The long, strange trip has ended. The Grateful Dead — the brand, as much as the band — took a well deserved victory lap over the July 4th weekend, breaking records for attendance at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Over 70,000 gray-haired white dudes (not to generalize) shelled out huge bucks to witness this final bow, with a number twice that streaming a pay-per-view feed over various platforms and tweeting encouragement via the hashtags #gd50, #faretheewell and #couchtour.
Like everything else about the Grateful Dead, these three shows (plus two warm-ups in Santa Clara, California) are a little hard to fit into a box. It represents the end of an era as well as the passing of the torch. “I can’t figure out/if it’s the beginning or the end,” the band shout/sung on the final night during their slow, complex number “Terrapin Station,” expanding into their lengthy, atonal, improvisatory call to the spheres known as “Drums > Space,” and then pivoting back to singalong rockers like Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and their own simple diddy (and only real bonafide hit) “Touch of Grey.”
Yeah, hard to put into a box, especially when you consider that, by any reasonable measure, the Grateful Dead ended 20 years ago with the death of Jerry Garcia. They were always a band, with multiple singers and multiple strengths, but Jerry was the leader. He sang and co-wrote most of the popular songs and his blazing, sheets-of-sound lead guitar playing (some called it Coltrane-esque, some called it noodling) paired with his Santa Claus appearance made him the natural focal point. (Plus, he was really funny.) I remember the day he died, August 9th, 1995 — believe it or not I was on the way to see Santana at an outdoor venue in New Jersey. After the initial wails of “oh, man” and “bummer” I turned to my friend with two chief concerns. First, what would happen to all the people whose lives, and livelihoods, were centered on following The Dead as the caravan criss-crossed the nation on a never-ending tour? Second, would the rest of the band be so disrespectful as to continue playing as The Grateful Dead?
To the first question, many of the younger fans found a natural perch with the band Phish, a group still distinctive in their own sound (a little less of the bluegrass, a little more of the funk) but with a good amount of overlap. To the second, the remaining members stayed on the road just as much, but with their own acts, frequently sitting in with one another. When they headlined as a group (or groupings) it was either as “The Other Ones” (this self-deprecating name taken from one of rhythm guitarist/singer Bob Weir’s jammier tunes) or “Furthur” or simply “The Dead.”
“Furthur” was a reference to Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters’ psychedelic school bus, known to anyone who has read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or seen any PBS documentary about the ‘60s ever. The Grateful Dead’s role in drug culture is just that pivotal. They were the “house band” of the initial Bay Area acid tests — the music that fueled The Bus as it rode through conformist America with an intent to freak people out, get high, get laid and end war and stuff, too, yeah. As the ’60s became the ’70s the music never stopped. The band, whose sound engineer Owsley Stanley, also the most respected LSD chemist in the land, helped design the state-of-the-art “Wall of Sound,” a revolutionary amplification system that forever changed the concert-going experience. He also began recording live performances, patching directly into the soundboard. The distribution of these tapes — some legit through the official record label, some not — led to the underground network of music sharing that, to youngsters raised on Internet file-sharing, sounds impossible.
“If you’ve only heard the studio albums, you haven’t heard the Grateful Dead.” This is what I remember being told, by some kid at camp whose name I can’t remember, as I was first exploring this music in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Touch of Grey” was already a huge MTV hit (the old hippies became skeletons on stage!) The tapes, oftentimes dubs of dubs, were basically encouraged by the group. A mix of laissez-faire passivity and, perhaps, a shrewd, prescient awareness of viral marketing. Some shows bubbled up as must-haves — like 2/14/70 for hard rock psychedelia, 5/2/70 for acoustic tunefulness, 5/8/77 for relentless-funky “Disco Dead,” 9/3/77 for the most heartbreaking “Eyes of the World” … but these are just, like, my opinions, man. Sometimes you’d run across a tape that had a comedy bit of unknown origin spliced in. Sometimes a chick would color in a Steal Your Face logo on the back flap in magic marker. That was always sweet. On these tapes you’d hear the band spread out, let tunes flow into one another, jam for miles. “It just sounds like they’re tuning up!” was a common complaint. Sure.
