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.
I was never able to do a full tour (money, family, etc.) but since I lived in a small town in eastern Pa. I was able to take advantage of being at a "hub" where I (we) could travel to Philly, New York, Jersey, Boston, D.C. etc. and still get back home. So I was able to catch several shows within a tour & I remember furiously writing down the set list on the back of my ticket stub after a performance, while the high of the show was still in force. I wanted to be able to keep track what I'd seen because I thought what I'd seen was "important". The Grateful Dead had changed my perceptions about so many things that, in those days, I wanted my experiences to be embedded in my mind forever. I was definately keeping track of songs, hoping to catch something new & griping about "not another Round & Round closer". But I was snapped out of myself by a 3 night run at MSG in the late 70's/early 80's. The first night I was seated fairly close and the put on a fantastic set which included one of my all time favorites- China Cat/Rider. I thought it had been performed flawlessly & I left that show really pumped. Flash to the third night. I was able to scalp a seat but it was way at the back of the Garden near the top. Bummer you say- au contraire mon fraire. That show blew the other two away and the kicker was another China/Rider done with more energy & power than I'd ever seen- and I thought I'd just seen that two nights ago! It was then that I realized, It wasn't what they played, but how they played it. After that I never complained about a set list again. Never cared. If I happened to see a mediocre show I reminded myself and anyone I was with, that even a fair show by the Dead was better than almost any other concert experience you could get. Just one more comment about the "scene" in those last few years. I moved to Key West in '85 and geography (and money) kept me from regular check-ins with the band. One of my last shows was in Miami - never a band favorite- and I couldn' believe what had happened to the parking lot. So many people without tickets, just looking for drugs & handouts.It wasn't what I remembered. The show was good, in fact it included one of the most potent "Music Never Stops" I'd ever seen. But while they were playing (never heard before) "Liberty" Jerry almost shouted out the lines: "Liberty!-Freedom!- leave me alone, I'm gonna find my own way home". I tell ya my blood ran cold & I thought to myself- "he's had it- he's going to call it quits". This was soon after the riots & I think there was a fan death on one of the previous tours. Well they didn't quit, but it was already '92 and the end was closer than we all knew.
The Dancing Bears are borderline annoying a lot of the time, and I think most of the band's classic iconography is overused and has been corporatized. I still love the Skull & Roses best...
> Grateful Dead may be my absolute favourite band of all time but I still don't love them unconditionally
deadmike, your comment sums up my take on this discussion pretty well. It's going on 20 years since the GD stopped making new music and yet, GD music is still mostly what I listen to, but that doesn't mean I'm not critical.
While the GD were still touring, I was another Picky Deadhead at times; there were so many classics that I hadn't heard performed (like St. Stephen, until Hartford 1983, or Dark Star, until 1991 at Soldier Field), so yeah, regularly performed songs like Day Job and Hell in a Bucket got kicked around a bit for not being what I wanted the band to play. Quite simply, I figured that I had invested heavily in the GD, like those nights when the band was struggling to achieve lift-off and my dosed mind became convinced that if I danced harder, the music would get better, which it sometimes did, and thus I had some say in what the band was playing, or not playing.
On the matter of rainbows and unicorns, I'll add that my personal peeve was those damn dancing bears. They looked good on the back cover of Bear's Choice, but in just about every other application since, I've found them to be wishful, rather than experienced. I prefer a bone white skull over a cartoon bear; strip away the skin and what's left is what we all share in common.
It may seem off-topic but I will pass on a link to an episode of a Swedish TV program, broadcast this week. Four minutes into the program it features almost 8 minutes on the Dead. The series is called The Songs That Changed The Music and the reason to why they covered the Dead in this program is because the series gets to San Francisco. The topic is Viola Lee Blues - a short song getting longer in the hands of the Dead.
They also cover the Dead as an example of a band with a prominent bass player, arguing that putting the bass more forward in the mix is something the San Francisco bands was first in doing.
