Awakening to the Dead

Awakening to the Dead by Aileen Torres Bennett
Illustration by Aileen Torres-Bennett

I was not a Grateful Dead fan when I was growing up. It took years, and my marriage, to change my mind.

In high school, I used to associate the band with ne’er-do-wells. They wore a uniform of tie-dye t-shirts with shorts and Birkenstocks and exuded an attitude of marijuana-induced “chillness.” They didn’t seem to care much about school. I, on the other hand, was really into studying.

We did overlap on one thing: rock ‘n’ roll. I fell in love with the music. It was rebellious and creative. It made me feel free. And it plugged me into the particular current of culture and history for which I had been searching.

I wanted, in the words of Simon & Garfunkel, “to look for America,” and I would do it through the road of rock.

I took on a self-imposed regimen of rock study and started learning to play guitar at 15, inspired by The Beatles. I wanted my adulation of the music to morph into a life skill.

Now in my late 30s, I continue to play guitar. I find there is always something to discover on the instrument, and about music in general. I’m surprised that the more I learn about life, the more attuned I become to the logic and mysteries of music.

When I got married six years ago, I didn’t know my husband was a Grateful Dead fan. This news came out gradually. One day in 2016, he approached me with a happy, dazed look on his face. He told me that members of the Grateful Dead were going on tour that summer. I didn’t know exactly how to interpret this at the time because I barely knew anything about the Grateful Dead. All I knew was that going to see the band was important to him, so I agreed that we should go to a concert.

A word on band distinctions: For Deadhead purists, the current iteration of the band, called Dead & Company, is not the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead comprises the late, great lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir, the late keyboardist Ron McKernon, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. There has been a rotating cast of keyboardists and some internal feuding, and after Garcia’s death in 1995, Weir became a more public face of the band.

The remnants of the original Dead, minus Lesh, are together now as Dead & Company, with three additions: the bassist Oteil Burbridge, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and lead guitarist John Mayer.

I think it’s fair to say that Mayer joining the band was a big surprise. What was that pretty boy pop star doing in this legendary rock band?

He blew away my skepticism soon enough.

My first Dead & Company concert was at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Washington. There could have been no better location for this moment. The Gorge overlooks the mighty Columbia River, with vast views of canyon, desert steppes and rolling hills. There, you can revere the wonders of nature and experience the meaning of “America, the beautiful.”

The Dead is a band that deftly fits into the spiritual balance of the landscape. My ongoing search for America had brought me to this place, guided by a band that I came to understand as being among the inheritors of the American folk and blues musical tradition through the idiom of rock.

The Dead evoke the troubadour-hero spirit of Woody Guthrie, who sang about the Grand Coulee Dam, 90 miles away from the Gorge. They keep alive old, obscure song gems such as “Peggy-O” and “Deep Elem Blues.” They extend the threads of once overlooked artists such as Elizabeth Cotten, who partly inspired the Dead’s “Sugaree.”

The opening song of my first Dead concert was “Touch of Grey.” This was an auspicious beginning. I knew the song from watching MTV as a pre-teen, when it had been instantly catchy to me.

The rest of the concert was very accessible to a Dead novice such as I was. I had a tasting of the band’s catalog by listening a little to my husband’s records, and the band made it easy for me to step into their world that night by playing many of their classic songs, including “Brown-Eyed Women” and “Ramble on Rose.” I was hooked when they broke out Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” My heart was aflutter with the incredible energy of the closing song “Casey Jones” as it climaxed toward a progressively speedy coda that demanded every member of the band to be at the top of his technical game. The encore of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” left me with a spiritual ache of sweet sorrow.

Previously, I hadn’t thought of Mayer as a serious artist, but he dispelled my misconception by showing his mastery of the guitar that night. I couldn’t believe how well he played: the fiery energy, the intuition to fit the moods of the music, the stamina for jamming, the technical cleanliness, and, most importantly, the soul. I looked intently at his hands on the fretboard so I could learn from him. He inspired me to practice more on guitar.

Naturally, after my first Dead concert, I started studying their catalog and wanted to go to more shows. Now, we typically attend both nights when the band plays at a venue (standard Deadhead practice).

From these concerts, I discovered that the Dead’s following is unique in carrying on the hippie ethos of peace and love and community from the ‘60s. A Dead concert is an all-day affair. People pull into the parking lot hours early to hang. Lawn chairs and grills come out. Dogs wander with their owners. Strangers chat and share stories and food and drinks. And there’s always Shakedown Street, a vendor area named after a Dead song; it’s small-scale capitalism with hippie good vibes.

In 2019, we built an epic trip around Dead & Company’s summer tour. We saw the band both nights at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, before embarking on a road trip up Highway 101 to witness dramatic stretches of America’s coastline. We hiked more than 20 miles through redwood forests and drove and walked beside the mighty Pacific Ocean. We made our way eventually to the Gorge in Washington, where we stood atop a cliff over the Columbia River, in search of America.