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?
Hey Blair, never looked into following/reading someones blog but thanks to a sweet email here i am. 1st anything with The Dead i was interested in was the animation at the beginning of The Grateful Dead Movie as wee one, i can even recall to the same movie or a concert dvd dancing in front of the tv and my parents not asking me to move, then came to Not For Kids Only as a wee larger one, then as a teen searching through my dads collection only for the shows with Not Fade Away, NOTHING ELSE. The sounds were so homely to me there was nothing else as comforting and homely even when i only listened to NFA. Not sure where in between NFA and now when i explored more of this collection, but i have to say im still spulinking and thats been a few years, on the right bus this time ha!! Thanks again Blair
Thanks so much for blogging Blair, it is really fun to get to "hear" you regularly.
The whole post-Touch of Grey phenomenon topic reminds me of an editorial you wrote in the Golden Road on how to treat the newcomers and deal with the increased crowds. It was great--thoughtful, well-reasoned, cool, etc. And, like so much of of what I read in The Golden Road, basically totally echoed my views/concerns/hopes. Then the article got reprinted in Harpers! http://harpers.org/archive/1988/01/page/0026 under the title "A Deadhead's Dilemma."
I was thrilled. Then I started wondering--wait a minute, is Harpers making fun of us? Until that minute I always thought I knew what was "serious" and what was "ironic" in the magazine--I felt in on the joke. Suddenly I was at sea--maybe I was the joke! How could I discern the editors' intent? It was a postmodern break through (or break down) for me.
But still a problem. My relationship with Harpers was maybe never the same, but at least a slightly larger group of people got some good advice about how to handle the late-80s Dead scene!
It's so great to see that cat Rumi chiming in with his take on things, and the Montana & Idaho partners, too.
And yes, I'll share the strange & miraculous & ordinary with anybody, anytime...
That moment of utter, astonished sweetness and enthusiasm, excitement could be on any face, in any parking lot, in any decade.
Remember what that bro Suzuki said in Zen mind, beginner's mind?
where's that Like button?
You said it all, man!
I had to laugh when I saw this article. Not because I found the topic comical, but more because I've been the newbie and delt with the deader than thou attitude alot.
I came to the Dead in a very roundabout way. In the early 90's I moved from Canada to the US as my father's military career had us move to Virginia Beach, Virginia so he could work with the US Navy. Before that we had lived in Toronto and I was more into punk, metal and alternative music then what I saw as dippy hippy music. During my three years in Virginia, my highschool years, I was constantly being besiged by friends to give the Dead a chance, but my Harder Core than thou attitude kept me from doing so. That and the case of being exposed to horrible auidence tapes. I just didn't see what all the fuss was.
After highschool I returned to Canada, this time to the East Coast and settled into University. The town I was in was a university town and had the obligatory art house cinema. That's where I saw the movie Naked Lunch. I was already a fan or David Cronenburg's films, but Naked Lunch got me into reading Burroughs. Burroughs gave me exposure to the Beat Generation and eventually I started reading Kerouac, Big Sur was my first taste, and I fell in love.
In a local record store I found a CD collection of Kerouac reading selections over jazz (Thanks Rhino). The liner notes had blurbs from writers and authors that had been inspired by Kerouac. One of those blurbs was by Jerry Garcia. That got me curious and I slinked into a local record store, not my usual one, and bought my first Dead album, Wake of the Flood.
I got home and put on the album and I started to get it. From then on I purchased more albums, keeping my love of the Dead as a secret from my friends..which I found later found comical as they had their own musical guilty pleasures...early Genesis, Steely Dan, Rush, etc.
I never got to see a Dead show and I still haven't over the years. Lack of funds, no shows near, no one else to go with...there are always excuses. About a decade later I did start attending local jam band festivals in Southern Ontario, where I had relocated to. I got in with a great group of friends who didn't judge me when I claimed that the Clash was still the only band that mattered, but smiled kindly and just kept sliping me new discs from bands they thought I would like. Some of their friends though, they took one look at me, rocking out to a dead cover band (Caution Jam) wearing black jeans and a Crass (as in the band, not as in obscene) t-shirt and automatically dubed me a poseur. Later they quizzed me on Dead trivia. I failed. I didn't know the dates when members had joined or left the band, I couldn't run down famous set lists and worst of all I haden't memorized all the lyrics. For people that claimed to be open minded they closed off immediately. They were polite, but you could tell they thought I just didn't get it.
One night my buddy Brian and I were winding down a night at a festival and had retired to sit around a campfire and just shoot the sh*t. I told Brian about how some of his friends were acting. Brian was sort of a Neil Cassady figure to many in our small scene, everyone seemed to know and like him. When Brian heard who was giving me attitude about my lack of Dead knowledge he laughed. He told about when those people first came into the scene, how they knew nothing then. He asked me if I really liked the music. I said that I did and he said that was all that mattered.
