Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City. John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City. The most famous of perhaps all the Beatles, was shot twice in the back and rushed to Roosevelt Hospital. Dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news flash.
Howard Cosell, Monday Night Football, December 8, 1980
A year earlier in Cincinnati, eleven fans were trampled to death by a surging crowd trying to get into a general admission concert to see The Who. Neil Young was singing, “Hey hey, my my, rock and roll will never die.” While this axiom was true, rock and roll had seen better days.
In 2012, Rolling Stone published a list of the Top 500 albums of all time. These lists are overblown. How can you calculate what the 343rd best album is, and who cares? Ranking more than one hundred albums is superfluous. The golden age of great albums began with Bringing It All Back Home in 1965, and ended in 1980 with London Calling by The Clash. Excluding compilations, if you break down the top fifty albums on the list and group them in five-year spans, 1965 to 1970 produced nineteen of the top fifty, 1971 to 1975 accounted for thirteen of the elite albums, and 1976 to 1980 had four selections on the list. Over the next six years, starting in 1981, only Michael Jackson’s Thriller made the top fifty. There are lots of reasons for this decline, including MTV, which debuted on August 1, 1981 (Jerry Garcia’s 39th birthday). Making a fetching music video became an easier road to popularity than creating an entire album. Madonna, Michael Jackson, and several one-hit wonders thrived in this video format, as new wave and musical simplicity became the craze of the day. Dylan was with Jesus, and The Who, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin were fading after their domination of the ’70s. And with the assassination of Lennon, George Harrison and other icons decided to take a break from the music business.
In these culturally depraved times, the Grateful Dead road show became an irresistible option for those craving an authentic music adventure—a traveling caravan of hedonistic freaks pulling together as a community—a throwback to the Haight-Ashbury days. During the ’80s, I saw 150 Grateful Dead shows and 50 Jerry Garcia Band shows, and towards the end of the decade, I found my way to 50 Dylan concerts. As a witness to what transpired between Dylan and the Dead later in the decade, and as a case study on how an obsessive rock fan finds himself on tour with the Grateful Dead, here’s my story.
When John Lennon was gunned down on the outskirts of Central Park, I was a rebellious seventeen-year-old teenager watching Monday Night Football. Howard Cosell broke news of the unspeakable tragedy. Cosell and Lennon, the heroes and voices of my childhood, would be forever tangled in a historical nightmare.
When I was in third grade, I had to do a presentation in front of my peers. I chose to imitate a Howard Cosell Talking Sports newsflash, which he used to broadcast on 77 WABC radio in New York. More than any other announcer, Cosell’s honking Brooklyn accent and his fancy vocabulary became part of the big event. It’s hard to think of Muhammed Ali in his prime without Cosell being part of the soundtrack. And prior to the night of December 8, 1980, his most famous call was “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” as George Foreman pummeled Joe Frazier in a shocking upset to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World. I also felt an affinity for Cosell because we shared the same name. There weren’t many famous Howards scoring touchdowns or singing hit songs on the radio.
My older cousins turned me on to the Beatles when I was six. Until that time, my three favorite albums from my father’s collection were West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass Greatest Hits. My father bought Let It Be for me, and I disappeared into my room and listened to nothing but that album and some AM radio for at least a year. My cousins were Beatles fanatics, and above all, they preached the virtues of Lennon.
On the night John was murdered, I was sitting on a sofa in the basement of my parents’ house in the suburban town of Nanuet, New York. Hearing Cosell broadcast those words was a deathblow to any remaining youthful innocence inside me. I was a chronic class-cutting, pot-smoking kid, and then I decided to go all the way and drop out of high school. I went to a community college to get my GED, but I didn’t believe in academic or religious institutions. The only thing I believed in was the world of song, and soon that would lead me to Jerry Garcia.
My friend Doug was the only cat I knew who had a passion for music that was equal to mine. We devoured every classic and progressive rock album out there. We knew every lyric, lick, and subtle nuance of every album by bands such as The Who, Rolling Stones, Doors, Beatles, Yes, ELO, ELP, Jethro Tull, Santana, Pink Floyd, etc.…We knew Dylan’s greatest hits, but there wasn’t enough jamming on the surface for us to explore any further. As for the Grateful Dead, we admired their Skeletons in the Closet compilation and American Beauty, but lack of overwhelming lead guitar kept us from going further down that road.
