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?
Either you're on the bus or your off. You can be a Bolo or you can be a Bozo, but either way you're still on the bus.
For me, even though I heard American Beauty before, I really heard it one winter night in 1973. Left an indelible mark that's still there. It had me pay homage to the Haight in the very late 70's. It still resonates in my head every day. And I wonder has it really been that long or is this a dream I'll wake from tomorrow morning.
I never saw them with Jerry, I would have been 12 years old and my only heroes at that time were basketball players. I'm 27 now and they are my favorite band. I would consider myself a very open person when it comes to listening to music and when I was a freshman in college I figured I would download some and give them a chance. I listened to Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. I didn't really appreciate it the first few times I listened, but I dug the Wake of the Flood album and decided to actually purchase a CD. After going to Best Buy I found the Dicks Picks Volume 14, with the four discs from Boston in 1973. I was blown away. The jams with the jazziness did it for me. I discovered more and more and more and eventually saw 'The Dead' play Lakewood in Atlanta in 2004. Now I listen to them at least 25 hours a week at work. I love all periods of Dead, but my favorite is 72 - 74. When I was at work, I often go on archive.org and listen to shows from the current month and day. I listen to whole tours, years, and venues. I am not a typical deadhead. I am a Republican, don't believe in a lot of the things that Deadhead's stand for and I can't stand the parking lot scene. Went to the Furthur show in Atlanta and was disgusted by the majority of the people that were there. I also was dissapointed in the show and have decided that I will no longer see the other members projects because they seem so disapointing every time I go. Now a lot of people give me crap because my ideals are different than most deadheads, but I love the music as much as any fan out there and I completely agree with Blair. I just sometimes hear things about not being a real fan because I'm not into the scene and I have a job that I won't miss to go see a band. I just want everyone to know that it's about the love of music for me, nothing more and nothing less.
The first time I heard the Grateful Dead was one hot summer long long ago. I had a neighbor that was paying me to water his lawns. I had my Panasonic AM blueball radio, and heard Truckin. That was truly music to my ears, but never followed up.
I got on the Bus in 1976, when myself and a couple of high school buddies drove to San Francisco to see The Grateful Dead and The Who at Oakland Coliseum. After that I went to shows in the Los Angeles area and went to see JGB whenever he was in town. This continued through the string of Las Vegas shows right up until Jerry's passing. Since Jerry died, I have not been to a show.
I am 16 years old and DSO got me hooked when i was 10 or 11 and since then i've seen every Dead, Furthur, and Tribute show i could get too. NONE of my friends are into it, or even fathom what could make someone want to collect over 400 SBDs (guilty) before they can even drive but as difficult as being a "freak" has made high school, it has helped my soul ten times more. Your last paragraph alone makes this the best blog i've ever read. Thanks Blair!
I grew up with all of my friends older brothers and sisters being deadheads. When I was 14-15, I entered a contest on WBCN in Boston i twas 1983, and won 2 tix to a JGB show at the Orpheum Theater. I had to basically run away to go to the show. Me and my buddy hitch hicked into Boston and tried to by some acid in the Boston Commons. Of course we got fucked, and bought some paper that did nothing for us, oh well. We got to the show, and were brought up to the 3rd row, right in front, radio station tix! I was soon passed a bowl from an 'old guy' sittng next to me, and was totally blown away by the show. I remember most of all, they did "Harder They Come' and the amplifiers had something spinning inside them, for real. It changed my life, to be part of that crowd. After the show we were stuck, and had to call my buddies dad to come pick us up in the city, which wasn't at all the way to end the evening, but led to many a great time at many shows after that. Looking back, I am glad I saw them all the times I did in the mid to late 80's, but now, I just cant listen to any Dead unless its pre-78. Thats how I'm Deader than Thou now...
I'm not 'deader than thou' any time soon ;)
I mean yeah I would have loved to catch the GD in 1970 but that is hard to do when you are in a baby stroller! If your parents weren't into them then the next shot at exposure is high school maybe jr high and that's when I got on the bus - mid 80's starting listening along with Floyd, Zeppelin, Hendrix, Doors etc etc. Went to RR in 87 and finally got into my first show in Shoreline 89 (which was college years). I figure hell 25 years of following anything makes you a rabid freak of a fan no matter what it is you are following. I agree with the post that we need to enlighten our children and youth and whomever else about the music. Long live the magic!
