When I Can’t Hear The Song For The Singer

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Unfortunately, I still hadn’t found a solution once August rolled around. My parents generously agreed to pay the premiums of my COBRA health plan, but I knew I didn’t have much time. It had been two years since I’d graduated and I felt no closer to figuring shit out. At my exit interview on the Wednesday of my last week, the firm at least told me they would give me a positive reference. Of course, I had no idea what job I would use that reference for.

I got back to my desk afterwards and figured I’d just pretend to work for the remainder of the day. It’s not like it mattered at this point. As far as I knew, I couldn’t be fired twice from the same job. I sat down and noticed that the voicemail light on my phone was pulsing at what seemed like double time. Who knew it could even do that?

I punched in my password and the first message was from the switchboard operator telling me that I had gotten fifteen outside voicemails in the last thirty minutes. My mailbox was full and all subsequent callers would hear an automated message explaining this. I had no idea why I was suddenly so popular. I had only submitted a few resumes for temp paralegal jobs at that point and never used my work phone as a contact number anyway. This had to be bad news.

My first fear was that I had suffered a family emergency, but then fifteen people wouldn’t have called me within a half hour. That left only one possibility:

Jerry Garcia had died.

The first message was from Money, who never called me at work. “I just heard about Jerry on the radio. I’m sorry, man.”

If he was calling, it had to be all over the news. The rest of the messages were from assorted friends, Delts, and relatives. I couldn’t believe that many people even knew where I worked. The last message was from my dad:

“Rob, your mom and I know this must be really hard. We know how important this band was to you and I’m really happy you took me to that concert a few years back. I guess it had to end sometime. Call us when you’re up to it.”

It was comforting to hear my dad’s voice. It reminded me how lucky I was that I wasn’t dealing with a family tragedy, but this was also the first time I heard the Grateful Dead referred to in the past tense. He was right that it did really have to end sometime, but what exactly was “it?”

Work was the last place I wanted to be at that moment, so I just left. When I got back to my apartment, I immediately went out on my fire escape with a cold bottle of Rolling Rock. I didn’t feel like listening to the Dead’s music at that moment, but instead tried to think about why it had meant so much. The lyrics never changed even if the interpretations of them did. Songs about life, death, and love that seemed like party anthems years ago held entirely new meanings as I had gotten older. I wondered how I’d feel hearing them after today.

When I Can't Hear The Song For The SingerIt wasn’t exactly a shock that Jerry had died, especially from a heart attack in a rehab clinic. He’d been in a diabetic coma in 1986 and if he hadn’t recovered I would never have seen him in concert in the first place. The Fall tour of 1992 was even cancelled due to his “exhaustion,” caused by years of smoking with no exercise whatsoever.

All of this was underscored by the fact that he’d been using heroin for almost 20 years. By 1995, he looked as heavy as ever but was somehow simultaneously wasting away. He looked like a husk of the person he once was. His hair was stringy and his features looked like they were carved out of old wood. I never thought of the fact that he was dying right in front of me because I didn’t want to accept the truth. Clearly, accepting when it was time to let go of something would never be my strong suit.

A half hour later, I was onto my fourth beer. I thought about Jerry’s refusal to cancel the Deer Creek show. Not only did he insist on playing the show, but he specifically picked songs that dealt with death. “Dire Wolf,” with its chorus of “don’t murder me,” immediately came to mind. When asked about his deification by millions of fans, he joked, “I’ll put up with it until they come at me with the cross and nails.” Being Jerry Garcia had clearly taken its toll on him, but he always kept his outlaw spirit and humor. No matter how sloppy the shows got, however, I would never stop attending. His death was the only way Jerry was going to stop. I guess it was the same for me.

I even felt a small sense of relief that Jerry’s death forced me into a decision I never would have made on my own. Then I immediately felt guilty as hell for admitting it to myself. I decided to turn on 1010 WINS, New York’s all-news radio. I had never listened to it, or any AM radio station, but I had a feeling this would be a “developing story”

When I Can't Hear The Song For The SingerOf course, it was the first thing I heard when I tuned in. “Legions of faithful devotees known as Deadheads have lost Jerry Garcia, their patriarch, today.” Then they played a sound bite of one such female devotee. “Dead shows were a way of life, man. The band and the audience had this connection and that all began with Jerry.”

I knew exactly what this girl was trying to say, but felt like she’d just sound like another stoned hippie to everyone listening. I guess it didn’t matter anyway because neither of us would be seeing any shows. They always seemed to be the backdrop for so many pivotal moments in my life, but was that just because I was always on tour?

I decided to turn off the radio. Whatever my next move was, I’d be doing it without the security of there being another tour. It had gotten to the point that I couldn’t tell if they were my vacations from the real world or just attempts to hide from the disappointment I’d felt since graduation. Somewhere down Third Avenue, I heard someone blasting “I Know You Rider” from Europe ’72. The news was really starting to spread now. I thought about all the shows where I’d heard this song. Everyone generally anticipated Jerry singing his verse about wishing he was a headlight on a north bound train. It was always a high point, as he often belted it out with his most enthusiastic singing of the night. It was sort of a barometer for how into the show he was. At the show my dad attended, I remember him being amazed at the tidal wave of applause after Jerry sang those words.

He gave it his all the last time I saw him sing those words at Giants Stadium a few months back, but it was clear now that years of hard living were taking their final toll. A rehab counselor from the Haight said it best a few days later in a San Francisco Chronicle piece I saw online: “He appears to have had multiple medical problems that caught up with him. He would have died at Disneyland. He would have died here. He would have died anywhere. He’s lucky that he made it this far.”

At least he didn’t die at Disneyland. I would no longer struggle to balance the two worlds I tried to live in. Maybe this was fate’s way of giving me a clean slate for the rest of my “journey.”

Rudy Giuliani nixed the proposed memorial in Central Park the following week, but people still showed up. I liked the idea of an outlaw gathering, especially if it was against Giuliani. DJ, Hollywood, and I walked around the park with beers in hand looking for something. We weren’t sure what it was and it became clear everybody else was in the same situation. The cops seemed to be focusing only on people openly smoking weed. A few people were selling shirts of Jerry with the years of his birth and death on them. They obviously didn’t have much time to print them up and it showed. The pictures on the front were clearly from the last year of his life. They were now too depressing to look at. It felt like that last Delt party we had where we were clearly trying to conjure up something that was already gone.

I asked my friends what plans they had that night.

“There’s a fight on. It’s Mike Tyson’s first one since getting out of prison. Let’s get some beers and invite people over,” Hollywood replied.

I really needed a distraction from what was traditionally my distraction at that very moment.

“Let’s make it a keg,” I said.

When I Can't Hear The Song For The Singer


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