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My Disciplinarian Father, the Deadhead

Reconciling the hippie with the hardass

The angriest my father ever got with me was over a mix CD I made when I was 13.

I woke up to him standing in my bedroom doorway, fuming.

“Come here!” he said. “I want you to show me something.”

He led me down two flights of stairs to his office in the basement, silent the entire way. I spent the trip racking my brain about what exactly he had discovered. Was it weed? No. My friend Bobby was holding that for us. The porn? Maybe. But that was hidden in an unmarked folder on a computer my dad never used.

“Tell me about this,” he said, handing me a notepad with my handwriting on it. I had left the pad lying on the makeshift computer station my dad had built for the family computer.

The writing was a track list for the CD I had burned the night before for my friend Karl. Karl and I had developed an obsession with Office Space. Naturally, the mixtape was to feature the Geto Boys songs “Damn It Feel Goods to Be a Gangsta” and “Still.” We didn’t know the title of the latter track, however, so we always identified it by its opening lyric: “Back up in your ass with the resurrection.” (This is the song that plays while the three main characters beat the shit out of the office printer in an open field.)

That I was in trouble for writing “Back up in your ass with the resurrection” on a sheet of paper was a hilarious relief, and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“You think that’s funny?” my dad said, growing angrier. “Play me this song! I wanna hear this wonderful music you’re into!”

What followed was the most uncomfortable four minutes of my life. My dad played the song aloud, repeating and deconstructing the lyrics as he went along — e.g., the second lyric: “It’s the group harder than an erection.”

“Oh, erection. Isn’t that nice?!” my dad mocked.

The humor of the song was lost on him; his anger only increased with each “fuck” and mention of gun violence (the subject of the song).

Now completely enraged, my dad opened the disc tray, grabbed the CD and crushed it in the palm of his hand, littering the floor with shiny shards of plastic.

“I can’t believe you’d ever listen to this shit!” he said.

Then he left to tend to his garden.

The moment perfectly encapsulates two divergent aspects of my father’s personality: his sternness and his passion for music.

Because what if I told you that this guy, Mike McDermott, the man who turned rap songs into dust, was a sucker for psychedelic country ballads? That the man who tried to toughen me up by throwing baseballs at my head during batting practice was the same guy who spent the better part of his 20s following a jam band across the greater Midwest? Yes, my dad — this stoic, intimidating disciplinarian who sold telecommunications systems for a living — was a Deadhead, one of those tie-dye clad hippies who devoted their time, money and youth to the Grateful Dead, a band synonymous with the free-living idealism of 1960s counterculture.

I could never square those two images. So when the Grateful Dead announced they’d be ending their historic, 50-year touring run with shows in Chicago on July 3, 4 and 5, 2015, I couldn’t resist helping my dad snag press tickets. I wanted to witness a side of him I knew existed, but never quite understood.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Per usual, the house starts stirring when my dad begins making a racket in the kitchen. Banging pots and pans has always been his passive-aggressive way of signaling that it’s time for me to get my ass out of bed.

Only this fuss has a purpose.

As a rule, my dad doesn’t pay for parking. Whenever possible, he refrains from paying for food, too. This weekend presents him with a somewhat irreconcilable dilemma, as parsimony and attending a Dead concert are at loggerheads with one another.

He’s already paid hundreds of dollars for tickets. So in an effort to offset these sunk costs, he’s a concocted a Byzantine scheme that will allow him to partake in the Dead’s legendary pre-show parking lot tailgate scene (i.e., “Shakedown Street”) while circumventing parking fees. My family is going to pack a cooler with homemade subs and drinks and drop it off with Carla and Jamison — two friends who are willing to pay for parking at Soldier Field. Our family will then find a free parking spot within cycling distance of Soldier Field, park there, bike to the stadium and secure a patch of grass somewhere near the stadium’s north entrance. Then Carla and Jamison and the rest of their crew will join, coolers in tow.

All so my dad can avoid paying $30 for parking and $8 for a Polish sausage.

