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.
All eras of the GD had their moments - including my least favorite era (the post-Brent era). Stoltzfus - you may have thought that 83 show was tedious, but what about the shows that year from MSG? Hartford? LAKE ACID?!
There are some serious gems from 80-90. Spring 90 being my personal pinnacle of the GD.
seriously, it was in a dream. Brent was the keyboardist.
The only show I was able to get to in GD87 was 7/19...the GD's sets were a bit bland, with a 2 minute jam out of Playin' or something. The set with Dylan is one for the ages. (anyone remember the "Impeach Reagan" banner flying behind the airplane?)
I remkeber from the Golden Road, Blair, that even your comments were something like "the audience seemed like it had been zapped with a stun ray".
GD88 I saw 8/26 (ok) and 8/28 (ugh.)
remember, re my comments...it was all a dream.
While I can understand those who have no desire to attend shows by any post-Jerry lineup, I strongly disagree with them.
The post-Jerry lineups may not be the GD, but they are the closest we're ever going to get. Plus, they keep the spirit - musical and otherwise - of the GD and the GD community alive.
Personally, I've been to Ratdog, Furthur - and yes Blair - even Dark Star Orchestra shows that have been as good as some GD shows I attended.
Recorded music-wise, I of course continue to listen to vintage GD with Jerry, but I have a few Furthur, Ratdog, Phil and Friends discs too. (Love the way Furthur mixes things up as Blair commented in a blog several months ago)
As for the haters - fuck 'em. Let 'em continue to live in the past and blindly worship at the altar of their perception of Jerry as a God-like figure (which Jerry would be mortified by). Jerry may have been the head Dead, but the GD were a band, a musical collective, most of whose founding members continue to make thrilling music today that channels the GD.
So, can't wait for that next Furthur, Ratdog or yes, DSO show (Friday April 13th in nearby Agoura Hills, Ca. HEY NOW!).
...Stoltzfus, but speaking only for myself, "the band was so bored-looking and going through the motions" doesn't sound like '87 or '88 Dead to me. I recall the band having a pretty damn good time onstage in that era...
And like I said, I don't compare '73 Dead to '88 Dead. Different time, different band. There are shows from every era I love and shows from every era I have no interest in hearing again.
and that includes me.
On the archive yesterday, I listened to set one of 5/7/77 and set two of 3/26/83. polar opposites. 77 sparkles and 83 is tedious.
I like anything before 80, and select material after 80.
I dreamed (seriously) last night that I was at a show (onstage) and the band was so bored-looking and "going through the motions." Seemed like 87 or 88.
Then I found 6/10/73 on the archive this morning, and my GD spirit is shining brightly again.
The boys did the best they could for a LONG time. Being there made the difference in later years.
What's my point? For good or ill, I am a picky Deadhead.
Be sure to listen to 6/10/73 soon.
I wasn't that picky about songs until the late 80's early 90's and even then i could just wait till it was over and the next song started. Bobby screaming into the mike those years was extremly irritating and until this day I don't under how the rest of the band could listen to a tape of the show and think it sounded good.. Ater seeing the band from 74' on I never didn't have fun. I think what got to me and maybe it was my advancing years was the scene. I became picky about the scene. I was sick of the deadbeats walking around with their finger in the air looking for a "miracle" ticket- to this day that term makes me cringe. It seemed like more and more little kids were showing up pretending they new all about the whloe thing. Maybe I'm turning into my Dad.
I'd've been less picky if only those aliens would've kept convincing Jerry to play Day Job instead of When Push Comes to Shove (and in place of the last 80 times Bob went into Memphis Blues AGAIN*).....
*loved it the first time....two years later, Jerry was so bored he wouldn't even sing on the choruses anymore....and I didn't blame him. Like, where's Brother Esau or Lazy Lightning? (Of course, then Black-Throated Wind came back out of nowhere....)
Blair, in defense of your Picky Self as Golden Road's chief writer, you asserted then that the most likely explanation for the constant performance of "Day Job" as an encore was that Aliens made Jerry do it. I still find this to be the most plausible explanation.
Gotcha. I'll plead sleep deprivation for my dufusness. So, ok, you ARE picky....NO GSET after 72? Lincoln 2/26/73 (Dick's 28), my friend ~ though admittedly, that's only two months past 72. Though I don't agree with the others, either, I do understand them. There's a fire to the original incarnations of the songs you mentioned that was indeed singular. It's a revelation how inspired Jerry is on the Tivoli '72 OMST (speaking of videos begging release.....though the circulating quality is quite good, so I'd be far more excited about the Beat Club performances ~ the new video grail as far as I'm concerned).
Applying skwimite terms to the Brent era, the Spring 87 tour saw the last pure versions of Touch of Grey, and the most exuberant ~ when Jerry sang "I will survive," he meant it....("give me five, I'm still alive" took on a whole new gush that tour, too). Never the same after, even (especially?) that very summer. Throwing Stones after 87 (maybe Spring 88) was never the same beast, either ~ Bob started quieting things down, I guess for dynamics, but after you've had 80 proof it's hard to be satisfied with 40.
No epic Sugaree (for me) after Spring '88, either. And Bird Song jams got less adventurous after '87, the peak got standardized and then the way(s) to it were limited to its inevitability ~ it was a sad day in '93 encountering one I actually thought was weak....something I'd never have thought possible.
Never saw a weak Let It Grow, though ~ and that includes '95.
What I meant was that I never liked Row Jimmy. In fairness, I've heard some that were OK but it's just not a song I ever cared for.