Archive for August, 2013


On being a Deadhead

Today is August 9th, 2013. It was 18 years ago today that I was plunged into the heart of a darkness I still cant wrap my mind around. Jerry Garcia, the man who had lit my world on fire with amazing improvisational jams and the kind hearted grandfatherly voice, had died. My friend R gave me the news. It was via answering machine, “Jerry’s dead man” he said in a sorrowful voice.

After watching the death of Brent Mydland, one of the Grateful Dead’s finest keyboard players, I would have thought that Jerry would have been more careful. I was so certain that Jerry only used pot and psychedelics that I ignored those who had told me that he was a heroin addict. I remember long ago 2 deadhead friends trying to tell me that Jerry was a user. I was so sure it was hyperbole and i chalked it up to hatemongering among those who felt the need for something bad to happen. I was blind to the possibility that the long strange trip might indeed have some sort of end.

Despite these feelings, I had already thought about what it might mean when members of the band died. I was hopeful that some benevolent God might see the band as one of the truest voices of direction in the world but I did not really believe that by some magical cast of God’s dice that the band would last forever. Instead I postulated that the band would now and forever rotate members in the same way that Doctor Who has regenerations. The band members would change but the music, already a beacon from another world, would remain, and the world of being a Deadhead would go on far past my own life. Nevertheless the death of Jerry forced us all to come to terms with the impermanence of the world.

Jerry was my grandfather. I mean of course we were not related, and actually we were only about 20 years apart in age, but the voice he sang with, the way that he joked and talked about life, all of his mannerisms reminded me of my grandaddy. It seemed very difficult for those I was close to at the time to understand what this event meant to me. Jerry was dead. Courtney Love went to the media saying that she was grateful that he was dead. It may have been no more than a showpiece to get herself in the news, but she got no respect from me thereafter. While my non deadhead friends were not so callous, they seemed to be surprised at my grief. They tried to comfort me certainly, but deep down they did not know what had really happened. I lost one of my best friends. A friend I would never again have the potential to meet in person. A man who changed my life almost daily.

Jerry of course never wanted to be pegged as any kind of savior. “I’m fine with them following me, it is when they get the cross and nails that I get nervous”- this is a paraphrase of something Jerry said in an interview when he was asked about his fans. In other interviews he stated that he was Ok with being a leader but he wanted everyone to know that he would stumble and fall just as any other person might do. Jerry was a humble man, but he had a great many demons to wrestle with, more than most of us will ever know.

At a fan gathering approx a year after Jerry’s death, some of those of us in the tribe gathered to talk about the role of the Dead in our lives and our missing leader. John Barlow, writer for the Dead and also leader of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, addressed us at this conference. He explained that the band had made multiple attempts to help Jerry get out of the grip of heroin. he told us that the band had told Jerry that it was them or the heroin, Jerry said he chose the heroin. Later in this same gathering, in tears and anger, John blamed us for the death of Jerry. He was emotional at the time, we all were. We had gathered to discuss the future of our tribe but this was harsh. To the best of my understanding, in some sense he was right. Jerry sacrificed himself to The Grateful Dead. The role he held as the defacto leader of what really was a leaderless group, the pressure to keep creating and keep the Grateful Dead machine running, all of these stressors were what ultimately killed Jerry. Don’t get me wrong, I am not absolving Jerry of personal responsibility for his death. There is no divine entity asking for his death to appease the Gods, but the stress of that role almost required Jerry to seek refuge. In another interview Jerry stated that he always wanted to see The Grateful Dead. He stated that what we experienced as audience members was far beyond anything he could imagine and he wanted to understand the experience from the outside point of view.

As I write this I am in a melancholy mood. There is so much to say about that fateful moment so many years ago. That night, we gathered for a candlelight vigil in Piedmont park. Similar vigils were held the world over. There were displays throughout the park that had been made with signs like, we miss you poppa bear, and He’s Gone, and nothings gonna bring him back. The week that followed was one of mourning. Our local radio station held an all live Dead weekend in which they played bootlegs of Jerry’s greatest moments and solo’s all weekend long. Somewhere here in the house I have VCR tapes that I recorded of the event. I just wanted to keep it all, for posterity, for memory, and because the moment was frozen, there was no moving forward from this event.

Now here we are 18 years later. I still mourn but I see the waves that the band created. I see the way that the music, one great cacaphonous and harmonious entity, has splintered into a million myriad mirror images. The remaining band members keep the spirit alive playing a slightly smaller slate of shows than their predecessors. Each new band or configuration, mirrors the original in distorted but amazing ways. It would be near impossible to explain all of these and for those who are not already connected to the flock it would be confusing. Suffice it to say Jerry is with us in spirit in every musical gathering that bears the Dead’s music. He sits behind Phil and Bob, hopefully laughing, dancing, and digging the way the tunes have evolved. He is forever perched above whether in memory or in spirit finally able to experience a Grateful Dead show.

