Grateful Dead

Dead-er Than Thou

There’s a debate that flares up every so often in Deadland (most recently in the discussion on the promo page for the 1988 Road Trips) in which older Heads castigate folks who came to like the Dead during the late ’80s “Touch of Grey”/In the Dark era, the implication being that those fans weren’t hip and cool enough to have gotten into the band earlier, and only embraced the Dead once they had become commercially successful. The worst and most cynical of the arguments — and I’ve actually heard this several times through the years — is that to have climbed on board during the late ’80s (or early ’90s) was to actually contribute to Jerry’s death! The tortured logic of this is that because of the band’s increased popularity, their touring machine became ever-larger, which put more pressure on the group to play big shows and to stay on the road, thus preventing Jerry from getting a break from touring he once offhandedly mentioned in an interview he wanted, and contributing to his downward health spiral and eventual death. Whew! Now, there’s a load of BS.

Unfortunately, there’s always been a “Dead-er Than Thou” attitude among some Dead Heads — as if when you started liking the Grateful Dead, how many shows you attended, who you knew in the inner circle and what privileged access you had to information or tapes (or both!) were the measure of your knowledge of or devotion to the band. I can’t honestly say I’ve been completely immune to this affliction myself, but I learned pretty early on that there were always going to be Heads who had been following the band longer, seen more shows, owned more tapes, plus had that prized laminate hanging around their necks I so coveted. So if it truly was a competition, I was never going to “win.”

Of course it’s not a competition. How and when you got into the Dead could be a function of million different factors — your age, whether you had friends who were into the band, whether the Dead’s tours came to your city/region, if you had a good experience at your first show, if they came onto your radar at all… the list goes on and on. Maybe your first exposure was being trapped on a long car ride with some crazed Dead Head who insisted on playing a really badly recorded audience bootleg that featured terrible, off-key singing and what seemed like pointless jams. Then, three years later, someone dragged you to a show and you suddenly “got it.” Or maybe you had a boyfriend or girlfriend who hated the Dead and, even though you were kind of curious about ’em and wanted to go to a show, forbade you from going! (Wow, harsh!)

Whatever happened, happened, and you should feel no guilt about and make no apologies for when you got on The Bus. Heard “Touch of Grey” on the radio, loved it, and wanted to hear more? Fantastic! Welcome aboard! The fact of the matter is, the mid- to late ’80s and the early ’90s was the Dead’s greatest period of fan growth ever, and thousands upon thousands of people who got into the group then became loyal and devoted fans who were every bit as enthusiastic, hardcore and knowledgeable as the grizzled veterans who lorded their longevity over them like some royal talisman. We all have legitimate regrets about what we might have missed in previous eras, but I can honestly say that whenever you succumbed to the Dead’s ineffable magic — that was the right time for you.

Since my biography of Jerry — Garcia: An American Life — came out more than a decade ago, I’ve gotten dozens of letters and emails from people who never had the opportunity to see Jerry or the Dead at all. Many were almost sheepish about it, as if it reflected some character flaw in them that they’d “missed” Jerry, yet in the months or years since his passing, they’d gotten into recordings of the band, the (love)light went off in their heads, and now they were obsessed, too. There’s no Grateful Dead to see, so they’ve gotten their live kicks seeing Phish or DSO or Furthur or whoever lit that light for them in concert. And perhaps they’re just starting to understand the charms of ’76 Dead or ’88 Dead and catching up on the history and what the scene was (is!) all about. Again, I say, welcome aboard! There’s an unlimited amount of room on this Bus; the more the merrier!

Do you have a story about getting on (or missing) The Bus?


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milton's picture
Joined: Jan 22 2009
A little late to the bus stop

I guess I'm a little late getting on the bus, but I'm sure glad I found it! When Jerry died in 95 I was going into my junior year in high school. At that time in my life I was in full on Pink Floyd mode. If it wasn't Floyd I didn't want to know anything about it. I was so immersed it was like I had blinders on. Not that Floyd is a bad band to get into, but it can make things get a little weird when your life at 16 revolves around Floyd, pot, and acid. Ahh good times. Thankfully I had a friend, whom I'm still great friends with, who was a Floyd fan too, but he slowly got me into bands like Zeppelin, Dylan, Neil Young etc. Fast forward to about 2003-04 and we went to go see Dylan and the Dead. At this point I still didn't "get it", but went to the show and I had a blast. Even after that maybe 2009ish, we went to go see the Dead when Warren Haynes was with them. I enjoyed it, but still didn't fully "get it". Then about 4 years ago I just started listening to the Dead with a real passion like I never had before. Life was changing, my dad died, shit got heavy. But I was able to see the light with the Dead like nothing else. I always wondered what it would've been like to see Jerry. I feel a real connection with him and not only the way he plays (I play guitar too), but the way he thinks. Also being from Buffalo, I feel a special connection with the Dead. It seems like they always had a blast when they played here and the region in general. Example: 7/04/89 at Rich Stadium. That place is less than 10 miles from where I grew up. I can relate. I was only 10 yrs old at the time, but just to think Jerry and the boys were just down the road having so much fun. I'd like to think if I was just a little older I would've been there with them. But my time to get on the bus was much later. It actually happened at a time when I really needed them. I'm excited to go see Dead & Co this summer at the same venue I first saw Dylan and the Dead, except this time I will for sure have "gotten it"!

