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?
Knew a college DJ at Penn State in the '70s. I was in my teens and wanted to get into the music business and hung out with him often. One day he told me he needed to go downtown "to get something" and asked me if I wanted to go. Downtown was about nine miles from where we lived. We took the public bus to downtown Pittsburgh and the Dead were playing at the Civic Arena. The "something" he had to get was a "lid" of weed from someone who was going to the show. After he made his purchase he looked at the bus schedule and I said since we were already there we should check out the concert. He wasn't into it. I stayed and purchased a ticket for like eight or nine bucks, can't remember the exact cost. I was always going to concerts in those days as long as it was rock and roll. Met a cool, young married couple from West Virginia who thought it was amusing that I came alone. They turned me on with a few goodies including my first taste of moonshine. I was familiar with CASEY JONES at the time and that was about it. The Dead played songs that I didn't know yet each one sounded extremely familiar like I had heard it or been there before. The only tune they played that night that I really knew was EL PASO because my mom used to listen to the Marty Robbins' version. It didn't matter, though. By the end of NEW MINGLEWOOD BLUES (the opener), I was on the bus. Met a bunch of great folks throughout the years, young and old, newbies and elders, but I'll always remember the young Appalachian couple who helped me climb aboard with all the right credentials ... nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile!
My first shows were at the (then) Brendan Byrne Arena in Jersey - I grew up in Northern NJ so it was only natural to go there - in April '87. I hadn't even turned 17 yet so I had to rely on friends to drive me, but what a great time! "Touch of Grey" was all over the radio later that spring and summer, and that's one of the songs that really turned me on to the band, but the whole scene at these shows, before I'd ever heard In the Dark, was amazing. I'd been going to rock concerts since I was 14 but this was a whole new level of weirdness/excitement/just plain fun to me!
I always kind of resented the catchall term 'Touchheads', I mean, when you're a teenager you're still learning your own tastes (all right, in my case, I'm still learning my tastes), so I always thought it was a little unfair to label folks my age that way. Now, at 41, I'm an avid collector of shows, and it's always special to listen to ones I was there for: "Tennessee Jed" during the thunderstorm at Giant's Stadium in '89, or the first ever "Unbroken Chain" at my last show, March 19, 1995 at the Spectrum. I only saw Jerry once, Halloween 1993, but had a great time there and have a copy of that show as well.
I went through a long period where I kind of avoided the scene with personal problems and a period of substance abuse that had me thinking staying away from the Dead scene might be a good idea, but I came back to them, and I'm so glad I did before Jerry passed away.
Yes, there was a period in 87-88 where tie-dye was fashionable, and loads of people jumped on the Dead bandwagon, and played like they were hippies, but I think they left the Dead scene behind a long time ago. Maybe that's what the Touchhead moniker could apply to... But those of us who are still here, still listening to the music and/or seeing Bobby/Phil/Further, or collecting shows - we're just 'heads. To me, it doesn't matter when you joined up.
"Buy the ticket, take the ride. Mahalo." - Hunter S. Thompson
I agree. Very welll put Blair. From my first show at Duke University April 1978 I understood being on the bus. By then a true student of both the culture and the music I felt unworthy to be among those that traveled from show to show and lived the life. Stood 5 feet from Jerry the entire show and walked back stage and meet the band afterwards. How could you not be on the bus then?? Took me years to allow people to call me a "Deadhead" in respect of those that had the true '60's heritage. Watched the Dead rise and fall in popularity and saw the want a be's fall by the way side. I too have found myself occasionally pridefully discussing my Dead past. At 52 I am one of the few of my crowd still actively going to Furthur, Rat-dog, etc. shows.
I still feel the excitement I first felt and enjoy being with those of like mind. Only issue I have is with those that wear the shirts and have the car stickers but just dint get it. Soon ad they open their mouths they give themselves away!
Will say I felt myself an experience Deadhead after 32 years and hundreds of shows but experiencing the crowd at New Years Eve at the Graham this year reminded me I followed behind many who are still out on the bus.
May the spirit and the music live forever!!
I never saw Coltrane or Piaf or Frank Sinatra.... so we're even!
In the summer of 77 I went to UCSB to see the Dead and Warren Zevon. I was 16 years old and in HS. I ran into one of my HS teachers there and yea he became my best friend in HS and I had the most respect for him. From that show I was no the bus. As a teen in HS most kids didn't get it when Id fly to SF for a weekend show at Winterland or Fillmore. Id come back Monday morning with that look in my eyes like I was tripping all weekend and they knew something was up but no one ever got it. They were to busy listening to Boston, Styx, Journy, etc. You get the picture I was a deadhead and Music was my life.
So being a deadhead for a while I also had the pleasure of watching the band become much bigger then im sure they wanted to be. It seemed to me that in the late 80s the people that the band attracted did not have the hippie spirit as much as they where there to do drugs and get high. So to me they came on the bus for a different reason but its all good because the music was the catalyst to get the people to all come to the show for whatever reason at that moment there was a common bond. This common bond was all there for the same thing.
