I’ve been thinking a lot about Jerry Garcia. Not that I don’t think about Jerry Garcia almost every day. I also listen to Jerry Garcia all the time. Yes. I’m a confirmed, dyed-in-the-tie-dyed-wool Deadhead. Have been since 1978. I didn’t see the Grateful Dead until 1980. I would end up seeing them live over 80 times from 1980 to 1995.
So for 2 years I just listened to albums and my one tape I taped off some radio show, the King Biscuit Flower Hour. I had the radio on my nightstand. I was 16, and I had one of those cassette player/recorders, the long flat ones from the 70’s—that was the only way to record stuff on a budget. Anyway, I had one of those and I put it next to the radio on my nightstand and taped the broadcast.
This was my first experience hearing live Grateful Dead music other than what was on the live albums. It was monumental. I became a tapehead and traded live Grateful Dead concert tapes—rather I taped other people’s tapes. I had no tapes to start. We would get together at someone’s house, preferably someone with a lot of tapes, since me and my friends didn’t have many tapes, and we’d hook up two or four cassette decks together (how, I don’t remember, but we did) and we’d copy their tapes. I remember one guy had at least 2 clothes dresser drawers filled with live bootleg Dead tapes. All arranged by date and day. It was a sight to see.
(Don’t worry, the Dead allowed people to tape their shows. Jerry said, “When we’re done with it, they can have it…” So this wasn’t illegal activity we were engaging in.)
This was back in the early 1980’s when there was no internet or streaming. The only way you could hear live Grateful Dead music was either on the albums, the tapes, radio broadcasts or live, in the flesh at some venue.
Then, in December of 1980, I saw my first live Grateful Dead concert. Long Beach Arena. I saw two that weekend. Me and a bunch of friends from high school piled in a blue van one of our friends had and drove from Santa Monica to Long Beach. We were 16.
I was ecstatic. I had built up such a huge desire to see the band live. It was like getting a front row seat to heaven, or thereabouts. I’m not exaggerating. To finally see this legendary band live was so exciting, I don’t think anything has been as exciting since. Certainly not going to see a movie and eating popcorn.
It was a revelation.
I had been waiting and waiting for over 2 years, building up expectations and they did not disappoint. There is nothing like (or there “was”) nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. Bill Graham, the famous promoter, said that. And he was right. It was an event; an experience; a happening; a gathering; an exploration; a journey…through music, dance, community.
15 – 20,000 people all linked up and grooving to this band in a big round concrete and steel arena. The sound reverberating through the space, loud and alive and magical. Lights. Applause. And dancing. LOTS of dancing. Everyone was dancing. 20,000 people moving and swaying to the rhythms and especially Jerry’s solos. He was the Pied Piper of the electric guitar. His solos took you on a journey. Like poetry in sound. Opening doorways and pathways to invisible spaces in the hall and your mind.
I’d been to many other rock concerts before seeing the Dead. So I knew what a live rock show was like. This was different. This was way more communal and spiritual.
(Yeah, yeah…listen to the Dead freak pontificate…)
It was the music. The music was highly improvisational. “In the moment” music. Music for that night and that night only. It was the band and how they interacted with each other and the audience. Creating a symbiotic flow. A give and take. A back and forth. A closed loop of music, lights, dance and sound.
So I’ve been thinking of Jerry and how committed he was to do this his entire adult life. Play live. Travel. Be a star and still grow and evolve as a musician. Never once settling on his past. Always pushing, moving forward. FURTHER. That was the name of the magic psychedelic bus Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters used to drive across the country in 1964 attempting to enlighten the world. (I don’t know if that was their intent. But they definitely wanted to roll through America spreading some kind of joy.)
It was a day-glo painted bus, full of wild, joyful colors—you can see it online. And they took acid and drove across the country. Spreading a little color and life and craziness across the dull grey conformist landscape that was America in the mid-1960’s.
And the Grateful Dead played with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in the Acid Tests. And then the Dead took it even further. For over 30 years. Becoming one of the top grossing live acts in the country. From a tiny bunch of unkempt hippies in San Francisco to a massive beast of a band selling out stadiums and arenas all over the land.
And through it all, Jerry kept playing. Unwinding his heart and soul and bones into his fingers and out his 6 strings.
He once said he wanted to play like Jack Kerouac wrote—endless lines, improvised, just rolling out in a great beautiful flow.
And I think he succeeded. If you listen to Jerry, imagine he’s writing a story. An unending story of a man’s thoughts, dreams, feelings, rolling out and making people dance. They had no choice. The music made you dance. If not with your body, with your mind, your spirit and your soul.
So yeah…thinking of Jerry this morning. Thanking him with this. It takes a lot sometimes to stay focused on your path. Whatever that path is. No matter what.