“Grateful Dead Tapes”
Even though we’ve already been dead,
when I find two trays of Grateful Dead tapes
in a Missoula secondhand store,
I too feel bound in the stasis of cassette,
plastic cases scarred and cracked
like old scuba goggles. Some retain
the delicate peg that lets the door swing open;
some have broken, maybe from a fall
when someone slid too fast the van door open
in a hot parking lot. Could be no tragedy
made the tapes secondhand greater
than a lost interest. Used to listen to them,
the owner might say, the way you adjust
to walking past a grave. I love him, or her,
who has curated these happenings, although
the Dead’s not really my bag. I follow
other melodies and injured visions, draw
my cider from another press, a cooler lava.
I saw them once, summer of ’95 at RFK,
with my friend Jax. It was terrible,
a lot of twentieth-century business came due
at once. Bob Dylan opened unintelligible
and sleepy as if reaching from the frost
to make known “in life I was Bob Dylan.”
The Dead would play five more stands:
Auburn Hills, Pittsburgh, Noblesville,
Maryland Heights, Chicago, then done,
those last shows, autobiographies of indulgence.
Lightning struck by a branch. We left early.
Tapers caught every note of the show.
You can hear it forever at archive.org.
In my greatest period of disorientation,
the Dead, like death, seemed best avoided.
Yet I was the sort who might admit
a simplifying affection like the Dead.
I remember, coming down in a cornfield
near a creek at dawn, talking it out with Jason
whether those trees were weird, or that
weirdness took the form of trees,
and every woman I pursued
had a pet cat that made me sneeze.
They either liked the Dead or Neil
Diamond. Yet I would persevere,
like one with a disorder, hanging
in the doorway to their petite kitchens
while they ground coffee, or searched
the crisper for a roommate’s hidden beer.
I longed to become more elaborate,
my approaches too simple and still are,
ask anyone about pleasure’s light opera
and the children’s music of the first kiss,
the hair metal of the second. And now
I play the Dead around the house.
It’s children’s music. We play operettas,
Pinafore, Penzance, for the same reasons,
because they are kind and almost meaningless.
I make few claims. What lasts is awkward
chance, like this thrift-store wrench
anthologized on pegboard, or smudges
on a yellow phone. I’m not buying
the tapes today. The price isn’t marked
and the clerk’s busy. I keep what marriage
and child need, a few books and held-back objects,
metal or paper, letters from old loves,
because letters are antique, and for
the limestone antiquity of those affections.