A Deadhead Cyclist pandemic

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Boulder Weekly founder Stewart Sallo
Bill Dettman

It’s often said that “every cloud has a silver lining.” This ubiquitous expression is typically rolled out in the spirit of putting a positive spin on a negative experience, and for the past 20 months we’ve all been trying to locate the “silver lining” buried within the cloud of COVID. 

During the first weeks of the pandemic, it was well-publicized that carbon emissions were reduced, resulting in cleaner air and water. As weeks turned to months, businesses were called upon to reinvent themselves to survive, often employing innovative strategies and abandoning wasteful practices. And out of the shadow of increased isolation, a collective sense of appreciation for each other, coupled with feelings of gratitude for the fleeting gift of life, have led us in the direction of new ways to stay connected, and a deeper commitment to community.

Personally, as I sheltered in place during the past year in the womb-like safety of my home office, I found a silver lining with “a touch of grey,” the Grateful Dead’s September 1987 hit tune. I have spent the COVID-19 pandemic fully immersed in the trappings of my alter ego—The Deadhead Cyclist—riding my bikes, listening to hundreds of concerts, gathering inspiration from the poetry of the Grateful Dead, and writing an eponymously titled book that will be published in the coming year.

During the course of writing 52 weekly chapters, each of which includes my selection for T.W.I.G.D.H. (This Week in Grateful Dead History) and focuses on a particular lyric from the concert of the week, I have been engaged in a deep dive into the life lessons I have learned during my journey. The range of subjects varies from the often deceptive stories we tell ourselves to the importance of gratitude, with stops along the way to explore topics like addiction, education, psychedelics, aging, honesty, free will, risk, and the plain nonsense of “violin rivers” and “left-hand monkey wrenches.” Throughout, The Deadhead Cyclist lays out a set of principles to live by that celebrates life and its ups and downs in a unique way.

The excerpt from The Deadhead Cyclist shared below tells the story of Jerry Garcia’s first appearance with the Grateful Dead after a near-death experience in which he survived a five-day diabetic coma. On December 15, 1986, the band opened with the song, “Touch of Grey,” with nary a dry eye in the house. The climactic roar from the 20,000 in attendance at the Oakland Coliseum Arena at the first recitation of the anthemic lyric—“I will survive”—foreshadows the one waiting for humanity at the end of the seemingly interminable pandemic we find ourselves continuing to grapple with at the moment. 

If you can’t wait for the book to come out after reading this preview, feel free to visit https://deadheadcyclist.com for more “life lessons on two wheels, to the tunes of the Grateful Dead.”

We will survive

The irony is inescapable. The very song that became nothing less than an anthem for the entire Grateful Dead community also represented the beginning of the end for the band. “Touch of Grey” reached the ninth spot on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart in September 1987, the only time the Dead cracked the Top Ten in the entire history of the band. A distant second, “Truckin’,” reached #64 in December 1971, and only four other songs ever ranked in the top 100.

Either as a direct result or as one of the most striking coincidences in rock music history, the Grateful Dead generated more than $300 million in ticket sales during the nine post-“Touch of Greyyears, 1987-1995—almost four times more than the prior 22 years combined! The surge in popularity was unmistakable, the peak coming in 1994 when the Dead were the highest grossing concert act in the world, with some $50 million in ticket sales.

Sadly, 1995 was on track to be the Dead’s most successful ever when, about midway through the year, Jerry Garcia’s chronic exhaustion became fatal. Rarely is it possible to identify the exact moment when an individual’s death certificate was signed, but looking back as someone who was there, it seems clear that the document was executed some eight and-a-half years earlier, around 8 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on December 15th, 1986 at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, the Deadhead Cyclist’s pick for T.W.I.G.D.H.

Among far too many joyful experiences at Grateful Dead concerts to list, this was easily the most ecstatic. It had been more than five long months since the band’s last show, due to Garcia’s life-threatening illness on July 10, when he fell into a diabetic coma, and the energy in the sold-out arena was uncommonly euphoric as the band took the stage. But even as the electric feeling of anticipation intensified while the boys tuned up and Jerry’s signature noodling scales reverberated throughout the hall, nothing could have prepared us for the heightened emotions we were about to experience.

