My Take On The Long Strange Trip
Dear Mitch, if you’re holding this letter you already know. The house has been boarded up. The doors. The windows. Everything. We’re at the Comfort Inn. Room 112.
I love you. Frank.
Just kidding, that’s Old School. But if you ARE anything like me, you DID already know that. I don’t usually write only about the Grateful Dead in this place even if they are all over my writing about the Chargers. The JIC collage, the tunes I link and the references I make are all connected. From 1987-1995, I saw 138 Dead shows. On top of my touring, I still had to simultaneously keep up with my maddening football team, which I could only watch each and every Sunday before the days of DirecTv. This meant going to bars, primarily before I turned 21, or even the games themselves. My first show was a great one, 9/18/87 at MSG, which has now been immortalized as part of the 30 Trips Around The Sun box. My last show was the infamous Deer Creek concert of ’95. You couldn’t have had two more distinct experiences to bookend your Deadhead career, right? Yet, they were somehow a perfect representation of “The Days Between,” which the just-released documentary suggested was Robert Hunter’s final masterpiece written for Jerry Garcia.
Having caught all but 2 shows on the wildly uneven spring tour of 1992, that song didn’t feel like a masterpiece as they played almost every other night. I don’t think anyone, myself included, appreciated the song while the band was playing it in its final years. It was being performed at the expense of “Wharf Rat,” “Stella Blue,” “Black Peter,” or even “Morning Dew.” But the song makes sense now which is in essence a metaphor for the entire film. The interpretation serves the purpose of making sense of Jerry’s gifts, flaws, views, and decline. Amir Bar-Lev put his massive collection of interviews together in a way that made his point. This wasn’t a chronological retelling of the story. Massive topics like Mountain Girl, Mickey’s departure, and Bill Graham were wholly ignored.
But I’d like to thank Bar-Lev for making the film at all. The genius of the Dead is that they are arguably the most popular band of all time and yet each Deadhead thinks that they are his or her own band. I am happy that there is finally a lasting record that can be used to explain why so many of us still spend so much time on this group of musicians. Most Deadheads could tell that certain audio was spliced with other video since they’ve seen or have their own copies of every single second of recorded material. The “Holy Grail” footage of the “Candyman” rehearsal was amazing to see. Bobby being taught to sing by Phil and Jerry was a sight to behold.
The Frankenstein metaphor was a great vehicle to organize the footage and tell ONE story. They did everything but put Gene Wilder in the movie. Yet they somehow didn’t include the lyrics to “Ramble On Rose,” which actually mention the character. I remember when Jerry was on AMC to talk about the Abbott and Costello version. If you are anything like me, you watched everything that involved the Dead, including the “True Hollywood Story” of Jerry. Remember, it only had his brother in it and included a fake stubby hand doing bong hits in one of its dramatic reenactments. I even watched Phil on Court TV during his Mountain Girl/Deborah Koons testimony. How pissed must Jerry’s last wife have been that she wasn’t even mentioned in the movie?
I also found it worth mentioning that Jerry loved the comedy version of the Frankenstein tale. He was after all a jokester (prankster). This may also have been the result of always making sure he took no responsibility for anything. John Barlow, who was a great addition to the movie, intimated that he would have saved a lot of people a lot of heartache if he’d admitted that he actually was the leader of the band. But he was far from a saint. I remember when Rock Scully’s book came out and how he was shunned for it. But nothing he said was proved to be untrue, it was just too soon to be made public. The band was still playing at that point. I wasn’t completely surprised that Jerry needed McNally to set up or break off relationships but it did suggest that he could be a coward in his personal life.
The sign that hung behind the band during that Beat Club appearance in ’72 is also a good metaphor. This was a band that was all about the moment. That started with Jerry. But when you only live for the moment you take a lot of risks. There is danger in being that alive. In 2006, I wrote this piece likened Jerry’s life to that of Theodore Roosevelt. It was actually bought by American Heritage and the premise isn’t as insane as you’d think. I’ve reposted it here since their site is no longer active. No, I don’t think my article had anything to do with it. I think that the best illustration of how Jerry got so obsessed with living life on the edge was the story that was in So Many Roads by David Browne. The anecdote about him “checking out” during the Cuban Missile Crisis speaks volumes. By showing how he wanted to spend what he thought could be his final moments, we get a good sense of who he’d become when it turned out not to be the end.
