The summer/fall of 2019 has been a time of great upheaval in my life. I was glad to have a set of music together to help process these experiences.
On Sept. 24, 2019, I presented a set of music by the songwriting duo of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter at the Grafton Pub, in Chicago, IL.
This is a live recording of essay I read at the top of the show. The text of the essay follows.
Sept. 24, 2019
Some of Jason’s Thoughts about the Grateful Dead
By Jason McInnes
Hi everyone. Thanks for coming out to the Grafton. And thank you for to the Pickin’ Bubs for inviting me. I am very honored to play for you. I’ve made a lot of music in this room. I basically learned to play back here. And I bet that I’ve become friends with many of you back here.
This set of songs is a bit of a musical essay for me. It’s about a collection of songs, a group of musicians and some of the energy that brought me to this show.
First a recap. If we do already know each other, you probably know that it’s been a wild few months for me. Recently, I resigned from the Old Town School of Folk Music, ending a 17 year career there. Peggy invited me to play tonight as a sort of parting gig, because I figured I’d be moving out of Chicago. That may still happen, but for now, I’m still here. What will the future bring? It’s hard to know.
Do I have to know? Good question and it’s one that I’m trying to get to a clearer answer to, partially through the work of this very gig. Robert Hunter wrote, “Recall the days still left to come.” So here I am, recalling the old days, hoping that their memory weaves a magic spell that conjures up some powerful new days.
Robert Hunter also wrote of a road. “No simple highway.” I’m on the highway, I suppose. And the path of that road is for my steps alone. But, while my steps are alone, I know that I am not alone.
Which brings me to another event that pulls us together tonight. About two months ago, I fell off my skateboard on a literal path, as opposed to the metaphorical path, and ended up with a broken elbow. I took about 6 weeks off from guitar playing and I’m not fully recovered. That is one of the reasons that you hear this wonderful backing band tonight. They’re here to help me out.
Please make them feel welcome. Lindsay Weinberg, Jonas Friddle, John Mead and Andrew Wilkins.
Back to my point at hand. Physical and metaphysical metamorphosis. I’ve had a lot of time to look back on life. “How did I end up here? I didn’t even know this was a destination!” The story of what has brought me here has many strands, but I want to focus on only one tonight.
I attended my first Grateful Dead concert on August 1, 1994. Aug. 1 was Jerry’s birthday by chance. I did not enjoy the show. “Why aren’t they playing any of the songs I know from the classic rock radio station? What’s with the 20 minute drum solo in the middle of the set?” What was this I was listening to?
But I could tell that something was up, something I desperately wanted to be in on, but I just couldn’t grasp. But I self-identiefied as a “classic rocker” and I was determined to enjoy the experience, so I went back again the next year. Nope. Try as I might, I just didn’t get it.
Jerry died on August 9, 1995. I was rolling dough and listening to the radio at Pretzel Time; my job at the mall. WDET DJ Martin Bandyke broke the news and then the opening notes of Uncle John’s Band took flight. I burst into tears.
I really freaked me out! Why did I start crying? Why did I care so much? At this point, Jerry was far from being a hero of mine and, in fact, and I had just heard him play a few weeks back and didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. What had happened to me? I was a little dazed for the rest of my shift and, when it was over, I walked over to the tape store at the mall. I bought a tape of the only Dead album they had; American Beauty. I popped it into the car stereo on the way home, still very confused as to what had happened.
Life went on. I move to Chicago to attend a music conservatory. Two weeks into my new life I freaked out and I dropped out of college. I didn’t really play music for about 5 years, outside of noodling around in my bedroom; stumbling through a few tired classic rock riffs and the intos to Blackbird and Brown-Eyed Girl. I did notice that I started to pick up the chords to some of those Dead tunes on American Beauty; a first memory of learning a song by ear.
In the summer of 2001, through a combination of many people, coincidences and a feeling that a depression was taking over my life, I enrolled in classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music; my first music classes since I dropped out of college. Class taught by this unkept guy Steve, with baggy jeans and a white pony tail. He talked about music more like a spiritual advisor than any music teacher I’d ever had. He gave us all these wild handouts, explaining the cosmic aspects of music theory and songs seemed to magically tumble from his fingertips at the mere mention of a title or theme.
I was only a couple weeks into class when, during a discussion, Steve mentioned the Grateful Dead song Tennessee Jed. This time, without thinking, the riff of the song tumbled from my fingers. He heard it, stopped the lecture and looked at me. Squinted his eyes, gave me a mischievous grin and a head nod and turned back to the class. There was something magical in that smile. What did he know about me that I didn’t know about myself? Looking back I feel like that smile was a silent, “Welcome. You are with your people, now. You’re gonna be ok.”
My money for lessons at OTS quickly ran out and I took the winter, spring and summer off from classes. Then in August of 2002, I caught a ride to East Troy, WI for the Grateful Dead Family Reunion. Two days of music and camping. I was very short on money and only had a ticket for day one. Without even asking, the fates stepped in and miracled me a ticket to Day 2.
I was up early on Day 2 and while I searched for a tent selling coffee, and I could tell that something was different. I felt so awake and so . . . present. I was me and I was here. We got to the show and it was like I was hearing this all for the first time. I was standing on the hill, feeling as good as I ever had in my entire life and the music and the people where a swirl around me. Day 2 – This time I was ready to receive the message. An inner voice seemed to whisper, “Maybe you could feel like this all the time, like for the rest of your life.”
“Oh,” I thought. “Maybe I could.”
Set Two was finishing up and the people next to me started to pack up, gathering theirr cups and shaking out their blanket. “No!” I though. “Don’t clean up! I want it to be like this forever!” I didn’t want to return to Chicago for the unfulfilling post-college life I had been living. Life was going by and it was not going so well. I want to stay like this!
And Robert Hunter’s lyrics were telling me, “The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down. Can’t let go and you can’t hold on. You can’t go back and you can’t stand still. If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will.”
If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will, huh? So, I went back to chicago and quit my job. “What are you going to do?” the office manager asked me. “I think I want to teach music,” I said. It’s funny to think about now because I barely played the guitar and had never taught anyone anything. Two months later I took a job working in the music shop at the Old Town School and you all know a lot of my history with the School since then.
A lot has changed from the Pretzel Time summer and the hill in East Troy, WI seems very far away. I fell in with a few people at OTS pretty quickly, including the Pickin’ Bubs and a guy named Mark Dvorak who helped me carve quite a path. I met two incredible people with a lot of fire and a lot of great music, Jonas Friddle and Maria McCullough, and we build a kingdom of youth musicians. Miki Greenberg put me in his band and awaken a bunch of creativity in me. The hall of OTS brought the most incredible musicians my way and my taste has grown a lot over the past 17 years. Like I said, there’s a lot of strands to this story. This is only one of the strands. It’s a strand about one band and a set of songs, the way I see myself and all of you in these songs and how much I love these songs and all of you. Thanks for being a part of this. We’ll see you on the bus.