Ray Duckler: Bug spray and the Grateful Dead simply don’t mix
"Don’t forget the bug spray.”
Bug spray? Did I really say that to my friend?
At a show featuring the remaining core members of what used to be the Grateful Dead, who played at Woodstock during the Summer of ’69?
Bug spray? Needed for a legendary style of improvisational music, alive since Lyndon Johnson, free-form in its foundation, carefree in its message?
The band is Furthur, named after the multicolored bus used by novelist Ken Kesey to drive across the country, to the 1964 New York City World’s Fair.
Furthur is one of the many offshoots created since the Dead’s Jerry Garcia died – gulp – 18 years ago. They played Tuesday night at the Meadowbrook amphitheater in Gilford.
There was Bob Weir, the original rhythm guitarist, once the long-haired 17-year-old who quit high school to live communally with the
band in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco in 1965.
There was Phil Lesh, the original bassist, still wearing those wire-rimmed glasses, still rail thin, like the neck of his bass guitar.
And there were a pair of Monitor employees, one 45 years old, another, me, who’d already hit 50. My friend had first seen the Dead in 1985, in Worcester, Mass., when former Celtics center Bill Walton, himself a longtime fan, was introduced to the crowd and had “Happy Birthday” sung to him by the band.
Mine came in the fall of 1977, after hitchhiking along the shores of Lake Ontario, ending up at the Rochester War Memorial in upstate New York.
Garcia’s hair and beard were actually black at the time.
So many years ago, for both of us, so many great memories, so many shows since then.
What was it? What attracted us to see this band, over and over, through our teens and our 20s and our 30s? Why did we move from show to show, sometimes seeing three or four within a week, each time in a different city?
Was it the scene itself, the feeling of belonging that it created, the sense of adventure, like riding the rails during the Beat Generation of the 1950s, secure in the knowledge that we always had a home to return to?
But it was more. It was the tapers’ section at each show, where fans could record the music and later trade with others who had done the same thing elsewhere, leading to a trail of live music that continues to be distributed to this day.
The Dead always said that once they were finished with their music, we could have it, and the concept fit nicely with our perception that the band, unlike other bands that came later, represented something other than money and greed and commercialism.
But, most of all, it was the music, stupid (just kidding), and everything that went along with it.
It was the fact that the band played a different set list each night, opening the first set with something different than it had the night before, then changing its opener and closer and middle again, every night, night after night, sometimes stretching across an entire season.
We anxiously waited for the songs, never knowing what was coming. We shimmied and shook and sang along, and, most of all, we plugged into Garcia’s licks, so powerful in their gentleness, like teardrops falling from a cheek.
Garcia invented his sound, and his music touched on fear and darkness and danger, while always making sure to sprinkle in optimism and hope.
And despite his death, Weir and Lesh carried on, playing the old songs with new bandmates. Somehow, while they grew old and we grew old, the music stayed fresh.
So, after a gap of nearly 10 years since we’d seen anyone associated with the Dead, Weir and Lesh brought Furthur to Gilford.
Sandwiches and ice and water and a blanket, all that stuff was routine for an event like this. So were the different groups that had set up camp inside Meadowbrook, organizations looking for donations to save the planet and the water and the rain forest and the whales and the giraffes and on and on.
But this time, we brought bug spray.
We never used to worry about bugs during all those shows from the 1970s and ’80s.
Why worry about bugs now?
Did this mean something?
Maybe we no longer belonged.
Maybe we should have stayed home, retiring from this sort of behavior, finished with this kind of scene, leaving it for a new generation.
It didn’t take long, though, to figure out that we belonged at the show, just like all the young people who never got the chance to see Garcia live.
And we can thank the music for that. No, Garcia wasn’t there, and, sure, that mattered.
We miss him.
But songs like “Scarlet Begonias,” written by Jerry, rang out through the humid night and sounded simply wonderful.
That’s why we had come. And that’s why fans older than us had come, too.
Sure, we showed our age a bit toward the end of the concert, leaving minutes before the encore to beat the traffic that we knew would clog the narrow paths leading from the parking lot.
And yes, we had to sit during a few tunes, unable to keep up with the relentless jamming pace the band had set from the outset.
But we never needed the bug spray.
Just as we hadn’t in years past.