I should not have brought the baby. It was beautiful in San Francisco, warm and breezy, and my friends were on the waterfront across from Oracle Park, perched on the rocks with cherries and beer. Reports from the previous evening—the first of Dead & Company’s three-night run—had suggested that the rocks would be more or less empty, and I anticipated a pleasant, short gathering with friends, time spent chatting over clamshell containers of Vietnamese food, the music drifting across the water, the baby strapped safely to my chest, all of us delighted, but not consumed, by the riffs. Instead, I found myself pushing a stroller down Shakedown Street, dodging dogs and crystal vendors and drunk people, full of mounting resentment. Bedtime was in two hours; I couldn’t find my friends.
The Grateful Dead has brought a lot of joy to a number of people I love, so I am fond of them, or fond enough. I don’t really have a vested interest. Initially, I didn’t understand the appeal of Dead & Company. But then I thought about the four years I spent living in Haight-Ashbury, the Dead & Company of neighborhoods, and how, alongside the ahistorical nostalgia and revisionist aesthetics, there was a real yearning for something—maybe community, or pleasure, or a tether to history. It can be hard to let go. In certain situations, it was even noble to be loyal to the past. An older man was sitting on the rocks, sipping from an enormous balloon filled with nitrous oxide. “Do you have any napkins in your luggage?” a woman asked me. “No,” I said, feeling targeted. A pitbull shuffled over to the stroller, sniffing. “No!” I barked. I realized that I was developing a very bad attitude.
My friend materialized. I handed her the Vietnamese food and said, destructively, that Shakedown Street was a nightmare. “This is no place for a baby!” I might have added. Then I turned heel and weaved the stroller back through the stream of mushroom hawkers and underdressed, zooted twentysomethings. This wasn’t puritanism; it gets cold here. “We’re almost out,” I said to the baby, who was relaxed and happy. The baby didn’t care.
Later, I wanted to listen to “Shakedown Street,” which I first heard on a mix CD that my friend, call him Michael, gave me in 2003 or 2004. In those days, I mostly listened to music on the subway, traveling to and from high school. This now strikes me as somehow incongruous—the song is too springy for the 7 AM commuter crush, its goofy swagger all wrong for a studious 16-year-old slouching around post-9/11 downtown Manhattan—but Michael’s mixes were always a little leathery and mysterious, redolent of either parental influence or parental neglect. “Werewolves of London”; a lot of Tom Waits. Where had he learned about these guys? Maybe he read the obituary section. Maybe he hung out in bars. I’ll always associate this music with Michael’s ulcer—an impressive and fearsome ailment for a 17-year-old. The doctor told him to cut it out with the alcohol and cigarettes. He quit coffee.
I found a video of “Shakedown Street” on YouTube, and listened to it while going through a backlog of mail. I had some bills, but mostly I had catalogs. Who was buying all this stuff, all this anemic, powder-coated furniture? The song ended, and the algorithm did its thing, churning out another Dead song. I remembered a family Thanksgiving several years prior, where, instead of watching football, we watched a Grateful Dead show from the ’80s. I opened a new browser window to find it. It looked like a lot of fun—everyone in shorts, glowing in low resolution. What had happened to Michael? I couldn’t find him online. So like him, I thought. For a while, I had both YouTube videos playing at the same time, and didn’t notice.
Prior to attending Dead & Company’s first night at Oracle Park, the closest exposure I’ve ever had to the Grateful Dead and its fanbase is cuddling a late husky named Capt’n Trips who belonged to my friend Jamie’s aunt. I wasn’t born in this country, sorry. What I knew going in was John Mayer and that it was going to be the kind of thing worth seeing live. I had my work phone and a copy of A. S. Hamrah’s The Earth Dies Streaming tucked inside my jacket pocket. It fit snugly enough that it was never at risk of falling out while I danced. In the bathroom I ran into a white girl with dreadlocks wearing a nightgown who reminded me of Margaret Qualley’s character in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I bought an ale and huffed up three levels of the wide stadium ramp to the View Level seats my friend Jeremy had purchased for $240 apiece with fees.
