I have been derailed all day unexpectedly. I heard the rumors flying for weeks and actually never really thought it would stir such deep feelings. Today the 50th Anniversary Show has been announced for the Grateful Dead with Trey Anastasio to play lead guitar at Soldier Field this July in Chicago. The chatter has filled up social networks, is trending on Facebook, and causing old friends to reach out in a frenzy of excitement and heated debate.
Politics can get heated and so can religion, but to a certain community of people, this is more important than a Charlie Hebdo comic or a presidential election. Some people have such deep feelings about their memories of this chapter in American musical and cultural history that trying to convey it to people who weren’t there is almost impossible. Some people are ecstatic and some are, well let’s say a little miffed. Let me explain.
On the surface the Grateful Dead was a band but upon entering this strange and beautiful realm you began to realize that it was much much more. It was/is a community with roots that stretch into the social upheaval of the sixties, beatniks, Merry Pranksters, Haight Ashbury, LSD (not a whole list of designer drugs that hadn’t yet been invented), the sexual revolution, Jack Kerouac, Vietnam, colorful double-decker school buses, disco, the yuppie 80’s, patchwork overalls, tie-dyes, grill cheese on a coleman stove. It was a time-capsule of these and other things but it was also something else…
Maybe it was drug-induced, and naive or maybe something real but just barely out of reach like a desert mirage. It was a place where people dreamed a better world was possible. A place where the crap in the mainstream didn’t matter. The lying government, the scripted fashions, the selfish indulgences of capitalism and endless war faded away and you were surrounded by people who looked you in the eyes, who smiled and danced at every opportunity. Budding entrepreneurs, gypsies, dropouts, girls with hairy armpits and patchouli to mask their body odor celebrated life without a care. It wasn’t a weekend getaway, it was a lifestyle. It wasn’t something new it is ancient, like a tribal community that had been lost in the gears of progress, a love for all things interconnected and a sense that us humans are all in this magical soup together. A magical sub-culture in another times forgotten space.
Til things you’ve never seen seem familiar…
The years that I saw the Grateful Dead were formative, and shaped the life I continue to live as an adult. Those memories are tucked neatly into my own little Box of Secrets where I will happily cherish them forever. Obviously many others feel that way too, and that is why a tidal wave of every possible mixed emotion flooded through my body when I heard about the 50th Anniversary Show. Then the social media frenzy kicked up.
For this is all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago…
Imagine that you were a Johnny Cash fan in the previous generation, and it was announced that Jerry Garcia was going to sit in for the Johnny Cash 50th anniversary. All these crazy, loud, stinky deadheads are gonna crash the party and you wanted to go with your wife and remember the songs you fell in love to. Now, instead of a mellow evening with Mr. Cash there’s gonna be all this crazy dancing going on, people with dreadlocks, and a gypsy side-show in the parking lot. You’d probably have a little mixture of excitement and a big sense that your planned nostalgic moment is being hijacked. I think this might be a good way to explain how many of the old school Dead Heads felt when they heard that Trey was going to take Jerrys spot in the band. It’d be hard to hear Johnny Cash playing with Jerry on guitar without feeling like the original musical flavor has been greatly altered.
In the same way, it’ll be hard to ignore Trey’s signature sound in places that you may wanna be hearing a Jerry riff. Trey’s in tune and there’s no doubt though that he will give it his heart and soul to make for an unforgettable weekend of music.
Jerry Garcia was a great American master and the Grateful Dead are not just a genuine piece of musical history, but also an important part of American history. This is a band, born right at the beginning of electric rock, that took the American tradition and moved it forward. They really embodied the American concept of freedom, rolling around the country with a ginormous gang of people and the mindset that ‘you can come if you want, you can leave if you want. We don’t know what’s going to happen. All we know is we’re not looking back.’ What could be more American?” – Trey Anastasio
Now some oldsters haven’t been so eloquent in expressing their sense of distaste on social media, but it isn’t really about Trey. Of course Trey is a great man for the job, Phish has become its own epic phenomena and their musical prowess is hard to deny. Yet they are distinctly different despite their surface similarities. The line between dark humor and just being rude and mean has somehow been crossed if you believe in the Grateful Dead motto, “Ain’t no time to hate.”
John Perry Barlow, and Robert Hunter created a universe in the hundreds of songs they wrote. They drew on social rebellion, religious texts, history, great poets, cowboy stories, folk & bluegrass ballads, and cultural themes stretching back for 1,000 years. This informed the community, and as silly as it might sound to an outsider, these lyrics were almost a religious kind of gospel that people lived. Yes it is a bit silly, but it meant a whole lot to people who were having their own experiences within each show. Generations of people grew up through these songs.
Someone like Trey is his own sort of legend, a giant musical character, a personality with his own unique tone and approach to music. He is coming from some shared roots, but he isn’t an imitator, he’s 1 of a kind just like Jerry. I’d love to see him in this role any day of the week, but for the 50th Anniversary Show I was a bit mixed in my feeling. I have a hard time imagining that I will hear anything but Treys distinct sound in tunes that I want to hear Jerrys sound, Jerry’s phrasing. For a 50th Anniversary Show I might rather hear someone like Steve Kimock, Dave A. Bear, Stu Allen, Jeff Mattson or better yet, Warren Haynes. These are guitarists who are also giants, and unique in their own right, but they are also coming from Garcias generation and share a similar approach and angle to the music. In the emotion of it all it can be hard to say this without stepping on some toes, especially the toes of thousands of eager Phish fans who are jumping for joy over this recent news. One thing is for sure, Trey has been picked and he will not disappoint any true music lovers!
Now the venue was also a bit of a let down for those of us who were hoping for a free show in Golden Gate Park, where it all began. No offense to our community in the midwest who are overjoyed that the show will be in Chicago, but wouldn’t it be nice to walk down Haight Street and into the park to see the boys one last time? Wouldn’t it be nice if it was free instead of an expensive flight, hotel and ticket away? Hey… Dead Heads are known to dream dreams like this and I doubt that I’m alone in this particular reverie.
A splendid time is guaranteed for all, and the music will be as good as it gets without a doubt. So if you’re a Phish fan wondering why all these crusty Dead Heads are grumbling, hopefully this helps a little bit. When it is all said and done, the music never stopped… We’ll welcome this evolving scene whether it’s Visionary Festivals with DJ’s, Rainbow Gatherings in the woods, dead cover bands at a local bar, bluegrass in the mountains, Phish or even something crazy like a wild Rastasaurus.
Music is life, is art, is community and it thrives on re-inventing itself. More than ever we need a new story because the same old crap they are feeding us on mainstream media is killing the planet if you haven’t noticed.
Politicians throwing stones, it’s all to clear we’re on our own. Singing ashes ashes all fall down
Now is a good time to take a look back and reflect, reevaluate your history and your dreams for the future. Something new is being born as the wheel is spinning and it can’t slow down. Is this the end or the beginning?
The seeds that were planted all burst into bloom and decay.
So here’s to 50 years, to a tradition that is older than all of us, even older than Phil. We are a tribe, a community, one people on one planet. The Dead is and always has been an ancestral thing, an ancient Ghost Dance in a modern time. Believe it if you need it, if you don’t just pass it on.
Since the end is never told, we pay the teller off in gold in hopes he will come back but he cannot be bought or sold.
The last thing to say, before I am through…
Without love in a dream it will never come true!