Ready to Die: Three Days of Drugs and Disintegration with The Grateful Dead
Over the Fourth of July, America's quintessential band said farewell. We spent those days embedded with Deadheads, exploring our dreams and doing acid. This is what happened.
Day One: Now You Have the Universal Experience?
"Maybe this needed to die," I think to myself, as a 20-year old urchin with glass bead earlobes frantically removes his tie-dye shirt. In front of a dangerously crowded train car audience, he reveals badges of purity to a wowed brunette with a pierced septum.
A bright yellow sunflower tattoo swallows his belly button, but that's not what he's boasting. As the psychedelic fabric slips over his thick dreadlocks, he reveals the genuine articles of faith: the Grateful Dead skull and lightning bolt inked on one breastplate. On the other, Jerry Garcia shredding a liquid guitar solo, mesmerizing a medieval water serpent. Maybe it's a metaphor. Maybe it's merely the world's worst example of stunting. Maybe we should slow down a second.
We're clacking and lurching on a Red Line car to the Roosevelt stop. This is the exit for Chicago's Soldier Field, site of "Fare Thee Well," the last three shows for the band formerly known as The Grateful Dead. Ask me why I'm here and I can only give you elliptical answers.
On most Sundays, the Grateful Dead are my favorite rock band of all-time, but this seems destined for pure farce—a Necrophiliac spectacle where the hallucinogenic ashes of Saint Jerry spike the Fourth of July fireworks. During intermission, the field will split open and he'll ascend in a floating mausoleum, wax mannequin covered in tie-die, exhumation costs covered by the largesse of Ben and Jerry. A Jerry hologram was planned, but couldn't be properly brought to fake life in real time. The Jerry impersonator from Half Baked was waylaid with prior Independence Day plans. One of these is true.
My friend on the train car turns to me and loudly wonders, "Why do these people think this is cool? Jerry Garcia is dead!" The mob would point to the shirtless Trustafarian torso and say that Jerry still lives in "our hearts." A noble concept, but Ticketmaster doesn't accept love as currency.
Somehow, four old guys, Bruce Hornsby, and Trey from Phish sold 65 percent more tickets per show than Taylor Swift—more than every summer festival except Coachella. And there may be more floral garlands here. The Golden Road to Devotion now costs a couple mortgage payments. No free press passes either. Entrance meant that you won the lottery, sold spare appendages on the black market, or finessed the Patchouli circuit plug. Maybe you're one of the hundreds outside with a cardboard sign that reads: "Hoping for a Miracle."
* * *
When Garcia's heart stopped in '95, I was too young to see them in concert. Not like I would've cared. The obituary of the chubby skeleton from the "Touch of Grey" video meant nothing. How was he going to compete with the stab-you-in-your-nose-bone ominousness of Mobb Deep or the cocaine ice cream of Chef Raekwon? That was the "Summertime in the LBC" summer. We rocked Tommy Hill and Polo with size 38 waists to conceal the glocks we didn't own. If you were 13 in LA, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's "Crossroads" video was the only bittersweet eulogy you needed. Eazy E riding a stairway to heaven. We all missed Wishbone's Uncle Charles, y'all…
If gangsta rap didn't catch you, you had a grunge phase. Or both. For a semester in 7th grade, I sported Airwalks, flannel, and briefly fucked around on a Girl skateboard that I could barely ride. It was the early 90s and no one needed the 60s. I didn't know a single person into the Grateful Dead. It was a Northern California, Colorado, and Northeastern cult—give or take the occasional Midwest narcotics depot or college town.
Classic radio mostly ignored them. The band's skull logo was more recognizable than their sound. When I first heard "Scarlet Begonias," I thought it was a Sublime original. The Dead were for old people. Old people died, especially ones who shot heroin.
Within a few years, Phish consolidated their reign as pipers of the candy flipping and hippie twirling hordes. It's unclear whether they're the best of the worst or the worst of the best, but Shakedown Street always needs an address. Even though they eventually won a fan base big enough to play The Hollywood Bowl, the jam band phenomenon never really took root in Southern California. Our natural reserves of absurdity are inexhaustible. Escapism doesn't need to be imported. No quasi-enchanted forests where you have to "jibboo." No lakes for summer camp String Cheese Incident indoctrination. I knew a few people who listened to "Dave." I loathed a few people who listened to "Dave."
There are always exceptions. First time I ever got high was with a friend, Ben, whose older brother was away at the University of Vermont. Before JV baseball practice, we blazed out of a converted liter bottle of 7-Up, listening to his sibling's double CD of A Live One. Eating Chinese food delivery of chicken and broccoli, I received the edict that Phish were "fucking dope when you're faded."
I liked "Bouncing Round the Room," but couldn't care about the rest (the Phish equivalent of being "basic.") The next year, Ben's brother stopped breathing. Young people died, especially ones who shot heroin. My friend was never the same and endured his own substance abuse. He eventually sobered up, attended a third tier law school, and currently works in the Gulf Coast Vitamin supplement industry.
The rest of the story starts a dozen years ago. I'd just graduated college and weathered one of those heartbreaks that shakes you down to lint. For the first time in my life, rap didn't feel capable of capturing all the emotions I felt (this was before Future.) You can cope with depression in dozens of ways, but they all need a soundtrack. I discovered Elliott Smith, finally understood Bob Dylan, and took enough gravity bong rips to Love's Forever Changes to understand Newton.
One record acquired that lost sad summer was American Beauty. I can sit here and pretend that it offered some supernatural combination of serotonin and melancholy, or triggered some shaky enlightenment, but that's a lie. Sometimes love is immediate and sometimes it's earned. It was just another exquisite dispatch from some distant avalanche of past. No meaning beyond beautiful songs and temporary psychic ballast.
I met Alwen right after. She was named after a Lord of the Rings character, the books that her parents bonded over during their courtship. Her dad was a Mormon Missionary in Guatemala; her mom an indigenous Quiche of Mayan descent. They fell in love, got married, had Alwen, and moved to Utah, where her dark skin made her anathema to her groom's family.
Things disintegrated until her mother returned to Guatemala without her husband. In the middle of a 36-year civil war, violence and crime wracked the country. Her mother became another victim, gang-raped and impregnated by a group of guerillas. In that very Catholic country, they bar abortion unless the mother's life is threatened. She carried the baby to term, but both died during childbirth.
Alwen moved back with her dad to Provo, Utah, a small city 40 miles south of Salt Lake, home to Brigham Young University, The Osmond's, and those who culturally identify with the Osmonds. Coping strategies included taping late night Sunday radio broadcasts of old Grateful Dead live shows.
I have no clue why a terrestrial station in the most Mormon place on earth broadcast rare sets from some of the most infamous acidheads of the last half-century. The audience must never have exceeded Alwen, a handful of disaffected teenagers waiting to escape, and maybe a stray art professor at BYU who couldn't land a tenure track position anywhere else. But that radio station is ultimately why I booked a flight to Chicago—a dozen years later—to watch the Dead die.
Alwen was, of course, the real agent of transformation. After leaving Utah, she moved to the San Gabriel Valley to attend community college, work in a coffee shop, and live with her nearly 100-year old great-grandmother. We dated for two months—a memorable but evanescent affair that left no real scars. She was getting out of a relationship. I was getting out of a relationship. I wanted it to be much more than it was or should be. She sensed that and slowly distanced herself until we were strangers again.
