Monday, July 13, 2015

They’re Gone and Nothing’s Gonna Bring Them Back – Lessons from the Grateful Dead

I am a Deadhead.  I have been one for over 30 years.  Yes, that means I did travel to see the band play and saw multiple nights in a tour.  I am often asked how I could see so many shows – easy, every night has a different set list, and in improvised-based music, each performance becomes a unique experience. My brothers and I have played in bands for more than 25 years, whose music sense came from the Grateful Dead.  Having just watched 4 out of the last 5 shows given by the remaining four members of the band before officially “retiring” the name, gave me a chance to reflect on some of the lessons learned.

Inspiration – At the end of the day, it was about the music.  That is what it always came down to for the Zeiler brothers.  Yes, it was a great party atmosphere at the concert (I would be remiss in not saying that).   But, it was the ability to improvise and take the music into unexpected avenues.  You always looked forward to a song that was rarely played (e.g., Dark Star, Attic of my Life, encore And We Bid You Goodnight at Bobby’s birthday in the Meadowlands) that provided inspiration.  I was a fan of their late keyboardist, Brent Mydland, who was a great soloist, and even better at, what I call, filling the empty spaces, either with musical fills or as an undercurrent to spur the music onward.  Most forms of music are structured, and a soloist has a few bars to improvise.  Similar to Dixieland music, the Grateful Dead had all seven members improvising at the same time.  To do so, everyone might seem to lead, but it takes listening to each other, a willingness to take a musical risk and finding the sounds you search for.  My brothers and I have spent 30 years reaching for the musical bar they set.

Mindset – Yes, I know that the band was identified as part of the hippie movement.  If you looked beyond the long hair, the tie-dyed shirts and the cloud of smoke, most followers were kind, friendly souls and had a mellow, casual attitude.  Many of the Deadheads did grow up to become successful in the fields that they pursued.  I remember, we had friends that had this extreme negative, druggie image of the concert scene.  We treated them (concert prices were MUCH cheaper) to a concert at Giant stadium.  We went early, barbequed in the parking lot, met some other friends and walked around to the vendor areas before going into the concert.  Afterwards, they realized that their impression was all wrong.  It was a great experience for all involved.  One other point on this, when looking for a wife, one of the traits that I was looking for was that she needed to be a Deadhead. Happily, Debbie met that criteria and we have gone to many concerts and shared some great (life) experiences together.

Closure – 20 years ago, in June of 1995, we went to see the Grateful Dead play at Giant Stadium.  We only went once or twice a year at that point, down from trying to catch as many shows as possible in the area from a few years prior.  It was a strong show, better than the prior year.  The Dead played Unbroken Chain, a song rarely played live, and had the mystique about it that if you heard it, the Dead were going to break up.  Little did we know that a month and a half later, Jerry Garcia would be found dead and the band, as we knew them, would never be the same.  Yes, every band member variation brought excitement, and some disappointment as the lead instrument was not there. The Fare Thee Well Tour gave us all a chance to say goodbye and listen to our favorite band one last time, bringing a sense of closure.  We might be sad to say fare thee well to an “old friend”, but happy, after 20 years, to finally be able to do so.

Mickey Hart gave the final words, from the stage.  The first half is applicable to any experience and the second is just great advice.  His words clearly summarized the “long, strange trip”: “The feeling we have here — remember it, take it home and do some good with it.  I’ll leave you with this: Please, be kind.”

Please, feel free to share your experiences / impact from the Grateful Dead, or any other band…