August 7, 2019

Long Live the Grateful Dead

Classic City Deadheads

Photo Credit: Savannah Cole

Mayor Girtz, with Commissioner Melissa Link, addresses the crowd at AthFest 2019.

Editor’s note: In the summer series Classic City Deadheads, Athenians are celebrating their love of the Grateful Dead and reflecting on some of their favorite Dead (or Dead-inspired) recordings. Here to help us close out the column in style, this week’s head is none other than Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz.

Acid-rock purveyors on a 15-minute musical journey? Jug band? Heavy rhythm party players? Improvisational instrumentalists? The Grateful Dead had a million masks, and anyone who enjoyed them has a favorite. My own preference is the slow-burn style embodied by their takes on “Morning Dew” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Their performances of those numbers follow a seeming arc of questioning, curiosity or uncertainty that quickly opens into wonderment and exhilaration.

It was definitely with very wide eyes that I walked into the Hampton Coliseum in October 1989 to see the band for the first time. They were billed as Formerly the Warlocks, given the venue’s uncertainty about booking the band during the height of its reputation as a train for castaways, ne’er-do-wells and the drug-addled. To the degree that that was true—and that element was definitely a strain of the multi-layered thing that was the Dead—it would get even worse in the ’90s. 

However, the dangerous passengers on the Dead train were accompanied by plenty of other sets of fans: jazzbos, punk rockers—just read Henry Rollins’ appreciation of the band—those seeking a higher place of transcendence, the Wharf Rats in recovery from substance abuse who met during the set breaks at shows, and musical omnivores like myself. Before stepping into the coliseum concourse for that first show, I marveled at the blankets spread out on the asphalt parking lot covered with goods for sale: beads, parkas, PB&Js, burritos and more, all laid out for the gypsy caravan. It was old hat to the masses of longtime Deadheads, but smelled sweetly of freedom and faraway places to this kid from a naval seaside town. 

The music was entrancing at the start, as the band opened with the brand-new “Foolish Heart,” and when the sounds grew rote (“Drums > Space”), the hallways were at least full of dancing maidens to behold. Bitten by the bug of this musical drama, and especially fond of the more enduring songs—“Bertha,” “Ship of Fools,” “Box of Rain”—in the next few years, I saw two subsequent Dead shows in the same venue, along with two Jerry Garcia Band shows in Hampton and Richmond. Each one was different, all with accompaniment from local-boy-made-good Bruce Hornsby, and drawing from a songbook including the band’s own compositions, along with Motown, Dylan, The Band and even great recent numbers like Daniel Lanois’ “The Maker.” At every show, there were transcendent moments when the band members and audience were locked in a battle for who was more elevated.

There was certainly something a little sad about the onstage tent into which the Dead retired between sets, as if the scene would swallow them whole if they let it. That image of a band separated from all others is burned into my brain as a cautionary tale about fame or notoriety—if you can’t be comfortable engaging with people who arrive as regular human beings, it might be time to take a left turn and reinvent yourself. 

Sadly, that reinvention never happened for Jerry Garcia. I had barely arrived for a semester of study in Austin, TX, in the late summer of 1995 when I heard the news of his passing on the radio. It put me into a funk that was impossible to break that week.             

The latter-day variations of the Dead have cemented the band’s institution status, like Ringling Bros. or the Boston Pops. These iterations of the Dead feature a common repertoire that may shift from year to year but draws upon the foundation built in the band’s first three decades. If I find myself at one of these shows, I can close my eyes and still bask in the glow of the music’s very existence, like having a chance to hear the Mingus Big Band or watching some local kids burning through Replacements songs. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t the “real thing”—it is enough to be reminded that the world gave us the Grateful Dead in the first place.