On Wednesday mornings, Big Steve takes calls. “Hello to all my beautiful Deadhead brothers and sisters out there,” he might begin, in a gravelly voice. He is sitting in a room that he calls “Grizzly Peak Studio,” which is also the name of a line of cannabis products he launched. It is almost always a beautiful day where Big Steve is. Even if it’s not — sometimes he alludes to “challenging times” — everything will be recast in the golden light of the past, at least for the next hour.
Big Steve, or Steve Parish, was on the road with the Grateful Dead more or less from 1969 until 1995. He handled equipment and helped assemble and disassemble the band’s infamous sound system, a three-story behemoth of hundreds of speakers, dubbed “the Wall of Sound.” He partied with the band. He went on to be the manager of the Jerry Garcia Band, one of Jerry’s side projects, which usually toured when the Dead was taking breaks. He was the best man at one of Jerry’s weddings and, he notes on the personal section of his website, was the last friend to see Jerry before he died.
Much of Steve’s life is now dedicated to reliving these experiences with the Grateful Dead and especially with Jerry. Big Steve’s worship of Jerry as a kind of doomed saint is not so unusual for a hardcore Deadhead, but Steve had unusual access to the man himself, in all his wonder and banality. Steve can tell us stories about a girl named Geraldine who used to visit Jerry in the dressing room of the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, and how she would bring him cookies “because that’s the kind of girl she was.”
He can talk in great detail about the mechanics of the percussion sets Mickey Hart used in the early ’70s, and the collection of seashells Steve used to have to hang for him. Big Steve is also promoting a new line of cannabis that he calls “Egyptian Kush,” born out of the Dead’s visit toEgypt in 1978, where Big Steve says he was given some “mystery cannabis seeds from the locals” that he has been planting in small batches ever since. (A common theme in Steve’s stories is smoking weed, often in places where it is frowned upon.)
I first encountered Big Steve a few years ago, when I was in a rented Nissan driving from Boston to New Haven. The rental car had SiriusXM, and I turned it to the SiriusXM Grateful Dead Channel, which is a reliably good channel if you, like me, are content to listen exclusively to the Dead for hours at a time. But this time it wasn’t music; it was Big Steve’s deep voice, in the middle of a call with a listener. The structure of his show is simple: Someone calls in, and they chat about the good old days.
Sometimes Steve plays songs, but his show is mostly about the callers. “It’s George from Georgia,” his assistant will say, delighting Big Steve. When I first tuned in, the caller was talking about a show he’d attended in the ’80s, somewhere in Massachusetts (maybe Foxboro, 7/2/89?) and Steve was reminiscing. “A lot of Heads in South Attleboro,” he said, or something like that. This is another common theme; almost any region of the country will prompt him to reflect on how many great Deadheads live there because there are great Deadheads everywhere. The caller and Steve discussed the show and what happened afterward. Things apparently got a little wild, as they were wont to do. Big Steve said something like, “Man, I remember the Holiday Inn there.” With that, I was hooked.
I am, to my occasional chagrin, one of the Deadheads Big Steve addresses with love at the beginning of his show. I came to like the Grateful Dead in one of the usual ways: by osmosis. My dad was a fairly casual Deadhead in the ’70s and early ’80s and retained an above-average enthusiasm for the band into my childhood. This was San Francisco in the 1990s, so he was in good company. My mom insisted on having a few other CDs in the car — I remember Joni Mitchell and Norah Jones — but mostly it was the Dead.
In our Land Rover, we had the album American Beauty, and a 1988 best-hits anthology called Skeletons from the Closet, and one of the volumes of Dick’s Picks, curated anthologies of some of the best live versions of Dead songs, though as a child I found live Grateful Dead music perplexing and even vaguely terrifying. We also had an album called Deadicated, a tribute album of covers, upon which my parents found some common ground; Suzanne Vega sings absolutely heartwrenching versions of the songs “Cassidy” and “China Doll,” the Indigo Girls sing “Uncle John’s Band,” and Jane’s Addiction covers “Ripple.”
I think it was the lyrics that did me in. I had never heard anything quite like them. The words to these strange and beautiful songs — the best of them co-written by lyricist Robert Hunter and Garcia — were my first introduction to music that transcended obvious interpretation. Very few were straightforward love songs, the main genre with which I was familiar to that point. Some were stories, which I liked; a man who had two wives was running from the law. Another man shot someone in a duel in El Paso and was also running from the law.
But the best of the songs didn’t really even make sense, in the conventional sense of making sense. They were permeated by mystery. They relied heavily on metaphor and striking but vague images. There was a wolf who slept by a silver stream, there were sugar magnolias, there was a wishing well with a golden bell and a bucket hanging straight to hell. I was very struck, as a child, by the image of a “box of rain.” The bassist Phil Lesh, somewhat unusually, sings this song, which he co-wrote with Hunter: “What do you want me to do/ to do for you to see you through? /A box of rain will ease the pain/ and love will see you through.” I imagined this as a shoebox full of tears, a bittersweet offering that was both romantic and not. Impossible and full of possibility.
