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.
This summer, I will:
1. Make more tie-dyes. If you want one, let me know.
2. Sit in the backyard, in the sunshine, listening to the Dead. Neighbors beware that 8/27/72 will be set to repeat.
3. Swim in the pond. If you want to join me, let me know.
4. Go to the beach. Target sells spray-on mineral sunscreen now. Thank me later.
5. Spend some down time with the wife and kids on an island off the coast of Maine, where there’s no internet unless you visit the library, no cell service, no television, and a lot less problems.
6. See family and friends near and far, both here and there.
7. Take photographs. Maybe paint and write.
8. Ignore the scoffers and the internet shamers.
9. Avoid commerce.
10. Not listen to the experts.
11. Drink my berry/kale/chia smoothies and do my barefoot running and yoga.
12. Create my own life. Do good not by politics but by being myself.
I wake at 4:15 every weekday morning. I creep downstairs and plug in the coffee. I check my email and social media, make sure my swim bag is packed, get dressed, drink one cup of black coffee, then unplug the pot before leaving for the YMCA.
I pull into the parking lot at about 4:50, in time to see the older couple, the man with a cane and the wife with a walker, push through the front doors. I turn off my music, lock my car, and go in. I slide my card through the reader, a computer beeps somewhere, I say hi to Doug or Crystal or whoever is working the front desk and has been kind enough to get up even earlier than me to make sure the lights are on, the door is unlocked and the pool cover is off. I use the boys locker room instead of the men’s because I like the cool tile floor instead of the carpet in the men’s room, and because I can be alone with my thoughts, change into my swim things at my own pace, not have to jostle with anyone for locker space, and can hear all the groans, clanks, and scuffles as the building comes to life.
I shower, walk into the men’s locker room to make sure the sauna is turned on, then wait for the click of the deadbolt when the lifeguard unlocks the door to the pool deck. I see the morning regulars, pull on my swim cap and goggles, get into to the pool and do my laps, usually splitting them between breaststroke and freestyle. I swim for about twenty minutes. I don’t count my laps. I swim until I feel done, then I get out and sit in the sauna for about ten minutes to stretch out and relax. I shower, get dressed, drive home, sometimes stopping to take pictures of the river if the light is right. I get home around 6:00.
I make sure my daughter is up and getting ready for middle school. I plug the coffee maker back in and make my breakfast, usually eggs over easy with toast or muesli. I drink another cup of black coffee. I have an hour before I have to get dressed for work, so I read or do some writing. Around 7:00 I get dressed and drive my daughter to school. I get to work around 7:30, and usually have all my emails read and answered by 8:00 when the rest of my co-workers start arriving. I grab more coffee and fill my water bottle. I have the whole day ahead of me. I help people: students, faculty, co-workers, parents, customers, vendors, delivery drivers.
Most of my work life consists of being the arbitrator of other people’s desires. I measure other people’s wants against my own, and then decide how best to proceed. I do the best job I can with the materials at hand. I subjugate my ego.
I eat my lunch at a regular hour, sometimes treating myself to a soft-serve or a lemon square afterwards. I walk around the campus, deliver packages to the mail center, stop in to the library to see what’s newly published, sometimes I meet faculty or associates on the quad and chat with them, ask after their research, their kids, what they did on sabbatical, what they’re working on now. I’m pleasant, witty, always professional.
In the afternoons I might write some emails, deal with problems that have crept up. By 5:00 I’m ready to go home. I try as best I can to leave the troubles of my workday behind me. At home I help my wife shuttle kids to and from sports practice and games, make sure there’s food for dinner, give homework help, make sure cellphones are charged, forms are signed, teeth are brushed, clothes are picked out, and bedtimes happen at a reasonable hour. Then I read a little more, or paint, or maybe edit some pictures I took during the day. I make sure my swim trunks and towel are dry and I re-pack my swim bag, set up the coffee maker for tomorrow’s coffee, place all the things I’ll need in a pile by the door: my bag, wallet, keys, glasses, clothes, flip-flops, iPod.
I’m in bed by 10:00 to sleep for tomorrow’s new day. This is what I do. On Friday nights, I go the local high school football game, if they’re playing at home. I do some yard work on the weekend, do laundry, shop for groceries, go to the beach or for a run or for a swim if there’s time. I take my kids where they need to go, or if they’re travelling by bike or by foot, make sure they check in when they get there. On Sunday nights, my wife and I might turn on Netflix and watch whatever series we’re currently hooked on.
At forty-seven years old, this is my life right now. A Zen archery master, Awa Kenzo, wrote, “Do your best at each and everything. That is the key to success. Learn one thing well and you will learn how to understand the ten thousand things. Ten thousand things are one; this is the secret place of understanding you must find. Then everything is mysterious and wonderful.”
I submit to you that all we need try to do is one or two things well. We live our life, we remain present and cheerful, we make the coffee, we wash the dishes, we fold the laundry, we sleep, we wake. This is all we need to do. Please take comfort in knowing that it is more than enough.
