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?
That was September 1981! hahah
I got on the bus in September 2009. I was a freshman at Lehigh University in PA, and a childhood friend was attending pharmacy school in Philly. She had gotten into the Dead in high school, and when she heard they were coming to play at my campus, she said, “Get tickets, I’m coming!” I think the tickets were $8. I was hooked that night, and I’ve been on the bus ever since. No one makes music like the Grateful Dead makes music, and no music makes me feel like the Dead’s music makes me feel.
I didn’t get to attend hundreds of shows. Maybe 20 between 1981 and 1995; I’m not sure – I didn’t count. I didn’t memorize set lists and I don’t recall exact dates. Some might say that means I’m not a true Deadhead, but to me, it’s all about genuine appreciation for the music, and even beyond that, the incredible musicianship. You have to listen – really listen – to get it. The complexity, the creative interplay, the unexpected surprises, the perfection in the imperfection.
The issue with the so-called Touchheads is that many of them weren’t there because of the music. Radio play drew attention to the mystique that was the Dead, and they were lured by the scene, or the drugs, or just because they wanted to say they had been there. And they occasionally tarnished the experience for the rest of us by introducing the wrong energy into our happy little world. But those particular “fans” eventually fell away. Anyone who got on the bus at that time and is still around 25 years later – because of the MUSIC – is just as much a Deadhead as someone who was at the first Warlocks show.
In 2007, I met a guy 10 years younger than me, who despite being a huge music fan and a drummer, had never listened to the Grateful Dead. A week after we met, we were on a road trip to Key West, and I took the opportunity to immerse him in my favorite Dead tunes. He listened intently as we rode, and I knew I had met a kindred soul when he asked me to rewind “Ripple” so he could listen to the lyrics again. I told him that day he was a “Deadhead waiting to happen.” I knew it was true the day he discovered “Dark Star” while listening to Sirius and said it was his new favorite Dead tune. I had never explained to him the significance of that song; he just got it, all on his own.
In May 2009, we were lucky enough to sit in the third row for the Dead show at the Spectrum. He was mesmerized by the musicianship, and says it’s by far the best concert he has ever attended. He got on the bus in 2007, he doesn’t know a lot of the lyrics, he never attended a Jerry show, but to me, he is the most genuine of Deadheads.
This past December, we were married. The last song played at our wedding was “Ripple,” of course. Dancing with me were my new husband… and my childhood friend, the one who took me to my first Dead show. What a perfect moment that was for me.
“Let there be songs to fill the air.”
Hello,hey got turned on to the Dead and Kerouac at the same time ,'73-'74 ,by a gal I was seeing (thanks forever Sarah), 1976 show at Boston got to catch the magic, got it ,part of that big diamond,words and music shining,it made sense, no deader than though or what,just glad to tap into the magic,and share with others,and share in with others,rolled on the road/bus ever sense, find the magic/light reflect outwards and upwards,Peace
Summer 1995. I started dating this girl in May and had been working in a lab at Stony Brook University. She was a huge Head, and my boss, a PhD also happened to be a head. She made me some mix tapes and it had some American Beauty on it, and I fell in love (with the music). I hadn't realized it up to that point but my boss had dead posters all over his office. It was really cool. I only wish I had found them earlier. I'm hoping to get tickets to see Further this St. Patricks Day at GMU. All the Best.
