I claimed a corner of our piano last month, propped up my laptop and let the YouTube algorithms play a mix of full-length Grateful Dead shows in perpetuity.
I started early in the morning somewhere in the late-seventies, some California venue with a set-list that included my favorite trio of interlaced songs, “Help On The Way” into “Slipknot” into “Franklins Tower” (“Help>Slip>Frank” for the nerds). By that evening I had landed somewhere in the early eighties watching a rotund Jerry Garcia ignore the fact that disco had died while he wheezed through “Shakedown Street,” a song rife with all the wacka wacka flare of a Bee Gees classic.
Maybe the dark is from your eyes…
…Maybe you had too much too fast.
Jerry looked threadbare. His playing was never exactly acrobatic, but in this performance he was hunched over the microphone and, at times, seemed hardly awake.
He was dying, a year or so away from a band-wide intervention over his heroin use. Add one more and he would collapse from a diabetic coma, one more and then a brief, blessed sobriety.
In our living room, YouTube blipped him from “Shakedown” back in time to a vibrant version of himself in 1972 singing “Saint Stephen:”
…well he may and he may decline.
Did it matter, does it now?
That was our June into July into right now. I still can’t stop.
A few weeks ago, The Grateful Dead—or at least the four members of the original band who have not died—played a smattering of shows in California and Chicago to celebrate fifty years of the almost unbelievable arc of their musical careers, as well as the subculture it helped create and sustain.
The obvious omission, of course, was Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995 at the bottom of a heroin-induced spiral. He had made it to rehab, at least, but his heart wouldn’t hold. I received the news from a friend who, unintelligible with grief, barely managed to deliver the bomb through his sobs.
“It happened,” he said.
And with just that—boom—I knew.
When my friend called I was 19 and had been to 25 Grateful Dead shows. I had two-hundred hours of bootlegged tapes neatly organized in an archive of plastic trays, each with its own hand-written set-list and liner notes scrawled on self-designed covers.
These numbers are decidedly unimpressive to the vast army of folks who jumped on the bus earlier, some of whom started seeing shows as toddlers and never stopped.
For a kid who discovered the Dead at thirteen, I did my best. I was a kid, after all, who suddenly felt like he had squandered those thirteen years by only then realizing what life was truly about, which was the nuance of a “Help>Slip>Frank” played in 1976 versus one from 1991, a kid who used to drive his parents’ Buick nightly through Nashville taxing the stereo, blasting bad tape recordings at passersby, beating paradiddles into the faux-leather wheel as if trying to kill it, a kid who would pull off the road when the music overwhelmed him and crazy-boneless-arm-dance as if no one was watching. It was like a patellar reflex at a doctor’s office. My body just reacted to the stimuli.
My dad once called it “possession.” I thought I was simply in love.
When I went to my first show in Atlanta in 1993, I had a cerebral understanding that Jerry was human, that he would someday die. But it never really registered in my heart. There, in that place where my feelings pulsed a sometimes mythic truth at odds with the objective, he seemed eternal.
Nevertheless, in a kind of hungry desperation for all things Grateful Dead, I still scrambled to see as many shows as possible in the few years before Jerry died. My parents were helpless. I was seventeen, informing them instead of asking that I would be venturing out on a trans-continental trip to see a run of west-coast shows with dubious-at-best friends and would try hard to keep in touch by payphone. If I could find the change.
Now, the recent Chicago shows have joined the YouTube queue, and Jerry goes in a buffering flash from ancient to almost adolescent to altogether gone, and graciously my wife has only asked me to turn off the stream a few times for things like a peaceable dinner or a family conversation or, say, sleep.
The truth is, when my friend called to tell me Jerry died I was already veering away, not from the music but from the culture, which had started to feel like that scene from Pinocchio where the boys are lured into a carnival-like free-for-all only to be turned into slave donkeys. The pretty lights! The fun! The intoxicating freedom of choice!
And then, pop!, the ears start to grow.
I was starting to see some pretty disturbing things on tour and hear some pretty empty rhetoric from dead heads. I wanted something more, something I couldn’t quite find the language for. All the Dead’s famous lyrics-turned-bumper-sticker-mantras were slowly losing their stick.
I would soon discover that my hunger was markedly spiritual. And I was only a few months away from meeting Jesus in a Nashville Waffle House, a few months away from my heart pulsing a different truth. A new possession. A satiating love.
So why this lingering obsession? Why these waves of joy and elation and crazy dancing to “Crazy Fingers” with my baby girl perched on my shuffling feet, or swinging in my arms, or fist-pumping from my hip to “Scarlet Begonias”?
Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.
Why can’t I stop watching?
The Dead chose Chicago’s Soldier Field for their final farewell because it was the last place Jerry played before he passed away. I was there once–21 years ago in the back-upper-left of the same stadium, rabidly anticipating every note. And that’s not hyperbole. Each note registered. Each one animated my body.
A friend who used to join me in my parents’ Buick said he felt the same thing that night. We danced together street-side back home and we danced together in that stadium. He died in a head-on collision in Memphis not long after.
I’ve lost touch with the other friends who joined me there, although I’m pretty sure they’re still alive. In Chicago, at least, we moved in that nose-bleed row as a single organism. We collectively screamed the lyrics back at the band alongside eighty-thousand others because it was like trying to return a gift:
This is all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago…
Never mind if they now seem a little cliché. A little hollow. The lyrics are simply reservoirs into which we place our experience, which is the real constellation of fission and explosion and dust and resurrection—our past, present, and future selves emerging in the familiar refrain, conjured in the chorus.
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there…
The lyrics are just shells to be inhabited.
And I’ve been in my living room singing the lines back to the band because I am in them now, who I used to be and who I have become, and my children are in them, and my wife. I sing them to a fifteen-inch screen propped up on the piano instead of a stage, now with my children who think Dad is funny and weird even though sometimes I have tears in my eyes.
Now, as if the Dead are still listening. Now, as if all my old friends are, too.