Encore: Dead before death
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 6, 2013 - I spent the entirety of my 20s and the better part of my 30s convinced that I could and would hate The Grateful Dead for the duration of my days on this mortal coil. Changing that impression of Grateful Dead awfulness? Well, it wasn’t that I lacked opportunities.
There was one, special moment of possible transition. On June 22, 1991, my then-Chicago-based girlfriend and I walked through the Soldier Field parking lot, ogling the Deadheads as they set up their mobile campground and bazaar on the expansive fields of concrete.
At the time, I had no interest in buying a ticket from one of the scalpers, sure that the show would rank among the worst experiences of my life; thinking back on it, I’m regretful that I didn’t take a stab at getting into the show. Because the Dead would only survive a few more years. On Aug. 9, 1995, I’d cover Jerry Garcia’s death for the RFT, when fans convened on the top of Art Hill for a candlelight vigil on the night of his passing. Again, the scene was viewed with an outsider’s sense of skepticism, if not hostility.
While those were memorable, bigger-picture moments, there were hundreds of smaller ways I could’ve locked into what the fuss was all about. St. Louis, after all, has always been a cover band town. And for a good number of recent years, two Dead tribute bands have played shows around town: Jake’s Leg, a local staple, typically thought to attract more of the older ‘Heads; and The Schwag, a group that toured the region regularly and gained popularity through its Schwagstock and Spookstock shows at Camp Zoe, in rural Missouri. Each have tapped into a ready batch of fans, some of them friends of mine, who would follow their favorite tribute bands through a variety of now-gone venues, from the large (Mississippi Nights) to the small (20 North).
It would be a TV show, oddly enough, that began the process of breaking down the wall. In the amazing finale to the much-loved, short-lived comedy “Freaks and Geeks,” series protagonist Lindsey Weir discovers The Dead through the album “American Beauty,” spinning in the bedroom to the lead cut, “Box of Rain.” That’d be my own, first Dead record. Other, small cracks continued to take down that wall.
Instead of instantly turning the dial when KDHX kicked into Saturday night’s “Deader Than Ever,” I listened and began to develop some familiarity with the sounds of the Dead’s multiple lineups; Jim Bruce is a great, laidback host and definitely knows how to convey his enthusiasm for the band that defines his every show.
I burned a few copies of “Dick’s Picks,” the popular bootleg series of Dead shows; turns out that these are often very nice accompaniments to grading college papers. Writing a couple stories about The Schwag helped even more; earlier in the Encore series, I profiled Jimmy Tebeau, in the weeks before he went away to federal prison on a plea bargain deal that saw his popular Camp Zoe seized. Catching that band on a number of occasions made things click, emotionally.
If there’s one, single moment, though, that maybe allowed Dead culture to make sense of me, it occurred at 2720 on May 25 of this year. In one of those “St. Louis is a small town” moments, a past-and-current Webster student of mine, Jimmy Eberle, roasted the show for The Riverfront Times.
It’s interesting that some of his lines could’ve come out of my mouth, or out of my own pen at a similar age. But, for me, what clicked at that gig was really elemental. The band was playing to an audience hanging on every note, not wanting the show to end, realizing that The Schwag would be going on a three-year hiatus the second the show ended. And with the extended set-closer, “Touch of Grey,” the entire crowd sang and danced and swayed and wept and … well, they broke down the final bit of cynicism in at least one onlooker. Hell, it was the best musical moment I enjoyed in 2013. So bittersweet, so joyous, so tribal, so good.
Tracy tells it
In the mid-’90s, a band from St. Louis named Vitamen A (aka Vitamin A), began playing with a membership that included a mix of jazzbos, Deadheads, rockers, jammers and a showtune composer, for good measure. There was a strange blend of music, combining a definite Deadhead tinge, but expanding outward.
On a couple of occasions, I traveled with the band, or hung out with them in other cities. While I still wasn’t completely catching the vibe, I understood the appeal of hanging out with Deadheads on the road. It’s fun. Capital F, really: Fun. FUN!
Thinking about this piece, I touched base with Tracy Lowe, a member of Vitamen A, formerly of The Kind and The Schwag, and a present-day amplifier builder/designer with his own company, SoundScraper Productions. I figured he’d be a good person to bounce an idea and he got back to me like super-quickly. I asked him where he’d send someone to understand The Dead, the path that he’d send someone down. He responded with a short essay of his own journey, entitled
“Old guy opening up”:
So, I was an ex-punk/metal-head that loved to shred and felt pretty confident in my ability to play fast. I had known about The Dead from the ‘70s when my older neighbor would play his American Beauty album a lot.
I knew all of the songs that any KSHE listener knew. My first experience was scoring weed in the parking lot at a Dead show with my fellow metal-head and bandmate Jimmy Tebeau. I was really used to getting a lot of attention from "my scene" which was punk/classical metal but not at a Dead show? Perhaps they didn't know who I was.