“One o’clock on the dot and I’m ready!” my mom shouts, referencing the departure time my dad had announced the night before.

At this, my dad emerges in a black Grateful Dead T-shirt tucked into khaki cargo shorts. The rest of his outfit includes a pair of Asics he’s owned for at least a decade, white Nike socks pulled up to his prodigious calves and a pair of black sunglasses he probably bought at Walgreen’s. Topping off the ensemble is a dark blue Cal-Berkeley visor, because the Dead first made their name there in the mid-1960s. A white, silkscreened photo of Jerry Garcia adorns the shirt’s front. “While You Were Gone These Spaces Filled With Darkness,” is written across the back, a lyric from “Terrapin Station,” my dad’s favorite Dead song.

Play a Grateful Dead song in my general vicinity and I’m liable to cringe. The sound of Bob Weir’s masturbatory guitar noodling brings back memories of my family packed into a sweaty Dodge Caravan, driving cross-country to some unexciting vacation locale (say, the Black Hills in South Dakota) while the Dead played in the background.

Like every loyal Deadhead, my dad preferred the Dead’s live recordings to their studio output, and the repetitive nature of these jam sessions made the already days-long excursions seem as endless as Weir’s guitar solos. Requests for songs recorded after 1985 were not entertained. The best we could hope for was the local classic rock radio station.

At his Deadhead peak, my dad attended six Dead shows a year, he tells me. “Maybe three, four in the Midwest in the summer, and then maybe two in the winter,” he continues. The farthest he’s traveled for a Dead show — not counting the time he was in San Francisco on a business trip and saw Garcia play a solo set at The Warfield — was from Urbana, Illinois, to Des Moines, Iowa (355 miles by car).

I’m not surprised my dad never went to greater lengths to see the Dead: “That whole ‘traveling band of gypsies’ thing didn’t appeal to me,” he tells me on our way to Soldier Field. “A lot of those people didn’t work, and they mooched. Some of them were nice people, but they were all trustafarians. Drug use was way over-the-top. Music wasn’t the main thing.”

Everyone always says they’re “just here for the music,” but for my dad, that was actually the case. Those “gypsies,” the ones we so closely associate with the Dead, were posers in his view. In his mind, he, the white-collar suburbanite who played college football, was the one keeping it real.

A little history: From 1965 to 1987, the Grateful Dead were a San Francisco–based bluegrass-rock outfit with a small but intensely loyal following. If you didn’t subscribe to Rolling Stone or attend college in the ’70s, you likely knew little of the Dead. And if you did, you probably considered them a vestige of a bygone era. People were either ardent fans or they were somewhere between indifferent and contemptuous.

“The whole scene was really mellow,” my dad remembers fondly. Mom nods in agreement. “And fun.”

And then the Gen-Xers ruined everything. The Grateful Dead achieved mainstream success for the first time in 1987 with their single “Touch of Grey.” The song earned considerable play on mainstream radio — which hadn’t happened for the band since “Truckin’” in 1971 — and its music video was wildly popular on MTV.

Suddenly word was out that Dead shows were the place to find all the best drugs. College kids started showing up at shows solely to get fucked up. Opportunists followed in their wake — scammers peddling bad drugs and scalpers who bought tickets in batches, selling them for twice their face value. What was once a closely held secret became a mainstream bacchanal infested with hangers-on and swindlers.

“During the ’90s there seemed to be a new group that went in and they were not respectful of the parking lot. They would do a lot of littering,” my mom says, voice dripping with disapproval. “People just became trashy.”

My dad stands on the south steps of the Field Museum, contemplating whether to attend a Dead pre-party in the museum’s courtyard. There’s a beer tent and a Grateful Dead cover band, but he decides against it once he notices the price is $50 a person. “Too expensive,” he says. Instead we settle into a little patch of grass and wait for my parents’ Deadhead friends.

