The Grateful Dead’s first album was a self-titled effort released through Warner Brothers in 1967. As blatant a snapshot of the Summer of Love as any album can be, it sounds pretty goofy these days and the band members generally didn’t have good things to say about it. Surprisingly, only two of the nine songs on the album were original compositions. Yet four of them remained in the band’s live repertoire for the next 28 years. But the opening track, The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion) served, like many lyrics from the band’s compositions, as phrases used by fans to describe a shared moment. In this case, the moment one got the music and self-crowned themselves a Deadhead. From That’s It For The Other One, a song released not long after their debut, the phrase ‘got on the bus’ meant the same thing. The depth of language that was created by fans about the experience of being a Deadhead is vast.
I got on the bus one night in early 1989. But prior to that, I was a dyed-in-the-wool new wave and punk kid. Growing up in the 80s, like many kids, the music video revolution broadened one’s tastes. I dug a bit of metal and prog to go along with my love of bands like Duran Duran and U2. Genre allegiances were breaking down in the 80s. I credit Boy George as the straw that broke the camel’s back. The pull of Do You Really Want To Hurt Me was irresistible I loved glossy over-produced new wave bands like Human League, OMD and Ultravox but as a kid from Toronto, I attended Rush appreciation classes at school like everyone else. I also loved Iron Maiden and Van Halen. There was no shame in liking it all and no one judged. However, bands like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles were for old people. Others like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were the bands of your friends’ mean older brothers who like to punch you for no reason and call you derogatory terms for homosexuals. Anything from the 70s and prior was highly suspect. It wasn’t OUR music.
This changed for me around 1986 when a couple of things occurred. The first is obvious, my discovery of weed. Apart from not being able to stop giggling, music sounded SO GOOD, MAN. The second thing was my first and only stint working at an overnight camp in Northern Ontario. Camp Southlake (I’m changing all names to protect those long-lost summer friends who are probably doctors and lawyers now) was called by some ‘the ashtray of summer camps’ and in my case, the collection of the ashes of doobies was piled high. I had a blast and I apologize to my campers whose safety may have been secondary to my good times. That summer, I heard three songs that pried open my rather sealed alt-rock mind – Van Morrison’s Crazy Love, Eric Clapton’s Let It Grow and Jackson Brown’s The Loadout. The latter was the last dance slow song that ended staff socials and signalled the possibility for forest makeouts. I admit that that summer I batted a solid .000 in this regard so instead, I went with Josh, a well-stocked co-counsellor into the brush to puff one instead. Among some of my fellow counsellors that summer was a pair of Deadheads who came to camp toting cases of cassettes. Ian brought a poster of Jerry Garcia to hang in his cabin (and barely lasted the first week before getting the boot for being caught drunk by the camp director). The other one, Marcus, an Ashkenaz Garcia lookalike became a good friend that summer. We laughed at his shirt with an illustration of Jerry that was just inaccurate enough to look like he was wearing a lot shirt with his own face depicted on it. He was cool enough to know this and laughed along. While I took the first step into ‘hippie’ music that summer, the Dead still hadn’t penetrated my tastes. I still hadn’t got it or was given it.
The following school year, my best friend Dave did get it, somehow. Here in the Toronto Jewish youth community, Deadheads numbered high. And there was one guy who was responsible for most of these conversions. Richie rattled around in a station wagon hitting big joints and blasting the Dead during most school days. I rarely saw him outside of the foyer and when a Dead tour was on, he was miles away from school selling tie-dyes and shaking his bones at shows. Richie and I were friends still, I wasn’t got. I don’t think I ever heard a show in his car that was more than a couple of years old. He seemed to like current 80s Dead but as I later realized after listening to every year of the band, my tastes were rooted in the 70s. Had he played this famous show, my realization may have come sooner.
One casual school night, Dave and I headed downtown from the suburbs to a stretch of Yonge St. where most illicit drugs could be procured by walking up and down a pair of blocks until someone approached to introductorily whisper ‘hash’ or ‘weed’. That night, we asked our attendant instead for some LSD and out of his pocket came two Pink Microdots.