Before the romance expired, Alwen heard me playing American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, and shared the smuggled contraband: a green devotional cassette for Latter Day Saints children that she'd dubbed over in favor of St. Stephen. Lodged in my car's tape player, it never left, eventually becoming my own holy writ, or personal Dead Sea scroll.
I've never traced the original provenance of the recording. The Provo radio DJs don't reveal the source to the audience, and it sounds like nothing I've heard before or since. My guess is that it's a solo Jerry show from 1972, but doing the math would eliminate the magic.
These are tattered spells, largely acoustic, faded and bleary, covers of Dylan and originals creaking with hiss and static. Snatches of off-stage dialogue are muffled and drugged. The veins are open and bleeding. The antidotes are temporary, the exhaustion permanent. Jerry sings with a ragged and desperate moan. It's hopelessly distant and uncomfortably close. It's every complicated emotion I've ever felt but couldn't properly articulate.
Later on, another girl and I fell in mostly platonic love. Sara insisted that I play the cassette whenever I took her to the airport. The Dead bound us together, but we never really possessed the words to appropriately explain our scrambled feelings. We wrote love letters in code. We silently understood that the connection was far too deep for a fling, but the timing was always wrong for a relationship. So the music shouldered the weight, stifling the need for awkward metaphors and soothing lies. When she moved away, it reminded us of what we missed. It absolved us from the uncertainty of having to say, "I love you."
A single cassette tape unspooled into mild obsession. The Grateful Dead section of my iTunes is indistinguishable from the Spotify sprawl. I bought all the wax, Dick's Picks CDs, and saw a bunch of live permutations: The Dead (2009 incarnation), Furthur, Ratdog, even the cover band, The Dark Star Orchestra, whose fake Jerry was so good that they recruited him to imitate the real Jerry alongside Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. I've seen Phish enough times to consider myself the band's only casual fan. I probably don't need to go again.
But as much as I enjoyed these approximations and descendants, none it felt really real. And I understand that realness is purely subjective, instinct and vague intuition lumped into a shadowy idea. But still, I continue to search for something that I suspect doesn't exist, at least not any more. I'm here for the world's most joyous wake. I'm here because I felt like I had to be. Sometimes, that's enough.
* * *
Tribal cheers explode every 16 seconds. The security force glares at the Deadheads like they just escaped from Jurassic slumber at the Field Museum. A tie die tsunami sweeps through a concrete tunnel to Soldier Field.
"I'll give you two bucks for a beer," a bearded grubbie asks my friend.
He holds a sign reading, "DEAR JERRY, YOU KNOW OUR LOVE WILL NOT FADE AWAY. SIGNED, US."
"I'll give you two beers for one ticket," my friend responds.
No deal. My friend melts into the parking lot to deliver the beers to his friends. Most couldn't afford tickets. They're here to sell molly or score acid or drink in the parking lot and gawk.
A hemp purse overturned and dumped out Boulder, Burlington, and the Bay Area. The West Coasters cultivate the Humboldt burnout aesthetic. The East Coasters are mostly backward-capped bros. Roughly a quarter the audience is less than 25. As for the graying veterans, they're just happy to survive: some limping, some holding up cardboard prayers reading "Will Wear Bobby Shorts for a Ticket," some in wheelchairs, dreadlocked, wearing hamburger hats on their heads.
"It's been a while since I've seen a town taken over by Dead Heads, and that's a wonderful thing," say the hosts from the Sirius XM Grateful Dead channel, broadcasting live from Gehenna.
But this isn't a take over; this is full-fledged invasion. Can you imagine Tinder at a Grateful Dead show? "We'll tell everyone that we met while on acid during "Drums/Space?" "Future Sherpa, ex-trimmer. I love "American Weed," free-trade falafel, and a beard that I can use for smuggling and snuggling. Must be taller than Bill Walton so I can wear heels." "Looking for the Donna to my Keith." "Must Love Dreads."
I never fully understood why grunge separatists and punk rock zealots loathed the Dead until now. This parking lot shudders with every crusty artifact of Aquarian cliché; the tombs of the 60s scraped and deposited in the city of wind, burnt out and loaded, human resin. What must've once felt unalloyed and underground seems like a final cash grab to appease these apostles, desperate for one more Saturday night.
Catch me in my glazed trance dreams ingesting 100 mg of orange sunshine acid and eyeing them at the Fillmore in '72, right before Pig Pen vaulted to that great slaughterhouse. Catch me in concrete reality, penned up and herded inside Soldier Field, alongside more people than soldiers that died in the Korean War and Vietnam. I suddenly want to sell my weekend pass for one thousand dollars and spend it on a plane ticket to Greece, which seems comparatively stable. But it's too late, the wave is crashing, the colors are running, and I'm washed inside.
* * *
Phil Lesh sings about a box of rain, the sky is ballerina pink, and I am completely wrong. I am wrong to underestimate the power of their arsenal, a telluric current that can't cataract from rightful skepticism or absurd costume. I share little in common with nearly everyone in this stadium, but we all agree on at least one indispensable condition. When these songs start, we are overmatched by the psychedelic liturgies. The drugs aren't essential, but they help.
"Look out of any window, any morning, any evening, any day…Walk out of any doorway…feel your way like the day before…This is all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago….It's just a box of rain or a ribbon for your hair, such a long time to be gone and a short time to be there."
Lesh sings these words, purposefully universal and open to interpretation at any crossroads. Read as plain verse, you can dismiss them as fortune cookie aphorisms. Buoyed by the melody, abraded by the years, they sound like half-remembered hymns, pencil-drawn eulogy or rough outline of Groundhog's Day.
Half the pit starts hugging. It feels corny to write that down and it felt corny at the time, but it was the rare spontaneous exhale of joy on an insincere earth. There's a sacral quality to the live incantation of "Box of Rain." Written while Lesh's father suffered from terminal sickness, it's a collective tribal Kaddish still devastating almost a half-century later. The band's name was both accident and intentional: no one ever made death more comforting.
It's why it was so absurd to suggest that people could Periscope this or that the Live Stream could somehow substitute the experience. It's the difference between porn versus real sex or watching the Food Channel in lieu of lunch. Technology can eliminate jobs, numb us to violence and inflame our most pagan instincts, but it can't distill the energy of 70 thousand addled penitents, shouting and sobbing.
"Dood, these beers are $11.50," a Kevin marvels in an orange-yellow Ron Jon surf backpack and Blackhawks hat.
"What the fuck, man. Shit's not tight," his bro comrade, Trevor, consoles.
They open their wallets. A buck short between the pair. So I offer the difference and as soon as I give them the dollar, these two bros from the northern burbs of Chicago would've assassinated the president for me. Even before he started complaining about the 11 dollar Miller Lites, the name "Kevin" had popped into my head. After all, one out of every three bro's aged 23 to 33 is named Kevin or Trevor. The rest are all named Brandon.
Kevin is a part-time ticket broker, part-time weed dealer, and part-time hockey coach. Trevor is a part-time ticket broker too, who scoured the Phantasy Tour Phish message board late last night, and reeled floor seats released at the last hour. He's more of a Phish fan. Kevin is more Deadhead. A divided union, but both can agree on cargo shorts.
