Back from the Dead

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The Dead & Company show this past weekend reminds Boulder of what it once was.
Sarah Haas

There is an undeniable connection between the Grateful Dead and marijuana — the music serving as the soundtrack for the hippie generation and the plant giving access to its anthem of free love. The two arose together in the ’60s as powerful but peaceful protests to the ongoing Vietnam War and the violence of segregation and discrimination at home. At a time when love was desperately needed, it found its way in the form of rock ‘n’ roll, and cannabis helped paved the way for an altered state of mind.

Boulder served as an oasis for the movement as young people flocked to the city to partake in the cultural and political dissidence of the 1960s. Nostalgically, the city is remembered as a hippie haven where ethics of peace and love could be lived and not just talked about.

But the culture and its accompanying lifestyle were met with strong opposition from more conservative parties who resisted the changing demographic of the town. The more people who came, the more people started living on the surrounding land, publicly consuming drugs, panhandling and loitering downtown and on the Hill. Concerns about poor sanitation and social degradation were rampant.

In response, there was a wave of enforcement of existing vagrancy and drug laws, and even more were put in place as zoning laws were instituted to prevent non-traditional housing situations and outdoor concerts were banned. For the most part, these practices were effective as Boulder reflects a very different culture than it once did, with only nostalgic reflections of its hippie era.

Many of the practices aimed at suppressing certain aspects of hippie culture remain intact with little to no change to the regulations since they were instituted. But, in what might best be described as a spontaneous resurgence of free love, many practices are being questioned and even dismantled.

For example, Boulder’s infamous camping ban that prohibits sleeping with shelter within city limits is regularly challenged by activist groups like Boulder Rights Watch and by legal watchdogs like the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union who call the laws unconstitutional in that they unfairly target the homeless. There are also several ongoing citizen initiatives that seek to repeal zoning laws that favor nuclear family units in an era where the word “family” defies such conventional definitions. The initiatives are collecting signatures in hopes of making their way onto the ballot this fall.

Already in the win column is that marijuana is legal and, as of last weekend when Dead & Company took the stage at CU’s Folsom Field, outdoor concerts are back.

In 1986 CU’s board of regents passed a resolution that essentially ended outdoor rock concerts at the stadium by implementing curfews and prohibiting general admission tickets. In the three decades since, only three concerts have been held at Folsom Field.

In the days leading up to Dead & Company’s Saturday night show, the anticipation was palpable as pockets of Boulder transformed into reincarnations of the ghost of Boulder past. Icons of yesteryear dotted the town as hippie busses rolled in, tie dye shirts took over downtown and groups of people splayed out on colorful tapestries laid down on sidewalks and city lawns.

When the first note of the first song, “Bertha,” broke the decades long silence at Folsom Field the nostalgia broke too, as years of bottled up memories gave way to a new era, reminiscent of days past but with a new energy for a new age. It’s hard to know what meaning Rob Hunter intended in the lyrics, but to listen to John Mayer sing them as Bob Weir strummed by his side, it was hard not to think about birth, death and reincarnation as one era yielded to the next.

When Rolling Stone asked why he was continuing to tour with Dead & Company,  Weir said, “There is nothing rote happening there. We’re not playing out of habits. The songs are anew for us.”

Throughout the show, the air was filled with marijuana smoke as bowls and joints were passed among strangers and friends alike. For the first time in 70 years the cannabis wasn’t contraband, and there was something liberating about listening to the music with that in mind. Public consumption still isn’t allowed, but it seemed to get a pass for the weekend at least, as legal nuances were passed over for the spirit of the law.

As marijuana steps out of the shadows of prohibition into the light of legalization, it isn’t just the narrative of the plant that is changing. It is a ripple effect, a greater shift in consciousness. “It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken,” the Dead sings. “Perhaps they’re better left unsung, I don’t know, don’t really care, Let there be songs to fill the air.”

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.