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.
I was Freshly graduated from high school and found myself moving from Ohio to New Hampshire. I got a job in the kitchen at Waterville Valley and there was a strange occurrence that happened every time the Grateful Dead came around. All I heard about was mail order and tour. Our chef would put off a days off list titled "Tour Requests" and all this got me curious. All I heard in that kitchen coming from the radio all day long was Grateful Dead. I believe it was education by osmosis because after a few months I started recognizing different songs. I remember commenting about "How can you listen to this. It sounds like it was recorded in a tin can and there is way to much hiss." They would always come back with... you don't get it because you've never seen them. After hearing that comment way to many times I made it my mission to go see them. My first show Saratoga Springs in the sumer of 84. I made the mistake of taking too many mushrooms so the first part of the show is a bit of a blur. But I now knew that I had experience something I had been looking for for a real long time. My second & third show was the Fall of 84 in Augusta, Maine and during this period there was some exceptionally great liquid products amongst our group of heads. Finally seeing them indoors and being able to watch and feel in a more personal level plus meeting some of the coolest people in the world was a slam dunk for me. Not to mention that those Augusta Maine show still rank as the top 5 shows I ever saw.
The first day of a new job found me on a sales route in northwest New Jersey selling meat and fish to housewives out of a truck.
After arriving at the warehouse I was told to team up with this guy and see how it is done. He tossed me the keys and said that he was going to take a nap and that I should wake him when we arrive in his sales area.
About halfway to our destination word came over the radio that Jerry Garcia was found dead. It was a pretty busy section of highway that we were on at the time and that news hit like a mack truck.
I am in absolute shock and the guy wakes up and hears the news for himself and says the typical stuff that any non fan of the dead would be expected to say, no good hippie, burnout, can't stand them etc.
Then they started playing dead tunes one after another. Needless to say they played every song imaginable.
After each song was over this guy would say "Hey that was a pretty good song".
Soon we arrived in his sales area in the mountains of New Jersey and proceeded to call on his customers and fill their orders.
I was able to see an incredible cross-section of society that day. No one really had anything bad to say about Jerry and that was nice.
As for the guy who I had to spend the day with, he was apologetic and embarassed about the fact that he never realized how much he liked the Grateful Dead.
Didn't feel the need to return to that job.
What a Day.
I grew up just north of you in Fairfield County, Ct. Darien was a divided town. You either liked the Dead or hated them.
I think alot of the problem with people who didn't like the dead, was the notion that it was a bunch of acid soaked hippies running around the country collecting souls.
I don't think I have ever met someone who didn't like music. The Grateful Dead has/had the ability to play various types or styles of music. You had to find the right style for the person.
For the people, who like both types of music, like my mom, there was Country and Western music. American Beauty and Workingman's Dead where perfect. She still loves "Ripple". Dark Star was not for her. Heck, I don't like every song they played either. Day Job, El Paso, Samba and Easy Answers come to mind.
Sure, not everything they did play was great. Neither was Coca-Cola for creating "New Coke".
The tapes...as you mention, could sound really clean or it could be an MSG show, recorded across the street at the Penta Hotel with Mics facing towards Long Island.
Part of the problem for me lay in the fact that its was 24/7 GD. A roommate of mine in college asked if I listened to anything else... Heck ya. There is the Jerry Garcia Band. Yes, I do like and listen to other music often. However, nothing has fed my head like the Grateful Dead.
For the people who didn't like the dead. I always loved to share about the Dead's beneovlent side. The various benefits they did, the Rex Foundation, SEVA and the
Lithuanian Olympic Basketball Team or the Rainforest and Hawaiian reefs. What the heck has your corporation done to help, would be my follow up.
Then simply, You know what, your disdain just makes one less person in front of me to get tickets.
Like an apple, I'm Dead to the core. The rest you can ignore.
His job was to shed light not to master
Maybe a blind man could see if they where involved with SEVA.
Like Buddhists, true Deadheads don't proselytize. It's an acquired taste. You're either on the bus or not. It's bad enough i have to subject my wife to this several hours a week.
