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Dead Won’t Die

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Marc Weingarten offers a sour review of the new Dead bio, A Long Strange Trip, by the band’s publicist Dennis McNally in Slate. He decries the band’s musical decline through the ’80s and ’90s and blames the uncritical love of the Deadheads for this development:

    “The Grateful Dead certainly sought to entertain and move its audience,” McNally writes, “but the root basis of their relationship was that of a partnership of equals, of companions in an odyssey.”

    From 1965 to roughly 1975, the Dead fed off of this symbiosis brilliantly, moving through Live/Dead’s lysergic-stoked free rock to the space-cowboy country of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty on to the baroque prog-jams of Wake of the Flood. Their venturesome efforts were rewarded with a fan base of Deadheads that had swelled to a mega-movement by the end of the ’70s. Intensely loyal to the band, Deadhead-dom became its own sideshow, a traveling community of freaks and later, frat-boy geeks.

    The Deadheads gave the Grateful Dead a steady revenue stream and a safe harbor. At first, it felt like a rear guard action – fighting for community in a socially fragmented era. But it curdled into the last refuge for musical conservatism and complacency, and it seemed to destroy the band’s work ethic. McNally glancingly makes reference to this dark side of the Deadhead phenomenon: “Like all fans … they could become tediously obsessed with the object of their joy,” he writes.

I personally believe the band’s ability to almost infinitely expand its enveloping vibe to include such a huge number and variety of people will be its enduring legacy: how can Weingarten denigrate such a unique social phenomenon? And as far as work ethic goes, does he have any idea how much effort it took to stretch and maintain the vibe over the decades? “Lazy” is not a word that comes to mind.

This paragraph is inexplicable:

    Thematic content hardly mattered to the loyalists any more; the band’s canon instead became a series of dramatic gestures, well-timed downshifts, and dance cues. Safe within the fuzzy bubble of Deadhead-land, the band coasted for years on end, but no matter how negligent or desultory the performance, they always had the Deadheads to fall back on. Of course the Dead loved the support – they never had to work hard to earn it.

The Dead NEVER took their audience for granted – it’s their most endearing quality. It took effort and artistic daring to vary the show and the set list so greatly from night to night. The fact that each show was an adventure and NOT a guaranteed aesthetic success proves this point. You never knew what you were going to get: where is the complacency there?

Will Hermes, who reviewed the book for the NY Times last week, has a much better take:

    Yet as the band’s cosmic Americana came to represent the zenith of hippie idealism, and its fans the nadir of hippie cluelessness, the Dead had almost incidentally become, for a time, perhaps the greatest of American rock bands. It’s this sense of cul tural context and musical accomplishment that Dennis McNally brings to his exhaus tive and occasionally exhausting history, which enters the stacks of a thriving micro genre one might call ”Dead Lit.” It in cludes biographies (Carol Brightman’s am bitious ”Sweet Chaos”), fan catalogs (”The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium”), academic studies (”Deadhead Social Sci ence”), even psychic post-mortem dialogues (”In the Spirit”).

    ….Entering the Dionysian headspace of a Dead show experience is key to under standing the group’s mystical appeal, and McNally does a great job of articulating it. In a series of interstitial chapters strung like love beads along the book’s narrative line, McNally describes a typical arena con cert from the mid-80’s — when the band’s seasonal tours had become as much a part of American entertainment culture as the N.F.L. These riffs range from backstage preparations and fan babble (”The Grateful Dead represents the high-water mark of civilization”) to musical parsings that, even when they overreach, evoke the rap ture with insight. On an improvisational passage: ”Garcia’s guitar simply squeezes out the lead, the same sure descent but with overtones of pathos and majesty,” and then the band members ”send it up one more time and then speed it up and split it into a shimmering waterfall glissando of grace notes, tears from the goddess muse. And a little . . . feedback, too.” On the signature song ”Uncle John’s Band”: ”This is the American voice as Whitman and Kerouac and Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams dreamed it, but wrapped in dance trance.”

    ….The psychedelic idealism of rave culture, the online world of MP3 file-sharing, the annual American freak-fest known as Burning Man — all re flect the sense of radical community the Dead engendered. Those seeds of gentle anarcho-utopianism continue to sprout in unexpected places, promoting what one critic called ”the quaint notion that art can save your life.” If it can’t do so forever, there’s still reason to be grateful.

