It doesn’t seem like it was 10 years ago.
The day was Aug. 9, 1995. The time, if I recall, was around 11 a.m. I had just come out of a meeting to discuss a story I had been working on. When I sat down at my desk, a musically-aware photographer we worked with came up and said this:
“I just heard Jerry Garcia is dead?”
It was a question, not a statement. The photo guy never really like the Dead much, but he still acted like he couldn’t believe it.
I checked the wire. Sure enough, the Associated Press had just moved a short bulletin, something like “Sixties rock icon Jerry Garcia found dead at age 53.”
Before I could even say anything to the photographer, my phone rang. It was Juan, with the same news. I don’t remember much after that.
For me, being a Deadhead wasn’t a full-time gig, but I did manage to see around 40 shows in the decade leading up to Garcia’s death, and the subsequent announcement that the Grateful Dead would disband.
I took it hard, like you would the death of an old friend. I left the newsroom, went home and sat in a dark apartment, listening to old concert tapes and watching as reaction trickled in on the evening news.
Don McLean wrote in “American Pie” that the death of Buddy Holly in 1959 was the day the music died.
On Aug. 9, 1995, I felt like McLean was wrong, by about 36 years.
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June 6, 1984. Juan, Marcus and I had finagled pavilion seats at Blossom to see the Dead for the first time. And that, my friends, is quite an experience for three 17-year-olds from suburbia. A guy selling doses strolled by the big orange truck even before we stepped outside. I don’t think I knew veggie burritos existed before that day, and I could have purchased one from about a dozen parking-lot vendors we passed by. I distinctly remember backing nervously away from the road as a group of honest-to-god Hells Angels, about 30 of them, thundered by as they headed to their special parking area and a fistful of backstage passes.
This is all before the show began.
I had an awesome time that night — Juan got “Bertha” for the opener, just like he had dreamed, and I got great blues stuff like “West L.A.” and “C.C. Rider,” and “U.S. Blues” was the encore of my VERY FIRST SHOW, for christsake.
But I didn’t get it yet.
That came a year later at Riverbend, when the second set nailed me to the wall of the pavilion so Garcia could come down, saw off the top of my head and stir my brain with the neck of Tiger, the guitar he was using at the time. We heard breakouts, rarities and sparkling performances all around. We capped the show with a thunderous “Good Lovin’” and another “U.S.” encore. And like everyone else in the pavilion, we stood and screamed for 15 minutes after the band left the stage, even as the crew began breaking stuff down for the load-out.
And that set me on a path all over the eastern half of the United States: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia. Garcia said being a Deadhead was “The Last Great American Adventure.” I chased it for 11 years.
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My last show was my only one of the Summer 1995 tour. That summer tour was plagued by big crowds, gate crashing and wildly inconsistent performances, many of which were attributable to Garcia’s heroin addiction, but the Pittsburgh show turned out to be one of the best of the year.
And it was ungodly hot. Rusted Root was able to coax a few raindrops from the sky during its opening set, but in the long run that only made the air thicker.
True relief came at the start of the Dead’s second set. Big drops, the size of nickels, began to tumble, just as GD started the acapella intro to their version of The Beatles’ “Rain.” Or was it the other way around? Which came first, band or precipitation?
After a mini-suite of rain-themed songs, the band closed its second set with Garcia singing “Standing on the Moon,” a song of simple reflection befitting their 30 years together — and what would their last Pittsburgh appearance. I didn’t know that would be the last time, but I don’t think I would have picked a different way to end it than that, even if I had the chance.
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Ask a Deadhead what makes their favorite band different, and you’re likely to hear 2,317 different answers, one for each of the shows the band played in 40 years. The parking lot. The food. The beer. The drugs. The Jerry tunes. The Weir tunes. Finally getting to hear Phil sing. Wishing he would stop (unless he’s singing “Box of Rain” or “Unbroken Chain.”). Drums > Space. That one Garcia lick that seemed to find every night.
The fact that a Dead show was participatory, something that the folks on our side of the stage had a real say in what transpired and how good it was.
The anticipation. The payoff. The golden yummies.
For me, it came down to the music. I’ve learned that in the right hands, songs are living, breathing things, and can be cooperative or highly cantankerous. Each time the lights went down, this group of confirmed misfits wasn’t content to leave them alone. Instead, they worked them over, smashing them together, turning them inside out.
It’s musical alchemy. Definitely an inexact science. And sometimes it didn’t work — I remember a night in Detroit in 1992 that never seemed to get started, and I remember other sets took a long time to do so.
But when it did, we had the pleasure of feeling tangible waves of energy rolling from the stage and through the arena, stadium or pavilion. Sometimes the energy picked up from the get-go and rolled through the entire show: The Riverbend show I mentioned already, Atlanta and Hampton in 1988, Louisville in 1990, Chapel Hill in 1993, Buckeyes, Richfields… Or, even better in my mind, we had the privilege of witnessing creation, like in a segue between “He’s Gone” and the nightly drum duet at a Richfield Coliseum show in the spring of 1994 — a 10-minute snippet of something brand new being conjured onstage, under shifting purple and green lights.
You can’t get higher than that.
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Being a Deadhead also was the kick in the ass I needed to start checking out music that I never would have touched, say, when I was in high school. You listen to “Cumberland Blues,” for example, and that leads to checking out Old and In The Way, Garcia’s bluegrass outfit from the early 1970s. And then before you know it, you’re sitting on the lawn at Hartwood Acres listening to Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. You read Mickey Hart’s books about percussion, and then you’re buying CDs that feature Nigerian percussion master Babatunde Olatunji and buying tickets to see Japan’s Kodo drummers.
You find yourself in a theater seeing Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and you know why you’re there. You get excited about seeing a mandolin-driven jazz band (Jazz Mandolin Project, twice). You actually buy 10 concert recordings by Phish and listen to them until you feel like you get it (and then, two years later, suffer when they disband after you’ve seen just five shows).
And we still have plenty of chances to see the guys — besides the three tours the remaining original members have done together, Weir tours with Ratdog, Lesh has a band with a rotating lineup and Mickey has expanded his percussive explorations, this year teaming up with electronica wizards Particle to form a new band called Hyrda.
We have other options as well. Phish left a void when they hung it up, but bands like moe., the Derek Trucks Band, Umphrey’s McGee and Widespread Panic, who nearly levitated the Chevrolet Amphitheatre at Station Square last week, still attract folks like me: People chasing for the musical buzz.
It’s been 10 years, and I know now that I was the one who was wrong: The music hasn’t died. Garcia is no longer with us, but I’m happy to find that the adventure hasn’t ended in his absence.