An old high school friend passed away recently after attending a concert by Furthur.
His name was Aaron Plunkett, proprietor of a store in Rochester called Aaron’s Alley. The shop carried all kinds of eclectic stuff, including tie-die shirts and retro clothing. One of the last times I visited Aaron, I bought a brick of nag champa incense. It’s something I burn when I am doing a lot of writing or just need to relax.
Of course, my first reaction to the news of Aaron passing away at age 47 was sorrow. The funny thing is that of all the kids I went to high school with, he changed the least in appearance over the years. Our semi-annual conversations in his store were always a great combination of catching up and looking back.
After his death sunk in, I began to reflect on our youth and the crowd we used to hang out with and the music we listened to together. A lot of it was audience recordings of Grateful Dead shows. Some nights we listened to them for hours on end.
What I miss most about that era is that listening to music was communal experience.
Imagine an apartment filled with cigarette smoke, littered with empty pizza boxes and half-filled beer cans and bottles (one never knew when you would mistakenly drink a beer with a cigarette butt in it). The music was in the background but on occasion it would creep to the forefront and give us some talking points.
In the case of the Grateful Dead, there was always discussion revolving around whether the show we were listening to was a good one or a bad one. What’s funny is that, at the time, they all sounded alike to me. It has been only in the last ten years I really have listened to The Grateful Dead with a discerning ear.
A Grateful Dead concert experience was pretty amazing as well. Before the band started playing stadiums on a regular basis, Grateful Dead shows were one big party both in and outside of the venue.
Even though the shows were sold-out, you could easily walk to the front of the stage. People were kind to each other and strangers talked to you like they were your best friend. Often conversations comparing how many shows in a row a person was at occurred between fans, or they would try to guess what deep cut the band would play that evening.
The Grateful Dead built an audience by creating a community, not by attacking people selling t-shirts in the parking lot, or prohibiting “tapers” that would become some of their best and most loyal fans. They achieved it by creating a community.
Aaron took that same approach, his business became an integral part of the community where his business was located, and every time I went into that store, I was propelled back to a time I missed. And now, in addition to those times I will miss Aaron, a friend that shared many of them with me.
Thom Jennings writes a weekly column on the music scene for Sunday Lifestyle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.