Saturday, January 24, 2015

Writing what for across the morning sky

     As I scoured for available hotel rooms in Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend, I can't help fighting off pangs of emptiness. The news was all over social media, as well as a full color page spread in the New York Times: the remaining Grateful Dead members were pairing up with Phish front man Trey Anastasio to perform three “fare thee well” shows at Soldier’s Field stadium in Chicago.  The announcement resulted in many tried and true deadheads feeling ambivalence, and at the same time frantically budgeting in thousands of dollars for a four-day weekend. There were concerns regarding the anticipation of tickets sales, or rather, the lack of tickets and the potential market for scalpers. Many deadheads may need more than a miracle to get a ticket.  For those of you who are not aware of what a miracle means in the Grateful Dead family, it is defined as: 1. a free ticket given to a deadhead randomly, or 2. a ticket offered at face value. Many tickets were given away on the lots. Hundreds would walk back and fourth in front of the venues with their finger up in the air. Deadheads would walk up and down the lanes of traffic of concert goers coming into the show holding large, colorful signs that read: I need a miracle, or Whose got my miracle? or cash for your extras. Many of us fear it will take an extra large trust fund to even get close to being in the show. 
Then there is the way the show has been billed.  The wording left an empty space in may deadhead hearts. Fare thee well? Many of us immediately responded. Didn't we say fare well in 1995, when our beloved leader passed into the transitive nightfall of diamond? The words perform together one last time rings like an outdated infomercial that accentuates the urgency of limited time- get it while supplies last. This is a band that is well aware of who and what Deadheads are. Reading the “Fare thee well” with our mascot of a skull adorned in roses feels like an exploitation of our very dedication that helped make the Grateful Dead who they are. Many of us over the last two decades have gone to see the band members perform solo, and have heard them play different versions of our anthems. We supported them and continue to at small venues, expensive NYC theaters and music festivals. So why do these Soldier Field shows have a faint feeling of an unrequited love? I understand the baby boomer rock stars need for reunion performance to extend their fame and their legacy. Yet these Chicago shows invoke an unfortunate metaphor of trading in the cosmic bus that the Grateful Dead has been driving us around in for fifty years for a hybrid mini van. 

The most contentious issue regarding these anniversary fare thee well shows has been the selection of Trey to perform with original members of the band. This shocked many Dead fans. Phish is a much younger band with a similar marketing strategy of the Grateful Dead. Phish followers became a steady Dead scene presence in the 90’s, and the resulting influx of younger, oblivious trustafarians with synthetic drugs did not contribute well to all already deteriorating Grateful Dead "family values" scene.  Yet Trey’s appearance at these Chicago shows makes sound financial sense. By adding some younger fans to the middle aged, borderline-geriatric crowd, the concerts will have more mass appeal.  The only other band that has a fan base close to the Grateful dead is Phish. Yet why does this feel like a well thought-out merger?  Former Grateful Dead songwriter John Perry Barlow said: “resist ideology and encourage belief. Ideology is something that works in your head; belief is something that happens in your heart.” Hence the lyrics: “believe it if you need it or leave it if you dare.” The Grateful Dead has led us by our hearts for many years. This feels like an abrupt pull of our dedicated heartstrings, a manipulation to all the fans who will feel that they must attend an over-packed stadium in the middle of the country for three short nights.  

The labeling of these shows as the final performances ever seems to follow ongoing speculation and rumor of the sourness between band members, namely Phil and Bob, Jerry’s infamous band of brothers. Their discord seems at odds with the lyrics of their song: “forgiveness is the key to every door.”  We really won't know for sure if the band is genuinely giving us back something, loving us back, is dedicated to us, or they are simply  hoping to create more footage for the Martin Scorsese Grateful Dead documentary that is about to go into production. With the recent conferences about the phenomenon of the Grateful Dead subculture, one can only assume this was a well thought-out event with a goal in mind. 

For many of us, despite the above conflicts of heart and mind, there is no question that we will make the pilgrimage to Chicago. We are the Deadheads; we have to go. We are the ones that followed the band around the country for thousands of miles, city after city, show after show, searching for the intricate sound they played. We were moved and driven by each guitar note and song lyric. We established a way of life: we were a traveling family often times full of the normal family dysfunction.  We were validated by the band’s music; we were living "no particular way but our own," with thousand of others doing the same. This way of life was not always an easy one. We made our craft months in advance, and for the core of us on tour, we would often leave right after a show to get driving to the next town, tour buses passing us on the freeways at three in the morning waving us along. Sometimes, towns and cities welcomed us. Other times we would be robbed or threatened or intentionally singled-out, pulled over and all of our belongings tossed out of the car, piled to the side of the road. We went hungry to get a ticket for the show. We sewed and made jewelry until our fingers hurt. We were a caravan of gypsies that sold burritos, stickers, drugs and homemade patchwork dresses. Many of those same people will go to Chicago and stay in hotels, or camp out, putting fingers in the air and asking the universe for miracles. Then, over sixty thousand of us will hear the first few bass lines of Shakedown Street and dance together as one. We will dance with our brothers and sisters, twirling in the hallways like in days past. We will be reminded of Bob Weir singing in Saint of Circumstance: “if this ain’t the real thing, then its close enough to pretend.”  We will hear music that we all hold so dearly in our hearts. We will love the men on the stage and each other, and ultimately, when we hear them sing “would you hear my voice come through the music? Would you hold it near as it were your own?” the answer will be yes.  We will chant to them that "our love will not fade away," and then one last time, they will take us home.


  1. I fell down an internet rabbit hole to get here. One of those random, meandering and coincidental paths that only a Deadhead can understand. Click here, click again, now I'm on John Barlow's Twitter page for some reason....and here's an interesting link....and HEY! I know that lady!

    From back in the days when you could fall asleep in a tent in Memphis and wake up with a new friend parked outside. And the days when my shitty redneck neighborhood became a mini Deer Creek campground and a temporary home for wayward VWs. I think the last time I saw you was at a Ratdog show at the Palace in Louisville, maybe 98? It all rolls into one, or as my grandma used to say "I've slept since then".

    The drum has sounded and the bell has rung, and the last two weeks have awoken a sleeping giant all across the land. For me personally, while the situation is a little bittersweet, it's brought all those old happy memories back to the surface, and for that I'm really grateful. I guess I'm not good at keepin' in touch, but I've thought about you over the years, as I've often wondered about so many folks I met along the way. It brought me so much happiness today just to see a familiar face.

    Oh, and I'm scheming and hoping to be at the Chicago shows, too....good lard willin' and the creek don't rise! I'll be easy to spot, I'll be the one in the tie-dye!

    xoxoxo - S (the former Hoosier girl, currently a stranger in a strange land)