Some of you know that I am a Deadhead. As you probably can imagine, on this, the 20th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s passing, my head and heart are filled with thoughts of the late Grateful Dead guitarist — and of the world he left behind.
I heard the news on television at about noon Eastern time on Aug. 9, 1995. My first thought was to call my then-spousal unit and felt deep dread about it: He was sure not to take the news well. Then I just felt emptiness. I moved, quite naturally, to the Internet; misery loves company, and Deadheads were sure to be burning up web forums and such. Upon hitting a Dead-themed cyberchat room, inspired by only god knows what, I announced a vigil would be held that night in Mount Vernon Park, near the Baltimore apartment where we lived at the time.
Ah, the power of early cyberspace… Word traveled fast. A radio station called me for an on-air interview about the Baltimore Jerry Garcia vigil. Newspaper reporters sent emails asking for information. I honestly thought we’d be lucky to get 50 people there. When Spousal Unit, our daughter Christiane, and I reached the park that night, loaded down with candles and posters of Jerry and such, people were just starting to trickle in. That trickle turned into a deluge before long: More than 500 folks descended upon our little neighborhood park. They had candles and drums and trinkets to remember Jerry by too, plus drums and guitars. Before long, we constructed a gorgeous shrine to honor our Jerry.
The change in the park still stuns me. The tiny, mild-mannered green space filled with trees and stone monuments to George Washington and other historic figures turned into a Grateful Dead show parking-lot scene filled with music, tears, extemporaneous speeches, so much laughter, and so many embraces. The feeling of love was everywhere; a mix of sadness and joy permeated the air more thickly than the ganga smoke a stereotype-embracing newspaper reporter contended was there. (For the record, at my request and out of respect for the neighbors, the Heads kept it cool and did not partake.) Some guy–I can’t recall who, but I love him to this day–thanked me for throwing the event by handing me cassette tapes of the Dead’s two final shows, performed July 8 and 9, 1995, at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
The most special attendee, other than Jerry’s spirit, of course, was my daughter, then six years old. (So, I suspect, was my son, who showed up about nine months later.) I’m so, well, grateful that Christy was there, because I’d always struggled to adequately describe my Deadhead experience to her. I could never capture completely for her just how magical the scene was, though heaven knows I tried. Adding to my dilemma was the fact that the last years of the Dead’s long rock-and-roll run weren’t as much about peace and love, if the Deadhead scene was any indication. Absolutely, the stalwarts continued to do the right thing, but an increasing number of folks didn’t “get” what we were about and created enough controversy to lead even the Dead to question the wisdom of continuing the annual concert tours. In the dark days of the final year especially, I wondered how I would ever have the opportunity to show my world to her, figuring that only through experiencing it could she truly grok the whole vibe.
Twenty years ago tonight, she experienced it. And, on some levels, she understood it. My daughter is grown now, and she has said she still remembers that night, the tie-dye — so much tie-dye — the love and the music. Yes, the players weren’t Weir, Lesh, and Garcia, but our Dead music sing-a-long, accompanied by acoustic guitars and drums, was pretty and heartfelt. The spirit and community were alive and pure and real. And my first-born got to witness and be part of it and and to absorb it. I’m so grateful for that.
The truth is, two decades later, we’ve seen the world grow a lot meaner in spirit and deed. There have been movements forward — “ain’t no time to hate” is reflected in the new-found, hard won national US marriage equality — but this weekend also marks the first anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Mo. Too many of us take offense if someone notes that black lives matter or if we dare to mention that some people are born with privilege most refuse to acknowledge. Billionaire presidential candidate and colossal asshole Donald Trump disses Mexicans and women and still tops political polls. The polarization between left and right in this nation is as vast as the widening gap between the haves and have nots. Violence continues to plague the world. Rollbacks in environmental and social protections are taking us backward into a dangerous new (old) reality. And you should see the hate mail I get for daring to be an outspoken progressive in Nashville… Odds are slim that we’ll ever completely transform the world, much less the US or our piece of Tennessee, into havens of peace and love real Deadheads craved and emulated then and now. We’ll be lucky if we can cure one percent of the population from the disease of choosing to make war rather than love or of valuing money over their fellow humans.
Still, we must try to roll, roll, roll and, as Jerry said, address society’s wrongs, righteously — any success is better than none. Occasionally, there will be moments like the night when Jerry died, that night my daughter was bathed in music and love and kindness and peace and community. Like the many moments we Deadheads experienced throughout 30 years of shows and parking lots scenes. Like the moments when the impossible — for instance, marriage equality — becomes reality. Like the moments when babies are born or the times when humans come together in a time of crisis.
Thanks Jerry, for all the moments you inspired. Fare thee well, my honey. I love you more than words can tell.