Listening to Jerry Garcia croak his way through a phlegmatic performance of ”Black Muddy River” near the end of a bootleg recording of the Grateful Dead’s July 9, 1995, concert at Chicago’s Soldier Field, it sounds like the singer can’t possibly survive more than a few weeks. But the Dead’s frontman/spiritual compass had often sounded that way as the years started gaining on him, and in fact, the show was almost entirely unremarkable. Except for one thing: It would be his — and the band’s — last.
On Aug. 9, Garcia, 53, died of a heart attack at a San Francisco-area drug rehab clinic, ending the Grateful Dead’s three-decade reign as one of rock’s greatest live bands. ”It was just another show at the end of a typical stadium tour,” recalls former Dead drummer Mickey Hart. ”We had a party afterwards to celebrate the tour, and then Jerry and I took a flight home together…. That’s about all I remember.”
Unfortunately, the Dead spent their final minutes on stage together wheezing out a somewhat painful version of fan favorite ”Box of Rain,” and it’s hard not to fantasize about what that final night could have been like had they known it would mark the end of an era. ”There was no good way [to end it],” says Hart, who wishes longtime concert staple ”Not Fade Away” had been their swan song. ”I put out as much as I possibly could that last show. I gave it every ounce of strength I had and every bit of passion that I could bring to that stage, so I wouldn’t have done it any different. But it would have been very emotional if I knew it was the last one. I would have had my heart in my throat. Something we really loved was ripped away from us.”
Since the Dead’s demise, its members have continued to perform in such groups as Phil Lesh & Friends and the Other Ones, while the traveling Further Festival and bands like Phish keep the scene somewhat alive. Still, hardcore fans know there was something magical about seeing the Dead live on a good night, and the last chance to ever catch them was at Soldier Field.
”The live experience is really hard to describe,” says Hart. ”You would have to liken it to the rush you get when you make love, or the love you have for your child. When I look at my daughter or my wife I have this adrenaline rush in my body, and to me, that compares to the Grateful Dead experience. You get this warmth all over and the world becomes a beautiful place for a few moments.”
Time Capsule: July 9, 1995
At the movies, future Best Picture nominee Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks, remains the top film with a $19.6 million second-weekend gross. On television, the No. 1 spot is there for freshman sitcom Friends during summer reruns. In music, Michael Jackson’s double album HIStory: Past, Present and Future — Book I moonwalks to a Billboard chart-topping debut. And in the news, following O.J. Simpson’s courtroom struggle to fit into a pair of blood-stiffened gloves, his legal team preps for its (ultimately successful) murder defense.