Last Thursday, it suddenly hit me that it was exactly 50 years ago to the day when I first stepped foot into a Grateful Dead concert. That day changed my life. I became an instant “Dead Head”. I ended up seeing the band almost 300 times in concert over a 30-year period, and I still listen to them almost every day.
This concert was the most joyous 8 hours I can remember. The New Riders of the Purple Sage, who I'd never heard of till then, opened the show and played for about 2 hours. Then, after a break, the Dead played for about 5 hours including an intermission. It was general admission seating, which gave it a festival atmospere, and people were dancing and whooping it up and generally being friendly. People were even sharing seats.I spent most of the time on my feet clapping my hands. I clapped so much that it my hards started aching, but I was having such a great time, that I kept on clapping.I didn't know any of the songs, which was probably a good thing, since I ddin't have to think about whether or not they were going to play my favorite song or the one I don't like as much. I was free to just get swept up in the music and love it.
The Dead made some pretty good albums in the studio, but they were known for their live shows. They were the prototypical jam band, and no two shows were the same. And they let the audience bring in tape recorders, so there are hundreds and hundreds of hours of live Grateful Dead music available to listen to. Most of it can be found in the Grateful Dead archive or the archive.org website. The band also recorded many of the shows, and their record label continues to release a steady stream of of these recordings. Jerry's premature death was a tragedy, but the availabilty of all these recordings prompted me to write a tribute song to him called “The Music Lives On" (Dead Heads often refer to the band members by their first names). I recorded and released that song a few years back, and you can listen to it here or on Spotify or your favorite streaming platform. In that song, I mention this concert, including a line about clapping my hands so hard it almost hurt.
The Grateful Dead certainly isn't for everybody. For one thing, they're known for long improvisations, which some people find boring. Also, they're not exactly the most polished singers. I happen to like their voices, but sometimes they really do sound bad. And their playing can be sloppy at times. And yet, despite these flaws, they can reach transcendant levels where they sweep the listener away into another universe of pure joy. Some people have the impression that you have to be on drugs to like the Grateful Dead. There's an old joke, Q: "What did the Dead Head say when the drugs wore off?" A:"This music sucks!" But the real answer should be, "This music is even better than I realized!"
Given how much of an influence they've been, my own songs don't really sound much like theirs. I did try to imitate their sound in the arrangement of "The Music Lives On", although I made the decision to omit the lead guitar part, since there was no way i could do justice to Jerry. And there was that one time, a few years before Garcia died, when I read in an interview that he had lost his enjoyment of songwriting. So I decided to write a Grateful Dead-style song and send it to him. The title was "Feel Your Way". Unfortunately, as is so often the case in the music business, they would not accept unsolicited material, and Jerry never got to hear the song. If I can find that song among my old tapes, maybe I'll make a recording worthy of a release. Stay tuned!