How did you spend your 4th of July? Here in this abode it was a day of relaxed goofing off, no trips anywhere because I had to be home, in front of this computer at 5 p.m. Pacific Time.
My friend John, who shares this domicile, cleaned up the kitchen and put on some burgers and hot dogs, which were cooked and consumed before 5 p.m.
For me, the Dead goes back a long, long time. I don’t even remember my first shows, which really isn’t so much about the time that has lapsed since then, but more about the times that I was in when I saw the Dead so many years ago. There was a time I went to every concert (rock or otherwise) stoned out of my head and sadly if there were any memories from those shows they have drifted away on the tide of beer, wine, whisky, pot and LSD … and shrooms … and … you get the picture.
Thankfully those shows are available either as bootlegs or have been featured in the “Dick’s Picks” series, like Dick’s Picks, Volume 32,” recorded at Alpine Valley Music Theater on August 7, 1982. I have very reliable information I was there … but not much else — until the release of DP32.
Then there is Red Rocks in 1979. I’ve downloaded the bootleg. Before that was Camp Randall Field House, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, March 14, 1971. I might have told my parents I was going to spend some time at a friend’s house to practice trumpet parts for the band … At any rate about 10 years ago I found a good quality soundboard recording that I downloaded. It’s now on my iPod with about 75 other Grateful Dead recordings. The ticket price was probably about five bucks.
A nice thing about the Dead was that they had the “Tapers” section, usually in front of the soundboard and fans that chose to do so could set up their gear and tape the shows. The really special tapers got to plug into the soundboard and get the recording directly from Owsley Stanley or Dan Healy. It was actually Healy who got the tapers thing started back in the 1970’s.
As a result you can find recordings from just about every show the Grateful Dead ever played and if you talk to any devout Dead fans — Dead Heads — they will tell you the studio recordings just don’t do the band justice. I might have two or three on my iPod.
But from 1985 on I have vivid memories of every Dead show I attended, mainly at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin. I was never one of those people that followed the band from show to show, but when they played Alpine I tried to attend at least two of the three shows. They were nights — and one afternoon — filled with great music and dancing; the joy of being at a Grateful Dead concert.
My sister Elaine and I went to a number of shows together, many of them at Alpine. We did Red Rocks together in 1979 and she assured me I had a good time — when I was conscious.
Glad that’s all behind me now, but there are my bona fides, the good, the bad and the glad it’s forgotten.
On July 26, 1990 the Grateful Dead lost their longtime keyboardist, Brent Mydland, to a drug overdose, three days after the Dead performed at the World Music Theater in Tinley Park, Illinois. My friend Doug and I attended that show and hearing of Brent’s death was a blow to my psyche. In all my years of listening to the Grateful Dead, listening to shows I never attended, via bootlegs, Dick’s Picks and other GD recordings, I always considered the Brent years to be the band’s best. Yep, the Dead had some really incredible shows prior to Brent, their albums Hundred Year Hall, Ladies and Gentleman … the Grateful Dead, Europe ’72, any of the Fillmore recordings, they are all epic, historical documents of a touring band at the top of its game, consistently.
But for an era of the Grateful Dead, the Brent Years are my favorite. Maybe because I saw them so many times with that lineup, performing with Bob Dylan and Branford Marsalis (on separate occasions).
Or, it could be because by 1982, three years after Brent joined the band, he was joined at the hip musically with the other five members. You can listen to any of the recordings of that lineup and hear the interplay between the band.
In the DVD Downhill From Here, recorded at Alpine Valley Music Theater in 1989, you can actually see Jerry Garcia almost communicating telepathically with Brent. It was after watching that DVD when I realized just how perfect a union the Grateful Dead were with Brent Mydland.
- Side note: I was at those shows, on July 17 and 18, 1989.
It’s understandable for me that some people pick those earliest years, or the Keith and Donna Godchaux era as their favorite, they made some beautiful music throughout their 50 years. Some consider those first years to be the most dramatic and adventurous for the band. Their connections to Ken Kesey and Neal Cassidy, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, San Francisco at the height of the Flower Power movement — yep, that was how the Dead were shaped and defined.
But I wouldn’t say they were more daring musically in the early years, when you could hear Jerry and the rest of the band “adjusting” after mistakes, but in the Brent Years the Dead were just more practiced at it and with Brent playing with the band so often, he fell right into the grooves with them and could anticipate, jump on train with the rest of the band, especially Jerry.
So, when Brent died in 1990 my interest in seeing the band live again waned. Bruce Hornsby and Vince Welnick were very capable replacements, but the passing of Brent Mydland broke my heart.
On top of that the crowds showing up to the shows became so morally bad, with their selfish and destructive attitudes, going to shows was a not the thrill it had been. It wasn’t until May 15, 1993 that I saw the band again, this time in Las Vegas at the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl.
Some young guy with two tickets had lost all his money gambling so I gave him slightly more than face value for them, $100 each. Sting was the opening act, which pleased my brother Carl, who wasn’t much of a Dead fan, but as long as he wasn’t paying for the ticket he’d go. It was an okay show, not quite what I had grown to love all those years with Brent, but still a Dead show.
On August 9, 1995 the Grateful Dead community came to sudden and crushing stop — Jerry Garcia, founder, singer, songwriter and lead guitarist of the Dead died in a drug rehab hospital in Forrest Knolls, California. That was really it for me, the end of the Grateful Dead. Without Jerry this is no Grateful Dead and quite frankly, there were no other guitar players like Jerry Garcia, he was one of a kind.
