The Night Of The Living Deadheads

by David Yearsley, March 3, 2010

One of my college friends was a Deadhead. He had crates of cassette tapes with labels like “Bucknell, 1971”, Stanford 1973”; “Fillmore East 1970.”  Of an eve­ning he would navigate through these hundreds of cas­settes and pull out “the greatest version” of a given Dead song, “Truckin’”, “Crazy Fingers”, whatever. He’d put the tape in the player and work the fast-forward or rewind button with the virtuosity of a concert pianist and get right to the start of the number and then let it pour out of the tinny little crate as if it were ambrosia.  Everything sounded good under those listening condi­tions, largely molded by cannabis and cheap beer. The band famously did not forbid bootlegging but encour­aged it: piracy was thereby converted into democratic dissemination; what was viewed as thievery by most “recording artists” fueled the unique brand of Dead­headish connoisseurship. He became devotee and pedagogue, pointing out the tastiest licks from Jerry Garcia’s guitar, reveling in the ecstasy of solo voice and the rapture of harmony.

One of those college weekends I played the harpsi­chord with the Bach Society Orchestra for Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 and my Deadhead friend came along. He liked the performance but remarked that during the famous cadenza, in which the harpsi­chord goes berserk in a frenzy of whirling notes and careening chromatic chords, I took too many rhetori­cal pauses. Music, he believed, should keep truckin’ along, those two drummers with the Dead making sure that the rhythmic lifeblood kept pumping without a stutter.

Those college evenings listening to the Dead were fun though at the remove of a couple of decades things begin to blur, albeit with a different kind of fuzziness than that which attended the evenings themselves. The year after I graduated from college, my friend orga­nized a road trip up the coast to hear the Dead in Oxford, Maine over the Fourth of July weekend of 1988, and I joined in.  We stayed in a cheap motel, made a long, long walk to the Oxford Plains Speedway past the vibrant Deadhead scene of VW buses, sprawling encampments, barbecues and other kinds of smoke-outs and much Dead mercantilism: everywhere handicrafts, food stuffs, and other substances for sale or for barter or just to be had. The Maine Woods was ablaze in tie-dye.

Little Feat opened the show and then the Dead  came on and did their two sets.  I remember thinking that a motor speedway wasn’t the best place to hear music of any sort and that it puzzled me why the band felt it needed two drummers, whom together seemed to my ears to obscure rather than enhance the rhyth­mic energy of the rock ‘n roll resounding across the oval.

The entire spectacle and the culture surrounding such a concert certainly needed the sort of space a race track provided.  There was clearly more to it all than just the tunes; the conception of music fostered by the Dead, or at least its adherents, was far bigger, more encompassing than simply a combination of melody, harmony, and rhythm. At least for the weekend, music appeared to be life. I have now returned, courtesy of the internet, to the Grateful Dead’s past and my ephemeral intersection with it. At www.dead.net I find the playlist of the Oxford, Maine show, with many comments exalting the event in its entirety as the greatest ever: “This was an amazing scene. Totally law­less yet peaceful.” “Great weather, great crowd, great scene, great shows. Definitely one of my peak Head experiences.”

One of the received truths of Grateful Dead criti­cism is that sometimes the band was inspired and other times played poorly.  My college friends could draw cassettes from his massive collection to make this point, and then further elucidate it with expert com­mentary.

At least around these parts of central New York, home to many a counterculture escapee from the urban centers of the Northeast in the 1960s, the 1977 Grate­ful Dead concert in Cornell University’s Barton Hall is held as one of the group’s ultimate concerts. The chair of the physics department happens to be a neighbor and was playing a CD (not a cassette) of that a couple months back when she gave me a lift in her Prius. She’d been an undergraduate at Cornell and been to the con­cert.

Jerry Garcia’s ashes have long ago been scattered over the Golden Gate and the Ganges in like part, and death itself has visited the group’s keyboardists on sev­eral occasions. But two of the founding members of the band, bassist Phil Lesh and guitarist Bob Weir brought their own group Furthur, formed way back in 2009, to Barton Hall this past Sunday, flushing Deadheads out of the wooded hills for leagues around Ithaca, and indeed from across the Empire State and country–all with much talk of the epochal 1977 show. Converted schoolbuses with chimneys sticking out the side win­dows and vintage VW campers appeared on Ithaca’s streets. The Holiday Inn was filled beyond capacity.

