If writing about art, as has been often said, is like dancing to architecture, then writing about a film capturing the last tour of the Grateful Dead could easily be equated to … well, have you ever tried dancing to the wiggy drums/space segment of a Dead show? I sure as hell did, and my efforts in that regard, coming as they did in my formative years, left a permanent mark on my dancing style, as my wife pointed out–a bit too gleefully, I might add–while we watched the preview video of The End of the Road–The Final Tour, a new documentary chronicling the final months on tour preceding Jerry Garcia’s death in the summer of 1995.
Plumbing the depths of the past would seem to be a primary reason for watching Brent Meeske’s film. While those who never experienced life on tour with the Dead will likely find End of the Road a revealing glimpse into the autonomous subculture of the Dead life, the scenes playing out in and around the concert venues where Deadheads established their gypsy camps are sure to deliver a serious strike to the resonant bone of any qualified tour rat.
Just what those qualifications are is hard to determine. Members of the Dead culture, like those of innumerable communities (are you a Montana native?), tend to establish thresholds of legitimacy for initiation, and there are many levels of Deadheadedness. But while the number of shows one has seen bears some causal connection to the sheer volume of the culture one can assimilate (even with brain synapses fired by various psychoactive chemicals, there’s only so much a person can absorb at one time), the heads populating End of the Road will feel familiar (sometimes eerily so) to those with a few shows under their belt.
Highlights of the film–which was shot with hand-held cameras and eschews concert footage for a strict focus on the carnival atmosphere created by the band’s legions–include a series of montages that evoked both grins and grimaces from my 30-show history with the Dead. Parking lot scenes galore feature vendors (beer, vegan food, water, tie-dyed clothes, jewelry), pining would-be concert goers searching for the ever-elusive ticket (“I Need A Miracle!”), panhandlers (“Spare change for pot! We promise not to buy food!”), unconcealed drug trade (a girl meandering through the crowds with “Dose Me” etched on her forehead, and long lines in front of opportunistic dealers dispensing nitrous oxide from large tanks), and the obligatory testimonials from acid casualty Deadheads regarding the relative status of Garcia’s deification.
One particularly entertaining sequence takes a look at the “Rock Med” team who staffed the shows in the later years. A Rock Med medic profiles tripping revelers in need of assistance, from your garden-variety freak-out (“They usually just need some grounding and assurance”) to cases of full-blown reality dissonance (“The naked wanderers are usually the farthest gone. You can tell right away how bad it is by asking them if they took acid. If they don’t remember, that means they think what they’re going through is the real world”). A victim of the latter stripe is shown being gently corralled, like a spooked horse, and then lifted, séance-stiff and naked, onto a cot with restraints.
The balance that Meeske finds between the endearing and the embarrassing in Deadhead behavior is furthered by a measured look at the growing unruliness that plagued the Dead scene toward the end of the road. Meeske includes amateur footage of the fence-ripping riot at the Deer Creek amphitheater in Indiana that caused the band to cancel a second appearance and issue an improbable plea for the crowd to “play by the rules.” A poignant moment finds a longtime Deadhead pondering the intrusion of violent elements and the need for Deadheads to police their own and discourage further disruptive occurrences. “[The Dead] aren’t going to be doing this forever, man,” he says, “so we’ve got to fight to keep the scene going as long as we can.” In bitter irony, the interview took place outside of Soldier Field in Chicago, where the Dead played their final show.
Ultimately, the scene only lasted as long as Jerry did, and Meeske’s portrayal of the aftermath of Garcia’s death carries some potent images, including Garcia collaborator Merle Saunders swearing to an onstage visit from Jerry the night after he died, as well as scenes from the final gathering paying tribute to Garcia. Bandmates Mickey Hart and Bob Weir exhort the crowd to “do something” with the 30 years of good mojo generated by the enterprise and issue a tearful request for everyone to “shine a little bit [of the joy Garcia created] back at him.”
The only major drawback of watching End of the Road is the jones it creates to experience a show, to match the vivid color of Deadhead life with the corresponding musical odyssey the band laid out night after night. In one of those strange coincidences so endemic to the whirligig Dead existence, Missoula will have the opportunity to combine the social and musical elements of Deaddom this very weekend. A sneak preview of the movie runs at the Wilma on Friday night, followed on Saturday evening by a performance by the Dark Star Orchestra, a tribute band that not only holds true to the Dead’s musical vision but actually recreates, song by song, entire shows from the band’s immense concert history.
To what extent the DSO can trigger deep-seated flashbacks of shows past will depend much on the baggage of its participants. Will a finely-wrought version of Garcia’s lilting “China Doll,” for example, make one feel all over again the sweet relief of the time that song served as a psychological life preserver floating in a sea of acid-fueled panic? The only way to find out, sisters and brothers, is to join in this Festival of the Dead. After all, what would Jerry do?