Return of the Living Dead
Author’s Note: As I finished this brief essay about the surviving members of the Dead, I got the news that keyboardist Merl Saunders, an occasional musical collaborator with Jerry Garcia, and powerful artist in his own right, passed away. It is with respect that this piece is dedicated to his eternal spirit, and the great music he created.
Prologue Oz of Wizard Land on His Throne, Bemused & Wise
She had spent 30 minutes rattling on about her favorite songs. Finally I could take it no more. “Lookhe WROTE those songs.” “Who?” “HeHim. Sitting right there.” “Wow, you guys are really cool. You were just sitting there the whole time.” “Yes,” I replied as my friend smiled and remained silent, “but what is more important is that you noticed the songs.” She ran off to get a friend and the writer and I exchanged a knowing grin – an unfinished tall tale based on a real life incident between a fan, a writer, and myself
Part I Midnight on a Carousel Ride
“Why would the universe go through the trouble of evolving consciousness?” inquired Garcia. “If it wanted life that would succeed, just to create the most effective living thing, it could have stopped at bacteria.” – A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, Dennis McNally
September 15, 1995. The date isn’t too extraordinary. It seems fairly sound and round with a series of 1s, 9s, and 5s. I remember 1995 as being a year of transition in many ways for the musical community and myself. Huh. O.K. Then again, when attached to a backstage pass card for a gig at the Boston Garden featuring the Grateful Dead, things start getting a little weird. Indeed, something isn’t quite right.
Indeed, leader/front man/guitar hero/hippie messiah/“Ah, man, just leave me alone” Dead god & Captain Trips Himself, Jerry Garcia died on August 9, 1995, so this pass, this backstage passa commemorative special edition card originally produced for the Dead’s Summer 1995 Tourisn’t so sound and round after all. The card was included in a copy of The Very Best of the Grateful Dead, a CD that is rarely pulled out, but an overall fine selection of tracks to listen to as these sorts of compilations go. Live, of course, is where the Dead were ITalthough the studio material lingers with its own awkward grace and beauty found in the sterile environments of the confining isolation.
September 15, 1995. The Grateful Dead at the Garden. You wonder if several, new Phil Lesh songs would continue to find their way into the setlists, would they finally shake up the second set, and have a more natural way to introduce “Drums/Space,” and the eternal freeform jam sequence into their show, rather than a 20-minute bathroom break?
And yet, somehow it is beyond surreal and yet oh so appropriate that this date exists in Dead history out there in some sort of parallel universe, a random rock hitting the cosmic windshield and splitting the glass into millions of different lines, each with their own history, each with their own story to tell. When Garcia died, his state of consciousness went onto another level of existence, or so the story goes as handed down by those in the know about such things on the Other Side. We mortals stuck around and cultivated other artistic endeavors, scenes, and trips that, hopefully, the Grand Master of Musical Fun would have appreciated. Better to have Jerry snickering at one’s exploits, rather than sneering or, worse, ignoring all together.
August 9, 1995 lingers, and yet we all continue evolving consciousness, rendering the new light in the darkness, the vacuum of space, until one day we each, in turn, experience our own August 9, 1995.
Part II I Beg of You, Don’t Murder Me
“But the loneliness and the lost stuff that so informs these songs, that was my life,” [Robert] Hunter tells me. – Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead’s American Adventure, Carol Brightman
The surviving members of the Grateful Dead came back in various formations on Furthur Festivals of Yesteryear’s Past, playing as a unified unit with other Dead family members like guitarist Steve Kimock, keyboardist Bruce Hornsby, and drummer John Molo, under the moniker The Other Ones, a clever title that didn’t stick; the live double album culled from the 1998 tour, The Strange Remain, somehow has lasting resonance.
However, for around seven yearsalmost exactly to the daythe members grew in their own little ways to become much larger than what they had been as a group mind entity. When the rock that was Jerry Garcia’s life shattered the Grateful Dead into a million separate shards of various existence, and the lines on the proverbial windshield echoed into alternate universes, each with its own meaning, we were left behind with the Dead catalogue, a large and teeming bag of timeless songs that have continued to provide life-changing experiences for the heady masses for nearly 50 years.
And like that encounter with the famous writer in the Prologue of this short essay about the meaning of life post-August 9, 1995, it is the SONGS that matter the most.
The Dead experience has been documented quite a bit, and many of us also have our own personal tales of life on the road, and what it was like BACK THEN when the Dead would hit a town, do their bit of magical circus routines without a net, and move on en masse to the next town, a legion of sacred and profane followers in their wake, riding the greatest coattails in music history.
But that experience never did quite end, did it? Elsewhere, it has been documented quite well how influential the Grateful Dead, and specifically Jerry Garcia, continue to be on a wide variety of musicians, artists, and various and sundry groups who may not, in a million years, appear tethered to the Dead legacy. And here, I acknowledge the excellent and thorough cultural study written and compiled by Jesse Jarnow in our mothership publication, Relix magazine. His thesis hit home, and the epiphanies of discovery within the article ring true.
