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The Dead End: a Bittersweet Joy

An old friend of mine blew into town a couple of weeks ago with tickets in hand, and in search of an off ramp to the almost forgotten days of my youth, I took a detour through a soul crushing football stadium in Santa Clara, CA, forty-five minutes south of San Francisco, and ended up at a Grateful Dead concert, the first of the final five they say they will ever play.

It may have been the 60th time I have seen The Dead in concert. Or maybe the 80th, almost all of them prior to 1976. I don’t know the exact count because it never occurred to me to keep track. There was no such thing as Deadheads back then, or at least nobody called themselves that. I never taped a Dead concert. I never followed them from city to city. Most of the concerts I saw were in the San Francisco Bay Area. There was precious little Dead merchandise available besides their vinyl albums. There were T-shirts, and for the Santa Clara show I wore a 40+-year-old white T with a skull surrounded by roses on the front. It was before the time of dancing bears, and tie-dye was not the default couture for being a member of the tribe.

Before you start thinking that this is a drive-by strafing by a disgruntled once-upon-a-hippy geezer, let me say that I enjoyed the experience of watching The Dead’s last hurrah. The concert was better than I thought it would be. I have no axe to grind about the remaining band members taking advantage of the occasion of the band’s 50th anniversary to go on one last fling. I’m not cynical enough to believe it was only about them reaping one last financial windfall.

I don’t think they mailed in the performance. It was clear they rehearsed. It was an ambitious program, despite SF Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin calling it a cookie-cutter set list. Most of the music was pre-1972, and they played many of their most famous extended improvisational numbers, the very songs that made them unique and famous – Dark Star, St. Stephen, The Eleven, That’s It for the Other One, Turn on Your Love Light. On the other hand, they played all of those songs in a medley that went for at least 90 minutes but would have been far better at 50. By the end of it most of the life the crowd had displayed was beaten out of them, and the last couple songs failed to fully revive them. Mickey Hart was not the only one guilty of noodling, but he did more than his share of damage with an interminable solo during which he never touched a drum in favor of bowing custom made electronic instruments incoherently.

Trey Anastasio played well, but, well, you know, need I say it, he’s no Garcia. The crystalline tone was not there, but more importantly, the power and the drama were missing. Garcia never played the most notes per measure, but he had the uncanny knack for playing the right note at the right time with the right amount of emphasis, particularly at the opening of his guitar solos and at the crucial melodic moments. Of course, Anastasio was not playing one of Garcia’s custom-made guitars with the pre-amp built into it that responded to his attack with enhanced volume. The Dead were famous for manipulating their Wall of Sound system (which in the 70s was probably the best of any touring band with the possible exception of the Rolling Stones) to create explosions of sound at crucial moments in the song, an effect which invariably triggered a huge energy rush from the crowd. But Anastasio was given no help by the sound techs. When the band played Morning Dew after the long medley, the guitar solo should have been majestic. It should have swept the stadium. But Anastasio’s very creditable solo was given no extra boost, and we had to strain to pick him out amid the other instruments. There were other technical problems, like the vocalist mics phasing in and out throughout the evening.

But what the hell, we were in a friggin football stadium. I never saw The Dead play in a stadium. I would have seem them play at Altamont in 1969 with 400,000 of my closest friends, but after a Hells Angel killed a guy with a gun in front of the stage during the Rolling Stones set, The Dead never took the stage. But the fact that The Dead were scheduled to play after the Stones speaks volumes. The Stones never played second fiddle to anyone. Maybe it was deference to the local band with whom they co-organized the concert, but we also knew it was because at that time nobody wanted to try to follow The Grateful Dead. Because at that time, on any given night, as Bill Graham used to say, The Grateful Dead was the greatest rock and roll band in the world.

