The Grateful Dead was a touring band and their fans followed them everywhere. The band could play a week of dates in New York City and never play the same song twice.
I saw The Grateful Dead with Garcia at the helm a handful of times in the early '90s and, before you ask, yes, I became a fan before "Touch of Grey" came out.
It was my brother who introduced me to them. He was (and still is) a huge fan and would play Dead CDs on the stereo in his room all the time, blanketing the upstairs of our New Jersey house with the bluegrass-infused style of Garcia's riffs, the warmth and age of his vocals, the jams of the band as a whole.
At first, I wrote the band off as slow and sleepy folk music, but when I actually sat down and listened, I quickly became absorbed by it.
I couldn't tell you the first album I bought, or the first song that grabbed a hold of me, but when I think back, I'm guessing the likely culprit was Terrapin Station. The band's ninth studio album was originally released in 1977 and kicks off with the gripping groove of "Estimated Prophet" — to this day one of my Dead favorites. From there it slides into the disco-infused cover of "Dancing in the Streets," before revving up into the road-trip, cruising style of "Passenger."
The drum-heavy, storytelling of "Samson and Delilah" led into the Donna Jean Godchaux sung "Sunrise," a bit of a lull in the musical temperature before the launch of the 16-minute title track that would have me transfixed every time. The slow building up to the choral-filled peak... "Terrapin Station."
Back in those days, the Grateful Dead came touring through the Northeast on a regular basis. They'd hit Giants Stadium each summer, Madison Square Garden each spring and Nassau Coliseum each fall. My brother and I and a bunch of our friends would always hit at least one show when they came to the area. I remember waking up at 6 a.m. to go to the Jack's Music Store in Red Bank, waiting in the car until the Ticketmaster ticket window opened up — but that's another story for another time.
The great thing about a Dead show was that you didn't worry about where your seats were. You just wanted to be inside the venue to hear it. You'd tailgate for hours beforehand and then hit the general area where your seats were where you'd dance your ass off and sing along for the next few hours. The band would say little, usually just a "We'll be right back" before the break between sets. The extensive catalog and lack of repetition in setlists would have us playing games of "What do you think they'll play tonight?" on the way to the venue.
I remember driving out to Nassau Coliseum in March of 1990 and telling everyone they were going to play "Eyes of the World," because I was wearing my Eyes of the World tie-dye that day — again, I was right. (You can hear what I heard on the band's live album, Without a Net — Branford Marsalis came out and jammed with them.) I remember driving to Giants Stadium in June of 1992 and predicting that we'd hear "Terrapin Station" and everyone going nuts looking at me when the first notes rang out.
In those days, the shows weren't just concerts, they were events. They brought people together where everyone danced in the stadium, strangers were your friends and the entire place was just out to have a good time.
For most of the Deadheads at every show, Garcia was their leader. We knew all of their names — Bob, Phil, Bill, Mickey and, in my cases, Brent and Vince — but it was Garcia who many saw as the figurehead of the band.
I was home from college when Garcia passed away from a heart attack while in rehab. Until that point I don't think anyone even thought of what would happen if one of the main members died... It was simply shock when it happened. The band had cycled through a few keyboardists, but losing a lead singer was a different kind of event.
To quote the Dead's "Touch of Grey," fans knew "we would get by," but it hasn't been the same since. The band has toured in various incarnations — The Other Ones, The Dead, etc. — with the original members or parts thereof, but without Garcia at the helm, there's always something missing on the stage.
I have plenty of stories from the times I saw The Grateful Dead live, but when I think back to watching them on stage, the thing I remember most is Garcia's grey hair being blown by the breeze, singing with ease and emotion and leading the crowd with every word.
These days, whenever a former Dead member plays "Touch of Grey" at a concert, it's always Garcia that comes to mind when the crowd sings along. "We will get by... we will survive."