The band’s quality ebbed and flowed, and new members cycled in. Unlike Spinal Tap, who kept losing drummers, the Dead’s keyboardists are the unlucky ones. Of the five that have officially sat in that chair, four of them have died. For a while they even had a female singer in the group, Donna Jean Godchaux, whose unpredictable caterwauling could make Yoko Ono wince. But listen to enough of it, much like the repetitive jams or endless double drum solos, and you eventually started to groove. Then Jerry checked out, as his bandmate Weir puts it, and it was over. Unlike The Who, who had at least three of them, they never got to take a farewell tour.
As the 20th anniversary of Jerry’s death neared, it was now or never. Bassist Phil Lesh is 75 and, as he reminds us with a rehearsed entreaty each night, a recipient of an organ transplant. (The “Donor Rap” plea has, in a weird way, become something of a fan favorite at recent performances.) Bob Weir, who has been furiously strumming rhythm guitar for 50 years, suffers arm and shoulder pain. “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead” (note the “we didn’t call ourselves the Grateful Dead!” specificity!) is the opportunity to wrap this up in a big way without saying “we will survive.”
No one can fill Jerry Garcia’s shoes, but there was only one choice for who could wear them a few nights without getting blisters: Phish’s Trey Anastasio. Some stubborn fans refused this Jerry-free concert under any circumstances. But most reactions surely mirrored mine. “Trey’s gonna’ do it? Far fuckin’ out!” During the final encore, Weir changed into a T-Shirt that read “Let Trey Sing.”
In the 2000 documentary Bittersweet Motel (directed by Todd Phillips!) Anastasio simultaneously acknowledges and downplays Garcia’s influence on his guitar playing. Yes, of course, Jerry was a model, but so was everything else a kid raised on classic rock liked, before name-checking the admirable but seldom deified Tim Scholz from the band Boston. Nevertheless, Anastasio tweaked his style a bit during these shows, not so much imitating but taking cues. Whereas with Phish some of these breaks may have led to triumphant sustains or spacey funk jams incorporating digital delay, he mostly stayed with speedy runs up and down the scales. He also kept an enormous grin on his puss the entire time.
Every musician on stage that night will continue to make music until they drop. Between Weir’s streams at TRI Studios, Mickey Hart’s projects (drum patterns from cosmic signals and his own EEG readings) and the LivePhish app, the tech-oriented experimentation from this scene lives on. A well-instagrammed rainbow appeared over the stadium of the first Bay Area gig, just after marriage equality was ratified by the Supreme Court. Bill Kreutzmann wore a T-shirt with Uncle Sam saying “I Want YOU To Grow Hemp” as marijuana continues to be decriminalized. To the skeptics I say “believe it you need it, if you don’t just pass it on.” To the fans I say “we will get by, we will survive.”
It’s very easy to get sentimental about the Grateful Dead. These are guys who lived it and meant it. You can hate the music (woof, those harmonies were rough this weekend) but you can’t deny their influence and broad reach. Deadhead, like Trekkie, is a badge of honor to some, an insult to others. The skull-and-roses T-shirts, the Relix stickers on bongs, the kids teaching themselves “Friend of the Devil” on the acoustic guitar, the questionable need for two drummers, the late night parsing of the lyrics to “Dark Star”. Now it’s all gone.
During the final show’s second set, as I sat on my couch in Queens, New York wondering why the hell I didn’t sell plasma to buy tix off StubHub, the band segued from the slow, emotional deep cut “Days Between” (one of Garcia’s last songs) to the rock n’ roll mainstay “Not Fade Away.” I’d pretty much called “Not Fade Away” as the final, pre-encore tune. Lyrically it just made sense. What I didn’t predict was the visual significance. After rounds of celebratory choruses and solos, Weir turned to drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart and gave a “we out” signal. One by one he, Anastasio, Lesh, associate keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and pianist/vocalist Bruce Hornsby (who was clutch on some numbers) walked offstage. “Holy crap, this is really happening. The Grateful Dead is over, the ’60s are done, Hunter Thompson’s wave has really receded forever this time,” I thought while the two drummers carried on the Bo Diddley beat. The audience carried on the chant “Our love is real, not fade way” looping over and over like an invocation. In time the drummers walked off, too, just leaving it out there for the assembled 70,000 people, who wouldn’t let go.