Fare Thee Well: Gratefully Remembering the Dead
Story and photographs by Stanley Johnson
I arrived at the party for Sandy’s birthday last Friday (July 3). Bob, who I seem to run into at every music event I go to in Greater Nippertown, had arranged for a projector and PA system, and the backyard had been transformed into an outdoor theater bordered by a circle of tiki lamps and a firepit. The screen was a sheet tacked to the side of a barn.
We watched the first of the final three performances of the Grateful Dead live from Chicago. It was a pretty good performance, although computer buffering problems did sometimes interrupt the show. We had bug repellant, fireworks and a big moon rising.
Was it a good Grateful Dead concert? You can be the judge of that: the show will be part of a box set which was constantly promoted throughout the night. The band, like previous reunion versions under the names the Other Ones and the Dead, played unique arrangements and extended medleys of Grateful Dead songs, most of which were originally recorded back in the ’60s and ’70s. There may have been later period songs, but I wasn’t always paying close attention. It was a party, and I was taking no notes nor photos.
It seemed appropriate for me to be watching this performance in Alplaus, a place with a connection to Kurt Vonnegut, who had a connection with the Grateful Dead. For a time, the Grateful Dead owned the rights to his novel “Sirens of Titan,” although what they were going to do with them no one seems to remember. Vonnegut, whose drug preferences were cigarettes and occasional alcohol, admitted to once having smoked a joint with the band.
I was trying to imagine how many other locations were tuned in to this event in Chicago. I knew of at least five bars and theaters which were showing the performance in the Local 518. I supposed that possibly millions were watching around the world.
If I seem more than a little nonchalant about this supposedly historical experience ($50 million dollars in profit is pretty impressive if you’re an accountant), I must explain, which is really the point of this screed.
I miss Jerry. Like Ken Kesey said about his funeral in the introduction to the Rolling Stone book, “Garcia,” in 1995: “…what really stood out – stands out – is the thundering silence, the lack, the absence of that golden Garcia lead line… and the silence left in its wake was – is – positively earsplitting.”
Nothing that the surviving members of the Grateful Dead have done in the last 20 years has equaled anything the original band did before the ’90s. Sorry kids, but there it is. They’ve been very good since then, but we used to say, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.”
I first saw them was in early 1973 in Utica. I fell asleep in the middle of “Dark Star,” only to be roused by a smokin’ “Casey Jones.” I resolved to stay awake the next time.
The next time was in 1974 in Louisville, and it was the hardest rocking concert I’ve seen them do, elevating the rather lame Wake of the Flood tracks into absolute barn burners. In later years, it was easy to forget how much muscle the band could bring to a show during the ‘70s.
That memory made a big impression, and a few years later I followed them from Syracuse in ’82 to New Haven and SPAC in ’83. Twice in the same year! I guess I was a Deadhead, although the title didn’t exist then. The next year I was back for them again at SPAC.
By the time of the SPAC show in 1988, I was ready to step back. It was a good show with lots of new songs from the band’s then current (and only) chart-topper. I had great seats in section 8 for less than $20.
But it was something of a letdown from their previous SPAC visit, the amazing show of 1985. That year they broke every previous attendance record at the venue and so frightened the local community that all further (ahem, furthur) concerts were capped at 25,000. Some say that, including the more than 50,000 inside and all those outside, total attendance in the park may have passed 60,000.
In this sprawling, third visit to SPAC, the crowd started with full-bore craziness. The band refused to start their concert because some spectators had crawled out of their balcony seats to the apron beyond and were a real danger to themselves and those in the seats below. Out at the top of the lawn where I was, I witnessed one young man climb one of the giant pine trees to get a better view, only to lose his grip and come sliding all the way down, skinning the entire front of his body. I still wonder about that guy.
Fortunately things improved that night because of the music and, magically the lawn crowd became, from my point of view, a united, connected, breathing entity, of which the band was just adding their voices and sounds among many others. The Dead weren’t the whole show, just the musical directors of their portion of it. It was a profoundly spiritual experience layered on top of a profoundly physical experience.
On that mid-’80s lawn (before there were metal barriers and dividers), I could feel and see movement responding to music, rippling from one end of the grass bowl to the other. Everyone seemed to be in sync. It wasn’t as forced or corny as The Wave became a few years later, but rather a manifestation of some group mind, with everyone thinking and acting not as individuals but as some kind multi-celled organism.
Or maybe I was hallucinating. I can’t be sure.
Things started to change the following year. I saw it start to happen at Rich Stadium near Buffalo on the Fourth of July, 1986, a week before Jerry’s diabetic coma. The set was a little bland for a big holiday, and there was no mixing of Bob Dylan with the Dead. But Dylan struck sparks with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Exactly one year later at Foxboro, Dylan played a whole set with the Dead following a less than memorable set the Dead did alone. “All Along the Watchtower” was worth the trip. The parking lots were still a lot of fun, even if they were overcrowded, but watching the band was becoming less fun, and, worse, predictable.
The success of A Touch of Grey had drawn many new fans, most of whom appeared to be there just for the party. Tie dyes were being infiltrated by frat house shirts. There was too much beer and too many teenagers drinking it.
By the time of the Dozin’ at the Knick shows, I had heard tapes of many shows, and it seemed to me that far too many of the most recent ones were almost Vegas-style revues. (That’s OK, I suppose, if you actually like casino shows, but I don’t.)
I only attended one more actual Grateful Dead concert, this time at the Knick in the week following the incredible blizzard of 1993. The best part of the show, as it had been in most of the tapes I was hearing, was “drums>space.” The audience, while generally a whole lot nicer than at a Dave Matthews or Phish concert (sorry, but I call them like I experience them) were, like those other band’s crowds, overly excited about mediocre solos and poor singing. I kept waiting for the next level which never came.
So that’s when I said goodbye to the Grateful Dead. But it was an amicable parting, because I still collected and listened to older recordings. And, in the years following Jerry’s passing, I have enjoyed seeing the bands of Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzman. Bob usually rocks the hardest, while Phil, particularly when he’s with Warren Haynes, bends and twists those tunes into wonderful pretzels.
I don’t mind the surviving members calling themselves the Grateful Dead and making money off their art, but I’m probably not going to buy any of it, especially when I think about the hundreds of tapes that I’ve tossed into trash bins in recent years. (Audience cassettes, anyone?) But I don’t believe for a minute that this was the last time I’ll hear these songs, and that’s OK, too. Just as long as they don’t call the band the Grateful Dead anymore.
This time around, the one song that really worked for me was the last one early Saturday morning in Chicago. Everybody in the backyard gathered around the screen and sang along with “Ripple,” “If I knew the way, I would take you home…” That was worth remembering.