Trader Talk

Confessions of a Deadhead: 40 years with the Grateful Dead

Fans gather to bid the Grateful Dead farewell at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

The Grateful Dead are breaking up.

Exhausted from years of touring, worn out by bickering and nonstop partying, and still grieving over the loss of a founding member of the band, the Dead are calling it quits.

Before they split up, they will do one last run of concerts.

That was the word on the street.

It was October 1974.

Specifically, it was October 16, 1974, the start of a five-night stand at Winterland in San Francisco.

It was Bob Weir's 27th birthday.

I was there.

Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead performs in front of the 'Wall of Sound' at Santa Barbara Stadium in May 1974 in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Ed Perlstein | Redferns | Getty Images

Despite the rumors that the Dead were breaking up, it was a typical Grateful Dead show for the times. The Hells Angels were out in force…it was rumored that a ramp had been built onto the stage to accommodate the bikes.

The Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic maintained its usual "office" at the back of the hall. It consisted of rows of tutti-frutti air bags with Indian rugs suspended on the ceiling, to accommodate those who had consumed too much of whatever, which, given the times, might include the Dead themselves.

And there was the Dead's extended family, which wandered on and off the stage, a vast circus of soundmen, equipment haulers, bikers, dancers, dealers, soothsayers, and hangers-on.

One thing was different: the sound system, the biggest damn thing anyone had ever seen. It stretched right to the ceiling of Winterland, about forty feet straight up. Stacks and stacks of speakers, hundreds of them (604, I found out later), a veritable Twin Towers of sound.

"It's amazing, ain't it?" The fellow standing next to me was as Gobsmacked as I was.

"Yeah, it sure is," I said. We were standing on the floor, and even 50 feet or more from the stage, we were craning our necks to see the top.

Even then, the Dead's fans were divided into two groups. There was an older cadre of followers, mostly in their late 20's and 30's, grizzled fans with handlebar mustaches and sagging midriffs who had followed the Dead since their founding in 1965 and for whom the Summer of Love in 1967 was already a dim, hazy memory.

And there was a much younger crowd, mostly college students like myself.

This was one of the older guys.

"You know, that's him, standing there."

He gestured to a man standing to the left of the stage, with some kind of bottle in his hand.

"Man, I wonder what's in that bottle," he said.

I had no idea who I was talking to, no idea whom the person he was referring to was, and no idea when—or if—the Dead would show up.

This was also fairly typical of the times.

"That's him, man. I'm telling you, it's him."

"Who? Who is he?"

"Owsley. Man, that's Owsley." He whispered the name, like it was a mantra, a sacred name.

Owsley Stanley. Full name, Augustus Owsley Stanley III. Originally, the Dead's LSD supplier, indeed the supplier to the world, but that had stopped years before. He was the Dead's soundman, recording engineer, and creator of the monstrous speaker system in front of me.

It was called The Wall of Sound, and it was the largest sound system yet created.

After what seemed like a very long wait, promoter Bill Graham appeared in a white tuxedo, walked to the mike and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Grateful Dead."

They opened, to the delight of the crowd, with an old favorite: "Bertha." Several hours later, they closed with "Uncle John's Band" and "Johnny B. Goode," and an encore, "U.S. Blues," from the just-released "From the Mars Hotel" album.

Years later, when the Dead released a live album of those nights in Winterland, critics were not kind.

Not me. I loved it. The disco ball, the dancing girls whirling on the stage, the kids boogying barefoot on the sidelines, the angel-faced Donna Godchaux singing in tight jeans and t-shirt, and most of all the sound from those 600 speakers, the crystal-clear twang of Jerry's guitar and the crack of Kreutzmann's cymbals.

And that was it. The Dead played four more shows at Winterland, and then split up. The now-famous Wall of Sound system was sold to Bill Graham. With the exception of a few local San Francisco gigs—I saw them again in March, 1975, when they played Kezar Stadium in a benefit concert to raise funds for public schools for after-school sports--the Dead would not tour again until the middle of 1976.

By then, the world was changing. Disco was in full swing, and the hottest sounds in music were coming from what came to be known as new wave and punk: The Ramones, Blondie, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads.

The Grateful Dead flag flies over the parking lot at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., during a "Fare Thee Well" concert, June 27, 2015.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

But a funny thing happened to the Dead: they got even bigger. It wasn't because of album sales: their albums were never big sellers, and with good reason: they were drab affairs compared to the live shows.

The Dead amassed an army of followers for two reasons. First, they represented an ethos, the hippy ethos, whose time had long since passed but which still exerted a strong pull on a substantial part of the population.

