Today is Jerry Garcia’s birthday. I think that means I am just getting in just under the wire in terms of writing about the final Grateful Dead shows a month ago. The post-Chicagogasm bliss is wrapping up and soon we will be onto the next thing. But before it’s too late, I just had to say something about it. I am not even sure what it is I need to say, I am just sure I can’t keep it to myself.
People keep asking, “Oh, how was Chicago?” and I keep saying, “Oh, it was awesome.” And that is sort of bullshit because it wasn’t awesome. In order to accurately convey how Chicago was, I would need to rip open my rib cage and flatten you with a deafening stampede of butterfly-winged rainbow unicorns shooting laser beams of diamonds out their horns. My mouth would try to make words, my hands would try to make gestures, and I’d end up making some sort of confusing, primordial apocalyptic happiness noise. That is how Chicago was, if you are asking.
I’m so glad I went. I wasn’t going to go. I took it as a sign when my mail order ticket request was rejected. I told myself that, really, my life has moved on to other things, and I am no longer the girl I was 20 years ago who had to be dancing barefoot at every show. I told myself that these farewell shows were all a money grab, and that unless the admission price included an actual time machine to 1995, when Jerry was alive, then I had other things to do. I tried to look the other way, but I kept looking back.
The shows started on Friday, and I was doing other things. I had holiday plans. I was trying not to pay attention. But I couldn’t really focus on anything because it felt like the sands beneath my feet were being pulled away by the current. I hesitantly started listening to the livestream of the show from Chicago on my phone.
Oh my god. They were playing Franklin’s Tower. It was a spear to my heart. I cried. If you’re a Deadhead, even an upbeat song like Franklin’s tower can send you deep serious messages. By the time they sang, “May the four winds blow you safely home.” I was like, FUCK! What Have I Done??? I need to go Chicago!!! Fuck Fuck fuck….how long does it take to drive there? Arrr!
I did the math. Fifteen hours. If I left right away, there was just enough time to get to the Saturday show. Done!
I had been to a dozen or more Grateful Dead shows in Chicago, but not for 20 years. I knew it would be strange to be back because the city, the band, the world, and my life had transformed so much in these past two decades. I was unprepared for how FAMILIAR it was. I thought I was going to get some closure, but instead I was just ripped wide open. In the best way. The smells, the sounds, the idiotic snippets of conversation, I have lived it all hundreds of times before. It really was like tumbling backwards through time. I was a teenager again. To feel this rush of friendliness was such a vivid reminder of how lucky I was to have had my coming of age in such a supportive community.
When I fist started following the Dead around I was just 15 years old. I was weird, fat and shy. Ridiculously idealistic. There was no way I was going to be able to thrive in my preppy Long Island hometown. Thank GOD this crazy circus came and whisked me away to incubate my butterfly wings in a more nurturing environment. I shudder to think how I would have channeled all my awkwardness back then if I did not have this merry band of misfits hugging me through it all.
Returning to this stage of my youth gave me so much pause to think of how far I have come, and all the adventures that were launched as a result of the things I learned following the Dead. Sometimes I feel like I have done SO MUCH in my life, and then I realize that I am still basically just selling wonky patchwork clothes, just like I did at Dead shows when I was 15. Maybe I haven’t come that far after all. I am still the ME I became on Grateful Dead tour. And this tribe formed the backbone of my strength for every challenge I have faced. Knowing that you can fall backwards and be caught is a very empowering thing. It was illuminating to see once again how this community has endured across decades and oceans, and the loveliness that emanates from it is a constant companion, which can warm you like a blanket or cool you like a breeze at any time you need it.
Walking though the crowds in Chicago kept me alert and searching for familiar faces. Every few minutes it would be like, “Oh my god – there is THAT guy, what’s his name. Holy crap, I totally forgot about him. Whoa.” (I think a few old timers looked at me and had the same, “Whoa, there is THAT girl” experience too). It was a bit like groping though a dream, where everyone you know got old, and the friends who still look the same are actually just younger strangers, perfect doppelgangers. You could never tell which smile was just someone being friendly, or someone you used to know. It was a rather intoxicating hall of mirrors.
And now there is this whole Internet thing, so, there were quite a lot of people who knew who I am, and wanted to say hello. That was a joy. I got to hug so many people that I only knew online. A lot of people treated me like I was special, and gave me presents and took pictures with me and gave me compliments I don’t deserve. The whole experience was just like moving slowly though a bubbly car wash of love. Thank you.
