Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: July 4, 1989 (Listen Now)

Give me five,

I’m still alive.


Ain’t no luck,

I’ve learned to duck.

By The Deadhead Cyclist

For Week


Despite Grand Funk Railroad laying claim to the title in their 1973 album, “We’re an American Band,” there is no more American band than the Grateful Dead. Songs like Cumberland Blues (Lotta poor man got to walk the line/Just to pay his union dues), Truckin’ (Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street/Chicago, New York, Detroit and it’s all on the same street), Me and My Uncle (Me and my uncle went riding down/South Colorado, West Texas bound/We stopped over in Santa Fe/That being the point just about half way), and The Music Never Stopped (There’s a band out on the highway/They’re high steppin’ into town/It’s a rainbow full of sound/It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns) evoke an indisputable sense of Americana.  

This may come as a surprise to the uninitiated, considering the band’s countercultural personna and the unmistakable psychedelic overtones that accompany its music. But it is exactly the confluence of these two seemingly incongruent definitions of American culture – the traditional and the visionary – that enabled the Grateful Dead to redefine what it meant to be patriotic for a new generation of Americans.

The Dead played seven times on the Fourth of July, and possibly an 8th time as part of the 1970 Transcontinental Pop Festival in Alberta, Canada, although there is no known set list and no recordings. (I should mention that I do not consider the 2015 “Fare Thee Well” July 4th  show at Chicago’s Soldier Field – which I attended – to have been the Grateful Dead. See my March 5th, 2015 piece in Boulder Weekly, “Ladies and gentlemen, not the Grateful Dead,” for more details.) Of these July 4th shows, the Deadhead Cyclist’s pick for T.W.I.G.D.H. is the 1989 concert at Rich Stadium in Buffalo, New York. After an epic second set that ended with an 11-minute Morning Dew, followed by Not Fade Away, the band came back for an encore of U.S. Blues, perhaps the best representation of the Dead’s neo-patriotic vision.

As is the case with many of the lyrics Deadheads have heard repeatedly and grown accustomed to, we’re well-advised to pause and ponder the deeper significance behind some of the evocative phrases that comprise the poetry of U.S. Blues. Unmistakable undercurrents of dissent and wisdom define an updated version of patriotism the band inspired among its fans during its 30-year run, and which continues to appeal to multiple generations. 

One of the tunes from the first set of this particular show encourages protest in the form of “rocking the boat.” In Ship of Fools, we have the hopeful outcome of civil disobedience represented in the line, “Saw your first ship sink and drown from rocking of the boat.” And in U.S. Blues, we are similarly encouraged to, “rock the boat,” within the context of a cynical and alternative approach to patriotism that mocks flag waving and other forms of conventional patriotism by reminding us that, “Summertime (as in the heyday of the power elite) done come and gone, my oh my.” (Note: Sadly, fast forwarding some 31 years exposes that sentiment as having been overly optimistic.)

While we are young and the illusion of immortality still grips us, we are inclined to fight battles that can’t be won. But as we age we become more discerning about which battles are worth fighting, and we learn to avoid, or “duck,” the ones that can bear no fruit.

Perhaps the most compelling lyric in the song, U.S. Blues, offers congratulations for mere survival – “Give me five, I’m still alive.” Who among us – and especially those of a certain age – has not felt that simply surviving the human experience is cause for celebration? And in the context of being committed to the alternative form of patriotism that social activism requires, being “still alive” takes plenty of dedication, perseverance, patience and, well, chutzpah. These qualities are inarguably worthy of a “high five.” After all, when you rock the boat you run the risk that you might “sink and drown” in the process.

But the punchline of this passage – “Ain’t no luck, I’ve learned to duck.” – is perhaps the most instructive, in that it advances a powerful strategy for survival. Over the course of a lifetime, we encounter plenty of obstacles that threaten our survival – both literally and figuratively speaking. While we’re young, still operating under an illusion of immortality, we’re inclined to fight battles that can’t be won. But as we age, we become more discerning about which battles are worth fighting, and we learn to avoid, or “duck,” the ones that can bear no fruit. This is just one of the ubiquitous examples of the benefits of the aging process that serve to offset, and hopefully eclipse, the downside of growing older.

One area where this principle is of inestimable benefit is with respect to toxic relationships. This comes into play on a daily basis with actors playing cameo roles in our lives, along with co-stars who have had a significant impact on us. As a cyclist, I come into contact with honking motorists, angry trail runners, rude fellow riders, and most recently a hostile postal worker who verbally assaulted me because I didn’t move my bike out of the way fast enough as he was backing up where I had the audacity to be standing. 

There is no scarcity of negative players in our midst, just lying in wait for someone to become the undeserving recipient of their misguided projections. There was a time when I would have responded in kind, convinced that I was justified in pushing back against the injustice that had been thrust upon me. Instead, I simply smiled, moved my bike out of the way, and apologized for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In other words, I “ducked.” And in doing so, possibly averted a situation where the individual might have truly gone “postal.”

More importantly, the incident was observed by at least two others, one of which called over to ask if I was alright, and complimented me on my handling of the situation. Not only did I avoid an unpleasant situation, in doing so I set a positive example.

It’s not easy to take the high road and resist the urge to engage when negativity knocks on your door in the form of an unexpected visitor. And it is harder still when the antagonist is more familiar – a partner, parent, sibling, friend – as the more closely connected we are to the source, the more quickly our defensive shields will be raised. In such cases, it is even more vital to rise above the need to be right, and to model a higher form of behavior. The payoff is priceless in the corresponding harmony we enjoy in more peaceful relationships. 

Try it the next time you encounter someone looking for a target for their negative emotions. Learning to duck toxicity in relationships – even one as insignificant as a chance encounter with a stranger – is by no means a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength that will leave you feeling empowered, and others inspired.

Concert of the week in Grateful Dead history: July 4, 1989 (Listen Now)

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