Dr Sarah Hill on the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary concerts…
We are now half a century removed from the 1960s. More to the point, we’re now fifty years away from the sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll half of the 1960s. For the last year or so there have been commemorations marking the anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s seminal ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, and the seemingly endless celebrations of the Rolling Stones’ 50 active years of touring and recording; in the next couple of years there will be more solemn commemorations of darker events in the latter half of the decade and a celebration of one of man’s greatest accomplishments. In the meantime, there will be other smaller, but no less interesting, anniversaries to mark, many reflecting on the enormous cultural shifts that resulted from the various forms of social and psychological experimentation now synonymous with ‘the Sixties’.
An embodiment of those ‘Sixties’ was a San Francisco band, the Grateful Dead. In the book I have just finished writing, the Dead figure prominently: one of their songs, ‘Ripple’, serves as the book’s central metaphor, and the book ends with the 2008 founding of the Grateful Dead Archive at my alma mater, the University of California at Santa Cruz. The reason for this final chapter is simple: for every band’s life, there is an often equally interesting afterlife. The Grateful Dead had ceased as a performing ensemble in 1995 after the death of their lead guitarist and singer, Jerry Garcia, marking the end of a career unlike any other in popular music history.
The Dead might not have sold the most recordings, or had the most (or any) hit singles, but they did have perhaps the most dedicated fanbase of any other rock band. The fact that the Grateful Dead – hippie band to end all hippie bands – had the foresight to preserve not only the materials to support their musical legacy, but their business legacy as well, is reason enough to rethink all those rampant cultural stereotypes about dirty hippies and their transient lifestyle. Because, as we all know, hippiedom has also led to some pretty fundamental aspects of modern life that no one seems to mind too much.
At the beginning of this year the remaining members of the Grateful Dead announced that they would be performing three ‘farewell’ shows at Soldier Field in Chicago to mark their 50th anniversary. For a band as closely connected with San Francisco as the Grateful Dead, this choice of venue seemed odd. Yes, the band played their last concert with Jerry Garcia at Soldier Field, but they played far more, and far more memorable, concerts around the San Francisco Bay Area between 1965-95, from their earliest appearances at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, to regular free shows in Golden Gate Park, their appearances at the city’s ballrooms, their regular residencies across the Bay Area over three decades.
A symbolic return to the site of their last official public performance was understandable, but not unanimously welcomed by Deadheads.
Then the inevitable happened: demand for tickets to those final Fare Thee Well shows was so great that the Dead announced two additional shows to be held at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, just south of San Francisco. Ditto demand for those tickets. Legitimate ticket prices for the five shows were high enough, but reached ridiculous heights on the secondary market, fuelling many online discussions amongst hippies ‘who were there’ in the 1960s and Deadheads ‘who were there’ ever after, about the unhappy realization that the band would be reaping some financial reward for their work, that they had sold out to corporate America, that it wasn’t going to be the Grateful Dead performing if Jerry Garcia wasn’t also on stage.
Then there was the question of the band’s choice for Garcia’s replacement: Trey Anastasio, of the band Phish. The debates about who would have been the better choice were interesting to follow, but so was the question about how Anastasio would play the material without resorting to an attempt at pastiche Garcia.
All this went on for months before the shows even happened. And just in advance of the Santa Clara shows, in light of the buzz and the chatter and the nostalgia and the moaning about ticket prices, the Dead announced that all five Fare Thee Well Shows, the two in Santa Clara and the three in Chicago, would be available for live streaming at homes and in cinemas across the United States, and that the final show would be broadcast ‘as live’ in cinemas around the world the night after the final concert. And so I found myself on Monday night, 6th July, at the Chapter cinema, with my six-year-old daughter and a handful of Cardiff hippies, waiting for the lights to dim.
I will admit right now to seeking out the spoiler alerts that morning. I read the reviews, saw the set list, tried to calculate how late I would be dragging my sleepy kid home. I was aware what songs the band had played on the previous nights, and looked forward to hearing for myself what a 21st-century Grateful Dead could sound like, so many years past their own 1960s. I never had any intention of trying to go to the actual concerts, and did not expect the Chapter showing to match the experience of seeing the Dead in their prime; the experience of seeing them in my local cinema, however, was a little more challenging than I had anticipated.
First there was the pretext of ‘liveness’: the clock counting down two minutes to showtime, obviously there for the streamers the night before, which nonetheless sent a little thrill through the half-full cinema. But of course, even when we caught the first sight of Soldier Field we remained comfortably seated, quiet save for a smattering of applause here and there. There were crowd shots, there was a shot of the blimp, there was a shot of the beautiful Chicago skyline – the ‘live’ production of the event was no different to the live broadcast of any major sporting event. The remote audiences had the advantage of the longshot; yet while the people sitting in the further reaches of the stadium might have been getting the better social experience, they would have been watching much the same edited footage that we were back in Cardiff.
And this is the second main point. The Grateful Dead were the original jam band: they could take a three-minute song and stretch it into forty-five, or build a thirty-minute improvisation on nothing more than two chords and a shuffle. On a musicological level, there is a lot to be said for the directions that the Dead could take their material, and on a sociological level, there is even more to be said for the ways in which the Dead’s audience would respond to the music. The problem is that the jam band concert really does not work as a spectator sport. There we were in Cardiff, watching a sea of 80,000 heads bobbing up and down in the stadium, and seven men standing in front of them on stage, for three hours.
We got a sense of the light show, and occasionally a sense of the excitement in the audience when each new song began; we got close-ups of facial expressions and fingers on frets, we saw the band’s ringers reading music, we saw two original frontmen adjusting their iPad monitors; we skipped the intermissions and got the whole show in one condensed form. But without the benefit of those other 80,000 people bobbing around us, we were entirely removed from the action and from the atmosphere.
Sure, there were the two hippies dancing down at the front of the Chapter cinema, and for most of the first half my daughter joined them, but the rest of us were sitting awkwardly, not singing along, not really moving, not talking to each other; just sitting, watching something that was neither a live transmission of a concert in progress, nor a polished, edited concert film. It was an interesting document, yes, and a bittersweet way to end the long process of writing my book about San Francisco in the 1960s, but it also made me think, again, even more, about distances and time and nostalgia and the ephemeral moments that people hold onto, sometimes for fifty years, after the music ends.