It's not a bad idea to occasionally make a bro friend or two. Kevin and Trevor are eminently chill and possessed with bro sixth sense: how to cut the bathroom line, which beer queue is the shortest, where the security guards are when you're about to light up a spliff. So we burn two and high five because everyone all around us is high fiving, and it's infectious and ridiculous and wonderful. The cult became a religion a long time ago, but the holidays are increasingly infrequent. It's Fourth of July Weekend, the ditch has been dug, so you might as well sacrifice your lungs to the gods.
I meet a funeral director from Durango. I watch another woman in her late 30s—wavy hair, floral dress, paisley purse—close her eyes and take a deep inhale of some roses. Meanwhile, the band jumps into "Jack Straw" and Trey hits a guitar solo. Jaw agape, eyes like Frisbees, as though he's watching Jerry Garcia and Walter Payton do the Super Bowl Shuffle. The role he was born to play.
The stadium roars the verse and chorus in unison. Few rock bands alive can cause the Richter scale to spike like this. There's the boozy leather darkness of the Rolling Stones, the sanctimonious catharsis of U2, the heartland decay of Springsteen. Maybe Metallica could do it. But the Dead—even in attenuated roll call—can make 70 thousand ecstatic without being sappy, maudlin, or inciting violence.
"Bertha" carouses next, a little slower and more delicate than the rainstorm stomp of the original tapes. The band are focused but still loose, shaggy and barstool-swinging bluesy. If this isn't Skull and Bones vintage, it's fine. Functionality trumps form. To prove the point, a 52-year old Ken with grey sideburns, salmon Polo and a camp visor, does an air guitar glide across the floor. He inadvertently blocks a wrecked bro in a White Sox cap pissing into a beer cup—then neatly pouring the urine between a crack separating the steel plates protecting the field—a party favor for Jay Cutler.
* * *
Nearly 40 years ago, the Dead first burned "Scarlet Begonias" into "Fire on the Mountain." It's an accidental invention up there with the microwave and acid itself. They may not be the most iconic anthems, but it's certainly their most famous suite. It starts in the spring of '77, eventually reaching an apotheosis on May 8, 1977—when they played Barton Hall at Cornell University.
In Dead lore, this is the high water mark before the hard drugs fully sink their talons, before morning in America crowned the Capitalist Moloch that ultimately swallowed Soldier Field. So we can squander thousands on a souvenir cup concert.
Dead in Cornell has been bootlegged into oblivion, but few Deadheads would openly admit it as their favorite. It's like picking chocolate or vanilla as your ice cream go-to or Biggie as the GOAT: an inarguable but safe choice. Still, accepted wisdom holds '77 as the band's finest vintage. Jerry's guitar playing achieved cascading rainbow liquidity usually only achievable by computer screensaver. The notes split open and immolate, re-forming and floating effortlessly in frozen time, wobbling whatever way they want.
His playing isn't the mad prophet-in-the-wilderness attack of the late 60s, but the dark-lit jazz slink of a virtuoso. Keith Godchaux's piano adds a patina of rhythmic complexity. His wife, Donna's backing vocals offer an extra engine for flight. The drumming is crisp. The harmonies are celestial, and there's even a little disco for added funk and cocaine shimmer.
Listening to the live recordings preserved on Archive.Org, you feel as though it all rose to that 5.8.77 pinnacle of "Fire on the Mountain." Afterwards, gravity sucked everything down. Clocking in at 24 minutes and 58 seconds, that version remains so indelible that everyone waited for that utopian "Scarfire." And when early in the second set, something comes close enough…. pandemonium.
Trey handles the lead on "Scarlet." Bruce Hornsby bellows "Fire On the Mountain." The lingering sense that we're watching karaoke is overshadowed by the realization that we're performing it. I've never felt more alone than in massive stadium shows, alienated by the gross outpourings of sentiment and agitation. People get so spellbound and pliable that the mic controller could trigger mass tar and feathering at the snap of his fingers. It's the only time I understand messianic fascism.
But this is the first coliseum show to minimize my fears. I write down the note that I'm in a cosmic portal. Here it is…transcendence has arrived—and then I get hit in the head with a glow stick.
For every flash of pure brilliance, there is the peat bog. After "Fire on the Mountain" ends, we enter the oxygen-free void of "Drums/Space." A Dead tradition that's inspired a thousand bad drum circles and tribal tattoos, an invitation to break for the bathroom or beer or yage tea.
It may be 20 minutes or two hours, but they finally snap out of the jam, which descends into pseudo trip-hop late 90s lounge mysticism. The return brings "Playing in the Band," which is upbeat and pleasant, and Bob sings with all the force his mustache can muster. During the leisure-suit triptych of "Help on the Way," "Slipknot," and "Franklin's Tower," Trey uncorks a remarkable solo. The moon rises to a shade of dusted tangerine, and it's all what it needed to be. Nothing more.
As momentum crests, Phil Lesh, grandfatherly, frail, and lovable, interrupts the set and addresses the crowd. He tells us the story of a kid named Cody, who donated his liver a decade and a half ago, a generous investiture that allowed Lesh to still breathe and slap the bass. Lesh has made this pitch at every single concert he's played since it happened. And every single time, he begs the crowd to chant, "If anything ever happens to me, I want to be an organ donor."
So 70 thousand people respond, "If anything ever happens to me, I want to be an organ donor."
I am struck by a morbid suffocating terror. Visions of car accidents splitting my body into pieces, requiring the Jaws of Life to remove me from the shrapnel—my organs harvested and implanted into the elderly. The idea of leaving nothing behind other than buried words and a mass of tissue cells to keep a stranger ticking. There is so much I will never get to write, so many places left unseen, so many I love left behind. Why did I pay all my parking tickets? Why did I waste my time going to the gym?
A flour-skinned dreadlock slurs to me, "Whoa, that was beautiful. I dunno what it is, but that struck a chord with me."
But I can't find beauty in abject fear. I don't want to die, but will and Phil Lesh is reminding me that I'm going to become a corpse and I should cough up my spleen if I can. But it cost three spleens to go to this concert and suddenly, I want to go home and contemplate eternity, the abyss, and do all the drugs. But I'm old enough to know that's not the answer, so I just wait. I look around and everyone is back to rapt attention, but I'm still seeing the reflection of my ghost.
They run through "Ripple" as an encore, but I'm somewhere else entirely. I hurtle down the stairs in an attempt to beat the teeming crowd, but it's too late. People are everywhere, pores dripping with tie-die and rotgut beer, stale smoke and dried urine. An exit strategy that could only be planned by those whose synapses had been torched a thousand too many times. The herd inches slowly, noses into the napes of necks, concentration camp formation, cattle in a pen with only the possibility of escape.
A 58-year-old woman wearing a retina-searing blob turns to her teenaged son and says: "Now you've had the universal experience, Chris." Another refugee tells his friend, "If I'm dead by Sunday, just bury me here." Yes, let the urban coyotes eat your carcass and charge 14 dollars and call it organic steak.
Zombies inhale whippet after whippet of nitrous. Popping up after every balloon with deserted carrion eyes and bombed out brain cells. People slide under bars and scale hills trying to get out a few seconds faster. A 65-year-old is assed out in the bushes, alone and in dire need of medical attention. He looks homeless until you notice he's still clutching his iPhone 6-plus. A Hieronymus Bosch canvas splattered in tie-die.
A tattooed blonde pixie in her late 20s turns to me and brags about how she smuggled in three bottles of vodka.