sisterearth's picture
Joined: Nov 26 2007
Nothing left to do

This is funny stuff. Reminds me of a girl who was turned onto the Dead before me and acted as if it elevated her somehow. Cracks me up and is so...Ungrateful. I don't care when I got on the bus....I am just happy that it came by and I jumped on for the ride. ★peace

iceninedawg's picture
Joined: Jun 15 2007
DEAD-ER THAN THOU phenomenon

My first show was May, 1968 @ the National Guard Armory in St. Louis, Mo. as a junior in high school. Right then and there, I knew I had to move out to where these guys lived so I could experience them more which I did in 1969 (the earliest I could get there based on circumstances). My final three shows were in March of 1995 at the Omni in Atlanta. Early on, in the Bay Area, I could always buy tickets to the shows @ Pacific Stereo just by walking in when they opened on the first day of ticket sales. Later on, this changed and I moved out of the Bay Area soon after. Since I moved, I then started using GDTS and, later, GDTSTOO otherwise known as mail order. I was always, clear up until the end, able to get good and decent tickets/seats thru mail order. All I know about the Dead-er Than Thou phenomenon is that it seemed like to me, all of a sudden there were tons more people at the shows and they were way younger. I never really experienced the Dead-er Than Thou phenomenon because in conversations with other DeadHeads we were just curious about each other's first shows and it was always non-judgmental. This may have been since I gravitated towards DeadHeads my own age. Now, I have heard anecdotally about this phenomenon but I have been unscathed by it personally.
Thanks be to you, Blair for writing about this phenomenon in such a calm, reasoned and kind way. As I told David Gans earlier this week on the Well, I have always treasured and valued your writings. Please keep keepin' on.

Graceful_Dead's picture
Joined: Mar 4 2011
True that, mkav ...

You know the old story about people grumbling that those who showed up late to a work party got the same reward as those who had been at it much longer.

But if your cup is full, how could you begrudge someone whose cup became full more recently (or more quickly) ?

mkav's picture
Joined: Jun 30 2007
deader than thou

hmmmm...I've been seeing dead and extended-family dead shows since 75 or so. i didn't even know this was a phenomena. (maybe cause i wasn't dead enough to be in the "cool guy crowd"?) what i've found is GENERALLY, people who don't like the dead, don't know the dead, or they just don't wanna learn what they don't wanna know. but it's their loss.
if people get it and like it, cool. if not, cool. when you get it and like, cool.

achiappanza's picture
Joined: Jun 26 2007
The kids these days

In Chicago, there was a kid behind me who called the Shakedown before I did. It turns out he never saw Jerry... he just picked it up from the tapes!


iknowurider's picture
Joined: Oct 23 2007

Hal R. Knew he meant ~ Peek... PEAK ! lovin your Mountain Times & you are more than grateful ~ what worthy~ seeing what you have.. feeling what you felt.. dang that sounds cheezy ..

I have just recently explored the PNW & what a time I had. The sheer beauty of the land and the Sea ... Like nothing I've seen before ...

Joined: Jun 1 2011

This type of thing, as other commenters have pointed out, is endemic in our world, file under oneupmanship. But I did experience it, as a newbie Deadhead, all the way back in 1970. I got into the band via Workingman's Dead, then went to see them at the Fillmore East in Aug. 1970. So, at high school (9th grade) that year I was telling anyone who would listen about how great the Dead were, when a 10th grader heard me. "Have you ever heard Live Dead?" he asked condescendingly. My answer was no. "Then you don't really know the Dead." Did I feel small.

Anna rRxia's picture
Joined: Dec 25 2009
Rocky Road

From LA in 90 we hit the tour and always made a lot of money. A lot of money. We didn't have to slum it, stayed in nice hotels and always paid our bills -- right to the end. We weren't into the cult aspect. We loved the scene, even if we arrived a bit late. Summer tour 90 through Boston garden 91 was smokin'.

I think the song Picasso Moon could have been about us. You were either buying or selling.
A class act is a class act, regardless.

Been chipping up rocks from dawn till doom
While my rider hides my creases in the other room

Joined: Sep 8 2007
Not a case of when so much as who

/While I barely made it in before the hordes(first show 9/3/85). I saw a tremendous difference between the crowd at my first show on 9/3/85 and my 13th show 6/19/88. There is something to be said for getting turned on to a hitless, underground/cult type band by a cool friend over a few bongs and albums, and hearing mainstream media outlets talk about the "freak show party" playing the local shed this summer and every fratboy and his brother coming down to crash the party. I realize that just sounded way harsher than I meant it to. But while numbers were one of the problems. It was more complicated than just that.


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