Growing up, I definitely was not a fan of the Grateful Dead. In fact, I aggressively disliked them. In retrospect, I don’t think I really gave the band much of a chance. I just found the Deadheads too annoying. I saw them in concert a grand total of two times, on consecutive nights at The Saenger Theater in New Orleans, and only because I was invited by a girl who, perhaps, posed some interest. That went nowhere, and the concerts went worse. I couldn’t wait to escape the whole spinning zombies scene, and I wrote them off. When Jerry Garcia died it caused nary a, um, ripple (sorry) for me; I still had them pigeon-holed as just the band that irritating Deadheads listened to.
Over time, I guess that began to slowly change. I’d hear my friend Brad, who I worked with in real estate, rave about Jerry’s expert guitar noodling. My friend Skemmit, a lawyer and a pretty respectable guy (for the most part), just loved talking Dead jams. I don’t know, maybe Bill Walton got to me. Skemmit eventually turned me on to American Beauty, the Dead’s 5th studio album which came out in 1970, and some 30 years after its release it was probably the first time I’d ever seriously listened to the music. And goddamn if it wasn’t packed with great songs from start to finish (and so, I discovered, were lots of their other albums). It’s opening track, ‘Box Of Rain,’ is Skemmit’s avowed personal favorite, and in addition to it being just a gorgeous song, there are some interesting things I’ve recently discovered about it (of course, these may be new only to me). While the Dead’s voluminous repertoire was invariably split between Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, this tune was composed and sung by bassist Phil Lesh – one of very few on which he ever sang lead – and as such Lesh did not play bass on the recording (Jerry also did not play guitar on it, he played piano, while the guitar was handled by David Nelson of New Riders of the Purple Sage). With help from legendary lyricist Robert Hunter, Lesh actually created the song very quickly in order to sing it to his father; he was still practicing it while driving to the nursing home where his father lay with terminal cancer. Wow, that’s heavy. It was also the last song ever performed live at a Grateful Dead concert before the death of Garcia, during the final encore at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1995, then it was the first song played at the Fare Thee Well “reunion” show in 2015, also at Soldier Field. Full circle. Pretty cool stuff.
Most current, my friends Ike and Lev, crazed and dedicated (deadicated?) fans from way back when, have been in an absolute lather over attending separate Dead & Company (the present Dead band iteration) shows recently; I’m hearing the set list comparisons in excruciating detail, and…I’m kind of into it. And, they’re both reasonably normal people (stressing reasonably). Is it possible I was wrong all along about Deadheads? Maybe so. Perhaps the, uh, deal (sorry again) had already been sealed for good by another big fan of the Dead from back in the day, that being my wife. Yeah, I think I could actually now say that I like the Grateful Dead. It just took me a really long time to hear the music through the mystique. What a long strange trip it’s been.