And the music! Oh, the music. Wow. Soldier Field was beautifully lit with swirling colors. I got a miracle ticket (which felt genuinely miraculous!) and promptly snuck right down to the floor of the stadium. I didn’t quite have my bearings, so I just went to the same place in the back where I remember dancing when I was 16. It is hard not to overuse the word “surreal”, but it really was just such a glorious time-traveling mindfuck to be there again. To re-dance my steps from a lifetime ago, with so much more wisdom and so much less innocence. Every song was a slideshow of memories. It was hard to tell if I was happy to see how well my life has turned out in these past 20 years, or sad that I am no longer as wide eyed and new as I once was. It is intense to feel clobbered by both those feelings at once.
When Jerry died 20 years ago, our world so abruptly disappeared. Our traveling family got scattered. We didn’t have cell phones. We didn’t even know each other’s last names. We just were informed one day that our little world was gone, and we had to scramble to figure it out. There are people I loved a lot that I never saw again. Back then it was simply beyond the capacity of our imaginations that there would one day be a Facebook, and we might find each other again, older and puffier. We didn’t know that one day the earth would tip and roll us all back to Chicago to dance together once more.
It was marvelously happy, but also just devastating to feel simultaneously how long and how fast the years had been. Again, surreal. Sorry, someone needs to invent a new word for this.
Every song that was played took on new meaning because this time we knew it was goodbye. Even a song like “Truckin” that were never that special to me suddenly became sort of urgent, like, “Holy Shit. This is the LAST Truckin!” And then there were 70,000 people gathered closely who also just had that same realization. “Oh my god, the last Truckin!!!” What could we do but sing? Sing together as loud as we could, “LATE-LY-IT-O-CCURS-TO-MEEEEE………….” (You know how the rest of that lyric goes. I can’t bring myself to type it. It is too cliché, and I am too proud of my high writing standards. I just cant.) Oh, fuck, who am I trying to kid, it’s the last fuckin Truckin!!: WHAT A LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG STRANGE TRIP IT’S BEEN!
I wrote a blog post about the Dead a couple of years ago. It got shared a lot on the Internet, and I heard from a lot of old Deadheads who I thought I might never see again. One of the things I got the most comments about was the part I wrote about my friend Sunshine. She was a gorgeous little blonde spinner girl who was definitely having a spiritual trip with the music. She would dance in rapturous communication with a higher power, like a whirling dervish, with her white dress billowing out around her. People called her Spunshine. She was cosmic, tough, and fragile. She disappeared with everyone else 20 years ago when Jerry died.
Sunshine told me that when she spun to the music she sometimes became so overcome with the beauty and the magic of the moment that she had to collect it into a golden orb and shoot it into the future, for a time later on her path when she would need that magic. I loved that image. It has become part of my life still until this day. When things are just so unbearably beautiful and perfect, I try to capture it and send it to another me in another time that might need that light. Even if I don’t physically believe it is an actual little glowing orb, and it is just all in my thoughts, it is amazing how strong it can make you.
I was wondering about Sunshine, and remembering what she told me. Then they started playing “Mountains of the Moon.” I couldn’t believe it. That was my song! Every Deadhead has the song that is their song. No, like, THEIR SONG. I had been to 200 shows and never heard ‘Mountains of the Moon”. It is so obscure that they hadn’t played it since 1969. Not in my entire lifetime. In the ten bajillion endless conversations about Grateful Dead music that I have endured, I can’t honestly even recall anyone even mentioning this song. And now they were playing it at the last show. Out of hundreds of thousands of people listening, I can’t imagine it’s possible that anyone was more overcome than I was. (I read a review of the show wherein the reviewer referred to this song as “a rough choice” haha. He is so not me.)
This is the song that for some reason I had latched onto when I was 16. I was living abroad, in a grey unfriendly suburb of an industrial city. I had no friends or family near me, and I felt so profoundly isolated from my tribe. For some reason this song found me, and in my dark little room I taught myself how to play it on the piano and sing its melancholy words. (I don’t play the piano and I don’t sing. This is precisely the only song in my life where that applies). To hear this song again unexpectedly just gutted me.
I thought of that lonesome 16-year-old me sadly singing these twisting words in her dark room. She thought she was already so grown up, but she was really still such a kid. And then I looked around me at 70,000 people and all the rainbow lights. I thought of the 23 years that had passed since then, and how life for me has been nothing short of miraculously beautiful at every turn. Oh, sad 16-year-old girl, Life is going to be SO MUCH MORE FUCKING AMAZING THAN YOU CAN EVEN IMAGINE!!!!! Let me gather this wisdom and these lights and this feeling of overpowering love and send it back through time to you. You are never alone. You are so loved. I sent 70,000 illuminated hugs back to 1992.
