The Dead is Alive and Well
Last weekend in San Francisco was an historic event that brought people of all stripes together in sacred union. I’m not talking about gay pride. It was the start of the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well tour; five performances they swear will be their last, or at least until their money runs out.
When some college buds called me in May and offered the chance to experience the Dead one more time, I jumped at the chance. It would be a trip down memory lane, perhaps literally, one more hurrah at reliving our halcyon college days.
Arriving at Levi stadium in Santa Clara provided a stark contrast to the early Acid Test days of the Dead, when the Peninsula was a marsh and everything was happening in the Haight. Now it was an endless corridor of high tech high-rises, with billboards advertising IT temp workers. Still, neither of these phenomenon could have flourished anywhere else but in the Bay Area.
Tailgating was the order of the day, with pop-up canopies, Frisbees and a festival atmosphere. Just like the old days. Some looked like young dreadlocked pot farmers, while others appeared to be career-minded members of the system they once vowed to never trust. They dusted off their old tie-dyed shirts and made the pilgrimage to revisit what has united Grateful Dead fans for five decades: the shared experience of being taken on a sonic journey.
On this Saturday night, with a nimble Trey Anastasio of Phish handling lead guitar chores fraught with the weight of honoring the legacy of the late, mythic Jerry Garcia, the band didn’t disappoint. 80,000 faithful descended on the stadium, which set a new attendance record previously held by Wrestlemania (yes, there is that Bay Area, too).
The opening pop hit “Truckin’,” whose chorus, “What a long strange trip it’s been,” fired the collective nostalgia of the stadium. Each of us instantly reflected on how time has flown since these lyrics first pierced our psyches.
And then came the magic. As the departing sun sent brilliant colors aloft, a perfectly pink double rainbow appeared overhead. The crowds roared in approval. Coincidence? Was it Jerry smiling above? Was it the gay community peacocking jubilantly over the Supreme Court decision? Or was it manmade with Silicon Valley know how, as some conjectured?
For me it was the mystical power of California itself, with its energy vortex that has spawned the great dawning of modern Western spirituality, technology, and now even equality. And there it was, symbolized at the top of the stadium, just beneath the rainbow, three flags flying: the U.S., the California, and the Rainbow. Rippling with pride. Equal in force. It brought tears and hugs to everyone. Awe for the sanctity of life and the richness of living in this moment in time.
After an interminable intermission, where the band was likely administering anti-inflammatories, the lights went dim and the Dead opened with their most mystical, anthemic song, “Dark Star.” For hard-core deadheads, this always signaled an ominous journey into the abyss of experimental sound. For the band, it was about their early acid-fueled days when they struggled for cohesion, but actually discovered a different language of long-form jamming where one member could push the direction of the song into something else and the other musicians followed. It was the language of jazz improvisation, but with distortion, effects boxes and stacked Marshall amps that messed with your mind.
This was the music that opened portals and new neural pathways. These were the moments when the band seemed profoundly aligned with their fans’ psychedelic experience, taking them further into the recesses of their minds, demolishing linear narrative and offering a glimpse of alternate realities.
And just when things would get their darkest and weirdest, a chord or two would emerge and divine the way back home. A portend of a familiar song. In this case it was “Walk me out in the Morning Dew” a refrain that came after the exhausting medley of the bands trippiest songs, “Dark Star,” “St Stephen,” “The Eleven,” “The Other One,” and the inimitable, acidic drum jam. An anthem of rebirth. The knowledge that another day will come. And it felt oh so divine.
The importance of the Grateful Dead in so many people’s lives cannot be understated. Yes, there was the LSD and pot and altered states of consciousness. But it was also the communal, tribal experience. Not everyone dropped in and dropped out. But most all had their consciousness expanded in ways that perhaps set them on a slightly different path that made a difference in how they viewed the world and how they lived their lives.
The Dead not only played a pivotal role in that, but they also spawned the jam band genre, the festival experience, and even the rave culture. And for a brief, shining moment last weekend, on “one more Saturday night,” 80,000 people gloriously relived where it all began: the Grateful Dead vortex. A long, strange, mostly wonderful trip it’s been.
Billy Fried sits on the boards of Transition Laguna and the Laguna Beach Community Clinic. He hosts “Laguna Talks” Thursdays at 8 p.m. on KX93.5. He can be reached at [email protected].