50 years ended in an almost-perfect moment of collective explosion.
Although the final "Fare Thee Well" Grateful Dead concert was held on July 5th at Solider Field, this incarnation of the band faded away -- for me at least -- at the close of the July 4th concert.
I was lucky enough to attend both of these last two nights (as I previewed last week). Yet on the last night, in section 211, I could feel the entire stadium level below me shaking to the rumbling bounce of our collective dancing. Solider Field, too, it seemed, felt the end-of-it-all pressure bearing down on the 70,000-plus attendees. Maybe it was too much to deliver?
And so for me, in a way, it ended on the 4th.
That show -- two sets filled with some of the group's best Americana: "Tennessee Jed," "Cumberland Blues," "Friend of the Devil" -- wrapped with an excellent "Stella Blue," a solid "One More Saturday Night," and the expected-but-straight-on encore of "U.S. Blues."
Here's a fan video.
During "U.S. Blues," that quintessential final 4th-of-July song, the audience delighted (through Robert Hunter's lyrics) in some of the endlessly contradictory images that populate the post-Vietnam strand of ironic American songwriting:
"I'm Uncle Sam / that's who I am
Been hidin' out /in a rock and roll band.
Shake the hand /that shook the hand
of P.T. Barnum / and Charlie Chan."
Of course, the grand huckster P.T. Barnum will never meet the fictional stereotype of Charlie Chan. Yet in the world of the best Dead songs these things find their own level. Everything swirls together.
Everything mashed-upped, everything remixed.
That's right, the "Fare Thee Well" concerts brought to Chicago a particular type of American collage: jam-band noodlers dancing next to cerebral celebrants in "Drumz and Space" t-shirts crossed with baseball-capped Touchheads (those who heard about the Dead from 80s radio hit "Touch of Grey")
This curious tableau of revelers, too, were mirrored by the complexities of the scene, beyond the seagulls circling above the kiosks (visible from the frame of Solider Field's columns) or the happy gasp of old tape decks pumping out long-lost concerts in the parking lot.
There was also, as always, a flip side.
As we entered on Sunday, the pedestrian tunnel leading from Grant Park toward the Field Museum was thick with crowds, masses of Deadheads streaming in a cacophonous line toward Solider Field. Many look hopelessly for Miracles ("tickets"), while the center of the tunnel was blocked by three furiously pounding Chicago bucket drummers.
Their sound resonated through the tunnel and amplified into electric thunder. Mickey Hart would have loved it, but most of the Deadheads didn't' know quite what to do; they parted ways around the drummers like air moving around the wing of an airplane. One concertgoer -- clearly from out of town -- stood 10 paces away, videotaping the scene as if a spectator to this other culture.
A coven of olive-drab burnouts sat in a line outside the tunnel. Their bodies looked smeared with axel grease, as if they had been dipped into some giant pot of leftover army paint. A ticket-bearing concertgoer walked by, smoking a cigarette, and the kid at the end reached toward her to ask for a handout. He mumbled in the language of incoherent junkie babble. He was clearly asking for a cigarette, but the words were run through a scrambler, twisted by a virus, cut-up in a software explosion.
Nearby, a mother jumped, looking for a "miracle," finger in the air: "I got one miracle and need another. My daughter needs to see the show." The daughter, who looked to be 4, had her ears caught by bright blue canceling headsets -- blocking out the stampede of Deadheads all around her.
She stared, empty, away from the crowd.
There were entrepreneurs well beyond Shakedown Street: A nitrous vendor along Roosevelt Road was all but attacked by his customers after the show; they were middle-aged, snarling quickly to grab black-balloons filled with the mind-scrambling gas. The buyers flopped themselves along the stoops of closed-up shops because they couldn't wait a second longer to suck it all in.
This was all real, and true, but certainly not the whole picture. No, these images also mixed with the colors of an ecstatic world, where Charlie Chan meets and greets with P.T. Barnum.
And so on the 4th, at the close of "U.S. Blues," the fireworks begin.
It's a splendid light show thumping along with the cheers of the crowd. It's contrived-but-wonderful, and as it fades -- concertgoers around me hoping for one more song -- the PA system blares John Philip Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever." It's a canned performance that in the rush of adrenaline seems somehow perfect.
We're all looking up, mesmerized, and when I final look to the stage, something fantastic happens. I see some members of the band -- Billy?, Bob?, Phil? -- moving away from the drums, taking off the guitar, the bass.
They are looking through the elaborate stage rigging, gazing too toward the exploding sky. Some fans want more Grateful Dead, but there isn't any more. Once the last firelight fades, the stage is empty.
And that's the way is should be.
For a moment, watching together, the Dead and the crowd, we are all part of same spectacle -- red and white, blue suede shoes -- slipping back into the mashed-up glow of the American sky.
Davis Schneiderman is Associate Dean of the Faculty and Director of the Center for Chicago Programs at Lake Forest College. His most recent work is the appropriation novel [SIC] and, with The Muttering Sickness, Jeb Bush doing "Uptown Funk.".