Tuesday, May 21, 2019

September 18: The Ecstasy and Agony of Two Shows Seperated By One Year

Excerpt from Deadology 
In his memoir Searching for the Sound, Phil Lesh writes, “In the first week of September ’79, we played our first gigs at what would become my personal favorite among all indoor venues in the United States, Madison Square Garden in New York City. Playing in that building as it bounces up and down from the sheer stomping exuberance of the audience is a sensation that must be experienced to be believed.” Never had MSG pandemonium been more palpable than it was when the Grateful Dead created a state of euphoria in that beloved building on Friday night, September 18, 1987. I was there.
Grateful Dead mania was running wild as The Boys started their five-night run at Madison Square Garden on September 15, 1987. On that evening, “Touch of Grey” occupied the tenth spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and would peak at number nine. The band had their first hit single as they joined the likes of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Whitesnake, Huey Lewis, and Bananarama in the elite hit-makers club of September ’87.
            Following their first two shows at Madison Square Garden, Garcia and Weir paid a visit to NBC Studios to appear on Late Night with David Letterman. Middleweight Champion Sugar Ray Leonard, who had just come out of retirement to upset Marvelous Marvin Hagler, was the other guest. It made for a nice pairing—Sugar Ray and Jerry, the comeback icons. With his sharp wit and jovial demeanor, Garcia looked reasonably healthy a year after his near-fatal coma. But if you compare this appearance to his last appearance on Letterman’s show in April 1982, Jerry looked like he aged twenty years in just five. Weir looked as if he hadn’t aged a day since 1982.

Garcia and Weir joined Letterman’s band, led by keyboardist Paul Schaffer, and played “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” I’ve always been baffled as to why Weir sang lead vocals on “Masterpiece” with the Dead, since Garcia crooned it so poignantly with the JGB. After some relaxed and witty conversation with the host, Weir turned a national TV audience on to an old parlor trick. Weir, Letterman, Schaffer, and Biff Henderson gathered around Garcia and gave TV land the illusion that they were levitating Garcia out of his chair—a bit of silly magic. What happened the following night in Madison Square Garden was truly magical.
Emotions soared during the first set as New York Deadheads greeted the group’s every musical whim with vociferous appreciation. Jerry’s singing was a bit shaky during “Sugaree,” but he rolled out an impressive third solo, one of the better ones of the year. Following a decent performance of “Birdsong,” Weir announced that the band would take a short break after only six songs. Usually an abrupt set termination like this would disappoint me. Somehow, I sensed with certainty that something special would happen in set two. Positive energy lingered in the air thick and heavy. It was inescapable.
Deadheads and the Garden bounce as one as “Shakedown Street” opens set two. After the between-verse solo, Jerry mistakenly sings the chorus. The mojo of the show starts to kick in during an above-average jam, and the Garden explodes in response. “Women Are Smarter” energizes and delights the crowd. During the final round robin sing-along, Weir cuts loose with a falsetto chorus that borders on silly. The band finishes off the final chorus with authority and Weir shouts, “That’s right!” A thunderous roar becomes deafening as Jerry strums the opening chords of “Terrapin Station.” The excitement is ridiculous!
The golden opening of “Terrapin” is wondrous on the heels of the “Women Are Smarter” hysteria. The hypnotic rhythm, tempo, and command of the band frames the wisdom coming from the angelic voice of the gray-haired and bearded guitar guru. Jerry finally has found a way to channel the abundance of energy into his precise guitar solos, linking the narrative. There’s a vibe of heavenly ascension as Garcia calls upon his muse: “Inspiration, move me brightly.” New York City is louder and louder as the journey advances towards the royal refrain of “Terrapin.” Tight drumming opens the way for passionate phrasing from Jerry and Brent. After one intoxicating Brent run, Phil unloads a blast that allows Jerry to respond with the definitive musical line of the refrain. It’s hard to rate “Terrapins,” but the in-the-moment ecstasy of this MSG version comes through on tape, making it an essential “Terrapin.”
After Drums, a quick dash through “Goin’ Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” elevated the excitement in the crowd. Nothing could dampen the spirit of the faithful and their desire to electrify Jerry. The big breakthrough came as Weir served up the legendary “All Along the Watchtower” riff. Garcia digs in with a lead that had us salivating and howling—game on. This was my first time seeing the Dead play “Watchtower” without Dylan, as it was for most of us in the Garden. Garcia’s first solo made everybody’s hair stand on end, and then Weir shrieked, “No reason to get excited!” The roar of the crowd just about blew the roof off MSG. It was at that point that I asked myself, What if they play “Morning Dew”? I flashed back to that time I saw my first “Morning Dew” in Philadelphia, and somehow, this moment would be bigger. After all Garcia had been through, and where the Dead were now with the success of “Touch of Grey,” did Garcia have the audacity to pull this off? The anticipation was unbearable. The thought of “Morning Dew” emerging from “Watchtower” was almost too much to bear. It had never happened before.
“Watchtower” fizzled into a few seconds of no man’s land. If the next song was “Black Peter,” “Sella Blue,” or “Wharf Rat,” it would have been a letdown. The moment demanded the Holy Grail. Garcia had no path but the “Dew,” and he bent a warning note before striking into the sanctified anthem. To be in the thick of that audience and to experience the collective ecstasy is the realization of the ultimate power of music, which is beyond anything from any other realm. It was as if New York was healing Garcia, and Jerry had just announced that everyone had a winning lottery ticket.

