Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The Dead Files

God bless Amazon Prime.  There are times when I wonder why I have it, but then the are times like now, when they exclusively carry the new Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, that it all makes sense.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed watching this, warts and all.

The warts?  Maybe “lack of warts” might be a better description.  Not necessarily warts: there’s a lot missing.  I was waiting for a good 20-minute segment on their insane trip to play at the pyramids in Egypt in 1978 (which I read about in real time via Rolling Stone as a 70’s teenager).  Some legendary band associates are glossed over, and infamous wives of Jerry are completely missing.  Entire albums, particularly in the 70’s, aren’t even mentioned, particularly post Workingman’s Dead.  I wouldn’t mind all this, save an entire episode is dedicated solely towards their legendary fans, The Deadheads.

And that’s a complete waste of film when there’s so much other far more important ground that needs to be covered in a documentary of this size and scope.  I didn’t truly get into The Dead until well into the 90’s, after Jerry died.  I can’t recall the exact time or place, but I remember hearing “Box of Rain” in somebody’s apartment, and it struck me light a thunderbolt.  One of those album tracks that rarely got played on AOR radio in the 70’s or 80’s.  The clouds parted for me, rushed out and bought Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.  And thus I became a fan.  If you’re skeptical of The Dead’s greatness, buy only those two albums.  They aren’t all you need, but they’re the best.

Why wasn’t I a fan in the 70’s or 80’s?  Was I not exposed to their music?  Sure, I was.  I think Brother J might have even had that standard-issue greatest hits set from the time.  (Brother M, I’m certain, thought they were horseshit, although in fairness he seemed to think roughly the same of most 60’s bands and focused in on his 70’s heroes like Bowie and Rundgren.)  I constantly heard songs like “Truckin” and “Casey Jones” on the radio, to a lesser degree tracks like “Ripple” and “Uncle John’s Band.”  It was usually the same handful of tracks, over and over and over.  No other album tracks.  Ever.  No “transcendent” live tracks, ever.  (Commercial FM radio stations surely would not have played bootleg live material at the time, although they would play cool stuff like King Biscuit Flower Hour concerts.)  I liked those handful of songs.  (I love them now.)  In real time I was hearing stuff like “Shakedown Street” … which wasn’t quite doing it for me!

Back then?  In my mind, as a kid in the 70’s, there was a whole hippie stigma attached to The Grateful Dead that I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around.  I respected them, but only because I was religiously instructed to do so by the waning counter-culture powers that be (like Rolling Stone).  I thought Jerry Garcia was an affable and likable enough character, but I had no concept of just how talented a guitarist and songwriter he was.  I suspect even if you had exposed me to the good stuff, the tracks that floor me now, it wouldn’t have made sense in my 70’s adolescent mind.

It was the 1980’s that cryogenically froze The Dead for me, that whole decade and halfway through the 90s, until Jerry passed on, when that immense door quietly swung all the way open.  College should be a time of great discovery for anyone smart enough to recognize four years of relative freedom compared to the prison of high school, and the anticipation of getting by in “the real world” when it all ended.  It surely was for me; it opened me up like a flower.  Musically?  So much stuff happened, and not just with 60’s music.  Although I will say, it wasn’t until then that Bob Dylan made any sense to me, and became an overnight god.  He wasn’t alone.  (That massive Atlantic Soul series of the mid-80s affected me just as much as any white 60’s recording artists, maybe even more so as it opened me up to a whole different space and feel that rock music could possibly offer.) Bob Dylan’s classic mid-60’s period, that was a guy who wasn’t fucking around, or fucking around so cosmically that you had to stop and marvel at his ingenuity.  If he was stoned, it was in a much more enlightened, deep, human way than whatever general hippiedom appeared to offer.  That music felt real to me in a direct, immediate way.  Still does.

A huge cross section of the 1960’s opened up to me in college in the 1980’s, although I already had an overwhelming affection for the decade from being raised in the 70’s: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, Hunter Thompson. Tom Wolfe, Vonnegut, and so on. 

The Dead?  Nothing.  Why?  One word: Deadheads.