I miss you Jerry!

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March 28th, 1989 was when I first met Jerry Garcia. He was at least 1000 feet away but he and his friends shared something with me that would change my life forever.

Some friends and I picked up Grateful Dead tickets. I didn’t what was so important about them. I had seen the oft broadcast “Touch of Grey” video and at the time, I was not terribly impressed. Nevertheless, I was a recent graduate of the Owsley institute, and my friends explained to me that this was one of the most important bands to come out of the 60s music movement. So with high hopes and a lot of confusion I made the trek to the Omni arena in downtown Atlanta.

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I might have noticed the parking lot scene but thought nothing of it. I just followed my friends in to the show. Our seats were almost at the top of the Omni. My friend D started to cry because we were so far away. Nevertheless our other friend who was playing the ground control role for this adventure managed to explain that “they are just guys on stage, there is nothing to really see”. I am certain I don’t remember his exact words but he consoled her and eventually things were calm again.

To say I remember the opening of the show would also be a lie. Getting used to the world of The Grateful Dead takes a lot of adjustment. There is a throng of fans waiting for the music with an anticipation that I had never seen before. The lights went down and I was immediately caught by how powerful the appreciation for the band was. Still I did not know any of the songs. They opened with “Let the good times roll”. With hindsight I can see that this was a special opener but at the time, I was just taking it all in.

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I decided to wander down to the concession to get a drink. This is when the bus came by people. I don’t remember if I ever got the drink or not. What I do remember is that I was transfixed by two things. First the Omni had set up speakers on the outer ring, outside of the concert arena so you could hear the music everywhere you went. People were dancing around the speakers, campfire vibrations and good feelings all around. Then there was Opal. She was a vision of beauty though I doubt I could describe her accurately now. So let’s pretend that my memory is good. She was everything you expect out of a little hippy girl, long stringy blond hair, a beatific smile and a come hither young Woody body that had me mesmerized. I stopped and danced with her, completely unaware of all my former shyness. She was the symbol of all of the freedoms that being a fan of the Dead would offer. Dancing with her was a huge surprise to me and she just engaged me so easily as if we had known each other for years. I explained that this was my first show and she invited me to join her and her friends. “Franklin’s Tower” was playing and we were all rolling away the dew. I managed to say that I would come back after I told my friends where I would be. Sadly I never saw her again.

The return to my friends was something of an encouragement session. “You’ve got to come down here and see- they are dancing everywhere”. If my memory serves me, I did finally get them all to come out and see the circus of colorful dancers. My sugar magnolia girl was nowhere in sight, maybe it was all a dream. Mr. Ground Control seemed to think that the girl would have taken me away and I would never have returned…she would have. We would have had a life on the road seeing shows, dancing, and sampling all of the universes pleasures along the way. We would have had several deadhead children whom we would have carried with us from show to show. This whole hippily ever after story evolved in my mind but I quickly let go of Opal and let myself dance and enjoy the music.

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The return to the seats was a bit of a letdown after experiencing so much pleasure in the dance ring. A more welcoming crowd you would never find anywhere. Nevertheless we returned to the seats and the intermission passed with little fanfare. It was in the second set that my mind, already bursting with joy juice, was blow to smithereens. Oh, it didn’t happen immediately, but ever so slowly I became aware of an ebb and flow between the band and the audience. It was a communication of sorts, the band would play, the audience would respond and we all became one mind floating in a sea of uncertainty. The Grateful Dead were at the helm of the big ship and the ship itself ran on the music. Not only did the music provide all of our forward momentum, but the words in the songs indicated the space we were in. Whether we were tearing this old building down with Samson and Delilah, or we were barreling into the heart of the night sky with Playin in the Band. I was aware that the audience responded with a different tenor to each song. There was a symbiosis involved and it became clear to me that the audience and the dead were one circuit of information.

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Drums and space careened through the strangest places I had ever been musically. It was so otherworldly I was both frightened and frozen. People all over the arena were lighting up joints, and the whole place got incredibly smoky. Clearly the songs being played required a mind sacrifice as the whole place seemed to be a smoke filled den. And then we hit Throwing stones- “Ashes, Ashes all fall down” and all of the smoke dissipated. People stopped lighting up and I had the realization that there were rituals for each song. In the long run, I probably did not interpret that correctly, but at the time the communication was clear. The dead were saying, “It’s time to bring the ship back down to earth, cool the engines, walk out of here and go change the world”- They did not verbalize it, but I heard it loud and clear. They closed with Not Fade Away, the old Buddy Holly classic turned worship song. In that song the Dead explained to us all that they would be back and their love would not fade away and we all in turn explained in unison that ours would not either.

Leaving the show was a strange trip. I knew something life changing had happened back there, I heard the altar call, the message for going back out into the real world and making a new start, transforming the world into a better place. For me it was evangelical. It was never spoken, but the clear message was to bring others to the experience. Turn on the masses so that they could feel the same connection and bliss that I did that evening. I did just that.

