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?
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!
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.
...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.
"We can still Get IT even in this new century". Right on roserunner!
IT will be in my thoughts today - thank you
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.....
I love reading all of these comments from Dead Heads past and present!
I didn't get the Dead until I turned 17, that was in 1992. I finally get to see them in the Summer of 1993 and 40 shows later Jerry passed away. It was interesting how I came to the Dead, I had this disgust for them as a kid in junior high. All of these kids would rant and rave about Skeletons from the Closet, but it seemed like they had no idea why they liked the Dead, it just seemed cool. This was back in 1989. In the summer of 89 I had a chance to go to the Deer Creek show with some long time neighbors of mine, my mom wouldn't let me go because I was only 14. I didn't care much.
One day, I was "hanging out" at a friends house, pulling three footers and started looking through his bootleg collection. As I was browsing the set lists I started to see names of songs that I loved as a kid...El Paso, Johnny B. Goode, Bobby McGee, Wake Up Little Susie, Hard to Handle (being popular with the Balck Crowes at the time), and I perked up. Then I noticed these little arrows going from song to song and I asked my friend Will what they meant. I also found it intriguing that the set lists varied from show to show. He told me that it meant that there was a transition between songs, and I though "COOL". I didn't bother to listen to anything that day, but realized that there was more to the band than Uncle John's Band, Truckin' and Sugar Magnolia.
Then the lightening bolt hit me! I was working at my dad's sporting goods store and there was this cassette tape with a cool cover left behind by a good friend, and co-worker. Since I didn't have anything else to listen to, I popped this cassette into the tape deck and on came a song called Me and My Uncle followed by a host of other amazing tunes. The show was 4/7/71 at the Boston Music Hall. By the time the St.Stephen>NFA>GDTRFB>Johnny B Goode came on I was hooked, and the rest is history.
That tape is long gone, but I have so many fond memories of following the band from state to state and miss those days when I was young and chasing the next hot analogue tape.
So as I sit here listening to one of the best shows I ever attended, 2/21/95 Salt Lake City, I am so glad that I hopped on the bus and wouldn't trade it for a thing.
... blackbearmama: supportive real family...the kindness of strangers... hope for the next generation... nice thoughts for a Sunday...
My best friend and I waited for a long time for that bus to come by, but living in a more "rural" spot, it didn't travel our way often. He used to walk around with an old, beaten copy of the Electric Koolaid Acid Test in his back pocket as though it were the manuscript to our salvation, and now I know that it was. We traveled 2000 miles by train to see the Dead in Ventura because we knew that bus wasn't stopping in our town soon enough. How as a teenager, I managed to talk my mother into that is still beyond me to this day, but I guess she saw the whole experience as a coming out party or some sort of rite of passage. Nonetheless, I remember standing in line at the payphone to give her the daily, hey I'm all right phone call, and so is "he who shall not be mentioned" [that friend]. Her motherliness often spilled over into the hearts of my friends, and so we were both on the radar screen for worry. I think the "BETTER THAN THOU" thing is just a judgment call by those who need to feel some self-worth in their identity as a Deadhead. I love Mozart, too and I never saw him in concert. I do feel frustrated sometimes when I see a trashed parking lot or just some atypical actions, and I've been working real hard to not be so judgmental, but I think for me I can say that I left a small, midwestern town with hardly any experiences beyond a farmland mentality. I landed on the shore of California, not knowing where to go or what to do, and I relied on the kindness of strangers, and I was taken care of. Some people we camped next to figured out we were green as green could be, and they lent a hand....my mother's wish was powerful enough to conjure up someone to watch out for us, and so it was, by some older hippies would had probably seen a thousand shows. I remember years later selling stuff in parking lots to the 'white hats' we called them....another judgment. I used to make buttons, colorful pin-ons, then went to baking pies and making hot cider. PEACE THROUGH MUSIC was the most popular button I sold...a lot of people like the sign I had them posted to....those were the days. Today I love bringing my oldest son to shows when I can, and sharing my memories and creating new ones. I'd like to think some of those new ones can still be filled with the same sharing and love and connectedness I experienced way back when I needed some guidance. I love to love people, and now that I'm old (not so old, middle old) I hope I can share that part of my heart with some young people, make them feel happier and safe, happy family-ish...that's what I go for, and the dancing. The dancing all the whole night long...not too old for dancing.
Everybody always sat down at The Avalon. Except for when these guys played. Same as the other time, everyone in the place was on their feet and jumping all around. Instead of being a polite recital of songs accompanied by guitars it was lively chaos and excitement. Everybody looked happy. I decided to start reading the handbills at Kepler's looking for Grateful Dead because I sure wanted to be around that energy again.
I happened to be in the right place/time to stumble into the bus way back when. It matters not when a person got on, it only matters that they are on. If someone says they are on then they are. Jerry his-own-self said there were lots of bands channeling the energy GDead tapped into. There are bands playing now tapping into that energy. We can still Get IT even in this new century.
You can be someplace else later
Be here now
Had the first album (and still have it) on mono- first live show 1972 Kansas CIty Kansas -- it was an okay show - next live show was in Omaha my freshman year of college at Kansas at it was stellar. I certainly felt that this era and into the early 80's were better that the early 90's varieties where things seemed more canned, the set list was fixed and energy was low - but will say Dead show in Chicago a year and a half ago was tremendous and a 2010 Further Show in Chicago was one of the finest concerts I have ever seen. The last two shows have been personally memorable because they have been with my 20+ year old son who once said to me in the car "but they don't really jam" --now he's firmly on the bus. I only wish he could have seen Jerry too.