I was just having this overpowering moment dancing with my 16-year-old self. My eyes were closed, as I danced, but I opened them just a crack, and who do I see looking back at me, her shiny dark eyes welling up with tears of their own? It was fucking SUNSHINE. Sunshine! After 20 years, she finds me in this of all moments. We hugged tight and spun together, singing the song to each other because there was nothing else to say. We kept pulling back and looking at each other’s faces and just getting choked up and having to bury ourselves in a hug once more. Our entire lives had happened since we last danced together. We were just kids when Jerry died. She was still wearing her same white dress, and I was still wearing my same butterfly dress. It was magic. This is why I love the Grateful Dead.
And that was just one moment. And I am just one girl. Hundreds of thousands of people were part of that night. Scenes like this were happening everywhere. We were a huge cascade of people purging feelings and memories. Sometimes we were laughing, sometimes we were losing it. Strangers were desperately embracing strangers. Spontaneous hug explosions. We all needed hugs. There were times when I was so overtaken with the happiness and sadness together that my face started to hurt from making too many expressions at the same time. Some people are less sloppy with their emotions than me. I suppose to some people this was just another concert, whatever. But I think that even the most stoic and reserved person there had to dab their eyes a few times. It was wonderful.
And then the show was ending. It was the encore. No. We were not ready. They played Touch of Grey and we vowed to Survive (and be organ donors – wink). Then they came back for a second encore – Attics of My Life, with a slideshow of the band. Aw jeez. We just lost it. All 70,000 of us, plus the other 400,000 people livestreaming the show at home. If you didn’t get choked up, you simply were not human. On the floor we fell into lines, with our arms around one another shoulders. Swaying back and forth together we tearfully sang the lyrics and cheered at the images of the band members up on the screen. (I love that the loudest applause of all came for Trey. He knocked it out of the park.) It was perfect and beautiful, and then it was over
God Bless Micky Hart. He stepped up to the microphone. We all needed to hear something. We needed one last morsel to grasp onto before we could leave. But what could he say? What words are adequate to sum up fifty years and thousands of lifetimes? He nailed it.
“Please. The Feeling we have here. Remember it. Take it home and do some good with it. Hug your husband. Hug your wife, kids.
I’ll leave you with this: Please, be kind.”
Please, be kind.
Yes! Wow. That is it. That is kind of everything. I can type here at my keyboard and snarfle my snot trying to express all these FEELINGS, and then he can just say it in three words. Please, be kind.
With all this beauty and swirling serendipity, how could we not be kind? It really is that simple. When you witness this level of magic, the only rational conclusion is to proceed with kindness in your heart. How can you let things really bother you once you have felt this beauty of so many people together?
Mickey was basically saying what Sunshine said so many years ago- take this feeling and use it when you need it. Share it. Spread it back and forth through your entire life, even to the pain of the past. It will protect you when you feel alone or sad or confused.
If you are a Deadhead, I think you know this. But if you are not a Deadhead, that hardly matters. Somewhere in your life you have this beauty – maybe you find it some other music, or maybe you find it in your church, or alone in the wilderness. Maybe these pockets of bliss occur when you listen to your grandchildren laugh or stare into the soulful eyes of your loyal dog, or contemplate the center of a wildflower. It is everywhere. Whatever works for you, just grab onto it and hold it dear.
Find the thing that makes you feel the most good feelings all at once, and go there when you need it. When some jerk cuts you off in traffic – go there. When life feels tedious and boring and pointless – go there. When the injustices of the world feel too arbitrary and cruel, go to that place. Tap into that wonder and let it lift you up.
I am feeling grateful this month that it is so easy to picture the physical manifestation of this place. It looks just like Soldier Field, full of people and fireworks, lit up like a spaceship with 70 thousand astronauts. Fuck yeah.
Ugh. See what this experience has done? It as made me revert to FULL HIPPY. Fuck. I am just gonna paint peace signs on my cheeks and communicate only through the golden starbeams that emanate from my heart chakra. Gah. It’s real though! Like, I love you!! I am going to shut up now, and most likely never publish this because it is just a bunch of hippy garble word salad. This is embarrassing. I don’t really have the courage to be this naked in front of you. Unless a spaceship shaped like Soldier field flies by and commands me hit publish before I have time to think the better of it. Yeah. Uh, yeah! Um. Whatever. I love you.
* * *
My comments are currently overrun with spam. I’d love to hear your thoughts, but please share them on my Facebook page.
See more of my blog here