Most of what I know about communities, I learned from the Grateful Dead.
A friend introduced me to the band in high school. Over the next few years, I fell in the love with the music and then, the community around it. The pull of the community was so strong that I didn’t even need to see a show to be consumed by it.
I stumbled upon a store in college that was a sort of hippie haven, selling frisbees, tie dyes, hacky sacks, and incense. What I cared about, though, was that they played Grateful Dead concerts constantly. And like the record store clerks in High Fidelity, the employees scrutinized every nuance. They loaned out tapes of shows with nothing more than a promise to return it. And, they told me about something called rec.music.gdead.
As some of you may recall, this was the age of usenet groups. In a surprising twist given the band’s 60’s roots and the still nascent Internet, thousands of Deadheads from around the world were online, obsessively discussing and debating anything related to the band - favorite shows, rumored tours, lyric interpretations, and tie dye tips. It was here that I learned the lore from people who had attended hundreds of shows. They told stories, gamely answered questions, and welcomed me in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
By the time I attended my first show, I was one of them. I knew which songs were rarities and what to expect in the parking lot. I had mastered the Dead dialect and obscure references. I couldn’t wait to finally experience what I had been reading about and listening to for so long.
It was truly magical, unlike anything I had been part of before or since. Everyone I encountered was friendly and helpful. They'd found something that meant a lot to them and were eager to share it. Anyone who was drawn to the music and the community was welcome.
In the end, the shared encounter with the music was what mattered. People weren’t there to see the band (there was very little to see) and there wasn‘t an audience in the normal sense. On stage or off, everyone had an essential part to play.
On that night, I joined a story that had begun many years before. I attended four more shows before the chapter came to a close. This weekend, I’ll watch as the Dead celebrate 50 years as a band with three final concerts.
Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.