Jerry sings soulfully and spiritually, bestowing “The Dew” upon his devotees like a soothing prayer. This is where the enthusiastic wisdom of New York Deadheads factors in. They know every nuance of the song and treat it like a religious anthem, only expressing their joy in response to their spiritual leader. You can hear a pin drop as Jerry growls, “Where have all the people gawwwwn TODAY!” And then the silence is parted by the unified roar of his flock. “Morning Dew” was more moving than ever before for both the singer and the audience in the aftermath of Garcia’s comeback from a near-death experience.
            Phil’s bass rattles the arena as Garcia leans forward and shreds a shrill solo between verses. Singing from the heart of humanity, Jerry croons: “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway,” four times, each cry more sorrowful than the last, and each ensuing eruption from the audience, louder. Madison Square Garden was shaking from the last roar as it never had before. It was as if a Knick just hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to win the NBA Championship.
Usually Garcia builds his “Dew” solo deliberately, but due to the overwhelming emotional explosion, he went for the jugular—down on the lower part of the fretboard, a blizzard of notes. Standing there fifteen rows from Jerry was surreal. To make sure I wasn’t dreaming, I bent over and slapped the cement floor with the palm of my hand three times.

How is Garcia going to execute and extend this jam when he started with a climactic tirade? Simple. He invents pathways that never existed before. At one point he makes a circular motion with his hand, as if he’s waving a magic wand, and then seemingly discovers a frequency that never existed before, hitting the highest possible notes on the fretboard and peeling them off with speed and precision before the band joins in for the final fanning blitz. The heroics are complete with a final: “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway.”
            Weir cuts the tension in the building by breaking into “Good Lovin’.” Halfway through there’s a subtle shift in the chord progression, and Garcia starts singing “La Bamba.” It was a great surprise for many on hand, although a healthy percentage of the audience knew they had done this combo for the first time on 9-7-87 in the Providence Civic Center, a show I was at. In MSG, the place went bonkers as Garcia crooned, “Yo no soy marinero, soy capitan. Soy capitan, soy capitan,” and unleashed a devil of a concise guitar solo. The Grateful Dead were now featuring two top ten hits, because the Los Lobos version of “La Bamba” topped the Billboard charts a few weeks earlier.
            This instantly legendary segment of Grateful Dead music overshadowed the “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” encore. Just listening to the tape decades later is an emotionally draining experience. However, revisiting this encore thirty years later, I’m amazed by the performance. Garcia had to be exhausted, yet he deliberately moved through Dylan’s tune and conveyed the solemn poignancy of the lyrics. Jerry had knocked on heaven’s door, only to return to triumphantly create one of the great nights in Madison Square Garden history. I can’t rank 9-18-87 MSG as an all-time great show, or that “Morning Dew” as the best, but starting with “Watchtower,” it may be the most thrilling finale in the band’s history.
The only live event that I’ve participated in that came close to this was the 7-12-87 Dylan/Dead show at Giants Stadium. Sometimes the music plays the band, but on 9-18-87, the sanctified venue and the desires of the faithful propelled the Grateful Dead. And for a little while, these brilliant musical segments allowed me to dream that a new golden era for the Dead was on the horizon.
            This date in history gives us five Dead shows in Madison Square Garden from 19871993. In ’88, the band began a nine-show run in the Garden on September 14. I was hoping that the anniversary of the already legendary Watchtower > Dew show would be on the minds of the band as they took the stage on 9-18-88, the fourth show of this MSG residency. Perhaps they had something in store for this occasion.
            Feel Like a Stranger > Franklin’s Tower, which was common by this time, opened a seven-song first set. The Garden was shaking, the crowd was stoked, Jerry’s voice was off-kilter, and most of the jams were brief. A sweet rendition of “Stagger Lee” was the highlight of a mediocre set. There was still hope for impending magic because the year before, Jerry blew the roof off the Garden after a mediocre opening set.
            When set two opened with a surprise “Not Fade Away,” my friend Phil turned to me and said, “Oh no! We’re going to have to hear the ‘Not Fade Away’ clapping and chanting twice.” His prophecy would turn out to be true. We had both soured on “Not Fade Away,” a song that had become a feeble crowd pleaser. Although, in the opening position, anything was possible for this set. Madison Square Garden went apeshit when “NFA” segued into “Scarlet Begonias.” Garcia sang almost instantly, not letting the infectious intro resonate, and his singing was anemic. The between-verse solo was truncated, as well as the outro. At under seven minutes, I can’t think of a worse version of “Begonias.”
            Jerry put in a solid effort during “Fire,” hitting some impressive runs during his solos, but the band sounded out of whack. “Women Are Smarter” electrified the crowd on 9-18-87 and was a great setup for “Terrapin.” On this night, “Women” was dead weight, meaningless fluff before Drums. The Other One > Wharf Rat > Throwing Stones > Not Fade Away was more uninspired drivel. Another Fall ’88 show proved to be disappointing. As much of the crowd deliriously clapped to the beat while chanting: “You know our love will not fade away,” my love of touring was fading fast. 

Aside from the four MSG shows, these are the other 9-18 shows explored in Deadology:

 Filmore East (The day Jimi Hendrix died)
9-18-74 Dijon, France
9-18-82 Boston Garden
9-18-83 Nevada County Fairgrounds
9-18-94 Shorline Amphitheatre

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