My dad was a DeadHead…

Well, kind of.

I’m sure lots of kids about my age, and younger, were born to the crowds of people who followed the Grateful Dead around the country, creating a moving community of people unified by an organic style of music, and music-making.

My dad never traipsed around the country, and, to my knowledge, never wore tie-dyed clothes.  But, during the last summer that I was home and spent time with him before he returned to Sri Lanka, and I went off to college, he was hanging with a group of friends (younger than he, but older than I) who encouraged his explorations in art and music, along with his own interests, like designing boats.

For a few years now, I’ve been listening to John Henrikson’s DeadPod:

gse_multipart31993Listening to this podcast has educated me about the Grateful Dead, although I am far from a knowledgeable fan.  I was intrigued to read a New Yorker article  by Nick Paumgarten chronicling his journey as a fan of the Dead.  As an appreciative listener of the Dead, especially the Dead as captured live in concert are the Drums and Space segments, which really do transport my mind and spirit – it’s an amazing experience (even without mind-altering drugs!).  I can completely sympathize with those hundreds who dedicated their lives to following the Dead and re-experiencing that transport to a new way of perceiving and thinking.

Yes, other music, many forms and styles, holds that same capacity to transport, but the Grateful Dead achieved it with ever-changing novelty and surprise.

And, what, you may be wondering, does this have to do with my father?  Good question.

In the last summer that I spent in Palo Alto, it must have been the summer of 1979, I spent most of my time over at my dad’s place, and hanging out with his friends.  There were several of them, but the ones I remember the most clearly were Ed – a very large man, who specialized in eating everyone under the table at various restaurants that we all went to for lunch, and Michael, a very tiny man, who had cerebral palsy.  We usually wound up in Michael’s apartment, since it was on the ground level, and Michael couldn’t get up to the second floor where my dad’s apartment was.

Michael was a graphic artist who worked with airbrushes a lot.  I’d never seen an airbrush, and I vividly remember him working on a graphic for an advertisement on some high-performance downhill skis, with those cool cut-outs showing the layers of materials that the skis were constructed of.  His art was gorgeous, and he was a really nice person.  Actually, all my dad’s friends were really great – looking back now, I wonder what they thought of this 17-year-old kid who was hanging out with them.  My mother didn’t know about how I spent my time there, at least I don’t think she did.  As a mother of a daughter, I am a bit horrified that I was so young and spending all my time with a bunch of much older men, who smoked and drank substantial amounts of wine, beer, and other libations.  But, at the time, I know that I felt very safe and secure with these friends.

My dad had always had an interest in experimenting with visual art, and had done a lot of experimenting when he owned a photographic studio.  When he met Michael, he started playing around with the airbrush, and I remember a lush mandala that he created, representing the world, and the elements, which was lovely (sadly, I suspect it was discarded).

One weekend afternoon of that summer I remember clearly – we all went over to the home of someone’s friend, where a party was ongoing.  The music playing was the Grateful Dead, and the party attendees were all clearly followers of the Dead.  There was, of course, a quantity of marijuana that was smoked, and probably LSD, and mushrooms, and possibly cocaine.  And in the midst of all this dancing, and singing, and merrymaking, there was a small child – a girl of about 2 years of age – who wandered among the “adults”.  Her mother was only about 18 or 19 years old, just a little older than I was, and I remember worrying about this tiny child, and wondering how her life was going to turn out in this chaos.  She was clearly precocious – talking sagely about all sorts of topics.  She probably had to grow up quickly for her own survival.

At the end of the summer, my dad got tickets for me to go to a Grateful Dead concert with Michael.  Or maybe it was Michael who got the tickets.  Anyway, I was invited to go, and I went to my only personal experience of the Dead – live.  Michael had a fancy red sports-car – I don’t remember the make – but he clearly was making up for his disability by enjoying what he could of life.  And, the advantage of going to a concert with someone on crutches or in a wheelchair became clear to me when we arrived, and were able to get right up to the front row, in front of the stage.

No, I don’t really remember much of anything of the concert.  And, to be truthful, it wasn’t a transformative, life-changing concert for me.  I did not become a DeadHead.  I did go on to college.  I don’t know what Michael’s expectation was of that “date”, but if he had any expectations of me, they were futile.  I remember thinking at the time that I was using him for the concert tickets, and I remember feeling guilty about it.

I wonder where he is now.  I wish him well.

So, that’s how my dad was a Sri Lankan immigrant – a permanent resident alien, as he proudly referred to himself – and also a DeadHead, of sorts.  He was an engineer, and an artist.  He was such a complex set of identities, and I wish he were still here to share his talents, and his love, which was boundless.

Leave a Reply