Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Wretch Like Me (A Short Story)

          By the end of the Eighties, I was a bona fide Deadhead.  I went to forty-three East Coast Grateful Dead concerts by the spring of 1993, and when I moved to Northern California, I saw another forty-five shows on the West Coast. I enjoyed each and every concert and I acquired a large group of laid-back friends.  Every show was a unique musical, and sometimes spiritual, journey for me.  A few memorable expeditions were close to being, what I would consider life-changing events.  Somehow, the music spoke to my friends, and me and we often danced that reckless hippy hop with unbridled abandon, not really caring much about the world beyond the reach of the song.  The safe, accepting atmosphere at a Dead show was unlike anything else I had experienced.  It was like passing through an actual time warp, back to a kinder, gentler time, where just about everyone around you was affable.  Outside each show, the parking lots became Shakedown Streets where vendors and artists bought, sold and traded their wares.  You could buy t-shirts, grilled cheese sandwiches and original artwork.  I always felt safe, surrounded by the welcoming and peaceful community, despite the fact that half of them were tripping or shrooming.  There was always an underlying feeling of pure hedonistic revelry, and it appealed to me, and obviously, many others like me.  I made a connection with the whole scene, but deep down, I was drawn to the music.  Many came for the party, but most came for the music.  Specifically, for me, I came to hear Jerry Garcia.

            Like most bands, there are fans that favor certain musicians over others, while still maintaining a love for the cohesive unit.  Take the Beatles, for example.  It says a lot about a person if they prefer John Lennon over Paul McCartney, or vice versa.  It says something else entirely if they admit to being a Ringo or a George fan.  The Deadheads also predictably broke up into factions, and like Lennon-McCartney, the bulk were divided between Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Jerry had his songs and Bob had a repertoire of his own. There were always those deadheads that lived to hear the bassist Phil sing the odd song, and others who came for the duel drumming team of Bill and Mickey. Each show every band member would get his moment in the spotlight.  Although I appreciated all of it, I treasured hearing Jerry play his guitar, and singing in his raspy heartfelt vocals.  I was surely not the only one. Most likely, I was with the majority of Deadheads, as Jerry’s army was vast.  There were shows when I felt that Jerry was actually singing directly to me, and to me alone.  Again, I was probably not the only one (shrooming).  Jerry had a vibe that affected you, if you let it, and I couldn’t get enough of it.  When Jerry would go off on an extended guitar solo, you could feel this wave of musical nourishment and contentment sweep through the audience.  Fields of happy consumers danced away their troubles and reveled in the pureness of the moment, deftly aware of Jerry’s magical fingers.
            I was living in Pittsburgh, when I began to go to Grateful Dead shows.  I saw every show that came within striking distance, often traveling to Cleveland, Philly or Maryland for a weekend of revelry.  In 1993, I moved to the Mecca of the Dead, where I took up residence in Mill Valley in Marin County.  Unexpectedly, I ended up teaching in a preschool only blocks away from the homes of both Bob and Jerry.  A few times I even saw Bob in his powder blue BMW, and a couple of times I actually ran into Jerry.  Once, as I was waiting in line at the Paradise Liquor Store in Corte Madera, Jerry got in line behind me with a jar of Jiffy peanut butter and a loaf of Wonder bread.  I smiled at him and gave him a little head nod but didn’t have the courage, or the desire, to pester him.  A year later, on my lunch break from the preschool, as I was driving home on the 101 highway between Mill Valley and Corte Madera, I thought I saw Jerry again.  This time he was standing on the side of the freeway next to a dented BMW, looking confused.  I did a double take as I drove past him.  When I got back to work, I told my co-teacher that I thought I saw Jerry Garcia on the highway and she quickly dismissed it, suggesting that I was merely having a flashback.  The next day I read in the paper that Jerry had indeed driven his loaner BMW (from the BMW dealership where he was getting his BMW fixed) into the guardrail, and had ended up on the roadside, fazed but unhurt.  There were intimations about the dangers of mixing heroin and driving, and it saddened me to hear about it.  We all knew Jerry was in a bit of trouble and that his personal demons were gaining strength.
            Less than a year later, I was driving to work and I noticed, while sitting in slow moving traffic, that the lady in the car next to me was crying.  I didn’t think much of it until I noticed three more cars in the line-up with visibly sobbing drivers.  I stopped, as I usually did each morning, at the 7-11 to get a hot chocolate on my way to work.  The woman at the counter, whom I was friendly with, looked up at me and I could tell that she had been crying as well.  There was no one else in the store, so when I approached the counter I gave her a puzzled look and a shoulder shrug.
            “Didn’t you hear?” she asked.
            “Hear what?” I asked back.
            “Jerry died last night,” she said, looking as if she was going to start weeping again at any moment.
            I felt like someone punched me in the stomach.
            “He was just in here last week and he signed a magazine for me,” she claimed, pointing to the magazine rack, one of which having a smiling Jerry on the cover.
 “I just can’t believe it,” she added with a sob.
            When I got to the preschool, as the parents arrived to drop off their kids, there was a melancholy sadness in the air and we all spoke in quiet tones.  Some of the parents were more affected than others, some clearly shaken.  A few stayed in the playground for a while, comforting and hugging each other.  It was a long day for me, and I remember it sadly.  Soon after, there were vigils held in Golden Gate Park, a memorial service and concert, and a rather publicized funeral in Tiburon, attended by many.  Deadheads mourned the world over, and most considered it the end of the Grateful Dead.

