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.
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.