We all need to remember that we all start somewhere at sometime. I think sometimes some folks love the music so much and have spent so much time learning about the band and its history that they can't accept that someone could hear a single Dead album and "get it". It's almost as if they think to themselves "Hey this guy hasn't put in his time, how can he talk about the Dead". In my own opinion enlightenment can come in an instant, that's what happened to me. One night with Wake of the Flood and I was hooked. Of course looking back I can see the road that brought me there, but it's only a road if there's a destination at its end.
I was turned on to the Dead when i first heard the studio version of ripple and I couldnt stop listening, months later a friend and i went to see The Dead at shoreline amphitheatre, not the grateful dead, but the dead, in 2009 for i was born in 94' and never got the chance to see jerry live. After that show not much has made me happier than the grateful dead. i spend a good part of my day listening, and finding many amazing sbd and audience recordings anywhere from 65 - 95.The only up side to being born as Jerry fades away is that i am looking at the band as a whole, no prejudice to any time period, as each has its own ups and downs, and its all unique in its own way. I have also been to a few Furthur shows and theirs nothing like it, and nothing at all like the shoreline show back in 09, but as i sit here listening to the scarlet>fire from this april 88 show, i know their was once something even greater and i couldnt even imagine what it would feel like to be their. and the same goes for when i hear an "alligator" from 20 years earlier. Were all here reading this post because we all love the dead, as long as your their for the music, then everythings ok, if anyone thinks i cant listen to these recordings or go to see Bob and Phil live because i was born too late then they are very mistaken, my life wouldnt even be half a life without these guys music. if it wasnt for younger people carrying on their musical spirits, then eventually nobody would be left to do so. Long live the Grateful Dead, They brought overly excessive amounts of happiness to me in my generation, im hoping some can still see it in the next.
My first show was on NYE of 1972-73. I had recently moved to Berkeley from the east coast, having just graduated from college. I arrived in September, so on New Year's Eve I had no party to go to because I didn't know anyone. My roommate and I heard that Country Joe McDonald was playing at Mandrake's, a long-defunct bar on University and San Pablo. My roommate and I took a couple of Quaaludes, just to make things interesting, and went down to Mandrake's around 9PM. Ten minutes after we arrived, a couple of guys walked up to us and said, "We have four tickets to the Grateful Dead at Winterland but we've taken acid and can't drive. If you drive us over there, we'll give you our two extra tickets." Well, that sounded just fine to us so we got into my car and headed over to Winterland. We arrived in time to catch the end of the New Riders' set. The place was packed and we lost our friends but found some space on the floor. When the Dead came on I don't remember much about the music, except for the fact that during the slower songs, drums, and space my friend and I kept falling asleep because we were on 'ludes. Not the drug of choice for a Dead show! At some point during the show, some guy appeared on the light rig, balancing precariously. The music stopped, and Bill Graham came onstage to talk the guy down. After what seemed like an eternity, the guy moved off the light rig and was grabbed by the roadies. The music started again and then of course pandemonium broke out at midnight. The show ended around 4AM and my friend and stumbled out onto the street, not really knowing what hit us.
A year or so later I got a job at Mt. Zion Hospital, just down the street from Winterland. Periodically throughout the years, when I saw the people gathering outside the venue as I walked to my parked car, I was bewildered as to what all the fuss was about. I had totally missed the bus due to my poor choice of drugs.
A few years later, I met some people who were into the Dead, and was intrigued by descriptions of their experience at shows. in 1981 I was invited by a friend to see a couple of shows up in Oregon, so I went. the first show was at the MacArthur Pavilion on the U of Oregon campus, across the street from a graveyard. Everyone was hanging out in the graveyard (which seemed so appropriate), being mellow while they waited for the doors to open. I totally dug that scene! Then, during the show, they played Shakedown. I had heard the song on the radio and liked it a lot, but it sounded so different live! I turned to my friend and started pounding him on the chest, shouting "I coulda been seeing these guys for the past 9 years and I MISSED IT!" That was the moment I *got it*.
From that day on I saw every Bay Area show, plus some shows in Southern California, Sacramento, and New York. I've seen a total of 250 shows between that first show in 1972 until Jerry died. I made some lifelong friends, had some amazing experiences, and heard some great music. The Dead changed my life, for sure. I guess I missed some of the best years, but I had some great times and I realize that there's no telling when you're going to get on the bus, but when it comes by and it's your time to get on, you just get on.
Ahhh...the Golden Age of Rock Radio...KZAP and KSAN. You could not possibly listen to these stations and not have your musical world expanded exponentially. I still remember the meditation hour on the early KZAP-an hour of humpback whale songs or something similiar. I'd love to get my hands on an old KZAP cat bumper sticker.
(sorry, it's not every day you hear from someone who invokes the name of KZAP any more...)