SUMMER OF DEAD 2014: Oxford Plains Speedway, Oxford, Maine, July 2 and July 3, 1988
The Summer of Dead and summer camp! Buzz Poole looks back on 1988.
In the summer of 1988 I was 11 and spent a month at a sleepaway camp in Nobleboro, Maine. It was great – we swam in the lake, camped out and climbed Mt. Washington, shot rifles, and goofed off in the ways boys do when they haven’t reached puberty but can sense it approaching. I spent three summers going to this camp and those month-long stints made countless impressions on me that I can track to this day. I’m not sure I can credit summer camp for making me a Deadhead, but even before I knew anything about the Grateful Dead I received an unforgettable lesson in just how important the band was in the lives of its fans.
That summer, the Dead wrapped up its East Coast summer tour with two nights, July 2nd and 3rd, at Oxford Plains Speedway in Oxford, Maine. By all accounts, and as the recordings confirm, the shows oozed carefree summer attitude enhanced by the rural setting, about an hour northwest of Portland, creeping up on the New Hampshire border and the White Mountains. Of course, I wasn’t there, but I did watch, along with the rest of the camp, a swimming race in the lake between counselors vying for an extra ticket that had become available.
These guys were old in my eyes. They were in college, grew facial hair, and had sex. I don’t remember a jerk among them. Sitting around campfires or killing time during a downpour, we’d talk about all sorts of stuff – girls, family, sports – but they weren’t pontificating about their favorite art house films or the bands they listened to. We were kids after all. Knowing what I know today, though, these guys were on the crunchy side, happy to spend their summers introducing a bunch of rambunctious boys to the joys and hardships of the wilderness.
So they we all were, gathered down at the lake to watch a bunch of counselors, with nicknames like Pothole (when not out on a camping trip he taught pottery classes), get really riled up to win the opportunity to go see this band with a recent hit song and, apparently, a devoted fan base. The winner was one of two brothers who both worked at the camp. I’ll never forget his smile. Back then I didn’t have the right words for it, other than “happy” and “big.” But his smile more closely resembled religious fervor or tripped-out bliss, a Cheshire cat grin to be sure.
Oxford is about eighty miles from Nobleboro and it just so happens that I pass through there a few times a year when on my way to visit family. Route 26 is a mostly two-lane road that hasn’t changed much since 1988. It doesn’t matter the time of year, every time I pass by the rickety-looking stadium I think back on that day of the race in the lake and how badly these guys wanted to see a band, something I came to understand and appreciate about five years later.
When I listen to the shows now, especially July 2nd, I almost feel like I was there, as if being in the state at that time, and having watched this race, and still passing by the stadium make me a part of those concerts by some cosmic proxy. It’s absurd, I know, but it’s real to me, which is all that really matters. I’ve stopped and walked the empty dust and gravel parking lot and imagined a summer evening and a relaxed “Iko Iko” opener bubbling out over the grandstands, and pondered the beam-heavy, synthesized soundscapes of Drums and Space climbing into the night sky over such a sparsely populated region.
I can’t tell you the first time I listened to these shows, certainly not until the mid ‘90s, but even without hearing them until years after they happened, there’s just something about them that has been with me for twenty-six years, in the same way that everything about my first Dead show in 1993 has stuck with me since, and in a way explained quite a bit about that race in the lake. I can’t explain it better than this, but since the Grateful Dead defy explanation on so many levels, it strikes me as just about perfect.
Buzz Poole is writing a 33 1/3 about Workingman’s Dead. Keep up with him @BuzzPoole.