The first week of freshman year of high school has just ended for my daughter Jane and her best friend Julianne, and we are driving to the Mann Center in Philadelphia for a concert they’ve been anticipating for months.
For the entire three-hour trip, the girls are at the boiling point of giddiness, chattering and giggling nonstop, fixing their hair, applying and re-applying the special dark purple lipstick acquired for the occasion.
“I can’t believe she’s warming up her vocal cords just for us.”
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
“She wrote some of these songs when she was our age.”
“We’re going to be in the same place as her.”
“Do you think she’s in that limo?”
We all wear T-shirts hand-painted in the basement during a sleepover: “Certified Member of the Love Club,” “Buy Me Orange Juice,” and “Tigers on a Gold Leash” on the front, “Lorde 2014 / Pure Heroine” on the back.
Even when they accidentally spray their legs with gasoline while trying to speed our process at a rest stop in Delaware, filling the car with fumes for the remainder of the journey, their spirits are undimmed. Their chauffeur, on the other hand, gets a little cranky.
The crowd in the amphitheater, set in an idyllic park overlooking the city, is not only teen and pre-teen girls: there are couples, families, middle-aged music lovers, little kids. But when their seventeen-year-old idol from New Zealand takes the stage, it is the young ladies who drive the mass explosion of passion, screaming and clapping, on their feet dancing, singing every word, ferocious and radiant in their ecstasy.
For all her stardom and her grown-up, solid talent, Lorde is very much one of them, elated, jazzed and jumping, talking nonstop between songs as the girls did in the car. Her hometown, her feelings, growing up, being on tour, this big party she gave right before anyone ever heard of her, how you feel when you stick your head under the water in the bathtub, something that happened the other night at the Video Music Awards.
Her goth-y teen artiste aesthetic has not succumbed to the pressures of large-scale pop. The floor-length capes and flowing outfits, the minimalist stage show (a few simple videos, an illuminated Japanese-style folding screen), her signature spazzy dance move — bending in half at the waist, pumping her arms as she pops up and flings around her wild pelt of curls, and of course, her dark purple lips — it all seems very much her own idea. Maybe someday she’ll give in to the consultants, the stylists and the dance coaches. Maybe someday she’ll be jaded by success. Not yet.
“I’ll never forget this, Philly,” she said, her voice shaking with emotion. “This is fekkin amazing. It means so much.”
Which is exactly how the girls feel, and afterwards they repeat it over and over, picking up the patter right where they left off until they pass out from sheer emotional exhaustion somewhere near Havre de Grace.
“I feel like we’re best friends with her now.”
“I can’t believe that just happened.”
“Has she posted anything on Instagram yet?”
“What she said about going under the water in the bathtub, oh my God.”
Later, by text: “I can’t stop crying.”
I was in awe myself — not of the spectacle, as at the Miley Cyrus concert, but of those girls’ experience. The capacity for that degree of ecstasy might just be something we grow out of, though some of us never stop chasing it.
Then I woke up the next morning thinking about the Grateful Dead. When I was their age, we loved the Dead the way they love Lorde, with every fiber of our beings. They were our religion, our role models, our true family. Nothing was more hotly debated than some bit of trivia or back story we had learned about the lyrics, some crumb of insider info about their freewheeling lives. (And we managed this without Twitter and Instagram and Buzzfeed! While walking to school ten miles in the snow!)
I saw the Dead live for the first time on my fifteenth birthday with my best friend Carolyn Mahoney at a racetrack in North Jersey. It has never seemed strange to me that we were tripping that day; I wrote about it twenty years later in an essay gaily titled “Suburban Teens on Acid, 1972-1975.” But the other night, watching those girls’ luminous, transported faces, I found myself wondering what my teen years would have been like without the massive quantities of drugs.
Perhaps the amazing thing that happened at that concert still would have happened.
The amazing thing being that during a long jam version of my favorite Dead song, “Eyes of the World,” Jerry Garcia stepped up to the microphone and said, “Happy birthday.”
Carolyn heard it too.
Then I remembered something else, and jumped up from the chair where I was daydreaming and began to root through caches of memorabilia stored around my house. Back in 1994, I became friends with a woman who was close to Deborah Koons, Garcia’s longtime girlfriend. When my friend told me she was going to California to attend their wedding, I asked if she would take the essay to them as a wedding present. It had just been published in my first book. Sure, she said. I didn’t quite believe he would actually read it. It would be lost in a pile of wedding presents, stuck on a shelf, left in a suitcase. I mean it was Jerry Garcia, and it was his wedding. He would be busy.
My friend came back from California with a little square card with a moon and clouds on the front. Inside was printed in blue ink, “Marion, Happy birthday. Jerry Garcia.”
Fast forward to yesterday. I found the card pretty easily, thank God, because I’d still be looking now, and as I studied it I started thinking, did Jerry Garcia really write this? Maybe because of the psychedelic origins of the birthday legend, there has always been some part of me that believed this whole sequence of events was too good to be true.
So I googled “Jerry Garcia handwriting.” It was obvious from the many set lists and signatures that popped up, Jerry Garcia wrote this. He really did. Oh my God, he really did.
My arms prickled with goosebumps and my eyes filled with tears. The teenage girl must still be in there somewhere.
P.S. In truth, Lorde is not the Grateful Dead. She is the Allman Brothers. Because Jane loves Taylor Swift much more violently and utterly than she does Lorde. The other day when I offered a mild criticism of Taylor’s new track, she burst into tears. I fear medical backup will be necessary when we finally go to a Taylor Swift concert.