Strangers Stopping Strangers

August 9, 1995, 8:30am:  My friend Laurie called me crying so hard I could barely understand her but I did understand this – that Jerry Garcia, the mythic lead guitarist of the Grateful Dead died at around 4:00am in from a heart attack in Forest Knolls, California.  I don’t remember telling Les but I do remember heading out my front door and running as fast as I could up Salmon Creek Road.

That day our phone lines were burning.  We were making calls, calls were coming in.  Even calls from my father and grandmother expressing their condolences:  People who never understood my “obsession” if you will with this band and this culture recognized that this was a great time of sadness for me and acknowledged that.  That night we met Gary and Joanna in Occidental for dinner.  Joanna, was looking down as she lightly kicked the floor with her feet.  “This sucks,” she said.  And that pretty much summed it up.  All of our lives changed suddenly and drastically at this point and none of us knew what to expect next.

The Author as a Hippy Chick, 1983

My first Dead show was on September 2, 1978.  While I don’t remember much from that show in particular I knew pretty much from the start that I had found a community in which I “fit”.  In a television interview over twenty years ago, Bob Weir referred to us, the band, the band’s staff and crew and the fans, as a congregation of misfits.  Some, like me, did not have strong family bonds or a remote feeling of what a community was.  I had given up on trying to conform and instead was rabidly intent on asserting my individuality.  What I found in the Grateful Dead experience was the opportunity to both be my own person while at the same time being part of something bigger than me.  I discovered the true meaning of “idren”.

GDTS Issued Ticket Stubs, 1983-1984

Looking back, the ritual surrounding a Grateful Dead event was a weird sociological experiment.  In 1984 the band started handling their own ticketing.  The Grateful Dead Hotline came to be – the recorded message would give you all the information you needed to mail in for your tickets.  The process was meticulous:  One mistake and you were denied.  We’d sit as a group as we followed every instruction, detail by detail making sure we got it right; the correct mailing address, the postal money order made out exactly as instructed, the index card with all the information required – nothing more and nothing less – and of course the self-addressed stamped envelope.  I wasn’t as careful in balancing my checkbook.  Once in the mail began the wait, the checking of the mailbox, the eager anticipation.  We’d wait for that familiar envelope, filled out in our own hand and like a college application letter thin was bad but thick…well, that envelope contained the keys to the kingdom.

Greg, Providence RI 1982

When I lived in New York, that Kingdom was mostly on the road.  Trains, planes and automobile, we trailed the band from New Haven to Providence to August Maine and back again.  Each city held its own brand of excitement and adventure.  There were never fewer than five of us crammed into one hotel room and that hotel was sold out to the ceiling with “heads” just like us, 5 or more to each room.  The party started and ended in those cheap hotels all along the Eastern seaboard and spilled over into the streets of each unassuming city.  Everywhere you looked there were hundreds of colorfully dressed folks playing frisbee and hackey-sack, smoking joints in grassy knolls in town squares and munching on home-made humus and sprout sandwiches.  The parking lot scene/market place sprung from this nomadic tribe.  From the backs of vans and trunks of cars you could find clothing and jewelry as well as something to fill your belly or feed your head.

Roosevelt Stadium, Washington DC 1986

Once inside the show the ritualistic behavior continued.  For a band that never played any two shows alike the fans were fervent creatures of habit.  The ritual of getting inside the show was more pronounced at General Admission shows.  A few of us who could would be right there when the doors opened, running into the hall and spreading out four flat-bed sheets on the floor  over an area just a few feet in front of the sound board, off-center favoring “Phil’s side”.  Gradually our posse would arrive, dropping coats and packs into the “pile” while all of us protected that area, saving the space four our family and patrolling its perimeter like we were guarding the border of small country.