©Dave Vann Jay Blakesberg

In hindsight, we should have seen “Touch of Grey coming. We might have anticipated the unprecedented crowd eruption at the first recitation of the words, “I will survive,” 52 seconds into the tune. We should have known that Jerry would have an unmistakable “I’m just so damn glad to be alive” smile on his face throughout the opening song. But there’s no way anybody could have predicted the absolutely overwhelming outpouring of emotion during the final chorus, as “I will survive” morphed into “We will survive.” That was the moment of all moments in Grateful Dead history, for better and for worse. 

There literally wasn’t a dry eye in the house. But in reliving the experience, it’s hard to say whether we were crying tears of relief for having dodged the fateful bullet we had been living in fear of, or because we knew, knew, in that most intuitive place in our beings that we had just witnessed the first page of the final chapter of what had become a sacred ritual for so many of us.  

As the song goes, “every silver lining has a touch of grey,” and the silver lining of so many music lovers finally waking up to the magnificence of the Grateful Dead had an undeniable touch of grey: spectacular, non-intimate stadium shows; new challenges in obtaining tickets, getting to and from the venues, and dealing with huge crowds; and most consequentially, the ever-increasing pressure on a reluctant, often deified figure—who had recently been through a near-death experience—to press on even while having his very life sucked out of him, song by song, solo by solo.

What was once a manageable touch of grey grew over the course of those nine years into an uncontrollable, destructive hurricane. And in the process of being the leader of a band that had become the biggest act in the music business, our beloved Jerry wound up abandoning the second chance he was granted on that unforgettable evening in December, 1986. The new lease on life the band, the Grateful Dead community and, most importantly, Jerry himself had been gifted with proved to be short lived. 

Instead of returning to his blessed life as a brilliant musician in a way that honored his unique needs as someone who was vulnerable to some serious health issues, Jerry Garcia became consumed by a lifestyle that was, shall we say, contraindicated, for someone with his medical history. And, of course, during the summer of ’95, in the ultimate touch of grey, Jerry’s body gave out, leaving us to “get by” and “survive” without him.

During the ensuing years, the music of the Grateful Dead, if not the band itself, did indeed survive. And how! There were countless cover bands, including several that included some or all of the remaining original members of the band, keeping the music and the movement alive, and satisfying—to varying degrees—the yearning Deadheads continued to feel for the sense of community that enveloped us on that fateful night in 1986. The most famous (some would say infamous) Grateful Dead cover band included the “Core Four” (Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart), plus guest musicians, at an event called “Fare Thee Well.” Five concerts took place during the summer of 2015—two at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA, and three at Soldier Field, in Chicago, IL. In a striking overstatement of the veracity of the sentiment, “we will survive,” these five shows generated $52 million in ticket sales, more than even the Grateful Dead’s most successful full year in 1994, and 20 years after the band’s final concert.

The 1983 movie The Big Chill begins with the funeral of “Alex,” who has committed suicide. Among the attendees is Michael Gold, played by Jeff Goldblum. At one point, Michael comments, “Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can’t come.” That’s how it felt at the “Fare Thee Well” shows, as I watched a never-ending sequence of Jerry Garcia photos projected on the giant screens surrounding the stage. Some even suggested that the rainbow appearing over the stage during the first of those five shows was a symbol of Jerry’s presence.

Jerry couldn’t make it to the 50th Anniversary Party, but he should have been there. He would have been only 72 years old, well within the current life expectancy. But in another reference to The Big Chill, this time delivered in a eulogy by the character Harold Cooper, played by Kevin Klein, “I don’t know why this happened. But I do know that there was something about Alex that was too good for this world.”

Well, there was something about Jerry Garcia that was too good for this world. That was as obvious in his presence on 12/15/86 as it was in his absence on 6/27/15. And what is equally obvious is that, thanks to Jerry, “we will survive.” 

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