When a member of the Grateful Dead comes to your hometown to do a show and you’re a deadhead, you go see them. It is a refreshing break from the usual vagabond travel ritual synonymous with seeing the Dead. Chasing the Grateful Dead around the country was one of America’s great adventures, but a member of the band coming to you is almost like a deadhead’s lifetime achievement award.
I’ve seen the Grateful Dead a total of 72 times over the span of 13 years, from Augusta, Maine to Phoenix, and from Florida to Eugene, Ore. My first show was at the Syracuse Carrier Dome in ’83, my last at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in Las Vegas in ’95.
A lot like skiing and ski bums here locally, there was a barometer of true dedication amongst deadheads. It was the 100-show mark. I wonder if anyone will take Mickey Hart skiing up on Ajax to see the Jerry Garcia shrine?
The first song I heard them play live was “Shakedown Street,” and the last was “Sugar Magnolia.” I traveled by car, train, greyhound bus and plane to see the Dead, and had some pretty mind-bending experiences along the way. As they say, it’s often about the journey and not necessarily the destination. When it came to seeing the Grateful Dead, it was almost equally about both.
The music of the Grateful Dead is like a churning, psychedelic Dixieland. The lyrics give you a prod intellectually. It’s certainly not for everyone, but once you’re hooked — or “on the bus” as they say — you’re hooked. I still listen to bootleg recordings practically every day. During one show at the Meadowlands arena I had a major epiphany when I finally figured out the time signature to “The Eleven.”
I had a theory that every time the Grateful Dead played a concert, at least 100 people lost their jobs. They missed a shift, said they were sick, tried to somehow snake out of work or said “take this job and shove it” just to hear Jerry and the boys do their thing. My suspicions were always confirmed by the huge lines at every pay phone in the venues. I could only imagine the fish tales people were telling their loved ones or bosses on the other end of those telephone lines.
I landed myself in a pot of hot water more than once by going out on tour. One time I got into so much trouble, truckin’ up to Buffalo to see the Dead, even my grandmother got involved. But alas, deadheads cannot be stopped. They are like deviant, long haired, non-hygienic constantly dancing Terminators, determined to see a show at any and all costs. I remember watching the security guards at shows on the verge of a nervous breakdown trying to stop people from dancing in the isles.
In retrospect, one of the great things about seeing the Dead was that it was before the time of the Internet or cell phones. You mail ordered for your tickets, got out a road atlas, and hit the asphalt in search of the great intangible. If you were going to meet someone, you set a time and a place, and if it happened it happened. At various times out in the parking lot, or in the venue, you would see people find each other and have these huge celebratory reunion hugs and lots of jumping up and down as if they were separated at birth or something, then one would exclaim “Man, what a trip! I haven’t seen you since the Frost shows!”
Another big part of seeing the Dead was wondering what the set list was going to be. Every show was different musically, so there was an element of mystery surrounding what songs they were going to play any given evening.
The Internet has all but spoiled the romance and intrigue surrounding many bands and their shows thanks to the douches holding up their iPhones (performers hate that by the way) the whole time. Try going to a show and taking a mental picture. Enjoy just being there and cultivate a lasting memory of your concert experience. And as for Internet band fan sites, chat rooms and message boards — avoid them like the plague.
Generally speaking, deadheads are adventurous and lovers of the outdoors. They are mystery seekers. They will look high and low, far and wide to pursue the musical dream. I got lucky and actually met Jerry Garcia, backstage at Cal Expo. I shook the hand that was missing the part of the middle finger.
There was a dark side to the Grateful Dead and going to shows. Over the years I got an eyeful. It wasn’t all butterflies and care-bears. There was desperation, thievery, and lives ruined. Some of the things I saw still haunt me. To those who’re interested, I’d suggest reading “Dark Star” by Robert Greenfield — probably the most objective overview of Jerry Garcia — and a look at what we all were afraid of admitting, if not entirely incapable of coming to terms with.
Gazing back at all gallivanting and debauchery involved in being a deadhead, I’m thankful to have been an active participant in what was arguably one of the greatest counterculture experiments in our lifetime. The Dead’s publicist once insinuated that deadheads were somewhat spiritually bankrupt individuals. I’m quick to admit that being a deadhead is probably the closest I’ll ever come to being religious, or in a cult.
We’ll see all y’all deadheads at the Belly Up tonight. I’m calling for a “Cumberland Blues” opener as a tip of the hat to Aspen’s mining heritage. And remember: Have a good show.
Email Lorenzo at firstname.lastname@example.org.