM radio and the disc jockey, it had to have been Gabriel Wisdom, that was the guy that everybody listened to, and he said, ‘Boys and girls, that last jam you just heard, that was a new band from San Francisco, and they call themselves The Grateful Dead.’” Wisdom then said that so many people had showed up to the Dead’s recent show in San Francisco that everyone got in free, and that maybe the same would hold true for their upcoming show in Los Angeles. “We said, ‘Yeah, that’s us, let’s go chase the dream!’ So one of the guys stole their parents car for the weekend, right? Nobody had driver’s licenses, nobody had any money, we just went up there in our shorts and our tennis shoes and a T-shirt. We just went up there, got in free somehow, went right to the front, and our lives were never the same.”

“Not enough” Grateful Dead concerts translates, in Walton’s case, to somewhere north of 850. Many of the stories written after his death made mention of his devotion, sometimes to the point where his storied basketball career seemed to be secondary. What were two decades on the court compared to more than five decades in the stands — and on the stage? (Walton famously joined the Grateful Dead offshoot band Dead & Company onstage as a white-bearded, rose-crowned Father Time for its 50th anniversary celebration in 2015.) Drummer Mickey Hart recalled that his dear friend Walton would “regularly send messages that said, ‘Thank you for my life.’ He was the biggest Deadhead in the world and used our music as the soundtrack of his life.”

Three days after Walton’s death, Dead & Company paid tribute to him during a performance of his favorite Dead song, “Fire on the Mountain.” The biggest Deadhead got the biggest sendoff: his image, name, and player number 32 splayed across the gargantuan curved screen of the Las Vegas Sphere, where Dead & Company are in residence until August 10. They started their run in May, after finishing their farewell tour in July of last year, and my wife was in attendance opening night. When she returned, she insisted that she needed to go back — this time, with me. She insisted that Dead & Company was not simply a glorified cover band, rehashing old favorites with the help of relative youngster John Mayer. She insisted that the band was revitalized, in an almost literal sense: the Grateful Dead were alive again, somehow, lo these 30 years after the death of founding member Jerry Garcia.

She knew just what to say. Like many fans, I had thought the Grateful Dead era ended when Garcia died. My wife understood my feeling, if only because she was a little like Walton and other devotees who talked about the Dead — and Garcia in particular — in tones that bordered on the religious.

Garcia was a reluctant high priest — he saw himself as a working man — but that didn’t stop the true believers, even if the best they could offer to explain themselves was, “They are a band beyond description,” one that provided, through their music and the community that formed around it, the closest thing to a religious experience they had ever found. “I am the human being that I am today because of the Grateful Dead,” Walton once said. And like converts, it wasn’t enough for them to attend; they had to tell the world, convince them to come along. “You’ve got to get on the bus, man!” They were friendly, wide-eyed, hopeful you’d join them. But for many, including myself, it felt like they were trying to describe a rainbow to a blind person.

On May 5th, 1990, I got on the bus — or tried to. My best friend at the time was a drummer named Steve Harris. He know I was into progressive rock: polished bands delivering tight performances of frequently complex music. He did not care. He insisted that the Dead were something I had to see, “a band beyond description.” He bought me tickets to see a set of weekend shows in a field at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He proudly declared that these were his first Miracles. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he had a sincerity that was hard to resist, and it seemed important to him that he share this experience with me. Besides: free tickets.

We wound up sitting on the grass, fairly close to the stage. It was extremely hot. A lady seated in front of us said, to no one in particular, “I wish I knew somebody who was at their first show.” Steve quickly let her know that I was just what she was looking for. “Here,” she said, handing me a tiny square of colored paper. “Eat this.” I looked at Steve for reassurance. He was happy to provide it. That set us up for a 16-hour psychedelic ride. But before the acid kicked in, the band strolled onstage and spent what seemed like five minutes tuning their instruments. I had never seen that before, or heard it. It sounded…disorganized. And when they started playing, they kind of fell into the song. The vocals seemed sloppy. I didn’t hear any of the songs I had heard the band play on the radio. The rest of the crowd seemed to approve, but I didn’t get it.