My friends have seen me around town sporting spotty, gray-flecked facial hair, wearing a bandana, blasting a fresh copy of “Winterland 6/7/77” from my car speakers. I’m this close to dabbing patchouli oil behind my ears. As I’ve written elsewhere, this for me is the Summer of the Dead. I’m listening to their music all over again for the first time, reveling in fond memories of shows spent with family and friends. Thinking about how happy and safe I felt there, and how Dead shows proved that, as Henry said, “surely joy is the condition of life.”
The band’s name and iconography, the skeletons and roses reminiscent of a funeral, remind us that this life is fleeting. That any day, as happened to me thirty-some years ago, a car can come speeding at you in the night going the wrong way on an interstate on-ramp. We are constantly dancing the dance between impermanence and karma. Between “nothing matters because it’ll all be over, anyway” and “everything matters for exactly the same reason.” Getting smooshed by a wrong-way driver is always a possibility. So is finding new love, opening a door you didn’t know existed yesterday or even this morning, going back in time to rediscover something you thought you had boxed and put up in the attic long ago.
Yes, my summer flings are back, and I’m letting my freak flag fly. Because if not now, when? Every summer is one summer closer to the grave. That’s not depressing; that’s a fact. Just feel lucky that we have our whole lives to correct our mistakes. That we have this time together to do the things we really want to do, and not the things we think we have to do. So much of life is the “ought.” Summer is a chance to kick all the “oughts” to the curb and start fresh, with maybe just some sunscreen and a towel, or some music, or laughing with friends, or a nap in the backyard. Silence the chirping of your phone. Step outside in the morning to hear the real thing.
Or buy one of these…
…and make a hot tub in your backyard. Run naked from your back door to the tub, not caring what the neighbors say. They’ve seen boobs and balls before, I hope. Find a hidden swimming hole, strip down, damn the bears and the bugs, and jump in. Take Henry’s advice from a few summers ago, and pack light, try new things. Have you really decided upon everything by your mid-forties? Have you spent the first half of your life solidifying your beliefs, only to spend the next half of your life living in their prison? I hope not.
Not sure if you sent a postcard to Brother Esau, he’d respond. But it’s summer. What the hell. Chance it.
I’m rambling. And so should you.
So many memories. Going to Silver Stadium with my dad and my sister in 1988, after turning my dad onto the Dead by playing Reckoning on the old turntable in my bedroom and him walking by hearing Dire Wolf or Deep Elem Blues and thinking it was country music and asking who it was and me telling him it was the Dead and him saying he thought the Dead were a hard-rock band and me saying no they were actually a kind of jug band how they were touring that summer and we should all go see them and so we did and him sitting up in the stands while my sister and I were down on the infield and him seeing a father and daughter sharing a bowl and probably some other things that sent his policeman’s heart racing. And the guy after the show selling yummy veggie bagels he had no doubt made himself, which were just plain bagels with veggie cream cheese wrapped in wax paper and stuffed into a black Hefty bag, for two dollars each and how I bought one and ate it, this bagel from a stranger that came out of a garbage bag because that’s what we did back then, we trusted one another, and how I probably traded a tape with someone, maybe from Buffalo or Foxboro and again, that’s how it went, we were all nice to another and helped each other out because the Dead let people record their shows on tape, in fact there was actually an official tapers section, and Deadheads would trade tapes after the show for maybe tapes from other shows that they hadn’t been able to make it to and that’s how this whole rumbling caravan kept going because this was light-years before the internet and this was how people took care of one another. It was all based on joy and happiness and sharing and even though the Dead weren’t the best band in the world and sometimes they played like shit like they all woke up on the wrong side of the bed and hated each other, sometimes they were so on and full of energy they just blew you away and how it wasn’t even really about the music, it was the space between the notes and the dancing and the scene and the joy that seems to be missing right now. Or the first show I went to at Rich Stadium in Buffalo and how afterwards my friend Kip called me to let me know that Jerry was in a coma but he eventually came out of it and they went back on the road again and the time I saw them at the old RFK Stadium in Washington, DC in 1991 when Bruce Hornsby played piano and the place just took off and how I listened to the show again just recently and wondered how I survived such magnificence, like Arjuna being shown the true face of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and yet still surviving. Looking out across the stands at RFK and actually seeing the upper deck bouncing up and down from the weight and movement of all the people dancing. Yes the Deadheads were slobs and left a ton of garbage behind but unlike Woodstock 99 they never set anything on fire. It all goes back to happiness, for me. To joy. Yes, there was drugs and selfishness and people just being into their own trip and people overdosing and old vans breaking down and kids being stranded on the road between shows with no money or food, with nothing but a ratty backpack and a cardboard sign that read Cleveland or Hampton or Philly. If scientists in the near future can figure out how to bring back extinct creatures, I wish they would please bring back Jerry so we can all get out on the road again and see what love really means. Until that time, I’ll just be growing this beard, embarrassing my kids by wearing this bandanna in public, maybe dabbing some patchouli oil behind my ears, and making tie-dyes in my backyard. Oh yeah, and listening to the music. And yes, sis. The Dead did play “Green Onions” coming out of the break in ‘88. The only time ever. And me and you and dad were there.
