Back in the early ‘90s, I always taped the Grateful Dead Hour at midnight on KGSR. Didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing, come 11:45, I was home to record it. I had never seen the Dead live, but I loved to hear their live sound. One Saturday night around April of ’95, some friends were over listening with me and while we were enjoying a particularly good “Fire on the Mountain,” I was hit with an overwhelming sense that I had to see the Dead. Now. Jerry just wasn’t going to around much longer.

Since they hadn’t played in Texas since the ’70’s, I knew we’d have to travel, and while four of us planned to go, two dropped out (“Next time,” they both said) and so it was that on June 21, 1995, R (who was not yet my wife) and I set out a little before midnight for Washington, DC where they would be playing RFK Stadium that coming Saturday. We had dry cereal, peanut butter, bread, a gas station card and a few bucks between us to get there.

We spent Thursday night in Knoxville and on Friday rolled into Washington where we planned to stay with an old high school buddy who was, incidentally, the person who introduced me to the Dead. We saw the sights and even visited the house in Springfield where I lived when I was a kid in the late ‘70s. And then, on Saturday night, we saw the Dead. Bob Dylan opened and underwhelmed as he tends to do, but when the Grateful Dead came out and opened with “Jack Straw” I had one of those I-can’t-believe-I’m-here moments. Quite simply, I had arrived at the promised land.

Longtime Deadheads pan these latter shows. Jerry was fading, and it was obvious to the band’s most dedicated followers that something was off, but for us, this first-and-only Dead show was magic. I have never been to any show before or since where I felt compelled to pay such close attention and where I was willing and able to just let the music carry me away.

The setlist included some of my favorites and some that I’ve come to love since then (h/t dead.net):

Jack Straw
Althea
Little Red Rooster
Friend of the Devil
El Paso
So Many Roads
Promised Land

Iko! Iko!
Way to Go Home
Saint of Circumstance –>
New Speedway Boogie –>
That Would Be Something –>
Drums –>
Space –>
The Days Between
One More Saturday Night

Black Muddy River

I’ll never forget the energy and excitement of “Iko! Iko!” or the way Bruce Hornsby ran away with “Promised Land” or how they put the boogie back into “New Speedway Boogie.” Most of all, though, I’ll always remember the way Jerry sang “Days Between,” a real favorite of mine. It’s not on any of their official releases and was written only a year or two earlier, but it’s one of the best Dead songs ever, dark and longing, beautiful and terrifying. Jerry poured what little was left of himself into that strange, cryptic song and held the audience captive all the while.

Who knew it would be the last time they would play “Friend of the Devil” and “That Would Be Something” and “Days Between”? And what an unusual portent it was for them to close with the first “Black Muddy River” in almost 4 years. In fact, a few weeks later, it was one of the last songs Jerry would sing with the band, allegedly altering the lyric from “black muddy river” to “last muddy river,” an interesting change in a song about the realization that there are more days behind than ahead of the aging singer who now at the end must face his failures. It’s a song that aches in its beauty and that night, hearing them close with it, there was a certain finality we felt even if we didn’t quite understand.

And that was it. Just another Saturday night in Washington, DC. We hung around Sunday and drove straight through to Austin on Monday. A month and a half later, Jerry Garcia died. It was August 9, and we were at Lollapalooza. My other favorite band, Sonic Youth, was headlining and as the moon rose over South Park Meadows (before it was paved and turned into a strip mall), they closed with a new song, an epic trippy-sounding psychedelic punk jam, called “The Diamond Sea” that Thurston Moore introduced simply by saying, “This is for Garcia.” It was gorgeous, and a fitting tribute.

As the years passed, I’ve always wanted to hear our Dead show again and a few years ago, I downloaded it from the Internet Archive where a generous taper had uploaded it. I’ve been listening to it and enjoying it all over again. Perhaps not surprisingly, the things I remembered most clearly come through as powerfully as they did in person.

It was a wonderful moment in a strange and wild time. A beautiful time in which anything was possible and nothing seemed more important than racing across the country to see a band play on a Saturday night. A few months later, I quit the freelance film life and started a “regular” job to save money for grad school, and so that trip and that show seem kind of like a last hurrah for me in a lot of ways. It was an ending but a beginning too, as they usually are.

I’ll never know what I heard in that Grateful Dead Hour solo, and I’ve lost the tape anyway, but there was something there… a single note or a phrase maybe, something deep that spoke of the ephemeral nature of music and art and beauty and even life itself when you get right down to it. Life’s fleeting moments, experience and wisdom, gathered into song and then blown out on the wind like smoke in the air, flames on a mountaintop, those “headless horsemen vanishing with wild and lonely cries.” All that in one little bit of music that called us across the country to hear something glorious that was itself fading into darkness.