Then they took a break, and when they came back, well, only the drummer came back. The drummer played for what seemed a long time, and when the rest of the band came out, they started doing the strangest thing I had ever heard musicians do. It seemed like they were playing badly on purpose, making sounds that did not link together in any discernible way. By this point, I was thoroughly altered, and the discord sounded weird and even ominous.

By way of consolation, Steve leaned over and said simply, “Space.” I was not consoled. I was annoyed. I had heard so much hype about how good these guys were. Then, finally, they started in on a song that the crowd seemed to recognize, and it was like the whole audience exhaled and relaxed in unison. Then this guy who looked more like somebody’s grandfather than a rock and roll star started to sing something about needing a miracle every day. Steve leaned over again, and explained that a miracle wasn’t just a free concert ticket — it was a gift.

By this point, the LSD had taken hold. I had never experienced it before, and after an hour, I found it close to overwhelming. When we left the venue, we were in no condition to drive. So we sat in Steve’s car, and he played his current favorite Dead song on his car stereo — a slower number called “Box of Rain.” He explained that the song was about the bass player’s father dying of cancer. I remember still not getting it. I remember saying that they sounded like a low-budget Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with passable but loose harmonies.

Later, my friend Steve died of cancer. Now, when I hear the song “Box of Rain,” I am taken back to the good times we shared before the sickness blossomed in him like a poison flower, and invariably, I will weep. The song has become a time stamp for a moment in my life. It hits deep. But even so, and even though I saw the Dead again a year after that first “miracle,” I did not become a Deadhead until I saw the band’s current iteration at The Sphere. The Dead are an acquired taste; it took me three decades to acquire it.

My wife kept showing me videos taken of Dead & Company at The Sphere. She told me it was a must-see event, that the venue was as much a part of the show as the band, and the internet seemed to share her opinion. Okay then. But our flight out of San Diego was delayed, and despite skipping dinner and making a mad dash to the venue, we arrived after the show started. I should have been soured on the whole experience, but the experience was too sweet for that.

Trying to describe The Sphere makes me sympathize with Deadheads trying to describe the Dead. I will say this: it feels like the future. There are something like 40 individual speakers per seat, and the sound is focused like a laser beam. One section might receive audio in Chinese and another in English, and there would be no confusion. Despite the sonic excellence, it was hard at first to judge the band’s music, because the visual experience was placing such a massive demand on my attention. The curved screen behind the band was enormous; the graphics, all but overwhelming.

But as I settled in, I found I couldn’t help but be impressed by the musicianship of John Mayer (and the rest of the Dead’s new blood). He was doing Jerry Garcia’s guitar licks, but taking them further. And while he got all the words in all the right places, he wasn’t trying to sound like Jerry. He was doing his own thing, and it was working. In short order, I was dancing along with the rest of the crowd.

Back in my younger days, when the band did their “drums and space” thing, that was bathroom and beverage time. No longer. This giant contraption with dozens of drums and assorted instruments was played by three members of the band — and that’s when I noticed the haptic seats. When the drums hit certain notes, I could feel it through the chair. The sound seemed to be three-dimensional, at times bouncing noticeably off the front, back, and sides of the Sphere. But it wasn’t like panning a speaker left and right; it was all around me. And then Mickey Hart did something with an instrument called The Beam that triggered light effects that were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. A one-hundred-and-fifty-foot brain appeared on the screen, the nerves pulsating as if stimulated by whatever it was he was doing. It was incredible! I would pay the ticket price just to see that one aspect again.

As it was, we came back for the Friday show with better seats, and again on Saturday. Each night, the emotional impact grew. The old favorite songs were new again. I started to get it, to understand why the Dead got so big, so ongoing, and why the scene is still so vibrant today. It’s something profound, something beyond music. After the last show, while we were doing the exit shuffle, riding the escalators down, we found ourselves face-to-face with people on another escalator. Our eyes met, and we started cheering, not for the band, but for each other. That’s the kind of love and goodwill I encountered.

Back home, I sought out the local Dead cover band scene. To my amazement, I found around a dozen. Does any other band have a dozen cover bands in one town, or 1800 nationwide, with at least six being full-time touring acts? Dead & Company called their Sphere residency “Dead Forever;” given what I saw and felt, it does seem like the long, strange trips will be going on for a long, long while.

