When I put on the The Grateful Dead my wife always says: ‘Can you change that please?’ She just doesn’t get it. And when I first heard them myself, I had the same allergic reaction: It sounded like borning psychedelic music, white people playing the blues, aimless noodling on the guitar, too many ingredients in the soup. And these guys were anything but cool, to me.
That was way back in the late 80’s: the decade of Donald Trump’s early ascension. Suddenly, and for some unaccountable reason, the rich jocks at my high school, the very same ones that I loathed with every fibre of my being, started wearing tie dye t-shirts, growing beards, actually being kind to me — and listening to the Grateful Dead. These selfsame bullies that had once wore pink polo shirts: the ‘beautiful people’ who were destined to become successful stock brokers and dentists, suddenly changed their entire psycho/chemical orientation. A starry look like a blessed pestilence came in their eyes: that disembodied look of stoners. They seemed to have somehow split from their athletic bodies, they now had beards, and they started quoting the Ethopian prophet Haile Selassie, talking about ‘Jah’ and and driving painted VW buses.
Again, this was not the 1960’s but 1989, when I first smelled this suspicious scent of patchouli and when this new counterculture and quasi-religion came to my attention. Non-plussed but curious went to see them play in Chicago in 1991, and I have been a fan every since.
Ok, I confess. I’m a secret ‘Deadhead’. I am reluctant to admit my secret love of the Grateful Dead because I don’t love the so-called ‘drug-culture’ and the California new age, of certain aspects of the 60’s ethos, and the wrong ideas about freedom that the Dead apparently represented. In my opinion, Psychedelics never gave anybody any kind of freedom, only illusion, and if drugs had any benefit to people, including myself, it was to make them so disoriented and lost, that in a shattered broken state they started to look for real transcendence, rather than the fake and chemical kind. Psychedelics were a trauma, not real emancipation — and tripping out was an excuse for being uninvolved. The reason that the civil rights movement lost its wind, was because people started dropping acid instead of intelligently trying to change their society. The hippy movement was a movment of giving up on society.
On the other hand, some of the music that was generated from that trauma, was pretty awesome, especially the Grateful Dead. Everybody who has ever seen them live knows that they were the best big stadium live band ever; however, those who have never seen them are rarely fans. You have to have passed a kind of threshold to appreciate their genius. What made them different? The avant garde is empty without roots, and tradition is empty without innovation: but The Dead embodied both the tradition and the avant garde. Unlike a lot of boring jam bands, they are rooted in whole American folk tradition, to bluegrass/country, to soul and blues, to Jazz, and to modern classical music. The Dead are quintessentially American artists, which is why they are not always appreciated by my European friends. They were a band who embodied a genuine utopian vision, a communal ideal, and showed what was possible, when a small group of dedicated people, did something completely different, artistically, spiritually. The Dead were just far more visionary and intelligent than their peers, and this is why they have endured while others burned out and faded away: not because of drugs, but despite them. Furthermore, they presented themselves as musicians and human beings rather than personalities; they gave us no aura of image or con. The fact that they were anything but cool was what made them, paradoxically the coolest — at least in 1989: a low point in music and culture where everything was pretty fake.
The Grateful Dead actually anticipated the positive aspect of the internet age, by giving away their music for free, in creating music that was fluid and free of format, in not restricting music to product and formula. What they did couldn’t really be captured in a studio — in fact all of their studio albums are all pretty disappointing — but could only be made live, in a situation of communal celebration. They didn’t have a set list, the music breathed, it was fluid, and yet somehow was a solid amoebic mass of shimmering sound. If I hadn’t seen them live, I probably wouldn’t have been interested, but their live shows are an indescribable psychic voyage.
And now, on the internet, I have rediscovered those live shows, after not listening to them for many years years: the ecstasy of their music has re-entered my consciousness. It never gets old because it was never fixed in space or formated, was never ‘pop’, never made mechanical or formulaic. There is something of infinity in Jerry Garcia’s lunar sound guitar solos and Bob Weir ecstatic shouting; not to mention rhythmic textures of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, the enigmatic bass lines of Phil Lesh — the deep storytelling of lyricists Hunter and Barlow or wherever else they invited along. The Grateful Dead weren’t really a band, they were a community. There are no ‘stars’ or ‘personalities’ in such a community, but everyone shines brightly by doing what they do best.
Today, instead of dropping acid, I listen to the Dead in the sweat and ecstasy of jogging, in trying to take this middle-aged body beyond its cramps and pains, in a bliss of sweat and becoming. Of course it’s not the same as seeing them in concert, but I at least now don’t have to take acid to appreciate them. It’s interesting that even after Garcia’s death they have endured, in different forms, like Dead and Company, taking in younger musicians (notably John Maher, who has been transformed from a pop star, into a real musician).
Apparently Bob Weir had a visionary dream that the band would continue on, even after he and the rest of them really were literally dead — that it would become a musical lineage. Perhaps the group is just beginning.What if the Dead performed the ultimate show? To become the un-dead.