[Editorial note and corrected post: Tom corrected my aging memory; I did in fact get him to listen to Rush and so the musical context switch was complete].
Prophetic estimations of ticket lotteries were highly inflated for me; not only did I strike out on all Phish ticket by mail requests but also found myself on the wrong side of multiple money orders, a decorated #2 envelope and some long, strange musical trip references originating in a 1982 cross-campus walk. I have been at best a casual fan of the Grateful Dead; like my ramp-up to Phish phan status I appreciated their studio work but never veered into the live, jam performances. Introductions outside of what played on the album-oriented FM stations in the New York area occurred, as most of the best do, on a slushy early winter day of junior year, as then-roommate (and eternal Deadhead, wonderful friend, playmaker on my first ever ice hockey goal, and incredible cook) Tom got me to listen to “Estimated Prophet” on “Terrapin Station.” What was elided from that brief cassette tape exchange (yes, I had a Walkman, and yes, I provided my own sound track on cross-campus treks to the engineering building) was that “Terrapin” should rightly qualify as a prog album, and that my love of jazz and jazz improvisation would be fueled if I borrowed one of his Dead show tapes, and not just a mix tape with some studio work. Count that as a missed musical connection.
The Dead’s appearance on Saturday Night Live that featured “Alabama Get Away” is vivid in my memory; it’s intense for a small venue with limited time and it was also common for groups to publicly perform music in advance of the “album drop.” The show pre-dated my real affection for the band but at the time (April 1980), SNL and Don Kirschner’s late night show were about the only two outlets for live music outside of concert venues. With hindsight it was an incongruous format for the band and their performance (how can a jam possibly be bound by the pre-hour commercial break?) and that perhaps left me in a state of two-degrees-separated-from Dead that persisted until the bitter(sweet) end. Stanley Jordan, then a rising solo guitar player and one of “my” jazz DJs at WPRB-FM, found his way to Soldier Field based on his musical friendship with Jeff Chimenti. Bill Walton, scion of California basketball, added celebrity street cred to a farewell that was famously absent the usual red carpet suspects. Phish tour buddy George went full circle, texting me updates from the pit as he completed that revolution in the musical circle of life. Professionally, I intersected John Perry Barlow at a few career arcs, mostly through Sun’s John Gage, and later discovered that his Grateful Dead lyrics credits stem from the first groove on “Terrapin Station” – the highly estimated prophet of digital privacy, security and culture.
And so I find the Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” shows a fitting conclusion to the original band’s, and the surviving members’, musical history. Aside from the “Not Fade Away” and “Touch of Grey” references, they brought the story of the band to its rightful conclusion. The notion of a musician retiring from the very performance that wholly defined his experience is somewhat odd, but in a year when we lost BB King, Ornette Coleman and most recently and suddenly, Chris Squire, I’m slowly conceding that writing the final chapter with intent, grace and a well-defined conclusion is quite respectable. It’s helping me come to grips with the fact that this summer marks the last big-arena tour for Rush, and that the shared musical experiences I’ve had with Ben involving the Holy Trinity of Toronto will also reach a logical conclusion with joy and not sadness. It’s better to end with a win than a loss, in sports, music or love.
Later the same year that I discovered “Terrapin Station,” Tom and I shared a class with a take-home final. It was brutal, and even a week of my effort wasn’t sufficient. The Dead were touring at that time, and Tom left me a note one afternoon (a full 2 days before the due date), taped to a sealed #2 envelope, undecorated save for the honor code pledge, saying “Here’s my exam, please turn it in for me on the due date. Going to see the Dead at Red Rocks.” It’s one of my favorite college memories, and one that I repeat as an example of what a good college experience should be – trust, friendship, scholarship, adventure, and some insanely rich music. I succeeded in getting Tom to listen to Rush (but not Led Zeppelin!) and will always treasure his gentle insistence that I meet him halfway on the Dead.
One day, next tour, I’ll get Tom to join me for a Phish show. Older, greyer, perhaps less in focus than before, I think we have a conclusion to write, rather than let fade out.