"I still got one left," she says, and takes an enormous slug from the bottle. She doesn't offer me any. I ask if she enjoyed the show.
"Fucking awesome, man!"
She asks me, and I tell her that I liked it a lot, but I could've done without the 30-minute drums space interlude.
"It killed the momentum…sorta…I dunno," I shrug.
She looks at me like a war criminal.
"You need to be stop being so critical, bro. You saw the Grateful fucking Dead!"
Day Two: Taking Acid Alone
I smuggle the acid inside a Gary Snyder anthology. Airplane security can't scan every page of a portable library, and any short-lived alliance with ancient forces helps. The last time I came home from Chicago, the psychedelics stashed themselves inside an Aldous Huxley book. They call the shots, pick the page, assign the author.
These two tabs came at high recommendation, acquired from a stranger on the balcony of a party at New Year's Eve. He seemed trustworthy, so I pocketed them for the right moment, risking commercial incident in case homeland security got too savvy. Judging from the hieroglyphics and Greek letters inscribed on each fleck of doused paper, I could wind up enlightened or wind up like a conscious rap casualty bleeding from my third eye.
I don't even want to do this. After waking up multiple times in the night, riddled by a nascent cold and gnawing numbness, I briefly consider leaving the tabs at home, but I'm a professional. This is the Fourth of July, the 50th Anniversary of the band that soundtracked the acid tests, and why not add fireworks to fireworks. Besides, VICE paid for these tickets and I feel some sort of journalistic courtesy.
So I let the paper dissolve under my tongue and slowly float down Shakedown Street. The song said that this used to be the heart of town, a traveling drug bazaar, Samsara for the stoned, a Mobius strip where even infants could score high-octane Owsley LSD.
But the carnival has contracted. Chemicals have gotten more complicated and lethal. Tolerance has lessened for allowing an open-air black market in the Soldier Field parking lot. Yet here we are, 5:22 PM on the last Saturday night, spinning the wheel, buying the chillum, petting the dogs and babies in Terrapin Station t-shirts, eating the BBQ, idling by semi-sane casualties costumed as Uncle Sam, walking past policemen gliding on Segways, flashing meat hook squints and slate eyes.
I buy a lighter from a dreaded woman with a gentle voice who asks if I want any "Shud, ganja, or wax." I pat my pockets, smile, and amble off past a man with feathers on his wheelchair, motoring through the crowd as his friend cries out, "Watch Out! Let him pass! You don't want bloody shins."
No blood spilled, but skeletons and bears are everywhere. Buttons, flags, shirts, posters, bumper stickers emblazoned with the trademark insignias—the original embodiment of "brands will make you dance." Wu Tang before Wu Tang. But the Clan could never keep it together for this long. Despite occasional strife, the greater Dead diaspora staunchly fought the corrosion. A molten reckless comet threatening to hurtle into the soil, but somehow afloat via the power of crystal skulls and guitar solos.
Everyone is in on the act. Young black dudes who look more Gangsta Disciple than Grateful Dead wear skeleton shirts, whispering pleas to buy coke and mushrooms. With bulging belly, a woman holds up a cardboard sign reading, "Baby in the oven wants to hear Dead play live." December 2 is the due date, I overhear. In 16 years, they'll tell their kid that he heard the last gasp in utero. Maybe he'll consider it when he smokes loud for the first time. Or maybe they won't land a ticket.
Short beardos, fat beardos, tall beardos, decrepit old beardos, baby-faced aspiring beardos. 17 types of Bro hand shakes. Lavender tinctures for sale and five dollar vegetarian struggle burritos hastily cooked and wrapped in the baked asphalt wards of Soldier Field. Sad old lonely men hawk "Jerry is My Co-Pilot" stickers, Beavis & Butthead Dead shirts, Dead vinyl slipmats, and used Phil Lesh autobiographies. Fair condition.
Ganja caramels are furtively passed. Reeking cobweb clouds of chronic and cigar smoke blend with the dank rot of garbage and backwash-filled beer bottles. A wastrel glued to his lounge chair rocks a "Mountain Dew" shirt—except it actually says "Morning Dew," a song that he plays on loop from a boombox. My hair stretches past my shoulders, I'm unshaven for a month, and yet I've never felt more clean-cut.
"LAST NIGHT WAS WAY BETTAH THAN SAN FRAHN. ONE OF DA BEST SHOWS I EVAH SAW," brays a tank topped-mook with a Fenway accent and beak face.
Shambling Egon Spenglers carry "Grateful Dead Theology Project" notebooks, approaching ad men in jester hats. Opiated Broman legions idle, bloated with beer, removing cans one by one from their coolers. The coolers look like caskets and they're wide open.
I'm approached by gentle mendicants hopping out of double decker buses clutching copies of the magazines that they made with their "communal family" in San Diego. He tells me that they worship "The Messiah…or Jesus, as some people call him…He's a man who started something radical and lived communally until the evil powers subverted it and took it for their own use….But this re-emergence of this manifestation of the heavenly commonwealth dates back to the year, 1974. "
One of his friends asks if I have gotten on the bus yet. He says, "you must, you must." I look for the aforementioned bus in the Adler Parking Lot, but can't find it and don't get saved. Story of my life.
A plane flies a banner reading, "Chicago, we're grateful." A soused heathen walks past me in a shirt that says, "Don't Give Bobby Bronco acid." When someone asks who Bobby Bronco is, he chortles and replies, "the guy you don't to give acid to." A woman bovinely waves a "Be Kind, Jerry's Watching" sign. The first iridian flushes rush through my head, but the chemicals have yet to fully kick. Is Jerry is watching? No, he's not. But I still double check the sky to vainly detect his corpulent outline in the clouds.
A DirectTV blimp levitates, touting "Sammy Hagar's Rock and Roll Tours." An errant firework decapitates the blimp and turns it into a rock and roll auto-da-fe before the horrified but intrigued crowd. Maybe I'm feeling something.
With rip tide pull, the crowd yanks me towards the entrance, past a desiccated old-timer forlornly offering, "I Miss Jerry" stickers. An overheard voice says, "If someone in Phish dies, I hope they never play as Phish again." As I approach the concrete stadium façade, a 44-year-old bearded tie die tells me, "all those fingers that people are holding up? In Santa Clara, those were tickets."
We talk briefly. He didn't get into "cool music" until '95, when he was a senior in college. Prefers Panic to Phish. The Dead above all. "But you have to admit, Trey is a God."
Before I enter, a psychedelic Uncle Sam to the left of me smuggles a Strawberita in his socks.
* * *
Bill Walton waves from the stage at us. He's galumphing in a skull and bones shirt, posing for photos with an E-Z Bake smile. No tie-die, as if to preserve a shred of self-respect. Or maybe he just wore that shirt yesterday. A dark golem next to me severs my concentration by creeping on everyone with a "Hugs for Free" sign. Therein lies the paradox: one minute, you're gawking at one of the deftest passing big men in NBA history, the next you're trying to avoid a touchy-feely angel of death.
I eavesdrop on a denim pantsuit (54th show) speaking with a man with flecks of grey in his four-day stubble (62nd show). His name is Jeff. She tells him that she also has a Deadhead friend named Jeff. Not me, I hope. All around, conversations loop about "energy," "vibes," and "waves." I'm going to reconsider all the life decisions that led me to this moment during "Space/Drums."
