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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.