It has been a full three weeks since I embarked on the emotional rollercoaster weekend of music, friends, community and fun that was Fare Thee Well: Three Shows in Chicago. I finally caught my breath, had time to reflect and find my voice (my external voice, which was spent from exuberance, singing and cheering; and my internal voice, which has been sorting through and processing the full spectrum of emotions and experiences GD50 provided). I have been combing through the attics of my own life since first discovering the band in 1985, reading reviews and articles, re-listening to the shows, juxtaposing those performances with some of my favorites from throughout the ages (thank you Archive.org and Sirius 23), and really trying to wrap my arms around not only last weekend, but my all-encompassing thirty year love affair with the band. (Find a link to my last GD related post here… this post received the honor of Freshly Pressed by Word Press)
I read a while back about the origins of the band name. Jerry sifting through a large tome (Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore and Legend) at Phil’s house one night, hanging out with the band in their formative years…presumably playing as the Warlocks. He comes across an entry where the two words jumped off the page at him…numbingly black, bordered by gold…just staring him in the face. Grateful Dead. And beside the words began a short parable, a folk story of a hero who came upon a throng of people who were mistreating a corpse…kicking and spitting at the dead body, speaking ill of the man it used to be and refusing to bury him. The hero inquires as to why the throng would desecrate a man’s honor in such a way, and was told the dead man had not paid his debts to the townspeople. Upon hearing this, the hero gives the townspeople every last cent he has as well as all his worldly possessions to ensure a proper burial for the corpse. The townspeople obliged, and the hero was on his way. Later, he comes across a wanderer in his travels who accompanies him on the next leg of his journey. His new traveling companion helps the hero amass a small fortune in short order, and also saves the hero’s life. Later, he reveals to the hero that he was the corpse that the hero had honored.
Or maybe the psychotropic drugs the band was using at the time helped Jerry embellish his memory, and he just really liked the name. Either way, I never let the facts ruin a good story.
But nonetheless, Fare Thee Well certainly honored the life and memory of one of rock music’s greats. And it also honored the entire band, its revolutionary contributions to the music world, its community of fans…and the incredible 50 year journey we all have helped make so memorable.
The number seven (7) played a key role in Fare Thee Well. The musicians on stage numbered seven…and July, the month of all three performances, is the seventh calendar month. The letter G, which begins both the band’s name and its founder’s surname, is the seventh letter in the alphabet. There are seven letters in Chicago, Soldier, Shapiro, Madison and in Bob Weir. Even our mail orders were sent to GDTSTOO. (It’s been hot for seven weeks now, Too hot to even speak now, Did you hear what I just heard?)
In keeping with the number seven Gematria, here are my seven most pressing takeaways from Fare Thee Well:
1) Jerry – Let’s discuss the elephant in the stadium right up front. I like to think that the real reason Bobby and Phil couldn’t keep this thing going TOGETHER after Jerry’s passing is that it was just too hard. He meant so much to all of us as fans, and certainly to the music, but he meant so much more to his brothers…his band mates for thirty years. Hearing Phil’s words before his donor rap Friday night, you could tell what Jerry meant to him. And if you watched The Other One, Bobby’s recently released documentary, you get a clear picture of exactly what Jerry meant to him. Jerry was the straw that stirred the drink. He was the engine, the driving force and de facto leader of the band, who had a magical voice I have described to my wife as what I believe the fabric velvet would sound like if it were audible. The sadness we all felt when Jerry died must have been exponentially more intense for the core four, and for at least some of them, being together and playing the music and living that life together would just bring his memory back…magnify the fact that he was missing and reopen the wounds. It must hurt…and I get it.
BUT…there were moments each night, when the band was in synch and emotions ran high, when I could feel Jerry’s presence right there on stage. It brought tears to my eyes. And the well thought out two-song encore on Sunday…TOG and Attics…well that was almost unfair in its perfection. We will get by…we will survive. Because even when there are no strings to play, he played to all of us. Jerry is eternal through the beautiful musical legacy he left us.
We, as fans, never had the chance to say a proper goodbye. Maybe the band didn’t have that chance as well. Fare Thee Well provided everyone with a perfect opportunity to bid Jerry farewell, and to celebrate all that his life and legacy have given to us.
Five themes (Music/Dreams/Children/Love/Gratitude) were constant throughout the weekend, within the lyrics of the songs the band played, within the Grateful Dead songbook as a whole (which provided a backdrop to our collective experience in our hotel rooms, in our cars, and all over Shakedown Street), and as abstract or overt messages in the event itself.
2) Music is the unifying force, and is central to why we made the trek to Chicago in the first place…and that is true for the band and the fans. The band’s lyrics are rich with musical references, allegories and imagery. We are all players in the Heart of Gold Band. Our weekend was, in fact, replete with fireworks, calliopes and clowns.
Coming full circle, and opening with BOR, the very song that would be the last played by the band with Jerry in the same venue, was ethereal. This simple but well thought out gesture signified to the throngs that the band understood, and was on our collective wavelength. It demonstrated the band’s commitment to its fans and the history of the Grateful Dead and to Jerry to, for the next three days, create a bridge back in time twenty years and deliver a proper farewell…one none of us ever truly experienced…and a true celebration of the band, the fans and especially the music.
