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Touch Of Grey: Lecturing to retired Deadheads

I ask teacher Peter Richardson about a good introductory song to the Grateful Dead. He mulls the question over for a moment. 

“You know one song that Jerry Garcia loved, but it wasn't their song... It was a song called 'I Know You Rider.' And Garcia had an especially favorite verse, and the verse goes: "' wish I was a headlight on a northbound train.' I think it really captures something. The romance of the open road, and a sense of adventure. And they modeled that wanderlust for maybe two generations of fans,” Richardson says.

I think I had listened to the Grateful Dead maybe once before I started this piece. With the Grateful Dead turning 50 this year, there’s bound to be many ways to celebrate the occasion. Martin Scorsese is even producing a documentary in their honor.

The band broke up after Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, but this seemed like a unique chance to see what the fuss was about. Peter Richardson, a lecturer at San Francisco State, was teaching a course on the Grateful Dead at a school for adults over 50. A cultural history class where the students were likely part of both the culture and the history? Fascinating, right? But would I leave the class a "Deadhead?"

“Welcome back. I think we’re ready to start,” says Richardson, addressing about 60 students.

Appropriately enough, the lecture hall is Freight and Salvage, a folk music venue in Berkeley that started in the 1960s. During the lecture, Richardson brings up a recent concert by a band named Further that had two former Dead members.

“I did see the show at the Greek Theater last fall. Did anyone go to that show?" asks Richardson. "I welcome your reactions to it. I went to the Sunday afternoon show.” 

On a break, I walk up to student Susan Sperber and ask her what song she would recommend. "A Touch Of Grey," she says. It was their biggest hit in 1987.

Sperber says she is proud to look the Baby Boomer part.

“Look I have a tie-die shirt on. And sandalwood beads.” She laughs.

She told me that recapturing the 1960s is exactly why she is here. This class on the Grateful Dead is part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley - OLLI for short. They offer liberal arts classes for older adults, and Sperber has taken a lot of classes here. 

“When I retired I needed to do something to keep active. It’s very, very easy to get old. It’s not that you don’t want to get older, but it’s just you can get old. And OLLI helps us to keep our minds going.”

Unlike other OLLI classes, people here are steeped in the culture that the class is covering. In 1970 the Grateful Dead were arrested for drug possession in New Orleans. When the incident came up in lecture Richardson says a hand shot up.

“One of the students said, ‘I was in New Orleans in the 1970s, I went to that show and I remember when that arrest was made.’”

Imagine taking a class on the French Revolution and some of the students had stormed the Bastille. There are also plenty of students who started listening to the band in the 1980s and 1990s. Turns out, that was the height of their popularity. Not in the 1960s.

Friztie Shone is a student who was introduced to the band by her children. She and her husband are in their 80s.

“We’re season ticket holders of opera for the last 40 years and we go to see Baroque music. We love music,” Shone says. 

So when they told their children they were going to take the class...

“Our kids said ‘Oh my god! They’re nuts! You’re old!’ and we are old. We’re old! But we love the music. Especially the harmony.”

Like in Baroque music, the Dead’s harmonies are good. Shone points to the song "Sugar Magnolia." 

Richardson says the Grateful Dead’s fan base is much more diverse than how it’s usually portrayed.

“There's been three U.S. senators, there's been athletes like Bill Walton, there's been scholars like Joe Campbell. And that if you're really trying to understand the Dead's audience, you have to include those people too, and not just the stereotypical Deadhead selling a dream catcher or a veggie burrito out in the parking lot,” says Richardson.

I ask him how he would sell the class to someone who doesn’t have any connection to the Grateful Dead.

“I would say there were a lot of 60s symbols that didn't even make it into the 70s. The Grateful Dead made it into the 90s. You know it's an extraordinary story, these middle aged rockers were peaking in 1991 20 years after woodstock,” says Richardson.

That makes the connection between these fans and the band a little bit clearer - they aged with their audience.

I talked with one last student in the class, Christine Caldwell. The song she recommends? "Dark Star" - the Grateful Dead’s opus that could run 30 minutes long in concerts.

”You feel it, you actually feel the notes. You feel the energy from the band," says Caldwell.

She took the class because she wants to reconnect with how she felt at the concerts. When I asked her what drew her there she got really enthusiastic.

“It was everything, it was the audience, it was reliving the 60s feeling, the clothing, the tie dye, and everything. I felt so 100% there is no other place on the planet that I want to be right now. I’m sorry to cry, I’m sorry I don’t want to cry. It’s just very emotional,” she says.

I got a bit jealous of her - I never get that excited about music anymore.

She left me with one last piece of advice: “You should listen to them. Seriously.”

I think I agree with what Richardson said about the band: you don’t have to like their music to appreciate their story.

The Grateful Dead may not be my tribe, but I’m happy I got to join their trip for an afternoon.