For now, "Shakedown Street," ignites the last day of disco. You're supposed to ease into it, but only 48 hours left before the coke wears off and the soul train grinds to a halt. Phil is gaunt but still giddy, a kindly seer-coach with a thick shag of hair, Sesame Street goofy, doing floppy bowlegged rooster dances. Mickey Hart wears dark shades looking pure aged hipster. Weir is all gruff scowls and business. Bruce Hornsby crushes white line grooves with psychedelic piano vamps. A banner flies above us: all the years combine, they melt in a dream.
So here I stand, several months from my 34th year, nearly half of life elapsed, trying to remember every vanished Fourth of July, acid asphyxiating the oxygen in my brain, memories unable to adhere, wearing flannel in the heat. My chin tilts up, hypnotized by a sky tinted with ectoplasmic white light, considering the salutary benefits of freedom, disco, and survival. The band bumps "Liberty." No subtlety allowed on Independence Day.
The dancers codify themselves. There's the "Frat Boy Boat Float," the "Nevada City Whirling Dervish," "The Fairy Princess Flutter," the "Fat Man Belly Flop," the "Runaway Nymph," and the "Little Red Rooster" (recommended for blues aficionados)." The Dead offer the ability to disregard the beat. You can sync with any drum gong, bass riff, piano slither, or guitar flight—or none of the above. The drugs start saber rattling during "Me and My Uncle." In my brain, air balloons ascend and familiar spirits rifle through the cabinets, the colors mutate and contort, liquefying with their own rhythm and cadence. The acid was essential because this is a last chance to connect the eternal chords to the chaos of the present. My cold nags, but I'm trying to ignore it. This is my personal Michael Jordan flu game. I don't need to drop 38, but I'm going to throw up jumpers and elbows until the last whistle.
How did this happen? How did something as ostensibly trivial as a rock and roll band neurologically re-route hundreds of thousands of lives? Was it the music? The culture? The drugs? The Jerry? The obvious answer is all four. Respect due to anyone who can achieve the same feverish rush by organic means, but I've always required illicit fuel and other welcome distortions. I once asked Ray Manzarek of The Doors, "The 60s happened because of acid, right?" "Oh yes." He repeated it several times. "Without a doubt." A completely biased observer, but I'll accept it as confirmation.
Without acid, the Dead might wind up an obscure Palo Alto bluegrass jug band. Kesey never writes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Tom Wolfe never shambles after the bus in the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. The tie die is never cast for these parishioners.
Instead, Weir morphs into a peyote shaman lingering on the periphery of a New Mexico Indian reservation. He sings about West Texas, the historic drug and oil wasteland, not far across the border from Juarez. The last time I drove through that lost elbow, I got stopped at a checkpoint off Interstate 10 by DEA officials and a drug-sniffing dog, who found less than a gram of weed within 14 seconds.
It had been buried at the bottom of a laundry bag in the trunk. No matter. The human pork rinds removed me from the car, interrogated me about every facet of existence, and threatened me with 56 nights in a federal penitentiary. Finally, they let me go, smirking and laughing as I threw away the weed in a metal cylinder. It might as well have been a Dead song. At the time of the almost arrest, I'd been listening to "Me and My Uncle" and "El Paso." That's what you do when you're driving through tumbleweed country. Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Mexico, and California shroud Dead songs, a character of their own, territories with endless imagined unbroken road, the frontier chartered by those on the permanent fringe.
"I'm as honest as a gambling man can be." Weir sings a line originally written by John Phillips in a black out Tequila fugue state, but it could easily be an original. The Dead recruit every cheater, gambler, and degenerate into their rogue cosmos. Threnodies obsessed with dubious religion, drugs, and dissolution. Songs for the flawed and immoral—American ballads. Happy birthday.
It's 8:02 PM and I write down the note that the painted roses on the transom of the stage are leaking black ambrosia onto the band's head. Give all props to the drugs for making these hideous color schemes and laser shows seem copacetic. A beach ball lands at my feet. I pick it up and thwack it into the audience, which elicits an impressed stare from the man next to me.
"If the beach ball comes to you, you hit it," I tell him, raising my eyebrows.
A potential life credo, but only if you aren't the zesty bro bringing the beach ball to the party. As it orbits the audience, the band rips into a ragged muffled "Tennessee Jed" then "Cumberland Blues," then the sawdust mud strut of "Red Rooster." The latter cut torn from the Pigpen bestiary.
Pigpen is the mustache that time forgot. History reveres Jerry as the brains, guitar, voice, and soul, but that's a simplistic interpretation. It's Pigpen who sold Garcia on the vision of electricity. Before that, they'd been jugging folk-blues at Stanford coffee shop kickbacks. He was the original frontman, de facto manager, and one of the few Caucasians to competently wear a bandana. After the "27 Club" inducts Pigpen in the spring of 1973, it's a different band. The drugs only get more intense, but something's still cleaner. He was their Jacques Cousteau or Ol' Dirty Bastard: without him, the Dead could never get that low. He wore all leather and stressed Southern Comfort over psychedelics, a vote that led him to the earliest grave of the bunch.
There's something permanently displaced in Pigpen songs. They're a broken sewage pipe. Filthy revenants lingering in unbaptized purgatory. Liver-ravaged swamp rat blues sung by a man who sensed he'd never see 30. His live performances throughout the late 60s and early 70s could be the best white blues of the era, only really rivaled by Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Eric Burdon, and Jim Morrison on LA Woman. A dirtbag of the best kind.
When Pigpen went haint, Weir wrapped himself up in those gross rags. He absorbed the dirt well enough, but the world can't produce another Pigpen. And this battle has long been lost. The bros next to me aren't celebrating the merits of bones buried for 42 years, they're offering air guitar testament to "Trey's fingers, maaan."
"Friend of the Devil" slurs. The DirecTV blimp responds with anodyne slogan: "Thank You For a Real Good Time." Followed by the #Dead50 hashtag and a cascade of dancing bears. In spite of it, the song stays sacred, each note its own nostalgia thirst trap. They slide into "Deal," but everyone knows that before it happens. The big screens come alive with sepia and psychedelic videos of teens dancing in every decade. Soul era to selfie. All the generations crash one LED floor with different dance moves. I take a look around and everyone sings every word, enraptured and chemically bright. High as hell. Drowning in a giant bowl of Trix.
* * *
"Do you want to hear the most fucked up story you've ever heard?"
There's only one way to answer that question. It comes from a flirtatious brunette in her mid-40s, who just used me as a shield from security, so that that she and her friend could blow lines from a compact mirror on the floor of Soldier Field.
It's intermission and I debate a beer or bathroom run, but the lines for everything are 20 minutes each. The stadium is dangerously overcrowded, sweating, foaming and heavily drugged. It's not territory worth navigating on a head full of hallucinations. Half these people are ghosts and half are cartoons.
I lean against a metal railing and let it hit me. A salt and pepper Gen X "cool dad" with black hipster glasses facetimes "Wifie." A 17-year old adjusts her sunflower diadem. People pass out hand sanitizer and sit down on blankets. It's all chill until a Dead-themed episode of Sex and the City breaks out. Within eight seconds of eavesdropping, one tells the other, "If I was a Lesbian, I'd totally fuck you." Arms around each other, silver bracelets dangling. Fast-twitch coked up hand gestures, exaggerated amphetamine movements, loud babble.