Allow me to interject my own general thoughts on the band, which appeared originally in somewhat different form here:

The Dead

I find these lyrics by Don Henley from “Boys of Summer” striking:

    Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac,
    A little voice inside my head, said ‘don’t look back,
    You can never look back.’

When Henley wrote “The Boys of Summer’ in 1984, he saw the sticker on the steel as a contradiction of values: a symbolic matter/antimatter collision that obliterated the meaning of both. Henley didn’t realize that his symbol of a dead past was in reality a very powerful symbol of the present and future.

Throughout history, war has been a rallying point for peoples. Leaders have allowed or even encouraged international conflict to escalate into armed confrontation in order to divert attention away from intractable domestic woes. The best way to draw people together is to unite them against a common enemy. The first president Bush’s “War on Drugs” was no accidental title.

The Vietnam War pitted two monumental forces against each other: the newly formed youth culture vs. a people’s ingrained habit of uniting against a common enemy. As I discussed here, youth culture was created by the relative affluence and leisure time of the ’50s and was galvanized by the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.

By the early-60s, the rock and roll rebellion was running out of steam. When the adult world seized upon “The Twist” as a charming and wholesome pastime, the rebellious aspect of rock ‘n’ roll seemed a thing of he past. Even the Queen of England liked the Beatles. What next?

The Vietnam War appeared to restoke the boilers of rebellion. The war was a perfect polarizer: it had no clear objective, our help was not particularly appreciated by the Vietnamese, it was far away, it cost many lives, and it was involuntary (the military has since learned that voluntary warriors are happy warriors). The old made the decisions, the young died.

As obvious as all of this seemed to the young and their sympathizers, war still held its old meaning to their parents and grandparents. To the elders, war was still a rallying point, and support of it a civic duty. War still meant WWII, or WWI: wars that required national unity merely to be survived. War was us (good), vs. them (bad). Nothing else mattered. To question this particular war was to question all wars, and if war wasn’t a rallying point, then what good was it? And war had to be good for something, because it cost so much.

Vietnam divided the war dialectic of “us” vs. “them,” into a triad of “us” vs. “them” vs.”them.” The war created hopelessly confused loyalties and antagonisms between the three parties. After the war was finally mercy killed, people came to realize that they had hated the internal confusion more than they had hated the external enemy. Who really cared about what happened to a bunch of crazed Asians? The people of Vietnam were never the point anyway: principle was, and principle wasn’t worth this kind of internal conflict.

As a result, both sides of the internal conflict embraced the perceived highlights of the other’s culture with a ferocity that was dizzying. Blood is thicker than ideology. The adults lightened up: Johnny Carson grew his hair long and joked about smoking pot, the youth embraced the acquisitive materialism of their parents with the shamelessness of Midas.

The very concept of a “youth culture”: a mass counterculture organized along generational lines disappeared in the ’80s. The Reaganonic codification of social and economic Darwinism successfully removed the language of the counterculture from public discourse. The line between “us” and “them” became the line between an individual’s public and private personas. Everyone had to pay lip service to the “just say no” mentality. Everyone had to move his public persona four steps to the right just to continue to play the game:

    “Capitalism has won, man. There aren’t even any other significant options now. If you’re going to do something, do it right. I take pride in my work. What do you want me to be, a bad accountant? I’m not embarrassed about the money I make. I have responsibilities: a wife, kids, a house, a boat, a dog. I like my goodies. But I don’t buy into that Calvanist/Reagonian dogma about wealth being a deterministic signpost toward upward mobility in the afterlife either.

    “More money means you can buy more cool stuff, that’s all. So I play the game at work. I even get a company car. I can pick any domestic car I want, and the Caddy gives me the most bang for my, I mean the company’s, buck.

    “But I still party. I still rock ‘n’ roll. We ship the kids out, roll up the carpet in the living room and get down. I still go to shows. We see the Dead whenever we can. No one stares at you. I can be who I want to be. I always see people I know from work – we always smile and pretend that we don’t know each other. Sometimes I see my friend’s kids. They don’t hassle me either.”

People became compartmentalized. The unalloyed idealism of the ’60s has been discredited as impractical and divisive, the grasping materialism of the mid-’70s into the ’80s has been discredited as dispiriting. During the ’80s these opposites waged war within the national psyche, agreed to disagree, and emerged with a sort of Gorbachev/Yeltsin coalition government: different values for different circumstances.