When the show began the sun was only beginning to suggest that it might soon want to set over the San Francisco Bay, and in sunlight, Oracle Park winked with b2b advertisements—Coupa, business spend management software! I checked my work phone to make sure the workflow runs I had scheduled to train an integrity text classifier were chugging along properly. Below us, I recognized the Margaret Qualley lookalike on the floor, barefoot now, twirling with boneless ecstasy. Now she reminded me of Alison Brie on molly in Sleeping With Other People. The SQL query I had used to extract the data for training had failed because I added an additional underscore to the name of the dataset.
I wanted to feel like Margaret Qualley Alison Brie, even though I had resolved to give up molly on the eve of my 24th birthday and to pursue long-distance running instead, even though I was bothered by the SQL query, even though, as implied by the statement above, I was a Bay Area tech workaholic and not a Bay Area white girl with hippie parents. I felt bashful, ashamed, like I was at least three or four steps removed from belonging at this concert, like I should have given my ticket to any one of the real fans with tie-dyed Green Apple Books T-shirts and their fingers in the air and cardboard signs with “I NEED A MIRACLE” who had been milling among the palm trees at the entrance of the stadium. “Do you want earplugs?” asked my friend Patrick. “I have them,” I said. I always keep them in my purse in case I’m going out to listen to techno with my friend Anders, who does not even live in California, but my purse is small enough that I don’t lose the earplugs at the bottom, so it’s better to be safe. I put my earplugs in.
But soon after I felt compelled to take them out. I felt like I would be depriving myself not to aurally raw-dog the final stop of the final tour of the Grateful Dead’s spinoff band featuring John Mayer, who alternated between looking thrilled and bouncy and making the same exact face as the Peter Hujar photograph on the cover of A Little Life. All of the bandmates were wearing T-shirts and hoodies, as if they were jamming in a garage and we all just happened to be there. Bob Weir wore capris and Birkenstocks. Jay Lane’s T-shirt advertised a family-run craft cannabis farm in Humboldt. None of them would have looked out of place in the building of the tech company where I work.
The show started to get more high-octane in the middle of the first set after “Ramble on Rose” with “Brown-Eyed Women,” but it was toward the end of “Wharf Rat” (sung by Weir) where Mayer really popped off. The incredible, ecstatically high-pitched sounds from the guitar that he was inexplicably able to extract with his fingers . . . I was thinking about that one interview Katy Perry did in Rolling Stone where she admitted John Mayer was better in bed than Orlando Bloom, her present lover and the father of her child. A little boy in my section on his father’s shoulders reached for one of the balloons floating around the stadium, likely full of nitrous oxide, and everyone cheered for him as he caught it, grinning, and released it back into the air.
After the intermission Mayer emerged to brave the night in a truly heinous North Face fleece. “I know you rider, gonna miss me when I’m gone,” sang the band, and the lights flashed rapidly, as if to wink at the audience, and then Jay Lane started hitting the next song without missing a beat. Other highlights of the second set: Mayer had a really good guitar solo in “Scarlet Begonias,” and Jeremy’s friend Hava arrived during “Drums and Space” and explained everything about the Grateful Dead to me. I told her I didn’t care for the visuals (during “Drums and Space” there was this stomach-churning sequence of the Golden Gate Bridge that looked like if stable diffusion were trying to animate M.C. Escher in the style of the hallucinations in Requiem for a Dream). She told me about how there was a lengthy drum interlude in every show, and about how every single show was unique in its setlist, which is what fans liked about it. Hava told me about how her roommate’s parents introduced her to the Dead, how they’ve traveled to every single stop on the tour, buying extra Miracle tickets to give to other fans, and about what it’s like to listen to the band playing its shows in Mexico, to dance with your feet in the sand. The show concluded with a tender, spare cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” accompanied by a visual presentation of Dead members past and present. As the show wound down Mayer glanced toward Weir for affirmation, but Weir looked entranced, transfixed, like he was gazing into the beyond, as if he could have continued playing forever. Burbridge snuck in one last sorrowful lick after “knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door.” Then Chimenti craned his neck to look at Mayer, Mayer nodded to his left at Chimenti, and the band sang: “Just like so many times before.”