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In my 6 years following the band to over 50 shows, I turned on a lot of people. Not so much to the drugs, but to the experience of being a deadhead. I collected shows, went on long road trips, and almost formed all of my thesis ideas around the prospect that something special was happening here. That was the day I met Jerry Garcia. I did not know his name, nor did I know any other band members but I was called to witness and I have done my best to show others the transformative power of the music. Jerry may be gone, but The Grateful Dead is timeless. It rears up from the depths in every setting in which the music is played. It still catches people long after Jerry’s death. I have met many younger listeners who never saw Jerry alive but they continue to dance and shake their bones at Further shows and the menagerie of Dead cover bands and offshoots that have sprung from the ashes of The Grateful Dead.

The Days Between

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Hi there friends- I have been trying to develop a series of posts- all of which wait on the back burner in editing. This is not to say that I am working hard at them, just to say that they are not yet ready for public consumption. However, this week a very special reason to post has popped up and I am just going to offer you all a set of daily posts wrapped inside one theme- The Grateful Dead.

Aug. 1st is Jerry Garcia’s birthday and this period of time, the run from Aug 1 to Aug 9th the date that Jerry died, have become special to most deadheads. We callĀ  days between his birth and his death “the days between” in line with a song of the same name.

The song in question is a very special song to me and perhaps to many deadheads. While it never had that soaring Jerry vocal that it could have had with a great deal of practice in concert. Bob Weir, rhythm guitarist for the Grateful Dead and heir apparent for picking up the Deads heavy mantel, has made this song his own. When I hear the song in concert from Furthur (the revamped vehicle for Grateful Dead music), it brings Jerry to mind. I can remember being in Simpsonville South Carolina 2 summers ago during a Further tour. We were on this nice thick flat lawn. The sun had heated things up all day but now we were near the end of the show. It was quite a show and perhaps one of my favorite from that year- but that is another story. Bobby brought this song up and sang it with such passion and zeal that it was a fitting tribute to the big man. And I and my newfound pals, (as everyone becomes temporary brothers and sisters at a dead show), were also wailing away. It was hard not to feel Jerry’s presence.

The Days Between- Garcia/Hunter

There were days
and there were days
and there were days between
Summer flies and August dies
the world grows dark and mean
Comes the shimmer of the moon
on black infested trees
the singing man is at his song
the holy on their knees
The reckless are out wrecking
The timid plead their pleas
No one knows much more of this
than anyone can see anyone can see
There were days
and there were days
and there were days besides
when phantom ships with phantom sails
set to sea on phantom tides
Comes the lightning of the sun
on bright unfocused eyes
the blue of yet another day
a springtime wet with sighs
a hopeful candle lingers
in the land of lullabies
where headless horsemen vanish
with wild and lonely cries lonely cries
There were days
and there were days
and there were days I know
when all we ever wanted
was to learn and love and grow
Once we grew into our shoes
we told them where to go
Walked halfway around the world
on promise of the glow
Stood upon a mountain top
Walked barefoot in the snow
Gave the best we had to give
How much we’ll never know we’ll never know
There were days
and there were days
and there were days between
polished like a golden bowl
The finest ever seen
Hearts of Summer held in trust
still tender, young and green
left on shelves collecting dust
not knowing what they mean
Valentines of flesh and blood
as soft as velveteen
hoping love would not forsake
the days that lie between lie between

Even today, 18 years after the death of Jerry Garcia, I mourn his absence. No musician that I know of has had the kind of impact on me that he and The Grateful Dead have had. So I wanted to communicate my love for his music and wisdom in a series of posts that will fill The Days Between. In the next few days I will write about the ways in which The Grateful Dead have changed my life. Hopefully, it will resonate with those who have been on the journey with me, and it will give some vision of the journey that the band took me on from 1989 to now.

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Today I am simply going to post one of my favorite songs from Jerry Garcia. This one comes from Workingman’s Dead- an album of folk acoustic brilliance that took me away to some never imagined place. The album itself was a modern folk masterpiece offering up a mythology cast in the irons of the industrial revolution and speaking of the woes of the peoples that were crushed by the sweeping changes that the industrial age cast upon the common people, the folk. The Grateful Dead took the simple folk melodies and made them sing for me, more than any other folk artist had done. To this day, the album still speaks to me. But this was one of the greatest values in the songwriting of the Dead, every song could be reinterpreted by the listener, a tilted rorschach of personal information waiting to be discovered over and over again by each individual listener. Sure the songs have meaning, but where the Grateful Dead made the most headway was when they could stitch together verse and song to reveal a scaffold of the listener- you can find yourself in almost every song. So here I present to you, “High Time”- a song that has gotten me through many bad times and helped my spirit soar at times when it most needed it. I hope you will enjoy it as well. This one is from 1977 one of my favorite years of live material from the band.

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