After spending the summer of 1980 at a Jewish sleepaway camp, Doug returned home a devout Deadhead, and Jerry Garcia was the Messiah. The idea of putting Garcia in the same class as Clapton, Hendrix, or the emerging guitar god Eddie Van Halen seemed ludicrous. Doug tried to steer me into his camp, but I didn’t initially get it. Listening to the Grateful Dead is like trying to learn a new language—some pick it up quickly and run with it; for others, there’s a learning curve before it overtakes them, and some folks slam the door shut on the Dead. I held out hope. If Garcia could overwhelm a music lover like my charismatic friend, there had to be merit in the music, somewhere, and that intrigued me.
My Grateful Dead revelation occurred seven weeks after Lennon’s death, on January 24, 1981. I remember the date because on that night, I witnessed hockey history at the Nassau Coliseum. Mike Bossy, the young French Canadian star of my favorite hockey team, the New York Islanders, scored two goals in the last five minutes of the game to become the second player in NHL history to score fifty goals in the first fifty games of a season. The thrilling event paled in comparison to the ride home. The driver, Seymour, my friend Scott’s brother, popped Europe ’72 into his tape deck and turned the volume up full blast. I don’t know if it was the dopamine high of the thrilling sports spectacle or the potent bone we smoked on the way home, but I salivated in stunned silence as I experienced the true majestic sweep of the Grateful Dead for the first time.
“Cumberland Blues” blasted away—electrified, psychedelic hillbilly music. An arcane world emerged. “Jack Straw” from Wichita was on the run from sea to shining sea. The hypnotic, jazzy jamming of “China Cat Sunflower” was surreal and seductive, unlike any music I’d ever heard. “The news is out all over town,” crooned Garcia in a sad, smooth tone that paid tribute to Hank Williams but was pure Jerry in style. Pigpen hammered the blues with “It Hurst Me Too.” I don’t think I’d ever heard Hank Williams or Elmore James before. A door to another world opened. Instantly, I felt linked to an alternate musical reality.
Hearing “Ramble on Rose” put me over the edge—fascinating lyrics and alliteration placed upon a plush melody and delivered with deliberate ragtime flavor. Garcia’s pitch-perfect-voice connected characters, real and imagined, from different times and places: Jack the Ripper, Billy Sunday, Mary Shelly, Mojo Hand, Crazy Otto, Frankenstein, New York City, Jericho. It was a beautifully crafted song with a searing guitar solo. The following day I rode my bicycle to Tapesville USA, a record shop located in front of the Nanuet Mall, and purchased Europe ’72. Within a few weeks, I’d purchased every Dead record in the bin.
I still had to overcome the Jerry Garcia is the greatest guitarist hurdle. I saw my first show at Madison Square Garden on March 9, 1981. The band endeared themselves to me by playing “Ramble on Rose” as the fourth song of the night. The Garden roared in unison when Garcia sang, “Just like New York City,” and Jerry’s guitar roared out a scathing, yet lyrically beautiful, guitar solo. I recognized most of the songs, but I lost my focus during the long, spacey jams, like the one connecting “Estimated Prophet” to “Uncle John’s Band.” Grateful Dead appreciation is an acquired taste that takes patience and the willingness to approach listening to music differently. A few months after my Dead debut, I scored a copy of the MSG show and realized it was a spectacular show. I was there, but not really.
My first bootleg tape was a ninety-minute BASF cassette of highlights from a show at Raceway Park, Englishtown, New Jersey, on September 3, 1977. My Garcia is god epiphany arrived when I heard “Mississippi Half Step Uptown Toodeloo.” The dynamic energy of the performance was superior to the truncated studio track. The between-verse guitar solos sparkled, but there was a long, masterful musical segment prior to the band singing the “Across the Rio Grande” bridge. Phil’s bass rumbled as the band paved the way for a two-tiered climax from Garcia. And then the Dead created something that had never existed before. Godchaux tinkled his keyboards in a manner that pleased Garcia. Jerry tweeted back like a singing robin. Everybody in the band was listening and slowly contributing. Things got heated, and before there was another soaring crescendo, the band wisely eased into the “Rio Grande” chorus—no need to be redundant. This was a distinctive masterpiece that could never be duplicated.
A few weeks later, Doug turned me on to the Cornell tape, the legendary show from 5-8-77. An extraordinary half-hour Scarlet > Fire kicks off the second set. Everything is sublime: inviting rhythm and tempo, expressive singing by Garcia, intricate improvisation by all involved. The music played the band. The segue between “Scarlet Begonias” and “Fire on the Mountain” separated the Dead from any other band I’d heard. They channeled strange alchemy and seemingly suspended time by dabbling in both songs—coming and going in the present moment. And few instrumentals in the band’s history match the burning intensity of the last solo in “Fire,” or the colossal jam in “Morning Dew.”