Dead & Co. tickets were expensive, more than it cost to fly to San Francisco for unrelated reasons, but I’d heard that you could hear concerts and ball games pretty well, for free, from the shoreline across from Oracle Park. When we got there a few people had anchored boats in the shallow water of the bay, little skiffs with skull-and-roses flags flapping pirateishly. One athletic couple drifted in on paddleboards, looking like they were having the best evening of their whole lives. On the rocks at the shore, fans stood in clusters, or solo, facing the stadium and boogieing into the setting sun. The sound quality, when the band began, was pretty good out there, as good as an average audience-recorded bootleg. Audience-recorded bootlegs of Grateful Dead shows have soundtracked kind of a lot of my life, and the whole experience of the Dead on the rocks (that’s what we kept calling it, like a drink) reminded me of those listening experiences: a private perspective on a definitionally collective event. From across the water, you could only barely hear the roar of the crowd.
I’d spent the day tabling at the San Francisco Art Book Fair, where people lined up in an art gallery, behind neat rows of booths, and sold photobooks, prints, meticulously hand-bound zines. I was at ease in that sort of space: there was a real sense of order and trust, like you could leave your cash box under the booth and wander off for twenty minutes to buy an It’s-It. And I was interested in the people, who all seemed to approach an old counterculture with the gentle comforts of contemporary bougieness. They milled around in chore jackets, devotees of print culture, sorting through crates of film posters from the 1970s that had appreciated radically in value. I bought a small print of a hot dog.
There were hot dogs for sale on the waterfront by Oracle Park too, the real thing, plus many experimental vegan options. In fact all the best hippie foods were present: grilled cheese and pesto sandwiches, falafel, mellow beers. These were sold by people sitting behind booths, lined up along the shoreline in an arrangement whose architectural similarity to the book fair made me laugh. I walked along the booths and examined unlicensed Jerry-bedecked tapestries, sweatshirts, funky amethysts, at the same half-attentive pace with which I’d just flipped through risographs. But commerce felt looser here, less formal, certainly a lot less fancy, especially as the music began and the expensive-ticket-holders flowed away into the stadium. A lot of the people who remained outside seemed like they’d spent plenty of long and chaotic evenings on Shakedown Street before. “Can’t afford a doobie, can’t afford a ticket,” our neighbor on the rocks said to my friend and me, plaintively.
Around the time the second set began, I realized that in all my fantasies of Dead shows—the mental images I’ve constructed, while listening to bootlegs, of swirling crowds, acid-washed good times, the whole spirit of the counterculture pulsing through some stadium or land-grant college ballfield—it’s always daytime, or I guess golden hour. But of course jam bands are a durational art form, and so is sunlight. Some freaky stuff began happening as it got dark. Nitrous balloons popped with not un-gun-like sounds. A very young woman with face tattoos jogged around and asked, with rising panic, if anyone had seen her friends. (“They went that way an hour and a half ago,” she said, “and I haven’t seen them since.”) On the riprap, solo dancers stumbled and lost their footing. John Mayer sang a bunch of songs in a row.
I used to spend more time with people like this, brave and groovy friends who were always hitchhiking to the Rainbow Gathering and coming back with ringworm. Years ago we killed a long night digging through somebody’s parents’ record collection and subjecting each other to old favorites, and at one point I put on the self-titled album by the minor San Francisco–based summer-of-love act It’s A Beautiful Day. We listened to a few minutes of sub-Dead noodling, and then, to my dismay, my friend Jacob noted the band’s sonic resemblance to Lynyrd Skynyrd, rendering the music uncool forever. Our other friend winced protectively. “You can’t just do that to a band,” he cried. That’s what I thought about whenever they let Mayer sing a Jerry song.
