By Blair Jackson
Twenty years ago this month—December 1992—the Grateful Dead started Comeback 2, six years after Garcia’s near-death in the summer of ’86 had precipitated Comeback 1. This time, there was not quite the same level of concern among fans when, immediately following a six-show Garcia Band tour of California that concluded in the San Diego area the day after Jerry’s 50th birthday (8/1/92), a number of health issues caught up with him, and his doctor and various holistic medicine types ordered him to stop touring and take care of himself.
In all, 23 concerts scheduled between August 22 and October 1 (including six each in Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden) were canceled, with money refunded. It was a drag, of course (we had tickets for three late-August Shoreline Amphitheatre shows in hand), but as had been the case in the summer and fall of ’86, we just wanted Jerry to be well again. Though at the time we didn’t hear many details of his latest meltdown—other than a report on an enlarged heart, chronic lung problems and that old celebrity standby, “exhaustion”—there was no coma this time, and it didn’t seem to be life-threatening. The reports coming out of the Garcia camp in the late summer and early fall were all encouraging: Jerry’s dropped a lot of weight, he’s become a vegetarian, he’s exercising regularly, he’s clean. Evidently, Manasha Matheson—his paramour and housemate at the time (and mother of their 4-year-old daughter, Keelin)—had set Jerry on a healthful regimen that completely turned his health around in a matter of weeks. Yay!
I can’t recall at what point in the fall of ’92 we learned there would be no New Year’s shows for the first time since 1976—16 years! It wasn’t a complete surprise. There had been some talk the previous year, 1991, of skipping New Year’s in the wake of Bill Graham’s tragic death in a helicopter accident in late October. But the New Year’s run at the Oakland Coliseum was already booked, and since New Year’s Eve was always as much Bill’s night as the Dead’s, the shows went on as planned, partly in his honor, and the band played pretty well all four nights (especially 12/28). Still, Bill’s Father Time entrance was sorely missed on New Year’s Eve and his absence cast a strange pall over the evening for me and many others.
Antonio Rionegro’s design for the 12/3/92 backstage pass.
Early in ’92 we started hearing rumors that the Dead might end the New Year’s tradition. Apparently, it had become as burdensome for them at the end of a long touring year as it was for those of us who had to endure the lines, the cold and often rainy December weather, and four nights of general admission seat/space stress in a large impersonal arena just days after the Christmas madness had subsided. So, when BGP finally announced that the Dead would instead play four shows in early December at the Oakland Coliseum, following two in Denver and two near Phoenix, I was, frankly, relieved. (However, I’m sure the news disappointed many folks who traditionally traveled from all over for the year-end fete and had already made plans.)
Those of us in the Bay Area got our first glimpse of the “new” Garcia when the JGB played a Halloween show at the Oakland Coliseum (with Vince Welnick’s awesome cover band, The Affordables, opening). Jerry looked fantastic—even better than he had post-coma, when, though clear-eyed and happy, he seemed somewhat fragile for several months. I remember before the newly svelte(ish) Jerry even played a note at that Halloween show, he bent over to adjust a pedal and did it with an ease that would have been impossible earlier in the year. His ebullience was apparent and infectious—what a great night of music that was, culminating, as we all hoped it would, with “Werewolves of London.”
By the time the December mini-tour reached Oakland, we’d heard about the first version of The Beatles’ “Rain” opening night in Denver (12/2), the “Morning Dew” closer and “Gloria” encore the next, and most exciting of all, the return of “Here Comes Sunshine” at Compton Terrace (12/6) for the first time since 1974. The Affordables had played a dynamite “Here Comes Sunshine” at the Halloween show, so we wondered if it would be a similar arrangement (it was, though not exactly). At that point we weren’t trying to compare it with the hot ’73 versions; we were just ecstatic it was back in any form!
The mood in Oakland at the first of the Dead’s five shows there was positively jubilant—though nothing on the order of the comeback shows in December ’86, when it felt as if we’d collectively beaten back the Grim Reaper so we could dance together another day. When Jerry was happy, healthy and relaxed, the world seemed like a better place. Or at least our little corner of the world.
Night Two was marked by the first “Dark Star” in six months and a “Rain” encore that far exceeded my expectations. We got our “Here Comes Sunshine” to open the second set on 12/13 (as well as a fine “Other One” > “Morning Dew”), and 12/16 was solid from beginning to end, with “Feel Like a Stranger” and “Let It Grow” bookending the first set, and jamming tunes such as “Shakedown,” “Playing in the Band” and, out of “space,” the second verse of the “Dark Star” that started on 12/12. The encore was the rare “Casey Jones.” This show was released as Dick’s Picks Vol. 27 in 2003; a good choice in my view.
The following night’s show (12/17) wasn’t quite as good, but it did contain a standout “Scarlet Begonias” > “Fire on the Mountain,” another “Here Comes Sunshine,” a wonderful “Not Fade Away” and the exciting encore duo, introduced in the spring, of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (sung convincingly by Vince) and The Beatles’ trippy “Tomorrow Never Knows.” (Those last three songs, along with “Throwing Stones,” appeared as “filler” on that Dick’s Picks 27.)
On Dec. 18, we woke up and our Grateful Dead year was over; an odd feeling after 11 straight years of New Year’s series (for Regan and me). Without the year-end shows looming, the holiday season was markedly more relaxed for us—or as relaxed as they could be with a two-year-old toddler in the house. I honestly don’t remember what we did that New Year’s Eve. No doubt we were with our show buddies Jon and Deb, but I can’t recall if that was the year master chef Jon brought live lobsters and plunged them into boiling water as the rest of us cowered in the next room. I do know that midnight came with copious amounts of champagne and dancing to a Grateful Dead bootleg VHS tape—probably the “Sugar Mag” from the Closing of Winterland.
It wasn’t the same as being at a show, but it still felt special (“close enough to pretend”), and with already-announced Oakland Coliseum shows set for January and February ’93, we weren’t jonesin’ too bad. In fact, with Healthy Jerry and a week of fun shows in our recent memories, it seemed as if we might be on the cusp of something great—exactly the feeling you want to have going into a New Year.
Happy Holidays, everyone! Be safe and love each other. I’ll be back in this space in early January. In the meantime, I’ve got these Furthur New Year’s shows to deal with. Let’s see…loge, Phil side, about two-thirds of the way back. Is it too early to start lining up?