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.
Hook 'em on the hooky short tunes, then slowly ease them closer to the edge, or pull them into the boat, wherever that metaphor is supposed to lead.
I can't say that the approach has ever actually worked for me. I can say that the best I've ever done is get one of my hardline Dead-hating buddies to admit that he likes "Sugaree." The studio version, specifically and exclusively.
But then again, I have been unsuccessful in converting any of my friends to any of the music that they hate but I love. Maybe "hate" is too hard to overcome.
Or maybe it's me. Blame the messenger, not the message.
Phase 1: American Beauty
Phase 2: Sugaree
Phase 3: More Garcia Hunter classic mid tempo tunes
Phase 4: Catchy tunes with bouncy jammy links between them. China>Rider; Scarlet>Fire
Phase 5: Playing in the Band from '72
Phase 6: The Grateful Dead Movie or the Closing of Winterland Movie
Phase 7: Live Dead
Phase 8: The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test
Phase 9: You're on your own (but I'm here if you need me)
By the way Blair in the back of your Garcia Book (and on your website) you published a set of succinct reviews and ratings of all the GD's output up to that point. Have you ever thought of updating it as it is a very handy primer/basic listening guide for newbies? I have pointed a quite few people to that to help them choose what to listen to next.
Maybe about 10 years ago, my Dad was curious about the Band. He bought the live release "Ladies and Gentlemen"- all I found out for sure is he thinks they play Bobby McGee really well. Once he asked for a Grateful Dead cd full of Beatles covers- encored that mix with a 78 Werewolves, oh yes! So he appreciates some of what they do- he's also a classic rock man, and a huge Beatles fan. More recently he asked for a cd of Jerry songs- He gave it 4 stars (out of 4). Had to be careful to stay away from big jams, and did my best to make it just exactly perfect- Bill Graham intro and all- Thank You Dick's Picks 33. How do you turn someone into a fan of a 30 minute Dark Star? Maybe it's genetic-that's to say it already exists within a person and it surfaces of it's own volition. That's about the best answer I can think of.
depends on the moment
I'm trying to get someone
into the Dead. I might pick
a great tune like:
I've found that first Garcia-Grisman CD is a pretty good fit with a lot of different types of non-Dead Head folks. Different take on a song everyone knows ("The Thrill Is Gone"), the infectious instrumental "Grateful Dawg," the mysterious "Arabia"... Lotsa good stuff on there!
Also, though I'm usually not a fan of "Greatest Hits"-type albums, especially where the Dead is concerned (hated "Skeletons from the Closet" and didn't much care for "What a Long Strange Trip It's Been" back in the day), there was a two-CD set put out by Rhino in conjunction with Starbucks (!) a few years back, called "Eternally Grateful," that provides a pretty good overview of Dead tracks, heavy on the 70s classics. One disc is studio stuff, the other is live stuff from '71 and '72 (and one from '80). Anyway, I could see that being a good entry vehicle for some potential Heads...
I also think that "Hundred Year Hall" is a pretty good condensation of the Dead at their early '70s peak. Great songs, nothing too weird for the easily weirded-out...
I never had much luck turning other folks on to the Dead. In 1982, I thought I must be the only Deadhead in the world until I met 2 friends(brothers) in high school who took to it right away. I was surprised to find they came to love all the same stuff I did- of course the classicsLive Dead, American Beauty, Workingmans Dead, but also Robert Hunter stuff- especially "Jack of Roses". Many beers downed in their basement with that one playing! Soon after that I gave up on turning others on- too frustrating. Surprisingly, I think I had a little success with my parents, and I think they were't just humoring me. Eh, take my father, who to this day is a Limbaugh-head, hippie hating conservative, and who had a "Goldwater '64" bumper sticker on his Toyota Land Cruiser until about 1993. He was always a huge country and bluegrass fan and I remember playing "Dark Hollow" from Reckogning on a road trip. He told me he knew the song well, but that that version was the very best he'd ever heard and he asked to hear it again. After the second time he said "damn thats some good picking!" He couldn't believe it was the "Grateful Dead"..I found he was a fan of "Old and In the Way" but didn't know much about their banjo player! I've since sent him a CD of every new Old and In the Way and Garcia Grisman release as soon as it came out .I'm not sure how much he listened to them- but I know he also already knew and loved Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, and David Grisman, so hopefully he gave them a few spins.
Memories of my late mother. One time I was listening to the Garcia/Saunders "MyFunny Valentine" in our backyard and she asked about it. She said it was the loveliest version she'd ever heard. Another time, also in our backyard, I was about to turn off my tape player during "Terrapin". My mother was gardening and stopped me- "hey I was enjoying that"!. And my favorite memory of all, her and I spent a perfect day driving and hiking through Yellowstone once: saw all the geysers, paint pots, Yellowstone grand canyon, meadows, buffalo, wildflowers. Exhausted, on the twilight drive back to our motel in Jackson hole I put on the first Garcia/Grisman CD. She remarked several times then, and for years afterwords, how perfect the music was to end the day. Her favorite was "Rocking Chair"!
Just let it lie there. Old sacred stuff gets rediscovered & it becomes a fresh entity that way. The older we get, the more desperate measures we seek to "enlighten" others. But, it don't work that way. Let the remnants disipate to their own compost. Allow the flowers to spring forth, Blair. It won't be seen by us, but rest assured it wiil happen again. I tried many times before & after the passing of Jer & The Grateful Dead, but it doesn't really take. Just watch the horses smell & taste the water for themselves... Ahhhhhhhhh
Groove to the move
My dad always enjoyed music (I place my lifelong love of jazz at his feet because of Dave Brubeck's "Time Out" album my dad enjoyed... He also was a big Johnny Hodges fan so I like lyrical sax playing from the get-go) and ended up liking the Dead, I guess more through osmosis than anything else as he knew I liked them but I never really played them for him. He liked the country-tinged stuff vs. the acid jams. IIt was kinda funny the first time I ran into a Dead CD at my parent's house!
I think any attempts I made to get people to like the Dead were based around seeing the band live. I remember telling my wife, sister and brother-in-law, none of them huge fans, that they had to come with me to Winterland when the band returned from Egypt and had the cool slide show behind them. And I would sometimes ask my wife to go to one of the cooler outdoor shows like Calavares.
What has been fun for me was introducing my post-marriage younger girlfriend at the time to the music. This was after Jerry died and we went to see The Other Ones at Shoreline and the first Phil and Friends show at the Fillmore. She was from NYC and her experience with The Dead was basically stepping over people waiting outside MSG. To have her be able to experience the vibe was an unexpected treat and we became big Phil and Friends fans.
I guess the bottom line for me is it takes a live show to really get it.