Les and Brother Neil, 1988

Then the lights would go down…my heart would flutter and the crowd as a whole would let out a roar.  For the next three hours the band would play and we would sway, gyrate and conduct the music with our fluttering hands.  I was surrounded with the friends I loved the most but while the band was playing I would barely notice them around me save for a time when the jam would get white-hot and I’d turn to face the friend next to me – both of mouths gaping open, grinning from ear to ear, eyes rolling in the backs of our head – yes we’d heard the same thing at the same time.  The circular energy between band and audience was one I’d never felt before and have not felt since.  It would bounce off the walls, the trees, the rocks…it would circle above our heads, around our feet and through our guts.  And so that would go until the very last note.

Well This Must Be Your Kind of Zoo - Oklahoma City, 2011

The Grateful Dead experience was a sum of all its parts.  The music brought us there and sustained us but that was a three-hour part of each day.  It was the hotel rooms (memorably one over the top fancy corporate apartment given to me when I worked int he garment center in New York), the after-parties (at Bob and Max’s in the Oakland Hills – at Phyllis’ apartment on the Upper East Side of New York), the parking lot, the city parks…and the venues.  In the last five years of Jerry’s life the band played mostly large stadiums and coliseums because they had outgrown some of the smaller, more intimate and often times quirky and spectacular places they played prior to 1990.  They played at an amusement park in Houston.  They played at a zoo in Oklahoma City.  They played small historical theaters:  Radio City in New York, The Warfield in San Francisco, The Fox Theater in Atlanta.  They played in magnificent outdoor amphitheaters: The Greek Theater on the UC Berkeley Campus, The Frost Amphitheater on the Stanford campus and the Starlight Amphitheater in Kansas City.  By far the most spectacular place I have ever seen them play though was at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Golden Colorado.  Each venue added an esthetic to each show, a vibe if you will that contributed to the overall experience.

Red Rocks Amphitheater, 1985

The New Years Eve runs were legendary.  My first New Years Eve shows were 1983/1984 at the San Francisco Civic Center.  I remember flying home to New York relieved that I’d never have to make plans for New Years Eve again.  Where ever I lived I knew that during that week I’d be in the San Francisco Bay Area partying with the boys.

New Year Eve Tickets, 1990

Even the tickets were decked out and special – more expensive and larger than most.  The day began at 10:00am because the space game was more intense.  As years went on we managed to find a “walk-in” backstage to wait out until the doors opened so we could grab space and seats.  Lots of demand for those due to the huge influx of heads from all over the country there for the annual pilgrimage.  Historically, New Years shows were not the best that the band played but was filled with all sorts of special details.  Noisemakers and hats, bottles of champagne smuggled in, special guest artists who would often sit in with the band for that special “third set”.  For a time, breakfast was even served.  It was festive and over the top.

Father Time on the Golden Gate Bridge, New Years Eve 1988

Just before midnight orchestral music would play and “Father Time”, aka Bill Graham, would make his entrance either by flying overhead as say, an eagle or on a float with a small entourage in the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge.  He and his float buddies would throw roses into the crowd as the thing made its way to the front of the stage.  Once there he’d do the count-down…10, 9, 8….and right on cue (and often 10 minutes late)…1…HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!  The band would start playing Aiko Aiko, Midnight Hour or Sugar Magnolia as thousands of balloons dropped from the ceiling.

Balloon Drop, New Years Eve 1988

A year or two after Bill Graham died in a helicopter accident the Grateful Dead stopped playing shows on New Years Eve.  It just wasn’t the same without Father Time.

Joe Takes a Moment, Red Rocks, 1985

On June 2, 1995, seventeen years and nine months to the day I walked through the gates of the Meadowlands to see my first show, I saw my last.  It was at the Shoreline Amphitheater and I remember it to be a very good show.  We had great seats.  The Tibetan Monks came out and chanted during the drum solo.  It was the first of a three show run but unfortunately it was one of the very few times I could see the entire run.  Les and I flew out to go work out-of-town the following morning.