The brunette laments, "I had a love and I lost it." She's clearly the "Carrie" of the crew: wavy-haired, wrinkles forming at the creases, an over-tanned olive skin Jewish American Princess. Summers in the Hamptons or Cape Cod. Soul Cycle slim and Sauvignon Blanc drunk. Married to a doctor, lawyer, or hedge fund acrobat, but no more. Maybe it imploded from adultery or just regular life stresses. Either way, something's awry. The cocaine confirms it.
After a bump or three, she stands and thanks me for blocking the security guards, none of whom would've cared had they seen it go down. We briefly make dull conversation. She introduces herself as Lisa. The bomb drops.
"How would you feel if you woke up tomorrow and life as you knew it was no more?"
"That's very Final Destination of you."
Trying to be funny because I don't want to hear what's coming.
"One morning in March, I woke up and my husband of 25 years was dead."
"Was he sick?"
She shakes her head and repeats a story told too many times. About the shattering late night phone call from police. The commuter train car crash that incinerated a half-dozen near their home in Philadelphia's Main Line. Waking up her children in the morning to tell them that they'd never see daddy again. The subsequent unraveling.
A dazed housewife had made the mistake of driving across the train tracks against a red light. The "Do Not Cross" bar slammed down on top of her SUV. Getting out of the vehicle, she inspected the damage, hopped back in, and fatally opted to keep crossing.
One underestimation and the victims could only be identified through dental records. Six corpses in a car carrying over 600. A 99 percent survival rate doesn't matter when you're in the wrong seat. One second you're looking at your iPhone inside an iron horse, the next your entire life is a quarter-page obituary. They hit the third rail. A gruesome odor of bones and singed flesh seeps through my nostrils. It sounds overwrought until you're eyeball-to-eyeball with the widow. And the acid isn't helping.
"What would you do?" She repeats the rhetorical, as though I have any answers. As though my life to date hasn't been a series of lucky curves and narrowly avoided catastrophes.
I murmur awkward platitudes about survival and trying to make the most of a fucked-up existence. But as soon as the words come out my mouth, they sound suspect.
"Sometimes, I think he's playing pranks on me from the grave," she drags me deeper into The Twilight Zone.
Where do we go from here? How can I possibly convey the intensity of consoling a bereaved dowager with a head beaming with warped light? This is the platonic bad trip, swallowed by dark energy. I'm not the right man and this is the wrong time, but she's sweating profusely and in muted agony, so I do the best I can and just listen. Like everyone else in the stadium, The Dead was their band. First date, sushi. Second date, one of the final shows in '95. When Jerry shuffled off, her future husband was woebegone. He always morbidly claimed that he'd die at 53 too. The prophecy came true. But before it did, everything conformed to yuppie phantasy: two healthy kids, multi-million dollar suburban home, disposable income to tape jam bands around the globe. Then one night...
"Look at him," she waves to her brother, slightly dopey and short, bespectacled and sweet. He stands just out of earshot, tie-died.
"He's 45-years-old with a girl barely 30," she adds contemptuously. Smirks.
The girlfriend seems nice enough, mouth slightly asymmetrical, plain-Jane enough to star as Pam in a small-town community theatre reproduction of The Office.
"I gave her an edible last night. Half as much as me. I was fine. She went to first aid."
My brain feels like it's been slimed. Everything looks like R. Crumb grotesquerie. I ask about her kids.
"Do you know how many thousands of dollars I've had to spend on autographed sports collectibles?"
A few Philadelphia Eagles offered condolences to her son. One even followed him on Instagram. "I've had to be mother and father. I've had to handle all the business"
Flashback to being 13 again. Picturing her child sitting in a sad tomb of sports memorabilia, missing his dad and being filled with infinite rage.
"Are you happy?" she asks me.
I've never really understood the meaning of happiness. Appreciative and fortunate, sure. But happiness feels like a phantom idea only accessible to the religious, rich, or naturally serene. Achievement always mattered more because it's measurable.
"What do you mean mostly? This nightmare has taught me that the only thing that matters is happiness. I'm here, and I'm going to have fun because none of this matters. You might not wake up tomorrow."
We're one platitude away from re-enacting the acid scene in Easy Rider. All I need is a few raised New Orleans vaults, some voodoo candles, and her whispering, "I know what it's like to be dead."
I can joke all I want but it feels smug to make to jokes. I'd rather run as far as away as possible, but feel starched to the ground. And I'm supposed to stay here and watch and tell you if a bunch of senior citizens are good or bad at playing songs, 40 years after their prime. What was I thinking? Why did I do this to myself? I need to go home and check into a Zen monastery without Wi-Fi. Meditate all day and snort bok choy at night for eternal life.
But there's no escape route. The bowl overflows. Ramparts of people wall me in every direction. Lisa and her crew pass out glow sticks in advance of the second set.
"Do you want a glow stick?"
No, I don't want a glow stick.
She's with mostly middle-aged men, resolved to bi-yearly benders but determined to make them count. A bald bro next to me wears preposterously narrow cat-eye glasses and a red, white, and blue Hawaiian lei, because right—it's the Fourth of July.
"What do you want? Drugs? To dance? To make out?" Lisa says, inching closer, forcing my most awkward grin.
All around me, the men do fraternal "Let's drink more," chest-beating. But it feels oafish and forced. A U.S. Blues of buttery chins, gelatinous smiles, and puffy sourdough loaf bellies erupt from Bahama shirts. All avenues led here, somehow.
* * *
The next set starts slow, but by the second song, "The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)," the jams turn into maple syrup and liquid quartz. The drug screams are muffled, replaced by thoughts of the universal. This is really the root of all acid revelation: Everything is inter-connected and the only thing that matters is love. Let me save you the trouble.
I stare at a woman to the right of me, lost in reverie, closing her eyes to disappear into the decades, experiencing cosmic baptism for the 33rd time, healed through music and spastic flailing. I consider all life on this dumb planet, not just the ones crammed in here, but all those who couldn't make it—permanently silenced by freak accidents or exotic disease. I light another spliff as a votive.
Enter the axis mundi. 10:17 PM on the final Saturday, America's 239th birthday, the Dead's 50th. Future and past divined from arabesque patterns; my eyes inflated and red as a playground handball. On the LED screens, raw cherry, cream soda amber, neon emerald, amethyst and ocean blue waves crisscross—instantiating the organized chaos of guitar, organ, and drums.
The Dead is where all compass directions meet. A songbook as column of smoke— compromised of acid rock, country, bluegrass, rockabilly, jazz, the blues, jug band folk, and Appalachian murder ballads. Every form of American outlaw music, synthesized and electrified. They inspired a million carbon copies and a half-dozen true originals. You can see their influence in Dungen and Tame Impala, Wilco and My Morning Jacket, Pavement and Real Estate, and anything ascribed as psychedelic. Clichés can be correct. This is the most quintessentially American band.
Another jam so long that you could learn Ancient Greek. Lesh still killing it out here, close to his ninth decade. Weir on rhythm guitar, whiskers filliwipping, and everyone dreaming of Jerry, the haintly saintly specter who held it all together before turning into a Half Baked myth and ice cream flavor. His ashes strewn at sea while Trey handles his leads, staring at his guitar with "whoa" face like he just pulled Excalibur out of Medieval stone.
"Are you happy now? Lisa asks me.