I’ll stop here to shake my head at this reckless behaviour. Back then, the fear of buying a street drug and not getting what you planned for generally amounted to a foil packet of oregano. Once or twice in my brief period of consistent hallucinogen use, I bought blotter paper that was just paper, but I heedlessly never feared that I was going to ingest something toxic. Of the several conversations I’ve had with my kids about drugs, this is the greatest ‘just say no’ fact. Every day, some poor family loses a child who takes something they didn’t intend to and it’s heartbreaking. I know how lucky I am to have survived the misadventures of my wild youth generally unscathed but it’s a scarier world out there now for kids. I have a better sense than my parents did about what lurks out there around my kids and though I know I can’t be with them all the time, arming them through facts, honesty and openness is all I can do. So, take care out there, kids of all ages, more than I did. PSA DONE.
We raced back to Dave’s basement saying a quick goodnight to his dad, munched one tab each and waited. Dave put on a cassette of the Grateful Dead’s second set at Marin County Veterans Auditorium on April 1, 1984. Go ahead, hit the link and listen along with my take.
This show started with a lively Help On The Way and Phil Lesh’s dancing bass piqued my interest. The jazzy chords and solos were much different than the songs I was likely aware of and not interested in – Truckin’ and Fire on The Mountain. As the song segued chaotically into Slipknot, and Garcia and Weir were weaving this weird tapestry, I was wondering what the fuck was going on. No doubt, something was happening. Just as I was wrapping my head around climbing notes and weird keyboard chords, Franklin’s Tower appeared out of nowhere and offered a foothold. Franklin’s Tower was one of those poppier gateway songs that if you can accept Garcia’s voice, you’re gonna find something you like in this song. I have no doubt that many a Head used this song to get a significant other to ‘JUST LISTEN’. Maybe it worked, I dunno. But I was feeling the groove in this song and was starting to find a lot of fun in it. But almost 12 minutes later, I was waiting for whatever was next. I was probably ready 5 minutes into it. The beat for Samson and Delilah started and soon I heard a song I actually recognized from a drive in Richie’s car.
I never liked Samson and Delilah. Later as a show-attending Head, its performance was a time to get a drink or hit the can and wait for the next song. But one AMAZING thing about loving this grand catalogue of music is that at different times and places, songs offer new meaning and a different context. When I rediscovered the band recently, I found myself loving Samson and Delilah. With my brain tenderized and warmed up, I was now fully prepared to arrive at Terrapin Station for the very first time.
For those of you non-Deadheads still reading, first, congrats. You have a high pain threshold. What you need to know is that this song is rich Dead canon. I would bet there’s not a single fan of the band who doesn’t love this song. Actually, if you’re a Deadhead and you don’t love the song Terrapin Station, please get in touch with me so we can have a long conversation. When the first chords of this song were played in a live setting, a roar would rise and the crowd would prepare for launch. It’s impossible to pick the best song of the band, not only because they had 180-odd originals and hundreds more covers they made their own. Any pick would be subjective to the individual but a few handfuls of songs would never make any piss-break list. Terrapin Station was one of them.
Starting with that first line “Let my inspiration flow…” I was taken. Hell, my inspiration was flowing like a broken fire hydrant at that moment. This one isn’t a flawless version, much like the entire show or perhaps all of 1984. But in most cases, that first get becomes mythos in the mind. For those who have never heard this song, musically it’s a narrative study in contrasts but flows steadily and generally without much variation. It’s a song that always clocked in over 10 minutes due to its many structured parts but this particular version (or era of the song) has a block of a couple of minutes around the four and a half minute mark where Garcia takes a gentle solo as keyboards and rhythm guitar lay down textures. The song continues part after part to the coda with a repeated phrase that is pure honey. Not just in the sweetness of the music but with musical phrases that will stick in your brain for, oh, over 30 years. The song moves onward including some notes in this version that will always have a place in my memory. After the 11-minute mark (yes, astronauts, we’re into 11 minutes of a song) keyboardist Brent Mydland plays a descending melodic phrase that taught me something about music. It’s hard to state what that was in words but I probably copy something like that when I’m noodling on the guitar. The song dissolves into a constant feature of later Grateful Dead shows, an extended drum solo featuring the band’s two drummers. Yes, two of them.
