Let Us Now Be Grateful That They’re (Finally!) (Honestly!) (Really Really Really!) Dead

July 2, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 9 4 min read

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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.

coverI 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.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

9 comments:

  1. Speaking as someone who went to more than 100 shows (almost all in the 1980s), I am genuinely baffled by the notion that the Dead didn’t end when Jerry Garcia died. You can no more have the Grateful Dead without Jerry than you could have the John Coltrane Quartet without John Coltrane.

    But Bill Morris, you are just exemplifying the tendency of aging people always and everywhere to romanticize their youth and look down on today’s youngsters. As a 20-something non-touring Berkeley-based Deadhead in the ’80s, I can tell you that the culture surrounding the band at that time was organic and genuine, and had nothing to do with nostalgia. We loved the music and had a great time together, and we were not pining for or envying or trying to replicate the experiences you had in the 70s.

  2. Thank you, James Harrigan. Bill, I’ve been enjoying your posts, but I’m so annoyed by middle-aged dudes describing their “toking on whatever joint came my way” scenes of 1970 as though 1970 were the only time this could have possibly taken place. I understand nostalgia. Truly I do. But Baby Boomers do not have the corner on jam bands. Or kind bud. 30 year-olds like myself have never seen the Dead but are still more than capable of feeling totally and happily immersed in their music. I have the same knee-jerk happy reactions to the openings of “China Cat Sunflower” or “Casey Jones” that I imagine some 60 year-olds have. It’s music. It transcends. You’re no more authentic than I am for enjoying a few songs- the scene you’re pining for transcends, too. The best thing about the scene these days is that no one is prematurely mourning its loss. Millennials (shit, even Gen Xers –>) understand that no one has the corner on jam bands or kind bud. Get out to a music festival or two this summer. Let the kids (and their parents) enjoy those Dead shows for exactly what they are. Just because you’re ready to say goodbye to an era of your own life doesn’t mean the rest of the Deadheads feel the same way. <3

  3. Thank you, James Harrigan and Devil’s Advocate, for reading and responding. And thank you, especially, for calling me a “middle-aged” dude. I wish!

    You both mention that I’m guilty of nostalgia, which is a bittersweet longing for the past. The point of my essay is exactly the opposite: that it’s time for the Dead and its fans to let go of the past and go on to something new. As for the notion that the ’60s and ’70s were the only golden age when people got high – believe me, when I smoke the “kind bud” available today, that stuff we smoked at the Fillmore East seems like rabbit tobacco by comparison. And don’t worry, I may be middle-aged (or beyond) but I get out to music festivals every summer. Thanks again, and happy Fourth of July.

  4. You don’t have to let go of anything to try something new. Why not savor your musical past while exposing yourself to what’s contemporary?

  5. Out on the road today, I saw a DEADHEAD sticker on a Cadillac
    A little voice inside my head said, “Don’t look back. You can never look back”
    — Don Henley, Boys of Summer, 1984.

  6. Geez Bill Morris, what is the point of your silly rant anyway? Apparently you didn’t really care for the Dead in the 70’s, and now you still don’t. Wow, woopie, guess what, I don’t really care, to bad for you. My suggestion to you however would be to have stayed home then, don’t go! I’ve just enjoyed all the Chicago shows immensely. Even with Jerry gone, the music still evolves and lives on without him, that’s the whole point.

    By the way do you also tell fans of, and symphonies that play 300 year old classical music, that they should just get over it and move on? Or fan’s of 1940’s, 50’s, or 60’s Jazz music that the guy who recorded it, is dead now so forget about it?

  7. I like Bill Morris, but find this article to be tired. The Dead’s music transcends Jerry (the music beyond the bare bones was created by the band, and the lyrics were created by Robert Hunter, so the task of moving on without Jerry isn’t as hard as it seems once you get past the cult of personality). Phil Lesh and Friends will be back on tour soon, as will Weir, Hart, Bobby, and whoever (John Mayer, et al.), not to mention Phish, and the possibility of another Fare Thee Well date on the east coast…

    Further, I live in Raleigh–I find the fans in the mentioned concert at NC State’s football stadium ‘going through the same old motions’ and mimicking behaviors and garb to be doing nothing different than the folks who normally populate the stadium for a football game, though the dress and rituals are slightly different.

    I do agree, though, that it is hard being jaded when you still want to have fun…

    Long live the Dead!

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