Grateful Dead

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?

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Joined: Sep 16 2007
Not deader than thou, but...

my first show was the Human Be-In, January 67 GG Park. As a 14-year-old teenybopper I went to worship the Airplane, but the bus came by and I got on as soon as GD swung into the double-time part of "Viola Lee." Missed a few bus stops in the 70s but got back on in the 80s.

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Harsh...

... lamagonzo! I think the testimony of many who have written here and thousands elsewhere show that it certainly is possible to "get it" without having been there. Is it the same? No. But it's not inauthentic...

I would also humbly suggest that karma has nothing to do with it...

 

lamagonzo (not verified)
Agree with GProf

You had to be there to "get it". Even the superb audience/board mixes that really make those who were there salivate for the good old days will do for others almost less than nothing.

So, the experience of the energy was vital for any particular show. Hanging out on Shakedown for some, Participating in an orgy is some hotel room with everything available under the sun to get your freak on -- or, whatever you did built the energy up to that point where you made sure you had your ticket and went in. Then a whole new context opened up and you got comfortable with friends in a place and all the time the energy was building. Then the lights went down -- the show -- the aftermath. Going to heaven or hell & back as the music played and you tripped.

What went down can't be found with the best tapes, sorry. You had to be there.
Bliss to all. If you came late or missed altogether it was your karma. Don't bum about it, Instead rejoice it happened...

(Did it really???)

...some afternoon and evening not so long ago.

I'm sure there are battle-worthy veterans of the "Rave" scene also. But alas, a different scene.

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Grateful Prof...

I agree completely with you about those points...

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
I have friends...

....who won't listen to anything post-Keith & Donna now, even though they went to dozens and dozens of shows in the Brent era and beyond, and had a great time at most of them. Personally, I'll listen to any era, though I go in and out of "period" phases, and I won't hesitate to skip over a track I don't want to hear for whatever reason. During this period I was working on the liner notes for the E72 box, I've listened to almost nothing else... it was a pretty good place to hang out for a few weeks...

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Joined: Oct 1 2007
thanks, Blair....

for your comments (and for so much else!). I think we are in agreement. For music that is highly performative, like the Dead, and certainly Coltrane, and, dare I say it, Beethoven, who was a great improviser, being there does mean something. Many who never saw Coltrane (like, alas, myself) or, of course, Beethoven (now that would have been a show!) can, as you say, analyze the music, and even the culture surrounding it, in thoughtful and interesting ways. But if someone says something like, "Seeing David Murray now, or Charles Gayle is just like having seen Coltrane," well, someone who saw both is in a better position to say, actually you are wrong (or right, as the case may be!). Now this might not matter for much unless you are making comparative claims, writing a history, etc and so forth. Listening to the recordings gives us access to much that we otherwise could not access, but not everything. How often have you put on a tape of a favorite show for someone, and been transported back to that place, and it leaves the person who is just hearing it if not cold, rather indifferent. The Dead experience, as you have done so much to help us understand, is more than just the sounds. For me the bus got rickety by, say, 1980, and I like to think that those who think otherwise might, with time and listening, at least be able to understand why I and others think so. In the end we might disagree about issues aesthetic, but subjectivity is not the same as "I think this for no reason at all," our reasons my not convince others, but they are real, and worth considering if one wants to play the "analyze the Dead" game. I gotta play that game, it pays the rent!

--daemian--'s picture
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Joined: Jul 21 2008
I have the opposite issue. I

I have the opposite issue. I have no use for GD music that is later than say 1974, with very few exceptions. And zero exceptions past 1979. I will listen to shows from 1969-1973 (sans Donna) all day long, and count many such shows as some of my favorite things in life.

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Interesting points, grateful prof...

...I generally agree, but I would also add that because there is so much Dead music available out there from every era, someone who's coming along now can certainly immerse themselves enough in that range of music to talk about it intelligently, even though they might not have "been there," just as, as some have noted, we can intelligently discuss the evolution of Beethoven's writing or John Coltrane's style over time without having been there. As for one person claiming a '92 China Cat is better than this '74 one, well that's always going to happen; music will always be subjective. I'm always surprised when I run across people who think '69 Dead all sounds the same; but it's certainly not "wrong" to feel that way.

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Joined: Sep 10 2007
Love & multi-facets

"We can still Get IT even in this new century". Right on roserunner!
IT will be in my thoughts today - thank you

Cheers B

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Joined: Oct 1 2007
on the bus

While I agree with Blair in general terms, for there is never a reason to be nasty to others, or "holier than thou" about one's committment to the Dead, the amount of time one spent on the bus does yield differential knowledge, that often does manifest itself in discussion, even here. For, as we all know, the scene did change with time, how could it not, and it is only by experiencing it that you can really know what it was like. (For is that not the mantra of heads of all ilks--you had to be there?) When a head of, say, the post Touch of Grey era generalizes their experience to cover the whole multi-faceted tapestry of Dead-dom, well, that is both problematic and false history.) It can also have aesthetic ramifications. Many of the older heads share the view, expressed in varied ways, and to varying degrees, that there was a decline in the quality of the music, and the scene, over time. Now, this is a debate one can legitimately take either side of, but unless you were there throughout the time span being considered, it is impossible to be fully informed on the subject. Sure your peak Dead musical experience might have been that great China-Rider and late dark Star at the Garden, but can you really imagine what it would have been like to witness the Cleveland show 17 years earlier? It does not matter when you got on the bus for judging the quality of one's soul, one's commitment to the music, or aspects of one's knowledge of it, but surely it CAN matter if you are interested in the life-cycle, so to speak, of the band and the scene. Thank god this is true, because it is a product of the every-changing nature of the band and its music. If it were not true, well, we would be faced with a band whose music was static, always the same, never evolving, and quite frankly, noone would be having this debate! Moral, enjoy the band in whatever way gives you pleasure, be polite to all, but listen to your elders, since they may hip you in to something you did not experience, but sure would have enjoyed if you did. That old geezer sitting in the corner, well remember, once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places.....

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