The 1995 death of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia was a shock to me, but no surprise. He was 53 and made a good run, I thought back then, considering his hard living.
Dying at 53 is not a good run. Whether heart attack or heroin, that’s a bad run.
Garcia went early. Now with Prince, Petty, Bowie, Allman and more, final appearances by Classic Rock’s once-large midnight gang are speeding up. Their peers see the Facebook tributes; let’s not talk falsely now, they know the hour’s getting late.
Steven Hyden’s reflective Twilight of the Gods considers the end of Classic Rock’s artists in their human, living representation. In maybe 25 years, he writes, the legends will likely have departed—the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Garcia’s bandmates. Their live concerts will end much sooner.
In 2015, the Grateful Dead gave their fans a definitive send-off, the five-show concert series “Fare Thee Well.” Goodbye on their terms, 20 years after the end of the Dead’s Garcia-era version.
As Joel Selvin with Pamela Turley explores in Fare Thee Well, Garcia’s death left the Dead’s survivors—Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, and Phil Lesh—to confront a future without Garcia for their satellites to orbit. For the next 20 years, they dealt with confusion, betrayals, and reconciliations—the ups and downs that being alive requires.
Selvin was not detached—he felt Garcia’s loss up close. He had covered rock music for the San Francisco Chronicle since the ’60s and knew Garcia’s death was “a hole in the band’s sky,” Selvin said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I could see that from where I was,” not on the stage, but at least in a wing.
Hyden came late to Classic Rock in the ’90s, bringing an immigrant’s loyalty. He speaks for the audience familiar with watching legends like Garcia take the stage, transitioning to a near-future world with only stories about watching them.
It’s an old story, unless you’ve never lived it.
The Grateful Dead’s final Garcia-era show in July 1995 was opened by The Band, featuring original members Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm. Hyden quotes Helm’s play-every-date defiance: “I’m not in it for my health. I’m a musician and I wanna live the way I do.”
Levon played to 71 before cancer got him. Hudson is still going at 80.
Hyden quotes their once-bandmate Robbie Robertson, who stage-managed The Band’s 1978 “breakup” for the film The Last Waltz—“You can press your luck. The road has taken a lot of great ones.”
Richard Manuel, 42, hanged himself during The Band’s 1986 tour, hours after a performance at some place called the Cheek to Cheek Lounge. Danko died at 56 in 1999, a heart attack a week after his last solo show.
Maybe, Hyden writes, “Robertson was right to walk away when he did. But what’s romantic about his perceived prescience? ‘Robbie Robertson was right’ has never been inspirational in any context.
“We want our heroes enduring one blackout night and hungover morning after another because it enables us to witness the extremes of human existence from a safe vantage point,” Hyden writes. “Levon stayed on the road. He went down swinging. All Robbie did was talk about it.”
So, Bob Weir didn’t cancel his band RatDog’s appearance at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom on August 9, 1995, the day Garcia died. Weir took the stage at that small venue on the Northeast club circuit and became the touchstone for every Deadhead in driving distance. Classic Rock, Hyden writes, provides that “hero’s journey” through obstacles; at the end, the hero is changed from the experience. Transcendent. That’s what those fans wanted. Bob Weir knew his part.
The “hero’s journey” requires narrative control of the story’s end, however; that only works in fiction. Real life is more film noir. And in film noir, the protagonist uncovers tragic secrets, revelations they’ll wish they hadn’t learned.
Weir left the Ballroom, flew to Garcia’s memorial service, and was back on the road a week later. In a movie about a hero, credits would roll with Levon’s words a defiant postscript. But we’re not watching that movie.
Fare Thee Well tells Classic Rock’s film noir story. Dead bassist Phil Lesh provides the book’s moustache-twirling villain, who “for years nurtured his resentments against his bandmates.” Unleashed by Garcia’s death, his “days of standing in the corner were over.”
Selvin writes that “Lesh no doubt thought, who else… was suited to take the lead… it couldn’t be Bobby Weir, drunken, dysfunctional, dreamy, and fumbling. Or Mickey Hart, the pseudo-intellectual drummer who was losing his hearing and couldn’t keep time. Brutish Billy Kreutzmann, who was busy picking pineapples and dropping acid? Only [Lesh] could restore the soul of the Grateful Dead.”
Lesh ignored Selvin’s interview requests, but Selvin tells The Daily Beast, “Phil made his feelings known to many of his associates, who made them available to me. There’s kind of a consensus to his beliefs.”
And, in 2000, Lesh scheduled a “Lesh and Friends” New Year’s Eve show just miles away from a previously-scheduled Other Ones performance featuring his former bandmates. Selvin writes that the Other Ones played a half-full arena; Lesh sold out an 8,000-seat auditorium. Lesh also brought Bob Weir into his group only after Weir disbanded RatDog and fell under Lesh’s management and representation, cutting out Hart and Kreutzmann.
“Without the pesky drummer/partners, they could have a better band,” Lesh conspires with Weir, “play before bigger audiences and keep a larger share of the spoils.”