Half an hour later, I’m surrounded by about a dozen men and women, all of them at least double my age. My dad is holding court, trading stories about past Dead shows, rehashing Dead facts he’s told hundreds of times before.

I’ve never known my dad to be much of social person. He’s a homebody. My mom, who’s the exact opposite, still complains about his never wanting to go to social functions. Even when we visit relatives he’s among the first to leave, and he always makes a swift exit; not an Irish goodbye, but a few cursory words and then straight out the door, which inevitably leads to him waiting in the car as my mom conducts her protracted adieus.

But at the moment he’s conducting a master class on the Dead’s musical significance, specifically as it relates to relatively unknown New Orleans jazz musicians.

“See, the great thing about the Dead was they’d always have these small musicians come up and play with them,” my dad explains to me and his friends. “Guys like Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. Jazz guys. New Orleans guys.”

Here, among fellow Deadheads, he is more social and congenial than I’ve ever seen him.

The stadium rumbles beneath our feet as the Dead break into their first song, the result of approximately 70,000 people jumping in unison.

My dad does his best to keep up. Calling it “dancing” is probably too generous; it’s more of a gentle sway. His go-to dance move is to shift his weight side to side, his hands clasped behind his back, like a funky general overlooking his loyal troops. It makes him visibly happy, a smile plastered to his face. Age has done wonders for him — if not physically, then emotionally. He never yells anymore, and he goes out of his way to not give me advice (even when I ask for it). He’s turned into a quiet Zen master. He espouses the wonders of prayer and notes that I should work less and exercise more; I’m too stressed and I need to “stop and smell the roses.”

“This is called ‘Box of Rain,’” he tells me, as if I haven’t heard this song 100 times at this point. “Box of Rain” is the lead track on the Dead’s best studio album, American Beauty. My dad has an original vinyl pressing of it.

“I’m happy I went to every Dead show I did,” my dad says out of the blue. “It was never a waste of time. Because we would sit like we did this afternoon and drink beers and tell stories. Fellowship.”

“Our first date was a Dead show,” my dad says after the concert ends. He’s talking about my mom, his wife of 33 years. They fell in love at a July 11, 1981 Dead show in East Troy, Wisconsin. Their mutual friends Mortimer and Layla set them up.

“Mortimer and Layla invited me to a show,” my mom later tells me. “I was in the back seat, and before we left town they picked up your dad! I knew him, but spending 3.5 hours in the car with him, I got to know him a lot better. He was so animated talking about the Dead. It was a spiritual experience for him.

“What really made an impression on me was how he navigated the crowd,” my mom adds. She had developed a fear of crowds during a raucous Rolling Stones show at Soldier Field in 1978. “He just took my hand and maneuvered down to the stage — purposeful and respectful, but resolute. I remember thinking I never felt so safe and protected being among a huge group of people before.”

July 4, 2015

Trent, my oldest friend, and I emerge from the Red Line L stop at Roosevelt. We’re off to meet our dads, who will be attending today’s Dead show with us. Trent knows my dad well: My dad used to coach our Little League All-Star team.

Coaching these teams is how my dad cemented his reputation as the baddest motherfucker in all of River Forest — the suburb where I grew up. He has this natural authoritative presence that people defer to without thinking. Nearly everyone agreed he should manage the All-Star team, and he did so with a military rigidity. We’d field grounders and fly balls for hours in the unrelenting Chicago humidity. We’d take batting practice for the entirety of a summer afternoon. It wasn’t uncommon for the assistant coaches — all of them fathers of boys on the team — to throw out their arms from pitching so much batting practice.

But neither the parents nor us boys questioned whether there was too much pressure on us — mainly because my dad’s approach worked.

We were good. Like, stupidly good. Amazing even. River Forest (pop. 12,000) had a disproportionate amount of talented Little League players my age, and my father molded us into an absolute force. In 1998, we played around 40 games over the course of three months and lost only three. We routinely beat teams by slaughter rule and won the Little League state championship in our 10-year-old age group.

