The Grateful Dead – The Dead – have been an integral part of so many transcendent experiences throughout my life; rocketing me deep within to detailed memories, creating a sacred space in time.
My first Dead concert was in May 1973. It was the summer before my senior year in high school and what would be my first year in the draft lottery for the war in Viet Nam. We set out from Ames, Iowa to Des Moines and the Iowa Fair Grounds where The Dead were playing. It was a splendid adventure on a pristine spring Iowa day set against a tree-less backdrop of endless rows of corn and soybeans. We were traveling in my brother Jim and my shared 1966 Checker Marathon, packed with provisions and thirteen of us on board. 4 across the front seat and 9 packed and squeezed and layered into the back, sprawled on the seat and spilling seamlessly onto the floorboards, a crowded womb – safe and full of refreshments, possibility, and expectation. The journey was filled with an over-abundance of refreshments, shared with laughter, shouts, and spontaneous expressions, of nothing, and everything, all blending together into a wild cacophony of sound and song and seething emotion.
Who those thirteen were is still open to debate, at least at this point. Those who I know were there are of little help with names now. But each remembers certain aspects, vividly, from the trip. Ben, who would later partner with me when we graduated from high school to form our construction company, Cosmic Construction, remembers that the horn on the Checker was broken, and that he would have to touch two wires to the center of the steering wheel to honk the horn while we drove to Des Moines. And, most importantly, at least to Ben, that the horn had to be honked an unusually large number of times – he claims due to my driving.
Grateful Dead Live at Des Moines State Fairgrounds on 1973-05-13
Everything Dead went timeless for me starting with that first concert. My first Dead miracle. A Dead Miracle that I experience over and over — time standing still. The Dead’s I Need A Miracle – as much as any Dead song – is really all about me and my relationship to the Dead. But then, so many songs of the Dead are all about me. All of them, really.
Each song is magnificently personal to each listener. Such a blessing. Miracles, really, you can trust me, I’m your lawyer. We all need a miracle, every day.
“It takes dynamite to get me up
Too much of everything is just enough
One more thing that I gotta say
I need a miracle every day”
I Need A Miracle’s lyrics offer a different experience for each listener. Too much of everything is just enough – the miracle of shared abundance and boundless generosity, just as the road of excess leads to enlightenment. Or maybe it is the other way around and the road to enlightenment leads to excess. Either way, The Dead have continued to deliver miracles for me, through their shows and my individual journey leading to and from, as well as through their song lyrics and melodies with their seemingly unending improvised live versions over the years. I find something new and am reunited with sweet moments from my past with every new listen – just one of the ways the Dead presents the opportunity to awaken anew the miraculous within me, and all of us, if we will only open our hearts and spirits.
And speaking of miracles, Elvis came back from the dead for the Dead in Las Vegas in 1994, just so I could have my picture taken with him during the annual three-day spring tour Dead opener.
For me, the Dead are about deep, lasting friendships, shared lives, experiences, memories and loves, both present, and long ago past; about tears of sorrow, of joy, of remembrance, and of farewell; made up of bonds of everlasting strength, twined from the most tender, loving, and empathetic shared experiences with family and friends blending throughout into a lovely, cosmic web imprinted with delighted attention.
The Dead are so much a part of my journey, and my happiness. Of me. Of who I am, and hope to be. So many happy and pleasant memories, including our wedding night on April 7, 1978. After a civil ceremony in a giant Banyon tree that afternoon on the bank of the Saint Lucie River, all six of us from the wedding found ourselves sitting on bleachers at the Sportatorium in Pembroke Pines, Florida, where the local Cuban Jai-Alai team played, not that we knew anything about Jai-Alai. The Dead played Mary to sleep, resting on my shoulder during the concert, but she was still there, present to the moment. The miracle of commitment began and the music sealed the deal.
Grateful Dead Live at Sportatorium on 1978-04-07
And the big Dead wheel keeps on turning, and so my, and our, story goes on. From living in the Mars Hotel in Iowa City somewhere in the mid to late 1970’s… (And I do mean somewhere instead of sometime because it was a where in time, not a point in time)…
All the way up through the annual three day FURTHUR shows in Red Rocks, four days in 2013. Watching the full moon rising over FURTHUR, with my brother John, my son Sam back from Africa, my other son Jake, my old friend Dick, who attended and participated at our first Dead concert in 1973, our friend BJ, a recent but fervent convert to the Dead up from Houston, and my old buddy Dennis, companion to many Dead shows over the years, with his son Austin, in from Iowa for the triptych of shows. There is no other way to describe the wordless delight that we all shared each and every night, other than to say it was truly cosmic. The miracle of the wheel turning round and round.
My 41-year relationship with the Dead has always been anything but static. It has been, and remains chimerical, transitory, mirage-like, ever-dependable, an always reliable safe-harbor where, no matter the intensity of the storm du jour, I am always welcome, and I know that my friends and family await with open arms.
Dead songs gift wry Holy Scriptures with a wicked back beat, invoking heavenly memories to overlay the whole experience that continue to this day to represent, shape, define, influence, and give gentle guidance to me, and my friends, throughout our days, and our lives.
I recently read an interpretation of the song “Bertha” on dead.net that referenced the Tibetan word “Bardo”, and that, like a lightning bolt, crystalized my life-long relationship with the Dead:
“A bardo! This is a concept from Tibetan Buddhism that there is an intermediate state between two existences, a space between incarnations. Between lives. In this hearing of the line, the entire song becomes transformed into the adventure of a soul on its way to a new life.”
The bardo concept is my story with the Dead: the adventure of my soul, always on it’s way to a new life. Rebirth after rebirth after rebirth, always further into another layer of delighted attention to everything and everyone.
And some of us can even admit these facts. While others, willingly or not, are constrained by way too many artifices to go public with their thanks and gratitude to the Dead. Fortunately, I don’t feel or recognize those constraints, regardless of whether they actually exist for me. For this I am also grateful.