— Albert Barlow

In 2023, Dead & Company announced that their current tour would be their last. They hadn’t played San Diego since 2021. I had to travel to Los Angeles to see the second show of that last tour at the Kia Forum and then to San Francisco to see the very the last one at Oracle Park. But just because they’re no longer touring doesn’t mean they’re no longer playing, which explains their residency at The Sphere. Or helps to explain it.

I frequent a bar in Coronado. One of the bartenders there is Cassie. She’s tall, with dusty blonde hair, the most beautiful brown eyes I’ve ever seen, and she’s drop dead gorgeous. That aside, she’s got heart and soul and is a Deadhead. One day, I went in for a beer. Cassie gave me a wide smile; her eyes sparkled. “I just got a bunch of tickets for Dead & Company shows at The Sphere.”

My interest was piqued. “How do I get in on that action?”

“I got tickets for the first weekend and second weekend. I think we’re going on the second weekend.”

“That’s the weekend I want to go!”

Buzz began to build within the local Dead community; people wanted to know who was going to which show. It intensified when the first clips hit the internet after the opening show on May 16. I didn’t want my experience to be spoiled, so I resolved to avoid them. But the thing about spectacles is that you want to look at them. Happily, they didn’t lessen my excitement about the real thing.

Cassie, her friend Fil, Evan and I were the Coronado Tribe, headed for the May 24 show. Unlike Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, we opted to fly instead of drive. (Cassie let me know which flight to book and already had a hotel lined up.) Like Duke and Gonzo, we had plenty of drugs to keep us company: eight hits of LSD (4 microfiche and 4 liquid gels), five infused joints with kief and rosin, one pressed Ecstasy pill, sixteen Molly caps, four cannabis pens, one bottle of 1000 milligrams of THC tincture, and a quarter of mushrooms.

That Friday morning, Evan came to pick me up in his golf cart. Golf carts are not uncommon on the streets of Coronado. Evan is 26, and is in the Navy. The Navy promises one sort of adventure; our journey promised an entirely different sort. We met Cassie and her roommate Luke at their place to catch a Lyft to the airport. (Luke was heading to London and his flight was around the same time as ours.) Fil was already inside the airport bar, waiting for us and drinking a beer. Cassie and Evan opted for Starbucks, but I stayed with Fil and ordered a $14 Tito’s & soda on the rocks. I’m not a big fan of flying, so a stiff drink was in order. Fil is 43, svelte, and has eyes that pierce into one’s soul. That gives him authenticity.

We arrived at our hotel around 1:30. Fil had arranged for a suite at the Hilton Grand Vacations Club. After unpacking, it was time to change into our Dead attire and head out to Shakedown Street. For non-Deadheads, Shakedown Street is the designated vending area set up in the parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts. Vendors sell clothing, jewelry, arts and crafts, food, drinks, and illicit items. In this case, Shakedown Street was at Tuscany Suites & Casino, less than a mile away from The Sphere. We arrived at 4 pm, and after we had taken a couple of laps around the lot, we concluded that it wasn’t as robust as others we had visited. (I recently learned that the vendors eventually moved inside the hotel due to the heat.) Fil noticed something odd: “I don’t hear any tanks or see any balloons! Headshops sell tanks here in Vegas, though.”

Cassie bought a hoodie and we decided to walk towards the Sphere. Along the way, we passed by Lawry’s Prime Rib Steakhouse on Howard Hughes Parkway. I was telling my crew that the place was an iconic restaurant when I noticed something else: “There’s a headshop!” Inside, we learned that 2.2-liter nitrous oxide tank prices ranged from $45-$99. We all pitched in for the $45 tank and some balloons. People sell nitrous balloons for up to $20 at shows.

We found a staircase at a shopping center across the street from the Sphere to do our balloons. But we got kicked out by security immediately after doing our first round. We decided to head into the Sphere parking lot to see if there was a space for us to do our thing. First thing we saw were police officers getting ready for their concert shift. We needed a different spot after that encounter. We looped around and found an abandoned parking lot. There, we were free to do our derelict activities: inhaling balloons, smoking joints, and playing music.

After our frolic it was time to march to the Sphere (but not before hiding what was left in our tank in the bushes). We found the line to the entrance. While in line, I saw fellow wordsmith Emily Elizabeth Allison from San Diego. I went to say hello and get her thoughts. This is what I got.

