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?
If you're "on the bus" you're one of the fortunate ones. It really doesn't matter when it happened, just that it happened. I'm equally thrilled to meet a brand-new Head as much as a veteran.
I jumped on the bus around age 13 when my buddy had the Workingman's Dead and American beauty albums. I picked up the Live/Dead album shortly there after along with all the others which only were 6 in total. When Skull and Roses came out they were heard on the radio a lot in New England and us young Dead Heads were pleading with our parents to allow us to go to the shows. My first break was the Dillon show in Hartford in 72 which was an eye opener. The Ace album had been released and also Garcia's solo album was ever so popular. Looking back at the setlist from the 72 Dillon show half of the tunes were unknown from this show but our wishes would come true when Europe 72 was released. Later in 72 with Europe 72 hitting the top 10 the Dead swept through NE again and we were able to see them and enjoy the newly released tunes. I found the 72 through 74 shows the best. I also saw most of the late 70's shows around NE but noticed in 78 a slight change. I quit going to shows in the 80's due to family and being a little disappointed in the bands direction. I still bought the records and CD's. Looking back the 80's with the period of Jerry's hoarse vocals were probably better than most of the 90's shows. This I experienced during my annual listen-thru of DP's 1-36 which shows a huge contrast from release to release from great to mediocre; DP24 (74) DP25 (78) DP26 (69) DP27 (92). DP28 (73). However I take this in stride and consider this an evolution and enjoy them anyway. My request is for more of the late 72 and 73 shows which seem to be best. At this point I also appreciate some of the better cherry picked shows. The RT V4 N2 isn't bad for a 88 show.
Yeah, I'm a Touchhead, but sue me that I wasn't born a decade earlier. I came into this world in '71 (on a night when the GD played a Black Panther benefit--cool!) and my first shows were Brent's last (Tinley Park '90 summer tour). I didn't crash any gates or come to the scene only to party. I was genuinely liberated, tripping hard in the rain and dancing so hard I swore I could fly. I regret that I only saw 7 shows with Jerry, but I remain on the bus and take what Dead experiences I can get. Going to see Furthur at the Orpheum in Boston next weekend for my 40th birthday!
"May the 4 winds blow you safely home."
Cape Cod 10-27-79 was certainly a worthy first show. Phil's ripping Other One intro made mince meat of many a young and old mind that night. Catching Jerry's late show in Feb 1980 with an After Midnight / Eleanor Rigby / After Midnight sandwich was even sweeter. Come Boston 5-12-80, it was full speed ahead!
Bringing my parents to a show in '85 at Providence was a treat. They had a terrific time, and though they didn't know the songs they could say which ones had that special touch. My father even braved a trip to the taper's pit during the break. Once he got a cd player in his car, he loved "American Beauty" and the Stones "Some Girls" and "Exile on Main Street" - talk about a long, strange trip from Frank Sinatra land.
While I'm heading to more Furthur shows at the Orpheum next weekend with a bounce in my step, and have savored the many versions of Phil & Friends, especially with Larry and JC, nothing has hit the spot like the the good old Grateful Dead, but then my Mom says the same thing about Frank. Whether Feel Like A Stranger is the new Strangers in the Night is a topic for a different day - maybe the day we talk about Bobby and Midnights when Bobby would croon Book of Rules and slink about the stage like Frank with a bum knee.
Excellent post, Blair. My dad took me to Dead shows when I was just a baby. Considering I am only 21 years old now, it was an honor to see Jerry, even though I don't remember it. I was only 5 years old when he passed.
I think that argument that some people use, "you got into them in x year, therefore you are not really a fan, blah, blah, blah," is used too frequently and is very flawed.
Hey, I absolutely love the Dead, with a passion. Even though they are not around anymore, I can still get to see and take my friends to see Furthur, Phil and Friends, Ratdog, DSO, etc. Does that make me less of a "head" sense I only got to see Jerry when I was a toddler, I don't think so...