Still: it really was a beautiful day, and then a beautiful night. Our comrades on the rocks sang, or yipped, along to the music—“Turn On Your Lovelight,” a vigorous “Uncle John’s Band”—and we joined in, sheepishly and then with gusto. At our remove, half a mile from the stage, this activity had a karaoke quality, although the singalongs were punctuated by long improvisational jams, impossible to participate in. I was struck by the obvious fact that this was the essential dichotomy of psychedelic music, even in very un-psychedelic times: a back-and-forth between familiarity and surprise, words and melodies you know as well as you know anything falling apart into pure novelty and then reassembling back toward structure. I liked the moments of structurelessness, out there on the rocks. My friend and I used them as occasions to catch up about work.
I tried to listen, in the music, for some sense of finality, the buoyant mournfulness you can hear in the recording of LCD Soundsystem’s final show at Madison Square Garden, The Long Goodbye. As I suspect might be true of Dead & Co., LCD Soundsystem reunited only a couple years after that last performance, which meant that their long goodbye was barely a goodbye at all—a goodbye without leaving, like the title of the Laurie Colwin novel I happened to have brought with me to California. That book is about being into a vanishing musical form (Motown, an objectively cooler genre than psychedelic rock and a musically superior one), and about making space in your life for the pleasures of such music even as you age out of active participation in its culture. I thought about the novel the morning after the show, back at work among the crisp, slightly square environs of the art book fair. “You can be true to your school and still make normal conversation,” Colwin writes. “You can act like a regular person and still boogie in your soul.”
It’s always a puzzle, whether to go see aging rockers.
The backing band will be corny, the rock star will be unable to stand up or will stagger around the stage trying to thrust a hip or strike a pose on the old cues. Most painfully the voice will be out of tune, ragged, favoring the lower-voiced songs, unable to reach upper octaves, cracking on required notes in the choruses, or, worse, skipping them, while the singalong audience fills in.
The arrangements will be flaccid, the tempos slow. A certain easy-listening quality will have crept in. With only one or two original members left, the band relies on pick-up musicians who know the old conventions but don’t have the power to change them—and when they do change them, you hear the incongruity as kitsch. This happens to all sorts of musical acts that continue to tour without a rationale other than moneymaking or vanity.
The virtue of having old rockers onstage before you—in addition to allowing fans who knew them when to continue to celebrate, or mourn, or do the old dances—is that it lets younger people encounter and hear “the originals,” once, in person: the individuals, the incarnate beings, who did a remarkable musical thing, long ago. However much of the actual music you have to scrub out in your mind in order to appreciate the parts that are sublime, I’ve come around to this feeling that the idiosyncratic continuity of an originator playing and singing songs they recorded can be worth all the ear-suffering and disappointment, and is not to be condescended to.
The Grateful Dead ceased touring after the death of Jerry Garcia. Individual members formed their own bands, reasonably enough. Since everyone wants to see the originals all back on stage together, there have re-emerged, for better and for worse, for thirty years, in ever-more attenuated forms of the Grateful Dead. Good no doubt for the fans, who had lost an annual occasion to put on their tie-dye and get wild. Not so good musically, or karmically, because the Dead without Jerry is a diminished thing.
Here we are, nearly three decades later, at the last performances of yet another configuration of the remains of the Dead. They’ve been playing different versions of farewell tours and final shows since 1974, when their last bows were filmed at Winterland in San Francisco and released as The Grateful Dead Movie. But their actual last performance was at Soldier Field in Chicago in July 1995, a month before Garcia’s death. The much-touted last performances by all four survivors, from the original six, occurred twenty years later, also at Soldier Field, in 2015. So expectations for whatever was happening this week in San Francisco could not run very high.
I heard all three nights, the first set on Friday, both sets on Saturday, and the second set on Sunday, from the rocks across the little inlet by Oracle Park at Mission Bay. The sound outside was better than at many official outdoor concerts. Nor was there any obstacle to the crowd of Deadheads around me getting high on a variety of drugs. I didn’t see police on any of the nights I was there, except once motoring by on a boat without glancing shoreward.
