Earlier we talked to someone who shared her thoughts about what it was like to be “on tour” with the band. What it was like in the lot, what they did to earn a living and more. Today we talked to someone about being “on tour” with a focus on what was going on on the inside– of the venue and the person. Thanks to Willie for today’s interview. Willie currently resides in Colorado and shared his perspective on the music, magic and mayhem of the life of a Deadhead.
Have you always been a deadhead? How did you get into the music (and the scene)?
There was a period of time that I actively resisted the Grateful Dead. When I was 14 or 15 I entered a “folk music phase.” Tired of all the Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Yes, Genesis stuff that my brothers were feeding me, I started getting into Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and bluegrass big time, so I was beginning to lean that way. I was a regular at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. I got a copy of Old and In The Way but for whatever reason I didn’t give the GD a chance, though I was certainly hearing the music. Whenever I listened to bootlegs, it all just sounded like a bunch of tinkling noises and shitty vocals.
Somewhere along the line, I got a copy of Europe ’72 and I fell in love with Jack Straw, China>Rider and Brown-eyed Women among other songs. My first show was Hartford 10/15/1983 where they played St Stephen. I didn’t know that was a big deal and I certainly did not “get it” but a few songs sounded familiar, even though I’d not heard them. I started listening to tapes and other records like Wake of the Flood and by the time of the shows at the Philadelphia Civic Center in the spring of 84 rolled around, I had some expectations regarding the performance and a year later I was pretty into it.
When was your last show?
My last show was Riverport Ampitheater 7/6/1995. A grade school friend and I (he played the first GD I ever heard, Steal Your Face, when I was 11 years old) met in St. Louis. We’d known each other since 4th grade and it was the first time we ever saw them together. The scene was a mess, the Deer Creek gate-crashing, cancellation etc, had just happened and there were death threats on Jerry. They kept the house lights up all night at one of those Riverport shows and had us go through metal detectors both nights. Jerry looked sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I could tell, in one form or another, was near. Jerry dying hadn’t really crossed my mind.
Honestly, when Jerry died, I didn’t go see ANY music at all for almost a year. It really took the wind out of me. Not because my identity was so wrapped up in being a Deadhead, but because I had been measuring most music against the Dead for so long, that nothing else seemed that enjoyable. I know now that was probably bullshit and I was having some sort of low-grade depressive response to him dying.
I wasn’t listening to the GD that much in the following years. In like 2000 or 2001 I had about 10 tapes I unearthed and I played the crap out of them but I was never much of a tape collector so I didn’t have a lot to listen to.
At first, I wasn’t interested in any of the follow-up bands but eventually I did start to go see them. I saw Phil and Friends five or six times, the first time in 2003 (The Tower Theater a couple days after Thanksgiving in 2003 was fun, Phish was in town that weekend too) I saw The Dead at Red Rocks in 2004 and again in Denver in 2009. I saw Furthur five or six times too. I thought that Furthur was a “good product.” I enjoyed them a lot, especially the songs that the GD did not generally play. I mean hearing the full Terrapin suite was pretty cool and it didn’t matter that Jerry wasn’t part of it. It was nice to hear the music played well by musicians who had obviously practiced. I guess that’s what happens when your band leader is not a heroin-addicted fuck-up. I mean, in music I give Jerry an A+. In money, drugs and women, I give him a D, maybe even an F.
I think if there was one thing that I learned from Jerry/GD it was to live in the moment and that the moment can never be brought back.
Did you want to elaborate on that?
There would be times when the music was great and I’d be dancing or just letting the music blow through me or whatever and I’d think to myself, “How are they able to do this? Make this sound?” It was as if it were some kind of chamber recital or something. “It really can’t get any better than this can it?” And at that, the music would climb still higher and reach some sort unimaginable holy-shit kind of level. “This can’t really be happening can it?”
I would be stupefied. I could no longer dance or even move in response to the music and I would just stand still with my eyes closed and my face toward the sky, unable to understand how they were able to create this THING. It would bring me to tears, and I would think to myself, “Just savor this, taste it, let it wash over you because it’s going to last in THIS MOMENT and then it will be over. If your lucky, you’ll have other moments like this one, but THIS ONE is gone.” In this way, I learned how to live in the moment, whether it is good or bad. When I am spiritually fit, I try to let things wash over me and give myself permission to feel the feelings that are appropriate to that situation, good or bad. I really learned that while standing in hockey rinks, stadiums, amphitheaters, soccer fields and county fairgrounds all over the country and I am so, so grateful for that.
An excellent perspective if you ask me.