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.
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.
One of the first turn ons to the Grateful Dead was hearing the Truckin' single on AM radio. I think that was late 1970 or early 1971 on a top 40 format AM station. Then there was WSAN 1470 AM, who had a "progressive" format at the time, they played the album version instead of the single version. I went out and bought the American Beauty LP to go along with the Truckin'/Ripple single. I was hooked.
I lent out both my Truckin' single and the American Beauty LP to several friends and they in turn got hooked too.
Yeah, I couldn't imagine my dad at anything Dead-like but he did take me to a show one time in Mexico City. It was 1968 and the performer was Louis Armstrong. I even got to meet the man in person after the show. Shook his hand! I was actually a bit too young to realize what a great one he was. I did like the show, though. My dad had seen him in LA in the 40s and he looked as tripped out as I do when I see the Mickey Hart band or something. It's cool.
The Dead were playing The Spectrum, April '85. As a Delawarian tuned into MMR's lead-in broadcast, I heard my first notes of "Feel Like A Stranger" before they turned away from the show and resumed with their usual classic rock fare.
The next night was a special "Psychadelich Sunday Supper" for Easter Sunday. Hearing Ramble On Rose (from ????)... to this day, I can only guess when that version came from-- '77? '78? The deal was sealed when I heard Estimated> Eyes from "Englishtown, N.J." Later on my friend Steve Becker, also from Delaware, provided me with the tape: 9-3-77!
I then ventured to Burt's Tape Factory and bought Bear's Choice on vinyl (Still have it and play it too). I couldn't figure out what was going on! Then I got Shakedown Street as a birthday gift from my brother. Disco Dead? YIKES!!!
27 Years later, I still listen to those shows that I heard as I got on the bus. And, I understand how they fit into the history of the Grateful Dead...
I still find that Estimated> Eyes from Englishtown is the perfect way to introduce the new ears to what the Dead can do: improvisation, seguing, disco-funk, that "Eyes" groove, good Bob, Jer and Donna vocals, and hints of the band they were and the band they would continue to be. I also used May 2 '70 from Binghampton. An old muddy recording with a crazy Cold Rain and Snow (complete with Jerry tuning in the middle of it, plus the entire NRPS + Bobby Ace set)... That Morning Dew and Dancin' In The Streets.... Lastly, the Bird Song from Dead Ahead is awesome!
"Sure don't know what I'm goin' for; but, I'm gonna go for it for sure."
I first got into the Dead in 1987(Yes, a Touch Head if you must label me) and saw my first show in 1988. My younger brother was actually into them first and I was not biting. As it turned out, I was the one who really got bit.
I was in college at the time and was into the Dead while everyone else was listing to Van Halen, REM, U2, B52s and some classic rock like the Stones, Elton John, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Who, etc. However, no one liked the Dead and I was banned from playing them and ridiculed for even thinking they were "good". There was a rolling Stone review of them in print that was not flattering by any means that was often tossed in my face. I had a copy of 12-31-87 I played often which made everyone hate Terrapin(imagine that?) and I was often asked if that song had any chords to it(once again, imagine that). I was able to get a couple of friends to go see them in Buffalo in 89. One later admitted he was wrong about them.
After college, I settled into a different group of friends and I was able to turn many of them. These people were much more open minded but I still had friends who were not interested.
Today, I have given up on trying to turn people. Like you Blair, I figure if it is or was meant to be , it will or has already happened. I have gotten older and realize I don't need people to accept my music as it has nothing to do with me personally. My current group of choice is WSP and I have lots of friends in that community as well as the Phish community and some that like Hip Hop(though I don't get that music at all).
You know this one made me really think.... first of the 83 tour where I saw two Day Jobs closing the first set in back to back nights in Hartford (saved only by the fact that the second night included a second set St. Stephen... and second that in nearly 35 years of listening to the dead non-stop I have converted almost no one... Yes I did get a few college buddies into it for a while but it was not genuine. Yes my son now 22 will listen to the dead very once in a while to remind him about the car rides to school that for 12 years featured a miriad of live dead shows... but really my brother converted me and that is all that really mattered. He brought home american beauty and terrapin station in 1978 and I said what the heck is that... a few months later for my birthday we went to see the show at the nassau coliseum on 1/10/79.. shakedown, dark star, st. stephen.... Fast forward 33 years and I can't think of my life without the grateful dead... Their music is the background track to my life and has kept me sane all these years. Thanks bro!
Oh yeah... I'll keep on trying!
Blair's writing is always a pleasure. Has been for more than a quarter century for me.
That was supposed to be 3/29/85 that my dad attended with me...missed a key
That is such a nice story, Greg. Beautiful that your mom could appreciate the "niceness". By the time (and place) I took my mom to a show there was a little less of that, but still enough vestiges to appreciate. The show was 9/19/87 at MSG. Both my mom and dad came along, my dad having attended 3/2/85 at Nassau previously and a Garcia-Kahn show a year later. My dad was the obvious one to bring to a show since it was his taste in music that led me to the Dead. He raqised me with a lot of bluegrass, blues, country, folk, early rock, etc. so the Grateful Dead was a perfect combo of all of that and something my young ears could claim as MINE! My dad could appreciate the Dead musically, but the scene was not great for him. Back to the MSG show. My mother was always the more vocally uptight one about some of the, um, habits or sacraments that came along with my "adolescent rebellion" and the culture I was hanging around. During the first set, mom was standing up on a seat in the last row of the floor of MSG next to some tapers while I danced on the floor space behind those seats. I remained sober for the show out of respect for my parents. The tapers my mother was standing next to were smoking a rather large one, passing it back and forth between them. Then in an instant, an arm holding the joint pointed in the direction of my mom. The moment went in slow motion. I watched as mom's head turned in the direction of the offering and she reached towards it. HOLY HELL! WHAT'S THIS? She toked and then toked again. I could not believe it. I ran into a corner and hit my pipe a few times. During the set break my mom seemed very happy and we had a fun time goofing. The next day I gently confronted her, telling her what I saw. She said it wasn't very good, she didn't feel anything from it. Now what are the odds that someone is smoking some bad shit at a Dead show? A taper no less? "Bullshit!" I exclaimed, but then left it alone. Her experimentation took flight a few other times and in one other direction at other Dead shows she ended up attending without me after I left home the following year. I ended up seeing an Other Ones show with her at the Meadowlands in '98 on a trip home, and a Furthur show at Coney Island in '10. Dad never saw another show, but we still go see other music together whenever possible.
...if you never saw the Grateful Dead, or heard much over the years, Furthur could be a really good gateway. They play more rock 'n' roll, there's no formalized "drums and space" section (often tough sledding for "newbies") and the big harmonies are pretty spot-on and appealing. Their set lists continually deliver plenty of "A-List" material night after night.