I might have referenced this incident before, but I knew a girl, Elizabeth, who was a staunch English major, very clean cut, very much into poetry, very much a proper, intelligent young woman who seemed like she would have been much more at home at Princeton or Yale than Penn State, which was and is a bit of a yahoo school.  Shit, I went there one third out of family tradition, one third because it was eminently affordable (at the time, although I gather that’s changed), and one third because the football team kicked ass.  (Boy, would we get an unforeseen wakeup call further on down the road.)

We knew each other at our branch campus, and we went on knowing each other when we moved up to the much larger main campus our junior year.  I found work as an editorialist on the campus paper, and had a blast doing so.  One day I was typing up one of my columns in the basement, talking to one of the photographers on the paper.  I can’t even remember his name, but he was a very cool, slightly older guy … think Frederic Forrest in Apocalypse Now.  He didn’t look like Forrest, but he had the exact same vibe about him, slinky and cool, like a cartoon character from a Ralph Bakshi movie come to life.  I really liked that guy and respected his opinions.

Lo and behold, he said, here comes my girlfriend, and Elizabeth walks in the room.  Our minds were blown.  I knew and liked both of them, a lot, although I was surprised that she would find herself with a guy so comparatively worldly and a bit wild.  We bantered for a bit and immediately agreed to have dinner at “their place” that weekend.  Man, she was living with the dude!  This was a lot of information to take in, given that I thought she spent her nights playing chess with a bust of Alexander the Great, or something.

That Saturday rolled around, and I went to their apartment off campus for dinner.  It’s always awkward for people that age to have an adult-style dinner only with each other.  For one, we barely knew how to make real food, beyond ramen and canned goods.  I can’t remember what we had, but it had that stilted feel you get of a few people in their early 20’s acting as adult as they possibly could.  Wine flowed, another shock, I recalled her being a strict teetotaler at the branch campus.  We didn’t get hammered, just pleasantly drunk.  The conversation was nice, what we were reading, our classes, the enormous changes we were sensing in ourselves over the past six months, etc.

Dessert times rolled around.  Hey, Bill, would you like to listen to some music?  You know me, of course I would.

Elizabeth pulled out one of those medium-sized black leather cases that people would carry cassette tapes in.  Everyone had these in the 80’s as cassettes had become the medium of choice, a lot more mobile than vinyl, playable in cars, etc.  Most guys had these cases in their cars filled with their favorite albums and mixes.  She opened up that leather case …

… and every single cassette had the xeroxed symbol of a skull with a lightning bolt on it.  I knew exactly what that meant: these people were Deadheads, and all they listened to was live bootleg recordings of The Grateful Dead.  Nothing else.  Not The Allman Brothers.  Not prog.  Not metal.  Not punk.  Surely nothing recent.  Not even Dead studio albums.  Only Dead live bootlegs.

They may as well have pulled out a baby goat, slit its throat, smeared the doomed animal’s blood over their naked torsos and started howling … it had the same effect on me.  Shit.  Elizabeth.  The dude I thought was so cool from the paper.  Deadheads!  No.  Just no, man, this can’t be.  It was an exact photo negative of being side-swiped by Born Again Christians playing “cool” until they pulled The Bible out and asked if you’ve ever truly met their special friend, our lord and savior Jesus Christ.

What do you want to hear, Bill?  Well, the sound of the door slamming and my echoing footsteps running down the hall!  But in lieu of that, I always liked the song “Playing in the Band” … is there a good version of that.  Thus ensued a debate about whether the one from Cornell in ’77, or Nassau Coliseum in ’81, or Boston Gardens in ’80, or … you get the picture.  (And I’m sure your average Deadhead would correct me in a heartbeat if this song didn’t appear in any of these shows.)  The decision was made, the tape was pulled …

And I then heard what had to be the worst fucking version of “Playing in the Band” I’ve ever heard!  That was the thing about Deadheads in the 80s.  That suitcase of tapes they would always pull out.  (Which never, and I mean never, had concerts for any other band.)  They somehow managed to find the worst, shittiest dubs of those concerts that sounded like noodly hippie jibberish coming out of a boombox.  I’ve since heard many very well-recorded, clear bootlegs of numerous Dead live tracks that have floored me … but back then, it just never happened.  That might have been my first exposure to Deadheads, but surely not the last.  And it was always the same scenario.  Not your typical Deadheads, not the dreadlocked, patchouli-reeking lost souls of the 80’s, pretending to be hippies, latching on to a mostly long gone culture that was much akin to bands like Sha Na Na in the early 70’s pretending it was still 1958.