You could argue—as many did--that it was 1977, that the '60s were over, that Nixon and Vietnam and disco and the stupid excess of it all had driven a stake through its optimistic heart. Hunter S. Thompson saw this as early as 1971, when he concluded a famous chapter of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by observing that less than five years after the Summer of Love "you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."

But for the Dead and its fans, that wave never broke, the '60s never died, at least not in those live shows. That's the second reason they got bigger: their lives shows reflected that ethos. They were everything everyone thought the '60s were, at least in their minds: long, flowing, disorganized, as close as a modern person could come to the ancient Dionysian rites.

And the Cult of the Dead had all the hallmarks of that mystery religion: sacred rites, sacred drugs, ecstatic dancing, and a mystical union with some vague Other, all representing a release, a liberation from civilization's stifling rules.

It was something to see, those concerts in the 1970s, like a mass hypnosis: everyone, literally, drank the Kool Aid.

What amazed even the casual observer was how little all of this depended on the Dead. For every beautiful musical moment, and there were many, there were nights when the Dead just didn't click, when they spent hours just wandering around a song, searching for direction and inspiration.

Doubt me? Listen to "Dark Star," the song that starts 1969's "Live/Dead," an album revered by the faithful, a 23-minute exercise in noodling that should more aptly be titled, "Jerry Garcia Goes In Search Of A Tune And Can't Find It."

But it didn't matter. The fans loved it all. Hell, I loved it, even the boring parts.

Even on nights when the spirit didn't move Garcia, or whatever drugs he was using didn't do the trick, the fans themselves provided the party and as time went on they WERE the party, whether the Dead was rocking or not.

Critics recognized this oddity about the Dead very early on. Those series of shows at Winterland in 1974 were released in 1976 as "Steal Your Face," with a cover designed by Owsley himself that contained the famous smiling skull with a lightening bold on the forehead, which became the Dead's symbol. It was also turned into the their only movie, The Grateful Dead Movie.

Charley Waters, reviewing the album in the August 26, 1976, issue of Rolling Stone, summed up the shows by saying, "These four live sides aren't really very good, but few will notice. Nine years after the Summer of Love, the acid mystique lives on."

And on, and on. In 1977, the Dead released a two-LP set called "What A Long Strange Trip It's Been," containing highlights from the band's early years, and embarked on a tour.

The Dead were becoming legend.

Bob Pisani's ticket stubs from past Grateful Dead shows.
Bob Pisani | CNBC

I saw them again in 1978 and 1979 with my friend Bill in Philadelphia, and those late-1970s years were among their best. They threw in new songs, including a few from 1977's Terrapin Station, but the dancing really got going on the older material: "Friend of the Devil," "Sugar Magnolia," "Casey Jones," "Sugaree," or "U.S. Blues," any of which could be used for an extended jam.

On May 4, 1981 Bill and I again went to see the Dead at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. He showed up to pick me up in the very tiny back seat of a powder-blue Datsun 280-Z. The driver was Suzanne, who managed the local health club Bill was a member of. He had introduced us a short while before, but we had never gone out.

Like most Dead shows, it started slowly, but picked up after a half-dozen songs with several old favorites: "Mama Tried," "Bertha," and "China Cat Sunflower," one of my favorites from the now-ancient "Aoxomoxoa" album, paired with "I Know You Rider," a combination they had been performing for years.

By then, the crowd was in a swirling frenzy. Suzanne and I were in the second level, and I was confused. She was not supposed to be here. She was not a Deadhead. She came, Bill told me, because I was going, because for some reason I couldn't figure out she seemed to like me, though I barely knew her.

On the drive to the Spectrum, she was a bubbling, frothy gabfest with her blond hair, Rayban sunglasses, white teeth and flashy sports car.

I had reason to be confused: I wasn't exactly a roaring success with women, which for a male in his mid-20s was nothing short of a catastrophe.

But here she was, this Jersey shore girl, sitting next to me, leaning in, nodding to the music, glancing over at me, all the time wearing those Raybans, in the dark, in a goddamn rock concert, for Crissakes, so I couldn't see her eyes or figure out what she was thinking.

It didn't matter. All this maneuvering was distracting me from the concert. I kept thinking, do something.

The Dead launched into Playing in the Band, one of my favorites, and I did something. In the darkness of the Spectrum, with Bob Weir wailing,

I can tell your future,
Look what's in your hand
But I can't stop for nothing
I'm just playing in the band

I reached over and squeezed her hand. She squeezed back, and when she smiled I saw the whites of her teeth, even in the darkness of the Spectrum.

A Grateful Dead fan stands outside Levi's Stadium before Grateful Dead's "Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of Grateful Dead" farewell tour at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., June 27, 2015.
Stephen Lam | Reuters

The Dead were on the road constantly in the early 1980s, and when I saw them again, mostly at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, in 1982, 1983, and 1985, they stuck with the old tunes, because they didn't have a lot of new ones. No one seemed to mind, in fact that's the way everyone wanted it, and if there were nights when they were off, well, it didn't really matter, because we all kept dancing and we knew there would always be another night.