The Dead became THE symbol of this kind of bifurcation until Jerry Garcia’s death in ’95: a well-oiled money making machine ($50 million a year in concert revenue) that sold peace, love and understanding to a legion of internally divided admirers. The Dead sold out every show because everyone needs a break and a Dead show was a socially acceptable place to try on the values of another time and place.

Drug use was pandemic at these shows because drugs act to trigger the transformation into the private self. People who didn’t do drugs any other time fired up a doob or sucked on a nitrous balloon – or even ate a tab of acid – and danced around like learning-impaired pixies to the Dead and their light, rhythmic, pleasant, and occasionally inspired musical noodling. They wanted it all, and they wanted it now. At a Dead show they didn’t have to give up anything permanent to get it. A deadhead sticker on a Cadillac isn’t an absurdity, Don Henley, it is emblematic of an age.

Jerry Garcia’s death shone a bright light on the bizarre duality of his social role. This lifelong drug addict and hippie icon was revered by presidents (Clinton) and senators:

    longtime fan Sen. Patrick Leahy said news of Garcia’s death left him feeling “like I’ve been kicked in the stomach.” “I just feel terrible about it,” said Leahy, D-Vt., a fan since the 1960s and personal friend of Garcia for about 10 years. “When they were here last just a few weeks ago, I was talking to Jerry,” Leahy said in an interview with The Associated Press. “He was talking about how he was watching his diet and being careful. I took my oldest son with me. We were on stage for the whole show.”

    Leahy’s friendship with the guitarist developed after someone representing the band called to find out if it was true that Leahy had attended a Dead concert. “I said ‘I go all the time,”‘ recalled Leahy, 55. Then came the first of many invitations to sit backstage. “I got a call one night from the White House operator while on stage. … The president and secretary of state are looking for me. I got on the phone with the secretary of state (Warren Christopher) and he asked me if I thought I had my radio on rather loud.”

    Last year Leahy invited Garcia and other band members to lunch in the senators’ dining room. “The most remarkable thing about that was Senator Thurmond came up, introduced himself to Jerry Garcia and said, ‘Boy I understand you’re a rock star.”‘ Garcia acknowledged that he was. The then-91-year-old South Carolina Republican then responded: “Well I’m Strom Thurmond. I’m the oldest member of the U.S. Senate.”

    During that lunch, Garcia asked Leahy which was his favorite song. At the concert this year at RFK Stadium, the band played that song, “Black Muddy River,” as its encore in honor of Leahy’s presence. “I thought he looked better than he had in years,” said Leahy of Garcia at that concert. Leahy said he had wanted to attend the band’s recent performance in Vermont, but couldn’t. It had been their second show there after being urged by Leahy to go to the state. He couldn’t count the number of concerts he’s attended. “I go every time I can,” said Leahy. “They have probably kept the most loyal cadre of fans you can image. They have always treated their fans and their own people right.”

    Leahy said he keeps track of the band on the Internet. “I even have their Web page on my list of bookmarks,” he said. The senator said he felt different kinds of people could read their feelings and hopes into the Dead’s music and lyrics “even though they may be diametrically opposite.” “I’ve never left one of their concerts not feeling better than when I went in,” said Leahy.

And this:

    San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, who has taken his three sons to Grateful Dead concerts, ordered flags lowered to half-staff and a tie-dyed Dead flag hoisted up the City Hall flagpole.

    Said another politician, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, a 50-year-old Republican and an unabashed fan: Garcia’s death is “a loss to both my generation and my children’s.”

The Music

Many say either you are a Deadhead or you’re not – all or nothing. I say twaddle. I’m no Deadhead but I love American Beauty (1970) with “Friend of the Devil,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Ripple” and “Truckin’.” The Grateful Dead live 2-LP set (1971) rolls along with “Bertha,” “Mama Tried,” “Playing in the Band,” “”Johnny B. Goode,” “Not Fade Away” and “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

Skeletons In the Closet, The Best of Grateful Dead (1974) repeats “Truckin’,” “Sugar Magnolia,” and “Friend of the Devil” from American Beauty, but adds “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones,” “One More Saturday Night,” and Pigpen’s moment of glory, “Turn On Your Love Light.”

