I’ve never qualified as a Dead Head. Honestly, I liked a few of their songs, but otherwise didn’t pay much attention to them until their resurgence in the 1980’s. Then they toured with Dylan and that caught my attention.
In 1987 I had the opportunity to work security at a Grateful Dead show in Raleigh, North Carolina, at North Carolina State University’s stadium. I’m sure I was very intimidating in my security role. Of course, all I wanted was to see the show. For an all access pass all I had to do was wear a security shirt. I was also supposed to be paid $35, but the check never came.
Still, I got to see Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and the band, which at that point included temporary pianist, Bruce Hornsby, who also served as the opening act. I adored the music and turned into a fan, if not a complete Dead Head that day. I’m prone to bursts of idealism amidst my normal ebb and flow between disenchantment and outright cynicism and I felt as if I was enjoying the last wisp of the sixties.
As integral to the experience as the music was the “scene.” The scene at that time was a large encampment and bazaar. At times it was a bizarre bazaar. Every manner of tie dye items, bead work, leather work, visual arts and various illegal substances were readily available. Mostly people sold what they could in order to stay on the road with the band. Often they could not afford tickets and would call out or hold up a sign saying, “I Need a Miracle.” Often they would get one. I’ll admit I fell in love with the whole package.
It was the only time I would see Jerry Garcia. He died in 1995, leaving behind a group of band mates to carry on. In the subsequent years I’ve seen The Other Ones on their first tour after his death, taking my sometimes fearful daughter into the still-thriving scene in Atlanta. We saw Phil Lesh and Friends with Bob Dylan in Cincinatti. In 2012, thanks to my friend Andy who supplied me a miracle, I saw Bob Weir at the Bijou. He didn’t looks so good. By 2013 he entered rehab and Urban Daughter and I were lucky enough to see him again, along with My Morning Jacket, Wilco and Bob Dylan in Atlanta last summer. He was in great form.
In addition to performing as a solo artist and with other members of the Grateful Dead, he has performed with his own band, RatDog since 1995. They came to Knoxville last Friday night and I wondered what kind of “scene” survived. I walked around downtown and caught a few people there and about, but not any great concentration. I heard some of them talking about the Knoxville Police Department’s crackdown on the fans outside the last Widespread Panic concert and maybe that had a chilling effect. Maybe the scene is dying or is already in zombie status.
Scruffy City Hall hosted an event in conjunction with the show last Friday and I stopped by there. Inside I found great photographs of the Grateful Dead, many featuring Jerry. They also had photographs of other rock stars. A video of the band played on the massive ten-foot by twenty-foot screen over the stage. Poster art and one of the artists were on hand. All the posters in the show were designed by Richard Biffle and the photographs were by Robbi Cohn at Dead Images
Out on the street it was pretty easy to pick out some of the people in town for the show. I asked one couple if they were in town for the banker’s convention. I think they thought I was stupid. Maybe they’d heard that before. I found a few tables set up selling merchandise. I met a couple looking for the scene. They’d heard it was in the parking lot next to the Bijou. There was one table there and a few people gathered. I doubt much business was transacted.
I always wind up reflecting about the people I see. Are they happy? What does their future hold? Are they better off than those of us who adhere to a 9-5 world or is their life destined for misery? It’s a bit shocking to realize that some of the people now following the various iterations of the scene were not born or were very small children when Jerry died nineteen years ago.
The Haite-Ashbury hippy scene peaked forty-seven years ago. It was the center of some of these young people’s grandparents. How does a cultural phenomenon remain such a marker for three generations? What of the 2010 culture will be celebrated and imitated fifty years from now? It’s hard to imagine much of what we’ve got going on right now to be worthy of the effort, but maybe I can’t see it because I’m in it – or out of it.