Bobby is interviewed and also take play some guitar while explaining himself.
(Hope it's viewable for all, if not all together understandable.)
I seem to have been spot on this time since writing on the subject with friends on Facebook the last two days.
I have explained Grateful Dead may be my absolute favourite band of all time but I still don't love them unconditionally. They have their flaws and as I get older och get to listen to more shows I also become more and more critical. Also reading about how Jerry went downhill for all those years before he finally left us, makes me feel less charmed.
Of course I'm grateful for all those archival recordings being released on records but I do not purchase them all. Some because I have had them on tapes for many years and have listened to them many times in the past and some because I might think they're not as good as I would like them to be.
Yesterday I made the parable to avantgarde jazz musicians who play with their elbows. If you have heard ten musicians play like that it doesn't sound as adventuroes when listening to another ten like them. But every now and then somebody might be ON doing something done many times before, and that's how I feel about the Dead as well - even in the later years as Garcia was trading off.
To tell you the truth - I havent listened through the Complete Europe '72 box set yet. Actually I have only listened to the first three shows so far because I don't feel any rush. Also I haven't purchased more than seven volumes of Dick's Picks and even though I'm a subscriber to Spotify where they all can be listened to (as well as the downloads from a a few years back), I haven't done that either. Neither have I been taken the opportunity to listen to a multiple shows through Internet Archives. It doesn't mean I'm not a Dead Head anymore - it means I have become picky. ;-)
Now being a record collector I would very much like to own everything released by the Dead or almost everything that is. And I hope I live long enough to being able to listen to everything released at least once but then on the other hand, I will not be dissappointed if I never get to hear it all.
when it comes to being at a show, so many things got factored in... where you sat, who was by you, what you ate, the weather, etc... funny you mentioned spac 84. my first tour. that was MY show of the tour. i hung on every note. during the slow part of wharf rat, i thought i was in church. i loved the rain that night. one of my best trips ever. everyone else loved the 2nd night of merriweather. look at the set list! i liked it too, but spac was mine. now, i've never listened to either on tape. summer 85 was hershey park. i still listen to my 2nd set tape, and though i own almost every cd the dead have put out, i'll put 85 hershey up against anything. my fav music never stopped, and i listen the the normal 78 all the time. i'm not right or wrong, i'm me.
and as for the 'dark' scene in the late years, i was at the st louis shows, just after deer creek and before chi-town, and was chatting with a lond time tour head who said he had to get out, the scene was so dark. kids strung out, on tour, knowing nothing about the band. it sounded to me how people described the beauty of the haight, then 69 hit, and the scene was over run with bad stuff. as for the shows, it was at times painful to hear jerry try to keep up with unbroken chain, but even still, like in big boss man, he could hit something that warmed your heart like no one else on earth could do. so while the pre 74 stuff might have bigger longer tighter stuff in them, the 80+ years still had the ingredients to make gold. and for me, even if those moments were less, they were every bit as powerful...
I Jumped on the bus in 84 with an Outdoor SPAC in NY followed by Augusta, Me and to this day I've never regretting taking my seat and enjoying the ride. They happened to play a Baby Blue encore after a Satisfaction. I remember hearing people BMCing (bitch, moan & complain) about Baby blue and not understanding why. My particular group in New Hampshire that I hung out with despised Day Job & Hell in Bucket and I couldn't figure out why. There were some others also.
After my introduction to archive.org & an iphone I started to finally collect all the shows I could remember attending. 33-40 best guess. Of those shows I only saw Three Day job and a Few of Baby blues. This is my theory, so many shows were being circulated and everyone had one that had these different songs they "didn't Like" that they just think they saw this song to many times. I got that way with Me & My Uncle>Mexically but was taught a lesson very early in my career a head. I was BMCing about the song selection from a recent show we went to and the friend I was with said "did you actually listen to it" and put on the tape and proceeded to hear it for the first time. I had closed my mind when they played it because of an opinion instead of listening to the music.
