Bent My Ear, To Hear the Tune – How I Became a DeadHead: Stephen Barry

Stephen Barry is a superb artist living in St. Petersburg. He works at Grateful Cooking and is Curator of Art at The Ale & the Witch, a wonderful brewery and music venue in St. Pete. He paints at shows and festivals regularly. At events such as Orange Blossom Jamboree, he and other coordinate a wide variety of art activities for children. He is a mensch, a really good one. (Check out our gallery of photos of Barry and his art after his story.)

Stephen Barry – OBJ Photo credit: Mandi Nulph

Barry just posted this story, and we were so impressed we asked him if we could share it. We are so pleased he said YES!

Stephen Barry painting at Orange Blossom Jamboree

Bent My Ear, To Hear the Tune – How I Became a DeadHead: Stephen Barry

My genesis might be a bit different from most you’ve heard. It did not happen due to influence from friends/peers or an older sibling or parents/family, meeting other deadheads, a by-chance attendance at a show, or being raised in that culture/sound. It did happen overnight, however. Basically, no one really turned me on to The Grateful Dead but The Grateful Dead. And it happened entirely by mistake.

It was fall of 1992, Homecoming Spirit Week at Largo High School. You know in high school when everyone dresses up in costumes for Spirit Week? Well, it was Hippie Day, and I really wanted to get into character. I threw on my ratty boot-cut jeans, my mom’s authentic ’60s dashiki, and a bandana and donned my cassette headphones housing the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station, freshly purchased from Turtle’s Music for that day specifically.

I of course had heard of GD from radio play (“Touch of Grey”/“Casey Jones”) and pop culture references, and I liked it well enough but never really “listened” to them. I had certainly never heard Terrapin Station or any of the other entire albums before. So crispy boots were not even a dream yet. I was more immersed into the sounds of the times: popular rock, hip-hop, hard rock, grunge, some metal and punk. I was not prepared for what would unravel me and my 17-yearold mind that day. Little did I know at the time, I was then and now forever will be “Listening for the Secret, Searching for the Sound.”

I had to wait until drafting class (Mr. Gerber) to press play on that boxy machine, as that was the only real environment where I could get away with headphones in a classroom.

From Jerry’s first, rousing main riff on “Estimated Prophet” (at first read as “profit” and smirked), my senses woke up, and I thought: “What Is THIS?” I was instantly enthralled by that sound. My eyes got wide, and I drifted into that environment. Then Bobby enters: “My time comin’ any day, Don’t worry ‘bout me, No.” Those lyrics hit me. They were a direct smack in the face for what my life was like at the time, dealing with social, family and self-doubt issues abundant. That song told of letting go, a spiritual journey, an epiphany of power within, and I loved it. I loved everything about it. I was hooked. Listening on, the funky “Sampson and Delilah” tune further peaked my interest with its similar narrative to “Gouge Away” by The Pixies, which was my favorite. I could feel myself instantly drifting towards a new style and genre of music I had never before considered. The stories were similar but being executed differently, yet the same somehow. I mean, I definitely indulged in classic rock very heavily back then, but nothing had excited me previously, the way “Estimated” just had. It’s not that it was better, so much, but it was different. Very, very different.

I flipped the tape, and another beautiful Jerry guitar riff surfaced as “Lady with a Fan” began, followed by his sweet, almost sad, calm-kind voice spinning me an allegorical tale about the pain of forced decisions and the consequence of choice. Those sounds… I had never heard anything like it before… and I decided then and there… this is who I am now. This is my sound. This is what I love and what I listen to… then as Jerry chimed out, in a seemingly smiling release, “Inspiration, move me brightly…” my throat hitched, and my eyes welled up, right there in my drafting class. I understood what (Robert) Hunter meant by “Light the song with sense and color, hold away despair.” Those are really important lyrics. It’s what their music has done for me for the past 27 years now. Even now, thinking to myself as these “statements just seem vain at last”, I tear up a bit, thinking about how this all happened. Hearing that bridge, “Some rise, some fall, Some climb, to get to Terrapin,” I knew it had to do with all of us, but what was it? What did it mean? What was Terrapin? I gather we’ll never know until we get there. “And I know we’ll be there soon.”

My focus became more intense as the song transitioned from mysterious, psychedelic ancient sounds, bleeding into the dark and foreboding realizations of the universe we’re in, building to fast and playfully running rhythms, climaxing back to the strong, symphonic conclusion that slowly and eventually faded out, as if I were left there alone, watching some magical marching band fade out into the horizon of my mind. I sat there for a moment in silence until the tape reeled and clicked off, snapping me back to reality and everything around me. It was a powerful moment for me. It was truth in joy, and not being coerced by anyone or anything other than the raw emotions of what I was experiencing in that music that day. I hope to never forget that moment.

You know, I used to think that my experience wasn’t valid, that I wasn’t a real “DeadHead,” because I never went on tour, I only saw one show at Tampa Stadium in ’95, and didn’t have all the experiences “on lot” that everyone else seems to have had. I don’t wear a lot of tie dye or GD t-shirts as a banner of my pride and love. But I know that all of those songs were made special for me. All of them. I still can’t sing the words “I’LL GET UP AND FLY AWAY” without getting a little choked up.

Since that afternoon in Mr. Gerber’s Drafting class, I’ve learned a lot in life and probably have experienced enough content for a new full library of Dead songs. I sort of feel like maybe we all feel that way. And I think that realization is what draws us all together.

So, if you’re unsure of yourself, and don’t think you fit in somewhere, think about when you see that twinkle in someone’s eye that knows how you’re also feeling in that exact moment during a song, when you feel that merry prankster come over to you at a show, and you start to poke around, when you absorb that long sincere hug from a total stranger, when you sing out those lyrics on the dance floor, in your car, or in your room with the headphones on by yourself, know you’re part of a bigger family of music lovers called DeadHeads. We all feel it. So no matter if it’s on the beat or the off-beat, WOOOOO whenever you want during “Shakedown” to your heart’s content, because that’s what it’s all about after all. It’s all about you, and it was Always all For you.

Thank you, Stephen. And we say AMEN.

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