Commentaries on Jerry Garcia’s death Wednesday noted his role as a groundbreaking guitarist and counterculture icon, but most failed to note his band’s biggest contribution - as restorers of celebration in American life.
As a concertgoer since 1971, I never found this easy to describe, either.
When I took a friend or a colleague or a date to a Grateful Dead show, I would never know what to expect. The playing could veer from symphonic to soporific, but to me, the concert was always a welcome reunion of the extended “family” of fans.
This is not to denigrate the Dead as artists. Their musical aspirations were high. In their improvisation, they had less in common with ordinary rock bands than with jazz masters like Ornette Coleman and Branford Marsalis who occasionally joined them on stage.
Percussionists Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzman borrowed beats from Africa and Asia. Bassist Phil Lesh introduced classical harmonics. And Garcia, with his mind-bending finger work, added arguably as much to the electric guitar vocabulary as did Jimi Hendrix.
Still, the Dead phenomenon was as important to me as the songs. Each concert was a mini-vacation. The word “energy” often was used to describe what passed between performers, audience and our surroundings. Thus, a perfect V-formation of geese flying over Seattle’s Memorial Stadium last May drew cheers from the crowd and became a memorable part of the show.
This energy would wax and wane over the three or four hours of a Dead concert. The band drew whimsically from a repertoire of hundreds of tunes. For instance, they might suddenly decide to launch “Standing on the Moon” when the orb rose over their left shoulders. They liked to juxtapose songs they had written 30 years apart.
Invariably, the night included epic, character-filled songs that described America’s mountains and cities in a way that made them seem thick with legend. Outlaws ran from a Southwestern cantina, while a wino crawled up from the gutter to tell his amazing life story.
The Dead loved to put a sense of the American landscape in their songs: not just their San Francisco homeland, but the muddy rivers of Alabama and the Cumberland mines of Appalachia.
Some of his fans might have seen him as a deity, but Garcia loved the romance of just being a member of a hard-working band that pulled into a new joint every night and played its heart out.
By reveling in American myth, the Dead came across as anarchic, peaceful patriots - the antithesis of the angry, armed Patriots spreading so much anger recently.
Garcia, the psychedelic Uncle Sam, presided not over a government, but over a world of tragic beauty:
“Leaving Texas, fourth day of July,” he sang. “Sun so hot, clouds so low, the eagles filled the sky.”
The mood of a Dead concert was more religious than civic, and more pagan than Judeo-Christian, more about the natural world than any sinwatching deity. Sure, drugs contributed to this mood. But at that Seattle concert in May, I stumbled upon a tie-dyed circle of Deadheads repeating the Narcotics Anonymous 12-Step creed.
Dead concerts had their troubles this summer: a roof that collapsed and fences torn down. It’s worth noting that doom and death were factored into the Dead cosmology, in which every card deal and love affair went awry.
Characters in Dead songs wallowed in disaster, and laughed in its face. One of the band’s symbols, after all, was a dancing skeleton.
In that last Seattle concert, Garcia’s raspy voice sent the plaintive words of “Stella Blue” out of Memorial Stadium and up into the steep tracks of the Seattle Center roller coaster. The gray and tired singer summed up the exhausting life of an artist - indeed, of anyone who has lived hard and long.
“I’ve stayed in every blue-light, cheap hotel,” he sang. “Can’t win for trying.”
His fans didn’t know Garcia would never see Seattle again, but they did know that he wouldn’t always be around. In the full knowledge of the human condition, however, thousands that day were able to dance together at a particular place on Earth, and celebrate.