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The Grateful Dead’s Last Tour

How this rock band reminds its fans to enjoy the ride

What do Tony Blair, Ann Coulter, Steve Jobs, Phil Jackson, Bill Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Whoopi Goldberg and Bill Walton have in common?

Would you believe The Grateful Dead?

While it’s hard to imagine our beloved “Uncle Walter” of CBS Evening News fame flashing the peace sign and eating a veggie burrito at a Grateful Dead concert, he did in fact attend two Dead shows and was a friend of band drummer Mickey Hart. Amazing things like that have been happening at Dead concerts for 50 years, ever since a Bay Area band, formerly known as the Warlocks, began playing psychedelic music at Acid Test “events” for Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters in 1965. What a long strange trip it’s been.

But pretty soon all of that is going to come to an end. After 50 years, 11 different members and nearly 40,000 songs performed at more than 2,300 concerts in 298 cities — the band as we know it is bringing down the curtain. To mark The Dead’s 50th anniversary and final lap, four of its original members — Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir — are reuniting for five concerts, two this past weekend in Santa Clara, Calif. and the final three (July 3, 4 and 5) at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill.

I like to think of [the Grateful Dead] as survivors and ambassadors — but, most of all, as autonomous experimenters with no restrictions.

So much has been written about The Grateful Dead — well over 100 books have been published about them since the early 1970s — that Nicholas Meriwether, curator of the ever-expanding Grateful Dead archives at UC-Santa Cruz, is quick to point out that “The Grateful Dead archive is going to end up being a critical way for us to approach and understand the 1960s and the counterculture of the era … It’s also going to tell us a lot about the growth and development of modern rock theater, and it’s helping us understand fan culture.”

Far Out, Dude!

The Soldier Field shows will be particularly poignant since it was there, nearly 20 years ago to the day, that the “last” Grateful Dead concert took place; the band’s musical and spiritual leader, Jerry Garcia, died a month later. And those Soldier Field concerts have special significance for my family and me because on July 8, 1995 my wife, Pam Shannon, and I decided to take our children, ages 15 (Summer) and 10 (Ian) to see The Grateful Dead.

Some of our friends thought we were crazy, others concluded we were over-the-hill hippies (naming our daughter Summer didn’t help matters). But we figured that the experience of attending a Grateful Dead concert was a rite of passage that our children would remember for a long, long time.

In many ways, Summer, who had on her own became a Grateful Dead aficionado, was the inspiration behind our attending. It helped, too, that Pam had been one of the original Dead Heads, responding, like so many others, to Hank Harrison‘s 1971 clarion call on the sleeve of The Grateful Dead’s second album:

“DEAD FREAKS UNITE: Who are you? Where are you? How are you?

Send us your name and address and we’ll keep you informed.

Dead Heads, P.O. Box 1065, San Rafael, California 94901″

Of course, by 1995 we were informed about Dead concerts in other ways, so with Pam’s Dead Head chops and Summer’s keen interest, we headed to Chicago.

Originally, two of Summer’s 10th grade classmates were going to join us, but as the concert date drew closer, they (or more likely their parents) got cold feet. Which left us with a dilemma of sorts — would we sell our extra tickets to two of the several thousand Dead Heads who, in true Grateful Dead tradition, would be camping out prior to the concert? Pam and I were torn. As much as we embraced the Dead fans’ tradition, we didn’t want just anybody sitting next to our kids for several hours in Soldier Field!

We could barely make our way through the hordes of campers and vendors inhabiting the lakefront venue. One by one, Dead Head after Dead Head approached us seeking tickets. Although friendly and well mannered, some were more persistent than others, and I could sense the uneasiness in Ian and Summer.

We’d just about given up when a young, sweet, smiling young man with a tie-dyed headband approached. Clean-shaven and polite, Brandon, as he introduced himself, asked if we had any tickets to sell (not give away free), explaining that he’d brought along a friend to attend his “first” Dead concert. Brandon’s charm and earnestness quickly won us over. He and his friend, Neil, became our companions for the evening, and we stayed in touch with them, especially Brandon, for many years afterward.

Innovation and Endurance

And then there was the concert. As most music-loving boomers will attest, The Grateful Dead are an acquired taste. They require — demand — attention and lots and lots of patience. Remember, they started out as Ken Kesey’s Acid Test house band! But they are rock and roll’s consummate innovators. While other 1960s-era acts, including The Rolling Stones, are pretty much retrospective, The Grateful Dead constantly pushed their material in new directions, upholding the adventurous spirit they’d always personified.

The July 8, 1995 concert was no exception. They exhilarated their faithful followers by opening with rousing renditions of Jack Straw and Sugaree. But then, as they often do, the band went off on their own improvisational odyssey before closing the first set. The second set was more of the same — after a stimulating start with China Cat Sunflower into I Know You Rider, The Dead went back to their self-styled universe for what seemed like hours. Brandon was digging the entire thing, as were, surprisingly, Summer and Ian. Neil was doing his best to enjoy himself, and we were reserving judgment, feeling like chaperones to 60,000 tie-dyed devotees.

Toward the end, the band did an extended version of the Bob Dylan classic, Visions of Johanna. As Garcia provided a very personal, intimate take on the song, the stadium grew silent.

It was eerily creepy, as if he presaged his own death a month later, bringing so much angst to lines like “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” and “The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the rain.”

The Dead rallied by closing strong with One More Saturday Night (it was Saturday night) and U. S. Blues as an encore — “Wave that flag, wave it wide and high/Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.”

Enjoying The Ride

Twenty years on, I’m still glad we made that trip and took our kids who, now 35 and 30, fondly remember that concert, the crowd, the music, and Neil and Brandon. Regrettably, none of us were able to get tickets to the upcoming Chicago shows, which sold out immediately.

Some will always dismiss The Grateful Dead as the ultimate cult band. I like to think of them as survivors and ambassadors — but, most of all, as autonomous experimenters with no restrictions.

Or as the words to one of their songs put it:

“I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe/But at least I’m enjoying the ride.”

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