Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - “I’d Love to Turn You On…”

By Blair Jackson

No, not that way. That’s a topic for another time, for sure. But this week I want to talk about the challenges, perils and triumphs of trying to turn friends on to the Grateful Dead.

In my own case, I had an older brother with hip musical tastes who brought home Aoxomoxoa some time in the summer of 1969. I gave it a few spins but wasn’t that impressed. I loved “St. Stephen” immediately and “China Cat” and “Mountains of the Moon” grew on me, but frankly the album didn’t compel me to listen to it much. Still, the word on the street in ’69 was: “You gotta see the Dead in concert, man!” When Live Dead came out that November, I was intrigued that it had so few songs spread over four sides. I was a huge fan of long guitar solos and assumed the paucity of songs meant there was probably a ton of jamming on it. And there was “St. Stephen” kicking off Side Two, so I plunked down my five bucks (double-album price) at the nearby E.J. Korvette’s store (where I bought most of my records) and took that baby home.

It was love at first spin. I practically wore out the first three sides of Live Dead the first few months I had it (it took me a while to get into Side Four, with “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and “Feedback”). I bought Anthem of the Sun shortly after that and was nuts about it, too. In March of ’70, I finally got to see the band at the newly refurbished Capitol Theatre in Port Chester — half an hour up the road from my suburban Westchester County, NY, hometown— and that was my first exposure to the warm and intoxicating unreleased songs from Workingman’s Dead. That night profoundly changed my life, and then Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty and my first Dead shows at the Fillmore East sealed the deal and set me on a course that has led me here, still championing the Dead, 42 years later.

The Dead hooked me so hard I naturally wanted to share my passion with my good friends. In those days, my neighborhood pals and I spent countless hours in my basement listening to records; it’s what we did for fun. Unfortunately, none of my immediate crowd liked the Dead. I played them everything I could think of to try to convert them, but for some reason it just didn’t stick. No doubt I was obnoxiously passionate about it, a musical zealot trying to win followers to his cause. After a while I was effectively banned from playing Grateful Dead records in my own basement when my buddies were around! That was OK—there were loads of other groups we all loved, and I also had no problem spending hours alone listening to the records I loved best, my head between the two speakers on my cheap stereo setup, my trippy homemade light box flashing color patterns on the white sheet I put up on one wall.

When I headed off to Northwestern U. in the fall of ’71, I found a few kindred spirits who were into San Francisco rock on my dorm floor in Elder Hall and we bonded immediately and enjoyed many spirited adventures together. But we also encountered considerable hostility from people who hated the Grateful Dead. We used to have little record wars, where I might be blasting Live Dead, “Skull & Roses” or Quicksilver’s Happy Trails, and my annoying (and annoyed) neighbors two doors down the hall would retaliate by cranking up Emerson Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull or Yes. It was acid rock vs. prog rock in a fight to the deaf, and it drove the pre-med freshmen who wanted to study for their organic chemistry tests crazy.

A couple of years later I moved to Berkeley to complete my undergraduate degree, and at last I felt like I’d found a place where I wouldn’t be ridiculed for liking the Dead. After all, the Bay Area was crawling with Dead Heads. But as I quickly learned, there are Dead haters everywhere, and by the late ’70s I’d heard all the anti-Dead arguments a million times—they can’t sing, their songs are weird, they’re boring (“What’s with the all that aimless noodling?) hippies are passé, yada yada. After a certain point I decided to stop proselytizing, figuring if this person or that was “meant” to get into the Dead, it would happen without my urging.

Even so, I had a number of experiences—particularly in the ’80s—urging non-Dead Head acquaintances to check out shows at cool places like the Greek in Berkeley or Kaiser in Oakland. Unfortunately, if they were sitting with me, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about whether they were having a good time or bored stiff (I’d think, “Why is she just sitting there?”) or baffled. It was better when I didn’t have to actually be with them. I could deal with their often odd opinions — favorite song was “C.C. Rider”; went on a bathroom run and completely missed the “Terrapin”; left after “space” because it was a work night — much better a day or two later over the phone. “Yeah, whatever. I agree — the Dead aren’t for everyone,” I’d say.

“If this doesn’t get you into the Dead nothing will:
I’ve made you a special tape of all 57 live versions
of ‘Day Job’ played between 1982 and 1986!”

Playing tapes for the uninitiated in a car (a captive environment!) was tricky because, well, a lot of the singing was bad, and there were clams and blown transitions and that “Uncle John’s Band” — a song they might know — didn’t sound nearly as good to them as the version they’d heard on Workingman’s Dead. And no one but a hardcore Head wants to hear an audience recording of a live show: “What’s wrong with the sound?” Even with a great-sounding tape it became a guessing game: They’ll probably like “Bertha” (everyone likes “Bertha”), but the “Black-Throated Wind” that comes next is kinda strange and that Pigpen “Good Lovin’” goes on for 17 minutes, and if you’re talking more than listening in the car, it’s a slog. Better to play something everyone can agree on — Graceland!

Now we’re 17 years down the line from there even being a Grateful Dead in the world, but new people are still discovering them all the time. Hooray! How does that happen today? I find that I have no better idea these days of how to turn somebody on to the Dead than I did when I was a pushy teenage acolyte. Are Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty still a reliable gateway? For some, no doubt—so many of those songs are bona fide classics. Would a dynamite ’77 show flick the switch in someone? What if I made a mix-CD (or iPod playlist) of carefully selected tunes from different eras? Can I expect someone to listen to two or three CDs worth of material? (Probably not.) Is a flowing ’69 “Dark Star” more palatable to the non-fan than a dissonance-filled ’72 epic? Or should we wait to spring “Dark Star” on them later? It’s hard to go wrong with a zippy “Scarlet-Fire” or “China-Cat-Rider,” but can they make it through “Stella Blue”? Would taking someone to a Furthur or Phil & Friends or RatDog show provide a good entry point to the Dead universe? Is a consciousness-altering agent of some sort required?