Another observation was that because they mixed up a lot of the same songs in the 80's that you never knew when the fire breathing dragon was going to be released on a particular song that night. I will never forget a Providence RI show that opened with Hell in a Bucket>Sugaree and I was showing my appreciation for a Damn good rockin opener to a show and the guys behind me were jading me because "it's a f-ing bucket again".
I went to my first DSO show in Charlotte a few weeks ago and and I think I found a lot of those unicorns. I thought it was a great show with some good peaks. During intermission I made the mistake of saying how great Furthur was to a small group and was amazed at the reaction. Did not understand nor will I try.
I listen to Satellite radio with the Grateful Dead channel almost every free second I have and I have been exposed to a lot of era's of history I have shunned away from because of my affinity to Pigpen (Live Dead was my intro to that era) & the 80's which I attended and I thank them for my Grateful education.
I'm an over 60 year old
dead head. I think there is a lot of stuff out there in today's america to be really cynical about but for me its not the Dead. I think its great that the surviving members are carrying on doing really creative things. It is inspiring to me and I'm not going to be picky about any of it or over analyze it-just enjoy it. I saw Phil and Friends several times when they were touring and Phil's enthusiasm and energy were palpable. I saw Mickey's Global Drum Project in a small theatre several years ago-I thought that it was absolutely tremendous what he was doing. There were a lot of youngsters and students in that audience(UCONN) and I'm sure they were getting a lesson thaught to them about the validity of the real music vision expoused by our favorite musicians. Furthur has kept the torch burning for this music and lifestyle-and made new Dead Heads along the way I'm sure. I've never really succumbed to the picky philosophy in the past(even though I was alarmed by Jerry's decline and felt sorry that it was happening) and will not fall into it now. PS-Let's not forget the dynamism Hunter is displaying in his song-writing-another topic for this Blog? Blair-check out his songs on the new NRPS. For this 60 something-these guys are inspirational still.
Glad you opened up this can of worms. I think they were listening to the heads comments 82-84 because 85 was a year when they really mixed it up and brought new life to their sets. I know I really appreciated this even though I didn't consider myself in the picky deadhead camp.
We all know the scene changed for the worse in 1987. Unless, of course, you were there for the vending. Then it became very profitable and the capitalist mentality took over. To the point where the band got jealous and had their lawyers chase people around the parking lot! What a strange and twisted scene that must have been if you were one of those people on tour with 5,000 Stealie tie-dies in your rented Ryder truck... (I was the guy with 75, mostly the wrong sizes, made lovingly, hitching around with my backpack)
I have to say that by 88 I became one of the jaded ones, only to have the whole thing turned around for me 89-91. Then it was off the bus for me except for a couple of shows that were the final nails in the Dead coffin in 93. I find it hard to believe that people could not see the scene for what it had become in 93 -- A forced death march. I kind of feel like the hard-core heads were kind of like those frogs in the beakers with the Bunsen burner underneath them, the one that heats up the water slowly till they are boiling alive.
Many people aren't going top like that analogy but you have to be honest with yourself and take a long hard look at just what it meant to be on tour 93-95. If you were all "Unicorn & Rainbows" then you just weren't paying attention to Jerry or the people around you.
As far as criticizing the remaining members of the band for appropriating their legacy? Absurd! Bob & Phil, Micky & Billy are to be congratulated 100% for their dedication to being hard core traveling minstrels. More power to them! If it was "All Jerry, All the time" for you, then you were (and still are) missing the point.
I'm with you on the plethora of '89-'90 video, but really, that's when they were actually shooting stuff regularly with multiple cameras. (And at least they were playing really well in that period). The '70s videos you speak of are mostly the simple black and white Winterland videos that BGP routinely made, but they exist in a murky legal area and are not in the GD vault, I gather. With any luck those will get sorted out one of these days, as will Copenhagen and Bremen '72, which exist and certainly SHOULD come out, sooner than later, one would hope...