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?
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...
Born 1977. Heard "One From The Vault" about a year after it came out when my buddy spent the night then forgot it the next day. I didn't give up that copy til I had gone down to the music store and got my own. "Two From The Vault" dropped shortly thereafter. I was officially on the bus after that. Managed to see 5 shows with Jerry. I feel lucky to say that. I never had a Dead-er than thou attitude, but I'm definitely funkier than y'all=}
My first exposure to the music of the Grateful dead was when I was roughly around 15 years old and, as mentioned above Skeletons From The Closet was aquired by one of my classmates in highschool. As a kid whose primary musical influences at that point consisted of a variety of blues, rock and fusion artists, so naturally, some aspects from that album appealed to me more than others. While I gravitated mmore towards songs from that album like Truckin, St. Stephen, Turn on Your Love Light and One More Saturday Night, I was a little less than enthusiastic towards the more folky and countryish leanings of songs like Uncle John's Band, Mexicali Blues, Friend of the Devil.
Enter my older brother who offered to take me and two of my friends to see our first Dead show in '84 at Pine Knob. I won't go into detail about that whole trip, which in itself was quite an adventure, but suffice it to say, though I didn't recognise most of the songs, I was thoroughly entertained by the fans, the scene and the music. The show itself was quite well performed with a lot of their rockier songs in the setlist. The one song that stuck with me for some reason was Tennessee Jed because of it's funky groove.
Shortly after the show, I decided to delve a little deeper into the Dead by getting Live Dead and Anthem Of The Sun. This is where the floodgates really opened up, and still to this day are among my favorite original album releases.
Two years passed and My same friends who went to that Pine Knob show and I made the decision to go to Alpine Valley for the weekend. This time around, we had a few other people with us. This was '86. This was before the massive influx of new fans due to the Deads sudden popularity. It was at this run where I discovered that there was an actual scene as overnight camping was permitted onsight. The setlists at these shows featured a lot more of the extended open-ended improvisations than our first outing in '84 so naturally, the freeform aspects brought me in even deeper, thanks to Anthem and Live/Dead.
By our next outing, which also happened to be Alpine Valley in '87, which happened to fall a week or two before In The Dark arrived on store shelves. By now, our entourage had grown from me and a couple of friends to 3 carloads of people. By this time, we were repeatedly listening to Dead Set, in which many of the songs from that album were actually performed during the 3 day weekend. The scene outside of the venue still had camping, and quite a bit of vending, but was the calm before the storm. I could go in depth about my experiences from this weekend in the valley, but suffice it to say, I was hooked.
By the time I saw my next show in '88, at Buckeye Lake, which unfortunately was the only one that year, I was turned onto bootleg recordings. The scene at that show was massive. A complete turnaround from my previous experiences.
From Spring '89 on, I started doing multiple runs of shows/tours, though I wasn't really a dedicated tourhead. '90 and '92 were years that I show the highest numbers of shows, being 7 from the former and 10 from the latter. The most shows I saw on a single tour were 5 of the last 7 the Dead, with Jerry that is, ever played in '95, including Auburn Hills, Deer Creek (f***ing gate crashers) and Soldier Field.
During this time, I was a big fan of the Grateful Dead, but never really considered myself a Deadhead. I didn't wear birkenstocks, dreadlocks or patcholie, wasn't an avid dancer, never actually camped out at a show, except for being blocked in by an 8 car deep parking job at Buckeye '88, as directed by the attendants right smack dab in the middle of the Shakedown Street main fareway, which was fun. It became an allnighter. Though I had my fair share of tie dyed shrts and what not, I wasn't even into the whole cosmic, Rainbow tribe traveling gypsy lifestyle. It was always about the music for me. It took a few tries to catch on, then when I finally did get it, was able to accept the musical diversity of the Dead.
As far as late-comer fans, my only real gripe was with those who only showed up for either the parking lot scene, for the miracle ticket or at worst, the gate crashers who caused the cancelation of the second night of Deer Creek '95, bastards. Whether the fans, or Heads for the matter, were veterans who were there from the begining, the '70s fans, or second generation heads, those who came on board in the '80s, but before In The Dark (as myself), the TouchHeads, or the post Brent arrivals, I could always tell who were real fans of the music, and/or the positive parts of the scene from those who never cared so much about the music just there for the party, and those who were parasites wanting freebies who would demolish a perfectly good venue because they either couldn't get a ticket or felt entitlment to the point of disrespect.
Even if you never got a chance to see the Dead live, but find enjoyment with the music, you are no more or less of a Deadhead than the person who saw 692 shows.
Incidently, I only went to one show without a ticket, and that was Buckeye Lake in '88 where, despite the massive crowd that arrived in the 102 degree heat, they could still be purchased at the box office.
I first saw a JGB show at a little club in San Francisco on Battery Street in 1979. I don't know if it is still there? The ceiling was so low, that on the stage riser, Jerry's head almost touched the ceiling. He played "Mission in the rain" and I was hooked. Caught over 100 shows since that one... Last shows were the 1995 Vegas set. Peace
...one man gathers what another man spills.
Nice post Blair, and a lot of truth to what you say. But like most things, it's a little more complicated.
I got on the bus in 1980 -- knew quite a few people who told me I had missed the boat then, and yes, I have a distinct memory of being introduced to a "seasoned vet" who kindly offered to make me a tape or two, and the said something along the lines of "here's the really good stuff, but you can't have it". That struck me as rather odd and, even at my newbie stage, struck me as being at odds with what I thought "the scene" was all about. So, I always carried that with me and tried to be mindful of avoiding that same attitude as the years rolled on.
However, 1987 surely was a turning point, and in many respects, there simply was not enough room on the bus after a while. I don't begrudge anyone for being a Deadhead based upon how, why or when they were turned on. But, as a pretty devoted tour rat in the 80's, things changed rather dramatically for me.
First and foremost, the whole experience became much less pleasant: think about s hanging at Red Rocks and camping at Chief Hosa for 3 days compared to one-off at McNichols stadium surrounded by asphalt, to be followed by one, one night stand after another.
Second, with the commercial success also came the predictable influx of people trying to cash in. I'm not talking about the 3 brothers who must have sold a zillion falafel sandwiches on one tour after another, but to the professional shirt manufacturers. As a result, GD productions started -- for the first time at shows -- to crack down on the sale of copyrighted merchandise, which made it difficult to be able to tour as a financial matter.
Third, there is no question that after 1987, you were much more likely to encounter people and situations that didn't exactly reflect the best of the community. I'm sure there always was such an element, but I'm also sure it became more pronounced.
All of which is to say, all is not (or was not) sunshine and light. I would never point the finger at anyone and blame them for what became of the scene (let alone for Jerry's death). And I never try to lord my experience over other, younger heads. The various post-GD acts play here in Colorado all the time. I've been to several shows over the years. I'm generally bored and unimpressed with the music, and at the same time gratified to see so many people getting off. Rather than looking down at them, I'm mostly jealous that I can't share the enthusiasm.
The humongous outpouring of support from the Deadhead community for the KPFA GD marathon last Saturday is ample evidence that this music is immortal. I hear from young fans all the time, people who were tykes when Jerry passed but have made up for lost time and become quite knowledgeable about the music and the culture.
I suppose the "Deader than thou" phenomenon will always be with us, like mosquito bites and Fox News, but we'll have us a good time and take good care of each other through it all, as we have always done.