Blair’s Golden Road Blog — Rainbows, Unicorns and Picky Dead Heads
By Blair Jackson
We live in a cynical age. Believe it or not, “rainbows and unicorns” is a term that is used pejoratively online to describe that segment of Grateful Dead fans (and those of the post-Garcia bands) who believe that the Dead were, in a sense, beyond criticism. These folks believe that what the Dead did musically, coupled with the experience of being at shows with other Dead Heads was (is) so profoundly positive that it seems somehow unfair to complain about it in any way. They would really prefer you not say a negative word, thank you.
I was that guy for many years. From the time I first saw the band in the spring of 1970, through about 1981, I really didn’t have anything bad to say. Were there songs I didn’t like and times I was a little bored? Absolutely! But I can’t recall ever coming away from a Dead show during that period feeling disappointed. I just loved everything about the band and the scene. Going to Dead shows was Magic Time for me. “Rainbows and unicorns” isn’t exactly an apt description of what my Grateful Dead worldview was — I was more “lightning and dragons” — but I felt a kinship with the utopian idealists who believed that the Dead environment could be a paradigm for a New Age, even with the hustlers and hucksters and burnouts and shady types who were always part of the scene.
And that never changed for me. I never took the Grateful Dead experience for granted. It always remained Magic Time for me — even when the shows became something less than consistently magical the last couple of years. What changed, though, is that sometime in the early ’80s I encountered — and soon became —“ANOTHER PICKY DEADHEAD” (as a bumper sticker of the time said).
Two things happened in the early ’80s that fostered the rise of the PDH: 1) More and more people went on tour, seeing multiple shows in different cities, along the way becoming more critical about song selection, repeated tunes and such; and 2) Tape collecting exploded, so suddenly fans were making more direct comparisons between, say, the 1980 Dead, and the 1977 or ’69 Dead. Hit four or five or six shows on an ’81 or ’82 tour, and chances are you’d get a few “Lost Sailor-Saints,” “Alabama Getaways” and either “Black Peter,” “Wharf Rat” or “Stella” in the late second set ballad slot. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, of course! The band still mixed up their sets more than any other band on the road (in fact no group was even close in those days), and the fact is, look at almost any earlier era of Dead music — when very few folks toured — and you’d find much more similarity in the song selection from night to night. In ’77, they played “Estimated” at 51 out of 60 shows. In ’71, they played “Casey Jones” and “Sugar Magnolia” almost every night. I didn’t hear anyone complaining about “Row Jimmy” turning up at 61 out of 72 shows in 1973. But by the mid-’80s a significant number of Dead Heads had become jaded.
In my own case, starting my Dead ’zine The Golden Road is what really pushed me down the path of PDH-dom. Before ’84, I had never cared about what the band was playing night to night on tour, much less attempted analyses of trends in the group’s repertoire. It never occurred to me. I went to shows, I had a great time, I went home a better person! Before 1982, though, I also wasn’t going to between 20 and 30 shows a year, so every concert seemed more special, I suppose. I will say, though, that I never compared whatever version of the Dead I was seeing with earlier incarnations I'd enjoyed. I definitely accepted that they were what they were in that present day, not some pale comparison with the Dead of '72 or '77. Because fundamentally, it still hit me the same way.
However, by the mid-'80s for me, it became a game of anticipation: “They opened with ‘Scarlet’ two nights ago, so we probably won’t hear that. We’re about due for another ‘Throwing Stones’ > ‘Not Fade Away’ closer, but I’d rather hear ‘Sugar Mag.’ I can’t believe Bob chose ‘Looks Like Rain’ instead of ‘Playing.’” It wasn’t pretty, people. I’m not proud of thinking those thoughts. (And admit it, some of you had those notions, too.) Still, very rare was the show that didn’t get me off, no matter what was played. If I had a moment’s thought of “Gee, ‘Throwing Stones’ again?” it never prevented me from enjoying a well-played version to the fullest. We all have our favorites, but if there’s passion in the effort, I can enjoy pretty much any song, and that continues to be true for me.
The last several years of going to shows definitely tested my generally positive outlook. There were a few “new” songs I thought were actually bad (no names here), and then there was the whole matter of Jerry’s decline, which had to have been apparent even to the extreme “rainbows and unicorns” types. There were shows that left me … disturbed. And yet, to the bitter end I was upbeat about the next tour and the renaissance I was sure was coming around the bend. I guess I couldn’t see the dark clouds through my own rainbow glasses.
Since Jerry’s death, I have moved back toward the “rainbows and unicorns” camp when it comes to the post-GD groups. In the process, I’ve been subjected to the slings of arrows of the new breed of PDH—hyper-critical Internet critics for whom nothing short of an appearance by Mr. Garcia himself could quell the relentless and at times disturbingly personal sniping at the surviving band members and their efforts. The level of vitriol in their commentary is shocking. The Internet is a take-no-prisoners war zone.
But I feel that Phil, Bob, Mickey and Bill have admirably dedicated themselves to thoroughly exploring the Grateful Dead’s incredible repertoire and taking the Dead approach to playing in many new and unexpected directions with an amazing variety of players. At the same time, they’ve made a conscious attempt to keep the Dead Head community spirit alive, for veterans like me and for the young ’uns coming up. And that’s why I’m no longer jaded. Just grateful.
