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.
My best guess is Herbie Hancock- mostly because Howard Hughes wouldn't make much sense.
Indeed..any reason why no official release for that show..or maybe even a box set of the run. Yeah yeah I know there has been a mass of 77, but these shows are a little different and very special
...for taking us on such a thoughtful and articulate journey down your road! I have one question though: Who is HH? BTW, that 3/18/77 "Scarlet" > "Fire" was one of the most magical things I ever witnessed. Already loved "Scarlet," of course, but had never heard of "FOTM" before that breakout...Wow! I'm gonna write about that show one of these days...
You know, when I was getting deep into the Dead from Fall '89 to Spring '90, it was the PDH in Golden Road Magazine that was my basic literature. We had Relix, and they fluffed every show regardless, and then the tapes would arrive and I'd be pissed at them for being deceptive. On the other hand, Golden Road told the truth (except on the relatively lifeless 12.27.91 show). The reason I appreciated Golden Road was that all too often, the show reviews were spot on, and the tapes shared that.
I didn't get into the Dead by attending shows. My brother played clips from the GD Hour in the car on the way to school, as well as Reckoning and the 12.31.89 NYE show that he had on tape. I was captivated by the 2/23/74 Eyes of the World, Bird Song from 2/11/89 at the Forum (where the band finds its way to chaos and back into order without sacrificing the groove), the first Scarlet->Fire from 3/18/77 with highlights throughout (little riffs that would catch my ear, and yet this 15 or so minute bit would seem like only a couple minutes long), and the list goes on.
Basically, hearing the tapes again and again, I realized that this band was creating art while breaking every musical rule I'd ever been taught. I started seeking, and seeking hard.
I got Dead Set on CD, and it amazed me that the album could one day be the most amazing thing I'd ever heard, and the next day, the same album could be the most boring. I met tapers, I began a collection, I lived this music for nearly a year attempting to answer some question I didn't have an answer for.
I would lose myself in my thoughts during an early '70's Dark Star or Other One, and wake up finding the musical landscape had changed so drastically. The more I meditated on the music, the more I began self-reflecting (rather than thinking about things outside the band).
I don't remember the day or the time (since I wasn't keeping records of my studies), but there came one day in early 1990 when it clicked and I woke up. There wasn't any real social context for this experience, so I kept it to myself for many years attempting to duck it, or to understand it. It was absolutely tangible, but completely unexplainable.
Come June 16, 1990 to my first show. I wanted jamming and space jamming, and lots of it. Don't ask me how they knew to respond. Such a different energy than any other show I've heard in many ways. First first-set Truckin' since '85, only Big Boss Man since the New Years show with Bonnie Raitt, Cassidy had two songs follow (not just one), and the first West Coast China Doll since '87. I had my Deadbase and I knew all this going in.
Then Brent passed away. I wish I had more appreciation for Vince when I met him. The jaded Dead Head in me regrets that I didn't understand the conditions that lead to an unqualified musician like VW to join the band, and land in a place where he could never really win. Fact is, I wish they'd taken a break for the health of all. Or just abandon the keyboard notion for a while and allow everyone to adjust. The music is not superior to life, and there was a bit of a long-term steam-roller effect on the soul by just replacing a guy I had tons of respect and love for.
I attended many shows. I didn't tour much.
One thing though. Furthur did it right. Not adding a Jerry-character for many years allowed the necessary healing to take place. Mickey has a great and original project. Phil is at the top of his game (playing with so many brilliant artists has definitely tapped his higher musical potential, I think). Bobby is great, and the acoustic work and solo work he is doing seems long overdue. Just a great move by all accounts. Billy got the groove.
I got done with the jaded Dead head thing. I listen to the GD for the vibe, but it's the jazz guys who make me truly hungry to study, hungry to work as hard as I possibly can.
I once asked HH how he remains so consistent over the years, and he just said: truth is, we are human beings and we are not consistent. My great interest in the Grateful Dead is that place where they go, when they rise above the ordinary and enter that transcendent place where the music becomes this perfect, euphoric celebration that seems to beautifully mimic the workings of life, society, the universe, and whatever you might want that music to be. 98% of all other music is just music, and very little in the musical universe has achieved what the Grateful Dead achieved. But attempt to find those shows where they enter that larger-than-life sound, and it's a bitch to search and navigate and find. The Dead on a good night is the ultimate psychedelic carnival, and there's nothing like it. Nothing.
