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He's Gone: A Family History with the Grateful Dead

Featuring John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, Jerry Garcia spiking a mayor’s drink with acid, and the wild, weird ride the Dead took me and my cousin on for years. Farewell to them.

July 6, 2015

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There’s more to this poster than meets the eye, we assure you. Photo-illustration: Carly Piersol

About halfway to the concert, it started to pour. Pummeling, hammering, blinding rain. It was a Friday early in the steamy summer of 2013, and a few friends and I had sprinted from work to take my junker minivan up to see the Mountain Goats play in Center Church on the Green, a historic landmark in a park in the middle of New Haven. Appropriate, for a band so steeped in Christian lore — both the venue and the biblical deluge.

When we arrived, the pews were near to full, so we hid behind the curving banister on the staircase to the right of the altar and listened to the band through their stage amps, just as they heard themselves. By the time he arrived, the usher caught us, it was halfway through the show, and we had almost resigned ourselves to loitering in the back of the nave. Then John Darnielle noticed us. Before he even finished announcing that the empty pews up front were up for grabs, we were sitting five feet from the man himself.

By the end of the show, hecklers had made him testy — a note of warning: Do not shout out demands in the form of song titles at a Mountain Goats gig — but when we cried for an encore, he obliged with a tight smile. Then the miracle: The song he wrung from his guitar wasn’t one of his. The chords could have been anybody’s, but as he began to pluck out the melody, I knew it was “Ripple,” even before he opened his mouth to sing. When he did, I was already harmonizing — an utterly unconscious reaction, paralleling the melody line on the third. “If my words did glow….”

John’s smile widened, and when he moved toward our pew, we all leaned in, partook in that communion. That’s when I thought about Buddy.

It’s hard to find any Grateful Dead fan who doesn’t associate them with a story — some experience, often otherworldly, rooting them to the group as surely as the music. My family has a few, although aside from me, and to a lesser extent my brothers, we’re hardly tie-dyed-in-the-wool Deadheads. My uncle was, as a teen, opting to stay home during family summer vacations to Europe so he could lifeguard, surf, and listen to the Dead. And my grandmother’s brother-in-law, a music educator, once taught a young Mickey Hart.

My cousin Buddy was different. He grew up in a conservative Catholic family on Long Island, but by 1970, when he was 24, he found himself out on the West Coast working for psychedelic music impresario Bill Graham. Graham was the owner of the Fillmores East and West, along with the Winterland Ballroom, and in many ways the sun around which the San Francisco scene revolved.

Buddy Havlin
Buddy Havlin. Courtesy: Pat Havlin

Graham put Buddy on the road, where he managed not only the Grateful Dead but Carlos Santana, the Band, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, among others. (Later in his life, he owned Afghan hounds, one of which was named Abraxas.) And he remembered exactly as much as you’d expect: Nothing. Every December, he and his wife Pat came up from Miami, where he’d been a golf instructor since the early ’90s, to sit down for a seven-course fish dinner on Christmas Eve. Every year I’d press him, and every year he’d say the same thing: “If you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” Buddy Havlin was definitely there.

“John, when I tell you that I would say to him, Well, what would happen here, what would happen there, just — ‘I don’t remember. I don’t remember,’” Pat said, feigning his voice. “Well, I get why you don’t remember, but something ought to come through! So, when we’d come up to New York and get together with some of his old-time friends, they might remember a story or two, but nobody agreed on anything, because they weren’t on the road with him.”

There was one story I remember Buddy telling me once, about a show the Dead played in a little town in Ohio. The town was small enough that the mayor, the self-important glad-handing dandy type, settled backstage and helped himself to the band’s punch. Only later, when he started grinning like a pumpkin and dancing wildly on his own, did Jerry Garcia admit to having slipped a tab of acid in the bowl, just to see the straight-laced snob loosen up.

But the only verifiable tale from the period, Pat told me, was of Buddy’s rose. Every member of the Dead’s crew got a band tattoo while they were on the road. Buddy’s was the iconic American Beauty rose, inked in red and green down his shoulder. I had the chance to see it once, one holiday after he’d had a few too many of his customary white Russians — the only thing he drank after his liver transplant in 1994 caused by hepatitis C, which had also robbed him of his ability to generate saliva.

When Buddy died in 2012, he was one of the country’s longest-living liver transplant patients — not to mention a pro golfer, a former local TV and community-access radio producer, and an antiquarian. He’d survived the sullied needle and the foreign liver and the countless Marlboro Reds he smoked a day, weathered throat cancer and a double hip replacement. In the end, it was pancreatic cancer that did it.

Thinking of Buddy now, it’s hard not to recall the title line of “He’s Gone,” a staple of the Dead’s live shows often played as a memorial when someone close to the band dies: “He’s gone, gone, and nothing’s gonna bring him back.”