I was turned onto The Grateful Dead by a free spirit family that lived down the street from me. They had a son who was into Little Feat and The Grateful Dead, and he would play their records all the time in the family room, as that was where the stereo was. It was the cover of The Ice Cream Kid and the music of Europe '72 that did it for me. I would tape all of the albums, this was 1979, and we listen to them on out cassette players. I wasn't aware of The Grateful Dead culture or bootlegs, but then I saw a snipet of "The Grateful Dead Movie" on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, the cartoon section into U.S. Blues, I saw the crowd, the dancing, and the fun. I was naive to substances then. Now I was really hooked and I wanted to see this for real.
I have a friend Brian that was really into The Who, not that this was a bad thing, but I thought that if anyone might like The Grateful Dead, it would be Brian. So I did the car thing, we were on our way to a football game and I chose Skull and Roses because of it's peppier songs, Bertha, Big Rail Road Blues, Playing In The Band. I stayed away from The Other One.
I could see that Brian was liking the sounds and from then on it was Providence in the spring for his first show.
I still see Brian and like all Deadheads we remember back to the road trip to Saratoga, Brian wearing a Steal Your Face cape in Worcester, or just listening to American Beauty on a Cape Cod Beach.
It is nice to turn someone on to the Grateful Dead, it is also nice to share the memories...
Turning anyone on to The Dead was diificult. Were I to start now, I would try a few youtube clips, rather than something on CD. Why? Youtube is the way stuff gets passed on nowadays, and for all it's potential for pick and mix and reduced attention span it works. We have just had a month of Dead covers as proof of that, and the clips of The Dead live on youtube represent them where the band feel most comfortable, before a live audience, the interaction will be a big decider for any new fan. Also people mostly watch youtube alone, so none of that being in the presence of the newbee waiting nervously for signs that your invitee has 'got it'.
I was turned on to the Dead by television, the Rockpalaste gigs in Essen in 1981, as broadcast by the BBC, and given the many different phases than band went through that period of fifteen mins Sugarees and plenty of other songs given extended arrangements seems to be their most fruitful, post Pigpen. I liked the sound design of that era. My buddy did like the Rockpalaste Sugaree, and a few others, but not many. He is a fan of classical chamber music, Brahms and Franck, Schubert, and so liked the Europe '72 'Morning Dew' and 'I Know You Rider' for the passion and control in the performances, The rest was always more my passion and lack of control, than his choice. I had a hard time rekindling that passion after the band stopped. In fact I valued the break, because post Brent my connection with the band waned anyway, the sound design changed and the musical growth the band made with Brent stopped.
One choice that Deadheads have introducing others to the band from CD that makes it difficult is 'Which era do they start with? I did turn one friend on to The Dead by writing a syopsis of the band and how they never stood still, either the sound design changed, the songs changed, or the band members changed, but there was always something new to add to the stew.
In 1982 my brother, a couple of friends and I went to the Veneta, Oregon show. It was the ten year anniversary of the famous 1972 show in the same place. We went in my mother's motor home. And we took my mother. I was 29, she was 57 (yes, do the math :-). It was a fine hippy scene: no cops, cool people, neat food, good weather, etc. There was a particular chemistry about the place (warned Mom not to drink any Kool-Aide). She cruised around quite a bit on her own. Later she told me she liked the music, especially the doodling type stuff around the drums. She was also very impressed by what she saw at the first aid station. She said there was somebody who was hysterical (she asked me if it was the Kool-Aid). She said the doctors and nurses were wonderful, so understanding. She said all the people were so nice to her. It was very cool.
Seems to me that the best description I ever saw of what Grateful Dead music is all about was a quote from Phil who called it "Dance Music". My mother figured it out for a bit! Thanks to all who were there that day for helping out with one of the best memories I have of my mom. Keep dancing!
A hot cup of tea to go with it is rather nice sometimes.
Thank you, my man. Looking forward to anything you share!
Really great stuff.
I am going to think about this and will weigh in with a story.
But Brother Hamal has me grinning from ear to ear with his.
Thanks for that. ;o}