Barton Hall is an almost surreal building, and espe­cially so for a rock concert.  It was built in 1915 in the run-up to America’s entry into World War I as a drill hall for the Department of Military Science; it was an armory in World War II. Barton still serves as the home of the Cornell ROTC and is also the fieldhouse.  The structure has a looming heft and indulges in much spurious crenellation. It’s like a Gothic fortress pumped up on steroids,  a scary building that was apparently designed with the idea of imbuing recruits with a bit of the honor code of the medieval knight. The vast leaded-glass windows and soaring trusses of the interior inspire doubts that these architectural fea­tures can hold up the hulking stone of its walls: it is a huge castle with one vast room. The Grateful Dead scene in full force beneath all this war-like architecture must have been something to behold in 1977 in the aftermath of Vietnam with the local counterculture still in the vigor of youth.

On the evening of what was hailed as the “return” show the aura of the famous 1977 appearance fluttered down with the snow, a wintery setting that stood in stark contrast to that hot summer of 1988 in Maine. The loose-linen dresses, and bright colors, half-naked Dead devotees were this time bundled up in parkas, the wild hair stuffed under woolen hats, the flesh sealed from the elements.

As the long line filed into the castle keep dozens of people milled about with their index fingers in the air, not gauging the icy wind, but looking for a single ticket.  The 5,000 tickets had sold-out almost immedi­ately when they went on sale back in December.  The police, a strong presence outside the venue, estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 fans waited outside Bar­ton during the show.  Subsequent newspapers reports boasted of the “unusually large number” of drug and alcohol related arrests and with some bigger drug busts added to the nightly catch.

I did feel a bit guilty as I moved past these desper­ate Deadheads, but took small, if opportunistic com­fort in reasoning that such exclusion is also part of the “scene” – come rain or come shine there will always be those left outside.  Enough energy would certainly extrude through the thick stone walls of Barton to warm them.

Lesh is 70 years old, sprightly and seemingly full of optimism on stage and in his music.  Weir sports bushy mutton chops, looking like a Civil War general in shin-length trousers and Birkenstocks. Both can play and sing and seem to love it still. In the present incarna­tion, Furthur, they’ve assembled a younger generation of musicians for whom the Grateful Dead’s music was mother’s milk. Guitarist John Kadlecik was born in 1969 and initially made his mark in the Dark Star Orchestra, a Grateful Dead tribute band. My college friend tells me his guitar playing sounds (almost) just like Jerry Garcia, and he has fine, clear and penetrating voice. Jeff Chimenti on keyboards–among them a Steinway grand and a Hammond B-3–is also in his early forties, a downright baby by the present standard of revival bands and Super Bowl half-time shows, and cer­tainly seen as youthful by the large body of the audi­ence that have followed the Dead from their inception. Chimenti is a virtuoso of the kind of keyboarding ges­ture–thunderous octaves and karate chords–that can fill up college field house not just aurally (for the mas­sive speakers do that), but visually. It’s as much about sight as it is about sound.

Although the music is highly mediated by the elec­tronics there is nothing like being there.  When the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter song “Sugaree” filled Bar­ton with its hypnotic grind, and the pscyhedlic lights volleyed off ROTC banners through the wafting mari­juana clouds like battlefield smoke, one was glad to be inside and not out, in the present and in the past.

High quality digital video of the show was up on YouTube the next day: the economy of personal exchange that was such a part of Dead culture seems to have been supplanted by the unlimited access allowed on the internet.

The age of the cassette is behind us, though doubt­less many still use the old-fashioned technology, just as my boyhood neighbor’s grandmother clung to her gramophone. The 1977 Cornell concert can be down­loaded for free from the internet. Youtube allows many a look at the Dead and those concerts; even the park­ing lot of that Oxford show can be scanned for those stuck in the past.

I remember now that my college friend also had the first personal computer I think I’d ever seen, certainly the first Mac, the original 128K, which sold for upwards of $2,000 back in the mid 80s when it came out.  Now his own late-model Mac holds his volumi­nous Grateful Dead catalog in digital form in the Con­necticut suburbs. During the week he’s on Wall Street using computers to predict the ups-and-downs of the stock market.

(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu.)

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