Yes, I am happy. At least for a few fleeting exhales, where it all seems so ordained and absurd. I use drugs for this, so that the mundane seems important, and the vaguely important becomes epic. So I can step outside of my prison for a second and attempt to interpret anything significant from this runic madness.
Staring at myself from outside my frame. Situated in the heart of the circle, amidst 70 thousand pilgrims, a weird pillaging vortex of energy smack in the middle of Downtown Chicago, plagued by its own poisons and temporary cures. This is mine for a minute.
We cruise into "West LA Fadeaway." The rare Dead song about Southern California. Glassy-eyed sinner-man synth-pop about meeting an old mistake next to the Chateau Marmont. Cold-blooded music that feels heart-warming, especially for me, who has shot and conducted enough West LA fadeaways to fill an almanac. Memories of seedy drug exchanges in parking lots off Pico, jittery all-nighters in apartments off the Sunset strip. Good times. Bad people.
Lisa tries to get me to dance, but I shake my head and stare at the floor. It's stained with glow sticks and toy earrings, cigarette butts and empty molly and cocaine packets. My own doomed odometer is ticking. I'm still leaning against the metal rail, head still spinning, colors still outrageous, fear mounting about what will happen when this all ends.
She asks me to dance one more time or nah. Nah. As soon as her back turns, I opt to take the Dead's advice, dipping into the dark amoeba mass. Sometimes it's better to fade away than to burn out. So I perform yet another West LA Fadeaway 1700 miles from home.
Day Three: Clock Running Late
"There's something about a monster in a vest," a misplaced hipster cackles to his girlfriend in Parking Lot C1.
They mock a toy Frankenstein for sale, perched atop a case of Sierra Nevada. In the Shakedown Street swap meet, you can purchase everything from children's toys to actual children, if you have pit seats to barter. I'm waiting for Sara, who texted me to meet underneath the Dead pirate flag. But she and the skull and bones pennant are nowhere to be found. We met up briefly on Friday night during the second set, which I watched from the rafters with her and her husband. We talked about old times and out-of-touch friends and all the empty chatter exchanged when whole truths are too much to bear.
Sara moved to the mountains a long time ago, and those cloudless days of driving around playing that Dead tape are a decade in the dust. She and her man are going to try to have a baby in the fall, "so this is it, y'know." Besides, my new car doesn't have a cassette player.
Our other friend Sam is here, somewhere. In another era, the three of us haunted Widespread Panic and Phish shows, and innumerable others that I could only remember if you confronted me with the ticket stubs. But none of us have been in the same spot in years. Sam's married now too. Our lives amicably diverged until news solely travels through Instagram photos and Facebook announcements. This weekend was the intended reunion, but Sam could only acquire tickets for the final night.
A flurry of texts reveals that they're in a different parking lot. "Wait here," I'm told. We have to see each other and have a beer, commemorate this historic farewell, exchange last rites. So I keep a vigil next to Frankenstein.
The monster's owner is a man in his mid-40s, who looks like an acid-washed Kenny Powers—coiled mullet of hair, Neil Young cut-off tee, and aura of exhausted desperation. Shakedown Street is his de facto garage sale. Up for grabs are a carwash CD collection of Kiss: Revolution, The Best of Blue Oyster Cult, Steve Ray Vaughn's Greatest Hits, and Rush's Moving Pictures. Slightly used.
He's also selling a toddler's small ransom: a stuffed Mickey Mouse doll, Shrek McDonald's Toys, and Frankenstein. The prized possession is a Skeleton Santa Claus Jerry Garcia riding a motorcycle. Countless people float past, most not even glancing towards this bleak corner. Finally, an already obliterated old hippie couple stops to peruse the wares.
"How much for Santa Skeleton Jerry?" the withered veteran asks.
"Ten dollars," says bizarro Kenny Powers.
The man wrinkles his face and starts walking away.
No response. The couple disappears into the broth. The man kneels beside the toy and presses a button on its side. Santa Skeleton Jerry starts rocking on his motorcycle, half in-tune to the strains of "Brown Eyed Woman" playing from the next car over. The man's flip phone rings and he steps a few feet away, cupping his ear, straining to hear the caller through the noise. His face turns dejected as though the voice on the other end is browbeating him. There's no anger on his side, just sullen mumbles slightly out of earshot. When he returns to his station, he re-arranges the CDs and toys, moving them a few inches closer to the walkway—as though proximity is the only problem.
The "Brown Eyed Woman" bumping neighbor asks him what brought him to Shakedown Street.
"My wife told me to come here and sell whatever I could."
"How's it going?"
"Pretty good, I guess. She's not happy that I've only sold 18 dollars worth, but I think I can get a few more bucks before the show starts."
But for the next ten minutes, no one even remotely approaches our direction. He sadly re-arranges the CDs and toys once more, twice more. He glowers at them and re-triggers Santa Skeleton Jerry, who starts optimistically rocking again. He will survive. Then I get a text from Sara. They aren't coming after all.
* * *
There's this thing that happens that I've never seen before. It's similar to the feeling of the last night of a vacation that you never want to end. A final spliff before the shooting gallery. The slow drip of fatal illness versus an arbitrary explosion. We die plenty of deaths before the last breath, and everyone understands that this is both ceremonial burial and last supper. There just happens to be more guitar solos and expensive beer.
Whenever the band launches into an extended riff, the crowd instinctively holds their breath. Yes, it's partially because everyone is astronaut status high, but also because they're scared to come down. When this stops, we'll go back to our regular earthbound existence: numb jobs, cruel hangovers, creeping mortality. When you're stuck inside reading stuff like this, wishing freedom wasn't the province of the independently wealthy.
Hitting with the one-two of "China Cat Sunflower" and "I Know You Rider," the brakes are unnecessary. I look for everyone I've met over the last two days: my bro conspirators Kevin and Trevor, the funeral director from Durango, Lisa. But the mob is too vast, the euphoric commotion too overwhelming. My lungs are black, my body feels lacerated, but this is somehow healing. You can laugh at the uniforms and sacraments, but all religions ultimately angle towards the same ascendance.
During "Samson and Delilah" into "Mountains of the Moon," there's a moment of transmission. Bob Weir and Trey lock into place and glance at each other like they just hit a lick. The normally stoic rhythm guitarist breaks into a rare smile, acknowledging the vitality of the ringer.
This is the moment that every artist aspires to: the recognition from one of the original masters who set you on this delusional odyssey. The payoff isn't the paycheck. It's in that minor head nod—the understanding that all those solitary hours actually meant something. You are handpicked to carry on tradition. A new carnival rings around me. The hairdresser from LA who looks like Matthew McConaughey cast in a Shampoo remake. Cowboy shirt, city slicker boots, beer spilling with every note. He pours some in my cup and tells me that he's taken acid for the last three days. His eyes look like cracked china. A man next to me removes a kidney of boxed wine and pours it into the agape mouth of a six foot girl in tie die. She chugs it smoothly and everyone high fives.
These songs are ending too soon. We all sense it, even though we keep on looking at our phones and being like "only nine o'clock, a lot more left." Idle reassurance, the lies we tell ourselves in order to live, the music stops. And because it's still the Fourth of July weekend for a few hours longer, they unleash a barrage of blinding fireworks at the set break. It can't hurt to accentuate the point.
