I recently had the great fortune of driving down the west coast, ten days in the open spaces, with the radio constantly tuned to The Grateful Dead channel on Sirius X. And as wonderful as that truly was, I couldn’t help but notice a programming fixation with all eras but one – 1982-86.
Dave Lemieux’s exclusion of this golden age of the music is well documented in his Dave’s Picks selections. I just had no idea that the influence extended over Sirius X programming. Which obviously leaves me aghast. When will The Grateful Powers That Be realize the error in their ways?
My script, Wave That Flag, details my Deadhead days back in the ’80s. Quite simply, it’s just another coming-of-age, I-can’t-believe-I-did-that, Don’t-do-what-I-do-or-maybe-do-I-don’t-care, Those-were-the-days movie. It’s all about me, a plea for attention. Me. Aren’t you amazed by the things I did? Wasn’t I crazy? No one does it like me. That’s right. Look at me.
But that’s why it works. The big theme is chasing down the music. At its essence, it is about a sound, a path as it were, and I was on it, and I went in a direction that could be so clearly understood, that everyone can understand, and it was an incredible place to be. I was astonished that I was on it, just there in the middle of magical fantastical place, through the woods and fire, where nothing but amazing things happened.
It was a communal thing of splendor and everything was ahead. It could never end. That was the certainty. This eternity, the whole thing laid wide open, it would go on forever.
And then it didn’t. And so, it’s really about losing that, never having it, or remembering what it was like when I didn’t know what I know now, if I know anything. So, yes, nostalgia.
The Fear struck again in early 1986. This time it would stay with me for quite some time. I flew to California with my girlfriend. We were to spend half the time in the Bay Area for a few Grateful Dead concerts and a couple of university interviews at Stanford and San Francisco State for my intended M.A. program in film, and the other half in Burbank for an interview I had scheduled for my thesis at Walt Disney Studios. I felt off from the moment I stepped on the plane and found myself incredibly agitated while renting our car.
We got to a hotel in Oakland and walked to the concert hall. The show was all right; it would have been a lot better if I had avoided drugs. The notion of trying anything again – this was my first attempt since that dreadful night in Columbia – was a source of great worry for me, but as my belief in confronting fears was a bit of a mantra, I had no other choice. I suffered through waves of intense fear and doubt, but felt quite calm and somewhat relieved by the end.
I had a bath and found was horrified by the blue tiles. They were too even and clean, too polished for a sane person to consider. Panic descended. The worst part of it was I couldn’t corner it, couldn’t explain it; it was a shadow cast from nothing. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with my life. All of my writing belittled human existence. I was always trying to get outside of the human context. Who the hell did I think I was to do that? The notion was asinine. I had just something called Bare Cage which reduced humanity to a seventeen page one-act play with a naked man and woman, a dead bear and a machine housed in an impenetrable cage, while I was at work on a screenplay entitled Home which featured a house as the main character and the people that moved through as incidentals, while thirdly, I was writing notes for a proposed novel I had entitled Popo Know, the piece from my cat’s perspective. It was as if I didn’t think I was human, like I was above it all, like my vision was beyond the grasp of any other. It was totally fucked.
The next day when I went to the corner bakery, I felt as bad as ever. I was panic-stricken when a stranger asked me a question. I had no idea what he said. I just looked away and pretended he didn’t exist. I pointed to some buns and left as quickly as I could. I was supposed to get ice as well, but didn’t feel up to it. The rest of the day went fairly well. I looked at a couple of the sights in San Francisco, visited San Francisco State University – they had a decent program even if the campus was horrendously ugly – and went to the beach. We went to our second show; it was Chinese New Year’s and, for the event, the Dead had lined up the San Francisco Chinese Orchestra as the back-up. I weaved my way to the front and then thoughts of death and suicide crashed upon me. I wasn’t about to commit suicide, but my understanding of the notion was extremely precise. The gun, the knife, the rope, they were all emblems of clarity. Life was a waste; anybody with a mind could see that. Why the hell not wipe it out? All was blackness and doom. Concepts such as love and freedom were lies to make the imminent collapse of the universe digestible. The wise and loving gods were salesmen speculating on preferential stock. Music was a waste of time; life was a waste of time.
“Shit.” I lost my balance. The last thing I saw was a girl blacking out; I collapsed on top of her. I desperately tried to stand. I opened my eyes to find them clouded and the stadium shrouded in blackness. The houselights had gone out. The band was coming on. Some people helped guide me from the floor and out into the concourse area where I listened to the music float through the halls and watched the crazies and their children dance.
