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 all-time favorite experience of turning someone onto the Grateful Dead was back between '84 and '87. My grandmother was curious about what this thing was that I had been spending an inordinate amount of time listening to, following around, etc. I decided to put on the Europe '72 China Cat. After the first few notes my grandmother started tapping her hand along and said, "This is pretty good." I'm sure I could have gotten her to a concert if she hadn't had such weak lungs, but I did get both my parents to go. Mom started attending shows once in a while without me after I left home in'88 and she even came with me to the Coney Island Furthur show last year...