Grateful to have been part of this scene for more than 30 years. Thank You.Thank You. Thank You All.
Grateful to have been part of this scene for more than 30 years. Thank You.Thank You. Thank You All.
What is up with the hoodlums flying dead colors these days? It's happening right now in the town where I live. I don't like it. In more ways than one. Is there a gang that has adopted the the stealie??
I was not a PDH when Jerry was alive. Well, that's not entirely true. I was a picky Deadhead about the *audience* but not about *the music.* I loved the music and I loved the people playing the music and I wished that the audience that was showing up was more respectful. I was an arrogant youngster who somehow thought I had a handle on who should and shouldn't be showing up at shows. It bear's mentioning that I saw most of my shows on the left coast and was appalled by some of the east coast gigs. Now I'm straight up appalled by what I see at left coast gigs too.
After the third night of a 3 show Dark Star Orchestra run at the Great American Music Hall, some punk on the sidewalk decided to hurl a nitrous tank through the plate glass window of the pipe shop next door the Great American. No doubt they were yelling that they were "Grateful Dead Family" while doing so.
It pains me to see people behave rudely in the name of the Grateful Dead, like they've somehow earned the right to take up "our" colors as "their" flag and pretend like the Grateful Dead was a street gang that only select hoodlums could join. Bleh.
Anyway, I was not much of a PDH about the Grateful Dead. There were songs I loved and songs I didn't love so much, and I was able to understand more clearly after Jerry died what made a TRULY GREAT SHOW (on tape.) These days I try to keep my rainbow and unicorn vision from getting tarnished by what I see as rampant thuggy stupidity, but it is definitely disheartening.
As for the current music, 7 Walkers is my favorite new project on the road because I love the Meters almost as much as I love the Grateful Dead, but I commend all the surviving members of the Grateful Dead for carrying the torch, each in their own unique way.
I love all the years of the music. Its like a big family of sound, early years are children that grow up. We connect to whatever sounds and memories our experience defines at whatever level of growth. The music evolves, the band evolves, the new bands, peripheral sounds, all encompassing a common thread that is not so defined in text. Keep it coming, in whatever form with whatever spirits.....I love all the years of the music. Some moments are better than others, but I would never trade one moment for no moment. Thanks musicians. We appreciate what you give.
Very Grateful. Thanks Blair!
I find no need to cover the ground you so wonderfully explored here. I agree pretty much start to finish. I've enjoyed the music in all of it's incarnations, & happy I was there from kinda start to finish. My 1st show was 7-8-70 (a show I can find no information on, to my displeasure) and they came to the St Louis area enough that I was happy with everything they gave me when they came around. That was a time when sooo much good stuff coming around that I was completely satiated. Janis was my 1st show, followed by The Band, The Dead, then Canned Heat & John lee Hooker. It only got better from there. So as you described Blair, seeing the Dead when they came to me was a really exciting proposition, but then life was a high time all around me. I will be honest & say the 69-74 period is my favorite time because that's what I cut my teeth on, & I loved the dangerous & at times chaotic edge to the music, but I find beauty in all periods of the Dead's music.Thanks for your take on this subject, and to this day, what with the Archive and the boys on-going search for the magic, I'm happy. I always walked away with a smile, life's too short for the sniping & comparisons, but if that works for you maybe you're missing something here.
...with OneMan about Vince, but that's a subject for a future discussion...
I guess I'm a bit "Rainbows and Unicorns" about 65- 74 "golden era" Dead. I mean I've just never heard anything from that time I didn't love.. Were there any bad shows? off nights? I haven't heard any yet. Granted, I've just got everything officially released, or that somehow filtered down through tape trading circles- probably the cream of the crop. Sure, some nights were much more intense, more magical, more exciting than others. But I just love it all dearly. Take 72 -74. The band had such a warm beautiful sound, and the same committed and uncompromising approach to jamming every night. Heck, since 95%+ of every show I've heard from then is "hot"- the times I stumble onto a lukewarm show it is fascinating in its own right- kind of like an oddity(!) Hearing that great band struggle to lite things on fire, with limited success (aww!). Going backwards from 72, replace "warm beautiful sound" with "wild and wooly" Still, equally great music.
After 74 I think I can be pretty doggone picky, believe me...
I wonder if the only "Rainbow and Unicorns" era for Jerry was the Acid Tests. He always spoke so fondly of them! :)
Dan R, I appreciate your point of view. It's a unique one. You blew a little smoke Blair's way too, which he seemed to like, as usual. But I can't see how you could call Vince "unqualified". I am mostly a 60s & 70s snobby PDH, but listening to 10/14/94 or 2/27/94 might change your opinion of Vince. I was sure that the band was all done by that point and I was very wrong. VW is great on those shows and so is Jerry, surprisingly. The beauty of "Attics" (10/14) and "Rain" (2/27) has a lot to do with Vince being a solid harmony singer. He's a great contributor on keys throughout, too. I underestimated him, and I credit him with keeping the ship afloat at some crucial times. Don't miss the "FOTM" from 10/14, either. I'm a person that loves those raw, early versions but here is one that lasts over 20 glorious minutes and has tons of hot jamming.