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Joanna Colangelo Headshot

My Grateful Dead

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The passing of time has always struck me by its strange subjectivity and distortion. It's that warped sense of years that seem like eternities as a child, but the older we get, months blend into each other and the swiftness with which the years pass can be terrifying. I've done my best to avoid marking time, instead, opting to think that each month is only a continuation of the day before. But every June reminds me of another passing year, right when the cool summer evening breezes are preparing to turn into hot July nights. These are the nights of a distinct, and now distant, time and place that lives on through a wistful blend of music and memories. These are the nights that I miss the Grateful Dead -- "my" Grateful Dead -- the most.

Twenty-six years ago, in June 1987, I sat in our family's blue Volvo station wagon, my six-year-old legs sticking to the vinyl seats of the car. The sun was pounding through the windows, burning the vinyl against my skin. I had tagged along with my mom to go grocery shopping, and as we pulled onto our street, a song came on the radio. I had never heard it before, but something about it put me in a momentary trance that I can only describe today as a primal reaction to music.

The melody was rhythmic, easy to keep a beat -- I tapped my little sneaker against the car door. It sounded like a hymn without a church. Acoustic guitars and mandolins danced with each other, creating a warmth and richness that was not exactly rock 'n' roll, not exactly country, and not exactly folk music. The lyrics were clear -- they were poetic and sensitive, yet so simple and beautiful that even a six-year-old could understand them. But, it was that comforting and vulnerable voice singing through the speakers that spoke directly to me, invited me into the story, and would shift the course of my young life:

If my words did glow with gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music?
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

I listened with the calmness of a child's ears, and as a final chorus of voices blanketed the song until it gently faded away, an involuntary smile came over me. It was -- and I hate to be so cliché -- a peacefulness that I had never experienced through music. Those three minutes were my introduction to the Grateful Dead.

A month later, for my seventh birthday, I got two cassette tapes: American Beauty and Shakedown Street. I tore open American Beauty in search of the song that I had heard on the radio. But when "Box of Rain" started, I couldn't fast-forward in search of anything; each song was just as hypnotic as the one I had first heard on the radio. I studied the cast of bikers and assorted characters on the cover of Shakedown Street and imagined what it was like to live as one of them -- where they might travel, who they would know, what stories they could tell. That night, I fell asleep listening to American Beauty on my Sony Walkman -- the kind that automatically flipped the tape over, so it never stopped playing until, I suspect, my parents lightly pried it from sleeping hands.

I've spent endless hours trying to understand what hooked me so deeply and irrevocably after I heard "Ripple" that afternoon -- what led me to spend the better part of my elementary school years devouring photographs in The Grateful Dead Family Album and reading Robert Hunter lyrics as though he were the poet laureate of the United States. Such a visceral reaction to music is hard to define, but a friend of mine once said that every music lover has his or her own Grateful Dead experience. It may come in high school or in college; it may come in the throes of adolescence or in the solitude of retirement. And, it may come when you're six years old, but like a live Dead show, the experience is a personal one, and it is uniquely yours to embrace.

My Grateful Dead experience began long after their supposed pinnacle: I never went to an Acid Test, never saw them play on the streets of Haight-Ashbury or at either Fillmores. I never went on tour with them, and I never camped out in parking lots. I wish I had, but that simply wasn't my time.

My years with the Grateful Dead swing to the other end of their career pendulum. I have no vivid recollection of Jerry Garcia as Captain Trips. I see him only as a slow-moving, grey bearded man in black sweat pants and a t-shirt - the epitome of cool in his sheer reluctance to be cool. I see Phil Lesh in khakis, running shoes and a neatly pressed tie-dye shirt, Bob Weir in cutoff denim shorts, Mickey Hart in a tight tank top, Brent Mydland in a faded Harley-Davidson shirt, and Bill Kruetzmann in a San Francisco Giants baseball cap. They were anything but the prototypical rock stars.

I knew the Grateful Dead as six, disarming, middle-age men who offered a temporary musical and physical portal into a colorful and exuberant world that had all of the excitement and curiosity of a mysterious and unknown land, but without any intimidation and fear. For a young girl who was still getting her bearings in the world, this was the welcoming invitation that I needed to begin forging my own way in life -- my own character and my own identity.

Almost 50 years after the Grateful Dead began playing on the streets of San Francisco, there is little doubt that, culturally speaking, the Dead is a musical and social phenomenon that grew out of the purity of 1960s ideologies and evolved into one of the most massive and complex sub-cultural movements our country has ever seen -- and may still be the closest we've come to creating a self-sustaining transient community. But is this what translates so universally among Grateful Dead fans of all ages and walks of life?

Maybe. Or, maybe it is the honesty in their music and a trust that, just like their audience, the Grateful Dead were simply who they were, without judgment and without apologies -- even when they were dark figments of themselves. And, maybe it's because of this that on these warm June nights, I mark another year. I reflect on being ten years old, sitting in stadium seats at my first Grateful Dead concert, the summer breeze blowing through my hair as I listen to Jerry Garcia sing "Standing on the Moon," with a weathered and tired voice that was far from perfect -- but it was entirely his own and that's all I ever wanted to hear.