            Time passed, and I went on with my life.
            One particular night, some time later, I had this extraordinary dream.  One of my preschool students had given me a “Dream Pillow” as a gift, and because of it, I had been having the most lucid dreams of my adult life.  Filled with Native American herbs and spices, it smelled a little funky, but I kept it under, or near my pillow as I slept.  This strange dream started as I was cresting a grassy hill, in what seemed like a schoolyard.  I noticed a band playing to a small crowd and I headed toward the music to check it out.
As I got closer, I could hear and see that it was unmistakably the Grateful Dead.  I stood there confused for a bit, listening to the music as I examined the band more closely.  Jerry was playing his signature Rose guitar, yet he seemed somehow different from the rest of the musicians.  There was an aura about him, like he was standing in a colored spotlight.  I noticed a few folks off to my left on the grass, dancing and spinning away in the afternoon sun.  I went over to them and one of the girls stopped dancing to look up at me.
            “Ummm... how is Jerry playing?” I asked softly.  “Isn’t he dead?”
            “Yeah, but it is not really Jerry, it is just a holographic image of him” she answered with a smile.
            She went back to dancing, and I could smell the patchouli cloud she left behind.  I looked around trying to get my bearings, and I felt pretty sure that I was somewhere in San Rafael, from my angled view of Mt. Tamalpias in the background.  There were no more than twenty or thirty people dancing, and just before I decided to join them, the band went gradually quiet into a break between songs.  As they tuned up, I sat down on the warm grass and tried to listen attentively and take it all in.  Occasionally, during Dead shows, from the tuning alone, you could recognize enough to make out the song they were about to play.  I watched as Holo-Jerry began to play, and right away, surprisingly, I made out the song.  It was not, however, a Dead song.  It was a gospel song, and as Jerry started to sing Amazing Grace, I got goose bumps on my arms and I felt an overwhelming sadness begin to build deep inside.  I had always liked the song, but it held no specific religious or spiritual meaning for me.  Yet, as it played, it affected me with startling power, as it had never done before.  Jerry sang with calmness and clarity.  I choked back tears, eventually succumbing to a calm, controlled weeping as I took deep breaths and listened to his voice cut through the air.  I noticed the Deadheads around me also looking mournful and somber, and I realized what a cathartic moment we were experiencing together.  Then, Jerry looked right at me and smiled, causing me to sob harder and inflicting what felt like an actual pain in my chest.  A snot bubble burst from my nose, and as I was clutching my self, gasping for a bigger breath... I heard my phone ring.
            Abruptly, I awoke from the dream.  Tears were rolling down my cheeks, and my nose left a puddle on the pillow.  My stomach felt tight, and I was sweating as I reached for the phone.
            “Hello?” I answered in a cracked voice.
            “Hey, it’s Karen.  Were you sleeping?” asked my friend Karen, who obviously knew I was sleeping.
            Karen was one of my Deadhead friends and I had gone to many shows with her.  As I began to wake up and recall my dream, she said something peculiar to me.  Before I even had a chance to say anything to her at all, she said, “Lee, today is a very sad day.”
            “Sad?” was all that I could muster in response.
            “Didn’t you know?  Today is the one year anniversary of Jerry’s passing,” she said.  “Yes, it is sad,” she added.
            I bolted upright in bed and told her, in explicit detail, about the dream.  I had not talked to her, or anybody, in the days or weeks proceeding, about the anniversary of Jerry’s death.  It was not on my mind, nor had I recently even thought much about it.  We talked about the strangeness in the timing of the dream, and what it could all possibly mean. We talked for an hour and it seemed odd, but it would only get stranger yet.