The next day I drove down to Stanford. I fought the feeling all the way down. It was pushing me very hard. We came onto the main, palm-tree-lined avenue into the campus. Sunshine blazed onto the impeccable scene of lush beauty. Hordes of happy cyclists crowded the paths…and then it assaulted me. What was stopping me from swerving the car and plowing through these joyous curs? What the hell was the point of staying on the road? The road was a fucking waste of time. These self-satisfied fuckers needed to understand the precious gift of life…and so did I. This was a farce. My little role in this pathetic jumble was a wasteful pursuit. All the cloaks and masks…why was I supposed to value this mass of conceit?
I slowed the car, forced simple thoughts of hockey and sex into my head and parked. We visited the film faculty, found out my program had been cancelled and left.
A couple of days later I had my interview at Walt Disney studios. I asked the woman my prepared questions and, as she answered, thought what a waste of time her and my life really were. Amazingly, I managed to ask her all of my questions and, a few hours later, when the necessity of the answers returned, wrote them down. I learned to control the feeling over the next few months until early that summer, when I went tree planting, and it finally went away.
I was asked at a comedy show, “Hey you, what’s your favorite part of a film?” I said that the first images, the opening scene where the distributor’s logo comes up and the sounds of the film begin, that was the best. The comedian mocked me for that.
I feel the same about concerts. The Grateful Dead taught me that. They never came on stage with fanfare and hoopla, but instead wandered out. Phil Lesh often started the sounds with vague strums, and then sometimes hard and loud, reverberating across the stadium. And then the drums rattled out, the rhythm guitar too, the sound building.
And then Jerry Garcia, on lead guitar would begin, noodling down and up, and there was a beginning of a coalescence. They would meander like that, together, pausing, and then clear notes, pauses, and then the sounds again.
Anticipation. That was is the key to it all. Not what is. But what is next? I always loved that. What will happen now? Where will go tonight?
By my count, there have been 148 concerts officially released by The Grateful Dead. These releases have come in various incarnations, most notably Dick’s Picks, Road Trips and, the series of late, Dave’s Picks.And while it is a boon for Deadheads to receive any recordings from the archives, a black hole has emerged in these releases – 1982-86 – which is coincidentally the years of my touring. A grand total of four shows have been released from this era – amounting to only one third of the 1977 releases alone. Even if we excuse the release of all 22 shows from the 1972 European Tour, this works out to a lousy 3% of the releases from almost 20% of their touring years.So what gives with Dave Lemieux and company? Is it that these years were particularly weak? I would argue the opposite, that these years offer stellar shows with stellar versions of stellar songs.
My first Grateful Dead concert – March 1983, Virginia – was much like the last, my 101st – September 2017, Central Park – over-excited to start, a moment or two of some kind of imbibed perfection in the middle and a loss for what happened at the end.
Theodore Sturgeon wrote of group think, or bleshing, as he called it, in his novel More Than Human. The idea is simple, founded on minds working together, the sum of the parts being greater than the whole, celebrated by many in the arts, such as Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead. It is the dream of musicians and anarchists alike, to be at one with each other, to guide and at the same time follow, and yet it is just that, an impossible dream for anything practical. Human nature is the flaw, our inherent need to always want something more for ourselves. Adam Smith and his capitalist crew celebrate this in what we can achieve – always in terms of monetary success – but it’s a far cry from all those other things we are told to cherish, and in the end, just don’t give a damn about. We lie to ourselves about everything – about who we are and we will achieve – just to get through and not think about the world as we have made it.
The hype on Dead and Company, the latest Grateful Dead side project, is befuddling to say the least, although the success of 50th anniversary shows have certainly led us hereThe truth is, however, that the fall tour of this hodgepodge and questionably-named band has little to do with the concerts in Chicago. Not only is founding member Phil Lesh nowhere to be seen – indeed he is concurrently playing in his eponymous band – but neither were Bruce Hornsby and Trey Anastasio included.
This group lacks the soul of earlier post-Jerry Garcia incarnations, The Dead and Furthur, neither of which were bedazzled by all the hype.This band, headlined by pop guitarist John Mayer who has nothing whatsoever to do with the music of the Grateful Dead, is a dubious path for Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann and, if they are not careful, could lead to moments they might regret.
Just back from a one-month writing stint during which I shed, albeit briefly, my log-in addiction, I was able to find some focus in the narrative. No Leafs. No Dead. No Bachelor.
My days became balanced and quiet, my dreams vivid. I wrote and read and hiked and wrote and read. It was as good as it gets.
Needless to say, I have returned and been disappointed in virtually every corner: The Leafs traded Kessel, The Grateful Dead devolved into something called The Dead and Company and The Bachelor concluded with a Nazi-like denigration of homosexuality. And I’m blogging about it again!