Growing up in conservative Catholic Long Island, Buddy not only represented escape to me, but proof that it could be done. I was a patented weirdo through much of my childhood, and that promise of jailbreak was desperately needed. My family moved to Long Island from Pittsburgh when I was eight, and as a cheeky, geeky child more at home playing Dungeons & Dragons than soccer, it took me nearly a decade to figure out how to blend in.

It didn’t help that while my peers were listening to *NSYNC and Hanson, I was into Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell, paternal hand-me-downs. And when, by the end of middle school, most of my classmates had graduated to following the local pop punk bands, I had just discovered the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead, maternal recommendations all. Not that I knew much about any of them at first — I thought Jerry was the Dead’s drummer for almost a year, until a particularly embarrassing encounter with my band teacher, a drummer himself, finally set me straight. But by halfway through my freshman year at an all-boys Catholic school I was a dedicated amateur music historian, and had fully accepted the outcast status that came along with it.

Since then, the Dead have been a perennial companion. If any band is up to the challenge of satiating an endlessly hungry sonic omnivore, it’s the Dead. Old-time, psychedelia, blues, bluegrass, country, folk, blues, funk, jazz, zydeco — you’d be hard-pressed to find a single American genre the group wasn’t influenced by. Every time I’d listened to one album or concert to the point of nausea, I discovered another, different enough to keep me equally interested and always as good as the last. The Dead were as omnivorous as I was. And while certain groups fell to the wayside in my never-ending march through music, they always remained.

My younger brother and I, jamming with Buddy.
Jamming with Buddy, c. 2010, with my youngest brother on lead guitar. Courtesy: Pat Havlin

This weekend, the four last members of the original Grateful Dead — guitarist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh, and drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart — played for the final time under that name, which had until now been hung up following Garcia’s death in 1995. Yet after 20 years of side projects and a musical afterlife as simply “the Dead,” it’s hard to imagine this group, which began as a bunch of California countercultural renegades and ended up an institution, being well and truly dead.

Then again, in a way, they’re not really going anywhere. The Grateful Dead has always been about more than the band itself, and in a lot of ways, it’s astounding to think that this product of the 1960s counterculture spawned, in time, its very own counterculture and mythology. The mark the Dead have left isn’t going anywhere. Deadheads, bless their stoned souls, aren’t going anywhere. The stories — Buddy’s, mine, innumerable others held by the millions to whom this band matters — they aren’t going anywhere. And love it or hate it, the music isn’t either. How could it? “The music never stops.”

As soon as John Darnielle wrapped up the New Haven show, I raced to the back of the church to buy Tallahassee, the first album the Mountain Goats’ ever recorded with a full band, on vinyl. When John sat down at a little folding table to sign merchandise, I was first in line, grinning, babbling out my entire history with both his group and the Dead and, mostly, thanking him.

“My cousin roadied for the Dead in the ’70s, and he died last year, almost to the date,” I told him. “I can’t even describe how much your playing that song meant to me.”

He smiled. Not a tight smile, like before the seemingly begrudging encore, but a warm smile. Sad and knowing. That’s when he told me how he too loved the Dead as a kid, how he too used their music, in a sense, to escape. And how now, whenever he drops Workingman’s Dead on the record player and the opening strum of “Uncle John’s Band” rings out, he gets to sit and watch as his son, a toddler, teaches himself to dance.

That was when I realized how much bigger than themselves the Grateful Dead really are. Buddy to me, John to his son. The Dead are an heirloom, the music passed on and on. And when you hold onto an heirloom — remember its meaning, keep it close — its original owner is never quite gone.

And I thought then of a poster Pat gave to me shortly after Buddy’s death, a promotional piece for a concert at the Winterland Ballroom in 1972 that never happened. In fact, the show was entirely fabricated — both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna were listed as supporting acts, yet the latter only formed after the former split up. But the Dead needed to sell tickets, and they wanted to sucker in fans of those two groups and the third opener, Boz Scaggs, all more popular than the Dead were at the time. So they made the posters to attract attention. To make an impression. To be remembered.

When I finally handed John the record and he’d signed it, I rushed out a thank you and ran off to meet my friends. It was late, we were hungry, and I’d already taken up enough of his time — he had hundreds more records to sign. We left the church, but before leaving the grounds, I stopped under a light to admire the signature, and my heart almost popped. He had left an epigraph on the record just above his signature. It was another line from “He’s Gone”:

“Nothing left to do but smile.”

 

Photo: Kevin Conway
Photo: Kevin Conway

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  • Donna Vassallo

    John,
    What a wonderful article. Your Uncle Buddy would be so proud of you to remember him like this. I know your Mom is. Keep up the good work. You are an amazing writer.

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