I also liked how the movie showed the warts of everyone else involved as well. The popular narrative, started with that “End Of The Road” documentary was that the scene swallowed the band in 1995. I was one of many people who cheered at first when the gate crashers got into the show at Deer Creek. Why? This was a band that was all about subverting the rules. The dosing of outsiders, the treatment of Joe Smith, the idea of “Skullfuck”…how many pictures exist of the Dead giving the finger literally? Gate crashing was a thing all the way back to the 1960s. I was happy to see someone reference it in one of the interviews.
I CAN’T SEE MUCH DIFFERENT BETWEEN THE DARK AND LIGHT
There was a lot of talk about the contrast in the music and the lives of those who made it. Of course, Jerry was at the center of that. Steve Silberman, whose Skeleton Key book was one of the great Deadcentric books of the 90s, mentioned that the band would often go from Space into Stella Blue. Having written for both Deadbase and the Tape Compendium books, I have to point out that the combo wasn’t exactly played a ton of times. Stella Blue came out of Space a lot in 1978 but not so much after that. The second best show I ever saw, RFK ’91 did have that combo. The best was 10/16/89 in case you were curious. However, the Dead would often go from dissonance to beauty. The “Morning Dew” from 5/26/72 was cited a lot in the movie. Of course, Jerry overdubbed his vocals since his voice was going a bit. But it was great to hear the story of how it was recorded and the bit about him crying during it. Maybe that comes out in the vocals that remain on the boxed set. Nonetheless, as Steve Silberman also noted, it was a big reason people got turned onto the band. This was before people really had soundboards to listen to. I really enjoyed Silberman’s journey from Lord of Doggtown to George RR Martin in terms of his look. All respect intended, Steve.
Was Robert Hunter THAT unapproachable for the documentary? Bar-Lev said it was hard to get him on record, but the movie made him look like fucking JD Salinger. Again, the director had a story he wanted to tell and he did a great job of it. I went to a Hunter concert in Times Square on 3/17/97. There was a (surprise) drunken fist fight during the show. It foreshadowed my last Warren Zevon concert.
It was also great to see Sam Cutler get his due. Before Sam’s book, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, people my age were probably confusing him with John Cutler the sound guy. Sam has fought cancer more than once and is gracious as hell every time he appears at a Dark Star Orchestra show. Joel Selvin’s Altamont book busts open the convenient narrative about the show being caused by/the result of the end of the 1960s. Sam was the link from the Dead to the Stones, of course was funny as hell in the movie. He’s right, the Dead were the best of magic makers and the worst of businessmen. That was my favorite quote besides Mickey’s line about Jerry being a great guy until he tried to kill himself. Actually, one of the (sadly) more lasting Jerry stories appeared in the Dead Reckonings collection. I think it referred to the Giants Stadium shows of 1995 that Barlow mentioned. I remember that Jerry intentionally turned himself down on the second night. That’s how bad it was getting. I think Vince said after the show that Jerry took “either too much or not nearly enough” of whatever drug he was on.
Was that Kent Tekulve in the crowd?
Also, a word about those final tours.–the idea that people should have been howling from the crowd due to Jerry (and the band’s) decline doesn’t hold any water. The adoration of Deadheads didn’t kill Jerry Garcia. Yes, we were the most rabid of fans. True, the band needed to go outside the country to find crowds that didn’t tell them everything was great. But it was clear from the crowd that Jerry was using. I sat in Row 1, Seat 1 at the Spectrum on 3/18/92 and saw him bumping into the mic. A lot of people bailed or got into Phish. That’s not who I am. I’m loyal to a fault, but I wasn’t blind. In PBS’ Jackie Robinson documentary, there was a great line about the most exciting time to watch a star was AFTER age had caught up with them. That way you really appreciated when they found the magic one more time. I saw Frank Sinatra right before he stopped performing and experienced one final moment like that. There were a few sprinkled in near the end.
THROUGH ALL THE BROKEN DREAMS AND VANISHED YEARS
That was why I wasn’t in tears at the end of the documentary. I remember those days well. In fact, the “remainders” of the band asked Bar-Lev to lighten it up a bit. I can’t imagine what the original ending was. It showed the Dead at their best and worst. It was interesting to see Barlow call them out on their handling of Pigpen. I’ve read that Pig’s dad thanked them after he passed for all they gave him but also that they were all a little afraid of his deterioration. The “mortal coil” makes itself apparent to us all too soon so I can’t blame them.
My first book, Drunk On Sunday, chronicles my love of the Dead in combination with all my other obsessions. The Chargers are a whole other story. Anyway, thanks for reading. Talk to you soon.