James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series


The day and night of July 2, 1995 at the Deer Creek Music Center outside Indianapolis might have been eighteen years ago, but as with any intense experience, the memories of what a dedicated Deadhead expereiloom large and fresh and terrible.

‘Suffer’ is a matter of degree, I know. But to have your final Grateful Dead concert, a place of peace and happiness and love and music, marred by gatecrashing, rioting and tear gas seemed a terribly sad way to end my time seeing Jerry Garcia and his psychedelic band, what had been a crucial and transformative experience guiding my personal growth.

DC 1995 ticket

Here’s a brief essay from my website detailing how this final Dead show I attended inspired my 2012 novel Fellow Traveler.

The final Grateful Dead concert the author attended, the ill-fated Deer Creek Music Center show on July 2, 1995—in which a death threat on Jerry Garcia, overcrowding in the parking lots, and a generally dark vibe heretofore unseen in the usually gently and kindhearted hippie scene culminated in a kind of mini-Altamont—exists as the original inspiration for the story. Garcia’s death just over a month later would only make the experience all the more bittersweet—emphasis on the bitter.

A more positive inspiration came from two quotes by band member Mickey Hart, one from Jerry’s memorial service in Golden Gate Park, and the other from an interview sometime later that fall. To the amassed and grief-stricken fans on August 13, 1995 he said words to the effect that we should now all take our ‘dead-heads’ back home to our communities and make the magic there, in our own spaces and times. I thought that was not at all a sad thing to say, but instead a glorious and beautiful testament to the way the band had impacted culture in its unique way—I know these days the jam-band aesthetic is derided by a certain hipster and mainstream sensibility, but it’s inarguable that the Dead are responsible for an entire genre of popular music, a way of life for some people, a new ‘sport’ and hobby in the form of sanctioned audience recording, and all sorts of other impacts on the level of creative musicianship and business practices. The Dead spread out like a benevolent, artistic virus that changed how people experienced music, and maybe even life itself: For instance, in my own community I’m one of the job-creators—my wife and I own a small retail business called Loose Lucy’s that, were it not for the Grateful Dead being on tour, would never have existed. As Mickey suggested, we’re making our contribution. And in creative ways too, the culmination for me being the publication of FT.

In terms of the narrative itself, the other influential Mickey quote informed the idea that, even with something as dramatic, and tragic, as Deer Creek had been for me needed to be amped-up in terms of being dramatized in fiction. So, in an interview one day I heard Mickey remark about that mishap-laden final summer tour to the effect that, all things considered, we were all very lucky that Jerry hadn’t gone down onstage during an actual show—his health was precarious for a long time. For ten years, really, since his diabetic coma in 1986. Of course he had good seasons and years where it was clear that he felt well and had a spring in his step.

Like with any decent novel, we want to tell a reasonably compelling story, one with at least one other later at which we can view the characters and events, and that’s where the theme comes in, and subtext, metaphor and allegory play their roles. FT features a key compelling and overarching substructure that is easy to see for the reader well versed in the iconography and history of the band that inspired the story—the ‘grateful dead’ dictionary entry that named this most influential of American rock bands refers to a cycle of folk tales with a plot structure involving a deceased soul repaying a traveler for righting a wrong left in the wake of the person’s death—a debt repaid, something broken repaired, a kindness extended, with a reward of spiritual gratitude in the end for the good deed done, and of peace for the troubled spirit caught in limbo. Without going into plot specifics, this story follows that basic plot, and for obvious reasons.

On the level of character, I wanted to depict a type of Gen X-rootlessness I’ve noted and observed in the culture, a kind of lingering adolescence, a sort of Marshall McCluhan-esque consideration of how mass media has transformed the types of things that people ‘worship’ and follow in almost religious fervor—I could have written a Fellow Traveler-type scenario for Star Wars fans, or about obsessive movie fans in general. I have been all these things at different points in my life; I write from observation, but also from having been immersed in these sorts of behaviors. The long view has given me some insight into this I think, but the narrative here doesn’t dwell on this particular thread, though it is constantly there—Z’s movie references throughout demonstrate the modern sensibility, which is often filtered through these entertainments we experience, how they inform and give our life meaning—I lined up a week in advance to get my ticket for the Star Wars prequel. I used to line up all night for Dead tickets. It’s a ritualistic devotion. I’m sure Joseph Campbell recognized this when he praised the band and their community. At one time I had a direct Campbell reference, but I swapped that out for Tom Robbins instead, which better satisfies the pranksterish element of it all. The book is full of little notes like that, all fairly carefully considered and chosen to reflect this or that aspect of the story.

And here’s what a fellow attendee and artist had to say about the experience of having his final Dead concert ruined. Keller Williams only needed three and a half minutes; it took me 350 pages.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sno86b4lb4U?feature=player_embedded&w=640&h=360]

For more of the story behind Fellow Traveler, please check out my website’s ‘bonus content‘ section.

The full, final cover of the novel.

The full, final cover of the novel.

About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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