Dark Star

The tape is cued to November 11, 1973, a Sunday night, the last night of three Grateful Dead concerts. I usually attend the first show of a multiple night booking of any band, but not this time. I’ve heard that the final show of a Grateful Dead run was the one to try, and as I’ve never been to one of their shows, I take the advice to heart. I don’t know what to expect because mood and mystery surround the Dead. Like the description of American Beauty that had caused me to buy the album, accounts of a Grateful Dead performance are imperfect. The encounter is undefinable and comprises more than the music. They are a substantial celebration that moves from city to city, shaped by unpredictability.

Many of my figurative journeys begin or end at Winterland. My travels are always initiated by the music—the essences that infuse melody, harmony, and rhythm. Genre and style do not matter. Music’s desire to come forth and be heard is the core truth. I already know that there was something distinctive about the Grateful Dead. They blend psychedelia, country, and rock. The result reminds me of that strange steamboat that makes its way down the river whenever I hear the metallic timbre of John Fahey’s guitar in “The Yellow Princess.” On that third night I want to see where the river will take me.

My companions and I run late—the doors are open when we arrive at Post and Steiner. The night is cool but when we enter Winterland I instantly feel the heat from 5500 bodies percolating through an occluded atmosphere of marijuana smoke. We manage to find some seats in the upper balcony in the same area where I’d seen Bowie, but many rows further up. The entire arena is spread out before me and the houselights reveal a crowd of folks jammed together in front of the stage. I am happy to be in a seat—it gives me a sense of objectivity. I can participate and observe at the same time.

The moment I sit down I sense the mood of the audience—subdued anticipation. People are dancing and whirling to the music that plays on the PA system. Beachballs and balloons are propelled randomly by tender taps from the folks standing on the floor. I settle in my chair and feel as if I have taken a light dose of psychoactive chemistry, but I’ve not ingested anything. Instead of being on the edge of my seat I’m deep within its grasp—despite the rigid wood and lack of soft material. I can see the clock at the far end of the arena. The band is late—but it doesn’t seem to matter much to the audience, or to me.

There is no single moment where I become aware of the band making a dramatic entrance. The musicians unpretentiously walk out on stage and open with a swift and swinging version of Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land,” and segue into “Bertha.” The latter, in the words of David G. Dodd, “is one of those songs that can be listened to, and interpreted, and second-guessed at so many levels that it’s almost ridiculous.”[1] I often wonder what the character in the song is running from, so rapidly that at one point he crashes into a tree, sprints through a rainstorm, and wishes he could be thrown into jail so that he could escape pursuit from—a woman named Bertha. Who is she? The lyric is ambiguous. I hear the words “bar door” as “bardo,” changing the literal interpretation of entering a saloon to the metaphorical transition of a passage between lives.

Yet during “Bertha” all ambiguity is removed when Jerry begins his guitar solo.[2] His touch is light, like a lace doily drying on a laundry line in a summer breeze. Some notes are tinged with a mild vibrato, others with a bluesy bend, and the melody is summoned from an earnest place, while the rest of the band sustains the musical ideas with affection. The music emanates from an otherworldly place that is easy to miss if one is not paying attention. It’s subtle, and more than an acquired taste. Over the decades millions of people enter that zone and never leave.

[1] https://www.dead.net/features/greatest-stories-ever-told/greatest-stories-ever-told-bertha

[2] The entire concert is available for streaming on the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/details/gd73-11-11.sbd.schlissel.14105.sbeok.shnf/gd73-11-11d1t02.shn. The solo begins at the 3:45 mark.