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Isolation Row: Rediscovering My Love of the Grateful Dead During Quarantine (Guest Column)

Jerry Garcia Grateful Dead 25 Years
Grateful Dead: Bob Minkin/Mediapunch/MediaPunch/IPx; Skull/Rose: Adobe Stock

My 2020 seems to have “started” a bit earlier.

I ushered in the New Year single for the first time in a long while, and a week later, woke up blind in my left eye courtesy of a freshly detached retina. After making it through a grueling recovery period from a handful of surgeries, which I can only compare to some sort of Jedi training — google the “bubble” procedure and which requires you to not move for about three weeks outside of a quick five-minute break every hour — I was looking forward to truly greeting 2020 by getting back to work and my regular routines.

Flash forward a few weeks and Coronavirus arrives putting all three of my television jobs that were about to start shooting on hiatus, along with the income I’d been counting on.

Then came a call from my little sister informing me that she has breast cancer (don’t worry, they caught it early and she’ll beat it).

Then George Floyd.

…and just a month ago, my beloved Grandma who planted the seeds which turned into my lifelong career in music passes away.

I list these things seeking zero sympathy, we’re all suffering this year.

I’m a fairly private person but felt the need to offer these personal details to share that I feel ok right now, maybe even good.

This is all evidence of the healing power of what I’m about to describe.

What we’ve lost in 2020 are our foundations, our compasses, our North Stars.

The survival mode this launched me into found me reaching out for the things that built me — the music, movies, people, and memories of my young adult life —  most prominently, the sounds of The Grateful Dead.

I was quick to write all this off as a suspended “comfort food” moment, but now, while looking back at it from the “other side,” I’m seeing that I’d instinctively gone back to the pieces that built me in order to find myself again and refill the tank after being so shattered.

I was introduced to the Grateful Dead like many of us were — through a friend’s older sibling. I was in fourth grade when I first really heard them and the connection was instant. This was to be my favorite band and they’ve been with me ever since. “With me” is an understatement, this band and their message is now infused into my DNA.

People often communicate with symbols as a way to gather their tribe. For this very reason, I’ve never owned a car without at least one piece of Grateful Dead flare. This began with my first car at 16 which had, like, seven indications of Dead appreciation. Nowadays, while pushing 40, it’s been elegantly refined to a single Stealy sticker on the back of a Prius (can’t afford the Cadillac).

Through this symbol, be it on a T-shirt, a bumper sticker, or while listening to the music itself at a show or during a hang, I’ve been fortunate enough to find my people.

The Grateful Dead are also the glue that binds my sister and I together. So much so that I flew back home to Chicago in 2015 so that we could see “Fare Thee Well” together — I have a hard time thinking of any moment in the last decade where I was that happy.

The lessons that come with the band are the building blocks of me — music is for everyone and should be shared; we all need to take care of each other — and the shows instilled an overwhelming affirmation that the highest heights can only be achieved when we leave “I” at the door and work towards something together.

This last lesson is what I offer anyone seeking guidance.

If you have the luxury of finding it, make time daily to do the things you know will fill your tank. Once your tank is full, regroup with your people. If any of them are still running on empty, help them get the things you know will be good for them — a friend recently told me that the key to 2020 survival is to “go towards the light”.

My particular fuel comes from records, cycling, and running. No matter how hard I’m hustling to bridge the gap until any form of normalcy returns, I do whatever it takes to carve out time for a healthy dose of these things every single day.

Recently, I loaded up a choice live show on my headphones and went for a run in my neighborhood. I live in a part of Downtown Los Angeles which got hit pretty hard in the looting. There are still signs of sadness everywhere and it often consumes my thoughts while I’m running.

But on a recent run, passing a building that was still boarded up, I was randomly reminded of a good time in my life. That moment coincided with Jerry Garcia in my headphones, singing “Scarlet Begonias” — “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

There seems to be a Dead lyric for every situation, especially the difficult ones — “One way or another, this darkness got to give” from “New Speedway Boogie,” for instance, or this line from my sister after she delivered her cancer news over the phone: “I will get by, I will survive”.

We’ve all got a lot of work to do right now but we can’t let this mess steal any moments of joy that might be available.

We will get by, we will survive.

Zach Cowie is a music supervisor whose credits include “Master of None,” “On Becoming a God in Central Florida,” “Little America,” “Forever” and the forthcoming film “Judas and the Black Messiah.”