How I learned to stop worrying and love the Dead
The man that brought me here says (and I agree) that for most people, the '60s didn't happen until the '70s.
I was 12 at the cleavage of the decades, and turned 18 the year they ended the Vietnam Era draft. I remember it was almost like somebody threw a switch, and my age cohort shifted on a dime from at least a nominal concern for human rights and freedoms, and for peace, to dull careerist consumerism on one hand and hedonism on the other. "The Me Decade" sucked.
Back then, I espoused a disdain for "hippies," even while my ass-length hair and shitty goatee marked me as one to folks that didn't know me. Nowadays, when I hear folks of A Certain Age profiling skinny jeans-hornrimmed glasses-facial hair-and-porkpie hat wearers as "hipsters," I think it's funny the way we grow up to become the people we hated.
Not being a hippie, of course, I couldn't possibly be a Grateful Dead fan. Even when I was getting "experienced," I loathed the smug hipness of every Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test-and-Carlos Castaneda-quoting instant mystic, a type with which their claque -- enormous in the Tri-State (NY/NJ/CT) Area -- was riddled. On that score, I must concur with Mad Men's Don Draper, when he dismisses his recently turned-on coworker with a curt, "Oh Christ, Roger. Lots of people that haven't taken LSD know that."
But I loved (and still love) the Dead's 1970 album American Beauty, which was one of the pleasures that sustained me -- via the wonder of underground radio, which I'd just discovered -- through a few weeks I spent in bed the season when it was released with a respiratory complaint, a tank of oxygen, and a copy of The Lord of the Rings.
More earthy than cosmic, its impact derived from vocal harmonies as lilting as CSN's (but less precious) and songcraft as antique-sounding as the Band's (but more folk-bound than Robbie Robertson's crew, who secretly channeled Ray Charles and Bobby Bland while looking like Civil War throwbacks). Robert Hunter's Zen-like lyrics made hippie utopias like "Ripple" ("...in still water, when there is no pebble tossed or wind to blow") and "Box of Rain" ("This is all a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago") sound mighty inviting.
Musically, Jerry Garcia showed his bluegrass roots on "Friend of the Devil," and he'd go on to make some of his best music with mandolinist David Grisman, who guested on the track. "Sugar Magnolia," sung by Bob Weir, just might just be the Dead's best song, while bluesman-wannabe Pigpen's "Operator" takes a leaf from the Lovin' Spoonful songbook, a relic of a time when "blues-rock" might refer to Piedmont as well as Chicago. "Brokedown Palace" could have been written by Stephen Foster, while the stately and majestic "Attics of My Life" sounds like an Anglican hymn. "Truckin'," an account of a drug bust, was inescapable after its release as a single in '71.
Although I didn't realize it at the time, I'd heard a couple of the songs on a PBS special that was broadcast around the time the album was released. The song that stuck in my mind the most from that broadcast was the Pigpen-sung "Easy Wind," which shifted back and forth between the Dead's signature loose-limbed syncopation and a conventional slow blues drag. Phil Lesh, a former jazz trumpeter and student of composer Luciano Berio, didn't lock it in the pocket like a typical rock bass player, which gave the Dead's jams an unusually free-flowing sound.
When I went off to college, I encountered scores of Deadheads, from the two coked-out kids down the hall who used to entertain the really neat girls by singing along and playing air guitar to Dead (and early Beatle) records they spun on their expensive stereo system, to some hippie-type guys I jammed with while wandering the wilderness from one band to another. But one of the most transcendent musical experiences of my life occurred one Sunday afternoon in springtime, when I was wandering around stoned in the park and stumbled upon a bunch of guys playing Dead music on a flatbed truck. I don't know who they were, but the memory of the gig is still with me, nearly 40 years later.
I saw the Dead live once, after I'd moved to Texas, with a friend of mine who was a fan. During the show, I'd look over at my friend after Garcia had played some particularly striking quicksilver run (his upper-register soloing had the same quaver to it as his singing voice did, but he played beautiful pedal steel-sounding things on straight guitar), and notice that he was asleep. When we were leaving the concert, I kidded him that I'd thought he was a fan and he replied, "The secret to being a Deadhead is knowing when to wake up."
In the late '80s, I got reminded of the Dead by experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser's album Those Who Know History Are Doomed To Repeat It on SST (!), which, in its CD version, included five Captain Beefheart songs as well as covers of the Dead's "Mason's Children" and "Dark Star/The Other One." (The Beefheart tunes aren't on the vinyl version I now own. Wha-wha.)
"Dark Star" is, of course, the Dead's magnum improvisational opus, and Kaiser's version got my attention at a time when I was obsessed with '70s Miles Davis and Funkadelic. When I got out of the service and moved back to the DFW area, I became a regular listener to KNON-FM's "Lone Star Dead" show, and hearing different versions of the piece gave me a better appreciation for the side of the Dead's music that's "psychedelic" in the sense of trying to approximate the experience, rather than just being the product of people who've had it.
(More recently, while jamming at a party with Terry Valderas and Robert Kramer, I experienced the shock of recognition when I heard them playing a theme from "The Other One" in the middle of one of our improv forays. So much so that I failed to pick up on it myself. Feh.)
Is there a place for the Dead in a world where, musically, Black Sabbath is the most influential band from 1970, while sartorially, the Band holds the same distinction? Closing in on two decades after Garcia's death, it's easier to separate their music from its social milieu (the rich ex-hippies that followed them wherever they played; remember, Ann Coulter was a Deadhead). The Dead were rehabilitated in the late, lamented Arthur magazine, but sadly, Daniel Chamberlin's appreciation and a couple of mixtapes by Greg Davis haven't survived in their online archives. [ADDENDUM: Arthur's Dead revisionism subsequently resurfaced here and here.]
Myself, I still have the copy of American Beauty I bought when I was a snotnose and recently salvaged from the wreckage of my sister's marriage. The album before it, Workingman's Dead, has my favorite song of theirs, "Uncle John's Band," but also one I don't ever care to hear again, "Casey Jones" ("Drivin' that train, high on cocaine..."). You also owe it to yourself, in my opinion, to hear at least one version of "Dark Star." You could do worse than starting with the one on Live/Dead. So there.