What’s been your experience? What do you do when you want to introduce someone to the Grateful Dead? What has worked and what didn’t.


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simonrob's picture
Joined: Jun 7 2007
Big Brother

I have been waiting for this ("Live at The Carousel Ballroom 1968") to come out for a couple of years now, ever since I read about it and its hoped-for release on Bear's website. I ordered a copy from Amazon yesterday, along with the new NRPS album. As far as I am aware, Janis' "The Pearl Sessions" will be released on April 17. Mere mortals like me have to wait for the official release whereas Blair seemingly doesn't. More power to him!

Underthevolcano's picture
Joined: Feb 6 2008
live radio broadcast

When the Dead's shows at the Music Hall in boston were broadcast live over Boston's WBCN "free form radio' it was a big turn on to all of us at the unofficial Kilgore House residence on campus. I was already on the bus and made sure that the radio was set up to blast the show at the assembly and during the ordinary mayhem which was part and parcel of campus life in those heady days. It was the people's band on the people's radio station! BTW, I also ordered the new Janis/Big Brother live show recorded by Owsley-can't wait to hear it. I saw Janis and Big Brother in a show at Worcester's WPI auditorium. Absolutely incredible show-also saw the Dead and New Riders there for a birth of the universe show-it ended six hours or so after it started in a huge dissonant, feedback jam as is heard on Live Dead. The crowd(exhausted) was doing chain dances on the floor. Whew! PS: the radio in question was an old German tube table top radio-a Telekunken. Ah, the good old days.

Joined: Mar 14 2012
Sometimes it takes people

Sometimes it takes people awhile to really understand the Grateful Dead so that they will love them as much as current fans do. Most people love the classic music but others thing it is too old.

The Grateful Dead is a band whose music has been popular in dark casinos for many years and everyday more people are coming to love all their music.

Joined: Jun 13 2007
All I want...

is one to take to me, home.

Well, I am content to keep looking.

Thanks for keeping me Truckin' Blair.

Sorry if I might have wasted your time.
It's planetary issues, no worries.

So Many Roads
Robert Hunter
Jerry Garcia

All who wander are not lost>>>

Joined: Jun 6 2007
Hey Badger...

I've had that Janis/BB disc for a while--in fact Bear sent it to me a couple of years ago when he was still just hoping it would come out someday. But I just got my "real" copy with the liner notes and all that a few days ago. It's a GREAT show! The stereo image is a little odd on headphones (all the vocals are one side), but that doesn't bug me. YMMV. But overall I'd say it's the best live BBHC album put out to date.

And hardcore Janis fans will also want to pick up the new 2-CD Peal Sessions package, which includes the remastered Pearl album and a whole disc of alternate takes (all good), lots of really cool studio banter between Janis and producer Paul Rothchild and even the original acoustic demo for "Me & Bobby McGee." I'm not always a fan of this kind of package, but this is a particularly good one IMO and a must for Janis fans. It reminded me, too, of what a great album Pearl was. She was so good!

One Man's picture
Joined: May 17 2011
S'now Secret

One afternoon in 1977, my attention was attracted to the world outside the second-story window of my high school history class. Fellow student Charles Neibling was out there just beyond the parking lot, patiently shuffling his feet to spell out G-R-A-T-E-F-U-L D-E-A-D in six-foot high letters in the snow. What on Earth would make someone do that, I thought. I loved Aerosmith and Kiss. But soon I was headed home with his vinyl copies of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, with Europe '72 soon to follow. Those things changed my life and it never changed back.

cosmicbadger's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
new janis

completely off topic but I thought the present company would like to know that Bear's recording of Big Brother and Hoolding Company at the Carousel Ballroom June 68 has just been released on the anniverary of his death. I am really looking forward to hearing it.

Mike Edwards's picture
Joined: Jun 17 2007
Anthem of the Sun > Live Dead

If someone asks, I send them to the sources that worked for me, but if they're really adventurous, I'll make them a copy of the 4-8-72 Dark Star from Wembley, and tell them to hold on tight for the first eight minutes, then they're on their own.

Joined: Jun 13 2007

When a friend has lost their way,
I like to play them-

Comes A Time
Robert Hunter
Jerry Garcia

Deadicated's picture
Joined: Jun 4 2007
At the same

time someone was trying to turn me on to snot was running down his nose, I was so firmly entrenched in what I was listening to - religiously - Clapton's 461 Ocean Blvd., Marshall Tucker's first, Elvin Bishop's "Let It Flow", Grinderswitch's "Honest To Goodness", Dickey Betts "Highway Call", ABB Fillmore East/Eat A Peach, Santana's first two, Derek & the Dominos Fillmore East, and, crazily enough, REO Two, Bad Company's first, and Ronnie Montrose's first and maybe a handful of others from ago. I was "obnoxiously passionate" about this stuff and would listen to little else. Jethro Tull? Well, I tried.

Deadwise, I carry the same passion to disseminate the tunes, but I'm a tad tamer than I used to be.

How can you tell someone how you felt and that they should, too, when he hears Jerry's pedal from his solo album on an early Spring evening when all's aglow? Or when Jack Staw is playing and you look up from the wheel and see yet another flag unfurling? I've made so many tapes and CD's for girlfriends, buds, fellow employees, etc., and will continue to do so, but it's totally their choice should they choose to like them or not.


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