Fare Thee Well: Grateful Dead and gearing up for the hippie apocalypse

CHICAGO – The Grateful Dead, America’s greatest jam band, is officially calling it quits with five shows featuring the surviving core four members: guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann.

Joined by Phish frontman and guitarist Trey Anastasio, with keyboardists Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti, they performed the first two this past weekend on their home turf just outside of San Francisco, California. The iconic band that’s been around for half a century has three shows in Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend.

The Holy Grail of Grateful Dead tickets: Admission to Sunday's show, the band's final performance. (Chris Swanson)
The Holy Grail of Grateful Dead tickets: Admission to Sunday’s show, the band’s final performance. (Chris Swanson)

OK, so they really ended 20 years ago following the death of Jerry Garcia, the band’s lead guitarist/vocalist/genius guru.

And they haven’t officially performed using the formal name since that time, opting for “The Other Ones,” “The Dead” or “Furthur.”

Put that aside, it’s the band’s 50th anniversary, and they will have their formal “Fare Thee Well” – as the shows are being billed –  and that’s just fine with me.

I’ve been aware of the band since I was 10 and been a fan for nearly 30 years, and the tale that follows is not so much a news release, as it is a personal reflection on the six months that have led up to why I’m in Chicago after being in California last week.

When the Chicago dates were first announced, I was thrilled.  A holiday weekend road trip to a city I’ve never seen to catch the band’s last gigs? Heck, the Orioles were even going to be in town that weekend playing the White Sox – with day games on Saturday and Sunday no less!

There’s no way I’m missing this. I booked a Chicago hotel room and put in for vacation time before tickets were even remotely available.

The band set up its customary mail-order ticket process. Deadheads snail mailed meticulously filled out 5×7 index cards with their requests, prepared their self-addressed stamped envelopes, purchased a stack of money orders to accommodate all potential seating price variations, and stuffed the lot into a colorfully decorated envelope. The Grateful Dead has long said it doesn’t really matter if it’s decorated, but, I don’t know and I’m superstitious about such things, so I decorate. The envelope is then sent into fate’s hands.

As the waiting for a response progressed, I found myself spending more and more time reading the discussion boards on the band’s website Dead.net. There, I found many like- minded Deadheads also wondering and waiting.

A kinship of anticipation grew and we shared stories of tours past, pondered setlists and guest artists, and rambled off topic like a Jerry solo gone awry, eventually coming back when the mood suited.

The band announced it received over 500,000 mail order requests for tickets, before any online sales had even begun, causing the process of anyone getting mail order tickets to be delayed while mountains of letters were sorted.

And I got nervous.

Not even Chris Swanson's best artwork was good enough for The Grateful Dead to grant his ticket request. (Chris Swanson)
Not even Chris Swanson’s best artwork was good enough for the Grateful Dead to grant his ticket request. (Chris Swanson)

Weeks passed in what became known as ticket limbo, a subset of fans who received no confirmation of their mail order request being accepted, but also not seeing a return of their money orders wrapped in the “dreaded pinky” rejection letter.

When the Ticketmaster sale came and got the web traffic normally only seen for an event like the Super Bowl, I began to panic.

We employed six devices, manned by me and my sons, desperately seeking a way through the gates of Soldier Field.

All became locked with spinning wheels and a message reading “searching for tickets.”

It all ended with a “no matches found” and me, sad-faced and shut out.

No soup for you!

Despair ensued.

Deeper despair ensued when I received my mail order rejection letter known in the circles as the “dreaded pinkie” named after the pink paper it was printed on (they had switched to white by the time I got mine).

Can’t think of a time I was ever so bummed to get an envelope full of money.

My fortunes had an amazing turnaround, as a kind soul going by the dead.net username Roadking, posted on the tickets offered board he had extras for Sunday, the closing night!

I was properly vetted as a fan of the band and not scalper scum, and got locked in with a pair for nothing over what it cost him. Such a weight lifted from the kindness of strangers.

