Fare thee well

Longtime Grateful Dead fan reflects on decades of memories, says goodbye to the storied band

The Grateful Dead on stage at RFK Stadium, June 14, 1991.

The Grateful Dead on stage at RFK Stadium, June 14, 1991.

Photo by Alan Sheckter

About the author:

Alan Sheckter is a longtime local journalist and CN&R contributor. He recently relocated to Sacramento.

My first Grateful Dead concert took place on June 23, 1976, at the intimate Tower Theatre, in Upper Darby, Pa. I had just completed 11th grade and the band was on its first tour in 20 months following a so-called “retirement” in 1974. Though I was perfectly sober, it was a spiritual experience. The band had me at the opener, “The Music Never Stopped,” the lead single from the then-current LP, Blues for Allah. I couldn't help but feel the Dead's connection with the audience as they sang, “It's a rainbow full of sound; it's fireworks, calliopes and clowns. And everybody's dancin'.”

Then: The author outside a Dead show at the Hartford Civic Center (now XL Civic Center), in Hartford, Conn., in 1982.

Photo courtesy of Alan Sheckter

Like many in those days, I was quite down on the burgeoning disco scene, and my appreciation of the fledgling punk/new wave movement wouldn’t take hold for about five more years. I was a fan of the progressive bands of the day, including Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Yes, but from what I soaked up from my friends and magazine articles, this Grateful Dead band was a whole different animal. Their live shows—and fans—perpetuated and celebrated the idealism of San Francisco’s psychedelic music scene of the 1960s. This is for me, I thought.

Problem was, I didn’t have a ticket for any of the shows of this four-night residency (playing four shows to fewer fans than they could have reached in one night at the giant Spectrum arena across town was another reason to like these cats). The $7.50 tickets were sold by invitation only, two tickets per person, through the band’s fan club. So I sprung for a buck to take the bus down to the nearby Tower Records and walked about the low-key scene hoping for an extra ticket. I found one for the exorbitant price of $25, and went in.

The author now: June 28, 2015, at one of the Dead’s shows at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara.

Photo courtesy of Alan Sheckter

Most of the show featured songs unfamiliar to me—Dead songs not heard on the radio, and a bunch that appeared on Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir solo records. I knew only a few of the tunes performed, including the aforementioned “The Music Never Stopped,” classics like a long, jammed-out “Dancing in the Streets,” and rocking closer “Johnny B. Goode.” I was also familiar with the Dead’s psychedelic-rock anthem “St. Stephen” and the dreamlike ballad “Cosmic Charlie” that I’d come to know from the old Aoxomoxoa 8-track my friend Steve often played when we cruised around in his old Dodge Colt.

The live versions of every tune were sublime, containing imaginative, intricate arrangements not heard on any record. Plainly dressed, the band showed no interest in any sort of showmanship. Rhythm guitarist Weir exuded a California-cowboy temperament and played the straight man to lead guitarist Garcia’s Captain Trips persona. They took on tunes by Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, trading lead vocals on sequential songs. The band had two drummers with two complementary styles, and vocalist Donna Godchaux added a gospel aura to the proceedings. There would be no encore and this band was certainly quirky; Phil Lesh played bass primarily with his back to the crowd.

But I was hooked. The Grateful Dead experience was an environment, more than just a concert, and a sense of belonging and community among their fans was apparent. It all resonated perfectly with me, a young man who was learning a lot about the world by hitchhiking across the country several times with just a backpack and a sign and who dabbled, at least until 1978, in some psychedelic experimentation.

The Grateful Dead became the soundtrack to my formative years; the early ’70s albums offering sing-along acoustic country-blues tales of adventure, travel, self-discovery, card games and prison, like “Uncle John’s Band,” “Cumberland Blues” and “Dire Wolf,” and the discs of the late-’60s steeped in aural experimentation and psychedelic imagery, à la “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “New Potato Caboose.”

Flash-forward to last Sunday’s final California gathering, dubbed “Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead.” This wasn’t the first time since Garcia’s death in 1995 that the band’s surviving core four—Weir, Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart—performed live with additional personnel. They did so as The Other Ones and The Dead. But the finality of these shows, the celebration of 50 years of music, and the inclusion of Phish’s Trey Anastasio, along with Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti, presented an irresistible treat. It also presented an occasion to bid adieu to this cultural phenomenon, as promoters say these shows will be the last time that the surviving members will play together.

Ticket stub from Sheckter’s first Dead concert in 1976.

This end point has given me pause to reflect on my relationship with the storied band over four decades; the journeys to shows and that one time I met Garcia face-to-face.

