In Memoriam: Red Dog
Eighteen and open road. Sun, windows down and “Allmans or Bust” posters taped to the rear and side windows. Philly to Jones Beach. We had saved up, Eric and me, and bought front row tickets (or as close to the stage as we could get since the real front row ticket spots there are reserved for corporate booths and not fans—another rant for another time) and cut school to see the show.
This isn’t the place for a road trip story or a concert review. Instead, it’s a place to remember the dead.
The show was good, maybe great, even with Jack Pearson sick with the flu. Those endless soul be-bop lines he plays cut sung across the night like blue lightning. Dickey matched note for note, Oteil reigned thunder around The Mighty Three. Gregg sung as tough as the road I would know later on, in days when their music and its loneliness took on meanings for me I didn’t understand when I first heard them.
Throughout the concert we noticed people walking around with stick-on mushrooms plastered to their chests or thighs. VIP ACCESS, they said at the mushroom’s stem.
After the encore, as we walked out, heads on fire, we noticed a large group of people waiting near the rear gates. They all had the VIP mushroom.
“Let’s just stand in the middle of them,” I said. “If they let them in all at one time, we’re golden.” Eric nodded, understanding.
We waited and waited and security was only letting in five people at a time and they were checking mushrooms closely. Just as Eric was getting worried about discovery, three people, two women and a man, turned around and walked away from the group. Inspiration struck and I ran after them. I tapped the man on the shoulder and said, “Hey, buddy can I buy your pass off of you?” Before he could answer, the tall blonde he was with turned around, ripped her mushroom off her chest, slapped it against mine and smiling said, “No. But you can have mine.” The man then gave me his for Eric.
Of course I got autographs. I was eighteen and an unrepentant music freak. Hell, I still am. I thanked each of them for what they did, for bringing it when we needed it. They were humble, smiling, all handshakes and “See you down the road.”
Leaving the backstage area, there was band member whose autograph I still needed: Red Dog’s.
When no one was looking, we ducked a fence and headed toward the line of eighteen wheelers, people breaking down the show and packing up for the night. We looked around, standing there horribly out of place or maybe exactly where we needed to be, and I turned for some reason. The first thing I saw was Red Dog coming toward us. I walked up to him and said, “Mr. Campbell, could I have your autograph?” I extended a black sharpie and a scrap of paper to him.
He tilted his head and laughed. His shoulders shook with it.
“Shit,” he said. “No one’s called me ‘Mr. Campbell’ in over thirty years. Call me Red Dog.” We shook hands and I couldn’t help but notice the ear to ear smile driven into his face.
“No one’s ever asked me for my autograph before,” he said and lowered his head a little.
There was a silence then, short, and now thinking about it, perhaps it said more than anything I had heard that night.
He signed my scrap of paper and we talked. We laughed. He nodded slightly before saying he had to get back to work.
“I know I’ll see you again,” he said, still smiling and walked off toward the trucks.
I’ve had some great nights since then. Wild nights, ones that made infinity seem small. There have been other concerts too, ones where the Brothers played better than that night at Jones Beach, or other bands in smaller venues where I felt lucky to be witnessing it at all, knowing so many were missing out.
But now, I can’t help but wonder, and perhaps know, that there hasn’t been another night where the magic became more human. So that, in becoming human it became something more powerful and fragile.