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All About the Music

There is a long appreciation of The Grateful Dead by Nick Paumgarten in the current issue of The New Yorker. There’s some regrettable prose, like this description of Jerry Garcia in concert: “But he played in long, convoluted paragraphs and snappy banjo blurts. Torrents of melody poured out of his stubby, tarred hands, chiming and snarling into the night.”

Mostly, though, it is an intriguing read.

“Our audience is like people who like licorice,” Jerry Garcia said. “Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.” Well, I don’t care for licorice or the Dead and this passage helps to explain why:

It is very easy, and in many circles compulsory, to make fun of the Dead. “What does a Deadhead say when the drugs wear off? ‘This music sucks.’ ” The Dead, more than any band of their stature, have legions of haters—real hostility—as typified by Dave Marsh’s remark, in Playboy, that they were “the worst band in creation.”

What’s to hate? Even the fanatic can admit to a few things. The Dead were musically self-indulgent, and yet, to some ears, harmonically shallow. They played one- and two-chord jams that went on for twenty or thirty minutes. One live version of “Dark Star,” a modal vamp based on the A mixolydian scale, with two short verses and no bridge, clocked in at forty-eight minutes. (Oh, to have been in Rotterdam!) Even their straightforward songs could go on for ten or twelve minutes. Pop-craft buffs, punkers, and anyone steeped in the orthodoxy of concision tend to plug their ears to the noodling, while jazz buffs often find it unsophisticated and aimless. The Dead’s sense of time was not always crisp. It’s been said that the two drummers, in the eighties, sounded like sneakers in a dryer. For those attracted to the showy side of rock, the Dead were always an unsightly ensemble, whose ugliness went undiminished in middle age—which happened to coincide with the dawn of MTV. They were generally without sex appeal. Bob Weir, their showman and heartthrob, might be said to be an exception, but he spent much of the eighties performing in short cutoff jean shorts and lavender tank tops—a sight even more troubling, I’d submit, than that of Garcia circa 1984, drooling on his microphone as he fought off the nods. Even the high-tech light shows of later years and the spaceship twinkle of their amplifiers could not compensate for a lumpy stage presence. They could be sloppy, unrehearsed. They forgot lyrics, sang out of key, delivered rank harmonies, missed notes, blew takeoffs and landings, and laid down clams by the dozen. Their lyrics were often fruity—hippie poetry about roses and bells and dew. They resisted irony. They were apolitical. They bombed at the big gigs. They unleashed those multicolored dancing bears.

Most objectionable, perhaps, were the Deadheads, that travelling gang of phony vagabonds. As unironic as the Dead may have been, Deadheads were more so. Not for them the arch framings and jagged epiphanies of punk. They dispensed bromides about peace and fellowship as they laid waste to parking lots and town squares. Many came by the stereotypes honestly: airheads and druggies, smelling of patchouli and pot, hairy, hypocritical, pious, ingenuous, and uncritical in the extreme. They danced their flappy Snoopy dance and foisted their hissy bootlegs on roommates and friends, clearing dance floors and common rooms. The obnoxious ones came in many varieties: The frat boys in their Teva sandals and tie-dyed T-shirts, rolling their shoulders to the easy lilt of “Franklin’s Tower.” The so-called spinners, dervishes in prairie skirts and bare feet. The earnest acoustic strummers of “Uncle John’s Band,” the school-bus collective known as the Rainbow Family, the gaunt junkies shuffling around their vans like the Sleestaks in “Land of the Lost”—they came for the party, more than for the band. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to go in to the show. They bought into the idea, which grew flimsier each year, that following a rock band from football stadium to football stadium, fairground to fairground, constituted adventure of the Kerouac kind.

Still, the truth is I haven’t listened to any of their recordings in twenty years. It’s not in the air anymore, I don’t have friends who are devoted to them. But I certainly don’t hate the Dead, either. Of course, some Deadheads are Toys but there is something about the cult of fans who collect cassette recordings of over two thousand live shows that is fascinating and admirable.

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1 ColoYank   ~  Nov 21, 2012 9:58 am

I was acquainted with a few Deadheads in my college days at New Paltz, and they all seemed to wear their 'deadness' with a certain grungy purity. I still to this day do not understand the attraction, let alone the undying devotion, to such an undisciplined group of musicians. At the heart of it was Jerry Garcia, and I could discern dimly that there was a cult of personality that had grown up around him. The band had arisen around him, too, and frequently whirled beyond his orbit, and at its chaotic height he seemed bemused but unperturbed at the center of it. It seemed to me the band crystallized all the characteristics of their fans - certainly a false imagining on my part, although performances under the influence were certainly not uncommon. Even at its most interesting, or at its least incomprehensible, Garcia's songwriting has a characteristic country-rock flavor, dreamier than Charlie Daniels, but closely related. Sometimes I wonder if the young devotées I knew at school ever snapped out of it.

