A Deadhead’s pilgrimage: How a Dead & Company concert helped me connect with my late uncle
When my uncle Robert passed away in 2014, his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle aptly mentioned that he was a loving father and an empathetic psychiatrist who had worked with H.I.V./AIDS patients right up until his death. But perhaps most true to Robert was the inclusion of his love for the Grateful Dead.
Born and raised in San Francisco, the same city that the band hails from, Robert “got on the bus,” as Dead fans say, and attended hundreds of shows while amassing an expansive collection of tapings of gigs. Growing up on the East Coast, I can remember visiting Robert’s house a few times, being shown his collection of surrealist art and listening to the stories he would tell me about the mischief that he and my dad would get into as teenagers. But the memories of our time together started to get more hazy as I got older.
I may never hear my uncle Robert’s voice again, but if I want to know he’s still with me, I just need to listen to the music play.
During my own teenage years, I developed a passion for live music, with some of my first shows being the Smashing Pumpkins, Blink 182 and Foo Fighters. These experiences introduced me to the fun that concerts have to offer, but I wasn’t quite yet indoctrinated into the intense devotion to live music that groups such as the Dead were capable of conjuring.
While I always knew that the Dead were a respected band in the canon of American music and a source of immense joy for my uncle, it was not until I started college that I gave their discography a deep dive. This was courtesy of one of my best friends, Jack, a Deadhead himself. Living in the same hallway in sophomore year and seeing a huge Skull and Roses flag in his room, I knew I needed to add the Dead to my regular musical repertoire. Fast forward to this summer, when my interest in the Dead had peaked.
A way of life
In the 1960s, the Grateful Dead created a way of life for fans largely through the counterculture movement that was developing in the United States. Formed in 1965, the Dead offered a kaleidoscopic world as an alternative to the rat race and incessant Vietnam War headlines that grew tiring for so many. The Dead provided an unconventional replacement for a life of consumerism and division based on class and race, as they focused on a way to play music that would provide an escape. In part due to their participation in the Acid Tests around the San Francisco area, as famously described in detail by Tom Wolfe, their longing to expand the mind through music and psychedelics were a firestarter for one of the biggest musical followings of all time.
The Dead achieved some commercial success through their studio albums, but their true calling card was their live shows. Unlike the predictability of studio albums, each of the Dead’s concerts took on a life of its own, with no two live versions of a song sounding quite the same. All of this material allows Deadheads to spend hours fishing through cassette tapes with setlists written in smudged ink, debating their favorite setlists and combing through tour after tour. This has created a high level of engagement with the band’s seemingly endless amount of live material to this day.
In college, I grew fascinated by the fanatical culture of the band’s live shows, which are dynamic ecosystems in their own right. “Spinners” overcome with euphoria and letting the music control their movements, the idea of a “miracle” ticket falling into people’s laps, the tie dye marketplaces—all of it captivated me.
Luckily for me, the most recent iteration of the Dead’s lineup, Dead and Company, were going on one more nationwide tour this summer. (The band has toured under various names since the death of singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1995. The four surviving members held a series of farewell concerts in 2015 to mark the band’s 50th anniversary.) There is speculation that the new faces of the Dead, including the popstar and guitar virtuoso John Mayer, may carry the torch and keep the music going in the future. However, it’s likely that the touring days of original band members Bob Weir and Mickey Hart are over; I knew I needed to go see them while that was still possible.
Luckily for me, the most recent iteration of the Dead’s lineup, Dead and Company, were going on one more nationwide tour this summer.
When I was browsing tickets for the Citi Field shows shortly after returning to New York upon graduation, I suddenly had a realization: The last three shows of the tour were happening in San Francisco. How incredible would it be to see this era of the band come to an end in its birthplace and at the same time revisit the city my father, uncle and aunts grew up in?
I scrambled to pitch the idea to my dad and his gracious sister Margaret, the last of my dad’s siblings who still call San Francisco home. Everyone was on board with me going back out West, and I was even more excited that my friend Jack would also be joining me. But I felt there was one thing missing—sharing my excitement with my uncle Robert, in much the same way he would express his longing to have a pastrami sandwich with me at Katz’s Deli the few times he came to visit in New York.
