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.
...that 10/31/83 "St. Stephen" is STILL not good (IMO, of course). It sounds like they're on tranquilizers, it's so slow. It makes the slow '76 versions sound peppy. The transition back from the jam is botched, Bob is in the wrong verse, he and Jerry can't agree on the timing of the "fortune comes a crawlin'" line...Just a mess, and nowhere near the energy of the two East Coast versions.
That said, the "drums and space" (featuring Airto) before it is totally cool and different, and the "Revolution" encore, though definitely not great, is better than I remember it.
If anyone's going to check it out, I'd suggest the audience version on archive, rather than the soundboard, which feels cold and sterile and has Brent too loud in the mix...I checked out both...
I hate Jerry's tee-shirt....
the break was too long....
you call this a parking lot....
you want how much for a tab!....
It is worth remembering why some of us are picky about the music, or at least what my reasons are. First, like Blair my experiences at shows, whether or not the band was on that night or not, were overwhelmingly positive. Our ability to hear the music played so long again, separated from our whole experience of the show, allows us to try to figure out what it was that drew us to the band, to think about the role of the scene, from the hitch-hike to the show, to the new friends met, to the role of drugs, etc and so forth, to our whole experience. To be critical at sites such as this, which do such a great service to us all by presenting us new music, for free, week after week, is to discuss critically, and sometimes heatedly, the music of the band. The music, in total, is such a fantastic legacy of creativity and wonder that it DESERVES careful attention. Everyone has shows, periods, songs they like less then others, and by saying so, and crucially WHY, we open ourselves up to reconsidering our opinions IF those who disagree comeback with something other than "you are a downer, it is all great!" For all my ocassional carping, many, many comments on this site have had me reconsider my views, listen again to shows I had dismissed, find hidden gems.....or perhaps new and more interesting reasons to hold on to views I have. The Dead themselves commented on the negative effects of "rainbow and unicorn" heads--if the audience does not push the band, and demand a certain level of interest and involvement, it is far to easy to slide into musical complacency, particularly if you are touring as much as the Dead did. Like Blair I saw many shows in a row in the late '70's and early '80's, and many a Black Peter sent me back to the parking lot to beet the crowd....but there was nowhere else I rather have been than on the road!
...you've got me intrigued. I'll go back and listen to that "St. Stephen" from 10/31/83, which I have not heard in years. Memory does play tricks occasionally, as we all know... And I'm certainly never to proud to change my opinion! I'll report back...
The buildup to the return of St. Stephen in '83 was unlike anything I had experienced, though we saw it again with better results in '89 with Dark Star. I thought the Garden '83 shows were really good, and the crowd buzz just overtook my senses, it didn't matter how well or how badly St. Stephen came out. It was a whoosh moment. Although I liked it again in Hartford (from the front row), I was so taken with the night before (not front row), that I couldn't respond in kind. The Garden Stephen was the one, right or wrong, in my head. Years later I heard that Latvala was ready to release that Hartford '83 show with St. Stephen, and so my friends and I wrote to Dick and made the case for the first night instead. DIck came back and said that he agreed, the first Hartford show was a scorcher, and he was going with that. (We did the same thing again a few years later, lobbying for New Haven '78 instead of the planned Springfield '78 show. He came back gushing about New Haven...) Over the years I have filed away, in my head, many shows that I attended as truly special and worthy of obsession in terms of chasing a good board, a killer aud, or hounding those special archivists in our lives for release consideration. I think it's mostly all been said, but I think there are some molten gems from '80 to '83 that will astound us. I think Jerry was so red hot for most of '80 and '81 in particular, I expect there will be major treats ahead from those years.
Blair i consider you a pro at this as you have seen many more shows than i ever did but:
I've had that tape from that halloween show for years and actually resurrected it twice before I found archive.org have considered it one of the best second sets. The jam starting with Drums and special guest through space and then the build up into St. Stephens is really fine Grateful Dead. The Help>slip Frank opener rocks and the energy just continues through St. Stephens. I Wasn't there but the tape got me through some hard times in my life where I just needed that escape from an ex-girl and that tape brought me there. I swear at one point I could play the the whole second set in my mind.
I did my own personal shoot out of those last three St. Stephens a few years back and formed an opinion. I'd be curious to know if anyone else had
...for "St. Stephen" was pervasive at the 10/30-31/83 shows at the Marin Civic. We got the "St. Stephen" on Halloween--the result, we heard later, of Rock Scully begging and browbeating Jerry to play it--and it wasn't that hot, frankly. I wasn't surprised they didn't play it again. Jerry did not look like he was into it particularly. Although he looked better on that than he did on the encore, "Revolution," another tune we were so hot to hear on the West Coast. I don't know what happened backstage between the last song of the set and the encore, but Jerry came out onstage looking grey-green, never a good sign. I'm pretty sure I didn't hallucinate that. I was sitting real close that night...
> i'd call that a jam w/ no lyrics
I hear you, legba23, but it's as close as I got to a genuine JG black hole excursion (the jam crossed the event horizon, I'd say), so I call it a Dark Star and deadlists.com seems to think so too.
Blair, you write that "by the mid-'80s for me, it became a game of anticipation" and I can definitely relate to that, and especially when I think back to Hartford in the fall of 1983. The boys had played St. Stephen at MSG earlier in the week, and by the Friday night show in Hartford, I remember that the anticipation for a repeat was fairly intense. When DP6 came out years later, I was pretty much blown away by the Scarlet > Fire that opened the second set on Friday, but my memories of the weekend don't include it. I remember waiting for Stephen, and the moment it finally arrived, but everything else? I'll just say that I'm grateful for the tapers.
about picky - discriminating, yes. I think if you tallied all the shows that the Dead community believes are worthy and then looked at all the shows they did, you'd come out with something like one every dozen or so.
"Steal Your Jazz"
i guess I was snoozin and loozin-great blog article about Mr. Robert's post GD writing. Pretty soon blair can do a follow-up to cover the prolific Hunter's further efforts if he keeps up this new pace.
The latest manifestation of pickiness appears to be about soundboard collections. Now, every time there is a new release a sizeable number complain that the release is not rare enough or that it will not be a sufficient upgrade of the soundboard copy they have already. Some ‘character’ was even calling for David Lemieux to be fired last week because his tapers sections picks were not from deep enough in the vault!!
Don’t get me wrong, I have great admiration for Charlie Miller (and others) and the work they do and I collect many of their releases, but should we really expect DL and others to check through ‘what is out there’ every time they plan a new release in order of fill the gaps in our vast collections?