Friday, July 3, 2015. Chicago.
I was the solo no show for a trio of Grateful Dead concerts marking the band’s golden anniversary. A holdout in a town hosting a tie-dye takeover. I bid my husband fare thee well on the first night as he joined the army of Grateful dads making their way to Soldier Field. I wasn’t being insolent. I meant no disrespect. The music that came so easily to so many ears had long eluded mine.
I was a late bloomer whose first exposure to the Grateful Dead was decidedly mainstream. I heard them on the radio when Touch of Grey hit the FM airwaves in 1987. It was catchy but so was Walk Like an Egyptian. Two years later, my college roommate’s copy of Skeletons from the Closet served as my Grateful Dead 101. In return, I schooled her in German punk high priestess, Nina Hagen, and the proper application of red lipstick. But I still stumbled, labeling the band’s colorful lineup of bears dancing on a dude’s backpack as a “fashion don’t” after mistaking them for the rainbow bright Care Bears crew. The closest to a live performance was a night of Ratdog where Bob Weir’s attempt at lounge classic, Play Misty for Me, was cut short with a heckler’s shout: “Go back to Vegas Bobby!” Damn, I knew that song.
Radio again intervened when we moved to Houston from New Orleans where the community radio content shifted from brass bands to singer-songwriter Americana, including a major dose of Grateful Dead. The playlists went beyond the standards of Casey Jones and Sugar Magnolia and dug deeper with songs featuring shout-outs to Shakespeare, Mary Shelley and the Chateau Marmont embedded in the lyrics. Not all the songs sounded like folky campfire jams either with ragtime-y Ramble on Rose and Shakedown Street’s disco beat bringing me into their musical fold. My husband quickly diagnosed me as a fan of first set songs, almost exclusively penned by Jerry Garcia and his songwriting partner, Robert Hunter. I had found my Grateful Dead groove.
However, my non-traditional conversion via recordings versus live shows meant I lacked the listening prowess to withstand the 3 + hour commitment of a typical Grateful Dead concert. In addition, my limited dance moves were more shake it than spin. Most worrisome was my impatience with the band’s signature improvisation – all that plucking and picking, riffing and ripping. Would I turn into that heckler demanding Bobby get back to the chorus? The preservation of my newfound appreciation for the Grateful Dead compelled me to stay away and not commit an act of musical heresy in front of thousands of Deadheads.
So I remain an outsider, enthusiastically unraveling each song’s layers of symbolism and imagining the cast of characters from Billy Sunday to sweet Anne Marie. Contemplating the parallels between Bowie’s Space Oddity, Elton John’s Rocket Man, and the Dead’s Standing on the Moon. Giving Althea’s advice to her man to my own man, “Ain’t nobody messing with you but you.” To thine own ears be true.