My relationship with the band is necessarily belated; I was born just three months before Jerry died. It is inflected then with a very particular sense of loss, a loss that it is more like regret. It makes me especially susceptible to mythology, which is pervasive amongst Deadheads in general and maybe more so for those of us who were never really there. I have my dad’s stories, but more than that I have my aunts’. My aunts are identical twins, both named Mary, who began following the Dead when they were in high school and were on the road with the band for much of the ’80s. They ran away from the suburbs, Catholic school, Mass on Wednesdays, fish on Fridays. They left home at what seems to me now an almost impossibly young age to follow the band. I heard stories about this when I was a child, and they became a sort of touchstone for me. The idea of an obsession that could drive them to such lengths was both compelling and frightening — what could they have been looking for?
There was a wolf who slept by a silver stream, there were sugar magnolias, there was a wishing well with a golden bell and a bucket hanging straight to hell.
When I was a kid I thought the stories about my aunts were about two rebellious girls having fun, which they were, but later I came to understand that there was some essential darkness to them. They were very young. There were things lost and broken, too many drugs, too much drinking, too many late nights, too much, too much, too much. I know a little bit about all of that, by which I mean I am also prone to extremes. I once whined to my oldest friend — I don’t remember the context, though most likely we were talking about romance — that I wished I could like things normally, rather than liking so much that I wore them out. He laughed but admitted that yes, I do this. There is a dark side to any obsession, and this one, the Grateful Dead, is no exception. Over the past few years, my affinity for the Dead has crowded out almost every other musical interest, playing constantly on repeat.
Big Steve opens many of his shows with positive affirmations. “These are the times that try men’s souls, so we have to stay positive,” he tells us, before launching into a story about the largest joint that he’s ever seen. He is feeling the love for distant Deadheads everywhere. He is thinking about how lucky he was to know Jerry and the guys. He says, “Every day, every time you woke up on the road, you knew you were in a magic place. It was built on a phantasmagorical atmosphere.”
There are platitudes, hippie stuff. There’s plenty of that in the ethos that surrounds the Grateful Dead: ain’t no time to hate, feelin’ groovy, good lovin’, etc. etc. When I was older, and started hanging out with people who cared about music in a different way than I cared about music, it was impressed upon me that liking the Grateful Dead was embarrassing. (Some have even tried to rescue me from my fate: When I was 23 my friend Sarah Miller made me a playlist called “Sarah Hates the Grateful Dead,” which is a good playlist but unfortunately did not deter me.) There are lots of reasons to dislike the Dead. The band projected a muddled, confused politics. The music is hardly above critique; it’s certainly highly various. Some of the songs simply go on forever and ever. (In the best thing ever written about the band, Nick Paumgarten observed, “The Dead’s sense of time was not always crisp.”) There are certain musical elements — particularly the experimental instrumental noodling interludes known as “Drums” and “Space” — that even I find hard to swallow.
And then there are Deadheads, who as a collective can range from vaguely annoying to outright destructive. Rachel Kushner once worked in Bill Graham’s San Francisco concert venues, where the Jerry Garcia Band used to play, and wrote about the experience with great irritation in a marvelous essay: “We made good money at those shows, but we employees were in a war with the patrons—the deadheads—who set up encampments out front on Market Street, routinely spilled their beer all over the place, trashed the theater by vomiting on the seats, and so forth. If you reprimanded them, they’d tell you to ‘be cool.’” The bad behavior of these Deadheads is made worse by the surface-level insistence on happiness, on everybody feeling good.
Listening to this music, I feel that I am in the company of others who think of pleasure like I do, as something streaked with pain.
People have indeed told me that they like the Grateful Dead because it’s happy. The band brings people together for moments of joy. A lot of people who call in to Big Steve’s show affirm that vision of it; they want to talk about the good times, the parties, the time Jerry approached them and said something kind. There is a lot of truth to this version of the story— after all, people mostly go to concerts in order to have fun, and Dead concerts had a unique flavor of joy and togetherness. Some of their music might be described as buoyantly pleasurable; you can’t help but dance a little, walking down the street to “Sugar Magnolia.” But for me liking the Dead has very little to do with happiness in the way we might usually use the word.
It is not always immediately obvious, but much of the Grateful Dead’s music circles around loss and pain. “The lyrics are about magnolias, begonias, and roses, but they’re sung by characters who are down and out, in hock, or on the run,” Max Abelson wrote in his recent essay on the Dead and its archives. “Even when the sun shines bright on these songs, you can hear the wind beginning to howl.” This has always seemed like an essential truth to me, accessible through the Dead’s music — the best offering we have to give with our love is a box of rain. Listening to this music, I feel that I am in the company of others who think of pleasure like I do, as something streaked with pain. This is not particularly revelatory. This shadow side of joy becomes obvious to most of us in one way or another. It’s something that others have encountered in other music and forms of art; perhaps it is arguably more compelling in art that insists less on the surface of flowers and sunshine, but for me it happens to be right here.