2 Sliced Bread   ~  Nov 21, 2012 11:09 am

Ah,the line about the drummers sounding like sneakers in a dryer is hilarious. The writer nailed all the negative things you can say about the Dead and their fans, but I still remember them fondly.
I was by no means a huge fan.
I went to a dozen or so shows between '84 and '94, my college and post-college years. The band was far beyond its prime but had a bit of a resurrgence, and the shows were fun, and memorable (more so collectively than individually)
It was easy to roll your eyes at "the scene" (described perfectly in the article) especially if you were late to the party as I was.

Most of the friends I went with were more into the band than I was (probably thanks to older sibilings who saw the Dead in their prime), but none of them were bonafide Deadheads. I always felt like a tourist at the shows, but I enjoyed going back for more. I got to see them out west, and in Saratoga Springs, NY - some cool venues.

As for the music, I always enjoyed their melodies and jams far more than their lyrics which seldom if ever "spoke to me."
I still listen to the Dead occasionally - mostly live recordings from the 70s. The accoustic Reckoning is still a great listen.

3 Bronx Boy in NC   ~  Nov 21, 2012 11:25 am

The Dead were never my thing. Lured by a few DH friends, I saw them at RFK in the spring of '92, just as I was emerging from an extended Billy Joel-Bruce-Stones-Beatles-Rush adolescence into some wider tastes.

It was the most perfect blue day imaginable. Willowy girls spun and swayed in cotton sun dresses. I didn't smoke anything - not directly - but drank exactly the right amount. So much whiskey and hacky-sack in the parking lot that we forgot ("what's that noise?") to go inside and see the Steve Miller Band open. Then during the show, the GD played "Casey Jones," and I learned from the veterans around me that this was A Big Deal.

All in all, a time capsule day. I don't own a single GD recording but smile whenever I think about it. I saw them one other time, several years later at Giants Stadium, and it felt very ordinary. Couldn't shake a headache the whole time. Magic not recapturable; once was enough.

Postscript: The morning after the RFK show in '92, my friend and I were walking on the other side of town. We were dressed in chinos and button-down shirts. Short hair, clean-shaven. Not a single sticker or patch. We could have been anyone from anywhere. But as two very archetypal deadheads passed us on the sidewalk, one cracked a grin at us and said, "Casey Jones, man. Can you believe it?"

4 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 21, 2012 12:49 pm

As Alex well knows, I am still a pretty serious Dead freak. Actually, all the GD fans I know personally are all people with eclectic and interesting taste in music as well as a real passion for it. I particularly liked this passage: "They may be brain surgeons, lawyers, bartenders, or even punk-rock musicians. Really, it shouldn’t matter what they do, or what they smell like, or whether they can still take a toke without keeling over. It’s the music, and not the parking lot, that’s got them by the throat."

Not so amazingly, I personally know lawyers, bartenders and punk-rock musicians who consider themselves Deadheads. (Sorry, I don't know any brain surgeons.)

I also think Paumgarten nailed it here:
"No two shows were the same, although many were similar. Even on good nights, they might stink it up for a stretch, and on bad ones they could suddenly catch fire—a trapdoor springs open. Then, there were the weird inimitable gigs, the yellow lobsters. Variation was built into the music. They played their parts as if they were inventing them on the spot, and sometimes they were. The music, even in the standard verse-chorus stretches, often had a limber, wobbly feel to it that struck many listeners as slovenly but others as sinuous and alive, open to possibility and surprise. It came across as music being made, rather than executed."

Right on.

(Also, I have given up arguing the Dead's case for those who don't like them. Very often, its for reasons that have zero to do with the music, and life is just too short. Enjoy what you enjoy.)

5 Sliced Bread   ~  Nov 21, 2012 12:58 pm

4) that's the thing. Most criticism I've heard about the Dead has more to do with the brand, and the scene than the music - which I think stands up well as great folk-rock.

6 Matt Blankman   ~  Nov 21, 2012 1:12 pm

[5] Although funnily enough, a musician/songwriter friend of mine who had always resisted them found himself giving them another chance a few years ago and suddenly something clicked. He said he wanted to *really* listen to them, because he always wants to dig deeper when there's something he just reflexively hates or rejects. He suddenly found himself "getting it" and now finds live Dead bootlegs among his regular listening. As he has said, "Here's the secret about the Grateful Dead: their music was actually really good."

7 Sliced Bread   ~  Nov 21, 2012 1:42 pm

I recently played The Music Never Stopped (one of my favorite Dead tunes) for my sons, and they liked it a lot. They're only interested in 21st century radio hits, but they instinctively felt compelled, and knew how to dance to the Dead.
There's hope for them yet.

8 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Nov 21, 2012 7:38 pm

Under-rated musicians but I've never been a fan.

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