The book’s gossipy tone makes the book an enjoyable, snarky ramble. And Lesh’s conniving aside, ‘Lesh and Friends’ and his Further Festivals outstripped the Other Ones and Hart and Weir’s solo gigs. In film noir, after all, the villain often wins.
Selvin relates many interesting non-Lesh, non-feud stories, but these feuds are the honest way that Classic Rock often ends—fights over legacies, money, merchandizing. There are no heroes in boardrooms, only secrets.
In 2018, it’s easy to mock gentler throwbacks like Styx or REO Speedwagon, emoting sincere ballads like “Come Sail Away” or “Keep on Loving You.” Hyden relates an anecdote from Styx’s Tommy Shaw, who said they handed DJs cocaine and microwaves to ensure “Come Sail Away” would be a radio presence. But, if “those dorky corporate rock bands got on the radio because the system was rigged in their favor… they stayed on the radio because millions of normal people heard something they could relate to.” Hyden’s mother sang along with REO because “what she longed for was a decent guy who was earnest about love. Her notes might have been off-key, but they were true.”
REO still tours; Kevin Cronin still loves you, and he means forever; fans can still capture first-hand memories to pass down. Hyden first saw The Who in 2002—Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend, anyway, whose tour had soldiered on Bob Weir-style just four days after John Entwhistle’s death. When Hyden saw them again in 2012, “Townsend’s pallor was alarming. And Daltrey… had lost at least 75 percent of his once-mighty singing voice… I was keenly aware that my enjoyment hinged on my ability to project onto The Who an image that no longer seemed accurate.”
True; but Hyden still saw The Who. In modern entertainment’s franchise-driven world of sequels, these bands carry the dignity of health or mortality’s certain endpoint, even if they fight: The Eagles, bringing Glenn Frey’s son; Steely Dan down to Don Fagen; AC/DC with Axl Rose. Still time to get what you want.
When Garcia died, Mick Jagger was 51, already a grandfather. The Rolling Stones played Budapest the night before Garcia’s death, finishing their 1994-95 Voodoo Lounge tour that same month after a year on the road. Garcia died; the Stones recharged.
"Lots of hacks out there said we couldn't do it anymore," Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1994. "Once we’re on stage, the question is answered.”
I saw the Stones in Boston’s Orpheum Theater in 2002, a stifling 100+ degrees on that September night. Jagger didn’t sweat. Legends. Myths.
Young music fans find their own path. The album Love Yourself: Tear from Korean-Pop group BTS debuted at #1 on June 2’s Billboard 200 album chart. They’ll play four sold-out shows at L.A.’s Staples Center in September.
I watched some BTS videos—an incomprehensible haze of dancing to an EDM beat. This is what the kids are listening to?
BTS’ tour will finish in Paris on October 20, 2018—43 years to the day that Bruce Springsteen’s manager Mike Appel scrambled down from a Los Angeles hotel room to confirm his now-mythic placement of Springsteen on the covers of Time and Newsweek. There was Bruce, wiry and scruffy-faced. What did Middle America think when he showed up in their mailbox? Exxon signs? Burned-out Chevrolets? That’s what the kids were listening to?
Bruce had just finished five shows at The Roxy in Hollywood. Before Bruce’s future decades of football stadiums, the 500 people there each night, they knew.
That search for new music motivates Hyden. He brings up Japandroids, a hard-driving duo that sounds, Hyden accurately writes, like a “modern version of an AC/DC album in the best possible way.” He knows they’ll never succeed like AC/DC, because in today’s niche culture, no band can earn that lasting appeal. Japandroids wraps their 2018 tour with four shows at “Boot and Saddle” in Philadelphia—capacity 150.
So what? Hyden writes, “Perhaps the question shouldn’t be ‘Why can’t a band like Japandroids play stadiums?’ But rather ‘How great would it be if Springsteen still played clubs?’”
If you’re the only audience—on your “hero’s journey”—then yes, that would be great. Small venue, great views. How Classic Rock was meant to be, right?
But we’re in a film noir movie; here’s the secret you wish you didn’t know.
No, it’s not great. It’s Vince Neil, gut hanging out, unable to carry his once-amazing screech; Eddie Money, slurring about his “ladies of the ’80s,” drunk or acting like it; David Lee Roth, trying for a high kick and reaching barely past his knee. I’ve seen them, in that Casino Ballroom on Hampton Beach. Fun, sure; great, not so much.
Springsteen plays in a 900-seat club right now—Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater. Most tickets are $400-$800. His fans, mostly well-to-do, 50-something white men, complain on their Backstreets message board—disappointed at a luxury above even their grasp.
It’s not great at either end, if your favorite artist keeps playing clubs. You want Japandroids or BTS to eventually play arenas and football stadiums, with maybe-affordable tickets despite crappy sightlines and $10 beers. In 2014, BTS played their U.S. debut at West Hollywood’s Troubadour club to 250 people for free, first come, first serve; somebody was surely there who here in 2018 can’t get tickets. That’s OK. They still saw them first. Classic Rock fuels pride, sitting in a crappy seat now, talking about seeing them then.
