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.
Ahhhh, what a correlation.
Yes, indeed. Thanks for the
great article. I wanted to throw
a healing vibe on your experience;
you were not alone- I know others.
I am crying with love, unexpectedly.
After 1978, Terrapin appears 4 times after Drums- 7/7/84, 4/6/87, 12/30/90 and 3/28/91- and the 91 show an incredibly rare Terrapin Encore. Thanks to DeadBase- hope I didn't miss one.
It was a comment you made about picky Deadheads recently in response to a personal attack someone else made about Robert Hunter on one of my long-ago blogs about RH that inspired me to write this one. So thanks for that! (And to MaryE for pointing it out to me last week.)
For the benefit of those who didn't see it, what Sherbear gently pointed out was:
Deadheads used to be very picky; very, very, very picky.
But it was a different picky. Bitchyness about how a song
turns out or a setlist that didn't have their pick in it. Or
the quality of what show they wanted or that the guys
But it wasn't feelingless it was bitchyness or ranting
at least as I recall it. Things have changed...
X~~~~~~for ya Professor.
Thanks for noticing and delivering
such a fine articulation of my true
experiences and unwavering camp
status...there's more but A-XO will do!
I love you, Grateful Prof - syawlA, xo!
And Blair- I love you
I too became a picky Deadhead in the 80's. For me 1972 (and all the years leading up to it) was the peak of the Grateful Dead. Everything else paled in comparison. I started seeing them heavily from 1976 on.
Like Blair, I caught about 30 shows a year in the 80's, hearing the same songs over and over again. I have to say though that if I had the world to give, I'd give it to hear Jerry sing Day Job one more time. So many folks I ran into hated that song. It didn't bother me. I though it was just Deal or Might As Well with different lyrics.
By the end of the 80's, I looked at my pickiness and realized I was seeing too many shows. I scaled back a little after '89 and tried to see shows at places that were special. Knowing full well that a special place could have been Cedar Rapids, IA or Richmond, VA.
Seeing about a dozen shows a year, gave me a much better appreciation for the band that I loved.
I like that! For me, those came during GREAT (1x or 2x a tour?) odd-meter and mid-tempo jams when you get caught up pondering "what song/verse was/is this? Music Never Stopped, Terrapin, Cassidy, Lazy Lightning, a few more. I suspect I most often had those "nirvanic" moments during intense mini-jams throughout Wharf Rat. What a song, and what a stylist Jerry was!
For me pickiness is not an issue, but thoughtfulness is. There are those who think all shows were great, and those who think it was all downhill from the death of Pig Pen, who articulate there reasons both effectively, and not at all! Folks on this site, in my humble opinion, do both. Whatever you think your view has legitimacy if it comes off as the result of some sort of real reflection. It does not have to be "analytic," for me the most articulate member of "it is all good" camp is Shebear, who, by use of poetry, makes it clear that for her the experience of a Dead show, almost any show, was about personal transformation, it was a catalyst for her of personal journeys of discover, as her verse makes clear. I respect that! So folks, something you like or don't like, try to make others see what you see, because, as we all know, there comes a time......
....here is a picky head! Saw the above post, checked out the show....I find it one of the most pathetic lack-luster Terrapins I have ever heard! I am sure it was great to be there for any number of reasons, but if that is a great Terrapin (no tension and release, little subtle timbre variation during the jam, no "stop-time" moments, limited expressiveness, dynamically truncated, I could go on!), then I am Jerry reincarnated!
Your post about Black Peter cracked me up. For me, it was Row Jimmy (amazing to read that Skwimite never saw one).....I worked it out in retrospect and I saw a Row Jimmy every third show on average ~ and several onesey-twosie (non-stand) shows in a row. And nearly as many Stella Blues.
The funny thing is, those two songs have emerged over the post-GD years as sentimental favorites of mine, and on the short list of those I wish I could hear Jerry sing (and paint a solo on) just one more time. Lovely Row Jimmy on View From the Vault II (6/14/91), the umpteenth one in my show-seeing career at the time and the solo was still a near tear-jerker. Great latter-day Grateful Dead concert, that one.
Pomo1, I think you're totally correct about being (righteously) partial to your own "era" compared to the one that followed. The Brent era was mine ~ though the '91 show noted above demonstrated there were still a few classics left in my post-Brent landscape. Far fewer, though, then had been. Then again, I was less starry-eyed about the band by then, too ~ yes, I was a picky Deadhead sometimes. I could elaborate, but I'm going to bed.......visions of sugar-plums, dancing bears, and...and....
has anyone else had that experience where you dream you're at a show again, Jerry and the boys are on stage, and you've got a great seat or place to stand....and then the band just never starts playing? Or if they do, it's Old Susannah, or something? Sigh. (I did get paid once with their launching into Cold Rain and Snow in a show dream in the anticipatory weeks leading up to Hampton '87 and Jerry's triumphant east coast return).
No Casey Jones, OMSN or GSET after 1972. No St. Stephen's after 1971. No Row Jimmy's at all. But the beauty of loving this band is the evolution of it all. I'm partial to the songs I heard when I attended shows, but every "era" has something to offer. My favorite "Shakedown Street" is from Phil & Friends (7-7-01 I think) and the "Attics" from RCMH (you know the one)will make you weep.