I was use to everything being about me but these people could care less. My first impressions were pretty close minded; I remember a girl with what looked like a horse blanket wrapped around her, Jimmy said "that's a poncho" and I thought it was pretty embarrassing for the poor girl. I didn't want to go inside the concert but Jimmy talked me into it.
The show was a semi-famous one: July 21, 23 1990, at The World Music Theater, in Tinley Park IL, which was Brent Mydland's last show. I was 28 years old. The show started out kind of like a country rock band; I had them in the same category as Marshall Tucker or Charlie Daniels.
The crowd standing up and having these Charles Manson family smiles were freaking me out! Didn't they know that other people were watching and judging them? The first night had some alright songs in it but nothing changed my life; but on the 23rd, somewhere around “Victim or the Crime” I realized that I really should have studied up on hippie lingo!
The old guy in the lot that came up to me and Jimmy and offered to "share" with us and asked "want a puddle?” This is how I learned a valuable lesson, a puddle is MUCH larger than a drop! As hard as I would try, I could not get rid of my pixeled view.
“Terrapin Station” starts and I'm thinking that these guys were messing with something dangerous, they knew something that they weren't supposed to know and I thought that they really shouldn't be messing with it. The music, the colors, the sound, lights, the fractal projections all reminded me of something that we aren't supposed to remember on this side. I felt tears welling up for some reason and I let my guard down but no one cared still. Terrapin was like a metal song to me and I thought "why don't they play like this all of the time.”
I was HURTING BAD and here comes drums and space. I was convinced that something big was going to happen, some punishment on all of us for being a willing accomplice to the alchemy. Jimmy and I didn't have tickets together and I was alone and had to decide what was real and what was imagined. I was in really bad shape and I remembered that I had a few J's on me, so I lit one up.
Knowing that I was in the worst shape of anyone in this whole place, the guy next to me looked at me and tried to communicate with his teeth clenched tight. I kind of wanted to laugh at him because he was in worse shape than me and his eyes were huge and pupils blown completely wide open, I thought that he looked like a baby eagle. I said WHAT?? With his jaws shut tight he tried again, "Hey man, can I get some of that?" I don't know why I said this, I wasn't trying to be mean at all but I looked at him and smiled and said "Sure. Don't worry, you make it every time.”
He hit it a few times and handed it back and his jaw was a little more relaxed and he said “WHAT?” I said "I'm from the future and you make it every time." He smiled and his shoulders went from someplace around his ears to a more relaxed stance. I remember standing on the moon and I almost got it, but still couldn't wait for it to be over so we could hit the parking lot scene. I didn't really understand but half dressed hippie girls, fantastic mind toys and smiles made me so curious. I was wandering around in what had to be 50,000 people in a huge Shakedown Street.
A hippie girl came up to me and asked if I was hungry and she fed me fried potatoes and talked to me until i came back to earth. I thought she was a part of the whole thing. I come back to the Lou and there is this hippie girl at a Three Merry Widows show. I was so happy to see her but she replied that she fed 50 people at that show and didn't even remember me. What a crazy scene!
Around my third show I heard “The Other One” and that is where I gave up and found my Manson smile :) The whole scene taught me not to care what people thought as much and probably saved mine and others’ lives. These days I proudly admit to being a ‘Head but the punk rocker in me still dares someone to talk down to me about it. Catholic schools taught me nothing about religion but The Dead showed me God.
Jimmy and I started The Kind at Molly's in Soulard and a year later, I wanted an offshoot so I got bass, guitar and a drummer from Blue Dixie and started The Schwag. The original Schwag was supposed to be an outlet for originals, Dead, Phish etc. I heard a thousand “thank you's” from people that said our rough interpretation saved them.
The whole thing taught me to be kind. I used to get tickets for Schwagstocks and I would walk down the line of cars looking for that special person. It was never the beautiful girl that was able to smile and get into any show, it was always the person that looked uncomfortable, didn't fit in and wasn't beautiful and I would lean into their car and ask "Did you buy tickets yet" and if they were nice and said “no,” I would give them a free ticket.
Some 10 years later a shy girl came up to me and said that she was one of those miracle ticket girls. I didn't really remember her but it felt good and she told me that this simple act changed her life. I never told Jimmy about giving these tickets away, it was kind of my secret. Sorry JT! It was so hard to open my mind because I was programed to be mad. I feel so fortunate to have been alive for this gift! I can't see another band creating something like this again and this is why I still listen to this music as an older adult.
One miracle left
I’m heading to The Shanti, where I’ll order a Schlafly Pale Ale from the effervescent Laurie Anne. I’ll drop a dollar into the jukebox and my hand’ll reach for “Terrapin Station.” (That’s a lotta song for a buck!) I’ll re-read Tracy’s note and will hopefully catch an inspiration of some sort. And, at some odd moment, I’ll realize that I wouldn’t have allowed myself this small pleasure at a different point in life. Reinvention’s fun like that.
Note: One way to order Thomas Crone's ebook, based on his Beacon columns is to go to Amazon.