Today is an old friend’s birthday. I call him an old friend but, in point of fact, we’ve never met. He does not know I exist. Actually, he is dead. I’m speaking, of course, about Jerry Garcia, who would have been 70 years old today. And despite the fact that I never knew Jerry, was not even old enough to see him play before he died in 1995, he has contributed to my life in ways so meaningful they are difficult to speak about.
Like any good nerd, when I start cultivating an obsession the first thing I do is find every book ever written about it. The same was true of the Grateful Dead. My relationship with the Dead began in my junior of college, and one day I picked up Blair Jackson’s Garcia: An American Life. This is an amazing book, and an excellent introduction to the band for anyone out there who’s interested. It’s technically a biography of Jerry himself, but it includes an in-depth history of the band as a whole. Seriously, this is some of the best Dead literature out there.
Anyway, I was reading this book, and a crazy thing happened. I was nearing the end, and reading about the internal struggles of the band during the later years, with Jerry’s health troubles, drug problems, and eventual passing, and… I realized I was crying. Full blown tears, with that twisting feeling of loss in my stomach. I wasn’t just crying because it was sad, which it was. I was grieving. Grieving for someone I’d never met, someone who had died more than a decade earlier. I wasn’t just sad; I was angry, and bitter, and all of those things you feel when you lose someone. I was crying because as I read, I had realized how truly special the Grateful Dead was, what a precious, and fragile, and beautiful, and rare thing it had been in this world. And, like all true tragedies, it felt so senseless, so wasteful that it had been taken away. And I was horribly sad for everyone involved, to have been part of something so magnificent only to lose it, but I was also sad for me. That I’d missed out on this magical thing. And I consider myself so lucky that the remaining band members continue to play, that I’ve been able to see them as often as I have, that there exists such a vast and in-depth collection of archival recording, and that I’ve been able to participate in this incredible community. But even so… man, to have been there.
To talk about why I love this band is to talk about why I love music, because for me it is the pinnacle. That can be a hard thing for others to understand, and I know why. If all you’ve ever heard of the Dead is a studio recording of Sugar Magnolia or maybe Casey Jones played on your local oldies station, then yeah, I get it. Nothing special. But to hear the way they played live, that is something truly spectacular. Phil Lesh, bass player to the Grateful Dead, once described the band’s live work as “the longest running musical argument.” It’s all point, counterpoint. One person says something, and someone else responds; you can hear the band members having conversations in the notes that they play. It becomes a living, breathing thing, full of faults and mistakes, tiny joys and immense victories. It manages to talk about all kinds of things: the fragility of life, and human error, grace, despair, and ecstasy. And I don’t mean that it deals with these ideas just in the lyrics, which it does, but I’m talking about the notes, the very sounds that are made.
Like all living things, sometimes the music is not good. Sometimes it is difficult to listen to. Sometimes it is boring. But sometimes… I’ve seen Furthur (one of the latest incarnations of Dead music) 9 times. At this point in their careers, these musicians are skilled and talented enough that it is always good, it is always a blessing to hear it, it is always the best thing in my life. But sometimes, there’s that extra something. That inexplicable magic. Other Deadheads call it the “X Factor,” but here’s how I always picture it: my heart is a fried egg (stick with me here), and on the nights when the music is just right, my rib cage cracks in two, leaving me wide-open, exposed. And then that music reaches in and pierces me, right at the center of my egg-heart, and that hot yellow yolk just comes dripping right out of me. It swirls in the air, in the crowd, in the music itself. And it’s at those moments that I remember that I am part of a whole.
I know, it sounds little trippy-hippy, but it’s an image that has stuck with me. And the sense of being part of a whole, belonging to something that is vital and important, that feeling was missing from my life before the Dead. There are three thing that I credit with completely changing my life, making me the person I am today, a person worth knowing. They happened more or less simultaneously: 1) Falling in love with The Boy, 2) Living in Russia, and 3) Discovering the Dead. These are the three things that taught me to be kind, to be generous, to be passionate and work hard, and to be full of wonder. So thank you Jerry, old friend, and happy birthday.
The video up top is a classic version of one of my favorite songs, Morning Dew, from 5/8/1977 at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. For all non-heads: It may start off like a sleeper, but stick with it for pure mind-melting, spine-shivery, electrification of the soul. Meant to be listened to at top volume.