Trying To Get To You

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Sing Sweet Songs To Rock My Soul

August 9th was the 11th anniversary of Jerry Garcia's death and listening to him today, I can't help but think that no band has ever been as critically punished for their fans as have the Grateful Dead. Because they became the epitome of "hippie rock," much of their incredible body of work has been ignored in the post-punk universe that we live in today. It's a shame, because they left behind one of the strongest and most moving body of works in the rock era, one that resonates luminously today.

I first saw the Dead in Greensboro, NC while on spring break in 1989. I was with some friends and another friend of ours, who was doing the whole Dead spring tour, had a problem with the van he was traveling in. He asked me if he and his tour mates could borrow my car so they could see the shows, and I said no. Actually the conversation went something like this:

Friend: "Ben, can't we please borrow your car? Nothing will happen to it."
Me: "No."
Friend: "Do you want to come to the Dead shows with us?"
Me: "No."
Friend: "Drive us to the shows and we'll pay for your tickets both nights."
Me: "No."
Friend: "Drive us to the shows and we'll buy your tickets and put you up in a hotel."
Me: "No."
Friend: "Drive us to the shows, and we'll buy your tickets, put you up in a hotel and pay for your food."
Me: "No."
Friend: "Drive us to the shows and we'll buy your tickets, put you up in a hotel, pay for your food and pay for your drugs."
Me: "Ok."

Much of those two days is a blur to me, but I do remember sitting in the arena before the first show, amidst a sea of tie-dye, feeling like I was on another planet, the mushrooms kicking in, and thinking to myself, "Please God, don't let me become like these people!" I even started singing "God Save The Queen" softly to myself so as to be inoculated against all the hippieness around. I didn't think that highly of the shows, although I certainly didn't dislike it - and I had a great time in general over the two days. But I left Greensboro without thinking much about what I had just seen and heard; it just seemed like a good party. I drove back to Charleston with three Deadheads passed out in my Toyota Tercel, playing Springsteen live at the Roxy in '78 to get my head back to normal.

Fast forward about three and a half months, July 10, 1989, to be exact. It's a stormy night at Giants Stadium, rain pouring down, and I'm on the floor about thirty feet from the front of the stage. I'm totally sober, by the way. The band is playing "Tennessee Jed," and they're nailing it, playing tight and focused. Jerry is smiling at all the heads who are blissed out in the rain and it's a moment between the band and the crowd, unspoken but totally understood by all. I look at the guy next to me, get his attention, and shout, "They're kicking ass!" He doesn't say a word, but grins and returns to the band and his reverie.

It was an ecstatic moment of music, and it made me a fan of the Grateful Dead for life. I went to about thirty more shows over the next five years, and while I certainly saw my share of dud shows, emblematic of a band and band leader in decline, some of my favorite concert moments came from them. And as the years have passed I've come to truly appreciate the depth and breadth of what Garcia and the Dead did, mixing and synthesizing so many styles and genres into something truly original and American. As Bob Dylan said about Garcia after his death, "There are a lot of spaces between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly and Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without being a member of any school." And any catalog that includes Workingman's Dead, "Terrapin Station," "Box of Rain," "Ripple," "Ramble On Rose," "Stella Blue," "Loser," "Black Peter," "Althea," "Candyman," "Help On The Way ->Slipknot!->Franklin's Tower," "Brown Eyed Women" and "Foolish Heart" is one that should be regarded in the upper echelon is history of rock.

Photo by Robbi Cohn. Copyright Robbi Cohn.
It's not Garcia's guitar playing that moves me nearly as much as his voice. It was not a particularly strong instrument; it was somewhat thin and limited in range. But damn, could he sing a ballad. As Garcia biographer Blair Jackson wrote, "When Garcia was truly in the moment on his ballads, he was able to communicate the most complex feelings and emotions with a directness and simplicity that could touch almost any soul." A great Garcia performance on songs like "Stella Blue," "Morning Dew," or "So Many Roads" could make the listener stand inside the shoes of the singer, and for a moment, even share the same soul. Those moments are what kept me coming back, and they're the moments that still have me listening. And if you've never understood what the appeal of the Grateful Dead was about, if you can separate their music from their myth and just be present to listen, there are treasures that will rock your soul.

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