Twenty years ago this July, my brother and I and a gang of like-minded misfits gathered to catch the musical circus as it rolled into town, like it did every summer.
Two decades on, I can’t remember who exactly was with us that hot night at Soldier Field. There was a rotating gaggle of usual suspects who hit as many shows as they could afford and as their schedules would allow. We were all in our 20s. We knew the ride would end at some point, but we didn’t know when.
Turns out, Saturday, July 8, 1995, would be my last Grateful Dead show. The next night, July 9, would be the last Grateful Dead show for everyone else, ever. Jerry Garcia died a month later, and while the band reformed in various incarnations over the next 20 years, it’s never been close to the same.
Now, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the forming of the Grateful Dead, the four surviving original members — along with some very special guests — are reuniting for three shows at the same venue where it all ended in 1995. So much has changed over the interceding years it’s almost pointless to list all the differences. For one, tickets to the 1995 shows were $33.50, as my stub above shows. The best seats this time around are more than six times as much.
Bob Weir, one of the lead singers of the Dead, was 47 years old in 1995 — an old man to the 23-year-old me. But now, as I face 43 and my brother is staring down the barrel of 50, it seems like Bobby was just a young pup when he and Jerry opened that second-to-last show with “Jack Straw.”
There’s no denying that Jerry was in rough shape that night, and had been for years. While we couldn’t have guessed that he would be playing his final shows, all of us who had been watching him decline knew enough to treat every 1990s-era show as a gift.
The biggest gift of all that night, and the moment that stands out for me above all the others, was Jerry’s lead vocal on the Dylan classic “Visions of Johanna.” One vocal inflection and a raised arm, at just the right moment — “Mona Lisa must have had them highway blues, you can TELL by the way she SMILED!” (minute 5:39) — was all it took to send me and the crowd of more than 50,000 into a frenzy. Jerry, and many in the crowd, knew all too well what the highway blues were all about.
They ended that show, triumphantly, with “U.S. Blues,” which contains the bittersweet line: “Summertime done come and gone, my oh my.” They were the last words I ever heard Jerry sing.
Summertime will come again to Soldier Field this July. Joining the original Dead members will be Trey Anastasio from Phish along with frequent Dead collaborator Bruce Hornsby. Thousands of people who make one or more of these shows will have never seen Jerry with the Dead. For them, for all of us, it will be a joyous occasion.
You can’t ever go back, nor should you. Like Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Middle/old age is gaining, or already caught, most who were at the final 1995 shows. Even so, many of us, hopefully my brother and I included, will gather, once again, when the circus rolls back into Chicago.
We will cheer. We will sing. Will will laugh. We will dance, poorly. We may even cry.
It’s the power of music and memories, friends. It’s what it’s all about.
See you in Chicago.