Fare Thee Well

Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter of the Grateful Dead’s Long, Strange Trip
By Joel Selvin, with Pamela Turley
[Da Capo Press]

“Deadhead approval…courting the Deadheads. Deadhead loyalty was a valuable commodity. They owed their status and power to Deadhead approval.”

The Deadheads are what made The Grateful Dead. The same claim could be made for any band…without the fans…but for The Grateful Dead, their fans operated for over 30 years as the most devoted, dedicated and knowledgeable fan base ever. This dynamic is a part of what Joel Selvin puts forth in his new book Fare Thee Well.

 After Jerry Garcia died in August 1995, the remaining members of The Grateful Dead had a tremendous responsibility to deal with…what to do? After 30 years of nearly continuous touring and a huge payroll to support, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, AKA The Core Four, were able to either retire, take a break, work together or work with others. Between the four of them all of those choices were made at various times and for 20 years the Deadheads followed whomever they could to perhaps bring back some of the original Grateful Dead magic. All decisions and actions came to a triumphant end in 2015 when The Core Four played five farewell shows billed as Fare Thee Well (from a Grateful Dead lyric). What brought them to these shows ran the spectrum from ugly to beautiful…and was often not becoming of anyone, especially the flagbearers of peace, love and music. Their story is a depressing one but as the final chapter of the Grateful Dead, Fare Thee Well is a must read.

One thing was for certain: without Garcia, anything would be less than what it was. And the Core Four knew this well. At the time of Garcia’s death Weir had already been performing with his band Ratdog…and he would continue to do so. (Vince Welnick, the Dead’s keyboardist at the time of Garcia’s death, was in Ratdog, and his depression led to a suicide attempt. This act removed him from most future Dead related activities). Kreutzmann retreated to Hawaii, Lesh made rare appearances with others and Hart kept busy with his various projects. Any of them were able to draw a crowd, Weir most consistently with Ratdog as he was the only one who never left the road and was able to establish a stable fan base. “Bob Weir did everything he could to stay away from home,” writes Selvin. “He worked out his grief on the road.” Playing music is what these men had done for over 30 years and stopping seemed weird to some, welcome to others. “The band’s so-called success was largely an accident,” Selvin reminds us. “The Grateful Dead never sought success. They saw themselves as musicians.” Yet success is a hard thing to let go of and everyone knew that any Dead collaboration would net more than not. “People like to see us just standing together,” Hart said. “We don’t even have to play music.”

Most of the book involves Lesh and his wife Jill’s attempt to redefine the legacy and meaning of The Grateful Dead, often to the peril of the legacy and meaning. Lesh and Weir seemed to get along the best, with or without the drummers. From the perspective of the audience, things seemed to be going well when in 1998 The Other Ones included 3/4 Dead. It would not be until August 2002 that the The Core Four would play together for the first time since Garcia died, seven years after the last Grateful Dead show. From the band’s perspective, things were a mess. “Jill Lesh was acting as manager and had opinions on a wide range of issues including how equipment should be loaded and unloaded,” Selvin writes. “The roadies looked at Jill Lesh and didn’t see a manager. They saw a former waitress who once served them breakfast, but married their boss and now lorded over them, making what they considered uninformed decisions about key touring issues. She told the other band members that she and Phil now were the protectors of the spirit of The Grateful Dead. Phil would carry the banner. They would take it from here. She made a stunning pronouncement. She told the other lifelong members of the original band: ‘You don’t know anything about The Grateful Dead.’” Phil even wanted future income pro-rated, with him to receive a larger portion.

It’s a sad story, Deadheads were often forced to take sides. One New Year’s Eve, always a favorite date with the Dead, Phil had decided not to perform with his popular Phil & Friends, leaving The Other Ones (Weir, Hart, Kreutzmann) to headline a show in Oakland. Lesh then switched plans and booked a show down the street at another Oakland venue. “This was an open act of warfare,” writes Selvin. “He cut down the audience for The Other Ones in half. It was a mean, deliberate power play by Lesh making the Deadheads choose, like children of a divorced couple, whether to spend the holiday with Mom or Dad.”

The story does have a happy ending with animosities being put aside for the Dead’s 50th anniversary in 2015. The Core Four played five fantastic stadium shows where they honored their legacy and paid respect to the Deadheads. “This was the greatest farewell in rock history since The Band said goodbye at The Last Waltz, and that concert took place before a mere five thousand people,” notes Selvin. The enormity of these concerts is deftly presented. “The four men knew this was where it all ends,” he writes. “They did what they needed to do to get them to this point. The music would take them the rest of the way now. [These shows] freed them. They found closure to their personal and creative lives. They could now put The Grateful Dead away. They lived up to their pact with the Deadheads.” After it was all over, Mickey Hart declared, “The Audience is The Grateful Dead now.”

Fare Thee Well is the final piece of Grateful Dead scholarship. Documenting Bembe Orisha, The Tri-Chromes, The Dead, Furthur, Backbone, 7 Walkers, Dead & Company, just to name a few, was no small task. Selvin does a masterful job of an unruly task.