That’s one reason I love this band so much.

He could have easily put his tickets on one of the scalper sites and gotten tremendously more than what he asked me to pay.

But Roadking is a true head, and the spirit of the band’s community says you don’t take unfair advantage of people, especially with tickets.

The Grateful Dead played the first two of its final five shows last weekend at Levi's Stadium outside San Francisco. The final three are this weekend in Chicago's Soldier Field. (Chris Swanson)
The Grateful Dead played the first two of its final five shows last weekend at Levi’s Stadium outside San Francisco. The final three are this weekend in Chicago’s Soldier Field. (Chris Swanson)

His generosity became an inspiration to me to help others get in as well. I definitely wanted to see all the shows. The Dead always changes its setlist from show to show, and if you want to hear a  particular song, your best chance is to be there for the entire run.

But with tickets as tough and expensive – a great seat was going for $11,000 on Stubhub on Tuesday – to get, I decided I would only go to Friday and Saturday shows if I helped fellow fans acquire tickets without sacrificing their mortgage payments.

I wasn’t alone.

As the winter months yielded to spring, several of our folk observed our random online chattering seemed to be leading somewhere.

Friendships were growing as we learned more about each other. It was time to make a bold and far reaching commitment to the unity of this vagabond tribe. We dubbed ourselves the “Sunshine Daydreamers,” referring to a line from the band’s classic “Sugar Magnolia.”

And it was decreed: THERE SHALL BE A PIC-A-NIC !

OK, how do we do this? Who knows where we can do this? What should we bring? Is anyone allergic to cheese? The logistics were staggering.

But we jumped at it like a Reed grad with new startup.

Committees of fun times were established, spreadsheets of ticket needs were created and updated, email threads ran for days on the topic of Today’s Tie.

General Eisenhower planning D-Day didn’t receive nearly as many dispatches. We elected a mayor, got a ride from a philosophical “dus briver (a drunk bus driver),” designed T-shirts and sang songs through the forum as the months counted down.

The Santa Clara dates were added by the band as a way to say goodbye where they first said hello. They were unofficially referred to as the “warm-ups” or workingman’s shows and were a last minute bonus to many Deadheads who were unable to get into Chicago.

Tickets were primarily sold through an online lottery that seemed to have limited scalpers getting as many of the treasured ducats.

Certainly, secondary market ticket prices were lower, as many tickets were being sold below face value, just hours before the show.

It was an awesome opportunity to meet some of my online family, share pie (one of my pre-show rituals) and put faces to friends whose faces I’d never seen.

The concerts themselves, while a little unpolished in places, (not unlike a few Dead shows I saw back in the day), had many notable highlights like the first night “early’s only” setlist that didn’t go past 1970.

The second night had a more balanced song selection, ending with a “Brokedown Palace” encore that had the audience singing sweetly along.

Certainly the term “warm-up shows” did not do the event justice.

And now I find myself at the edge of the last Fare Thee Wells, anxiously anticipating what the band I love so much has in store. And anticipating much more as well.

A pic-a-nic in the park, meeting all the rest of the wonderful people I’ve befriended online, and taking another look back at this long strange trip.

I miss Jerry.

2 thoughts on “Fare Thee Well: Grateful Dead and gearing up for the hippie apocalypse

  • July 3, 2015 at 10:04 AM

    This is a great article, Chris, that captures many of the underlying emotions that flow through the fans of this band. The community of Deadheads isn’t often overlooked, but is sometimes misunderstood. You do a great job of capturing the kindness ethic that accompanies strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hands.

  • July 3, 2015 at 9:41 AM

    Chris, as a fellow Sunshine Daydreamer, I am moved by how well you’ve captured the spirit of friendship, mutual support, and pranksterism our not so little band of fellow travelers has manifested. Thank you for telling our story through your own. Thank you for all the help you’ve been to so many, including me, in helping us get into the shows. See you at the Pic-a-Nic! -Hawk62

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