Nine years ago I saw Zappa Plays Zappa, the group headed by Dweezil Zappa featuring such luminary Zappa alums as Steve Vai, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Terry Bozzio, and yeah, they did a really great job and the music was great, but Dweezil, despite his skill with the guitar and his faithful adherence to the ethos of his father — Dweezil is not Frank. But thank you to Dweezil for keeping his dad’s music alive.
The members of the Grateful Dead continued to perform, in various groups like Phil Lesh and Friends, Ratdog, or Further — even a short-lived group called simply “The Dead” — but they never again performed as “The Grateful Dead” — until this year, the 50th anniversary of the band’s beginning.
There’s a core group of four members left: Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Bobby Weir, the last three being the last surviving members of the original lineup. Ronald “Pigpen” McKernan died March 8, 1973.
- Interesting note: on the Grateful Dead’s official website, Dead.net, they refer to Mickey Hart as an original member.
After Brent died in 1990 the band used Vince Welnick as their keyboardist and Bruce Hornsby sat in with the band quite a bit. Welnick died June 2, 2006 so he couldn’t fill in, but Hornsby was available. Thing was, Hornsby sticks to the grand piano. The Grateful Dead would need a multi-keyboardist, someone with a nice rack of synths and outboard gear. And a Hammond organ with Leslie speakers would be good too, so they found Jeff Chimenti, a longhaired hippie-type who looks surprisingly like Brent Mydland.
Anyone that has followed the post Jerry bands know Chimenti — he’s played in just about all of them so having Jeff play the 50th anniversary shows, the “Fare Thee Well Tour,” was a no-brainer.
Filling Jerry’s spot in the band was a bit trickier. You just can’t put anyone into that spot and pull of a series of shows like the Fare Thee Well Tour. No, they didn’t want a robot that mimicked Jerry Garcia, that would have been boring, but they needed someone who knows how to jam and his so familiar with the band he — or she — could pay tribute to Jerry with some treasured licks and tones. After Jerry the band members played with a number of great guitarists, but after long consideration they went with Phish front man Trey Anastasio. As it turns out the core four made an excellent choice.
The band did two shows in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA: June 27-28.
In the ever-evolving folklore of the Grateful Dead these two shows are commonly referred to as “the warm-ups,” or the “Workingman’s Shows,” in reference to the Dead’s incredible studio album, Workingman’s Dead. It came out in 1970 and is one of their three platinum-selling albums.
“What’s on it,” you ask? It’s the Grateful Fuckin’ Dead, that’s what’s on it! “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” “Cumberland Blues,” among others. Just buy it, listen and be happy.
Anyway, they did the first two of the Fare Thee Well Tour to great success and the band did indeed warm up. As good and seasoned as Trey is, he had to get used to playing with the Grateful Dead. It’s a big difference from sitting in with Phil’s or Bobby’s bands. The entire band had to find that groove again and they did.
And now we find ourselves here, 1,750-plus words later, just hours away from the last performance of the Grateful Dead. It will be a great show, but a little bittersweet. Because it will be the last show. On Saturday, July 4, I watched the live show via YouTube and was totally captivated. They opened with “Shakedown Street” and ended with the encore “U.S. Blues.” But of course. Fireworks continued the show after the band ended and even Phil Lesh hung around on stage to watch for a bit.
There was a chance I would have been at these shows, but financially could not wing it. Now I’m glad I didn’t go because the live broadcast has such a different vibe to it, with all the different camera angles, including one from a DIRECTV blimp floating overhead.
Sure, there’s that community there in Soldiers Field that really feels good to be a part of, and it really is different than going to other concerts. But it’s nice to be steps away from my own bathroom and stash of goodies to much on while enjoying the concert.
I missed the Friday show, due to other commitments, but I will be watching tonight. The last hurrah of the Grateful Dead when they will, finally, say for the last time, Fare Thee Well. As Lesh put it before the shows, “It is with respect and gratitude that we reconvene the Dead one last time to celebrate — not merely the band’s legacy, but also the community that we’ve been playing to, and with, for fifty years. Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.”
This is an American band; possible the most American of bands and that was quite evident Saturday Night. Maybe it being the 4th of July and all, but the Grateful Dead has been and will continue to be an important part of our musical heritage.
Like all of our great American music, the Grateful Dead has been well documented, maybe more so than any other band in history, if you include all the bootlegs floating around the Internet.
So, tonight when they finally play, “Brokedown Palace,” and you know they will, they will sing, “Fare Thee Well” one last time as the Grateful Dead, it will be to teary eyes, in Soldiers Field and around the world as millions watch the live broadcast.
Fifty years will come to a close. “Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul.”
(All photos via YouTube, unless otherwise noted)
Tim Forkes started as a writer on a small alternative newspaper in Milwaukee called the Crazy Shepherd. Writing about entertainment, he had the opportunity to speak with many people in show business, from the very famous to the people struggling to find an audience. In 1992 Tim moved to San Diego, CA and pursued other interests, but remained a freelance writer. Upon arrival in Southern California he was struck by how the elected government officials and business were so intertwined, far more so than he had witnessed in Wisconsin. His interest in entertainment began to wane and the business of politics took its place. He had always been interested in politics, his mother had been a Democratic Party official in Milwaukee, WI, so he sat down to dinner with many of Wisconsin’s greatest political names of the 20th Century: William Proxmire and Clem Zablocki chief among them. As a Marine Corps veteran, Tim has a great interest in veteran affairs, primarily as they relate to the men and women serving and their families. As far as Tim is concerned, the military-industrial complex has enough support. How the men and women who serve are treated is reprehensible, while in the military and especially once they become veterans. Tim would like to help change that.