And the music we heard was great. Frankly, it might have been, overall, the best three day run of music I have seen the band play since the early 1990s. It wasn’t perfect, but when has it ever been? There were moments of transcendence, and others that certainly wouldn’t warrant an ante in a game of Jacks or Better…but that is what makes this band so special. There is a 400+ song musical treasure trove from which they can choose from on any given night, and to only repeat two songs over the course of five shows was amazing. To put that in perspective: U2 just put on two shows in MSG over the weekend and there were 19 songs out of a 23-25 song show that were repeated both nights. And the Fare Thee Well set lists were chock full of fan favorites and rarities, and offered a nice representation of the evolution of the band’s full oeuvre across four decades.
Music is why we came…and the music delivered, on all levels.
3) Dreams, like good music, take us places only our imagination will allow. There are no limits. Dreams and dreaming are a constant theme in the GD canon. We all dreamed the band would get together again one day…
All the years combine, they melt into a dream.
When there was no dream of mine, you dreamed of me.
4) Children: In the two decades since I last saw the Grateful Dead, a great deal has changed in my life. The greatest and most important change was/is the birth of my children. I know I am not alone. Children are found throughout the GD oeuvre. Playing the songs for my children, watching them dance and tap their feet to the music is priceless. Jerry lives on through his music…and also through his children. We all do.
God bless the child, who rings that bell.
And the kids, they dance and shake their bones.
5) Love: My wife and I shared our first dance together as husband and wife to They Love Each Other. Love is a ubiquitous theme throughout the Grateful Dead songbook. Even the songs the band covers tend to focus on the greatest of all of life’s forces. There was so much love in Chicago. I couldn’t make it to Santa Clara, unfortunately, but I am sure love ran ram shod at Levi as well.
A box of rain will ease the pain and love will see you through.
You know our love will not fade away.
6) Gratitude: There was so much to be thankful for, the shows may have been better served being played the fourth Thursday in November. The band’s lyrics are littered with gratitude, as is the band name. But Fare Thee Well was really a giant forum for us, as fans, to thank the band we all love one last time, and for that band to thank us for an incredible ride. And for all of us to thank Jerome John Garcia.
Shapiro certainly deserves praise and thanks for his efforts. It was no small task to put that incredible three (five) day run together, and to basically tie-dye the city of Chicago. I frequented his first club, Wetlands, in NYC for years, listening to Dead cover bands and other Jam band offshoots, so I know firsthand where he came from, and booking the Phish cover band Stash to play for 150 people, mostly from the same Long Island town the band hailed from was a far cry from Fare Thee Well. Who knew?
It wasn’t always pretty, but as Dave Chappelle so eloquently put it from the witness stand during his Michael Jackson trial bit…”He made Thriller…Thriller.”
Trey also earned high praise and gratitude from most in attendance and those in the cheap seats on couch tour. He performed admirably in a role that featured a higher degree of difficulty than the Triple Lindy. In many ways, he was in a no-win situation…and yet, somehow managed to prevail, proving he was the right man for the job and delivering some memorable takes on a number of songs most feared could not be properly interpreted by anyone other than JG.
But you know who else deserves more thanks than he got in Chicago…and in general over the years? Robert friggin’ Hunter, that’s who. That cat can straight up write lyrics…maybe Bob Dylan was better….maybe. But he’s on a very short list at the tippity top of whatever Mount Rushmore of lyricists our world has ever seen. And I can’t tell you how many times his words have brought a smile to my face.
7) Chicago/Soldier Field – Chicago was, in typical fashion, the Second City yet again. But this paid off, as the band found their footing and began to really gel by the time they made it from Santa Clara to Chicago.
Soldier Field was not ideal in any way. Stadia in general don’t offer the best acoustics when it comes to music. And this particular stadium had the most god-awful ingress-egress issues that it made an all-cash toll booth during rush hour seem like an Easy Pass lane on a rural freeway. It seemed like some evil genius was watching through one-sided glass as he funneled the crowds slowly toward a torture chamber.
But…we all made it in to the shows…and back out into the Chicago nights with giant smiles on our faces.
Soldier Field, like Fare Thee Well, was built to honor and remember heroes. And on this Fourth of July weekend, it served both causes equally. Furthermore, Soldier Field in its present form mirrored the band, as it combined historic architecture, its original look and feel, with modern additions and amenities featuring walls of glass levels and luxury boxes.
As the twentieth set of Days Between approach, and still glowing from the exuberance of Fare Thee Well, we can now move forward with the closure we weren’t afforded back in 1995. Constant reminders of the popularity of this event continue to resonate, both within the Grateful Dead community as well as in the strangest of places if you look at it right…take this article as exhibit A.
I thank Peter Shapiro, Madison House and the band and crew for a real good time. Here’s hoping for another celebration of equal or greater quality sometime soon…and please let it be somewhere on the east coast.
All the best,