* * *
Long strange trips eventually run out of gas, but that last leg is holy. You probably know all the words to "Truckin'." They do too. Soldier Field caterwauls every bar, mapping out the private pit stops and obscure coordinates that led to this moment. Everyone wields a furtive grin. They've covered a lot of land, all without Waze. The Dead unscrews a viscous codeine rendition, a tribute to the dives and poor decisions, the neon marquees, soft machines, and busted nights. Vitamin C, reds, and cocaine can get you pretty far for a short amount of time. Not everyone makes it to the finish, so pour up.
"Cassidy" takes the wheel. A canticle for the immortal driver, Neil Cassady, sanctified by Kerouac and Ginsberg, and then the Dead, who witnessed his amphetamine jags as awed kids on the bus. The hero of On the Road conscripted into the unlikely sequel, the Phaeton of Furthur, threatening to turn the earth to flames while barreling into the heart of the sun—until his heart eventually exploded atop the lonely railroad earth of Mexico.
It's a final benediction for the utopian dreams of the 60s. Cassady as the dead muse of open air, riding highways abandoned for chain-riddled interstates and efficiency at any expense. A eulogy for our false hopes of surviving on the periphery, without being swallowed by the twin scythes of commerce and existential cliché. He's become a dorm room poster, but he represented something more than excess.
There are plenty who can still remember if you ask them. But the flashbacks are tainted by Time-Life documentary and Boomer Tao. Maybe it's not too much to ask for a world in which rents weren't feudal, college loans weren't liens on life, and the American dream could be invoked without air quotes.
It's probably all bullshit. I know, I know. But I can't help but look around and think that we never even tried to escape because we didn't know how. We were born into this, nostalgia marketed as a materialist need, a world of remakes where getting money is the greatest good, and where false notions of purity get sacked on the 50-yard line. Maybe Kesey's bus could score a Lexus sponsorship. Maybe we could do an On the Road Rules Challenge, advertised on the DirecTV blimp. We are all memes in chrysalis. Our gifts are Gifs. Can I quench your thirst with a refreshing lemon and lime blast of Sprite?
During "Althea," all the chemicals hit their apex: the LSD remnants and liquor, spliffs and flickering embers of serotonin. A three-day stress test scrutinizing legs, lungs, and all those vital organs in hock. The bar has to stay open a little longer.
All the Dead songs seem to be about motion, when it stops, when it starts, and all the conflicts in between. The tensions worked out in suspended rhythm, lyrics as tarot cards applicable in any context. "We're guilty of the same old thing," they sing. So it repeats. A wobbly "Terrapin Station" turns into the black hole of "Drums/Space." Even on this final ricochet, they won't curve the ritual. They emerge from nothingness into "Unbroken Chain," to the whoops and fuzz of what feels like a million leaning into the stage. Phil Lesh's vocal rises, tortured with wear but still capable of conveying that unusual alchemy of emotion monopolized by the Dead: melancholy interspersed with joy, the hot breath of the reaper without the unstinting dread, the battle-scarred sense of triumphalism. The hard won celebrations of the survivors.
Organ lines loop in the back of our mercury minds, re-imagining heartbreaks and close calls. Building and building until it threatens to stretch into nothingness, then gently comforting us back. I'm not sorry for the sentimentality. You would believe me if you were here.
Sandstorms of brittle desert guitar rock blow into "Not Fade Away." A Buddy Holly original covered 530 times by the Dead, boosted by the Bo Diddley shuffle and hand claps from the crowd. It extends for nine minutes, but everyone wants 90.
"I wanna to tell you how it's going to be/you're gonna' to give your love to me/I wanna love you night and day/you know my love will not fade away/you know my love will not fade away."
Simple precepts scripted by the first rock and roll victim. Buddy Holly buried for over a half-century, resuscitated amidst a frenzy of glow sticks and singularity. Death can't be escaped but there's the hope that maybe someone will remember something—maybe they will play your song or read your words or at least remember to lay flowers by your grave.
When it ends, the band exit stage right, but the crowd refuses to allow it. With automatic devotion, they howl back: "No our love will not fade away." It lasts for over two minutes, until they have no choice but to return.
* * *
The stadium is bathed in silver light and smoke and everyone is young again. The roses are dripping and the blue and red split skull promises sanctuary. "Touch of Grey" comes calling, complete with old sepia photos on the big screen, tinted neon green or black and white.
Pictures of the band as stoned and healthy subversives. At the Haight-Ashbury House and the Human Be-In, goofing in Golden Gate Park and the Fillmore. For a minute, the skeletons get free reign again. Jerry is no longer a skeleton. Pigpen blows the harp and the skeleton keyboardists Brent Mydland and Keith Godchaux and Vince Welnick are revived. Bill Graham is booking and Kesey and Cassady are trying to test how far this trip can go. No one looks at each other because we are too lost in our own heads. As the archival images illustrate a half-century, I consider my own back pages. I think of Sara and Sam and my friend Davey Crockett (real name), who I spent hundreds of hours with on the road, the Dead our constant soundtrack to the hum of nowhere. I think of Alwen, who I haven't spoken to in over a decade. I'm sorry I never gave you back that tape.
I think of Ben and his skeleton brother. The broke-down Shakedown Kenny Powers trading Santa Skeleton Jerry for grocery money. I think about Lisa asking me if I'm happy, pleading with me to be happy, because she is going to be happy all the time, even if she is miserable, so I need to do the exact same because this happiness is a choice—until you become like her dead husband.
I think of all the loves I had to let go and all those I want back in my life. I think of myself, future skeleton, aging at too quickly a clip, holding on for as long as I can, waiting for the touch of grey.
When it is all done, there is a surge of shock. This can't be it, but it is. Hugs, shakes, wiggles, bows, no more. Before anyone can move, Mickey Hart addresses the crowd, hands clasped: "take this feeling we have here and go home and do something with it. Please…be kind." The stadium lights groan on and everyone cringes as though a welcome enchantment has been lifted. We wait a while on the floor, temporarily paralyzed. Girls with roses in their hair and bros in 49ers caps and cargo shorts, start filing up the steps in stunned disbelief.
In the bathroom, I speak with someone standing near me. I tell him it's crazy that this is it—that it's not selfish to ask for one more full tour.
"This can't be it," he says. "They're not done. They're still too good for it to end."
"Nah, this is it," I nod my head. "It has to be.
But I'm wrong. A few weeks later, the shards of the Dead announce yet another carousel on the endless farewell. They're back on Halloween with John Mayer— spelling out the death of the blues better than any epitaph.
But for now, we keep marching out, trapped in the interminable tie-die trail of tears. A red, white, and blue "Happy Birthday U.S.A." is projected onto a downtown building, a remnant of the expired holiday.
"Aw, man," a guy behind me sulks. "That building doesn't even say Grateful Dead. It just says USA."
Four Samaritans help a man in a wheelchair, who got stuck and nearly toppled on a muddy tootsie roll hill. We keep inching closer to the exits, but no one seems to know what to do or say. Finally, we come to the stone arch separating Soldier Field from the outside world. Chicago's bucket boys, shirtless and sweating bang out a rapid-fire drumbeat that rings out like a martial salute in the night air. As everyone approaches to leave, a spontaneous ecstatic chant breaks out one last time. Over and over, the words repeat:
No Our Love Will Not Fade Away.
No Our Love Will Not Fade Away.
No Our Love Will Not Fade Away.
But it has to, a little.
Petya Shalamanova is a photographer based in Chicago. Follow her on Instagram.