Grateful Dead

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Alex Trebek asked him about being a Dead Head on national television.

Who is Bill Cossen?

A doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Penn State University, as well as the editorial assistant for The Journal of the Civil War Era, Bill Cossen went 3 for 4 on Jeopardy this month, but it wasn't his winning streak that caught our attention. It was his talk of trading Grateful Dead tapes! Find out what being a Dead Head means to this trivia buff in our exclusive interview.

First and foremost, tell us a little bit about being on Jeopardy!

For as long as I can remember, I've been a huge fan of trivia (to put it mildly). I participated in quiz bowl all four years of high school, played Trivial Pursuit all the time growing up, and am still an enthusiastic team trivia player today. I see Jeopardy! as the preeminent test of one's trivia ability, so I always dreamed of being on the show to put my knowledge to the test against similar trivia fanatics. I first took the online test in 2010 and was invited to an in-person audition. I was in the contestant pool for 18 months but never got called to appear on the show. I took the online test again in 2012, 2013, and 2014 and received an invitation to another audition in June. Ten days later, I got the call to be on the show.

What prompted Alex Trebek to ask you about the Grateful Dead?

As for my conversation with Alex Trebek about the Grateful Dead, I was surprised that he decided to ask me about being a Deadhead! When contestants are invited to appear on the show, they're provided with a questionnaire to fill out that contains interesting stories and personal anecdotes that might be selected for Alex's contestant interview segment. I provided dozens of possible items to discuss, but I highlighted my collection of Dead shows as one of the five that I really wanted to be asked about. It was ultimately up to Alex which story he would choose to discuss further, and I was lucky he chose the one about the Dead!

Let's dig in to your connection with the Dead.

First Dead show/experience

What is in utero?
My first "show" was actually before I was even born. My parents attended the 11/1/85 show in Richmond and possibly also the 7/4/86 show in Buffalo while my mother was still pregnant with me! My first true exposure to the Dead's music, though, is really difficult to pinpoint since my parents and many other relatives are Deadheads, and I grew up surrounded by the music. I distinctly recall singing along to "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" and "Aiko Aiko" when I must have been around three years old, and there are plenty of pictures of me as a toddler wearing tie-dyes and Steal Your Face patches on my jacket. I truly got into the Dead on my own, however, in high school. Three shows played a key role in helping me get IT: two old tapes of 9/20/70 (Fillmore East) and 8/7/82 (Alpine Valley) and Dick's Picks 15 (9/3/77 Englishtown). While I never got to see Jerry play, I've been fortunate to see the several off-shoots of the band since 1995. My first experience was The Dead in Charlotte on 8/18/04.

Favorite Dead songs

What is impossible to choose!
However, perennial favorites include "Terrapin Station,""The Other One,""Wharf Rat,""Scarlet Begonias,""The Eleven,""Eyes of the World,""Dark Star,""He's Gone,""Here Comes Sunshine,""Truckin',""Ramble on Rose," and "Jack Straw."

Favorite Dead era

What is '70s Dead (mostly)
Early on, I loved '72. Then I moved on to '77. For a while after that, I developed a strong affinity for '68-'69 Dead. Then for several years, I settled into '73-'74 with several detours into the early and late '80s. Recently, I've been back on a '73-'74 kick.I just can't get enough of the jazz jams.

Desert Island Show/Album

What is 9/3/77
For a show, I would probably stick with Englishtown 9/3/77. It was the show that confirmed both my father and me as Deadheads, so it has personal importance. It also has several monumental jams and some all-time versions of several songs (for example, "Mississippi Half-Step,""Loser,""He's Gone," and "Not Fade Away"). It's an incredible showcase of the band's talent in one of their finest years and a historically important show for the Dead, too, given the massive size of the audience. For albums, it's a toss-up between Anthem of the Sun, American Beauty, and Blues for Allah.

Being a Deadhead means:

What is exploration, adventure, truth and beauty...
It means being open to exploration, adventure, finding artistic truth and beauty in the everyday and mundane, and getting shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right (my favorite Dead lyric). It means being open to seizing the moment, even if that leads to failure. Many of the Dead's greatest jams and musical excursions were undertaken in the same spirit. There was always a risk that the Dead's improv would fall flat on its face, with the jam fizzling out into nothingness. However, that same risk also left open the door for some truly awesome (and I mean that in the sense of awe-inspiring) music that could lift the spirit and give a glimpse of the great potential for spontaneous, group creativity. Mostly, what it means to be a Deadhead has already been summed up by Jerry Garcia: "Everybody, be nice to everybody else."


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Joined: Oct 23 2007
Bill Cossen

Great interview!! Bill's father is my cousin. Me, him ,his wife and mine all went to Richmond 85. Me and Billy went to many Dead shoes together.His son Bill is extremely smart and a all around great person. I can truly say his parents are very proud of him! Bill senior recently passed away after dealing with troubling health problems for along time. He will be surely missed!

A.Cajun.Head's picture
Joined: Jun 3 2014
Great representative!

Very intelligent guy!! I love Jeopardy and it was awesome to see a Deadhead champion.

trailbird's picture
Joined: Jan 8 2011
congratulations !

When I saw the final jeopardy question was on "musical theatre" I figured it was going to be about Godspell, pretty cool.

Joined: Aug 31 2011
Yes, 1965 was almost 50 yrs. ago. FIFTY.

Wow. I fully feel officially "old" as an 80's/90s deadhead.

Billy G's picture
Joined: Nov 11 2010
great interview

Bill Cossen really is a DeadHead. Funny storey ... (pretext - my name is also Bill and I am also a DeadHead) ... about 2-3 weeks ago my sister (currently living with my parents) sends me a text message and says "We are watching Jeopardy. The reigning champion is a DeadHead named Bill ... naturally, we are cheering for him."


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