Will BTS have nostalgic legs? In 20 years, listeners could recapture some youthful exuberance, but listening to BTS to deliberately get nostalgic? To feed that mood? I doubt it. No melodrama, no danger. They’re too fun.
Selvin makes a similar observation about Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA album full of 1984’s synthesizers and pop riffs—now permanently dated, he says. I get it. For fans of “Candy’s Room” or “Independence Day,” the practically-danceable “Bobby Jean” is just too fun. But.
If you came to Bruce for the first time that 1984 summer, the synth-pop sound of “Bobby Jean” will never overshadow that song’s plaintive call to departed friends—a grown-up thought for teenagers staring at real-life.
So, who am I to say what the sounds of BTS will bring back to someone, in the decades ahead?
Granted, BTS does seem to lack Classic Rock’s reliance on risk and rough romance—Led Zeppelin’s groupies, Ozzy Osbourne’s mania, Garcia’s indulgence—ravaged but strangely dignified. That carried over to the songwriting, the stories beneath the melody.
“What song from this era will be in a bandstand songbook? ‘Put a Ring on It?’” Selvin asks me. “Nobody has an automatic answer.”
It’s difficult when the internet offers an “infinite number of alternatives,” Hyden said. Digital’s infinite space doesn’t force editing or discipline. Classic Rock’s stories were constrained by the vinyl album’s 45-minute capacity. Clarity was vital.
Those three-minute Classic Rock stories allowed us to uncover secret wishes of ourselves. Film noir. Pop isn’t that.
Neil Sedaka’s “Bad Blood” charted #1 the week of Springsteen’s magazine covers. In 2018, Sedaka, 79, is doing fine, having earned millions from writing great pop hits. Danger? Romance? He’s a businessman.
Britney Spears’ breakdown wasn’t dangerous. It was sad. Michael Jackson overdosed on painkillers. That’s just awful.
Bon Scott, 33, sprawled in a car seat, vomited, drowned; was he gripping a bottle of whiskey in his hand? That’s living hard. John Entwhistle, 57, spent his last night snorting blow in bed with a stripper. That’s commitment.
Classic Rock’s stars take the hero’s journey to the bitter end, and it’s almost here. The Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” reconciliation was financially inspired, but it was also emotional, providing fans the finality they craved. “The band didn’t want to do it. Phil hated everybody. The will of the Deadheads made it happen,” Selvin said. In its success, other artists surely took note of the disingenuous “finale.” After all, Dead members still perform in many different configurations.
Good. Get paid and keep going. Without spectacles to talk about after the playing has stopped, we’d only have music from earbuds.
When “Fare Thee Well” tickets went on sale, Selvin writes, the band received $90 million in mail order requests for 300,000 tickets—twice all five show’s total capacity. One of Garcia’s guitars—“Tiger”—was displayed at the shows, loaned by the Hyatt Hotel heir who’d won it at auction.
Covetous dilletantes craving artifacts. Long-time fans shut out of tickets. Validation. Proof a fan chose right. Someone wants what you have.
Holding physical artifacts like vinyl records seems old-fashioned in this digital age. The printed Rolling Stone’s Record Guide tells a true story, though —in 1979, a band like Black Sabbath is “a quaint bore. Time has passed them by.” Ten one-star albums.
The revised 2004 Record Guide calls Black Sabbath’s debut a five-star “unshakeable cornerstone of heavy metal.” Opinions change; print doesn’t.
The Record Guide’s four volumes exist as artifacts from 1979 to 2004, on what Hyden calls a continuum, influenced by their past but giving us a record of changing tastes. Modern music seems to always start fresh, Hyden says, blowing things up, starting again. To young listeners like Hyden’s first-time experiences, Classic Rock’s legends felt more permanent, “like something from the earth,” Hyden said. “Like communing with the dead.” Or the Dead.
The Dead’s 2015 concert finale was “Attics of My Life,” accompanied by a photo montage of 50 years of band members, reminding fans of their lifelong investment, the passage of their own years. There won’t ever be a montage of Beyonce’s back-up dancers; not better or worse—just different.
Watching on YouTube, the “Attics” performance isn’t very good; Selvin agrees, writing, “It would have been much better if they had taken the time to rehearse the difficult three-part harmonies.”
Still, Selvin acknowledges, the band played 81 different songs. “It’s amazing they played as mistake-free as they did.”
More importantly, 50,000 Grateful Dead fans had a final opportunity, Hyden would say, for disappointment from their collected heroes. He concludes, “no matter how many depressing classic rock shows I must sit through, that handful of transcendent nights will make it all worthwhile.”
The artists agreed. “I talked to Mickey Hart two weeks after ‘Fare Thee Well.’ I could tell that these guys had transcended themselves,” Selvin told me. “They gave themselves closure. I’m not sure they thought they needed that going in.” The Dead wanted the hero’s journey too.
Ultimately, these two books are worthwhile because they take an adult look at grown-up music. They remind fans to remember that view from the 22nd row; soon it can only be a memory.
Then Hyden, Selvin, and all Classic Rock fans will join the moondance after twilight, to pass down legends as long as they can. The way legends begin: “You should’a been there.”