Some of you may know I've seen the Grateful Dead one or two or sixty-four times. (Yes, not only do I know the exact number but I also have a notebook in which I've written down every set list for every show I attended, plus details of who I was with, guest performers, notable things that happened at the show, how I got tickets, unusual songs played, etc . But I digress...) It's hard to explain the allure of the Dead to people who haven't experienced it. If you know it, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, you're probably shaking your head at me. I've been thinking a lot about it myself, especially after this weekend of the Fare Thee Well shows, where the surviving original members of the band came together for what they deemed their final performance after 50 years, and almost exactly 20 years after the last Grateful Dead show before Jerry Garcia died (tomorrow, July 9, will be the actual anniversary). This weekend touched me in ways I didn't expect, brought me back to places I never again expected to be, and found parts of me that I thought were gone forever.
My first Dead show was at the Rosemont Horizon (now the Allstate Arena--why do they ruin venue names like that?) in April 1989. I was 16, and somewhat familiar with the Dead already. I was raised by hippies, and fiercely envious of their experiences in the 60s. I listened to classic rock, and I had stolen my dad's Dead albums and played them on the cheap turntable in my room. I thought it was pretty cool when my friend Devra got me a ticket to the Dead show. I figured it was like going to see the Who or the Stones. But as soon as we drove into the parking lot, I realized this was like nothing I had seen before. Colorful people sporting tie-dyes or patchwork dresses or Guatemalan clothes, with long hair, dreadlocks, bandannas, meandered through the lot. Vendors sold clothing, jewelry, pipes, stickers, posters, food, and yes drugs. Everyone smiled. Everyone seemed happy. I was floored. These were my people! Everything I longed for from my parents' time was still happening right here! Inside, I was transfixed. I didn't know most of the songs or really appreciate the set list (what I wouldn't give to go back in time and hear that To Lay Me Down again!) but I loved what I heard, and I felt the importance of it all. I left that show in awe. Around the same time, I started going out with a Deadhead named Corey, who had access to just about every bootleg ever recorded and countless stories about traveling around the country to see them, and that was it. The bus came by and I got on, that's where it all began.
For the next 6 years, I toured as much as I could. At first it was just shows around Chicago, then a little midwest run, and the next thing you know my friends and I were catching rides at truck stops to hit the start of Spring Tour. Tour was amazing. I didn't have a car, so I just threw a bunch of clothes in a Guatemalan duffel bag and carried my sleeping bag. I have no idea how to explain how liberating it was to not plan out what was going to happen--how I was getting to the next show, how I was getting IN the next show, where I was going to crash--because if I tried to apply it to my actual life now it would be terrifying. But it wasn't. It was freeing. I trusted that everything would fall into place, and everything did. I made friends that I only saw at shows, but knew exactly how to find them each time. We didn't call or text; we met in the Phil zone or behind the stage or at will call every hour on the hour. But we always found each other.
And the music. As much as I loved the scene and the people, the music was what drew me. The thrill of guessing what song they'd play next, or hearing a song they hadn't played in years. The Dead's repertoire was huge, and they didn't repeat songs from night to night at any venue, and usually not at back to back venues either. Each band member brought different nuances to the show. Bobby's energy and enthusiasm, Phil's mellow flow. The lilt in Jerry's solos; the emotion in his voice.The crowd fed off the band and the band fed off the crowd. The energy was tangible. There's an almost ritualistic culture at Dead shows. This weekend my friend Danny, who has never seen the Dead, mentioned it at the end of the show when even the fans shut out of the show were chanting "You know our love will not fade away" and clapping before the encore. He was a little freaked out by it, said it reminded him of church. I think he's right, and to many the shows were spiritual and ritualistic in a culture that craves such things.
Following the Dead around wasn't all I did. I went to college, worked minimum wage jobs while I waited for spring or summer break. But tour was my respite, my refueling, my refreshment. I had slowed down a bit by 95 but still managed to hit a few of the spring and summer shows. Things were getting a little crazy at that point. Gate-crashers in Deer Creek, IN caused the Dead to cancel a show for the first time that I knew of. Jerry seemed to be struggling and we worried about his health and his drug use. But I thought the last show at Soldier Field was great, especially Jerry's So Many Roads. And then they encored with Black Muddy River, which I had been dying to hear and didn't expect to at that show because it had been played recently. And then they played a second song--Box of Rain--which never happened in a Grateful Dead encore! I left that show happy as always, but somehow a strange feeling plagued me. I felt a sense of ending, as if this was the last time I'd see them. I told my brother that maybe I was going to stop going to see the Dead, and he laughed at me. "As soon as the next shows line up you'll be looking for tickets." I nodded, but I couldn't shake the feeling that this was it, that I was done. It turned out I was right, but not for the reason I was thinking. Jerry died one month later.
The loss of Jerry was huge for me. Not only would I not be able to see the Dead play with him again, but I wouldn't be able to find my friends again, the ones I only saw at shows. I wouldn't be able to throw caution to the wind and hit the road, waiting to see where I'd end up, who I'd be with, how it'd fall into place this time. It was the loss of a lifestyle, and I mourned it.
And then life went on. I had a baby, graduated college, became a teacher. I traveled, I saw music. I lived my life, often nostalgic for those days, but I moved on.
When the Dead announced this final run of shows, I wasn't sure what to think about it. Was the Dead without Jerry even the Dead? I knew the music would be great, the performances good, but it wouldn't be the same. Was it worth it? But of course I had to find out. I wasn't lucky enough to get tickets through mail order or ticketmaster, but I was lucky enough to know some people (thank you Val and Paulie!) who got me into the first two shows. So I went--and all the feels came rushing back. The feeling of being in the lot, where everyone is cool, having a good time, in solidarity with one another. That feeling of being home was still there. The kindness was still there. The energy in the shows was still there. Of course there were differences. Hearing Jerry's songs sung by someone else wasn't easy, and harder with some songs than others. And all the cell phones everywhere was definitely different. But something within me reawakened, something that I didn't even realize was there after all these years. I was refreshed and refueled.
Since the shows ended I've been missing it. Missing the lot. Missing the people who get it, who know what I'm feeling. But I've also been happy. Smiling at strangers in the grocery store. Letting people cut in front of me in traffic. Riding that wave of being kind. The last thing Mickey Hart said, at the closing of the final show, was for us to be kind. And I'm feeling that. Like my friend Paulie says, the spirit lives strong in us.
For as long as she can remember, Lisa Litberg has loved to write. Over the years she has amassed quite a collection of short stories and poetry. Free is her first novel. Ms. Litberg has been a high school teacher for nearly twenty years and helps empower her urban students with the power of the written word. Currently she is working on a short story compilation geared toward urban youth, as well as her second novel, which will answer her readers' questions about what happened to Free.