In 1987, they did what no one thought they would do or even expected them to do: they made a studio album that became a hit. "In the Dark" had a wistful up-tempo rocker, "Touch of Grey," and a soulful blues, "Black Muddy River."

No one was quite sure what had happened. The band hadn't had an album anyone cared about in a decade.

There were crazy rumors swirling. One of the craziest was they had gone clean. They had stopped using drugs, at least Garcia was rumored to have stopped, at least while he was playing.

No one really knew, and no one really cared, because suddenly the Dead were popular, and not just with Deadheads. The "Touch of Grey" video was a smash on MTV. The album was a Top 10 hit.

And, of course, they launched a tour, but in the middle of that year they stopped everything for a six-show gig with Bob Dylan that brought them into JFK Stadium in Philadelphia.

By then, hit or no hit, the Dead were a lot like the stadium they were playing in. JFK had been built in the 1920s primarily as a football stadium, and could hold crowds of up to 100,000. It was the home of many legendary Army-Navy games from the 1930s to the 1970s, and had recently hosted the U.S. portion of Live Aid in 1985, but by 1987 the entire edifice was crumbling, and the facilities were almost unusable.

The Dead, too, were fraying around the edges. Garcia had had a near-death experience a few years before due to complications from drug use and severe diabetes, but had bounced back.

Or at least he seemed to, to those of us in the audience, but once again it didn't seem to matter. It didn't get old, because the scene was being replenished by a new crop of fresh-faced fans eager to experience the legendary vibe. By then the division between the older and younger fans I had seen in 1974 had given way to a new generation wandering through the massive parking lots that had become open-market fairs, selling tie-dyed t-shirts, stickers, tapes, food, pot, and nitrous oxide balloons.

The Grateful Dead perform at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on June 28, 2015.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

The Dylan/Dead show was an oddity, because the fans who came to see Dylan were not very pleased that the Dead were his backup band for the night, playing classics like "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Chimes of Freedom" in the Dead style. Dylan, for his part, didn't seem to care.

The Dead came back to Philadelphia again in September of that year, on top of the world, and as was typical of the Dead, they not only ignored their hit album, they didn't even play "Touch of Grey." The set was dominated with songs from the early days: the old Deadheads loved it; they hated the teenagers that had just bought the hit album, even though that's exactly who they were 15 years prior.

They came back to JFK Stadium on July 7, 1989, and while no one knew it, it was the last show for that venerable stadium. The encore, appropriately, was a Dylan song: "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

Which is exactly what the Dead seemed to be doing.

Even from the cheap seats, we could see that Garcia had aged visibly in these years, far more than the others.

And even then it STILL didn't matter: the Dead got bigger. And bigger. According to Pollstar, they were the number one touring act in 1993, pulling in $45 million, then $52 million the following year.

After Garcia died in 1995, all of us assumed it was over. Without Garcia, whom someone described as the sun everyone revolved around, how could the Dead continue?

But not even Jerry's death could stop the band. The Dead would not die. They had turned into a Hydra: cutting off one head produced others. .

And the fans continued to come, looking for the old magic. There was 1998's the Other Ones, consisting of Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and drummer Mickey Hart. There were two attempts at a reunion, one in 2003-2004, and then another in 2009, both of which ended acrimoniously, though the crowds showed up to party. And there were endless other combinations.

The Grateful Dead bid Fare Thee Well at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

More successful was the late 2009 incarnation, known as Further, which added John Kadlecik from the Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra but left out drummer Bill Kreutzmann. John had one great virtue: he really did sound like Jerry, and when I saw them in December 2009 in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and again in November 2011 at Madison Square Garden, I closed my eyes and heard the band that had ceased to exist 14 years before.

Oh, and that girl that went to the 1981 show with me, the one with the powder-blue Datsun 280-Z, the one whose hand I squeezed? I went home with her that night.

We got married in 1986, and 34 years later, Suzanne and I are still going to concerts together.

And we will make that trek to Chicago to see them one last time, and when the Dead strike up "Playing in the Band"—and I hope they will—I will reach out and squeeze her hand again, and for that one brief moment it will be 1981 all over, and the hippie chicks will whirl like dervishes on the grounds at Soldier Field, and that mass hypnosis will take over again.

If you see Suzanne, come up and say hello. She's the one wearing the Grateful Dead 1981 tour t-shirt.

Thanks, Jerry. And Bob and Phil and Mickey and Bill. And Keith and Donna and Brent and Pigpen. And Robert Hunter.

It was indeed a long strange trip, and well worth the journey.