Although surviving members of the Grateful Dead have formed bands under other names over the years (Other Ones, The Dead, Further), when Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the band broke up and the phenomenon of the endless jamming tours for which they were famous effectively came to an end. So it’s been more than a generation since they ceased to be a music group. Reviving the memory of the Grateful Dead, Robert Cooperman’s Saved by the Dead is a love song to more than the band, but to the fleeting nature of youth as well, his own.
In several of these poems, the narrator encounters kids who weren’t even alive when the Grateful Dead were around and reacts to their bemused expressions. In “Never Trust Anyone Younger Than Thirty” (a play on that old Yippie slogan, never trust anyone over thirty), a bank teller reacts to Cooperman’s look of dismay when she reveals she hasn’t a clue who Jerry Garcia is. “‘Oh yeah,’ she’s trying / to placate a good customer now. / ‘I should’ve known that.’” In “Music at the Dentist’s Office,” it’s a young assistant who says, “Who are they?” when Cooperman requests Grateful Dead music to accompany his dental surgery. But at a copy shop in “The Jerry Garcia T-Shirt” another kid sees the t-shirt Cooperman is wearing. “‘The Grateful Dead, right?’ / the kid demands, and I agree. / ‘Awesome,’ he gushes.” Cooperman forgives him the ubiquitous cliché. Something similar happens in “A Near Collision at a Denver Post Office.”
Even more magical is the poem “Professional Courtesy,” from which the chapbook title comes. Pulling into a truck stop for a sandwich on the way home from a trip, Cooperman and his wife encounter a group of young thugs in an old beater. They rush inside, grab a sandwich and return to their car, fully expecting to find the windshield smashed, the new CD-iPod-player-radio ripped away, their luggage boosted from the trunk. But instead,
a note fluttering under one wiper blade.
“Cool Dancing Bear decals. Keep
on Truckin’, old dudes.”
Beth and I grateful to be saved by the Dead.
So we’re definitely veering into nostalgia here, but it’s not so much sentimental as fond and funny. If Cooperman is the curmudgeon in the present-day poems, it’s his father who goes after the “whippersnappers” back in the day. In the poem, “Funeral Suit,” Cooperman speculates about meeting up with his parents in Heaven clad in a Grateful Dead t-shirt,
when, in my fantasies, I’d join
him and Mom in whatever heaven
there is; because if I was wearing
that dancing skeleton t-shirt,
the first thing he’d say
after he kissed and hugged me
a long, long time at so precious
and belated a reunion, would be:
“For God’s sake, you’re in Heaven,
couldn’t you find something
a little more appropriate to wear?”
A good half dozen or more poems involve or allude to the Fillmore East concerts at Phil Graham’s legendary Lower East Side rock venue. These poems, especially “The Night the Dead First Played ‘Dark Star’ at the Old Filmore East” and “‘And We Bid You Goodnight’ – The Fillmore East,” evoke the glory of youth, when you stayed up all night indulging in all kinds of behavior. As Cooperman writes in ‘Dark Star’:
When we left the concert hall,
dawn was turning East Village
buildings the color of doves.
“What the hell was that?”
one friend asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered,
“but I never wanted it to end.”
Another humorous poem from the Fillmore East, “The Angels and the Dead,” recounts an encounter with one of the band’s motorcycle-gang bodyguards, “more grease in his hair and beard / than in his hog’s engine and moving parts.” Terrified that he is about to be beaten to a pulp by the giant, “his chains jangling / like the bridles of an evil knight’s charger,” the youthful Cooperman is relieved when he is allowed to go, waving his admission ticket to the Fillmore East concert. “Me and my bros will see you there later,” the Angel confides.
And if you’re talking about the Grateful Dead and about youthful shenanigans, naturally you are going to mention drugs. Two humorous poems, “Marijuana Sauce” and “Marijuana Sauce, II,” tell stories of the contemporary Cooperman making a Freudian slip when ordering an eggplant sub with marinara sauce, in a Denver deli, each with different consequences. And then there’s the poem, “A Friday Night Dinner with My Parents, 1971,” in which the lad slips his old man a joint while they are watching the Knicks on TV. But you’ll have to read that one for yourself to find out what happened. This is a collection of poems that anybody can enjoy, no matter your age.–Charles Rammelkamp