Blues For Allah (1975) is cool with “Franklin’s Tower,” Shakedown Street (1978) has its moments with the title track, “Good Lovin’,” “Fire On the Mountain” and “I Need a Miracle.”

Grateful Dead Go to Heaven (1980) is nice with “Alabama Getaway,” “Althea” and the rousing “Don’t Ease Me In.” In addition, the Jerry Garcia solo album, Garcia (1972) features the languid hit “Sugaree” on the vinyl side one, but side two is a psychedelic masterpiece worthy of early Pink Floyd, culminating with “The Wheel,” a majestic song with beautiful, eerie pedal steel work.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.godofthemachine.com Aaron Haspel

    Am I the only one who thinks the Grateful Dead’s music is just dull? And that their true legacy is their undoubted mastery of hippie capitalism? Seems so.

  • Eric Olsen

    Aaron, Much of their music IS dull, that was the point of trying to differentiate the best of it. obviously it’s a matter of taste, but as a non-Deadhead, I can certainly appreciate the good stuff. It is largely delicate, but that isn’t bad as long as it’s melodic and interesting. Also, the band was very rhythmic in a subtle way.

  • http://www.sandhilltech.com/weblog/blogger.html/ Frank Paynter

    Regarding Aaron’s “Hippie capitalism” comment… you’re not even in the ballpark boy. The market-place requires a medium of exchange, and it’s typical to keep score in Yankee bucks, and the rolling revenue of $50 million worth of rock concerts a year sounds like a lot unless you peek behind the curtain. It’s a tragedy of the American perspective that this cultural movement is so often assessed through the sterile lens of superficial financial analysis. I don’t have time or space to explain it to you, but there’s a big difference between a people’s market trafficing in tie dye t-shirts and sand cast candles, between supporting a year round road show and an extended family of hundreds of people and so-called “hippie capitalism.” For a view of hippie capitalism, peel back the covers on an enterprise like “The Nature Company.” That would be a meaningful use of the word.

    Not all enterprise and ambition fits neatly into a “capitalism” context.

    The link you posted to what can only be counted as the puerile perspective of a business major includes the comment, “They were the first and still, to my knowledge, the only band to encourage bootlegging, allowing fans to tape concerts directly off the mixing board. The idea was to sacrifice some revenue in the short run to build fan loyalty, promoting album and concert sales in the long run, and it worked brilliantly.” While the first sentence is true, the second is rank speculation, and only peripherally relevant in hindsight. The only reason they did it was because it was cool. Kind of a “why not” mentality. People wanted that access and they (the Dead) weren’t hung up on IP issues. They were modeling open source behavior weren’t they?

  • Eric Olsen

    Very perceptive comments Frank – the Dead were smart and over time became organized, but they remained/remain idealistic and in many ways altruistic all along. They simply created a vibe that a large number of people responded to, especailly when they wanted to shift into their “other” selves.

  • http://www.godofthemachine.com Aaron Haspel

    I grant that I was speculating about the Dead’s motives for encouraging bootlegging. But the policy made them lots of money, whether they intended it that way or not. And surely Frank speculates in exactly the same way when he writes that “the only reason that they did it was that it was kind of cool.” Frank also enjoys speculating on what I majored in: math and English, for the record.

    It’s wrong to call free bootlegging “modeling open source behavior.” You can’t fix bootlegs, but you can fix source code, which is really the point of open source. It’s more like writing some utility and distributing the binary for free.