Back in the late ’70s, I’d sometimes see Garcia and company in my own backyard in the Philadelphia area, and other times I’d travel across the country to see them play. For me and other members of our not-so-secret society, any road trip was enhanced knowing that the band and many like-minded fans/friends would be there as well. With no cellphones, Internet or other instant info-sharing, we would simply get in the car with a folding map and go. The band seemed to almost encourage bootleg recordings of its own shows and one of the coolest parts of our scene in those predigital days was the connectedness felt through the free trading of live concert recordings.

My first college fieldhouse show was May 8, 1977, at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y. It was a big deal for me, still a high school kid, to attend an Ivy League college show. The concert, with its set-closing sequence of “St. Stephen”/“Not Fade Away”/“St. Stephen”/“Morning Dew,” became legendary thanks to tape exchanging. Though it was late spring, it snowed heavily much of the way home to Philly.

A few months later, I got my first taste of the difference between the band’s voracious East Coast audiences and laid-back ones in California. After a three-week journey with buddies—that included trying our hand as loggers in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula—I went on my own personal voyage, hitchhiking to San Francisco, the Dead’s home turf. The band was between tours, but I read a small listing in a newspaper that the Jerry Garcia Band would play the next day at noon, for $5, on Pier 31 at the Embarcadero, in support of Greenpeace.

Bob Weir (left) and Jerry Garcia during a July 3, 1978, show at St. Paul Civic Center, St. Paul, Minn.

Photo by Alan Sheckter

The Jerry Garcia Band, which I saw about 50 times over the years, was the next best thing to the Grateful Dead, as Garcia got to stretch out in a more informal musical setting, leaning more on Motown and other covers, while still offering several songs from the Dead’s catalog. At the time, Keith and Donna Godchaux of the Dead were with the Garcia Band, as was Maria Muldaur as a backup vocalist. Only about 300 showgoers lined up and Garcia arrived unceremoniously, walking down the sidewalk past us, guitar case in hand, exchanging pleasantries as he approached. “He plays around here all the time,” a local told me.

With the Greenpeace ship as a backdrop, the Garcia Band played on a truck’s flatbed, offering two sets of mellow songs and jams. The sun was bright, the sky and water deep blue, and tie-dye banners and tapestries hung from the speakers. I was not in Philly anymore. Garcia was the central figure, sporting a green flannel shirt and bright white guitar with its “The Enemy Is Listening” sticker, his bushy brown hair blowing in the breeze. He was as far from “Joe Rock Star” as any rock star could be, and I always loved that about him.

I was ready to hitchhike back east the next day, but someone told me the location of the Dead’s warehouse/studio (later called Club Le Front). So with the previous day’s music in my heart, I took the short bus ride up Highway 101 to San Rafael. As I walked up the street toward the warehouse carrying just my backpack, two of the band’s longtime roadies, Lawrence “Ramrod” Shurtliff and Bill “Kidd” Candelario, saw me approaching and were hospitable, rolling up a smoke and showing me around inside.

Weir during a show at Laguna Seca Raceway, Monterey, July 29, 1988.

Photo by Alan Sheckter

Back outside, Garcia pulled up alone in an unassuming Audi sedan. In the dust on the trunk, someone had written “Thank you Jerry,” likely referring to the previous day’s show. Garcia bummed a quarter off Candelario for the soda machine and went inside. He came out a few minutes later to change from boots to sneakers he had in his car. I talked to him for a few minutes. He was humble, diverting my accolades by praising the Greenpeace people. More than anything, those two days set the stage for my lifelong admiration of and devotion to the band.

For me, following the Dead was an interesting habit. I never quit my job and traveled for months on end to see the band, but I did everything possible to catch all of the shows that I could. I’d pore over every tour announcement, figuring out how to maximize my weekends and vacation time.

On a Saturday in mid-April 1978, a bunch of us rolled down from Philadelphia to Williamsburg, Va., for a weekend that included a Saturday night show at William & Mary College. The night was one of the rare occasions I ventured into the world of psychoactive hallucinogens. I was taught that psychedelics were best ingested with a few trusted friends in a peaceful, outdoor setting. A Grateful Dead show, however, seemed like an appropriate place.

We ingested some kind of blue goop that had melted onto a piece of tin foil. In 15 minutes we were stoned and in 30 minutes we were zoned out. It was a beautiful experience. Voices and images swooshed through my consciousness. For a few hours I saw the same thing whether my eyes were open or closed. There was one guiding constant—Garcia’s guitar. His playing saw me through the psychedelic haze. I came out of the show a little older, wiser and “more experienced” (to borrow a term from Jimi Hendrix). I haven’t gone down that psychedelic road in more than 35 years. No need to. The doors of perception, as Aldous Huxley called them, had been opened and there was no need to go back through them.