A musician's playground, so to speak. The day I started improvising my own Playin' jam while walking down the street, I realized there would be no going back. The next stage was a nearly two decades long process of attempting to uncover a healthy approach, to demystify the music and rehumanize my own attitude, and with that, to beef up my own musicianship and put this knowledge and philosophy into action.
That makes me a good writer and musician, but without gigs or work. Frustrated, yes. Determined to keep going, indeed. Opening doors? I don't know. We'll see.
Anyway, thank you again, Blair jackson, for being one o my guides down this crazy process of taking this good music way too seriously!
After seeing "View from the Vault" from 7-8-90, I was struck by how bored the band was. Maybe just a bad day, but still. The last show I attended was the earthquake benefit in Oakland (great show) and wondered what I might be missing. Apparently not much but I was spoiled by the 70's. As a study in contrast, I was lucky enough to be at Winterland for 12-29-77 & 12-30-77. The 29th needs no further description but the next night they looked positively out of it. Either seriously pissed at each other or a tragedy had occurred. You would never know they played one of the best shows of their lives the night before. Never saw them before or since in such a state. I found my picky self getting pretty annoyed at their lousy attitude. I guess the show was OK (haven't listened to it in years) but the bad vibes killed it, although my slides came out better that night. For me at least, my PDH syndrome had extended way beyond just the music to the day of the week, time of the show, reserved seats or not, and the list goes (went) on. But I love what I love and I want it that way.
lot of different levels to being picky, i'd say...you could want particular songs or just wish they mixed things up more in the second set...as for discussing what they might play before the show based on what they had played the previous nights-i always enjoyed that aspect of things...of course, you could get bummed out if you heard they played scarlet>fire the night before & knew you had no chance of hearing it...myself, i liked when they'd end the first set w/ sat. nite or box of rain (not sure if they ever did that) instead of the standard deal or let it grow (though i love both those songs)...the one song i did not want to hear in the later years was row jimmy-it just dragged-love the '73 versions...like most of you never left a show unhappy though i do know i too did leave some of the later shows feeling a bit "disturbed" like blair says...sometimes due to the band's performance, sometimes the scene...as for bob's screaming at the end of estimated i enjoyed it, especially in the big stadium shows like giant's stadium-it filled the hot summer air nicely & freaked out the newbies & straights...this is my first post so i'm kinda all over the place...i haven't seen any dead since bob & rob in ft. lauderdale in 2011 (maybe 2010 before jam cruise)...i have seen plenty of ratdog & phil & friends, but nothing recently...i'm not against what any of them are doing & purchase any releases, but not sure i want to get on the further bus though if they come to my neighborhood i will surely check it out...
what is FB?
.... ..with the FB Golden Road page, but did want to say I have nothing to do with it, whatever it is (in case anybody was wonderin'). FB not really my scene, though I see many of its positive qualities...
Nice article Blair. I was once attacked viciously by people on the Golden Road FB for making a criticism of Furthur, high ticket prices and Bobby,. One of my criticisms of Bobby at the time was that he wrote many great tunes that he should play instead of singing Jerry tunes. Well great to see he brought Brother Esau back out recently. A minor attack even came from a member close to the Dead who said the FB was no place to level criticism. I am a PDH and proud of it. I think the last Furthur show I was was fantastic. That being said, I find many of the Dead releases to be harsh sounding on the high end. I feel that has been true since early on in the Dick's Picks days. I myself want people to be critical and express their opinions. I'll read it and decide for myself if I think the criticism has merit. I just doesn't see going through life with no standards as any way to live. I think it is extremely negative to have a U&R attitude.
Oh well, that me, another PDH.
Nice article. I found myself viciously attacked for making criticisms of Furthur, high ticket prices and Bobby. I must say that I think Furthur has finally come around and are sounding good. I do find the Unicorns and Rainbow folks strange. Jerry used to say that Deadheads knew when they had an off night. In a Rolling Stone interview, the interviewer said to Jerry something to the effect of "Your fans see to go crazy about anything you do." And Jerry's response was "They are more critical than that."
I liken the U&R crowd as those who have no critical standards which I find a scary way to go through life and to listen to music. But hey, that's coming from a PDH. I see nothing wrong with demanding high quality. Some do. Oh well.