And in those days they usually played small auditoriums, like the 6,000 capacity Winterland in San Francisco, a converted ice rink about two blocks from the much smaller Fillmore Auditorium. Most of The Deadheads in attendance in Santa Clara were too young to ever have seen The Dead in such a small venue. It’s hard to describe the experience of being in such a cramped venue with such a massive sound system, but the speakers stacked to the ceiling shook the walls and every molecule trapped in the space within, including every cell in every body. The system was able to build a sensation of all-encompassing, vibrating sound without shattering ear drums, because it was so overbuilt for the space that it did not even approach maximum capacity. The stage was so electrified that if a pin dropped, you could hear it loud and clear, let alone every note from every instrument. It created an intimacy, as if we were all on stage with the band, that cannot be reproduced in a large outdoor venue. And then there were the nights when everything was enhanced by the plastic garbage cans that were rolled out with signs that read “Kool-Aid” and “Electric Kool-Aid”.

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The Grateful Dead in Haight-Ashbury, 1968.

When I started watching The Dead in 1969, almost nobody went to see them. I saw them play once about 50 miles north of San Francisco, with Hot Tuna, the side band formed by Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy from the Jefferson Airplane, in the cavernous quonset-like Sonoma County Fairgrounds auditorium. By the time The Dead took the stage, there might have been 150 people there.

I saw The Dead play at the Fillmore West with Miles Davis and his band. Davis had recently upset the jazz world by going all electric crossover and releasing the Bitches Brew album. He played Bitches Brew that night with the help of Chick Corea and Jack Dejohnette and John McLaughlin and Keith Jarrett. They were beyond mesmerizing, intricate and explosive and swirling like a hurricane. The Fillmore West only held maybe 1,500 people, and after Davis finished, only about 400 people stayed to see The Dead play. Davis stuck around. At the end of the night, he was standing by the exit door nodding to the crowd as we shuffled out.

The story I heard back in 1969 was that The Dead was tired of being anonymous and playing to nobody. After the Summer of Love they had slipped slowly into obscurity, playing disjointed shows that were less like concerts and more like evenings with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, a combination of too many drugs and an unwillingness to become commercial in any way. But by 69 they had decided to tighten up their act and make a comeback and a little money along the way.

It wasn’t long before people caught on, because when they pulled it together, they were phenomenal. Pretty soon it was hard to get tickets, at least for most people. I could go to almost any show, since a friend of mine was the manager of the Winterland. And so we went to all of the shows, including every New Year’s Eve. In 1976 I left the Bay Area to write environmental stories at a newspaper in the American outback, otherwise known as Idaho, but I made one special pilgrimage back for one New Year’s show, when the opening act was none other than The Blues Brothers, with Belushi and Aykroyd.

In Santa Clara I threw on that old Dead t-shirt and some flowing, white, hemp bellbottoms and a tangle of blingy necklaces. I looked like a freak, even in that crowd, because everyone else’s idea of dressing up apparently was pulling on a tie-dyed t-shirt with dancing bears on it. I was struck by the conformity of it all. I guess they didn’t get the memo about letting your freak flag fly, because the point was to express your own individuality. But then, I wasn’t around for the later stages of The Grateful Dead, after rock and roll went mainstream and even The Dead became commodified.

Back in 1969, only a small slice of the population – the freaks – ventured out to rock concerts. And the mythos of The Grateful Dead was based on that notion of a counter-culture, an attempt to form an alternate reality to the dominant paradigm framed by money and militarism, something new and beautiful and not at war with all the other creatures on the planet. That was the banner The Dead always carried, even though they were not an overtly political band.

Even to the end, new generations of Deadheads flocked to and sustained an echo of that original vision, because its validity and power still resonate.

Nevertheless, Garcia is gone, the hippies got old and retreated into materialism, and the dream of the 60’s has been all but buried under the wave of corporate capitalism, and all those things we felt in the Winterland and the Fillmore West are distant memories. The first night in Santa Clara was bittersweet and yet enjoyable, because even a reasonable facsimile of The Good Ol Grateful Dead is better and more interesting than most.

Since I was an early adopter, it was somehow inevitable and fitting that I should be there at the end, to resurrect those memories for one last stomping, hair raising fling, because San Francisco from 1969 to 1975 was one of the most exciting places on Earth a young person seeking the truth and beauty in this life could have been. And The Grateful Dead was the house band.

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Jeff Sher is a journalist specializing in the health care industry. He lives in San Francisco.

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