In August of 1995, I was walking through the giant oak grove at my graduate school in Western Pennsylvania, and there was a huge speaker in front of the library blasting the Grateful Dead. No one was in sight, just a lone speaker and Jerry Garcia’s voice billowing through the trees. I thought it to be somewhat strange, but then again, I have seen devoted Deadheads do out-of-the-ordinary things in an attempt to let their Dead flags fly.
When I got home to my apartment, I turned on the TV to witness crowds of people gathering in the streets of Haight-Ashbury and all over the country, lighting candles, crying and consoling one another over the death of Jerry Garcia.
I did my own mourning, having gone to my share of Dead shows in the seventies and eighties. My high school boyfriend and his friends loved the Grateful Dead, and I tagged along to many concerts developing my own appreciation of the band. The experience of attending a Grateful Dead concert is something one cannot explain or pinpoint, except for the fact that attending one, for the most part, promised a very uplifting, unique and almost primal experience.
But we weren’t the real Deadheads. The real Deadheads were following the Dead in the sixties and early seventies. We were privileged, sheltered suburbanite kids, not Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, willing to sell all of our belongings, becoming destitute and homeless, in order to give ourselves over fully to the experience. We were merely riding on the coat tails of the true Deadhead culture, even in the mid-to-late seventies. It was evident that the Grateful Dead was becoming somewhat of a bygone by the mid-to-late eighties with the release of “A Touch of Gray.” As a band, they were still having fun, but Jerry was sick on and off, having to cancel shows often, while the music became more about the recording studio than live performances.
Since Jerry Garcia’s death, hundreds of Dead cover bands have come out of the woodwork, approximating the improvisational jam that would happen at a Grateful Dead concert. The fact is, we have never heard anyone quite able to imitate Jerry Garcia’s style of playing, because of his unique and playful spontaneity. The lead guitarists of a Dead cover band always sound bound by a preoccupation with WWJD (What Would Jerry Do?), making the much-sought-after spontaneous moment feeling somewhat scripted. Jerry Garcia has always prided himself on the authenticity of his music, and ironically, the attempt to recreate that sentiment and experience gives rise to a “Jerry parody.”
Going to a Grateful Dead cover band show versus having gone to a live Grateful Dead concert can be compared to the difference between going to see Monet’s Water Lilies hanging in a museum versus buying a print of Water Lillies and hanging it up on the wall. When seen in person, one can get lost in the dramatic, thick and textured paint brush swirls creating the sensation of floating side by side with the water lilies. The poster on the wall, however, yields a more self-centered experience of feeling good about the fact that the owner of the print on the wall has good taste in art based upon someone else’s (most likely an art critic) one-on-one authentic encounter with the actual painting.
The truth is that back in the seventies and eighties and even sixties, the Grateful Dead as a band, was not that popular. You were considered an anomaly or an outcast if you liked the Grateful Dead. Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and The Who had won over the ears of most teenagers and college-aged students in the seventies, and then New Wave rolled into the scene in the eighties with Blondie, The Clash, Pretenders and Talking Heads. The marginal Dead fans stayed loyal to the group, however, even throughout the band’s latter days.
I’m not knocking those who listen to and enjoy an assimilation of a Grateful Dead concert. They were a legendary band. But sometimes, it feels as though the reproduction takes away from the very essence of what a Grateful Dead Concert stood for, which was an organic down-to-earth, in-the-moment experience, not a reproduction of that moment. And those moments were not always positive. There were plenty of drug overdoses and occasional Hells Angels fights.
My generation was about finding oneself through a creative process, through communal experiences and through the experiences of others. This process didn’t come from finding a brand through Pinterest, Instagram, or Snapchat, emojis and selfies; but rather, through finding philosophical or transcending experiences. Whether it was learning yoga, meditating, attending a Grateful Dead Concert or reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, there was a certain freedom, seriousness, and sense of responsibility towards humanity and one’s surroundings.
Growing up in the 60s, 70s and even 80’s, America felt like a safe place, where adventurous and irresponsible soul searching was allowed and expected without any real consequences. Democracy felt strong and vibrant..
Forty years later, when I look across the room at my students, particularly the first few weeks of class, there is a certain restraint, a lamp that has dimmed, that I don’t recall my generation having. As I look at their faces, there seems to be an Orwellian somber, an inheritance of original sin, a blank stare, suggesting a surrender of some sort. It’s as if they don’t trust their environment enough to let go. Or maybe they are just more accepting of and not as afraid of the dark as my generation was.
Their generation is more about finding a safe place in the world, both financially and physically. Yet, at the same time, they want to make their marks in the world.
Getting through my skepticism, I’ve finally come to realize that this recent movement of recreating a Grateful Dead concert and community reveals a desire for an authentic experience, even if for just a moment.
—Jerry Garcia passed away on Aug. 9, 1995.