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.
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.
Quite an interesting turn in this discussion...If, or when there's more Jerry releases, I hope a Shining Star is included that demonstrates how amazing Jerry could perform this song. The 2 releases of this song, from Hampton 91 and from the "Shining Star" cd are great versions, but both leave me wanting. All this to say, the finest Shining Stars are still unreleased.
I got it back in 83 or whenever it was published. The list of tapes in the back guided me for years in my searches for tapes. (I have everything now except for 7/11/70).
When I saw that you used 7/18/82 in your book, I was very thrilled (and still am) that that was my first show.
Oh, to experience that show again. My friend and I couldn't move after the show...we just sat there and giggled.
...was another album that got terribly overplayed among my friends. I hear that opening riff on that album and I want to run the other way. Ian Anderson lost me in the first minute with "snot running down his nose." I did kinda like their earlier "Stand-Up" album, however, and I liked a lot of "Thick as a Brick," but I never actually owned one of their records. So many people had 'em I didn't need to own 'em.
The 3 prog rock bands mentioned were really referring to the dead... cause ELP's "Welcome back my friends 2 the show that never ends", is self expainatory when related to the dead touring cycle; furthermore, Tull's classic song "locomotive breath" from aqualung states,"ole charlie stole the handle & the train it won't stop going, 2 late 2 slow down". wow ...several references to dead there, with the name Charlie, and the dead's love of trains. Finally, yes' classic album, "close 2 the edge" describes us dead heads @ a show interacting with that ledge between chaos and joy. In summery, Blair your friends(?) hall mates were really playing music all referring to the dead scene, they were just unconscious. Cudos for U 2 show em "the dark star light"
... that's been falling into place over in Garcia world (the Garcia Family LLC) over the past few months, and there are hopeful signs that some music might actually be forthcoming sometime in the months ahead. Don't hold your breath waiting, though.
As for Yes, YoungDead, I have had many, many friends who liked that band A LOT, so I heard 'em a lot. When I was a freshman in college, "Roundabout" was hideously overplayed on the radio in Chicago, so even though I could appreciate the genius of its construction, it wore out its welcome with me. The bottom line for me is I never cared for Jon Anderson's voice; it has a quality I simply don't like. It grates on me.
I definitely appreciate the musicianship in Yes (and in ELP and King Crimson--whose first two albums I adored), but the emphasis on virtuosity over soulfulness (just my opinion) always kept me at a distance from that style of music. I admit I wouldn't know a Rush song if I heard one, so I have no informed opinion about them. Though can't I hate them because the infamous "Schabs" loves them so? Actually, Schabs and I agree about Pink Floyd... but I've never really lumped them in with the prog rockers, as many do. They had more folk and blues in them...
..what has happened to the Garcia releases..it was all going so well.
As for the mini reviews..well no need to feel guilty...but if you did find the time.....
In my own experience of coming to the Dead over the past 2 years or so it really came down to having Anthem of the Sun and certain substances in order for it to really click. I've always known and enjoyed the standards from the Dead that would make it on the radio but until I heard Anthem I just didn't get it, and I know that this is basically the same way that all of my friends became hooked on the Dead as well. It just depends on the people, out of my group of friends the only one who doesn't absolutely love the Dead is a guy who has a former Dead head as a parent; while he enjoys them he, in his own words "doesn't get them" which I think comes from his lack of participation in certain experiences which make up the underlining basis of the music. Not to say that it is required to enjoy the music, but I do think it can be a problem to understand the rabid enthusiasm that people have for the Dead without understanding the experience that it is listening to their music with the mindset that helped to create it, considering it is a very specific mindset.
On the other hand I must say I love my Prog Rock just as much if not more than my Acid rock, as with my friends, its Rush->Dead->Yes (try Tales of Topographic Oceans with some "encouragement" and I think you might come around)->Country Joe, etc. etc. and so on and so forth when listening to records. Just to emphasize the similarities just look at the one everyone knows, Pink Floyd, starts with some classic Psychedelic records and then turns into the Progressive band everyone knows.
Did you ever read my description of that show in my first book about the Dead, "The Music Never Stopped"?
NOT to try to turn people on to the GD.
I distinctly remember playing the studio version of Terrapin for someone. This is 1982, when the sound of that recording was WOW.
About a minute into it, she said, "Am I supposed to be impressed?"
After that, if someone asked what they could listen to try to "get it", short of going to a show, I would recommend E72 or S&R. But even then, it was like, "why bother?"
If you get it, you get it.
The way I got it was by going to a show (7/18/82). I already liked Truckin' from the radio, and Shakedown Street from the radio...but it was that SHOW that did it.
Sounds like a good plan for Mass Indoctrinations!
As for the question about my mini-reviews... Eeek! It's been on my mind for YEARS to update it, and I carry a lot of guilt about it... Now I'd have so many to catch up on and I'm already spending an unhealthy amount of time writing about the Grateful Dead, I don't know when I'd get to it. I do have some "in-progress" files on my computer where I did a few new mini-reviews about seven or eight years ago, but they just sit there... Jeez, there are 17 Road Trips and all those boxes and Pure Jerry releases (remember those?)...