In, I think, 1988 I stood in some upper-level Phil-side seats in the Kaiser, I believe it was, with one of my friends named Ted, and the band played a monumental Dear Mr. Fantasy. The tension had built through solo and duet singings of the verses, through successive instrumental breaks and here now rarely Jerry Garcia's guitar became a singing sword jumped a key octave plane of existence and seared that melody, or rather an instantly improvised embellishment of the basic melody, cutting loose without leaving the rest of the band behind but glowing. I turned to Ted and we smiled with our eyes at each other. Words are slow and clumsy beasts in such musically alive moments. Jerry prefered to blend in with the rest of the band most of the time, and ultimately I suspect that is his legacy. Not his near-virtuosic skills, his mastery of and ongoing engagement with improvisation, his voraciously eclectic interests, or even his singular tone. His greatness as a player had more to do with his collaborative inclusiveness, his possibly acid-inspired egolessness when playing.
The band was actually jamming when we passed the threshold. I figured it was something cheesy, Fly Like an Eagle maybe. Then the singer in some generic white whiskey blues voice sings "Trouble with you is the trouble with me, got two good eyes but we still don't see..." with such weird phrasing that it was a couple country guitar licks later before I realized they were playing Casey Jones. Later on a real old guy with a sax joined them as I backed away from the $3 blackjack table and they played among other thing Turn On Your Love Light.
I even saw a guy in the casino wearing a Steal Your Face t-shirt which sort of completed the eerie we-are-everywhere feeling till I wondered if maybe he had requested that they play a Dead tune and they played the original "hit" (probably the catchiest, actually). That wouldn't explain Love Light though.
At one of those Laguna Seca shows I stood on a hillside in a beating down sun but occasionally slight breezes sprung up briefly and the wilting crowd would perk up slightly. Then this cascade of breezes flowed up the hill. I had goosebumps. My hair stood up on my arms. This all happened in under a second mind you. I felt everyone else tickled by the wind and in that same moment, in the middle of some fluid guitar solo, in a song such as Fire on the Mountain, I heard that same note of ahhhhhh that we were all thinking or literally saying just then. This memory has become my metaphor for the dropping of barriers that could happen at shows. I am he as you are he as you are me as we are all together.
Over and over, Jerry sung his own epitaphs. He even got to attend his own funeral in 1986. I saw my first show in 1984 and I sort of look on the last 9 years as a gift.
A local Dead-baiting rock journalist made a gracious apology for years of snottiness about the Dead and more particularly their fans, and for specifically responding when asked for comments on Garcia's death "I wish Kurt had lived that long." I wish that too. I felt a variation on this sudden pain in the stomach when I heard the bad news about Cobain a year or so ago. Was it John Donne who said every death diminishes me?
A Dead Head friend in college told me about his first show. It was one of the famous acoustic/electric shows at Radio City in 1980. The encore was Brokedown Palace, a song they encored with regularly. As they sang "Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell," he cried, thinking it was their final show and he'd missed all his chances to ever see them again. When they sang "this may be the last time," we all knew it was true.
There's an irony in our society's closeting attitudes about drugs, about addictions, about vices in general, about desires, about needs. He was rich and successful enough to generally avoid the scrutiny of the law, but to live outside the law you must be honest.
This episode of Enterzone is about censorship (among other things) and I've thought about the subject a lot over the last few months. I am convinced that many of the most sensitive arguments in our culture are locked into false dichotomies. Take the censorship vs. pornography polarity. Where in that structure is the side for people who want to criticize the attitudes prevalent in pornography without seeking to censor anyone? The timeworn "sides" of the argument serve mainly to shut off discussion.
So with the issues of intoxication and addiction has the hypocrisy of American society, the idealization of sobriety and the closeting of substance use, contributed to the suffering of addicts. Openness can be painful. I am mindful of that. But secrecy and denial enable problems to fester underground, cause them to flourish unchecked. What some would stamp out with draconian laws and others would defend as doing your own thing, I would suggest we discuss in as wide ranging a way as possible. Give people the words to say "I need help. I'm in over my head. Help me." without taking away their dignity.
I drew a cartoonish version of a memory of when my friend Griffin revealed his new red lightning bolt tattoo on really for us the first day of spring at the Frost. As I listened to whatever tape we had playing I started drawing hall dancers out of my mind, letting the pen dance across the page. Even someone who just bought a soda sashaying into the middle of the frolicking crowd.
Of course I came up with various top hatted and skeletal doodles as well but I couldn't really conjure up a faithful image of Jerry's face, even with photographs and icons all around me. The best I could do was a sort of Dionysian Ghost of Christmas Present with tinted glasses.
Late at night, after 1 o'clock, after the official curfew in Golden Gate Park, I dragged my friends to the Polo Fields so I could see the impromptu shrine for myself. They had been there in the afternoon when the people had first gathered. Standing around the sort of shrine that appears in a ghetto neighborhood when a homeboy's been shot down, I felt the fellowship or at least smelled the patchouli I associated with shows. There were drummers and I went to feel the beat. Guitarists compromising on fake book versions of songs. I felt the need to add to the offerings. I pulled a page out of my book and quickly drew a bust of the man and his guitar. The lines were elegant and steady and the effect was slightly cartoonish as in all my best art. I dated it and signed it and added it to the pile. I coveted that picture for myself and I left it.
By now there was a loudmouth talking shit to a little kid, doing his own weirdo trip all over everyone around him and it was cold and we headed back. A few days later at the sad and cathartic official memorial there was another bad-tripping human being spreading anxious vibes. I spoke to her under my breath, made reassuring sussurations. She responded, slightly, but I felt like the entire range of the scene was there, even if the umbilicus had been cut.
My friend Juan used to say that the only thing better than "Live Dead" is live "Live Dead," because of all the tapes his friends had lying around claiming to be live. Dead Heads are beginning to consider the legacy of the tapes and the fact that there might won't be any more live live Dead. We can be thankful that Jerry's and the boys' (and, for a while, the girl's) music was recorded probably more often than that of any other musical group in history. Just as this quintessential touring band played to more human beings live than, I believe, any other performers of any type.
And I thought, during the memorial, during the playing of a show dedicated to the memory of Neal Cassady, during the Cryptical Envelopment portion of the Other One, with its chorus "He had to die," that there's a terrible irony in this that the Gratefuls always understood, that illuminated their songs from below. We're all mortal. No matter how great or shoddy or fine or common our accomplishments, all of our life stories get the same punch line: And then he died. And then she died. Yes, a subsubculture stumbled into a new era, a convenient leaning post was suddenly taken out from under us. Ain't it always that way?
When does a life end? When the motions stop emanating from the center? When the ripples finally peter out galaxies and aeons away?