Celebrating The Dead

Celebrating The Dead

“The bus came by and I got on / That’s when it all began…”

This week I was planning to write about some of my adventures (or misadventures) in southeast Asia. But the calendar tells me it’s September 23rd, and that’s a meaningful date in my history. So I’m going back to writing about an interest of mine I blogged about a couple weeks ago—music.

You see, today is the 37th anniversary of my first Grateful Dead show.

Now, before you dismiss this as just another manic Deadhead story, let me assure you: I like a lot of different kinds of music. Jazz, blues, ambient, folk, electronic, prog rock, and more. There are few musical genres where I don’t have at least a toehold. But also, I didn’t start off as a Deadhead.

Let me explain.

On September 23rd, 1982, I was still a couple months shy of my 18th birthday. However, by then I was also a surprisingly jaded concertgoer. I was a little rocker dude in junior high and high school, and I’d started out on the harder side of things. Classic album oriented rock, or AOR, permeated the airwaves in Connecticut then, with WHCN, WPLR, WCCC, and other rock stations providing a musical education that ranged from Woodstock-era acts like Hendrix and Santana to instant classics by Van Halen and AC/DC.

And not only did I soak it all in, I also got to see some of the hardest-rocking bands in the world. By the tender age of 17, I’d already seen Kiss, Aerosmith, and The Who live in concert. They were in your face, blatantly sexual, and louder than they should have been.

 

Here Come the Hippies

So when my brother introduced me to Europe ’72 by the Grateful Dead, I must admit to being somewhat underwhelmed. They weren’t bad, mind you, just a bit boring. When you’re used to listening to fast, raucous rock, those mid-tempo tunes sound kind of slow. I’d seen them on Saturday Night Live, and thought they were good, but pay for a concert? I mean, for God’s sake, that one guy has gray hair!

Nothing could have prepared me for the transformation of Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum in New Haven that crisp Thursday night. Whereas the atmosphere at the hard rock shows had been almost menacing in some cases—I vividly recall a guy offering “acid, shrooms, crystal meth” outside The Who show in ’79—the scene at the Dead show was like stepping through a portal into some idealized late 60s Haight-Ashbury fantasy. Girls with flowers in their hair. Guys wearing bell-bottoms. (Those still exist? Must be vintage, man.)

We went into this thing very chill, too. Little to no booze, possibly a little weed. A lot of water under the bridge since then, and I didn’t get sober until 1989, so my memory of all this is a bit fuzzy.

 

The Show Itself

Fortunately, this being the Dead, we have the tapes. Boy, do we ever have tapes! Of course, now they’re all FLAC or mp3 or some other type of file, but we have ‘em. And while documenting a show song by song is never my idea of a good read, there are a few things worth mentioning about my introduction to Jerry and the boys.

The Dead were still touring on the Go To Heaven record, so they played four songs off it: Alabama Getaway, Althea, and Lost Sailor > Saint of Circumstance. Pretty typical for the time. What was truly remarkable, at least to me, was how they seamlessly went from one song into another: Alabama Getaway > Greatest Story, Peggy-O > Little Red Rooster. The second set was like one long song, beginning with the brand new Touch of Gray and running all the way through to a cover of Johnny B. Goode, with only one pause between songs.

About that Touch of Gray: the Dead were all about taking chances, like opening the second set with a brand new song…one that wouldn’t see an official release for five more years. But at the time, what struck us in New Haven was how people already knew the words and sang along with them. Of course, in retrospect, it’s not hard to see that the catchy chorus was easy to master. Still. The same holds true for the then-new song Throwing Stones, with it’s refrain of “ashes, ashes, all fall down.” Who didn’t already know those words from childhood? Again, at the time, it was impressive.

I don’t always spend time listening to shows from that 1980s era, but today I’m listening to this one. I was there. And, like the song says, “I will get by. I will survive.”

 

Postscript:

Sadly, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter died just a couple days after I posted this. I got the news while on the road. I pulled up to a stop light, picked up my phone, and read the report. At that moment, my iTunes was playing the Garcia/Hunter composition Ripple.

Shortly thereafter, I read where Hunter had said his own favorite lyric was from Ripple: “Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men.”

So I literally got the news while listening to the song that contains the writer’s favorite line.

RIP, Mr. Hunter.

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Writing and running. It’s one of the oldest and, to my way of thinking, weirdest connections in the world.

I’ve been a writer, truly, since 1979. Over these past forty years, I’ve written hundreds of poems and songs, and a handful of publishable short stories. (I’ve also written a handful of miserably bad short stories, when I was learning how to write fiction in the first place.)

Most people reading this will know me for longer fiction, like my four novels. But it wasn’t until around 1990, when I started working in earnest on my first novel, that I began running.

 

Started in Panic, Continued by Desire

As it turns out, I didn’t have a notion of any writing/running connection when I became a runner. After getting sober in 1989—more on that in next week’s blog post—I hit the panic button. Just 24, I’d been smoking for years, and my pack-a-day habit doubled in my first year of sobriety. I was chronically winded.

My eating habits were nearly as bad as my lack of exercise, namely because I ate whatever I felt like. Pizza and beer followed by some Ben & Jerry’s was a perfectly acceptable meal to me. And once I stopped smoking in early ’90, I quickly realized something: it’s not that things taste better when you stop smoking, it’s that your tastebuds work better. Delicious foods are more delicious, but cheap junk tastes like cheap junk.

So I started eating healthier and I started exercising.

 

Walking to the First Power

Just as I had no notion of a connection between my beloved writing and exercise of any form, neither did I have a plan to run when I started trying to get healthy. I was merely panicked by the idea that I’d grown weak and slow at such a young age. When I first went out to exercise, it was walking only—power walking, actually.

Unfortunately, something about being a man power walking alone down a country road seemed intolerably nerdy. I felt I looked foolish; okay, I knew it. I wanted more. But beyond that, I just felt like I could go faster than even my fastest walking pace…couldn’t I?

My first attempts to run were about as tentative as many writers’ first forays into creating text. I’d walk, run a short distance, then go back to a walking pace. It was exhilarating, even scary. Yet I could do it. And those tiny bursts of running eventually turned longer, until I was going on bona fide runs.

 

Alone, Duo, Group Efforts

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the need some folks have for a running buddy or group. I’ve run alone, I’ve run with one other person, and I even ran with a group for a while.

The group runs were probably the most interesting, at least from a storytelling point of view. I wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the few fast people in the group, but the slower runners were way too slow for me. Luckily, there was one attractive young woman who ran a perfect 8.5-minute mile for six consecutive miles.

I was barely able to keep her in sight, but I knew I had to: she and I were the only mid-pack runners. If I let her get too far ahead of me, I’d be lost in a residential area, waiting and hoping for the slow people to catch up. Certainly, she never knew how much she helped me keep a good pace, and I’m not ashamed to say the view was great for the entire six-mile course.

 

Full Circle

These days, I’ve come full circle, reverting to the solo running routine that started it all. I haven’t run with a buddy or a group in years. And I’m back to that run-walk-run pattern again—which, at 55, is good enough for me.

I know there are many more dynamic written pieces on running than anything I’ll ever try to contribute to the conversation (see What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, various pieces by Joyce Carol Oates), but I do want to say I’m grateful I discovered the simple pleasures and benefits of a good run. It clears the mind, it’s good cardio, and it can even serve as a kind of meditation.

In the words of Neil Young, “Long may you run.”

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