Now, I’m not a drummer. Or better stated, I’m a terrible kit drummer. But like my dad, give me a song on the radio and a steering wheel and I’ll play the hell outta it. Is the drum solo in this show short? Hell, no. It goes on for almost 10 minutes. But there was always a beat and I grew to love the Drums portion. Then it slides into a full band freeform improvisation where often it sounded like the band couldn’t hear what each other were playing. Or maybe they devoted their energy to reform the musical hivemind they spent so long to tune in to. Perhaps it was a way to reboot the connection to end a show on high. Space was what you accepted from the band, to take or leave. And for those who were listening from another plane, well, it could be downright terrifying. Or at times, it was a perfect score for your journey. Every now and then, the band would perfectly jam out of Space into a song so effortlessly that it sounded composed as if threads of the song had been weaving since the first notes of Space. And perhaps that was intentional. This show contains just such a Space. There is a cohesion to this one that is rare and as it modulates and takes shape, yet another favourite song forms.
Back to that weeknight in 1989, an hour or so into my trip, as the wood-panelled walls shimmered and my pupils dilated to the size of dimes, Morning Dew played. This song was perhaps the best example of a cover song that the band not only rearranged to a vastly different structure but also rearranged over the course of the decades it was performed. I remember feeling the room shift as I heard it for the first time. I was totally captivated.
1984 was not a healthy year for Garcia. His drug-related decline was reportedly keeping him standing stock-still during most shows of this era and certainly, he struggled to find power for his voice. But while his hold on the key was never the reason you loved Jerry as a vocalist, he rarely lacked emotion in his singing. This version of the song was no different and undeniably, he was up for playing. The breakdown and build back up to the solo at the 4:50 mark of the song floored me as Garcia’s lyrical guitar runs sang stronger than his ravaged voice could. And then with a few notes, he pulled the song back down in volume to sing the verse again. Pads of Brent Mydland’s organ lay like a blanket under the entire song, rising to rage only as Garcia’s soloing became furious. As the song dropped to an almost inaudible volume, Garcia quietly plucked arpeggios as Bob Weir chugged on low strings of the chords and pulled off trailing single notes. The drummers rose the beat as Garcia let a harmonic note sustain and break up before another, somehow even more expressive solo begins at 9:50. The notes fly for the next 2 minutes as Weir whammies crying harmonics behind the solo and Brent’s Leslie speaker spins hard. The song crashes to a close.
I don’t want to rehash the weak stereotypical meme that you need drugs to enjoy or get the Grateful Dead. You certainly don’t and as a Canadian, most shows I saw required a border crossing. This meant I saw quite a few (unwillingly) sober, so I can attest that the power of a Grateful Dead concert to the initiated doesn’t change much without drugs. More than a psychedelic experience being necessary to find a way to the music, the more important variables for a personal connection are the song(s) and the era of the band. In fact, I would flip that weak statement to say that an effect of a drug is enhanced by the music. And certainly, there is no necessity for impairment to listen to the Grateful Dead as much as any other band. What can be said is that combining an altered state with music that can transmute and shift makes for an experience that neither can produce individually. But there’s no requirement – that’s only a line that haters cling to.
Closing this back in 1989, the next morning, everything musical in my life had changed, both as a listener and a musician. I had found a new course and lucky for me, there were already a thousand or so shows and over 20 years to explore. I found new music to break down and study. Without realizing it, I had opened a door to genres I hadn’t yet heard, from jazz to bluegrass to classical to country. Those songs, that night, the Golden Road appeared before me and the bus came by. And I got on. I’ve never entirely got off, now 34 years later.