Although I wasn’t able to discuss which songs I was most looking forward to hearing with him, I was connected to the show through Robert in a different way. My dad introduced me to two of Robert’s close friends, Jim and Alethea (not to be confused with the titular figure of the Dead song “Althea”) who were just as enthusiastic fans as Robert was. They were overjoyed to hear about my interest in going to California, and offered me tickets for the Friday gig—I got a miracle.
This unique scene reminded me of the transcendental power of music to bring people.
Only a few hours after we landed at SFO, we made our way to Oracle Park in the city’s SoMa District for the first show, and I immediately understood why this had become a ritual for Robert. There was virtually nobody walking around the outskirts of the ballpark without a smile on their face, regardless of whether they had a ticket or not. With balloons floating through the air, dancing bears jiving on T-shirts and speakers blaring jam band bliss, everyone was ecstatic just to be in the presence of like-minded people whose values of acceptance and kindness were palpable. Whether under the influence of drugs or not, everyone around that ballpark was high on life.
I had experienced plenty of positive energy at concerts before, including seeing Yo La Tengo (one of my favorite bands) in Ireland and watching Kendrick Lamar from the front row at Barclays Center, but nothing could quite compare to this.
This unique scene reminded me of the transcendental power of music to bring people together regardless of creed or background. While Robert identified as a lapsed Catholic and I am still practicing, Robert had been my godfather. Jerry Garcia’s family was also Catholic. While the Dead’s bandleader likewise became distanced from the church, he said in an interview, when asked about his idea of God: “I was raised a Catholic so it’s very hard for me to get out of that way of thinking. Fundamentally I’m a Christian in that I believe that to love your enemy is a good idea somehow.” Everyone at the show was a pilgrim in their own way, religious or otherwise, traveling from near and far to get whatever they needed out of the music.
Soon after we settled into our seats, the band ripped into a rendition of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” that has become synonymous with the Dead. Since in most of their shows they save the number for last, opening with it made the crowd collectively lose their minds. It is one of their most succinct songs lyrically, with just 12 lines, including the assertive opener: “I wanna tell you how it’s gonna be/ You’re gonna give your love to me.”
Soaking in the music and the San Francisco sunshine, I was able to feel my uncle’s presence more potently than I ever had since his passing.
The song has become a hymn about never letting the band’s music and values die, a successful endeavor nearly 60 years after their inception. Soaking in the music and the San Francisco sunshine, I was able to feel Robert’s presence in that moment more potently than I ever had since his passing.
The rest of the show was a joy, as expected. The Dead played plenty of other fan favorites, including “Brown Eyed Women” and “I Know You Rider,” and concluded the show with a touching video tribute to members of the band who have passed on, including Garcia and the keyboardist Brent Mydland.
While Jack and I originally had tickets only to the Friday gig, we knew that we wanted to return to the scene for the grand finale on Sunday, even if that meant we had to listen to the music from outside the park. As we walked around with a finger up in the air indicating that we would like a ticket to get into the show, I got a text from Jim. He had found another pair of tickets for us. We got another miracle.
Jim and Alethea’s good-hearted treatment of me and Jack reinforced the idea that Deadheads are among some of the most amiable of any fanbase. But more importantly, it also spoke to how much Robert meant to Jim and Alethea, helping me to paint more of a picture of the man I longed to know more about.
As the sky grew dark deep into the set and the crowd was treated with a visually stunning drone display depicting the Dead’s iconic “Steal Your Face” emblem, I savored this piece of history that I was witnessing live. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude toward my parents for being supportive of this adventure; my aunt for opening her home to me; and Jim and Alethea for making our experience possible. I sent Jim a text expressing this gratitude I was feeling when the show ended (which closed with “Not Fade Away,” as expected), and he sent back: “Thank your Uncle Robert. He did that, not us.” The third miracle of the trip.
Returning home to New York, I missed the connection to the music, my friend, the crowd and my uncle that I had felt at the concerts. I feared that I may never feel my uncle’s presence that strongly again.
But I soon remembered the opening lyrics of my favorite Grateful Dead song, “Ripple”: “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine/ And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung/ Would you hear my voice come through the music?/ Would you hold it near as it were your own?”
I may never hear Robert’s voice again, but this experience reminded me that if I want to know he’s still with me, I just need to listen to the music play.