We all knew that the remaining members of the Grateful Dead were probably going to do SOMETHING to celebrate the 50 year mark. I was curious and a little uncertain about how I felt at the idea of celebrating the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary 20 years after Jerry Garcia’s death. Since that epic loss, the Grateful Dead‘s remaining members have played both together and separately, but never under the moniker “Grateful Dead.” And appropriately so, in my opinion. Jerry Garcia wasn’t just a guitarist, he was one of the main reasons the Grateful Dead sound and energy existed at all.
In the early years after Garcia’s death, I went to see the remaining members when they all played together. Whether as The Other Ones or simply The Dead. While it was super fun to hear those songs again and see those guys again, Garcia’s absence was sorely felt, not only in the whole of the scene, but in the very gut of the music.
Differences in opinions or desires –the truth of which I truly do not know — resulted in the drummers going off and forming their own musical explorations, while Phil Lesh and Bob Weir remained together and formed Furthur. I had seen Phil Lesh perform with his own band Phil and Friends, but, while fun, they never really grabbed me as deeply as I knew this music capable. So it wasn’t until I saw Furthur that something clicked again. What I admired was not only the energy captured by this particular combination of extraordinary musicians, but the sense of re-exploration of the music they were embarking on. Yes, even though the lead guitarist was John Kadlecik who had previously been in a super successful Grateful Dead cover band known as Dark Star Orchestra and sounded an awful lot like Jerry, the overall sound Furthur created felt like a whole new take on these songs and the live improvisational format. And while Kadlecik had to live with the unfortunate nickname of “fake Jerry” by many who could not wholly embrace him, I thought John found his own voice through the inspiration of Garcia. Furthur allowed him the space to expand beyond the confines of Dark Star Orchestra. The Furthur combination worked for me.
So it’s odd that we are now celebrating the 50th anniversary of a band that essentially disbanded 20 years ago. And yet, since the music has been alive and well and performed endlessly since then by the original creators of those songs and sounds, it seems not inappropriate to have some sort of celebration and acknowledgement of the lasting power of the Grateful Dead, no matter what configuration. And yet… there’s something about the size of this event, the location, the mad rush for tickets, the hype, the press surrounding the 3 nights at Chicago’s Soldier Field Stadium that feels… off. To me. It’s something I have been struggling with as a large part of me feels compelled to be there. As someone who has been a hard-core Dead Head for 40 years and spent a good portion of my youth following them around the country, not to mention listening to their music almost every single day of those 40 years… I want to be part of anything that celebrates what this band has done and continues to do. And it would be nice to see them all together again one last time. By the same token, there are rumors that some of them are not really into playing together and that this event is something they feel more compelled to do than actually desire. I don’t know how much truth there is to that, of course. But it does sit in the back of my mind and it does color the event for me to some degree. Still, that doesn’t mean they won’t have fun or be glad they decided to do it.
For me, the Grateful Dead always felt intimate. Even in the largest of settings, there was something that felt like “family.” That changed to a large degree for me in the mid-80’s when TOUCH OF GREY became a hit single and the audiences grew in size to the point where the entire scene shifted and a whole new approach needed to be addressed in terms of public safety, venue size, and the sudden rambunctiousness of a crowd that used to be –while certainly freakish-looking and perhaps intimidating to local strangers — respectful and capable of pulling together to create the tone and atmosphere that was needed in order for this little microcosm to continue. That was no longer the case in the Grateful Dead‘s final decade. For those of us who had been on the bus for a while by that point, the shift in tone was immense.
My least favorite place to see the Grateful Dead (or any band, for that matter) is at a stadium. Unless you are right up front, you are relegated to watching the band on big screens. Sure, you’re in the crowd and there’s an energy to that, a vibrancy, but I always found myself having to put mental blinders on to be able to truly concentrate on the music. It was all so BIG that the music oftentimes could not overtake everything else that was happening. And the farther away from the stage I was, the more I felt that there was an event happening “over there” just out of reach. The immediacy of nearby conversations and distractions fractured the feeling of family and intimacy, the “bigness” of it all seemed to work against what I most loved about the music and the scene. Which isn’t to say the Grateful Dead didn’t play some amazing shows at stadiums. They did. For me, however, those events were work.
Now that the boys are returning to a stadium for their “final” three shows, I am torn. I honestly do not want to see them in a stadium. Nor do I want to see them at the very venue Garcia played his final concert. While I understand that there is an emotional resonance to choosing that venue, I can’t help feel like it will color the celebratory aspect of it all. For me, the reality that Garcia’s last show was at a stadium and not in a more intimate venue (where Garcia himself claimed to strongly prefer), was less a sign of their immense popularity and more a sign of how much things had tumbled out of control. That final gig is widely considered a prime example of how desperately the band needed to take a break, that the “Grateful Dead” as an entity was, and had been for some time, devouring the musicians. It was, in all reality, killing them. It was the epitome of much of what had changed for the worse. Garcia wasn’t happy. The band didn’t seem happy. Sure, returning to Soldier Field shows in no uncertain terms that the band members have continued, that they still honor Jerry, the music and one another. But to what end? What has it evolved into since Garcia’s passing? Is a 61,500 seat stadium in Chicago, despite being a destination somewhat easily accessible to all quarters of the country, really the best place to celebrate this band? Soldier Field for me represents the final years when the band had actually been banned from playing some of their most beloved smaller venues due to crowd size and what was beginning to become a genuine public safety issue. The first Soldier Field show didn’t take place until 1991. For me, it represents something lost, not something gained.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not resentful. I truly hope they are joyous shows. And maybe it will even turn around the memory of the Grateful Dead at Soldier Field and reclaim the site as a place of celebration. But something is still coloring this event for me in such a way that I feel torn. Almost as if this is forcing history as opposed to organically making it or allowing it to happen.