Su, 1988

Bill Graham once said “They’re not the best at what they do – they’re the only ones that do it.”  The Grateful Dead simply did not fit into any one genre box.  The band’s collective music influences  were all over the place:  Jazz, Blues, Bluegrass, Reggae, Soul…even Disco.  It wasn’t until the band stopped playing that some DJ somewhere coined the term/genre “jam band” with the Grateful Dead as the grandaddy and other bands finding their place within that genre, bands such as Phish, Widespread Panic and the String Cheese Incident.

Max at the Frost in Palo Alto, 1986

No matter what, at the end of every show they left you wanting more.  More might come the next night in the same place; the next week in another city; the next six months on the opposite coast.  That is why, two months after I walked out of the Shoreline Amphitheater the fact that there would be no more smacked me square in the face.  My greatest fear was that my tribe would be splintered apart, that I’d never see the people I loved on both coasts again.  Sure, a few I didn’t see nearly as often, sometimes a year or two apart.  Sure, some slipped away entirely.  But for the most part my tribe remains intact – we got through this incredibly hard time together.  We moved on, growing our families and our businesses.   We celebrated marriages and births.  We buried some of our own, we buried some of our relatives.  Our loyalty and our love for each other that came out of this Grateful Dead experience grows stronger with each passing year and the sting of our one common loss less painful as time goes on.  There were band, events, and festivals that sprung out of Jerry’s death in an attempt to keep the music alive and keep us all together and comforted.  These “post-apocalyptic” Grateful Dead events were hard to handle for me.  The missing man at first was far too clear.  Instead of leaving a show elated, I’d leave a show depressed.  Yet, as the years wore on the silence in the sound became less and less deafening.

Jerry Day 2010

For the first five years that “Jerry Day” took place I didn’t go, just for those reasons.  It takes place at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in McClaren Park in the working class Excelsior District in San Francisco where Garcia had lived as a boy.  The first time I went it was to celebrate a friend’s birthday – and I’ve gone every years since.  This event, free to attend, captures that spirit of tribal unity like no other.  People come out of the woodwork – I see folks I haven’t seen all year or in years in general.  It’s a warm fuzzy feeling with good music and good vibes.  At the most recent event I looked around me and I saw our posse – not on a blanket, not remotely near the soundboard but all around me none the less and I was transported back 20 years to the Oakland Coliseum with those same people doing the same thing – feeling the music and the love of each other.

Pete, Jerry Day 2011

When I leave Jerry Day and I elated.  The difference is that in my fifty years now I operate strongly under the philosophy of “Life is Short – Trip Hard”.  I know longer anticipate the next one…I basque in the glow of the present one.

On August 9, 1995 Gerome Garcia joined other bright flames that burned out too quickly – Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.  Over the past sixteen years he has been joined by others bright lights gone dark too soon – Kurt Kobain, Amy Winehouse, Martin Fiero.

If you believe in forever, then life is just a one night stand –

If there’s a rock n’ roll heaven – well you know they’ve got a hell of a band.

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12 Responses to Strangers Stopping Strangers

  1. Les says:

    I remember it like it was just… I don’t know what i was trying to say there, other than it’s part of our DNA and with in this community i found my true love… Nikki I love you.

  2. aymeeforkuh says:

    Good stuff,1st show Boston 77,still have not been to my last.Took some time after Jerry to wander back out,but did.Red Rocks was my fav also,Morrison Co :).Walking down the boardwalk in SD,last year,ran into the Rhythm Devils at the Wavelength,and the fire started,again. Headed to Vegas in October,for Bobby and Phil,but its as much about the music as anything.All those nights spent helping Jerry up the neck of the guitar and as you said ,the heads,”Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand”,was a real good time.

  3. What a lovely essay, thank you.

  4. katie davidson (kathy hackett - maiden name on f/b) says:

    friends and i would hitch from colorado to winterland about every 3 weeks to see the dead; some of my most memorable times were AT the shows, of course, and the journeys there. i haven’t yet see further, which i gather is the best of the post-jerry bands; just can’t bring myself to go and NOT see him up there. with all love and peace – great article, by the way.
    namaste – katie

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