Wow! What a grate addition to yer blog. I like how it brings us closer. Thank you Blair
Gotta get in on this subject. I could write a few chapters, or a short story, about how I got into the Dead. That "Skeletons From The Closet" album was one of my mainstays starting around mid to late 1986, and then a roommate at school had some bootleg tapes that really grabbed me. I remember in early 1987 reading a Rolling Stone that had an article about Jerry's coma and how Deadheads had nothing to do when he was off the road, and I made my mind as soon as I got the chance I had to see them. I was only 15 and didn't really have any immediate prospects or ability to see the band, and in fact I wouldn't actually make it to my first show until 7/30/88, Laguna Seca Raceway. They didn't disappoint at all, just whetted my appetite for more. It was just really tough to see them in those days as an underage teenager with no driver's license and not much money. I actually made it to 2 Dead shows and a JGB show in 1988 which was quite an accomplishment for a kid in my situation. Didn't make it back until 6/16/90 at Shoreline, the first time I drove myself to a show. I really got into the band, though. Practically taught myself how to play guitar and bass just playing along to them, and driving my girlfriend crazy in the process! I listened to a lot of Grateful Dead Hour back in those days, I used to record it and listen to the tapes all the time. I listened to and recorded the entire New Year's Eve 1990 show, it was almost like being there. I introduced my brother to the band and he ended up going on his own with his friends. I made it to 2 more shows at Shoreline in May '91, and then went to another show that August without a ticket and ended up having a really weird, trippy experience just hanging out in the lot the whole night. Everyone should have that experience at least once. Unfortunately, I kind of drifted away from the band after that. I was trying to be a serious musician and got really into jazz and classical music, and while I never stopped listening to the Dead completely, they were kind of on the back burner. I was also working, trying to go to school, and help raise my 2 daughters (who also made it to a couple shows as babies), so overall it was just hard to make it to shows in those days. I have a couple of regrets: I was living in San Diego in 1993, and I totally wasn't paying attention when Jerry came to town, and then when the Dead came to the Sports Arena in December to play what would turn out to be their last shows in San Diego, I was going to go with a buddy but when he backed out I decided to stay home. I really regret that move since it was my last, best chance to see them and I came very close to going, but didn't. I had moved back to Northern California in 1995 and I seem to remember picking up the San Francisco Chronicle and reading about the Dead doing a 3 night run at Shoreline in June and I think I considered going for a minute, but didn't really think about it very long. A couple months later, I was at work and this guy came in and said Jerry had died, and it really hit me then like a ton of bricks: it was over. I think that's when I realized I should have kept going to shows, like I had originally promised myself I would back when I was 15. Since then, I've seen PLAF twice and the revitalized Dead a total of 4 times, so I've tried to make up for my earlier mistakes. I've been back living in San Diego for a few years now and I'm wondering why they don't come here more often. Phil hasn't played here since I last saw him in 2002 and the Dead didn't come back on their last reunion tour in 2009. They played a total of 1 concert in Southern California at the L.A. Forum (which I went to) as though that were enough! I mean, c'mon guys. The only one who plays San Diego on any kind of regular basis is Bob, although I haven't made it out to see him. I have seen DSO a couple times, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I highly recommend DSO to anyone who wants a trip down memory lane, they do an excellent replication. As for being a "Touch-Head," I guess I'm guilty, by virtue of when I got on the proverbial bus, but that's a bigtime oversimplification. I mean, I liked Touch of Grey, it's a great song, but I definitely listened more to Live/Dead, Anthem of the Sun, Workingman's Dead, Europe '72, and all those early albums and any other bootleg recording or Grateful Dead Hour I could find back in the early days. I don't even remember if I had In The Dark at all, in fact I'm pretty sure I didn't. I remember thinking what a novelty it was that they had a hit song on the radio at the time, and they played it a couple of the shows that I saw and there was great energy when they did, it was like "oh hey, they're playing their Top 10 hit!" I remember thinking how I had really missed the boat, not seeing the Keith and Donna era - not to mention Pigpen - but then Brent died and the Bruce and Vince era arrived, and all of a sudden it was like, "wow, I actually saw them with Brent." So we all have nostalgia for what we missed until the moment passes and then we have nostalgia for that, too. Since I made it to all my shows prior to age 20 I guess in retrospect what I pulled off was pretty good. I definitely look back with great fondness on the shows that I saw, and try not to dwell on what might have been. That's the best advice I can give anybody here.
