So, back when I mentioned that Fugazi’s release of live recordings reminded me of the Grateful Dead, I was 100% convinced I would get brutally mocked – but lo and behold peeps actually requested a post on the Dead! It goes without saying I’m a huge fan, and have been since I was a little kid – but I grew up in New Hampshire and had a weird neo-survivalist step-father that was non-ironically into ‘authentic’ American music – he used to drag us to bluegrass and barbershop quartet concerts all the time! So you could say I was predisposed to like the Dead, but I’m not unique – the band has had a lasting impact on kids up to the present day…
1. The Band
First off, they are old as fuck – they formed back in the early ’60s?!? Coming from the ‘folk’ movement, they started out as a tripped out jug band and morphed into a fairly stripped down psychedelic/blues band. They went through an (excellent BTW) Country Rock phase, an experimental jam band into a dancy rock band. By the ’80s they were an arena rock behemoth! Amazingly, outside of deaths the original members were still in the band until 1995! There’s a huge amount of credit one has to give the various Dead members – Phil Lesh (bass) basically re-wrote how the bass is used in rock, tho we can probably also blame him for Les Claypool, so let’s call that one even…
Jerry Garcia was an amazing musician – in the early 70′s the Dead would play two shows a day, each show having an acoustic and electric set. In between the shows the band ‘New Riders of the Purple Sage’ would play, for whom Garcia sat in on steel guitar with – figure he was playing 6+ hours a day in concert. Like it or not, Garcia basically began the ‘country rock’ (or maybe ‘roots rock’) movement. His dedication to early American folk music really filtered into the Dead’s sound, and impacted an entire generation of musicians.
Outside of pure musical contributions, the band contributed quite a bit to the overall musical culture – the band (or people associated with them) started their own label to distribute records, changed how concerts sounded, started companies obsessed with musical instruments/electronics, spread LSD far and wide, amongst other accomplishments. It may be ancient history, but I see things like the Acid Tests (which the Dead got their start at) as some of the scaffolding that our current popular culture is built on.
2. The Music
First off, nobody listens to the Dead’s studio albums – they may be good to have as ‘reference’ versions, but the Dead fan base is focused on their live shows. The Dead allowed fans to record their shows, and trade them freely among themselves – which really did lead to a ‘lasting legacy’ of their music.
The Dead were really at there best once Garcia teamed up with singer/songwriter Robert Hunter. Hunter was responsible for some of the Dead’s most popular songs, from China Cat Sunflower (srs a psychedelic classic) to amazing Country Rock songs (he was responsible for most of the songs on American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead). For example, check out Hunter’s song ‘Jack Straw‘ – it’s quite complex, with a shifting narrative/perspective and an a (typically Hunter) unresolved ending. Most of Hunter’s songs were quite dark as well.
Check out this rendition of the classic Hunter tune ‘Casey Jones‘, which is so direct, chugging and immediate – and the lyrics are so typically Hunter, bringing us up to the moment of the crash, but never resolving it.
If you actually decide to try listening to some Dead shows, I’d suggest starting with the Dick’s Picks series – Number 8 from Harpur College is a personal favorite. The Download Series and Road Trips are also quite good. Basically any remastered official release won’t disappoint. New listeners may want to avoid the ‘completist’ recordings – the entire Europe ’72 tour for example.
3. The Shows
Hands down the Dead had the best concert going experience – mainly due to the parking lot scenes that developed. Most Deadheads would arrive for a show early and set up in the parking lot – which would rapidly become freak magnets… you could easily blow a whole day occupied with mini-adventures; find that dude selling the good weed, get the name of that girl you saw, find those rad home-made shirts to buy, etc. Was fun!
4. The Fans
When you hear about Deadheads you usually hear things like ‘Man, Bill Walton (former NBA player) is a huge Deadhead!’, or ‘Oh, I know this neurosurgeon that followed the Dead around!’, but the fact is, if you have a sufficiently large population there will always be a successful 1% (I consider myself a hxc 1% – steady job and no post-18 arrest record!) In reality tho the remaining 99% are pretty much dirtbags – kinda stuck in this neo-60′s era of hippydom, but always very current in their scummy-ness.
Some things I tend to avoid doing with my Deadhead friends: paying for lunch (you’re now the meal ticket!), giving them a ride (you’re the new taxi) or letting them ‘crash at your place’ (you’ve got a new roommate!). Deadheads can be good sources for drugs, but there’s like a 99% chance they will ‘break a little off for themselves’ (AKA at least 1/4 of what you just bought)! They also have this tendency to quote Dead songs – so annoying! Again, Clowes to the rescue:
I will say that Deadheads do usually have a pretty good sense of humor about themselves and their musical choices… and they def manifest a pretty mellow attitude towards the way others live their lives. I don’t think I’ve ever argued with a Deadhead over music, and even if they are like super-hippy vegans they usually don’t throw it in your face (see late ’90s sob-core for a counter example!). This MST3K vid is super funny, even to Deadheads!
Just thought I’d mention that I’ve got a huge thing for hippy chicks – sitting around smoking weed with some patchouli smellin’ chick listenin’ to Dead tunes? = my idea of heaven! Also, since I’m a general fuck-up with life stuff in general, I appreciate their overly motherly care and nurturing!
It’s super hard to do any kind of short introduction to the music/culture/scene that is the Grateful Dead – the band had a huge impact, mostly through their obsessive fans. The science of concert recording took leaps and bounds from Deadheads concern over things like ‘source purity’. They pushed loss-less file formats like SHN & FLAC. They’ve had their fingers in lots of places if you know how to look… all the servers at my college were named after women in Dead songs for example! If you’re into it, check ‘em out! Fill the comment section with hate, anger and tales of stupid Deadheads you know! And to close all this out, “It Must Have Been The Roses” is their best song, hands down.
If you want to see something else ‘Old and In The Way’ (ouch) check out my Tumblr!