Add to all this the reality that most Dead Heads who want to go will not be able to get tickets, will be shut out… Most of my friends have already been rejected for tickets. Despite hotel reservations and plane tickets, they can’t get in. And who knows what the scene will be like outside the stadium for those who show up empty-handed. There’s good reason to believe that the Chicago police department will have their hands full and that does not sound like fun.
So I can’t help wondering how much more appropriate it would have been to do more shows in some smaller venues in different cities. Allow more people to attend. A final short tour. A run of shows at three venues instead of one, reaching both coasts, as well as the middle of the country. I understand that members do not seem to want to play that many shows, but still feel drawn to doing “something” in honor of the 50th landmark. For me, if one city needed to be chosen, San Francisco seems to be the most appropriate. Dead Heads have flown to the Bay Area for shows since the beginning of Grateful Dead history. It’s where it all started. And San Francisco is a city that knows Dead Heads and the Grateful Dead. It’s still a part of the fabric of that region. It is, if nothing else, in Grateful Dead terms… home.
I truly don’t want to be one of the angry mob that is condemning the boys for their choice or feeling resentful. I don’t and am not. I am, however, trying to explore my mixed emotions and find out where they are coming from, trying to find a way to articulate my personal dilemma which is separate from the needs of the band. I love these guys, I have spent a lot of time with them in many different places, watched them grow and grown alongside them. I have shared what feel like intimate moments with them, despite the reality that there was almost always at least a couple thousand of us. Thank god I had the pleasure of seeing them in small venues and theaters and got to spend my fare share of time backstage due to the generosity of friends! And in the spring of 1984, I met Jerry and spent a little time with him in his hotel room in Providence, R.I. He was gracious and kind. Everything one would hope for from someone a nervous young man in his early-20’s already held in high regard. Since I was 12 years old, when I first heard their music (starting with the album EUROPE ’72 and moving quickly into what was, at the time, their newest studio release, BLUES FOR ALLAH), the Grateful Dead have been one of the stronger threads in the tapestry of my life. A true testament to the power of music. And the Grateful Dead themselves.
As for Phish‘s Trey Anastasio sitting in the Jerry seat, I’m more or less alright with that. I’m not a Phish fan. I admire them, but their music never got under my skin the way the Grateful Dead did and still do. But Trey gets the music. He’s a fine choice. But not one that sways me more toward going than not going. In truth, if John Kadlecik had been in that role again, I would be more compelled simply because I know what he brings to the music via his run with Furthur. However, that still doesn’t mean I would have made the trek. It’s still a stadium. It’s still Chicago. And because now Phish/Trey fans will be added to those clamoring for tickets in addition to Dead Heads, it’s still an event that more people will be denied access to than allowed to attend.
If Jerry were alive and the band were getting back together for 3 more shows, nothing could keep me out. I would still be sad that it was only three shows and in a stadium, but that experience is one I would nonetheless climb mountains naked to attend. Without Jerry, it’s a celebration, and not one without some allure and a sense of allegiance, but there is too much to contend with that usurps some of the celebratory significance for me. Not to mention a true sense of excitement. And I have to remind myself that I wasn’t wild about any of the post-Jerry incarnations of the core-four. In some ways, I’d love to be there for that initial moment when they walk out on stage that first night and the crowd roars with love and the mutual journey is recognized both on and off the stage. But then reality sets in and, as much as I long to hear those songs again, I know I can still see these boys playing this music at Terrapin Crossroads or Sweetwater Music Hall. With a small audience. Where the love has room to breathe, where the music can mean everything, and the growth that has happened for each band member these past 20 years can be witnessed and embraced wholeheartedly and honestly.
I genuinely appreciate that the band is doing what it wants to do for itself while considering what might work best for fans. This is the option that looks and feels best for them under the circumstances they find themselves in. I respect their decision. AND, I still feel torn, still feel disappointed. I want to honor them and myself and many of my fellow Dead Heads. 50 years. Wow.
So while I feel the love, and while I will celebrate this landmark year in many ways, Chicago may not be one of them. At least perhaps not in person. Maybe if they do a live event broadcast. I will be there for that with everyone else who could not attend in person. And I will feel both melancholy and a sense of “missing out” at not being there.
But then I will hop in my car and go see Phil and Friends or Ratdog or Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (who are looking more and more like the new potential keepers of the flame) or The Golden Gate Wingmen or Billy And The Kids or whatever new musical exploration Mickey Hart is creating. I’ll continue to listen to incredible shows from the Grateful Dead‘s 30 years and I’ll continue to watch and re-watch the amazing live videos that are circulating out there of the Grateful Dead at all different stages of creation. And I even hope to help facilitate the restoration and official release of some of those historic videos. So no matter whether or not those 3 Chicago shows are in my future, I will be celebrating and honoring both this band and myself and relishing my incredible luck at having been alive and present for so much of it.
No matter what happens, I have been and remain incredibly lucky, My life has been and continues to be enriched truly beyond measure by these musicians and the music they create. That is something I will always have, something I deeply and intimitely cherish.
Every. Single. Day.