In January 2015, the Grateful Dead announced they would come together in July for their final “Fare Thee Well” tour. The tour marked the Dead’s fiftieth anniversary as well as the twentieth anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death in August 1995. The band’s “Core Four” original members— Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart—would appear on stage one last time, with Trey Anastasio of Phish standing in the late Jerry Garcia’s place. A family reunited, though its most beloved brother will be absent.
There have been other reunions in the past, some with all four members and some featuring various configurations of members under new band names that played short runs, and then dissolved. The last Core Four reunion was in the spring of 2009. The two-month tour started off strong, but ended on a bitter note, a mixed brew of brotherhood loyalties and resentments common to any family. In a 2014 Rolling Stone interview, Lesh uses the metaphor of a wheel to explain the band’s legacy: “Jerry was the hub. We were the spokes. And the music was the tread on the wheel.” In the past Lesh has said, “Jerry’s death removed the center. The bond wasn’t as strong without him.” But even when Garcia was alive, as Rolling Stone’s David Browne points out, “the personal dynamics within the Dead were complicated.”
I read Browne’s Rolling Stone article about the “Fare Thee Well” tour when it came out the first week in June. I had gotten the issue from my neighbor, a retired barber who hands me a stack of magazines each week, subscriptions rerouted to his house after he closed up shop. Though I’ve been to a few Grateful Dead concerts, I am not a Deadhead, nor am I a scholar of the band’s fifty-year history this final tour commemorates. My only connection to the Grateful Dead is through my older brother, David. I wondered whether he’d bought a ticket to one of the five shows—three at Soldier Field in Chicago and two at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA—or if he planned to watch a simulcast of the concert in a movie theater or on pay-per-view. My best guess was he would shun the event altogether, based on an unwavering belief that the Grateful Dead died with Jerry, though this was only speculation on my part. What I did know was, when David turns sixty this coming November, I wouldn’t call him or send a card. I hadn’t spoken to David in over five years. Neither had my parents. Like most families, the personal dynamics of ours are complicated.
The Grateful Dead’s unique sound has been attributed to each member’s ability to evolve individually and as a whole. Music critic Brent Wood believes this evolution was due to the band’s “emphasis on true polyphony, a texture heard only rarely in contemporary popular music.” The musicians must “give up a little of their version of the music,” Phil Lesh told David Fricke of Rolling Stone last year, “to achieve a collective sound.” For the band, this meant never playing the same song the same way. “That was the key to the Grateful Dead,” Lesh explained. “Don’t repeat. Make the song different every time you play it.” The Dead’s commitment to improvisation was often an unsuccessful process many listeners hadn’t the patience for. In response to this criticism, Garcia provided this analogy: “Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
When I told an old friend from high school I’d stopped speaking to my brother David, she was surprised. “I forgot you had another brother,” she said. She’d never met him, nor had any of my friends. Once David was gone, he stayed gone. He moved a thousand miles north to Seattle after college and graduate school and came home to Southern California once a year, usually in the winter when he needed a sun break from the endless gray. He was living with a woman we had met a few times, though I was the first—and for a long time, the only—one in the family to dislike her. My parents chalked this up to my judgmental tendencies, a criticism I’d borne since my early teens. Still, I kept my distance. Only later did the rest of my family recognize what I had known for several years: this woman was scary. They caught glimpses of her that concerned them—her subtle racism and her mean streak fueled by alcohol. I gathered these details from the stories that followed their long phone calls and short visits. To be fair, his girlfriend became a convenient place to lay our disappointment in David, the black sheep in our family long before he’d even met her. Or perhaps she was like licorice, someone we never developed a taste for.