My old college buddy Carlos emailed me the other day with an invitation to see The Grateful Dead at the Meadowlands stadium in New Jersey. He said his brother is friendly with Branford Marsalis, who will be sitting in, and tickets could be had.
I want to go but can’t.
I also want the memories this has triggered to stop. It cannot have been this long since the first time I saw the Grateful Dead.
This post chronicles when and where, but first, children, there are things to explain:
- A Dead show was not a “concert”. A Dead show was kind of like a party where the host just happened to be friends with this musical group and, hey, they decided to bring their equipment and play. It was the most casual no-showbiz happening you can imagine. No, actually, you can’t imagine.
The Dead had no playlist. Whatever tunes they felt like playing when they felt like playing them is how it went. Cool. And each song was really, really long because they always opened it up for improv. And sometimes, the improv would segue into another tune which, in turn, was also opened up for improv so a half hour of non-stop music could easily go by before a break. Sometimes longer. They no longer do this, but back then, what the band did during breaks in between songs was almost comical: they would huddle together in the center of the stage by the drummers, lighting up cigarettes, tuning their instruments, talking amongst themselves, and then, after awhile they eventually came around to deciding what to play next, broke the huddle, and stepped back to their individual spots.
Nobody in the audience found this strange in the slightest.
Hey, the band’s talkin’ things over, that’s all. They need to talk. And tune up. It can’t be all play, play, play, right?
It was late Spring 1970. I was at an all-night party at a friend’s house in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, NY. A guy I was chatting with at the party mentioned that the Dead were playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, just a few blocks away. We just picked up and went – not a lot of girls at the party, I suppose. Tickets at the box office were no problem. The place was half empty!
At that time, Jerry Garcia – in addition to lead guitar and vocals with the Dead – had taken to playing pedal steel guitar with a group called The New Riders of The Purple Sage. Country rock. Pleasant laid-back stuff. We arrived shortly after the New Riders had started their first set. They played for about two hours. At one point a guy in the balcony shouted, “Bring On The Dead!” and almost got punched out. The moron didn’t understand that this was a party and the Riders, like himself, were guests and don’t be rude, asshole, remember this is still Brooklyn.
It was a very long night for Garcia. Two hours with the Riders and then the Dead came on about midnight. Loaded and ready.
The Dead had a reputation as a great band live. And shortly thereafter I understood.
It’s impossible to describe, of course. The sound just lifted you up and took you to places you’d never been. Words can only take you so far. The Dead mostly suck on record, unless it’s a live recording. I still listen to Dark Star from the “Live Dead” album and it still takes me away.
And it lives on. Last week my son, Evan, borrowed my car. When I got it back, “Live Dead” was in the player and “St. Stephen” came on when I turned the key.
Ladyfingers dipped in moonlight, that’s what it was like, yeah.