Part 7 of my long strange trip to the Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary “Fare Thee Well”
My work finally approved an out of town conference request for me, and I was headed out to San Francisco for the ITVA Conference at the of May. With flights, hotel, car, and conference all paid for, I arranged to fly out a few days early to visit with Marty. When I checked to see if there were Dead-related events during that time, I found out about an all-day benefit at Oakland Stadium, “In Concert Against AIDS.” Performers that day would include Tracy Chapman, John Fogerty, Los Lobos, Joe Satriani, Tower Of Power — and the Grateful Dead.
Marty had not been planning on going, since the Dead were just part of the stadium show line-up, but he agreed to go along with me. By this time, a lot of folks in the Bay Area particularly, but California in general, were tired of seeing so many Deadheads everywhere all the time. Local AIDS advocates worried the Dead’s headlining status might impact attendance, but the crowd filled the Oakland Coliseum Stadium nicely. Marty and I opted to sit up in the shaded stands rather than join the folks on the field, pretty far away but centered for good sound.
One big highlight of the afternoon was John Fogerty playing, with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir as part of his band. Somehow, though, that pairing never quite gelled as I had hoped. It’s not that the set wasn’t enjoyable — it was. But with expectations sky-high, I felt like they didn’t actually knock it out of the park. To carry on the baseball comparison, I’d call it a “ground rule double.”
Still — what a thrill to watch John Fogerty play “Center Field” — from a stage in the center field of his hometown team’s baseball stadium!
Dusk settled in before the Dead’s set. Stage screens were lowered from above the stage to sit to the right and left of stage. The daytime crowd had thinned out a lot by the time the Dead hit the stage. From our faraway seats, the music still sounded strong, especially when Brent took the mic for “Blow Away.”
A man and a woman come together as strangers —
When they part, they’re usually strangers still…
Brent always played this song with the intense passion suitable to the subject. And he’d long been adding a spoken interlude to this particular tune — but this time, he pulled out all the stops like I’d never heard before.
He warned of how holding onto love too much, where you hold it so tightly, you end up caging it your heart — telling us how you had to free that love to feel it soar again, even if it flew away. With the band’s steady rhythm rising behind him, Brent held us spellbound, then came roaring back full-throated into the chorus, singing:
Baby, who’s to say it could’ve been different now it’s done?
Baby, who’s to say that it should have been, anyway?
Baby, who’s to say if it even matters in the long run?
Give it just a minute and it will blow away…
That was the last time I would get to hear Brent play.
“Is she a Deadhead?”
“Oh…” Kate’s voice trailed off.
The end of the eighties triggered a seismic shift in the planet’s forces: I got married.
If you were anywhere near me or Sara at that time, you got to experience what my brother described as feeling much like “‘Ground Zero’ of a nuclear explosion” — of love. We met and married within 6 weeks after a quick coast-to-coast-to-coast romance. But that’s another story entirely, actually several…
No, Sara was not a Deadhead when we married. Coming from 7 years in California, she certainly had encountered Deadheads, and knew about (maybe shared a little of) the disdain many folks there felt to the constant presence of so many Deadheads. She knew some of their music already, and she sure did get an earful of Dead music from me once we were married. But she had not seen them live — yet.
Meanwhile, Albert had gotten married as well, and he and Rebecca moved overseas to start working with refugees in Hong Kong. He had called me when he heard about Brent’s self-inflicted accidental death by speedball to verify the sad news. The Dead soldiered on, adding Bruce Hornsby on keys (temporarily, as his own performing schedule allowed) and then added Vince Welnick as a full-time keyboard player. Some shows featured both keyboard players.
Meanwhile, Albert contacted me about an upcoming visit home from in Hong Kong: “I need a show. I can go anywhere in the state, I just need that one show…” So, I tried for both Kansas City and Denver tickets on the summer 91 tour, and got half-lucky, scoring tickets for the Mile High Stadium show in Denver. Albert would meet us there, and Sara and I headed off on the road to Colorado.
Looking at our tickets on the way up from Austin, I had figured we’d be sitting up in pigeon heaven from the triple letter designation. We didn’t care as long as we were in the stadium. When we walked in, though, signs pointed us to the field seats — where we had tickets about 50th row, an absolutely incredible spot for a stadium show. I watched as a guy reached his seat a couple of rows up, and checked his tickets in disbelief. Then, he stood up on his seat, raised both arms up, facing to the back and let out a triumphant shout.
Albert easily won the “Who came the farthest for the show?” contest among our new “neighbors” with his Hong Kong trip, earning major props. Carlos Santana’s “warm-up” sizzled blisteringly hot, and Sara was rocking out when somebody nearby said, “If you like this, you’re gonna love Drums!”
Well, Sara certainly earned her status as a Deadhead when she headed off for the porta-potties about halfway through the set break. I’d just gotten back from my own bathroom line adventures — which took awhile — and as she left, I worried she wouldn’t be able to make it back to our seats before the second set.
Sure enough, the lights went down, the crowd stood up and roared — and no Sara yet. Great, I thought — she’s not going to be able to get through the crowd to get back here. And she’s going to hate the show, and the Dead, and, well, me. So when she showed up, I breathed a sigh of relief. She said whenever folks acted like she couldn’t get past them, she insisted, “No, I have a seat up there,” pointing, “And I will get back there.” Love that lady!
Starting the second set with “Eyes of the World,” the band opened up a big ol’ can of jams to lay on us. Having the two keyboard players made for a magnificent blend of threads in the musical tapestry. Maybe the 5th (and 6th) time would be the charm for the “hot seat” in the band. As they rolled into “Crazy Fingers,” Brent’s death the prior year still hung heavily on the Deadhead universe, a harsh reminder of our human frailties and the pressures of being a high-profile performer.
Beneath the sweet calm face of the sea
A keyboard player dies, people get married — the world shrugs, smiles, and goes on.
TO BE CONTINUED…