WHELP, another week, another bucket of outrage. From the hamster circus in Washington to City Council’s genuflection to the development demagogues, resistance can feel futile.
I thought I was going to find some sweet relief on Tuesday evening at the Grateful Dead Meet-up at the Movies, an annual event that brings out thousands of tie-dyed T-shirts and grey-haired ponytails to local theaters across the country for a synched screening of an epic concert from the band’s heyday.
For the past seven years, digital distribution company Fathom Events has resurrected the best of Jerry Garcia’s noodley nine-fingered bluegrass riffs, Phil Lesh’s psychedelic jazz bass, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann’s African-inflected drums and Bob Weir’s often-off-key-but-always-endearing voice.
Even those who attended the same shows and still remember them can’t deny the awesomeness of reliving them in film form, which might include rare glimpses of original frontman Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Donna Godchaux’s she-wolf back-up howls.
The Deadhead message boards were all abuzz with this year’s presentation of the previously unseen footage of the July 29, 1989 show at Washington DC’s RFK Stadium, in honor of what would have been Jerry ’s 75th birthday. (I know, I thought he was older, too. Ever since the late 70s, he always kinda resembled an ancient Jim Henson creature, like one of the Mystics from the Dark Crystal in a flannel shirt.)
Like so many, my relationship with the Dead has been a long, strange trip. I came of age in “Touch of Grey” era, but, uh, burned the midnight oil to catch up on the discography, wearing out “American Beauty” and a whole stack of a boyfriend’s bootleg cassettes in college.
I never got into keeping set lists like the real hardcores, but I did ride 19 hours stuffed in the backseat of my roommate’s two-door Skittle of a Honda for the ‘92 Oakland shows, selling Snickers bars from our campsite in the DMV parking lot.
My allegiance to the Grateful Dead family solidified when my VW van broke down in Northern California the same week Jerry died in 1995, and I was swept up in the weeks-long mourning procession that stretched from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park all the way up to the dark hollow of Fairfax, where I made a nest in the redwoods for the next decade. (Bay Area rents were astronomical even back then.)
Marin County is also home to most of the still-alive members of the Dead, and I had plenty of necrotic close encounters, including stalking Phil in the aisles of the health food store and trying to play it cool standing next to Bobby as Elvis Costello crooned from the postage stamp-sized stage of Mill Valley’s Sweetwater Café.
Some guy I met from Savannah had ended up in California after seeing the Dead there in ’93, and he courted me with sugar magnolias and scarlet begonias. At our wedding, I marched down the aisle with rings on my fingers and bells on my shoes.
For our first anniversary, I made a quilt out of his pile of moldering concert shirts, and “Ripple” was one of our children’s first lullabies.
Now I hear you hipsters snickering, and I get it. The Grateful Dead and its whole crunchy scene are an acquired taste.
As Jerry famously pointed out in 1970, “We’re like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
For sure, there’s a loyal kinship for those who eat up the music and the lovey-peacey vibe, for whom “whoa-oh, what I want to know-oh-oh, is are you kind?” is the only question that matters.
The unfortunate cultural backlash against patchouli has caused many of us to take our dancing skeletons into the closet, but all it takes is a rainbow of bears to recognize our brethren and sistren.
It’s been a minute since I went full hippie, but I pulled out the patchwork prairie skirt and rode with the old man to the Regal Cinemas Savannah 10 on Shawnee Street to find steal-your-face bumper stickers aplenty.
The parking lot scene was pretty tame compared to Phoenix in ’87, but at least no one offered us any of the brown acid.
While Deadheads are a pretty mellow bunch as far as fandom goes, any gathering of us must include a few brags of many shows we’ve seen and where. The coolest clergyman in the world, Michael Chaney, says he lost count at 45.
Local jam band superfan Jamie Smith Arkins admitted to having never been to a live show but can sing along to almost all the lyrics.
A tall gent who preferred to remain anonymous won this game handily when he offered with a shrug, “Woodstock, ’69.” Mic drop, friend!
Finally, we skipped inside the theater, where it was totally weird to buy popcorn instead of a homemade veggie burrito from a dreadlocked white girl from New Jersey.
All 14 of us cheered as the show opened with a rousing rendition of “Touch of Grey,” and it was amazing to see our beloved band again, even better in the theater since not even a miracle ticket could ever provide a view so close; you could even see the stub on Jerry’s right hand.
But the rapture only lasted two songs. Just as keyboardist Brent Mydland (who would OD exactly a year after this show) started in with “Mississippi Half-Step,” a crackle of static crept over the speaker.
At first I thought it was just Bobby having one of his off nights, but this sounded more like a pterodactyl masticating cellophane into a microphone. Within a few minutes, the scratchy dissonance became intolerable discord, driving everyone out of the theater.
We all stood around soberly on the trippy-carpeted hallway while wild-eyed woman Stephanie Workman went to find a manager. Fifteen minutes later we were still waiting, so we marched back to the lobby to demand our money back, in a totally non-confrontational, pacifistic kind of way, of course.
The manager finally emerged from the dungeon of this brokedown palace to inform us that the sound couldn’t be fixed and the rest of the broadcast would not be shown. Theater ticketholders could get their admission back, but those who purchased online from the event website were outta luck.
“Gives new meaning to Shakedown Street,” we muttered.
But this Dead meet-up wasn’t over. As the beleaguered manager began the glacial process of refunding the cash customers, some clever person found the livestream on her phone. (Yay, 21st century bootleggers!)
Stephanie rushed out to her car, returning to the lobby bearing an orb-shaped Bluetooth speaker, and soon we were shaking our bones around the lobby, which really seemed to confuse the people there to see Dunkirk.
We kept it up for a couple more songs in spite of the manager’s increasing impatience with my shouts of “The women are smarter, that’s right!” Our silly spins of civil disobedience not only lightened the mood but seemed necessary and important in these times when outrage doesn’t always feel efficacious.
I mean, a handful of hippies shimmying around to “Friend of the Devil” isn’t exactly a riot, but we did eventually negotiate for refunds for everyone and passes to a future movie.
It was the closest any of us we were going to get that evening to communion, that special quality that unites Deadheads and everyone else who recognizes the higher potential in the dark star of humanity.
See, the Grateful Dead phenomenon was and still is about more than a bunch of unlikely rock legends playing psychedelic mountain music. In the old days, the collective groove translated into something like spirituality in an era when traditional ideas about religion and society were being rejected, and the enduring tenet of “Be Kind” continues to inspire a golden road of unlimited devotion. (By the way, I hear this summer’s Dead and Company tour fronted by John Maher killed it.)
Even those who would never put a toe in a pair of Birkenstocks can perhaps be grateful that America’s current counter-momentum against a highly outrageous surge of political and social negativity has its roots in collaborative Dead culture.
Maybe one day, we’ll all wake up to find out that we are the eyes of the world.
‘Til then, if we get confused, we’ll just listen to the music play.