"It's got no signs or dividing line and very few rules to guide"
At age 12, I pulled Skeletons from my brothers record collection and listened. Much different from the rock music on the radio. Did not get it. At age 13, I heard Skull and Roses. Got it. Had to wait until I was 16 to see my first show in Philly. Remember Jack Straw opener, that is about it. By then, quite a little crowd in high school trading tapes. Even now and then I hear a tape that reminds of one of those special moments during a show in my early years when the world is right. Can't describe the sound, but I know it when I hear it and I love it that way.
im kinda wondering why any head old or just reborn dead yesterday is not of the same caliber as one who was going to warlock shows,or drinking electric kool-aid at the hog farm?we should embrace each other and not hang out our show stubs to win a pissing contest. im very proud to be an 80's deadhead logging my first trip to alpine valley wis. at the ripe old age of thirteen.it was one of the best experiences ive ever had.this was my first show but was not the last.we as heads are part of a family that needs to stick together.go out and recruit as many young and willing deadheads as possible,and remember just because we are older,and more experienced we are by no means any better than any other head.so keep on trucking and maybe ill see ya "further"on going down the road feeling bad.
There are two main paradigmatic themes that provide a template for most philosophies or religions, but are buried so deep in the ritual styles, or tomes of dogma, that most people don't detect them until they are pointed out. This is true whether or not you are talking about Star Trek conventions, Kierkegaard philosophy clubs, or Vendanta meditation ashrams.
There is no wrong or right about them, both can be useful or fun or useless and obnoxious, if taken to extremes or done without love or empathy.
The Deadhead community is no different. The structure is either a perfectly equal set of points from which anyone can see the whole and the whole is reflected back, Jewel of Indra style, where no one can be inferior or superior to anyone else, as everyone is unique but not above or below anyone else.
The alternative structure is a pyramid, with a very tip top point, where you place the highest good, sometimes God, or Enlightenment, or Sartori, or being behind the scenes on the set of Star Wars working alongside George Lucas on the first drawings of the X wing fighter, whatever. Everyone from that vantage point is placed below on different points on the pyramid, from those closest to the top to those who are ignorant that the top even exists on the base.
It is considered more "enlightened" in some circles, as this blog would advocate to use a Jewel of Indra structure to organize Dead heads. This is fine so we can do away with phony feelings of superiority, excessive bragging on behalf of older Deadheads, and feelings of inferiority on behalf of those newer to the scene. However, taken to extremes this view takes away a lot of innocent fun. Let's face it, there is something cool about someone like Owsley, or Neal Cassidy, or Ken Kesey or Betty (of the Betty boards), being so deep in the Grateful Dead organization as to have known Jerry as a buddy. It is equally cool to comtemplate how many shows people may have seen who started seeing the Dead as the Warlocks and never stopped. Why not admire them? Why not give them a place to show off their first hand knowledge.
On the other hand, if, as this blog suggests, that structure is imposed too strictly, then that stifles the enthusiasm of new fans just getting on the bus. And if the bus is as perfect a metaphor as Kesey intended, then it stands for much more than just joining a particular Dead tour by a certain expiration date. And if Jerry and the boys did it right on any particular night or on any particular record, then that appeal is universal and infinite and incapable of limitation. 1000 years from now, some new kid will come across a holographic microscopic music data subatomic particle, place it into his latest 459th Generation iPod rapture machine and be transported right back to May 8, 1977 and listen to the the segue between Scarlet and Fire and go "Hwacko Jazgo, that's awwwwwesome". Not allowing that, or making him feel less than someone who jumped on during the actual Barton Hall shows, would be like telling someone who discovers Mozart today that he's less of a fan for not being alive when Mozart conducted his music live.
It is a matter of balancing the two, and allowing for both structures to co exist and inform each other, without allowing the worse of either to infect the joy of the discovery of joy within the Grateful Dead panoply of musical delight.
I started buying their vinyl in 1974. American Beauty – loved it. Live Dead soon followed and I didn’t get it - couldn't believe it was the same band. I had 18 of their albums by 1981 and then bought CDs until 1992. I saw them at Alpine Valley in 1981 and 1987. I enjoyed the shows, but things didn't finally click until I got The Closing of Winterland around 2006. I finally was a passenger on the bus.
What turned me on was having spent a half dozen prior years digging 50s-60s jazz artists. Miles, Count Basie, Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, etc. I realized the improvisation I appreciated in jazz was in the Dead’s live recordings. Without a Deadhead for a friend, it took a long time find that out, even though I'd ofter heard they were different live than their records.
I will never get a chance to see those jazz greats or even say I fully appreciated the two shows I saw, but as Rafiki in the Lion King says “What does it matter, it’s in the past.” I’m sure looking forward to that Europe ’72 box set. That’s what matters. I’m too old to care about Dead-er Than Thou attitudes. Now if only the Fillmore ’69 box set would be re-issued. I missed that one, hint, hint, nudge, nudge...