Back when I first moved to Williamsburg (VA not NY), my father was a policeman. Right around the time he started the job, William and Mary was hosting a concert of the renowned band, The Grateful Dead. Keep in mind that this was somewhere around 1974-75 and the love happy Sixties had given way to the reckless Seventies. As far as my father was concerned, The Grateful Dead were the most degenerate dudes around. He still tells a story about that Jerry guy that I’ll let rest with Mr. Garcia and allow to linger in my father’s mind. Because of my father’s visceral feelings about the haze-inducing jam band, I was forced to learn about the Dead on the sly. I knew the popular songs, but as far as being a Dead Head, I was nothing close. I was a casual fan.
I don’t remember the band ever playing William and Mary again, but they made their way to Hampton from time to time. For some reason, I never went. Let’s call it respect for my father. Maybe it was fear, but I never did make it to a concert. Years passed, I did what I thought grown ups did…got married… and then did what about fifty percent of grown-ups do, got divorced. I spent a few years solo and capped it off with a jaunt to Bonnaroo. Rat Dog was playing with Bob Weir and I bailed on that show for some other side stage band. I’m not sure why I blew that show-off, but by then, I had started to appreciate the Dead more. Many of the people that I ran around with in those single years were versed in the ways of the band and I started to take an interest actually paying attention to the Grateful Dead.
My son and daughter developed an interest in the Dead and I became more interested in the band at my kids’ insistence. I’m still no expert in the Dead’s history, but I won a gentleman’s wager with my brother in law about the past memberships in other bands of Bob Weir. Still, though, I had never seen the band in person. Not with Jerry Garcia, not with Bruce Hornsby, and certainly not with John Mayer.
That all changed this past Sunday… Sorry, Dad… I had a mostly good time.
First, a little background. Since I teach and have summer’s off, each summer with my step children has had a theme. Painting, reading, math, naps, the Y, and camp have all been themes of our summers. They are a little older now, so I made my own theme this summer and I called it the Phish summer. While working on a school project last week, the first day of summer vacation, I put Phish on Pandora and got lost in the music. While driving, Jam Nation was on the radio and Phish helped me pass the miles. The summer of Phish and by proximity in terms of musical flavor, the Grateful Dead, was born.
My kids had been holding tickets for the show in Camden for many weeks. On Sunday morning, I decided to buy a ticket last minute and then surprise them at the BB&T. Everything went according to plan, although parking was a bit of a hassle. Twenty-seven dollars for a cheeseburger and beer is an abomination…thanks, GUY, you should rethink your branding and gouging strategy. Love your TV show…
The night was perfect, not hot, not humid, sunny and breezy. There was a weirdness about being at the show, but I was totally open to the night. People were walking around with their big blankets, their super expensive margaritas, and an impatience for some whacky tobacky that I’m pretty sure most had already taken in. We got settled on the main vertical path on the lawn which looked like a fairway on the PGA where they let the spectators cross, no grass. Finally, the show started and I was blown away.
An older guy than me jumped to his feet, hit the dirt track, and began some sort of Grateful Dead inspired Tai Chi. He moved through the different movements in time with the music and on several occasions nearly morphed into a break dancer in tie dye. He was in a trance and stole all of the attention of those of us sitting under the blue #3 as opposed to the BIG #3 on the wall. The amazing thing about this guy was that he captivated the crowd more that than tattooed blondie next to him. Her curvaceous sway held no dominion over the scintillating blur that was the Dali dancer. He foretold of the weirdness that would come.
I made a decision that was based on large part finances and hopefully, a larger part, maturity, that I was going to enjoy this show in the comforts of sobriety. The notes were crisper, the songs fresh, John Mayer was awesome, and I was able to take in the freak show that was spinning around me with a fertile infatuation. I became so involved in what was happening that I could feel the music and watch everything going on in my little Dead world with razor sharp precision. There was one woman who was bitching the whole time. There was one guy who was the drug dealer for his group. There were easily fifteen bull ring nose piercings, countless shoes without a match, and one father who was getting ready to be dragged back into reality.
The details of family drama don’t amount to anything good when they are spilled in a modest blog, but let’s just say that I used my belief in independence and people taking charge of themselves to make the greatest dad proclamation ever, “I don’t give a %#!k, you guys figure it out.” As adults, I counted on my children to solve their problem before the intermission was over. I had arrived alone and thought that since I live in the opposite direction of my children, that I would be going home alone as well. More on that later, but I was left to solve the problem due to my stately presence, I suppose, and just as the sun when down, the sky lit up.
Within the crowd, it was almost as if a swarm of lightning bugs had taken flight. I never knew so many people had prescriptions to medicinal marijuana, but for some strange reason, they were all convalescing on the lawn under that relaxing tunes of The Grateful Dead. The lady in front of me who had been herking and jerking through spasms remembered from her days at Studio 54 offered me a hit on her joint. I passed, not my thing. The drug dealer guy partook and then offered her some of his. It looked to be more than just organic and she wisely went Nancy Reagan and said, “No.”
About this time, the Dead went into a drum thing. There are songs that will stop me and have me doing nothing. Star Witness by Neko Case and Brother’s in Arms by Dire Straits are a couple. During the drum thing, I totally forgot where I was. Awe is about all I can say. There was no more watching the mind-altered zombies walking around. I couldn’t hear the people on their phones yelling, “I can’t see you!” As Russ Coale said in True Detective, “I was mainlining truths from the universe.” I’m not kidding, everything kind of stopped for me in the moment. I was glad to be there, to have been abject in the sibling drama, to be seeing the Dead for the first time without any guilt for betraying my father.
Melodramatic? Perhaps. That was my moment, though. The over priced ticket, the bloodsucking parking, the cardboard burger with image-busting impact, and even the family drama went away in that ten or fifteen minutes. We left soon after, to beat the traffic. Enlightened, I noticed a group of people outside the fence dancing. It was something right out of a Kubrick film, sort scary, sort of pity-inducing, but overall really cool. These folks came for the music, not the show, not the wallet-draining treats, just the music. Thinking of them, and really the whole night, made the drive to take my son home cool. I didn’t leave my daughter there. She left with her friend at the intermission. (Drama inducing…)
In fact, the calm allowed me to rationally handle traffic on I-76. It gave me the courage to say, “I don’t think so” when the GPS tried to send me back to the I-76 quagmire. Nearly three hours after leaving Camden, I was home. Normally, it would have taken me about fifty minutes to get home, but the construction and jaunt to Amish country tacked on a few extra minutes. I never knew those guys drove in the dark. So many reflectors… In the wee hours, my dog and I settled in on the couch and that was it for my first (and probably only) Dead and Company show.
I know I’m not as experienced as some, but this did everything nature needed it to do for me.