Is America’s once great Jam Band only grateful for the cash? Jerry really is dead, man.
I was at one of the The Grateful Dead’s last shows, when the spirit that embodied the band’s live concerts seemed to die. It was in Highgate, Vt. in the summer of 1995, about seven weeks Jerry Garcia before passed away from heart failure at a rehab facility in California.
It turned out to be the first and only Dead show I would attend. I was a sophomore in college, and a friend and I trekked from school in the White Mountains to a small town on the Vermont/Canadian border. We spent two nights camping in one of the parking lots that surrounded the outdoor venue, engaging in the various recreations that accompanied Grateful Dead shows.
On the day of the show, however, the climate changed, and turmoil seemed to simmer throughout the crowd. It was something palpable. Tensions came to a head while Bob Dylan was opening, when a bunch of my fellow flannel-clad Gen X numb-nuts without tickets rushed the fence and tore it down, an act of aggression pretty much unprecedented in the pacifistic Dead community since the band left Altamont.
Jerry was very off that day in Highgate, missing chords changes and mumbling through forgotten lyrics. He looked old and frail and, at age 53, finished.
The violence and frustration continued through The Dead’s next couple of shows. The band cancelled dates when similar unrest ensued in shows in New Jersey. Finally, on July 9, 1995, Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead played their final show at Soldier Field in Chicago. Jerry playing such a soulful version of “So Many Roads” that it instantly became lore.
On Aug. 9, 1995, Jerry Garcia died, and with his passing, The Grateful Dead, as a band, reverently retired.
For years, errant Deadheads searched for something to replace the band in their lives, and arguably the closest anyone came to recreating the light-hearted and debauched milieu of a Dead show was the Vermont jam-band Phish, a bunch of music students headed by Trey Antastasio, a nerdy guitarist with unquestionable chops.
Still, no band would ever fully step in the large shoes left by The Grateful Dead, and the Dead was left to live on through various bootlegs of their shows, in the thoughts and memories and reveries of their fans worldwide. Without Jerry Garcia, however, there is no Grateful Dead. As drummer Bill Kreutzmann said in a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, “The Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia was like the Miles Davis Band without Miles Davis.”
Not so fast, I guess.
News came out this week that The Grateful Dead will reunite this summer in Chicago for three shows, under the original name (the remaining members have formed multiple bands under various monikers in the past two decades) with Anastasio standing in Garcia’s spot.
The Grateful Dead is celebrating their 50th Anniversary and “giving closure” to the band and the members of their community—which is fine. However, the whole thing reeks of a final cash-grab and flies, antithetically, in the face of everything the band is supposed to represent—although they’ve always been savvy self-marketers.
I cannot, obviously, project what tickets to these shows will eventually end up costing, but right now, after a quick web search, they’re selling for $352 to $2867. Who will be able to afford these seats other than affluent former pseudo-hippies and their privileged kids driving to Illinois from various private schools throughout the land?
The one thing I’ve always admired about The Dead was the fact that the music was never commoditized. Sure, bands need to make a living and the Dead’s marketing, as aforementioned, was ahead of its time, still the Dead never horded their music. In fact, any Dead fan over 35 years-old probably remembers buying sleeves of blank cassette tapes and trading bootlegs with friends, carefully trying to scribble the set-lists on the cassette sheaves in tiny letters.
In addition, The Dead without Jerry feels flat-wrong. I’m sure there will be a number of maudlin tributes in these three shows, but it seems that his legacy should remain untouched. If the remaining members, who continue to compile fortunes in merchandising, truly want to preserve the memory of their friend, find another way but, please, don’t take the stage under that name. Everything about it feels itchy.
When I want to remember The Grateful Dead, I listen to the band’s best shows from the 70s and early-80s. Sometimes, I’ll even play the video of Jerry singing “So Many Roads” in his final show. It really feels as if he knew that would be the band’s last show. And—to me and, I assume, many other fans irked by this latest announcement—it was.
By Nathan Graz
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Photo: Flickr/Joan Sorolla