"The music Never stopped"
That album was a embarrassment, but I've talked to a LOT of folks who got into the Dead through it, so I guess they did something right!
As for peak periods... that's a whole 'nother discussion, but my own experience was that even though I got into the Dead in the early '70s and LOVED every show I saw back then, I actually had more FUN at shows through the '80s, when I had a larger social circle of Dead Head friends (in the '70s I went to quite a few shows alone, and didn't really have many Dead Head pals). For quite a while I would tell people that 3/18/77 was my favorite show that I ever attended (first "Scarlet-Fire," my first time hearing "Terrapin," favorite "NFA"), but I've reevaluated that notion dozens of times since and now I don't have a favorite show... or era for that matter. ;-)
Great post Blair!
I'm one of the "latecomers" but had to comment because I jumped on the bus in the 80's. It had nothing to do with "Touch of Grey" as my bus stop was a very conservative home in Northern California. My first show was the 1985 Oakland Coliseum New Year's Eve show. I watched it on the KTVU simulcast while my parents were sleeping! I grew up listening to the Dead with my uncle, a Pigpen diehard, but my I just didn't get it yet. However, watching that 1985 show, everything just clicked. My mind opened to a whole new experience. That night I got on the bus and started a journey that has expanded my life beyond what I could have imagined.
Shortly thereafter, I had the very special privilege of meeting Zion Godchaux. We became friends and spent some great years surfing and wandering through Marin and Sonoma Counties together. Donna Jean took me in and treated me as her own son and I am forever grateful. The love I received in her and David's home was incredible and it changed my life forever. Of course these experiences led me deeper into the family and allowed me to make many other beautiful connections. The circle of friends I call my own is so deep and rich I couldn't be more blessed.
In spite of being a "latecomer," somehow I was able to transcend time and space and experience many wonderful things. And the journey continues. There will always be newcomers and oldtimers and I can't help but show respect and welcome to all who call this place home. Peace and love.
I use to hear that when I visited the Bay Area in 1986. Well, sort of anyway.
I met with several Bay Area Deadheads then and some said they had read the police rapport on Jerrys arrest in Golden Gate Park earlier that year (or the year before?). They actually said they had a copy of the rapport but I couldn't see it because I wasn't enough Deadhead. So they only revealed the stated address in the rapport.
It was a San Rafael adress, Hepburn Heights (?) and a number. So me and a Swiss friend whom I had met at the hostel where I stayed most of my visit, we went up there and took some pictures outside the house. There were some mail in the mailbox but it seemed too insulting on the inhabitants integrity too look, so we never did that.
But back to being a Deadhead or not. I think if one only like the Grateful Dead enough, you're qualified to call yourself a Deadhead. Me, myself, I consider my purchase of "Live/Dead" i early November 1978 to be where I got on the bus, because that's when I "got it", that's when I really started to get into the Dead.
But it wasn't the first time I had heard them on record. I already owned a copy of Jerry Garcia - Reflections", which I had bought in early 1976, and this wasn't even the first record I had purchased with Garcia playing guitar. That was Tom Fogerty - Excalibur in April, 1974, and a year prior to that I almost got a copy Merl Saunders - "Fire Up!". So it took a couple of years before I really became what I considered to be a true Deadhead.
My record collection:
So technically I suppose I made it right under the "Touch Of Grey" wire, but the fact remains that '87, '88 and particularly (IMHO) '89 through early '91 saw some of the most phenomenal playing by the band, EVER. If people got on during that time, or right after, really, can you blame 'em? The energy that went back and forth through some of those shows, from band to crowd and back again, was just (to borrow a Jerry phrase) crackling.
I felt like the scene started to deteriorate- and the wheels came off the bus- not after Touch of Grey but rather after about mid '92.. But was that the fault of the fans? The scene? The GD machine? Jerry's health and other issues? Cause? Effect? Victim? Crime? Who knows, and maybe it's better to just accept some things as simple phenomena than look for a single root cause.
It's always tough when one's favorite band becomes hip or "popular"... the good news is, if you wait a few years, usually the people who were only there because they were trying to prove something will find something else to do, and the hard core fans will remain.
I had older siblings and their friends who were into the Dead before me, so naturally I hated them at first, as a kid. I had to figure it out for myself, and when I did, it meant that much more to me, which is probably a metaphor for a lot of life's discoveries.
I mean, the very idea of trying to be "Deader than Thou" is sort of absurd, if you really think about it. Like, there's nothing cool about worrying about being cool.
You're here alone, there's no one to compete!
Graduated High School in 1967, bought the 1st LP w/some of my graduation $. 1st show was in early '69, first time they played Minneapolis. 2nd was when they played the Guthrie Theatre in November of '70. Was in the house the first time they played a couple of my favorites at Northrup Auditorium at the U of MN campus. Most notably for me, that was the night they debuted "Jack Straw". Side note...My mom has owned 3 copies of American Beauty. She will be 83 in May...