I’ve just spent what for some Americans is three-month’s salary to see the Grateful Dead, and I’m feeling a little guilty. It’s hard to explain why I’d take time off work and spend nearly $5,000 to see a 50-year-old band whose lead singer passed away 20 years ago. Not to mention it’s an 800-mile trip. And I’m going with my dad.
The event, called Fare Thee well, is a series of three concerts over the July 4 weekend at Soldier Field in Chicago. It is the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s existence, and this weekend is being billed as the final show that the remaining members of the Dead will ever play together.
Deadheads all over the world are flocking to Chicago. To them, my own efforts to get to Chicago need no explanation.
For everyone else, this is what it takes:
One pair of 3-Night General Admission Pit Tickets
Three Nights at the James Hotel (Two Double Beds)
Two Bracelets for Lounge Access
Shuttle Transportation to and from the venue
1 Roundtrip Ticket from New York City to Chicago
Subtotal… before I even get to Chicago:
My dad is a fan. I’ve heard dozens of stories of him and his buddies hitch-hiking to see The Dead, The Band, The Allman Brothers. But back in the 1970s, the kind of money we’re now spending on these shows would have been unimaginable.
According to family legend, my dad once paid $2.50 for a ticket to see the Grateful Dead—around $10 in today’s currency, and big money to him then. When he got to the show, he found a large crowd calmly taking turns to duck through a hole in the fence, into the venue lawn. No one was checking for tickets, or anything really.
Today, CNN estimates that 210,000 people will descend upon Chicago for this weekend’s final Grateful Dead shows, topping off proceeds from this year’s tour of five shows for a total of $40 million in ticket sales.
And then there’s the secondary market: ticket resale website Stubhub lists the average price of this weekend’s tickets around $800, down from its peak of $1000 per ticket. But the actual face-values range from $60-$200.
Sure it’s the fourth of July. But it’s because of the Grateful Dead that travelers to Chicago are being gouged more than usual; Chicago hotel bookings are up 122% over last year for the same weekend, and roomrates are up 77%, averaging $340 per night, according to Orbitz.
With that kind of traffic, I fear Chicago may just dry up and run out of beer completely.
Beyond the shows themselves is a full calendar of ancillary events and expenses, a schedule to rival SXSW. Every jam band west of the Mississippi is coming into town to play… pre-parties, after-parties, and all the live-streaming parties to boot. And named for the 1978 Grateful Dead album and eponymous song, “Shakedown Street” will be the crowded, bacchanalian bazaar that inevitably pops up in the parking lots, where you can buy or trade anything from veggie burritos and crystals to mushrooms and bootleg t-shirts from hundreds of vendors…Hell, even I’m bringing 300 bootleg pins to sell and giveaway.
I’ve seen The Other Ones, Phil Lesh, The Dead, more than a few times. I’ve been to probably 100 Phish shows. But my first experience with The Grateful Dead was in that same pop-up economy on “Shakedown Street,” back when I was in the 6th grade.
By sheer luck, my class happened to be participating in a science fair at the Seattle Center, a sprawling downtown of expo space, amusement rides, parkland, in Seattle, Washington, on the day the Grateful Dead played the Key Arena next door.
During the fair, I convinced a few close friends to sneak out and investigate: four unaccompanied 12-year-old Catholic school boys wandering among the Dead fans. It blew my mind: the people, the fashion, the drumming, the smells, the crowd. Two of my friends were spooked and ran back to the science fair. My buddy John and I took it all in.
Wandering through the crowd, we were stopped by a DeadHead with a long white beard, who asked what we were looking for.
“Sorry,” I said. “We’re here for the science fair, and just taking a walk.”
He laughed at me, a fat 12-year-old in uniform.
“You shouldn’t be here without your parents,” he said. “Go back to the science fair and tell your parents you wanna see The Grateful Deaaaaaaaaaad…” He started cackling and clapping and coughing. It was enough to send us running. But I was hooked, and quickly began to obsess over the band and its surrounding culture.
The next year, in the summer of 1995, my parents assigned me a few home-improvement chores to keep me busy. One Sunday afternoon, I was putting a new coat of waterproof stain on our backyard deck and listening to the local classic rock radio station, when the news came.
The smell of the stain had become overpowering and the sun was really cooking the deck, when the radio DJ broke in: “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “I have some sad news: Jerry Garcia has died.”
I froze, and listened to the DJ slowly eulogize the band’s mythic leader. And I think that he concluded with, “We’ll miss you, Jerry.” Then he played “St. Stephen.”
Or maybe it was “Playing with the Band,” I don’t quite remember. By then, I had only scratched the surface of the Grateful Dead’s discography, but already knew every word to at least a dozen songs.
You see, I realized that I had learned the lyrics from hearing my dad play the songs in the background of my childhood.
Turns out, I was a fan, before I even knew who I was a fan of.
The radio was still playing the Dead when my dad came out of the house and onto the deck. His eyes were red and he held two beers in one hand.
“Did you hear?” he asked.
“Jerry?” I said.
He nodded, and offered me a beer. We were done working that day.
Now, 20 years later, I’ll spend just about every penny I have on the last chance to join my dad at a Grateful Dead concert. Jerry will be there, no doubt, smiling down on all of us. And you’re damn right it’ll be worth it.
Maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll be the guy selling bootleg pins in the lot before the show, praying for a “Shakedown Street” second set opener.