However, as we hit the home stretch in this little homage and ditty to the great and all-powerful wizards sitting on their respective thrones, we remember that the individual living, breathing members of the band continue on in their own respective endeavors, and yet, the pull, the tractor beam of their internal mothership of creation, the Beast known as the Grateful Dead are occasionally brought back together to celebrate again the magic that is their collective accomplishments.
Part III Shaft of Light
Using the energy of music to shape that invisible place we call the soul seems appropriate somehow. This dance occurs in a place outside our everyday consciousness. – Spirit into Sound: The Magic of Music, Mickey Hart and Fredric Lieberman
In August 2002, the Grateful Dead Family Reunion took place over a weekend at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin, and somewhere in the cluttered and colorful office where I write this essay is a photo album of collectables, photos, press clippings, and imagery from that magical weekend. THAT weekendso far down the road in the Dead experience, but still echoing a bit of heavy truth in the books of history. Although, in my opinion, the individual members became more artistically interesting post-August 9, 1995, as a whole, there was something about that weekend in Alpine that appeared to recognize the fact that when the cracks are sealed and the lines all become one yet again, the Grateful Dead still can pull on our heartstrings, make us laugh, dance, and scratch our heads and wonder like no other group on the planetbefore or since. Sure, Phish had fun with their setlists and triumphantly moved improvisational music onto another creative realm, and arguably have one of the most elite bodies of live work in any genre, but the often peaceful co-existence between the Dead and its audience has a special nuance that is better left on its own shelfneither collecting dust, or altered in any way that would change its existential tone. Phish changed you, made you want to push on to the next level, but the Dead made you happy to just be on any level, and therein lies a wonderful difference and a compliment to both bands in their parallel adventures.
And as I look at those individual members again, drummer Billy Kreutzmann, who played with one of his lower-profile bands at Alpine, has since moved on to other adventures like a renewed relationship with Mickey Hart’s Rhythm Devils, and recently, his live work with Oteil Burbridge and Scott Murawski. I mention Billy first, over Lesh and Weir, because like John Bonham’s reign in Led Zeppelin as a drummer so powerful that when he died, the band called it quits, Kreutzmann was the unsung hero of the Dead. The years in which he excelled, solo behind the drum kit during Mickey Hart’s hiatus from the band in the early-to-mid 1970s, gave Kreutzmann the chance to move the band into any unpredictable bit of the Great Unknown terrain without irreparably altering the momentum of the tune. Sure, to many ears and fans who wanted, needed a Messiah, or a hep cat to follow, Jerry was the Dead, but to the trained ear, and spiritually grounded, Kreutzmann provided a unique voice in the group mind.
Lesh and Weir’s post-August 9, 1995 exploits have been well documented, also, and what I enjoy about their respective bands in the Wake of the Dead Flood is the fact that they were able to create alternate Dead universes from the Garcia moment of demise, the little reaperesque “rock” that created all of this change within the Dead, and the community that continues to surround the phenomenom, still on the outskirts of society, young and old, but still very strong. I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing and hearing Lesh and Weir rework their mutual catalogue from their own respective points of view, and I think as an audience, we have benefited, as well. Yeah, it ain’t going to be 2/13/70, or 5/8/77, or even 9/20/00, but it is Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, and they are still very much alive, as is Kreutzmann and Hart. Therefore, as one reminisces about experiences from the days of Dead circus gone by, or dreams about new adventures on Dead Tour 2009 when another reunion is possibly at hand after the two political benefits in 2008 that the surviving band members played at this year, one remembers that they are individuals. I am essentially an existentialist, and I try not to guide people, because a) I can be a wrong-headed bumbling fool, and b) the work is out there, on the web, in your editor’s garage, or in your older brother’s footlocker, and all one has to do is seek with an open mind.
Epilogue Last Leaf Falling
When the windows all are broken – “New Potato Caboose,” Grateful Dead, written by Phil Lesh and Robert Petersen
And so it is fitting that the recent Change Rocks, documented quite well by our very own John Patrick Gatta on the site, had the Dead members, along with the members of the Allman Brothers Band, listed as individuals on the show bill. I’m not interested in why this happenedindividuals as opposed to groupbut it seemed fitting that at the end of the day as the band members came together to celebrate their work, and call for political change in the elections taking place in November 2008, the message was, and still is, that one person can make a difference. ONE person can change the entire picture for everyone. With Jerry, that became both a blessing and a curse, but it is has been very comforting to see that the remaining band members have attempted to find their own visions of artistic paradise outside the comforts of the mothership, and have been willing to succeed or fail on their own merits. In the end, the Dead were always about that unpredictable, crazy spirit of improvisation where one may soar, or fall flat on the ass, and that bit of their legacy will endure, as will the work of each and every member of those who will always be playing in the band, dancing along the periphery of our society, mocking our enemies, praising our faith, nurturing our hope, and creating that knowing grin between you and I.
- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com.