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.