White people were everywhere dancing without shame. There were dudes with dreadlocks and armpit hair showing. Some of the dudes with dreadlocks and armpit hair showing weren’t actually dudes. In front of me sat an older man in a white linen suit with fancy black leather shoes and a white hat. To his right sat a man who looked like the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Smoke was everywhere. Within an hour the open-aired stadium of Solider Field no longer felt open-aired.
My dad is a huge Grateful Dead fan. He’s now seen them around 30 times, he says. I am not a huge Grateful Dead fan. Call me crazy but I prefer my music have lyrics. Bruce Springsteen. John Fogerty. Backstreet Boys. This was my first ever Dead show. I saw Furthur play once, about two years ago. Walking out of Barclays Center that night I figured that would be my last time ever seeing a Grateful Dead-type band live.
Then the announcement came. This summer the Dead would be going on tour for the last time. Two shows in California, three over July 4 Weekend in Chicago. My brother and I decided a ticket would make a perfect 62nd birthday present for my dad. This was a man who had a ticket for Woodstock but had to stay home because he needed surgery on his rear end (story for another time). A couple of seats to the Grateful Dead’s final show seemed like the least we could do. When my brother realized that the concert was the day before his wife’s birthday and that we wouldn’t get back to New York until Monday night, possibly Tuesday, the second ticket became mine (talk about misguided priorities). I may not love the Dead, but I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to witness history — and to see firsthand what the ’60s were like, you know, if you take away all the black people and racism and confederate flags.
We arrived in Chicago Sunday morning. By about 4 p.m. we were making our way towards the stadium. Someone offered me a ‘shrooms-for-weed trade. I told him no unless he was willing to throw in a future first round pick and cash considerations. He rejected my counter offer. We went our separate ways.
The scene was something to behold. There were men and women and some who could have been either. The ages ranged from 20-70. Fans asking for tickets were everywhere. The Geico caveman played a banjo. Some entrepreneurs had laid out dozens of pipes; the lawn was their store window. Dead posters and shirts were being sold on the grass along the walkway. I bought a tie-die one, took off my black V-neck and put it on. My assimilation had begun.
All this I expected. I’ve seen the videos and pictures from Dead shows in the ’60s, and while I poke fun, I also admire and respect these fans. Tripping out on acid and going without a shower for a week might not be my thing, but if that’s how someone else wants to prepare for a concert, well, power to them. I wish I was one of those people who could sleep in a tent at festival like Bonnaroo and have the time of my life. Alas, I’m a bit OCD, hate being dirty, and the only drugs I take are prescription and come via my shrink. I don’t think Bonnaroo is the place for me.
Eventually my dad and I made it to our seats. To our left was an attractive 30-year-old woman with dark black hair and ocean-colored eyes. She told my dad that he’s her hero for seeing the Dead live so many times. I think he liked that.
“I just feel at home and comfortable here,” she said, gesturing at the fans slowly filling up the seats and floor at Solider Field. She said one of her life regrets was that she never got to see Jerry Garcia play. “My mom never let me go to [Dead] shows. ‘There’s drugs there,’ she’d say. I’d be like, ‘There are drugs in my room.'”
At about 7:30 the Dead came out. Everyone had a blunt in their hand. The music started. I’ve been hearing the Dead around the house since I was a child and so by now I recognize some of the band’s sonsg. Occasionally I’ll turn to the Dead channel on Sirius or play an album on Spotify. Good writing music. But this song I didn’t know.
“China Cat Sunflower,” my dad said. During the elongated instrumental part he told me they often go right into I know you Rider next. He was right.
Little by little I felt my hips getting looser, my feet tapping more and more. The first set lasted about an hour; by the end of it I was dancing like everyone else — except the bare-chested guy down on the floor who was twirling in continuous circles like an airplane. The cool thing about the Dead, and something I had not previously considered: Because they’re a jam band you don’t need to know their music in order to enjoy a show. I love the guitar. The Dead use the guitar a lot. Works for me.
During intermission the women on my right began talking to me. She had tattoos on her chest and shoulders and wore some sort of star-type contraption on her head. She was there with her husband. He was donning a princess crown. They had met at the University of Kentucky 15 years ago and bonded over music. They were in Chicago for the weekend. She thought it was “awesome” that I was there with my dad for his birthday, though only after having it clarified for her that my dad was, actually, my dad. A similar thing had happened earlier in the evening. While waiting on line at the grilled cheese a tall genial man asked me why “my buddy wasn’t very talkative.” He was talking about my father, who’s about 132 years older than me. I guess at a Dead show you never assume how two people might be related.
“Sunday night is usually the mellow show so we decided not to do drugs tonight,” the woman on my right said. She then took a puff from her futuristic looking pipe. An hour into the second set she gave my right arm a tug and pulled me out of my chair. Apparently I wasn’t standing up frequently enough, though, in my defense, a 12-minute drum solo is a lot to get through. Guitars — good! Drums — good, too…as background.
At 11:30 the show began winding down. Guitarist Bob Weir took the lead on Not Fade Away. It was beautiful and moving. My dad and his friend later told me that Weir’s not always the best singer. But on this night his voice was angelic. In his flip-flops and cargo shorts and baggy solid T-shirt he also looked like a suburban dad manning the grill.
“You know my love not fade away,” goes the chorus. The message was clear. People everywhere were crying. My instinct was to poke fun, but I couldn’t. I understood. Spirituality can be found in many different places. For years millions of people have been finding theirs in the music of the Grateful Dead. I think my dad’s one of them. Laughing at that would be a silly thing to do. Who am I to judge something that makes so many people so happy? It certainly made my dad happy, and now I have a great picture (the one above) to remember the night. I think I’m going to frame it and hang it above my desk, maybe put the ticket stub in there too.
“The feeling we have here — remember it, take it home and do some good with it,” drummer Mickey Hart said to the crowd towards the end of the show. “I’ll leave you with this: Please, be kind.”
We filed out of the stadium around midnight and made the long trek out of Solider Field towards Michigan avenue. People everywhere were still singing “You know my love not fade away.” Balloons were being inflated and handed out. Helium hits for everyone. By this point most of the tears were gone.