On Sunday at 6 a.m., I will board a plane to Chicago, where I’ll say farewell to an American institution and end a piece of my life.
That evening, Soldier Field will resound with the last-ever show by the four surviving members of the Grateful Dead, performing under that name for the first time in 20 years, almost to the day and in the same venue where the band played its final show with guitarist Jerry Garcia, who died of a heart attack exactly one month later.
They’ve played together occasionally since as The Other Ones or simply The Dead, but it’s symbolic that they’re using their real name in what they call the “Fare Thee Well” shows.
The shows, two already played in California and three in the Windy City, will celebrate the band’s 50th year, and the “Core Four” has said it will be the last time they play together. In other words, the Grateful Dead will be, well, dead.
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I’m 62, a university professor, a journalist, a regular synagogue-goer, a husband and the father of teenage girls, one starting high school, the other starting college. A normal kind of guy.
I’m also a Deadhead. That began in November 1973, one cool evening at UCLA, when I saw the band begin a song, play half of it, jam together for five or 10 minutes before playing half of another song, jamming again into a third song and playing all of it, then jamming and singing their way through the ends of the two songs with which they started.
It was like algebra, each song wrapped in nested musical parentheses and the kind of chance-taking that makes me and my Deadhead friends (a doctor, a rabbi, a psychotherapist, a lawyer and hundreds of thousands like us) so devoted to four aging musicians — bass player Phil Lesh is 75, and Bob Weir, at 67, is the youngster of the bunch — and willing to spend hundreds of dollars to say goodbye.
For me it’s always been about the music, a space where I find something spiritual. But that’s just me.
“Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.” The Grateful Dead, Scarlet Begonias.
Despite its reputation as a bunch of burned-out hippies with a tribe of burned-out hippie fans who followed them around the country, the Grateful Dead has always been a quintessentially American band, its members consummate musicians who blend rock, country, bluegrass, blues, jazz, folk and world music into a mashup of their own, singing songs of loners and lovers, of cowboys, gamblers, individualists and idealists, weaving melodies out of make-it-up-as-we-go-along improvisations reflecting this country’s test-the-limits culture.
The Grateful Dead is meant to be seen live.
Over the 30 years the band played before Garcia’s death, it recorded only 13 studio albums but released countless live shows. It toured upward of 100 days a year, playing 2,317 shows in all, performing nearly 200 original songs and 300 covers of such rock ’n’ rollers as Buddy Holly, the Beatles and the Young Rascals; blues legends Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf; country artists Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton, in addition to traditional folk songs and some of the best-ever interpretations of Bob Dylan.
Lesh, who studied avant-garde classical music, plays his bass in counterpoint to the beat, almost as a lead instrument. Weir sings rock ’n’ roll and country tunes in a rich baritone as his rhythm guitar weaves chords around the lead guitarist’s riffs. Drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann lay down beats grounded in jazz and rudimentary percussion, punctuated by the sounds of drums from around the world and drum-like electronic instruments unique to them.
In the absence of Garcia with his plaintive, low-tenor voice and soaring lead guitar, the Core Four will be joined by Bruce Hornsby on piano and vocals, a de facto member of the band in the ’90s; keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who has played in Lesh and Weir’s post-Grateful Dead musical ventures; and in a nod, perhaps, to Deadheads ages 30 and younger, Trey Anastasio, contemporary guitar god and lead guitarist of Phish, the jam band many see as the Dead’s heir.
“People joining hand in hand, while the music played the band.” The Grateful Dead, The Music Never Stopped.
The Grateful Dead reflect America in another important way: Its members were and are exceptional businessmen.
Unlike most touring acts, which perform the same sets every night as they travel from city to city, the Grateful Dead often played without a set list, never doing same set twice or the same song in the same way, drawing in Deadheads by offering a new musical menu at each show. The band hosts a massive merchandise operation, selling the usual T-shirts, along with limited release of its best shows, furniture, kitchen items, art prints and more.
Fare Thee Well ticket sales topped $50 million, according to Billboard, as Deadheads ordered some 350,000 tickets for the Chicago shows via mail order and 500,000 folks queued up on Ticketmaster to buy tickets online. Billboard estimated ticket demand in the millions and prices for tickets on the secondary market went into five figures.
Critics complain it’s nothing more than a money-grab by four aging millionaires, and there may be some truth in the claim.
Still, the band’s close relationship with the Deadhead traveling circus is legendary. They let fans sell tie-dyed T-shirts and clothes, crafts and food in venue parking lots before and after shows. Concerts featured a “tapers” section, where Deadheads set up recording equipment on the condition that the tapes could only be traded or given away, a practice that, along the way, helped create new Deadheads. In other words, decades before the advent of social media, the band built its business by serving customers well and giving away the product to construct a market.
“If you get confused, listen to the music play.” The Grateful Dead, Franklin’s Tower.
Whether or not musical magic happens at Grateful Dead shows has always been iffy. Reviews of the California shows were mixed, and David Gans, who hosts a Dead-themed show on the Sirius-XM satellite radio network, called them rehearsals for Chicago.
When the group finds what fans call the “X-factor,” the music moves seamlessly from tune to tune, improvised jams the transitions as the musicians take nary a breath between songs.
When they didn’t get there it was horrid; they could scarcely keep their instruments in tune, forgot lyrics and blew four-part harmonies, sounding like some drunkards’ choir. But they took the stage and played anyway, risking failure in pursuit of the moments that transported musicians and audience alike to places only music could take them.
It’s a metaphor for life, illustrating yet another American ideal: Never be afraid to fail in pursuit of success.
This is strange, perhaps, to those who weren’t touched by what they try to do. But is it stranger than a passion for ballet or Van Gogh or opera?
When it came together just the right way, the music touched my soul.
I’m not one for prayer.
When I sit in synagogue each week, it’s more about community and quiet contemplation and has little to do with liturgy.
The Deadheads are another kind of community, and the music takes me where I imagine my friends go when they pray. I close my eyes, my mind goes blank and wanders, I am transported to places I’ve not been and I don’t know.
I am transformed.
“Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell.” The Grateful Dead, Brokedown Palace.
I was 21 when I discovered the Grateful Dead. Their unique brand of music and culture saw me through college, graduate school and the ups and downs of careers in journalism and teaching, through marriage, family, a parent’s death, all manner of life’s joys and sorrows.
I saw the band dozens of times, maybe more than 100. When the Core Four toured as the Dead in 2009, I drove to Greensboro, North Carolina, with my daughters so they could experience a taste of what I’d known for so long.
The late and legendary promoter Bill Graham was particularly close to the band and produced some of its most notable concerts.
Graham put it like this: “They’re not the best at what they do. They’re the only ones that do what they do.”
He was right.
Neil Reisner, a former Miami Herald reporter, teaches journalism at Florida International University.