I took this photograph on July 4, 1989 at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, NY. I was standing on the infield with my sister and some friends when the show started. The first song was Bertha. If you enlarge the photo (which is actually a photo of a photo) I swear you can see Jerry Garcia smiling.
These were the post-coma years, when the Big Man had lost some weight, was eating better, smoking a little less, and feeling and sounding energized and happy to be playing. Watch the video below (I’m the dude in the red bandana) and you’ll hear that his singing was stronger than ever and his guitar solos, as he played his beloved “Tiger,” were joyous and ripping. It’s hard to think, seeing and watching this vibrancy, that in a few years he would be hooked (again) on the heroin that sent him into rehab in California, where he died of a heart attack in his sleep (with a smile on his face, his family said) on August 9, 1995. His body looked a hundred years old, but he was only 53.
I could never claim to have been a real Deadhead. In fact, true Heads might call me a Touch-head, that certain brand of fan who only got on the bus after their 1987 mega-hit “Touch of Grey” went platinum. The truth is, I discovered them around 1982 when, attending an all-boys Catholic prep school, I read in the school newspaper that a poll of the students found that the Grateful Dead was the most popular band. Other bands that made the top ten were The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Stones, and The Beatles. Clearly, these kids had older brothers. The name scared me: I thought they were a death metal band. How wrong I was when I started listening to their albums: Dead Set, American Beauty, Workingman’s Dead. This was psychedelic American jazzgrass, ancient and modern at the same time. The music, unlike so much of the punk and New Wave I was into, made me smile.
Still, I never followed them, never saw more than one show in a row, and only went to concerts that were in easy driving distance of wherever I was living at the time. I saw them maybe three times in Buffalo, a few times at old Silver Stadium in Rochester, NY and maybe a few times at RFK stadium in Washington, DC, I think. I can’t really remember, not because of the drugs, which I never took, but because all this happened about 25 years ago. When you grew up where I did, in upstate NY in the mid- to late Eighties, you knew if it was summer, the Dead would eventually roll through. I grew my hair long and dabbed patchouli oil behind my ears. I traded tapes in parking lots, listened to their New Year’s Eve broadcasts on the radio, ate yummy veggie bagels sold out of plastic bags and bought tie-dyes made by fellow travelers who were just trying to get enough cash to get a little further down the road. Even more than the music, which was joyous and soul-stirring, was the feeling of love and community I felt when I was in a crowd of fellow fans. Maybe we were all like dogs, who can only hear things at higher frequencies, but we knew. We smiled at one another, and we just knew. This was the place for us.
Now, we have the Fare Thee Well concerts on the horizon, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Dead’s founding, in San Francisco in 1965. This, they say, will be the last time the surviving original members will perform together. This August will also mark the 20th anniversary of Jerry’s death. I’m sure I’ll watch at least a few of the shows on pay-per-view, and listen to all of them eventually on CD or through archive.org. But I wanted to do something more, to commemorate and savor this milestone, but to also give back, at least a little bit, some of the happiness the band has given me all these years. So, here’s what I’m going to do…
During the next few summer months, my plan is to make and give away (at least) 50 free tie-dyes. On August 1st, Jerry’s 73rd birthday, I’m going to find a public spot in downtown Bath, and give away t-shirts to anyone who asks for one, til they’re gone. I’m calling my plan Grateful Dyes. I’ll post updates on Facebook and elsewhere. Follow me, and find me on August 1st if you’d like a shirt. :)
I’ll never meet the boys in person to thank them for all the joy they’ve given me during my 47 trips around the sun, but I can do this. This is my sunshine daydream.