Almost everyone in the lineup could hit, but our real specialty was defense. Those endless fly ball sessions resulted in a startling lack of errors in the field. My dad was particularly fond of saying, “You can’t give the other team outs!”

Above all else, though, we were humble and hardworking. My dad hated “blowhards” — his word for anyone who was overly impressed with himself.

On the rare occasion we lost, my dad would have us all take a knee while he chastised us for 30 minutes about our lack of discipline. If any one of us grew distracted and started playing with the grass, he’d call the kid out and demand he make eye contact. “Eyes up here.” He’d rant until a thin line of spittle emerged in the middle of his mouth, connecting his upper and bottom lips.

My dad’s biggest problem, however, was that while his own son was just good enough to make the All-Star team, I was one of the least talented players among that esteemed group. Naturally, this rankled parents who thought their sons deserved my spot. Few of them had the balls to confront my dad about this directly; instead, they expressed their discontent in backchannels. My dad never engaged these challenges to his authority. To do so would have been to lend them credence, and my dad was above such petty jealousy.

Instead, he proved his lack of nepotism by being especially tough on me. I was subject to round-the-clock instruction. I had to take 100 swings a day in the dead of winter. Family dinners devolved into discussions about my batting stance, much to my mother’s chagrin. It pained him that I wasn’t better, and the harder he tried to make me into a star, the more nervous I became about meeting that unlikely standard.

The gulf between me and the rest of the players had only widened by the time I was 12. Twelve-year-old Little League baseball is a big fucking deal. That’s when you get the chance to compete for the Little League World Series — provided your team wins its divisional, sectional, state and regional tournaments, thereby qualifying you to play against the best team from outside the U.S. for the title of World Champion.

We entered the season brimming with confidence. Parents were making hotel arrangements for the Midwest regional tournament before we even qualified.

My dad hated it. We were getting ahead of ourselves, getting cocky, not concentrating on the game in front of us, too caught up in our old success to play well. He was right — we lost the state tournament to Westlawn, the same team we had beaten for the state title just two years earlier.

I was secretly relieved. Playing under my dad sucked. I didn’t get a single at-bat the entire state tournament that year. But I didn’t care. I had started to find my own as a football player, and I copped an attitude that any sport that didn’t involved hitting the shit out of other kids (my specialty) was stupid.

“Your dad is a good man,” Trent told me several years ago, back when we were sharing an apartment together in Chicago.

“I mean, he’s a tough man,” I answered.

“Yes, but a good one.”

My dad’s attire tonight is a black T-shirt with “N.R.P.S.” scrawled across a desert sunset. N.R.P.S. is short for New Riders of the Purple Sage, a San Francisco-based country-rock band whose original lineup included Grateful Dead members Garcia, Mickey Hart and Weir. It was a side project for them, and the T-shirt is a kind of signal flare — a conversation starter — to all the true Dead fans my dad might encounter.

In the meantime, he puts his Busch Light down to hand me a present: On his way to meet me and Trent, my dad spotted a man selling a special kind of Dead T-shirt that he thought I needed to own. It’s white with a series of black swirls that, when you back away, crystallize into the face of Jerry Garcia. “That one’s a keeper,” my dad says proudly as I change into it.

Trent, his dad, my dad and I sit on a hill just south of Soldier Field, a grassy perch overlooking a swarm of hippies, suburban dads, gutter punks and frat-boy interlopers.

“Here’s some of that element that got out of hand,” my dad whispers. He’s referencing the entrepreneurs selling Dead-branded bongs, bowls and bubblers. Or maybe it’s the bros playing Slap the Bag killing his vibe.

Either way, it’s important to him that I not think of Deadheads as a bunch of strung-out losers — there are others like him, people who could balance having a good time with a prosperous home life. My dad, in his own subtle way, is telling me that he is actually not the exception to the rule. That here, he’s very much part of the group. That he’s not the square I think he is.

Just then, a hanger-on in our group sparks a joint, and I start to feel anxious, wondering how my dad feels about it.

