Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: December 7, 1971 (Listen Now)

We used to play for silver, now we play for life.

By The Deadhead Cyclist

For Week


The term, “Golden Age,” has been used liberally throughout history to describe certain idyllic periods of outstanding human achievement. Originating in Greek Mythology, particularly in the writings of Hesiod and Homer in the 7th and 8th centuries, B.C.E., this label has resurfaced periodically when a specific art, skill or activity was considered to be at its peak.

In more modern times, there have been references to the Golden Age of Radio (1920s-1940s), the Golden Age of Television (1950s), Capitalism (1945-1970), Comic Books (1938-1945), the Western Movie (1930s-1960s), Baseball (1920-1960), and countless others. Although Mott the Hoople didn’t release their hit single, “The Golden Age of Rock ’n’ Roll,” until 1974, the consensus is that 1966-1967 was Rock Music’s peak period. Artists like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, the Beach Boys, the Doors, the Who, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan exploded onto the scene, setting into motion an innovative approach to music that proved to be surprisingly durable. 

Those same years also heralded the arrival of the Grateful Dead, with 1966 being their first full year as a touring band, and 1967 the year of the band’s first studio album. Most Deadheads agree that the Dead’s first couple of years would hardly be described as their Golden Age, but that’s where conventional wisdom ends and the debate begins. 

Many cite the Spring ’77 tour as having been the band’s apex, a point of view that’s hard to dispute, given the absolute brilliance of the 30 concerts that were performed from April 22th through June 9th of that year. Others insist that the Europe ’72 tour was the Dead’s zenith, and then there are those who so passionately prefer the Brent Mydland years that nothing prior to Brent’s first appearance on 4/22/79 is even in the running.

But there was one period of time, during the first half of December, 1971 that is a true “sleeper” (a bowling term for a pin hidden behind another) in the Grateful Dead’s history. During this period both Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Keith Godchaux were with the band, and the raw power of the earlier years had begun to meld with the more mature musicianship to come, qualifying the ten shows from December 1-15 for a nomination in the ongoing discussion about the Dead’s Golden Age. 

Four of those shows, 12/4-12/7, took place at the Felt Forum in New York City, a small venue below Madison Square Garden. The 12/5 show has received most of the attention, largely because of an unauthorized “bootleg” record, “Live at the Felt Forum 12/5/71,”  that was widely circulated during the years before recording and tape sharing were prolific. The Deadhead Cyclist’s favorite show from this run is the 12/7 show, my pick for T.W.I.G.D.H., and featured as Dave’s Picks Volume 22, which also includes most of the preceding night.

The advent of a personal Golden Age brings with it the opportunity to hold up our middle finger to that inner critic and ditch the stress and worry these crippling emotions foment.

The term, “Golden Age,” has also been used to describe the final period of life. Currently, the average life expectancy in the U.S. is just shy of 79 years, but for the sake of mathematical simplicity, let’s be generous and increase that to 90. This means that the “Golden Age” of life begins at 60. For most of us, this is when our priorities change and we transition into retirement, a period traditionally characterized by wisdom, contentment, and leisure. With our prime income earning years behind us, we now have the latitude to spend our time doing what we want to do, rather than what we have to do. As appealing as this sounds, it can be a challenging, even frighteningly narrow bridge to cross.

About midway through the first set of our concert of the week we find the tune Jack Straw, and a lyric which, if interpreted a certain way, sheds light on the passageway into our Golden Age years: 

We used to play for silver, now we play for life. 

Within the context of the often uncomfortable passageway into our senior years, this poetic expression is particularly meaningful. During our working years – or what might be described as “middle age” – “we used to play for silver,” meaning that our concern was earning money, supporting ourselves and most often a family, and accumulating wealth for our retirement. Once we’ve passed over that narrow bridge, “now we play for life,” meaning that our focus shifts to fulfilling deeper, more spiritual needs.

Have you ever noticed that in athletic competition, take football for example, teams play differently during the fourth quarter than they do earlier in the game? The change in energy, born of the increased urgency of the situation, is palpable as time ticks down, especially during the final two minutes. Think of your life after 60 as the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. In the words of the ancient Jewish sage, Hillel, there comes an “if not now, when?” moment as the final period begins that feels like the stakes have been raised.

The gravity of this moment has the potential to cause a long overdue shedding of burdensome emotional baggage, and to introduce us to our purest selves. Over the course of a lifetime, feelings of guilt, regret, shame, anger, and fear have a way of accumulating, becoming inseparable from who we see when we look at ourselves in the mirror. The advent of a personal Golden Age brings with it the opportunity to hold up a middle finger to our inner critic and ditch the stress and worry these crippling emotions foment. The time has come to take the deepest breath of your life and let go of that which has been weighing you down for so long. In the process you’ll discover a new, far more attractive version of yourself reflected back at you. 

For those who have not yet turned this corner, keep in mind that it’s never too early to prepare for what lies ahead. The steps we take now determine just how narrow the bridge will be when we come to it, and the transition will be smoother when we approach it with some or all of our demons slayed. Then we can more easily double down on pursuing our passions during the fourth quarter of our lives. For me, it’s playing 100 games of baseball and cycling 200 times to the tunes of the Grateful Dead during each circle around the sun.

Whether you’re still playing for silver or have begun to play for life, you owe it to yourself to have a look at how your fourth quarter is shaping up. The outcome of the game literally hangs in the balance.

Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: December 7, 1971 (Listen Now)

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