The Grateful Dead
Photo credit: Jay Blakesberg
Any good ol’ Grateful Dead fan grew accustomed to it, all that change.
You’d arrive at the show, having experienced buckets of drama just to get inside, and there on stage would be a bunch of familiar faces. And then, who’s that new guy? You never quite knew what—or who—to expect when you arrived at a Grateful Dead show. For 30 years the band cut off one arm to grow another (or, more often, waited for that rotting arm to fall off).
In 1968 it was Bob Weir and Pigpen on the verge of getting thrown out. Hart, Kreutzmann, Lesh, and Garcia went so far as to play a few shows without their cross-eyed pals, monikering themselves “Mickey and the Hartbeats.” Weir and Pigpen flat-out refused, showed up for rehearsals anyhow, and the band’s finest recording—1969’s Live Dead—emerged. By 1974 Pigpen was dead, keyboardist Keith Godchaux was peaking as a soloist, and the Dead went on hiatus. They didn’t return to full touring status until 1976. When they did, the truly weird improvisation was gone. The holy psychedelic quadrumvirate—“Dark Star>St Stephen>The Eleven>Lovelight”—got locked up in the closet, buried with Pigpen, stuffed down into the collective memory of all those kids high on headphones and high on the Grateful Dead.
Those kids who loved Live Dead in 1969 are here, some 34 years later. Some brought their kids, and some of those kids brought their kids. It’s a sunny blue-sky dream of a day, everyone had to drive hours to make it. On a stage perched at the edge of a chasm, with the Columbia River running below, eight people on stage join to plunge into the void. The absence of Jerry Garcia is loud.
Deadheads slap stickers on car bumpers: We Are Everywhere. It never seemed truer than the day Garcia died. Stockbrokers snuck off the trading floor to cry, CNN and the rest of ‘em headed down to Haight Street and watched the crowds gather. NPR played “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” and “Bird Song”—even the President of the United States had something wistful and kind to say. Damn if the Grateful Dead hadn’t become nearly civilized. Garcia would’ve hated the attention.
Deadheads had to stand up straighter, ‘cause the truth was impossible to deny this time. Garcia was a junkie, he loved the drugs more than anything else. More than his body, more than his fans, and though he loved music (all kinds, but ‘specially the old American kind), the junk ultimately beat out the craft. The junk had fed the craft. That was a hard pill to swallow.
So forget the naming morass (technically we’re supposed to refer to this amalgam of the band as “The Dead” and not “The Grateful Dead”), forget the strange mix of ethics and money and heart which necessitated hauling this beast back out on the road again. The Dead without Garcia are potentially more exciting than they ever could have been with Garcia around. Because Garcia held the band back for most of the 1980s and 1990s. He’d gotten settled in his ways, cranky in his body, bored, addicted. The Dead stayed together like an old married couple, dysfunctional and needy and convenient.
Now they’re making up for lost time. That thing the Dead are reaching for these days is closer in spirit to the hallucinatory free grabs of 1969 than the formulaic and staid inertia of the 1990s. Fans used to organize campaigns to bring obscure songs back into rotation—“Cosmic Charlie” or “Saint Stephen”. Now those songs are regulars, the continuum is reaffirmed, nothing is too random or minor (“Cream Puff War” anyone?).
Where the 1980s and 1990s often found Dead sets filled with covers and traditionals—Dylan’s “Queen Jane” or Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land”, Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” or Johnny Cash’s “Big River”—tonight the set list is pure original Grateful Dead material. There’s one exception: “Tomorrow Never Knows”.
Revolver. The Beatles. 1966. LSD. John Lennon. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Autobiography. Sonic documentary. The set list, beginning with a shaky “Truckin” and segueing into the Beatles tune, is pure self-reflective narrative. Phil Lesh closes the deal when he steps to the microphone, only the third song into the first set, and sings the heavy lyric from “Cryptical Envelopment” that should’ve been Garcia’s: “The other day they waited / The sky was dark and faded / Solemnly they stated / He has to die.”
The set list tonight dips so far back that obscure selections from the 1968 blaze Anthem of the Sun (“Alligator” and “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)”) seem to slip the crowd’s collective memory. The tunes that rave, like the second set opener “Loose Lucy”, or improvisational gateways like “Cassidy” or “Eyes of the World”, get the crowd’s attention. “Estimated Prophet” turns out to be the solid anchor of the second set: it’s classic Bob Weir. An off-kilter 7/4 time signature, major chord aspirational bridges (“Rising up to paradise/I know I’m gonna shine”), a reference to the psychotic biblical figure Ezekiel. Weir is bearing the heavy load of Garcia’s death more than anyone else on that stage, and he’s showing a good bit of grace doing it. It wasn’t always that way, he could be a real nitpicker. Now, he’s the frontman. The light’s all shining on him. The Dead are moving on.
It has, after all, been eight years since Garcia died of heart failure, his body ravaged from 20 or so (depends on whose biography you side with) years of heroin abuse. There’s a new co-conspirator in the gang, singer Joan Osborne, who knows a thing or two about soul—and hit singles that don’t mean much in the end. And there’s a replacement lead guitarist, Jimmy Herring, who takes roaring and daring solos and never says much else. Two keyboardists brave the big, bad jinx—as in, we’re ready for whatever comes down. The Grateful Dead always did have trouble hangin’ onto those keyboardists.
That revolving seat made for easy Spinal Tap pot-shots, because humor is the only way to look at that long, cold list of casualties. The first piano man—who often stepped out in front, masked as a tough biker, naming himself Pigpen—was, as Garcia called him, a “juicer” with a bad liver. The next-to-last, Brent Mydland, never was built to last—he overdosed on a speedball at home after a grueling 1990 summer tour. In between all of that was a fan turned keyboard man, a brilliant and creative player, Keith Godchaux, who stayed that way for a year or two, and then junked up, fell asleep at the wheel, until the band asked him and his wife Donna Jean to leave in 1979.
Understandably, parents worried about their kids hitting the road with the Grateful Dead. And my parents were no different. My mother especially worried about all those late-night drives, sleeping in cornfields, dodging cops on the highway. But the day Jerry Garcia died, she called to offer her condolences. Somehow, over time, she came to understand that the Grateful Dead were my friends, my M.D., my professors, my sonic synagogue. She took it wherever she could get it.
The buzz waiting for a Grateful Dead show to start is the most delicious anticipation imaginable: the lights down, the stage empty, the crowd waiting, and screaming. It’s a fix no one wants to shake. The band would appear on stage, one by one, start tuning their instruments.
Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann do themselves right by renaming themselves and trying something new. That old anticipation isn’t there tonight: it’s gone, and he’s gone. But there’s still a time and a place for this. Tonight the Dead are a collective tip of the hat, to all the juicers and junkies and bikers and groupies and squares that passed through, and to everyone else left standing.