Book Review: ‘Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter of the Grateful Dead’s Long, Strange Trip’
Joel Selvin’s Fare Thee Well is a long, strange trip. Once Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the Grateful Dead went into a free fall. The guitar player dubbed Captain Trips was their fearless leader.
Referring to the band and the people around the Dead (crew, managers, other staff), Selvin writes on page 2: “Their entire foundation had come loose, and they were jolted by the harsh realities that had suddenly intruded into their lives.”
Fare Thee Well is basically the story of the four remaining band members (a.k.a. The Core Four): singer/guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. It could also be called “Life After Jerry.”
The main thesis of the book focuses on Lesh and his wife Jill wresting control of the band. With Garcia gone, they took over, or at least attempted to take over, the band’s operations. This occurred after both Leshes recovered from their respective illnesses in 1998 (Phil had a liver replacement, and Jill had thyroid cancer).
The rancor and squabbles, harsh words and piss-offs melted away once the Core Four reunited for their final five “Fare Thee Well” concerts.
Their disdain for Weir boiled over when the singer collapsed on stage at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY, in 2013. Weir had developed a drinking problem. On top of that, he was taking pills to deal with a shoulder injury. Lesh hardly blinked when his bandmate went down.
The alleged coldness between the Leshes and pretty much anyone who he didn’t perform with in his Phil and Friends ensembles is stunning. While the Leshes lived it up, many crew members and staffers were fired. To Phil, the drummers were a drag (one was enough), and Weir was a hassle. So instead he played with an array of Dead stand-ins in his group, as did Weir in RatDog.
The 20-year story arc begins in the aftermath of Garcia’s death and concludes with the 50th Anniversary “Fare Thee Well” concerts at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA, and Soldier Field in Chicago in 2015. They were billed as the last time the Core Four would perform together. True to form, based on Selvin’s account, Lesh chose not to be part of the band’s latest endeavor, Dead & Company, with Weir, the drummers and John Mayer in the Garcia role. Had he joined them, the whole Fare Thee Well gambit would’ve been a lie.
The rancor and squabbles, harsh words and piss-offs melt away once they reunite for their final five concerts. Selvin provides a set-list rundown of each show, which included Phish’s Trey Anastasio on guitar and Bruce Hornsby on piano. While Weir preferred a slower pace and less bass, they found a way to agree for the sake of the fans, who paid thousands of dollars on tickets, hotels and transportation.
“As only the Grateful Dead could do, they chose to honor their legacy with this extraordinary panoramic retrospective of their glorious career—10 sets, 88 songs (a mere two repeats), more than 17 hours on stage,” he writes. “All of this was nothing short of a miracle.”
Selvin (he co-wrote the book with Pamela Turley) credits Peter Shapiro, a New York club and theater owner and Deadhead, for making it all happen. The impresario took advantage of his solid relationship with the Leshes (he booked Phil and Friends many times at New York venues) to fashion an unlikely deal that all of the band members would agree to. Unlikely because the band members were not getting along and bigger entities like Live Nation and Dick Clark Productions were knocking on their door, looking to seize the golden anniversary opportunity.
The Leshes’ disdain for Weir boiled over when the singer collapsed on stage at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY, in 2013.
“Shapiro never lost touch with his fan side,” Selvin explains. “He was one of the crowd and ably represented their audience’s point-of-view to band members. In the entire music business, only Shapiro was positioned to be able to navigate the thorny, twisting slippery back channels of the Grateful Dead world to bring the fractured group back together just long enough to play these concerts.
“Ever more so than the band, Shapiro understood the vast musical and social subculture based on Grateful Dead music that had developed over the years since Garcia’s death. Fare Thee Well certainly qualified as a peak.”
It didn’t take long for the Core Four, minus Lesh, to announce they were forming Dead & Company along with Mayer, Jeff Chimenti and Oteil Burbridge. What seemed like a lark at first has become the latest intersection of multiple generations of Grateful Dead fans. The last three years they’ve booked lengthy summer tours.
If anything is lacking in Fare Thee Well, it’s a significant postscript about Dead & Company. How John Mayer worked his way into the camp via Weir is explained, but some tour dynamics, which is discussed at length with every post-Grateful Dead outfit from Further to the Other Ones, would’ve added a bit more depth to the overall post-Jerry story.
Shapiro knows what’s up. His Lockn’ Festival in Arrington, VA, from August 23-26 has booked Dead & Company as the headliner. They’re scheduled to play four sets over two nights.
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