Dead Forever

Giant round belly

against the sky,

an egg, giving birth

within itself

to itself.

Outside-in

swirling dervish

calling across dry sun,

an unforeseen spectacle

so full of nothing

but offering something…

spiraling dreams

in a bubble

that no dawn can burst.

You are a memory

of past desert days

and simpler times.

You are the magic ball

of the future

telling fortunes

in rapid blinks,

sensory reminders

of parts of ourselves

that had been forgotten

and now beg to be

remembered.

You are a balloon

with its exhale

catapulting itself

against hopeful blue

sky water.

You are my bucket of joy

and then my hollow of grief.

I never could have known

how I would be swallowed

into your orbit

and spun within your cycle

of a million stars.

You remain for me

a single planet

unmoving

like a gift

with no corners

or ribbons

and seemingly no end.

Perhaps,

like Christmas,

your smile will subside

and you’ll start a new list

of naughty and nice.

But for now,

you are the wizard

behind the curtain

showing all the love

and unexpected tears

are my own.

Decades ago

I never could have imagined

you are rolling up to my gaze

like God’s spaceship,

offering a portal

that demands no vehicle

but breath.

You, round star,

watch my arrival

then spin behind me

as life pulls me away

back to the sea.

You are indifferent

to my comings and goings

and still, I see your wink

inviting me back

each week

to swim in your sphere.”

Our seats were in the 300 section. Once at our seats, we ingested our LSD. The information I was getting on social media was that the 300 and 400 sections were the best for catching all the visuals of the show, and the floor was good for dancing, spinning and being up close to the band. I haven’t experienced the floor yet. (I stress “yet!”), but confirmation can be provided that the 300 section is good for the visual aspects. Viz: the doors opened to the Grateful Dead House in Haight-Ashbury while the “Music Never Stopped” and then everyone was floating up into outer space. Not to mention standing underneath a waterfall, letting the water run between my fingers and catching the rain with my mouth, only to arrive at that cathartic moment viewing Jerry’s silhouette during “St. Stephen.” The crowd on the floor looked like amoebas moving in their pseudopodal state.

The show ended and it was time to find our tank. Cassie had a pin on it, but wasn’t confident one of our brains would work enough to get us there. Good thing I’ve had children, because my fatherly instincts for finding the child kicked in, and we found our parking lot and continued our derelict activities. There was enough in the tank for two more balloons, and we smoked a joint. That was night one.

Next day was recovery by the pool, drinking beers, hitting the vapes, putting tincture under our tongues and relaxing. At one point, Cassie sat up from her lounge position and declared, “We fucking deserve this! I know all of us work so hard!” After sufficient relaxation, the plan was to get cleaned up and head to the Venetian for the Dead exhibit they had there. When we arrived at the Venetian, we learned the exhibit was (and is )at the Palazzo. Exhibits about the history of the Grateful Dead; I probably don’t need to recommend that. Cassie, Evan and I started eating mushrooms at a microdose pace; we didn’t want to trip out too hard before the show.

The Palazzo connects to the Venetian, and the Venetian connects to the Sphere. Because we were in Vegas with some time to kill before the show, we all splintered off to do some gambling. We set a meeting spot, and after meeting at our designated rendezvous location, we shared our stories of being up and down and happy to lose only around $60. We all considered that a win.

Time to go to the show. Night two was not as intense and I was able to grasp and capture everything better because I was in a more stable state of mind. We all opted to head back to our hotel after the show because we had to wake up at 7 am for a 9:30 flight. Our flight back only took thirty-six minutes, but we were stuck on the tarmac for over an hour because there was a plane with maintenance problems stuck at our gate. That was the worst thing that happened on our trip.

There were firsts for each one of us. It was my first back-to-back shows. It was Cassie and Fil’s first indoor show. It was Evan’s first Dead show ever, and the first time he did LSD. He had moments of going deep inside himself, trembling and being confronted with moments from his youth. He made it out with enlightenment. None of that can explain, nor can anyone explain what happened. As Cassie said, “It’s inexplicable!” Our own experience is the one we have. I got to share and rejoice with my sister and brothers.

As the late Bill Walton (Rest In Power) once said, “We all won, and everybody wins.”

Gabriel Garcia

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