In 1994, I was 9 years old. Curious and inquisitive since birth, I was already headlong into my obsession with music. My father was a football jock of the 1950s, a country and jazz aficionado, so I was exposed to as much George Jones as I was Nat King Cole. My mother was a flowerchild of the 1960s, a rock-n-roll and folk freak, which led me to The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Willie Nelson and America.
I remember it like it was yesterday. Summer 1994. Sitting at the table at my grandparent’s camp on Lake Champlain, awaiting a plate of barbecue chicken, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob. Across from me was my aunt’s long-time boyfriend, Al. On his hat was this neon dancing bear, on the back a skull with a lightning bolt. I asked him about the symbols.
“It’s the symbols for the Grateful Dead,” he smiled. “Have you ever heard them?”
No, I hadn’t. But, I wanted to know more. He went to his car and played me a couple songs. I was hooked. Who were these guys? What were these symbols? Why did they sound like nothing else I’d ever heard before? As soon as I entered Ames Department Store the following week, I picked up a copy of their album “Skeletons In The Closet,” a collection of some of the Dead’s best selections, a great place to start for a novice listener.
And that album remained in my stereo for the rest of that summer. I’ve never looked back ever since. Sure, a year later, lead singer/guitarist Jerry Garcia, the centerpiece of the group, passed away, and yes, I was heartbroken, but I was only at the start of my journey down the rabbit hole that is the Dead.
It was wearing brightly colored Dead tie-dyes around my Catholic elementary school and singing their songs to myself in the hallways (to the dismay of the nuns). It was finding out others knew about this band in middle school, where I first established and felt comfortable about sharing my opinions about music. It was shooting out of the high school parking lot, in some beat up Chevy, passing around a joint and blasting one of their thousands of live bootlegs. It was everything, to me and to countless folks I still cross paths with on a daily basis these many years later.
What it comes down to is the mere fact that the Dead represent the essence of mankind — acceptance, passion and community. Their music is the soundtrack of freedom, where a nerdy, scrawny teenager like myself discovered there was a whole other world beyond the horizon of one’s youth. I wasn’t that four-eyed dork anymore, I was Garret, lover of all things beautiful and true. The Dead put the notion in my head that everything would be OK, as long as you never forgot what it means to be a positive participant in life, always open to the endless possibilities of today, tomorrow and every day thereafter.
And since the passing of Garcia in 1995, I’ve followed the surviving members around the country, whether as The Dead or in the other numerous side projects that emerged in the last two decades. Now, some 21 years since I first heard them, the Dead’s songs ring as loudly as ever. The wisdom shared between the notes played and the lyrics sung are as important to our troubled, and often haphazard, modern world as they were to the counterculture of the tumultuous 1960s.
Their music is timeless, and will be played, shared and enjoyed for eternity. Dozens of shows witnessed, hundreds of towns in between concerts and thousands of people surrounding me, many of which strangers at first, now lifelong friends. The dots of when and where are innumerable on the map of my life, all connected by one ensemble of rock-n-roll outlaws formed in 1965, who seized my heart, mind and soul like pirates swooping into my once black and white world and splashing it with the colors of the rainbow.
Editor’s Note: In honor of the band’s 50th anniversary, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead — Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir — will perform a special three-night celebration July 3-5 at Soldier’s Field in Chicago. They will be joined by Trey Anastasio (of Phish), Jeff Chimenti and Bruce Hornsby. For more information about the show and purchasing tickets, click on www.dead50.net.
1 The film “The Big Lebowski” will be screened at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at Mad Batter Food & Film in Sylva.
2 Porch 40 (rock/funk) will perform at 9 p.m. Jan. 29 at No Name Sports Pub in Sylva.
3 A Celtic music concert featuring harpist/singer Ann-Adèle Lloyd and flutist Milissa Ellison will be held at 3 p.m. Feb. 8 at Swain County Center for the Arts in Bryson City.
4 Joseph Catanese (singer-songwriter) will perform at 7 p.m. Jan. 31 at City Lights Café in Sylva.
5 Will Harlan will read from his new biography “Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island” at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.