The Deadheads I met with the tape cases were always relatively clean, hip, smart college kids who were otherwise very cool, insightful people to be around.  They just had the most inexplicably narrow taste in music that I could never fathom.  Sure, I can see having a radical reaction against the artifice of the 80s, the cold synthesizers, reverbed vocals, gated drums, fake-sounding horn sections, fretless bass … that hollow 80’s sound … I could understand revolting against that by retreating into 60’s music.  But what about Dylan, or The Band, or The Stones, or The Allman Brothers, or folk music in general, or god forbid, even embracing classic country as a giant “fuck you” to the pop of the 80’s?  Had Elizabeth and the photographer pulled out a suitcase filled with Hank Williams cassettes, that would have been one hell of a night.

It never happened.  In that instance, they put on that bootleg, it was like listening to stray cats fight and fuck in an alley filled with empty trash cans.  To top it all off, Elizabeth lit up a joint, and man, the world ended, as I knew she came from a very strict background, and dating this guy from the paper was her big rebellion.  I could picture the awkward Thanksgiving dinner coming up with the new boyfriend, this hang-loose, artsy guy in his mid-20’s who had that wonderful “whatever, dude, just give me a Kerouac paperback, and I’ll sit over here on the sofa, man, while you upper-middle-class folks stare daggers at each other” countenance … she was heading for her showdown with parental authority for maybe the last time in her young adult life.

Those were your higher-end Deadheads, Deadheads pursuing college degrees, as opposed to people completely stoned out of their minds, following the band on tour from one city to another, selling whatever wares they had or made to acquire ticket and drug money.  I didn’t get it then and still don’t now.  It just seemed so constricting, to be that focused on one band to the exclusion of all others, to create a lifestyle that served as monument to that narrow sense of taste.

For me, respecting The Dead after Jerry died was understanding where alt. country was born, although it surely wasn’t known as that at the time, and wouldn’t be known as such until the late 1980’s when punk would serve as another catalyst for that whole scene to happen.  But back then?  The first two albums by The Band.  Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty by The Grateful Dead.  The first few Neil Young albums, particularly with songs like “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Don’t Cry No Tears.”  That’s alternative country music.  It’s not rock musicians playing straight country, like The Byrds on Sweethearts of The Rodeo or Gram Parsons thereafter.  It’s not The Eagles pulling that similar sort of music in a very pop/rock direction.

It’s very raw, “country” music that touches on roots far deeper than rock music, but uses the immediacy and instrumentation of rock music to communicate those age-old truths.  The Dead had that quality in spades, as did The Band.  Neil Young was just an expert at pulling together those loose strands and presenting them as a beautiful, unified sound that no one could quite classify at the time, save to note that it was good, sometimes great.  A lot of 60’s artists paved the way for that to happen, you can even credit The Stones for helping it to happen (“Dead Flowers,” “Let It Bleed,” “Country Honk”).  Credence Clearwater Revival dabbled in this, but generally veered more rock … still, they had it, too.  It seemed like a general vibe at the time a lot of those great early 70’s rock artists could tap into, seemingly at will.

So, forgive me if I can live without the drugs, or the inane lifestyle choices, or the endless sea of bootleg concerts.  When I finally got into The Dead, it was solely based on the music, most of it thanks to Jerry, although Bob hit it out of the park every now and then, too.  Whatever faults the man had, they were easily forgiven by the music.  I have no idea what “kids today” make of the Dead.  As far as I’m concerned, kids in the 80’s were getting them all wrong, which turned me away from their music for a long time to come, much to my shame and discredit.  You couldn’t have paid me to listen to The Grateful Dead in the 80’s, as I had tons of very new and interesting indie music to digest, on top of going backwards and re-discovering the earth wasn’t flat via folks like Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Otis Redding, Chuck Berry, etc.  The main thing I eventually learned was to not judge music by the fans, otherwise I’d be listening to silence all the time.

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