Fifteen Years Gone
Peaches En Randalia #55
It all rolls into one and nothing comes for free,
There’s nothing you can hold, for very long. – “Stella Blue,” Music by Jerry Garcia, Lyrics by Robert Hunter
This one’s a bit late. Yet, it is never late for a brief chat about Captain Trips, Jerry Garcia. On June 3, 1995, Erik, the head who turned me onto this music of ours a long time ago in a parallel universe far far away, and I went to our last Grateful Dead show. We didn’t know that at the time, which always makes conversations about that show rather melancholy. Indeed, the day was a wild one as those times normally were. Pre-kids and pre-doomed thoughts of “we are mortal, aren’t we?”, we tended to do it all at all times, reinforcing the notion that to have a really good time meant that you had no limits, no signposts to make you stop and ponder your fate. And so, with a mixture of various beverages consumed and the local flavors of Northern California finding their way into the equation, we stood out on the dirt lot at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, chatted up the herd of heads, and enjoyed the pre-gig buzz, as always.
Erik is Jewish, and from Long Island. I was raised Irish Catholic (which means you never go to church, but you act like the Pope doesn’t shit in the woods), and from Northern California. So, naturally, Erik and I hit it off as opposites do. Where we found common ground was a weird toxic blend of Hunter S. Thompson books and Grateful Dead jams. However, what truly sealed the deal between us was learning to live within the silence. And that’s a hard thing to define, but one attempts when thinking of Jerry Garcia’s art.
My favorite Grateful Dead song, which was played on that Saturday evening, fifteen years ago at the Shoreline, is a Jerry ballad, “Stella Blue.” What I love is the tune, the melodic structure, of course. If the song didn’t sound right, nothing else would matter; it would just be another piece of noise. But I also love the tale of heartache and pain, and what appeared to be centuries of hard-earned wisdom deeply entrenched in the belly of the tune. Indeed, I also appreciated that brief passage in the song where, as Garcia once said, there would be a silent moment where all sound ceased, and you were left with a few seconds of the pure goosebump pathos of a truly magical tapestry. Garcia/Hunter songs have lasted because there were often great melodies and poignant lyrics. But the best either hinted at that moment of silence (on record, or at a gig), or had them very much present in their fabric, like that sweet moment in “Stella Blue.”
The other day, I found myself sitting in solitude without a note of sound hovering overhead, and it…well…it sounded blissful. I find that as I get older, I do tend to enjoy moments of silence when I can find them. As a father of young sons, and a writer, editor, and fan of large blocks of loud and improvised noise, or tight but loose jamband music, those moments are indeed rare, and I now cherish them. And that’s what Erik and I
shared. We didn’t talk much back on that day in June 1995. We still don’t. But there is an
understanding, and a certain deeper knowledge of what the magic of the Grateful Dead conjured up for us back in those changing times in that last great American decade. In fact, on that day, fifteen years gone, in the middle of the Big Noise that was the Grateful Dead and its fans, and in the middle of the brief passages of silence, Erik and I had an extraordinarily good high going on. Alas, it would be derailed when, for the first time, Erik had a little too much fun, and had to lay down for the entire second set.
I got Erik home, but we never forgot that last show. 6/3/95 was the final Dead gig we attended before Captain Trip’s passing two months later, but it’s funny how not much has changed regarding our fascination with the music and meaning of the work that incredible band put out in their 30-year lifespan—yes, some in the studio, but, for the vast majority, all of the timeless live recordings they left for posterity. That life has continued as elements would be found in The Other Ones, The Dead, Furthur, Phil Lesh & Friends, RatDog, the Rhythm Devils, and countless legions of Dead-influenced artists. However, when I think of Jerry and that wonderful music he created with his other talented members of the Dead, I think of “Stella Blue,” and I think of that moment of silence. True, so true—it isn’t always what you play, but what you don’t play that resonates.