My parents caught me with weed when I was 14. The discovery occurred during a family and friends barbecue, and my mom went apoplectic on me in front of all the neighbors — to the point that my dad actually told her to tone it down.

After my lies and rationalizations proved fruitless, I mounted a counterattack: “Well, you used to do drugs, too! You followed around the Grateful Dead!”

Apart from being generally displeased with the comment, my dad vehemently denied ever doing drugs at Dead shows. I always assumed this was bullshit, but I’ve since come to believe him. When I first told my dad I had acquired Fare Thee Well tickets, his immediate response was, “I’m not going to be smoking weed, you know.”

Now that I’m here and can sense his slight unease with all this brazen, public drug use, that impression is confirmed. I don’t think this man ever did drugs; if he did, he didn’t much enjoy them. Unlike his son, he never needed drugs to feel comfortable in his own skin.

My dad gets distracted, and the joint is passed to me. And I get high behind his back, like I’ve done countless times before.

When I was 14, my dad bought me the greatest present I’ve ever received: a Kenwood stereo speaker and a five-disc CD/DVD player. The gift came with a spool of speaker wire and two enormous speakers my dad had stowed away in the attic. He would later regret this decision when I started blaring the Beastie Boys throughout the house.

The real present, however, was him teaching me how to set it all up. He retrieved his wirestripper from the garage and showed me how to remove the plastic casing from the wire, exposing the metal fibers through which the sound travels. He licked the wires and twisted them into a single strand.

He used a mnemonic device to teach me how to connect the wires correctly.

“It’s like football,” he said. “You have two teams across the San Francisco Bay from one another — the Raiders and the 49ers. The silver wire connects to the black [binding] post — silver and black, like the Raiders — and gold goes with red, like the 49ers. Same thing for the sockets on the receiver. Don’t forget that.”

I never did. I must’ve have blown out five pairs of speakers in college, and I lost the CD/DVD carousel once it was rendered obsolete by my iPod.

But the receiver lives on. It sits in my apartment, on my entertainment center, right above where I keep all the records my dad has bequeathed to me in recent years — LPs from Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers and B.B. King; and, of course, several Grateful Dead recordings. A couple of the knobs have fallen off, but it still emits enough sound to alienate my neighbors. It’s the oldest thing I own.

July 5, 2015

I’m running out of time, I think to myself. We’re in the third and final day of this exploration and I’m not sure I’ve had any revelations about my dad.

I keep expecting him to break into some eloquent monologue about fathers and sons and the good and trying times we’ve had together, but we mostly just end up sitting there, quietly taking in the shows together. It’s certainly an improvement from my angsty teen years, when every conversation ended in a shouting match. But I’m still waiting for something overtly profound.

A text from my mom is the closest I get:

So it’s something to see your Dad in his element — his church so to speak — you can see why I fell in love with him at a Dead show. He is electric having you two go to the shows together.

I also know today is extra-special for my dad because he is wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt he swore he would never put on.

In 1992, Lithuania was still a young country, recently liberated from the former USSR. It was also broke — so broke it couldn’t afford to send its men’s basketball team to the Olympics in Barcelona. The Dead came to the rescue, sponsoring the Lithuanian team and decking them out in some psychedelic tie-dye jerseys. Lithuania went on to lose to Team U.S.A. — aka “The Dream Team” comprising Jordan, Magic and Bird — by a whopping 51 points, but the T-shirts sold in support of the team have become legitimate collector’s items since then, fetching upwards of $250 on eBay.

My dad has kept his original T-shirt neatly folded in his closet since he bought it in 1992. Today is his last chance to wear it to a Dead show.

“I’ve had this shirt for 20 years,” he says proudly. “Never worn it.”

There are more than a dozen old-school VW camper vans in the parking lot, and their owners keep inviting us to check them out and eat some grilled cheese.

“That used to be me at these shows,” my mom says, motioning to the woman dancing with a baby on her hip. “You were such a content kid. We could just sit you down with some toys and you’d be happy — unlike your older sister, who always needed more interaction.”