I have always insisted that I don’t want to get married, but that if I did I would want to walk down the aisle to the song “Ripple.” (Note the wedding fantasy transcending my resistance to the marriage that would follow.) I was talking to a friend recently, because another friend was actually selecting music to play when she walked down the aisle, and I mentioned this. She was a little puzzled. “This isn’t really a happy song?” she said, and I realized she was right. It contains the lines: “If you fall, you fall alone/ If you should stand, then who’s to guide you? / If I knew the way, I would take you home.” This hardly projects the confidence one might want in a context traditionally defined by til-death-do-us-part. But this has always made sense to me as a more coherent vision of love and life than one which insists that anyone knows the way, or that anyone, really, could take you home.
Someone calls in from Tennessee to ask Steve about the roses. The caller and his wife are big Deadheads and are considering naming their daughter Rose, because roses figure prominently in a number of Dead songs. (There is “Ramble on Rose,” “It Must Have Been the Roses,” and “Run for the Roses,” among other references.) “I wonder what the significance of the rose is,” the caller asks. “Or are we looking too deep into something?”
As it happens, Steve says, he was just thinking about the same thing the other day. He had been noticing a lot of roses on T-shirts, often surrounded by skulls and skeletons — traditional Deadhead iconography. Steve tells the caller that the myth of skulls and roses goes back to the Middle Ages, during the bubonic plague in Europe; “roses” at that time were euphemisms for the deadly red rings of rashes that plague victims got. (Perhaps somewhat apocryphally, this is the origin of the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie.”) “Skulls and roses became a thing in Europe, sort of linked together,” Steve says. And somehow that got mixed up with the Grateful Dead mythology, since the name of the band was drawn from a dictionary Phil Lesh had — Jerry just opened it up and liked the phrase, which refers to a cycle of folktales featuring a hero who buries corpses that others have refused to bury due to their debts.
“There were so many kids in our scene named Rose,” Steve says, after describing the grave-diggers. “It’s a beautiful name, and like Shakespeare said, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Yet here we are, all of a sudden, in the valley of the shadow of death, another phrase that bubbles up from my childhood, not meaning exactly what I once thought it meant. For all Big Steve’s jollity, he is never on the radio for very long before he begins talking about the dead among the Dead. He talks about deaths that happened at shows, tragic accidents and drug overdoses. He talks about the deaths of old friends and band members, mostly young and brought about by alcohol, drugs, or tragic accidents — Pigpen, Brent Mydland, Keith Godchaux. In one segment, he talks for a long time about the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, and about someone who gave up his seat on the plane. “You never know in life,” Steve says. “You get in a car, you’re always gambling, you’re rolling the dice.” Big Steve’s show doesn’t so much circle the topic of death as it seems to return to it over and over in sine waves — and how could it not? These were his friends; he is alive, and most of them are dead and gone.
This is a lost world now, after all. A lost world of teenage girls taking off from the suburbs in someone’s van and making themselves unreachable for months, following the music. A lost world of my dad calling a hotline number to see where the Grateful Dead were playing and discovering, to his delight, that they were in Providence. A lost world of Jerry’s voice and essential warmth. Intermingled with this, there is even the lost world of my own childhood, in a city where I no longer live, in a family that no longer exists, in a Land Rover sold years ago with CDs that started skipping from overuse. I have wondered what it means that I have kept circling around this world, coming back to this spring of continuing loss for more and more.
Recently, though, listening to yet another version of “Scarlet Begonias” (Hartford Civic Center, 10/14/1983) that I had never heard, I had the thought that not everything is simple recurrence. In fact, part of what makes listening to the Dead so gratifying for an obsessive is that no two versions of the song are the same; they were remade over and over. To listen on repeat is to listen for change as much as constancy. This clarified something for me, something that seemed both profound and banal, as epiphanies often do: The past is only with us insomuch as it is being constantly remade. My feelings about the Grateful Dead are rooted in nostalgia — for places I have been and places I have not — but there is also something new here, something that exists as much for me now as it did for everyone in Hartford in 1977.
And Big Steve, taking calls every Wednesday, from Grizzly Peak Studio, is reliving Holiday Inns and hospital beds he visited decades ago, but he is also, maybe, asking the past to point toward something new. He and the listeners who call in to relive their memories are also, inadvertently, making something else altogether. Talking about a man who gave up his seat on the plane that killed Buddy Holly, Steve mused, “You know, he’s still hurting from it, but you keep going, you know. It’s something that never leaves your mind, like a haunt, something in there like a shadow.” There are many shadows — but you keep going, you know.
Sophie Haigney is a journalist and critic.