  • Steve Raineault

    In 1987, I was riding home on the school bus- when I heard an awesome song that struck me hard….indeed I was to become a gen-x “Touch of Grey-head”, though at 24 I now relish “Casey Jones” and “Peggy-O” as my favorites in the Dead canon. Even more interesting is the criticisms I recieved for my essentially (not 100%) conservative beliefs which promted my most hippie-ish Culinary Arts teacher to write in my yearbook “I have never met a Deadhead who is a Republican” (He obviously neglected former MA governor William Weld). Some may scoff at a 24 year old NRA member smoking doobies and droning to a bootleg tape (I’ve been critisized by everyone from teachers to hoodrats). What can I say? As the biography ‘Captain Trips’ stated, the music (save for environmental issues) was essentially (not totally) non-political. The Grateful Dead served as a common ground for those who want the “assault weapon” ban to expire next year (such as myself) to those who want the legalization of marijuana (such as….myself!). In 2000, a 21 year old young man had just smoked some dank ass green indoor bud. He was wearing a tie-dye 25th anniversary Dead shirt. Red eyed and stoned, he went to the voting booth to place his checkmark next to the name of George W. Bush.
    WHat’s my point you ask? It is not a political motive, it is not bragging over my passion for the Dead’s music. It is the issue of tolerance for your fellow man, and to not denounce his character based on political differences. My old Culinary teacher would indeed love few things more than to have my Ruger MK II semi-automatic pistol taken from me- I strongly disagree with his stance, but I respect the personal motives that would lead him to such a wish. Then again, maybe I’m a chickenhawk for my support of the second Iraq war (although I was unfit for army service due to a coordination problem, maybe I was better off avoiding fellow privates in boot camp seeing a Steal YOur Face skull tatooed on my left shoulder).

  • Eric Olsen

    Very interesting Steve and I do think tolerance is a central message that can be taken away from the Dead and the Deadhead phenomenon. I don’t really consider myself a Deadhead, but I love a fair amount of their music and enjoyed my time at several of their shows. I too support the War on Terror, including Iraq.

    Thanks for your input and don’t smoke too much weed – it’ll make you stupid.

  • http://www.filteringcraig.com Craig Lyndall

    I hate the Grateful Dead. I can’t stand their music and the idea of their shows with all those people getting “free” and turning into other people (at least a portion of them) is certainly not appealing in the least.

    That being said, it is a pretty harmless way to go. I feel like the band was always genuine if nothing else. I don’t consider them purveyors of hippie capitalism. When I think of this kind of manipulation of an audience, I think of Gene Simmons and the Dead are certainly not an example of that.

    One thing that drives me crazy about all music fans is a resentment for success. This happens in Indie rock all the time and I would hate to see people resent the Dead for being successful. Ultimately music is a performance art and when you perform it for people, they invariably filter some of their spending dollars toward your art. I don’t think the Dead ever catered their art to making money. Money is just the net result of capturing the love of a huge fanbase.

  • http://fando.blogs.com Natalie Davis

    “I hate the Grateful Dead. I can’t stand their music and the idea of their shows with all those people getting “free” and turning into other people (at least a portion of them) is certainly not appealing in the least.”

    Good. One less person to get in my way while I’m dancing and shaking my bones.

  • http://www.filteringcraig.com Craig Lyndall

    Hey Nat, are you admitting to being something of a hippie noodle dancer?

    Good for you. I hope it makes you happy. Just give me a pair of ear plugs!

    :-)

  • Eric Olsen

    As I said, the Dead accomplished much and deserve credit for it – they were smar, organized, and made a ton of money without being greedy, not an easy thing to do. Musically they wre up and down, but when they were on they wre great. If they had never existed, there would be a large hole in the American music canon.

  • John

    I really dislike the DEAD. I am prejudiced I know, I grew up in an overpriviledged suburb full of Dead Heads who would sell LSD to a 10 year old. Is their a dark side to the Dead? You better fuckin believe it.

  • heADS

    STEAL YOUR FACE RIGHT OFF YOUR HEAD!!!!!!

  • John

    Okay Im 21 and im proud to be a Deadhead. No i do not smoke pot and i never have. Stereotypes are cruel and are made by the insecure and ignorant. All this Grateful Dead hatred has thoroughly offended me. Like them or not, the band represents a crucial piece of 21st century American culture. The dead’s music is something you either “get” or you dont, and you dont need to be high to enjoy it. If your not ignorant and listen to more then a studio album, you will realize they are talented musicians and lyricists. The idea that all deadheads are junkies is just a stereotype created by haters. Many deadheads went on to establish successful careers. My dad for example went to over 200 dead shows, but now makes over 200,000 a year. Or Bill Walton, Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, Pete Carroll, Ann Coutler and many more successful people who call themselves “Deadheads”. Its more then drugs my friend, Its the music. And if you bash that then your bashing a love for music. I pity you for your ignorance.

  • Brian shimer

    long live the dead
    theres nothing better then blasting some dead on a long road trip. i applaud your statement john since i am also a drug free deadhead and if anybody is interested i stumbled across this site called wolfgangs concert vault some amazing stuff there from the dead the the who and some zep and allman brothers pure gold man