I was running around the track a few days ago when I suddenly realized there were just going to be some things I would never get to do. I’ll probably never go to Paris, for instance. Not that I really want to. I’m sure it’s very beautiful, especially in the springtime. But I also imagine it’s a noisier, smellier French version of New York. I suppose this is just some kind of psychic self-defense. A blue-collar provincialism that screams I never wanted to go there anyway. But I know there are some places I’ll never get to, or places that I’ve visited that I’ll never get back to. Like Solomon Beach on St. John, where my wife and I used to go before we had kids and that used to have this laid-back hippie vibe but is now “family-friendly” and a stop-off for small cruise ships. Or Sierra Hot Springs in Sierraville, CA where I spent one idyllic day soaking naked in an outdoor hot spring while redwoods swayed overhead and I could see the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Or Mexico City, where in college I climbed to the top of a small mountain to visit a shrine where the Virgin Mary had appeared to some schoolgirls, and I looked in all directions and all I saw was city. I’ll probably never be able to take a year off from work, grow (another) beard or not cut my hair and just spend my days surfing. Realizations like this are part of being an adult, I guess. I’m not sad that by Western life-expectancy standards, my life is half-over. I’m certainly not ready to throw in the metaphysical towel. My wife and I are giving serious thought to selling our house once the kids are in college and buying either a VW Eurovan or decommissioned school bus, outfitting it with solar panels and vagabonding around the country while we cook all our meals on a camp stove. Part of the wisdom that comes with age is knowing one’s limits. I’m lucky in that I can take pleasure in the little things. Not just because they are the only things I can afford, but because they bring me the greatest joy. This morning, for example, I drove to work in the sunshine with the windows down, drinking cold coffee, eating a day-old donut, and listening to Ray LaMontagne’s new album, Supernova. I knew I was going to be spending the day in a basement buying back textbooks from ungrateful college students, but my morning commute allowed me to store up enough good vibes to get me through the day. With a bang, summer is here in Maine and I know beach and swimming-hole days aren’t far away. Family trips, finding old vinyl records, time spent with friends, more cold coffee, and skinny-dipping opportunities are in the offing. I look forward to exploring in ever-greater detail my little corner of the world. I don’t feel sad at all I’ll never eat a croissant on the Champs-Élysées. I’ve got Frosty’s twists on Washington Street.
There’s a line in one of Ray’s new songs that goes, “Maybe it’d be best if I just let things lie/Guess I’m never gonna get back to Ojai.” Having never been to Ojai, there’s no way I’ll ever “get back” there. But I hope from there you can at least smell the ocean.
A place in my mind where I have all the time in the world to think and write about the things I want to, without interruption. I’m also going to the wonderful Woodstock Writer’s Festival in early April. To be with my tribe.
The Goldfinch. I might be the only other man I know on the planet who is reading this book. It comes with a lot of hype. Maybe too much. I’m on page 567 right now. I’m all in. I’ll reserve judgment until I’m done. I loved Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History. I haven’t read her second, The Little Friend, even though I have a signed copy, obtained when I met her at a book show in Chicago almost ten years ago. I remember her haircut, still the same after all these years, and making her smile.
To the new Beck album, Morning Phase, out today. Billed as a “sequel” to his “masterpiece” Sea Change, it sounds more like a long-lost friend rather than a coda. We have to be careful where, when, and how we listen to a new piece of music for the first time. I listened to the first four songs of Morning Phase after dropping my daughter off at school, and while driving to work, crossing the frozen New Meadows River with the pink sun blazing the ice. But now I’m at work, in my concrete bunker, and it’s not the time to keep going. With its echoes of Rumors-era, sunny California seventies soft-rock, this album doesn’t belong in a basement. It belongs in a car, on an open road, on the way to the beach. Or from, at sunset. I’ll save the rest for later.
Syracuse University basketball games. My daughter is quickly becoming a rabid fan. Speaking as a lifelong Orange supporter, I warned her she’s in for a lot of heartbreak. Wearing her newly-minted Ice Man t-shirt, she seems OK with that.
As much Chobani yogurt as I can stuff into my fat face. As a born-again vegetarian, I need my protein. My favorite is the plain, drizzled with some fresh Maine honey. Take that, Putin.
Red Rose English Breakfast tea, out of my new $8 Plain White Pottery Barn cup-and-saucer set I bought at the mall. I’m one-quarter English on my dad’s side, and smitten with Downton Abbey. I may start walking with a cane, like Mr. Bates, just for fun.
My standard all-black livery: black pants, black socks, black shoes, black crew-neck sweater, with a touch of color at the neck and wrists. Almost everything was bought at Brooks Brothers at a deep discount. As Morrissey sang, I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside. Plus it’s slimming.
How about you? What are you up to right now?