SPIRIT WEEK Day Four: The Grateful Dead

I can't do written justice to my relationship with The Grateful Dead. No single memory captures those years of my life. The two years when they were the only band I listened to. Literally. Sure, I heard other music every now and then. But for my last two years of high school, the only tapes, records and CDs I chose to play were recordings of The Dead.

I could tell you about the time Deven and I took acid and PCP at Furthur Festival '96, where I spent most of the show believing I was a panther and growling at people who neared my lair.

Then there was the answering machine at Nick & Theo's house in Santa Cruz, which went something like this: "Hi, you've reached Jerry, Bobby, Phil, Pigpen, Mickey, Billy, Robert, TC, Donna, Keith, Nick and Theo. We're not here right now. In fact, we were never really here to begin with, so there's no point in leaving a *BEEP*."

This being Spirit Week, I should probably relate how every year we'd swear we weren't taking part in the rallies & races. But there's no such thing as a lonely stoner, so every year Aidan, Theo, Jesse and I would end up standing on a table in the middle of the pep rally with our mandolins and banjos, playing bluegrass covers of the Alma Mater. And "Friend of the Devil," of course.

How about the time we took acid before the talent show and got shut down for jamming to "Dark Star" twenty minutes past our time-slot? Jesse's guitar case was covering the kill switch, so they shut off the entire building's power to make us stop. "Ms. Wilson, I swear to GOD, it felt like we were up there five minutes!"

Too much man, too much, too much. But it is October, so I'll tell you what. Lemme hip you to this mean Vox organist, hella crazy, I mean this guy can play, and man he sucks a bottle of Southern Comfort like a C# harmonica. Yeah, you know who I mean, I'm talking about the nasty man himself, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. Let me tell you about the Halloween we went to see old Pig.

Pigpen died at 27 from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage, brought on by advanced cirrhosis of the liver. Pig grew up in Palo Alto, in fact, he and Bobby briefly attended our high school. Kevin heard he was buried in Alta Mesa Memorial Park, over by Kesey's VA hospital. So along with Theo, Deven and Ashley, we decided to pay him a visit.

Alta Mesa locks it's tall gates at sundown. But the wrought-iron only borders the cemetery on three sides. The fourth wall is a ten-foot high hedge that separates the back of the park from Foothill Expressway. We figured we'd park at Cow Hill, cross the highway on foot and break in through the hedge. We packed flashlights, forties, and blunts, with the plan to smoke & pour one out on Pigpen's grave, at midnight.

Halloween night came, and we were ready. Alta Mesa is a few minutes drive from my house. Those kids lived on the other side of town, so they picked me up in Kevin's van around eleven o'clock. We parked the van on the opposite shoulder from the cemetery. Being already a little drunk and extremely excited, we high-tailed it over the highway, held our breath and hit the hedge running.

Big mistake.

It was after midnight when we found a hole, barely deep enough to crawl through on our bellies. Ashley was bleeding through her tank top and we were all soaked in mud by the time we looked out on the moonlit graveyard. It was gorgeous. And enormous.

"Kev. Did you find out where exactly it is?"

This was usually the point in the misadventure where Theo flipped out and whipped someone with his chain-link belt until they cried. But none of us had done our homework, and it was a graveyard on Halloween. We split into two groups because Ashley refused to walk around alone. I would have done the same if she hadn't beat me to it.

Over the next few hours, we combed every headstone, footstone and mausoleum in the park. Up and down and around the perimeter, we double-checked, we checked each other's sections. We did one last lap as a group. The blunts had broken apart on the hedge, and what was left of the forties was warm and dirty. It was almost sunup, when Alta Mesa would open, so we left the cemetery, crawling on our hands and knees.

They dropped me off and I made straight for the shower. My parents were fast asleep until the pipes started running. As I rinsed off the night's failures, I couldn't stop wondering about Pig's grave. It had to be there. He was buried in Palo Alto. Kevin's uncle said so. When I got downstairs, my mom was making pancakes with apricot syrup. I wolfed down a stack, told her I was going to the library, and got on my bike. I was back at Alta Mesa in fifteen minutes, and the gates were open.

The caretaker saw me biking in and came out to meet me. He was a tall, older man with silver hair, dressed immaculately in a white shirt and skinny black tie. He looked me over for a second, then spoke:

"You must be here to see Ron."
I was still on my bike.
"Hey that's alright, ol' Ron gets plenty of visitors. Most of them bring something though, roses or something."
I stared over his left shoulder, then at the ground.
"Some kids were walking around last night looking for him."
"I said, some kids were walking around last night looking for him. Dunno how they got in, but they walked around for a while. "
"I sleep here, you know."
I nodded once and got off my bike.
"It's a shameful thing to do. That's why I lock the gates at night, you know. Sometimes the dead don't want to be disturbed."
I flipped my kickstand down.
"Anyways," he said, "I suppose you'll want to know where he is."

The caretaker pointed me down the road to a dying tree I'd passed at least three times the night before. And sure enough, two rows in from the road, nine plots right of the tree, is a small rectangular slab, covered in flowers and beads and notes tied with ribbon. It wears a small steal-your-face inlayed in pearl, and the epitaph reads in capital letters:


The Grateful Dead - Easy Wind
The Grateful Dead - China Doll

If you are a dead fan, these are old favorites. If you aren't, they are unlike any Grateful Dead you've heard before. "Easy Wind" is an old blues jam, sung by Pigpen. "China Doll" is sheer slow-build psychedelia...the resolution-to-major at 4:15 is like tantric sex after a sin.

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1:00 PM

pigpen died at 27. you guys know that whole "Dead at 27" thing? let's make a comprehensive list, once and for all. here's what i got so far:

robert johnson
jimi hendrix
janis joplin
jim morrison
pigpen mckernan
brian jones
chris bell (big star)
kurt cobain
jeremy ward (mars volta)

any others?

9:14 PM

cold rain and snow came on shuffle other day and sent me on a 4 hour dead binge, i hadnt really listened to them much for about a year (but the 2 years before i did everyday)...those are great tracks, i have a TON of shows most of which sound pretty good. the site that hosts my list is down, but ill send you a link when its back up    

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