The Grateful Dead are playing a set of shows over the 4th of July weekend in Chicago, and after that , the Dead are calling it quits.
Technically, the band ended in 1995 when Jerry Garcia died, but the remaining band members have regrouped for a small Fare Thee Well tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the formation of the band.
Talking about the Grateful Dead – the history, the influence, the fans – would fill several books. For thirty years the Dead were a band, playing over two thousand concerts (a good portion of their shows were taped by amateurs and shared – first by cassette, and now by downloading and streaming) around the world.
And after this weekend, it’s all over. The true passing of a legend.
I saw the Grateful Dead once.
I was in college in New Mexico, and my best friend was a huge fan. She wanted to see them, and I agree to go with her, because it was something to do. I was only vaguely familiar with their music, because my friend had loaned me some CDs, and while it wasn’t something I fell in love with, their music was enjoyable.
This was back in ’91, before the World Wide Web and the Internet – we were using Usenet, which wasn’t the same – and almost nothing was done electronically. The show was in Kansas, and in order to purchase tickets, you had to live in Kansas, so she had a friend’s friend’s relative order the tickets for us. Through the mail. And we road-tripped from New Mexico to Kansas in the middle of the summer to see the Dead.
Back then, I wasn’t as into music as I am now, so I was dumbfounded by the idea of fans following a band around for any length of time, catching multiple shows in a row. I couldn’t understand why people would wait in line for hours to get into a venue, or would wait for hours after the show on the off chance of meeting the artists. I didn’t get why someone would drive almost 14 hours to see a band, no matter how much they loved them.
Today, I’m a different person, and I get it, now.
It’s been a long time since that show, and a lot of my memories of it have grown fuzzy. But there are some things I still remember.
I remember seeing more and more people dressed in tie dye tee shirts and Birkenstocks at rest stops as we got closer to the venue. I remember how hot it was (108° and humid, and the venue security sprayed us with water from hoses to keep us from getting heatstroke) and the overwhelming acrid-sweet smell of pot. I remember how mellow everyone was, and how after a while the songs all blended together. I remember swaying to the music, feeling like I was floating. I remember all the people in the venue parking lot, selling bootleg merch and beaded bracelets and homemade soap. I remember the drive back, exhausted and filthy after three days without a shower.
I’m still not a huge fan of the Grateful Dead, but listening to their music fills me with a fond nostalgia. It was a sad day in 1995 when Jerry Garcia passed away, and this weekend is a bittersweet reminder that all good things must come to an end.