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?
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...
G'day Blair. Thought I'd ramble awhile and tell you my story. I'm in Australia and was born in the mid 70s; though the Dead never played here the bus certainly came by...
I was the victim of a cosmic prank in that my family lived in the US in the early 90s so I could have seen the Dead! The only time I recall hearing about them during those years was when one of my high school teachers announced to the class that he had tickets to see the Dead at RFK. Years later I figured out he attended 6/14/91 and got a Dark Star!
A few years later, in 1994, I started university and had access to the internet for the first time. I remember browsing through newsgroups and being drawn to rec.music.gdead. There was a palpable sense of excitement and energy, and of course shows were occurring - in particular I remember 10/14/94 and the flurry of pronouncements that Scarlet Fire was 'the one.' I was struck by a strong sense that there was more going on here than what I was seeing on the surface.
I posted asking for recommendations on where to start and received suggestions for various studio albums, and the ubiquitous direction to check out the live stuff man! This was my first encounter with the Deadhead community and generosity as a head sent me a couple of packages of tapes to start me out. I chose a tape, hit play, and it has been magic ever since. It was really exciting to receive a bunch of tapes and I'm happy I got a chance to get a taste of tape trading just before the net changed that whole experience.
My story is one of never having seen the band but discovering that the transforming power of the music does survive intact on the tapes and still transmits to ears open to hear.
Somewhere in time I heard Casey Jones and bought Workingman's Dead so it would have been 1970. I loved the song but I was more into hard rock like Zep. I didn't "get" GD's music right off. This was a year after I graduated and I used to have friends over to play cards, listen to music, have a few beers. I remember my buds cracking up because my mother was singing along to "driving that train, high on cocaine" in the kitchen while washing the dishes. Workingman is still one of my favorite albums and it is in my car stereo today. My favorite will always be Europe 72. Dave Edmunds named one of his albums "Repeat When Necessary" and I always thought it very appropriate. When I want to hear Edmunds' music....I reach for his cd. When I want The Dead....I always have Workingman's Dead close by.
63-year-old Granny here, been "on the bus" since almost before there WAS a bus...I got interested in the Dead when Mickey Hart became their drummer in 1967, since I had already been a fan of his. Haven't gotten off the bus since...only five live shows, but never stopped listening....
when i was 7 my god father aka my dads best friend was a fan and had some good stuff on real to real mind you i was not born till 77 so i was a looser from the start on a deader than thoe contest anyway a few years later my family was at a local tavern eating dinner and i asked my father for some money for the juke box un knowingly i selected the entireskeletons album and the big joke was i was going to turn out to be a dead head lmaoi was 11 at the time slowly but surly as time progressed i remeber seeing guys comming to buy pot from my dad with dead shirts on and i was in love with the art on them and slowly but surely i was introduced to some dead tunes that i liked mostly pig era being my dad was a outlaw biker and his boys liked the blues that pig brought to the table at 14 one of my dads friendsi was selling weed for under my fathers radar mind you turned me on to some acid to sell and with in weeks i was the star amungst the older kids that were into the sceen so in 94 i quit school and hit the road for some shows i saw the boys play 12 times in the next 2 years so i consider myself the last generation of true heads not that i am putting my friends down that never saw a show with jerry but allways considered myself to be one of the lucky ones to this day i still hit the road for phill ..sorry boby you just dont do it for me like phill lol so i guess im saying that thair are 2 kinds of head thoes who did see jerry live and those that wish they did and none of us are any better i know i can call a year out by hearing a bootleg and am most of the times right ojn the money i know that many have come and gone b4 me and i thank all that paved the way and i will contine to pass the lessons ive lerned to the next genn heads .... thanks for your time critter from western newyork
I didn't become a fan until I saw the Dead in 1995. Before that I had only heard "Skeletons From the Closet", which is a poor representation of what the Dead is all about. I figured if "Mexicali Blues" is one of the top 10 best songs in the entire Grateful Dead catalog I wouldn't need to look much further. But when I saw the Dead live for the first time in 1995 they blew me away! I had no idea they could jam like that and fill the stadium with such bliss. It all clicked for me that day and I've been a fan ever since!
...largely rules out the one-upmanship of "How many shows did you see" as nobody who stayed in Europe (or the rest of the world for that matter) could begin to compete with our American cousins who could, seemingly at the drop of a hat, give up everything and go on the road for a complete tour. We are just grateful that we got the chance to see the band at all.
As regards the smug attitude of towards people who got into the band later, that could be down to that strange emotion associated with lost esotericism (Is that a word?) whereby one is not happy when something that you cherised, possibly for its uniqueness, becomes popular - even mainstream. Also the so-called generation gap plays a part here - the culture and attitudes of people whose formative years were in the late sixties - early seventies are very different to those who are tenty years younger (literally a generation younger).
I personally think that the band's best period was the period that I grew up during. In my case it was the late sixties - early seventies and I sincerely believe that this was when they were at their peak, but I am old and wise enough to know that someone who grew up in the eighties and never experienced the hippie counterculture thing that spawned the band will have a totally different perspective on their music - and they will also believe that they grew up during the band's best period. This is, of course, no reason at all to belittle the views of others. Simply put, the band's best period is the period that a person considers to be their best period, whenever it may have been. It is all down to personal taste and to make a big debate out of it is to miss the point entirely.
Of course, it goes without saying that my humble opinion is the only right one!