When my dad sees a pot-bellied man wearing the same shirt, they immediately walk toward one another and pose for a photo. (My dad’s shirt is in better shape, for the record, and his hope is that Bill Walton will sign it tonight.)

But my dad’s gregariousness has its limits. Martin Scorsese has a film crew here for a documentary he’s producing about the Grateful Dead, and we run into one of their camera teams conducting field interviews in the parking lot. I approach one of the producers, saying he should interview my dad about his T-shirt. But when I turn around my dad is bolting in the other direction, terrified by the prospect of mass media attention.

Our “seats” are the on the floor today, so we enter a full 105 minutes before showtime to secure prime standing real estate. This jockeying for position has put my dad on edge.

It starts with the man behind us. He introduces himself as Larry and instructs my dad and me to move because he has friends joining him later, which prompts an immediate scolding from my dad. “What, you think you can get all the room you want just because you put down a tarp?” he asks.

“Hey, man, I’m just trying to be!” Larry responds, before quickly scurrying away.

If there’s one thing my father has no time for, it’s rudeness. I’ve seen him confront litterers on the street before, picking up their trash and handing it back to them, saying, “I think you dropped something.” So when a tiny, barefoot acidhead demands that he move, there’s bound to be some pushback.

I’m bemused by Larry, but things really pop off once he starts to lecture me about how Jerry Garcia wasn’t a drug addict. According to Larry, Garcia’s death was actually the fault of Deborah Koons Garcia, Jerry’s third and final wife, for putting her husband in rehab.

“We hate her,” Larry says of Koons. “She tried to pull Jerry away from the band.”

At this, my dad whips around and bellows, “You’re a bullshitter.”

There’s a belief common among some Deadheads that Jerry never would have suffered a fatal heart attack had Koons not pushed him to kick his drug habit, a notion that provokes a special kind of ire in my father. (I vividly remember the day Garcia died. My parents held a candlelight vigil in the kitchen and invited friends over; they listened to Dead records all night.)

Substance abuse claimed my dad’s father as well as his favorite musician; it has nearly killed several of his closest friends. He has no patience for anyone who diminishes the impact of addiction, or who calls a woman a shrew for urging her husband to get help.

Larry shrinks away after my dad’s outburst.

“It’s always been my personal endeavor in life to let frauds know they’re frauds,” my dad later explains.

Toward the end of the set my dad gets wistful. The band plays “Days Between,” a sleepy ballad originally written and sung by Garcia. “When I say Garcia grabbed my soul, it was songs like this,” he says. “Garcia sang love songs. A whole bunch.”

My family was culturally Catholic — we said grace before dinner and went to mass every Christmas and Easter. But I never heard my dad say the word “soul” when I was growing up.

My dad seems disappointed they didn’t bring out a special guest for the encore, but he’s enraptured by the closing remarks from drummer Mickey Hart: “This feeling we have here, remember it. Take it home and do some good with it. Hug your husband, wife, kids. I leave you with this: Be kind.”

“Fifty years. Man. That’s a long time,” my dad says, staring blankly over the stadium. “Well, let’s roll!”

Then he breaks for the exit.

He’d really like to beat traffic.

Things normalized the months immediately after my dad, the Dead and I spent that weekend together. My dad went back to tending to his garden; I went back to L.A.; and the Dead went back on tour, this time with Katy Perry’s ex-boyfriend as their lead singer.

Then, one random evening several weeks later, I came home to discover an enormous care package lying in front of my apartment door. My dad had stuffed it full of some of his favorite records — stuff from blues legends Howlin’ Wolf and Albert King, and his original pressing of American Beauty.

Also in that care package was the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team T-shirt he had once deemed too valuable to wear. It’s folded up neatly in my closet, just how my dad kept it. Ready, should I ever need it.

John McDermott is MEL’s staff writer. He last wrote about why a good Chicago boy like Cameron Frye would spend all of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey.

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