Dead & Co., if compared to the Grateful Dead, are not very good. Still, for all that, the amazing and transcendent thing happened again, for me, on one song of every five or ten. The magic is attached now to the aged voice of Bob Weir, and to his touch as a guitar player.
The voice of a rock singer is the thing that is truly irreplaceable, transcendent, shiver-inducing, and which feels as if it communicates a kind of knowledge, not solely available on record or through any other substitute or understudy. Another musician could reproduce a verse note for note and it’s still unlikely to sound the way it does when sung by its originator. Nor would it matter. For an exact copy, you would just go to the record.
But hearing the originator in person, with all that is missing as well as the new qualities of continuity, age, rust, wear, and wearing away—it’s moving, almost to the point of awe, or holiness. All the more so the better you know the recorded originals. The compensations or losses are the point. Plus the fact of the continuity of the person—that they are still here, performing for you.
With the Dead, not only are the originals burned into your mind, but so are the piles of performances of these same songs, from the ’60s and the ’70s, so, fifty years of voice ago. Having heard “Sugar Magnolia” these umpteen times, every vocal delivery is still in some measure running alongside the issued take on American Beauty. This is the cruelty of rock to old performers, and a function of its historical particularity as a mid-20th-century form. Unlike something like classical music—in which any performance of Beethoven’s piano sonatas by anyone capable is going to be possibly as great as any other—rock travels as a recorded music, even when the recordings are live.
I remember a much older friend who couldn’t listen to the Billie Holliday recordings for Verve, from late in her life, because he had in his head the early recordings on Columbia and Decca. He had lived through the postwar jazz era and so it was immediate to him. In fact he found it ghoulish to lionize a singer’s performances when she had to compensate for so much, an infinity of suppleness, ease, and beauty she had lost through physical accident and age and wear. It felt crushing to this true fan, profoundly unjust, to imagine that other people were listening to the late recordings at the expense of the early, or to romanticize her suffering instead of her splendor; then, they would never actually know who Billie Holiday was, as an artist, or why she is celebrated, and what she had used to be capable of. I understand what he felt. At the same time, I do find myself listening to Songs for Distingué Lovers sometimes, in a certain mood, and the moving quality is in what a genius can do with limitation, or an artist do in continuing to live, and age, even as prematurely as age and death came to Billie Holliday.
In hearing, as the sun set and the sky went pink, Bob Weir singing in his voice at age 75 (he was always the baby in the band) songs he’s sung for fifty years, by himself or with Jerry, “Playin’ in the Band,” “Not Fade Away,” his parts of “Jack Straw” and “Truckin,’” “Sugar Magnolia”—I even liked hearing “Estimated Prophet” here—I certainly knew that a voice at 70 is a far cry from a voice at 20. But the singer has to find ways to compensate. Or to let the difference show. Hearing the original within the variation, there was the sense of time passing, time you didn’t experience yourself, as if it passed from one person to another through presence.
I don’t mean to be occult, but if it felt like only Bobby could rightly sing the Jerry lines and Jerry songs, too, it was because he’s in effect the closest repository of all those lines sung, year after year, too—only twenty feet, at most forty, across the stage, hearing how his bandmate felt and phrased them. (When John Mayer was allowed to sing—I guess for some people John Mayer is an appeal of Dead & Co.—I tried to think about something else, and pretend it was not happening.)
Hearing the songs sung by Bob Weir, in the aged voice of Bob Weir as he is now, a living person, with all the grain and the scarring and the modifications and adjustments to range, the phrasing sometimes matching the record, sometimes straying, is like hearing one of the great bands, emerging like a ghost, gliding forward toward you. A moment on par with the best of them is happening again in your presence, vibrations traveling by microphone and electricity and speaker diaphragms, through air, wind, to your ear. That justified the rest.