Spot on. That the Dead are STILL gathering devotees long after Jerry's death demonstrates that it matters not how/who/what/where/when/how often. All that matters is that people dig the music and all that it brings with it.
As someone said - the best surfer is the one having the best time on the waves.
My younger brother gave me two Grateful Dead tapes when I was 16. I liked Scarlet Begonias. I listenend to the closing of Winterland concert with my best girl friends from high school. When I was 17 I would stand in line for several hours outside of the Berkeley Keystone to see the Jerry Garcia Band play. There was no back stage, so the band walked through the crowd to get onstage. Sometimes they played until 3 am. Then Jerry and John would carry their instruments and walk to their Ford Pinto station wagon. I also saw Donna and Keith play there as The Ghosts during this time. I saw Bobby and the Midnites play a few times in SF. I saw the Jerry Garcia Band several times at The Stone in SF and once at The Stone in Palo Alto. I finally saw the Grateful Dead play at Spartan Stadium in San Jose in 1980. I made it to the front row at sunset as they were singing Estimated Prophet. I have heard that this was Brent's first show with the band. I was able to go backstage for three New Years 82-83 shows at the Oakland Auditorium. My favorite story was how my girlfriend and I took three buses to get to San Mateo High School Auditorium to see The Grateful Dead in 1982. I stood in front of Jerry all night. Joan Baez and Bob Weir sang "Bobby McGee". We had no idea how we were getting home. In the parking lot after the show, my brother walks up to us from out of nowhere, says "we have a van and are heading back to Berkeley, do you need a ride?" I have saved every one of my ticket stubs to every show, including many New Years tickets, which are works of art. I saw the Dead at least 80 times. I am lucky that I could walk home from shows at the Greek Theater and the Oakland Auditorium. I worked for Bill Graham security for a couple of shows at Frost Amphitheater in 1985. I was able to be at the sound board. I have seen Dark Star Orchestra once. I was able to take my brother to see the Grateful Dead at Shoreline Amphitheater in May, 2009. Then I took my best friend to see Further on 12/30/2010. It felt like being at a New Years show again, 15 years later, something that I thought was gone forever.
Excellent article Blair, I certainly can relate. I didn't see them live until 1993, and felt I missed so much- Just as people who never saw them feel they missed something. The truth is, there was nothing like a Grateful Dead concert, and never will be. It was a house of magic and inspiration, and quite simply, beyond description. But the magic is the music, and this art is built to last, and will as long as we can imagine. The Grateful Dead is like the sun- Their light shines on each of us differently, and we all feel the warmth.
and unique and cannot be measured or judged by others". Well said thndrbill! You said it much more eloquently than could I!
Despite growing up in the Bay Area, I had not heard too much of the Dead when I went to see them at Winterland on New Year's Eve in 1972. I was 15 (I have no idea why my parents let me go) and while we waited outside in line, a wild looking guy came up to us and opened a silver jewelry case lined with black velvet. A little sign inside said "Courtesy Of The Grateful Dead" and there will little pieces of blotted paper, which he gave us and we soon ingested.
Between the paper pieces, the light show and an incredible performance by the band my friends and I had an other-worldy experience that definitely shaped the rest of our lives. The sense of community and to finally "fitting-in" somewhere was equally game changing.
After the third set, about six in the morning we were on the way home on the freeway when we got pulled over. The cop asked the driver if he had any idea how fast he was going. "I wasn't speeding!" he replied. "No", said the cop, "You were going eight miles an hour." Fortunately the patrolman was soon distracted by a drunk driver sideswiping an overpass and we were able to make a slow escape.
I don't think it matters if you never saw them play or saw them a thousand times so long as the beauty and imagination of the music and the people who gathered to hear it ignites something inside you. Everyone's experience of the band and the scene is personal and unique and cannot be measured or judged upon by others.
That said, I showed my teen-age daughter a scene from The Grateful Dead Movie in which I was part of the audience, thinking it might make me seem hip or something. When she quit laughing she said "Dad, you looked ridiculous."