            Two years later, I went to a Further Festival at Shoreline Amphitheater to see the new incarnation of The Dead (no pun intended).  During intermission, I was sitting on a blanket on the grass talking to my friend Alex as he enjoyed a veggie burrito.  His girlfriend, Mary Jo, was in front of us talking with a girl in a glittery dress.  I overheard a part of Mary Jo’s conversation and I interrupted Alex to listen in.  I heard the words “holographic image” and I perked up and eavesdropped even more.  Mary Jo was describing a dream she had about a band that she thought was the Dead. 
            “Mary Jo!!!  I think I had that dream, too!!” I yelled.  “Were you in a schoolyard?”
            “Yeah, I think so”, she answered.
            “Do you remember anything they played?” I stammered.
            “No, not really... I just remember being surprised that Jerry was a holographic image.  I don’t remember much else.  It was a weird dream”, she said.
            “Maybe you were one of the other people I saw on the hill,” I offered.
            “Wow... that’s creepy”, she said.
            The girl in the dress just looked at me and said "Dude".
            For the rest of that day, we contrasted and compared the memories and recollections of our shared dream.  To my surprise, it would get stranger even yet.

            A couple more years later, I was babysitting for David “Dawg” Grisman, a mandolin player that had often played with Jerry, and had become his close friend.  I had met Grisman’s wife and son in a local toy store in Mill Valley, where I worked part time for one of my student’s moms.  Dawg was friendly with me, and I often bumped into him at his house after school.  Sam, David’s nine year-old son, would take me on a tour of the home studio, which was in their basement.  There was a wall that had been signed by all the visiting musicians who had jammed with Grisman, and I spent a long time, with Sam’s help, trying to decipher the names.  Jerry had signed it a few times and had doodled some pictures here and there.  Framed Jerry drawings hung in Sam’s room above his bed.  One day, Dawg came over to me and handed me a CD.  He asked me what I thought of the cover picture and the insert art.  The CD looked like a pizza box, and when the disc (which itself looked like a veggie pizza) was removed, it showed a greasy cardboard bottom with a few crusts underneath.  The picture on the back of the insert was of David and Jerry with Tony Rice, another incredible musician, between them.  Jerry had a big smile on his red face, and he was wearing his trademark plain black t-shirt.  I asked David more about the music on the CD, which was called the Pizza Tapes.  He told me that he had jammed with Jerry and Tony in his studio a while ago and that they had recorded it.  He told of me of a story that had recently emerged about a pizza delivery boy who had, allegedly, swiped a cassette tape from Jerry’s kitchen counter while waiting to be paid.  The “Pizza Tapes”, as it had become known, was one of the most sought after bootlegs around, so David decided to release it officially with excellent audio quality.  I opened the liner notes and read down the set list.  When I saw the title of song number fourteen, I froze.  It was Amazing Grace
            It mentions in the liner notes that Tony’s wife Pam had asked Jerry if he’d sing Amazing Grace, and that he’d obliged.  It also tells that it was the only time they had ever heard Jerry sing the song.  David let me keep the CD and I when I got in my car to go home, immediately, I forwarded to track fourteen.  I turned out of the driveway as I heard the first few bars, but soon after, I had to pull to the side of the road and listen intently.  Every hair on my body stood upright and I quivered with a downhearted ache.  Jerry’s voice was stark and honest and the effect was numbing, and deeply heartfelt.  
            In that moment, Jerry was singing to me. 
            Only to me.

How sweet the sound. 

Listen in the post below


Anonymous said...

thanks amigo! great post!

Cul-de-sac-ed said...

Such a sweet story. I doubt anyone will feel as strongly when Miley Cyrus dies.

Anonymous said...

Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!.