You never forget your first time. My first Grateful Dead concert took place on May 15, 1970 at the Fillmore East in New York City. I was a high school senior and my older brother let me tag along with him and a bunch of his long-hair college buddies down from Vermont. The New Riders of the Purple Sage opened the show around midnight ii featuring the Dead’s lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, on pedal-steel guitar — and then the Dead came on and spent the rest of the night scrambling my brain and changing my life.
I stood along the left wall down by the stage, toking on the joints that kept coming my way. The smoke was so thick in the air it was impossible not to get high. I’d been to plenty of rock concerts by then, but nothing like this, nothing so loud, so kinetic, so loose and unpredictable and alive. I knew a little bit about the Dead, mostly through Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but nothing can prepare you for the physicality of their music. It was like riding a locomotive into outer space, the old theater heaving as everyone in the packed house moved in unison. A huge screen behind the band — it looked like the world’s largest bed sheet — zoomed and squiggled with a stroboscopic lava-lamp light show. When the music finally stopped, we stumbled out a side exit onto East Sixth Street at dawn, where we were serenaded by a bunch of Hells Angels doing wheelies up the one-way street on their Harleys in the wrong direction. Oh, hell yes! Throw out all the rules! A perfect ending to a mind-bending, life-altering night.
Though I attended a few dozen Dead concerts after that one, I never considered myself a card-carrying Deadhead. You know, the fans who go on the road for months at a time following the band, taping the shows, hawking jewelry and tie-dyed t-shirts to pay for gas and bail, eating acid the way ordinary citizens eat Cheerios. My attendance at so many shows had more to do with dumb luck than true tribal passion. My college roommate happened to have a friend who ran the box office at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., a regular port of call on Dead tours, and so we often found ourselves with our feet propped on the edge of the stage, melting into our free front-row seats as the acid kicked in and the Dead blasted off. No wonder I barely squeaked through college.
My roommate owned every Dead album then in existence, and one of them was almost always spinning on the turntable in our dorm room. So relentless was the music that I can remember an exasperated neighbor shouting through our open door, “Please guys, not ‘Sugaree’ again!?” The Dead were not to every taste, as I was learning, and a backlash had begun to build. In time, bumper stickers would appear that proclaimed I’ll Be Grateful When They’re Dead. The music critic Dave Marsh dubbed the Dead “the worst band in creation.”
Fast-forward a couple of decades to a scalding July day in 1990. I was working as a newspaper columnist in North Carolina at the time, and I couldn’t resist the chance to attend a Dead concert at N.C. State’s massive football stadium in Raleigh. It would be a chance to see what my youth looked like as my 40th birthday loomed.
It looked ghastly. What I saw wasn’t mere nostalgia, a bunch of aging baby boomers trying to recapture a glimmer of the good old days, the kind of people you see nowadays at concerts by The Who or Billy Joel or The Rolling Stones, (a.k.a, “the world’s greatest cover band”). No, in Raleigh I saw a whole new generation of fans, young enough to be my children, who were more or less going through the same motions people had gone through a quarter of a century earlier. There were still plenty of “spinners,” those barefoot dancing dervishes. There were still plenty of bandanas, tie-dyes, and patchouli. Only now, that big bed sheet on the stage of the Fillmore East had been replaced by state-of-the-art video screens. There were whole mountain ranges of amplifiers, slick lighting, stands selling expensive souvenir caps, pins, stickers, and tie-dyed t-shirts, plus popcorn at $2 a box. This was the production a very big business, more a corporation than a scruffy, countercultural jam band. In the course of the 1990s, the Dead would become the biggest-grossing tour act in the world. When I mentioned that delightfully crude 1970 light show at the Fillmore East to the Dead’s then-current publicist, Dennis McNally, he told me, “We know better now.’’
I wasn’t so sure. As I wrote in my column, the 35,000 fans who showed up in Raleigh comprised “a huge army of robots going through the same old motions, over and over and over again…a whole new generation of fans who missed the ’60s but learned to mimic behavior and dress that were once outlandish but are now merely old hat.”
Fast forward a couple more decades, and the Grateful Dead is getting ready to put on three 50th-anniverary shows in Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend, which they swear are going to be their last concerts ever. The death of the Dead has been reported, erroneously, many times since Jerry Garcia suffered a fatal heart attack at age 53 in 1995 while undergoing rehab for a heroin addiction. But every time the band was pronounced dead, they seemed to revive with a new name, a new lineup. So while I’m understandably skeptical of this latest proclamation of a final set of shows, I choose to be optimistic that this time the band finally, honestly, really really really means it.
I say I’m optimistic for a number of reasons. First, 50 years is a long enough run for any rock band. Second, there’s nothing sadder than watching a performer overstay his or her welcome (cf. Mick Jagger, Michael Jordan, Elvis). And third, since Garcia’s death the band has employed a number of guitarists to try to recapture his inimitable aura (Trey Anastasio of Phish has the thankless job on the current Fare Thee Well tour), and while I’m not one of those purists who sees this as sacrilegious, I do think it’s vaguely creepy and more than a little opportunistic. It’s also a reminder that the Dead long ago became a very big and very rich corporation with a bottom line to consider. That’s not a knock on their success. It’s just a fact.
What a long strange trip it’s been — long and strange and glorious and sad. No doubt about that. But all trips must come to an end, and it’s time — it’s past time — for the Grateful Dead to bid us good night, good night, good night.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.