The Grateful Dead and O.J. Simpson
That time in 1994 that a Dragon truck and the Grateful Dead both came to town and O.J. Simpson upstaged them all
I had the opportunity to photograph The Grateful Dead a couple times, but their last visit to Eugene in June of 1994 was the most memorable.
The Register-Guard planned to blowout the coverage, with several reporters writing stories and sidebars and colleague Andy Nelson and I handling the photography.
The Dead had a very liberal policy regarding photos, rare even then, that allowed Nelson and I to stay for the whole show. These days bands generally allow photography only for the first few songs.
That Friday it rained off and on all day. I had a 15mm lens that I was keen to use and talked my way into hanging with a group of Deadheads in front of the stage. Best to keep moving at a Dead show, so after getting those pics in the can I set my sights on another objective.
A friend of mine, Mark Solomon had driven over from Moscow, Idaho in his Dragon Truck with a half dozen other old friends. I was excited to see them, but also recognized the truck would make a good story. I pitched the idea to reporter Bob Welch and we agreed do a feature on the fire breathing art car..
After the show I made my way back to the parking lot planning to make a picture of the truck in action. Small problem, however. Someone had parked their car within inches of the front of the truck in the chaotic parking lot. There did not appear to be enough room to light the propane jets without scorching the side of the vehicle. To buy a little room, I tried to talk the owner of a van that blocked the back end into moving a bit, but she was not interested in helping us out claiming she had a massage client due any second. So much for a Grateful Dead miracle?
After putting our heads together about how to salvage the situation, Solomon grabbed a soaking wet blanket from the back of the flatbed, threw it over the car’s side panel and fired up the Dragon. I shot a burst of photos with my motor driven film camera and my 15mm lens. The whole shoot took about two seconds. I gave him the signal that I had the picture so he could kill the flames before we did any damage to the car. With the blanket still smoking I said my goodbyes and headed back to the office with my precious rolls of film.
To avoid traffic I had ridden my bike to Autzen Stadium from the RG office downtown. I was wet, cold and cranky as I made my way out of the crowded venue on my bike loaded down with camera gear.
As I rode on the bike path along the Willamette River, my Motorola flip phone started ringing. It was one of my bosses at the paper. They wanted me to know they were ripping up the front page because, wait for it!, O.J. Simpson was busy creating a spectacle in Los Angles, Calif. while riding through the streets in a white Bronco in an apparent attempt to avoid being arrested for the murder of his wife and her boyfriend. Television was carrying the event live. I was like WHAT? The whole thing seems bizarre to this day.
Well, to say that I was a disappointment is an understatement. I did manage to get a few pictures published inside the A section, but Nelson got the cover with a secondary image below the fold of some soggy fans dancing in the rain.
But hey, I got to see The Grateful Dead in concert in what proved to be their last appearance in Eugene before Jerry Garcia died. Historic in more ways than one.
Chris Pietsch is the director of photography for Gannett Newspapers in Oregon, The Register-Guard in Eugene and the Statesman Journal in Salem.
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