Grateful Dead

“G” is for Grateful Dead—always has been.  Or at least since 1985, when I first discovered them.  From the time I first saw them in concert in Oakland, California back in November 1985, no other music in the world has touched me like the Grateful Dead.  They will forever be my favorite band.

I understand that many other people in the world simply do not “get” the Dead, and I get that.  There is a lot of music in the world that I simply do not appreciate.  It happens.  I’m already over it.

But I have been successful in getting a few friends and a couple girlfriends to open up to their music.  This is probably due only to my overly enthusiastic play-by-play that I give when listening to a particular show or album, but they went along with it anyway.  However, even as I tried to get them to appreciate their music, no one has fully understood why I saw them in concert 70 times.

Yes—seventy times.


Ahhh, just one more…please!

And that is such a low number compared to many friends that I know, but between 1985 and 1994, I saw them as often as I possibly could.  I had a really cool job that let me disappear for a week or two, as long as I had my shifts covered, and as long as I worked 60-80 hour weeks when I returned.  I stopped seeing them a year before Jerry Garcia died, but not because they were a freakin’ train wreck by that time (and they were), but because I met the girl who would become my future ex-wife, and my priorities changed.  I had always meant to get back to see them again, but it never happened.  If Jerry Garcia were still alive today, and if the Dead were still doing their thing, you better believe that I would still have been seeing them all these years!

I remember when I was introduced to them.  I knew a few of their songs from the radio, but did not pay much attention to them until my best friend at the time, Dan, played me some of their records one summer afternoon.  He had a really groovy sister who owned a few of their albums, and we would listen to the records up in his room with the windows open and the music cranked to 11.  I liked them, but I was still not hooked.

I was a huge fan of the Rolling Stones at that time, and Led Zeppelin, and various Progressive Rock bands, and the Dead intrigued me, but I hadn’t grasped the magic of their music until I finally saw them live.

Dan had won tickets to a show in Oakland from an Indie radio station, and asked me if I wanted to go.  This was on a school night during our Senior year of high school, but my parents were uncharacteristically cool about that.  After driving to the wrong venue in Oakland, we finally got to the show and went to Will Call to pick up the tickets.  They gave us little red raffle tickets instead of proper Ticketmaster tickets, and we weren’t sure that we would get into the show.  It all started to feel like a cruel prank.  Fortunately, no one even looked at our tickets. We were allowed in just as the lights went down for the first set.

Grateful Dead 12

I only knew three songs of all that was played that night.  In fact, I remember being playfully mocked by a random Deadhead when I stated to Dan that they did not play “Truckin’” or “Casey Jones.”  She said, “Well, they did play ‘Sugar Magnolia’”, to which I gave some sort of enthusiastic puppy dog response.

What a newb!

Anyway, they grabbed me that night.  I did not drink any literal Kool-Aid that night, but I was entranced by the melodies and noises coming from the stage that night.  Jerry Garcia was in particularly poor shape during this show (this was after his big bust and before his coma), but I just figured that he had a cold, or something.  Something in that frail, gravelly voice touched me, and I needed more and more.

Lookin' good, Jer!

Lookin’ good, Jer!

And that is what I try to convey to people: Garcia’s voice, especially as he aged, had such an emotional quality to it.  He could trigger a response with just a simple inflection, or even a squeaky crack in his voice.  No one else in the world could do for me what Garcia could do with his voice.

A lot of people complain that the Dead sound unrehearsed and sloppy, and at times, that is so true.  Each individual musician had their own unique way of playing, and each one had enough ego to take the foreground at any given moment.  Garcia played guitar like a banjo; Bob Weir played the guitar as if he were trying to do the opposite of actually playing the guitar; Phil Lesh played the bass like a solo cellist in a symphony; the two drummers were complete opposites of each other, and often sounded like rocks in a dryer; and each keyboardist just tried to keep up with the madness.  They were not an ordinary band!

Yeah, I said it: "Rocks in a dryer."

Yeah, I said it: “Rocks in a dryer.”

But they had the capacity to create magic every single night.  There were nights that I could not even begin to explain.

Wait.  Full disclosure:  I did a lot of drugs in my late teens, but by 1989, I stopped altogether.  You cannot say that I only appreciated their music because of the drugs, because I saw far more shows sober than high.

Anyway, there were nights that I could not even begin to explain; moments of magic that seemed impossible, and yet we all felt as if we were waiting for that exact thing to happen.  You can read about at least five examples of this from an earlier blog entry of mine.

There were also moments when we should have rioted and demanded our money back.  However, that’s what you get when you follow the Dead:  Some nights are magic, and some nights…not so much.

I swear this is the exact angle that I saw my second show.

I swear this is the exact angle that I saw my second show.

It would be impossible for me to give a list of introductory songs for newcomers to check out; the Dead are a personal experience, and each person has to find their own way around the maze.  However, I will list a handful of my favorites.  Brown-Eyed Women, Terrapin Station, Crazy Fingers, Help on the Way, Jack Straw, Lazy Lightning, Black Peter, Althea, Scarlet Begonias, and Box of Rain.

Anyway, I am doing a poor job of describing the indescribable.  Let me just end this with a song I wrote back in 1998.  This was about 2 ½ years after Jerry died, and I was still feeling the loss.  I was also feeling the loss of community, identity, and that indescribable moment.

The lyrics to this song are just as vague as the feeling of actually being at a Dead show.  Still, I think they capture it pretty well.  At least in my mind.

Anyway, here it is:  “Hit the Sky.”

Hit the Sky

By: Joel C. Marckx


There was a fever from off the streets

And all I know, I’ll never hold it anymore


A thunderous tune sings, time-struck with wonder

Familiar journey with urgency

Madmen are shouting roaring gospels

Soothing psalms, and galaxies

And all I know, I’ll never hold it anymore


            The great foundation, fleeting landscapes

            There are no words for memories


Our navigator, a face in red smoke

Lighting fuses in hot pursuit

After surrender, respect is silence

Intoxicated, and scarred for life

And all I know, I’ll never hold it anymore


            Discerning pathways near infinity

            Floating in and around the sea


I still remember, but I can’t describe it

I sure would love to be there again

Now I just put on my favorite Dark Star

And hit the sky…hit the sky…



Filed under Deep Thoughts, man..., Lyrics, Music Reviews

10 responses to “Grateful Dead

  1. A really enjoyable read bro…

  2. Yes thank you! I feel that way about so many whose music touched me–just sad and a little left behind…

  3. Thanks for this. Instantly put the words of “Might As Well” into my head (a song about the great train trip across canada in 1970 which was the subject of the documentary Festival Express)… “Never had such a good time, in my life before… ”

    And for anyone interested- has literally thousands of live dead shows for download or streaming here:

    maybe this was your first show? (HJ Kaiser 9/10/85)

    • Nope. First show was 11/20/85. All of my other friends went to the next night. I got Terrapin, but the got Brown-Eyed Women.

      • ahhh,,,but I’d ALWAYS take a Terrapin- something special about Jerry always blowing one of the lines just before singing “…his job is to shed light, not to master”

        And btw- how was it that Bobby could nal the most complicated of Dylan tunes every time but always blew the words to Truckin?

      • Jerry didn’t blow any lyrics to Terrapin that night, but there was a particularly painful chirp in his voice as he sang, “Inspiration!” I’ll never forget it.
        And you’re right about Bobby: Remembers every word to Desolation Row, cannot remember Truckin’, or Promised Land.

  4. Pingback: Great Googly Moogly – My 101th Post! | It's a Blog About Nothing

  5. Same thing happened to me…and from that day forth your life would never be the same, but so much better.

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