Garcia during a show at Laguna Seca Raceway, Monterey, July 29, 1988.

Photo by Alan Sheckter

My biggest, boldest Grateful Dead journey took place in July 1982, when I was bound and determined at age 23 to catch my first California Grateful Dead shows, and throw in a few Colorado shows as well. Booked as Bill Graham’s “Weekend at the Beach,” the band was to make its first appearance at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. It was the ultimate venue for me, a surfer town in coastal California. My cross-country transportation came courtesy of Auto Driveaway, which provides the service of moving relocated people’s cars. I paid $100 to drive a gentleman’s Toyota from Philadelphia to Long Beach. I had eight days to complete the journey, so I drove cross-country to Ventura in four days and saw the shows, camping on the adjacent beach, and then dusted off the sand and delivered the car. Then I hitchhiked from Long Beach, up through Yosemite and across the wilds of Nevada and Utah, to Colorado to experience three shows at the spectacular Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

On and on the adventures went. At a certain point, especially after the success of 1987 single “Touch of Grey,” the Grateful Dead bandwagon became very crowded; college shows morphed into stadium shows and multinight runs at giant arenas. Some people began to resent the band’s popularity and its new-fangled fans that weren’t formally steeped in Dead etiquette. Some newbies were there just for the beer or to pick up women. But I always maintained that everyone, from the down-on-their-luck couple with dirty bare feet and a scruffy dog to the Porsche-driving privileged crowd to the preppy college kid with a backward baseball cap scouring the parking lot for beer and a nitrous balloon, had something in common. It was an opportunity for everyone to test their own boundaries, explore their inner selves and, well, listen and sway to the music.

“Gratefully Grilled Cheese” (only $1!) in some Deadhead parking lot during the mid-1980s.

Photo by Alan Sheckter

Then, on Aug. 9, 1995, my old pal Mike called with the news that the long-ailing Garcia had died. We knew that the world after the Grateful Dead had been set in motion. We hoped at the time that one day the music would continue in various ways and means—and it has, of course—but for many months, we simply had to come to grips with the end of a whole way of life. At the time, I was a volunteer studio assistant and photographer at WXPN, a large commercial-free radio station at the University of Pennsylvania. On-air host David Dye was in the midst of his 3-7 p.m. shift, fielding calls and playing lots of Grateful Dead requests. It wasn’t my day to be at the station but I had to do something. I went down and answered phones, sympathizing with tearful callers who were stuck at work, seeking some kind of solace.

Down the hall, Joan Baez was in the studio collaborating with Dar Williams for a future WXPN/World Café broadcast. She went on the air live and performed “Amazing Grace” for her fallen friend, and added that, on behalf of “fellow musicians and millions and millions of people of all ages, we mourn the passing of Jerry Garcia. I wish him well on his journey into the light and may he play peacefully from now until eternity.”

Jerry Garcia Band at Greenpeace benefit, Pier 31, San Francisco, Aug. 12, 1977.

Photo by Alan Sheckter

The farewell show last Sunday in Santa Clara was magical, but it wasn’t just about nostalgia. The fairways of the adjacent Santa Clara Golf & Tennis Club (closed to golf for the weekend) acted as perfect grounds for a preshow jubilee, artisan fair and chill zone. Sure, we were all gathered to honor the legacy of the Grateful Dead. The band did its part by playing a little more measured and deliberate than during the glory days, but nevertheless reached some damned high peaks of intensity via jams and sing-along moments on tunes compiled from its ’70s and early ’80s catalog. Despite the absence of one glaringly major ingredient—Jerry Garcia—the band was good, with Grateful Dead members hitting their marks and guests Anastasio, Hornsby and Chimenti, adding their own signature flourishes at opportune times. And the ultra-high-definition, large-screen broadcast video feeds, alongside old band clips and cutting-edge animated vignettes were sublime. It was cool to revisit the past, but it was also a very present-day shared concert experience.

I ran into a bunch of friends from near and far, and wound up sitting with a jovial beer-drinking crew from Riverside; a free-spirited woman, man and his teen daughter from El Dorado Hills; a reverent Dead fan since 1972 from Placerville; and two gal pals from South Lake Tahoe who decided at 2 p.m. to roll down Highway 50 and make the show. We all swayed and grooved to the music, batted passing balloons and shared the Grateful Dead family experience one more time.