Always find this subject of Self-Entitlement rift with interest and disgust. I like to be free of comparison within. I suppose that is why I never had a "bad" show, certainly a few challenging times. "Only 1 in 10,00 come for the show." Sure wish I had the opportunity to see the boys in the late seventies or even the early. Late 60's would have been fine. Mid- eighties were good, I even really liked the late eighties when Jerry and Brent were grooving. Sometimes when Jerry forgot the lyrics there was a feeling in the air of hope. And even if he had forgotten the plot, we hadn't, at least most of us some of the time. Sure is a funny thing to feel better about one's self standing on an other. What's the point? Every show was a good one at this point. Furthur is really good! If you show up to life every day, having thanked that greater than yourself, ready to serve your brother and sister, yer good; have another good show, have another good day. Saw Jerry in Long Island. Then the Dead in Worcester '84, Jerry tearing it up at the end of, "I Just Wanna Make Love to You," bought and sold. Even Soldiers Field was a good tour closer, the last show I got to see, came early - stayed late, like most of my best shows. Never couldn't find what I needed, more and less than what I brought. Sure could have done without the nitrous mafia. Perspective. Nice article Blair.
Saw the dead twice in Seattle in 81/82. Didn't translate well for me at the time. Think I fell asleep during Stella Blue, and then Phil was in the grouchiest mood, yelling at people setting off fireworks, and threatening to not play Seattle any more. Went once more and saw an Oakland show around 1985/6. I remember Tower of Power was on the bill (and possibly even Santana). Anyways, I wasn't converted. However, I did have a very special bootleg (1971) on tape that i absolutely loved and I bought a couple of studio albums that I enjoyed. But the drugs and the scene were overwhelming to me. Not even the music could keep me coming back; none of the show I saw were what I would consider "on."
So at the ripe old age of 49 I saw an ad for Going to Terrapin, Hartford 1977 on the NPR website. And I decided I had to continue the search for the magic that I had on that now lost old cassette. And it delivered; that cd hooked me and I now budget for a show or two every month or so. My most recent purchase was from the download series NY 4/30/77 which is just a sublime show. Donna's on key and everything! And while Phil was a real grouch on stage back in '82, he's the guy who hooked me. Those melodious, sophisticated base line, keep me coming back.
I just love the music now, but couldn't really reconcile myself to "the scene." And lucky me we have all these wonderful recordings. Purrfect.
Coincidentally, my partner hates the Dead; won't let me play "it" in the house: says the melodies stay in her head and bounce around her dreams. I mainly get my hit on the road with my sweet sound system, or with my iPod when i walk the dogs. But the door does shut sweetly when she leaves sometimes.....
Wondering if others have a "situation" like this?
Mountians of the Moon has to be one of the finest pieces for me... It's one of those tunes that gives me goosebumps as a reminder that THIS was one of the first songs that got me on the bus when i first heard it in 77... 7th grade :-)
..and then into Dark Star?????? :-)) ~~~~~~~~~~~ !
Blairj... in answer to your question... Yes, I believe my affinity for this period makes me feel "Dead'er than Thou" as compared to the 90's Stadium Frat-House Boys singing Ramble On Rose at the top of their lungs while I'm trying to listen to the Boys Jam...
Sorry... that's just where we differ on this one...
Having 4 older brothers, I was wedged inbetween 3 of them on long car rides to Montauk and Candelwood Lake while Dylan played on a type recorder in 1971... Jerry & the boys were soon to follow once brother #2 got his tape recorder going ...
Nothin' left to do but :-) :-) :-)
...with a Dead-er Than Thou individual was in college in fall of 1988 semister. A friend had some friends come to visit and one was wearing a jean jacket with the dancing bears on the back. We struck up a conversation about the band and all was going well until i declared myself a Deadhead. He then asked me if I truly felt like i was worthy of the title. I didn't know how to react so I said I wasn't. I can't believe I was ashamed because i was a new fan and thus not worthy enough to be included.