Grateful Dead skull, version 3

A couple of weekends ago, I had fun playing with the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band at an outdoor party in Sheffield, Mass. It was a big spread, lots of land, the Berkshire Mountains in the background. We played a long daytime set of mostly Grateful Dead repertoire, because that's what the people wanted, and it's what the Mousers tend to do.

The Grateful Dead must be the most polarizing band in the history of rock and roll. On the one hand, you have the millions of people for whom music equals the Grateful Dead, and the Grateful Dead equals music, and if it isn't Dead-related they aren't interested. On the other hand, you have the people who, upon the very mention of that band's name, spit in the dirt. When the punk-rock revolution came through in 1977, the Grateful Dead were the first to be lined up against the wall.

Is it possible to like some Grateful Dead stuff without regarding them as a lifelong spiritual quest? Is it possible to criticize them without passionately hating them?

The Grateful Dead will never be completely all right in my book. For a band that has two drummers, they don't swing very hard. Worst of all, they have no sense of proportion. Jerry Garcia solos longer than Sonny Rollins between verses, noodling endlessly in a shapeless mass. When they stretch a four-minute song into 16 minutes, sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's most definitely not good. Their vocal harmonies are sloppy and lazy. And Bob Weir's onstage personality is that of a total douchebag.

As for the endless jams and the "drums in space" and the freeform improvisation, you either get it or you don't, and most of the time I don't. I've never been able to sit still and let the surface charms of that music wash over me. Then again, full disclosure, I never saw the Grateful Dead while tripping on acid, so maybe I just missed it.

And that's not even talking about their audience, but let's leave the audience out of it, because you can't blame a band for its audience. Nor can you blame the Grateful Dead for the prevalence of tie-dye.

From the late '70s to the mid-'80s, I saw the Grateful Dead about six times, and maybe one of those shows, -- in Lewiston, Maine -- was actually good. I used to be amazed at how little effort Jerry Garcia exerted on stage. Sometimes it seemed as though they had put a stuffed Jerry Garcia onstage, and the real one was out back somewhere...

And yet, and yet, you can put all of that on one side of the scale, and on the other side, Jerry Garcia wrote a handful of songs that are not just good but beautiful. That's not just the Grateful Dead's redeeming quality, it's the most important thing any band can do. "China Cat Sunflower," "Eyes of the World," "Scarlet Begonias," "Jack Straw," "Loser," "Bird Song" -- each of those songs is a piece of unfolding wonder. And there are others. Garcia's best tunes have a purity about them, and they make sense, lyrically and melodically.

Sure, you could pick out some silly lyrics to Grateful Dead songs -- you could do that with anybody. If you're going to judge somebody, it's only fair to judge them on their best stuff, not their worst, and the Grateful Dead's lyrics are good more often than not. And there's nothing at all wrong with the words to "Bird Song."

You can make fun of the Grateful Dead all you want, and heck, I'll join you, but the main question is, do they have any tunes? Like them or not, the Dead had the tunes.

At that party in Sheffield, I ran into an old housemate from college whom I had not seen in about 20 years. This guy was a true Deadhead who had seen the Grateful Dead about 80 or 100 times, following them from city to city. When I lived in the house with him and a few other Deadheads, back in 1981, cassette tapes of the Dead in concert were playing in that house day and night. So I have heard hundreds of hours of the Grateful Dead in concert, and I still can't accept them or reject them completely.

(One of my other housemates at the time had a tape of the Grateful Dead playing in Egypt, at the pyramids, during a total lunar eclipse. I said, "Oh, so that's why they were playing at the pyramids." He said, "No, that's why there was an eclipse.")

Even when the Dead get on my nerves, they're just musically astute enough that I can't dismiss them out of hand. Maybe I'm in the minority, but after years of intense immersion in the Grateful Dead, I'm neither a true believer nor a hater.

At the party, I was talking with the wife of my old housemate, and she feels the same way that he does about the Grateful Dead. Since the Mouser Band had just played all those songs, she and I got to talking about the Dead, pro and con, and about how unusual it is to have an opinion about them that isn't one-sided.

She said, "What do you mean you don't love them?"

So you see, it goes both ways.

(To read Part 2 of this blog post, please click here.)


Jim Duffy July 28, 2010 @04:02 pm

Well said, Kel: "one thing that totally takes you off the bus..." As somebody said, you're either on the bus or off the bus, and when it came to the Grateful Dead bus -- is it called Furthur? -- I was never quite on it. The Grateful Dead were to a large degree a social phenomenon. As you suggest, many people have strong memories of camaraderie and good times following the Dead from town to town, and when they hear the tone of Garcia's guitar, they're transported back to those great memories, and they get a good feeling. And that's a completely valid reason for liking a particular band. Since my own experience is a bit outside of all of that, I thought it would be interesting to just look at the band's music and point out what I like about it and don't like about it. Since I was never "on the bus," I thought that might provide a different slant. Jeez, maybe if I had gone to that Providence show in '81 with my housemates, I might be a happier person now... Anyway, it's only music, and the world is big enough for people on all sides.

Chris Kelley July 28, 2010 @02:00 pm

......its hard to argue......except the one thing that ....totally takes you off the can you get it when you don't meet all your closest friends , drop acid...and smoke the roaches saved from the last time you were together....then walk float into the show........funny that 77.....the year punk flooded fus from across the pond.....the Dead had a touring year musically was all downhill from there......don't forget that these guys lived on some pretty powerful drugs themselves.......and anyone who has dabbled knows.....its the same for everyone.......procurement is always a problem...a time wasting sport in itself..the law........scumbags......too high....too jonesed........i was lucky to partake with my closest friends muich of the east coast tour in the time the fall rolled was were their addictions......and Weir's desire to be more like Fleetwood Mac.........(and his hair was perfect)........i went to about 40 Dead/Jerry shows from 1976 (summer before college Colt Park)to 1981........then i met up with you and didn't even go see their tour with Bob in 87....its funny.....i take comfort in their noodling and off-harmonies now a days as i ride on dirt roads in my jeep......because it brings me to a place where life was so full of wonder.......when the doors of perception were opening simultaneously for me....and my friends.....funny...i went back to a show in the 90's when i was living in the city......had just read a Rolling Stone interview with Jerry where he claimed to be off heroin and on hte excercise bike....scub diving in Hawaii......his friends wouldn't let him get i went in alone to MSG maybe '93.......the first thing i see (and its been 12 yrs since i had seen the band) Jerry tilting to the right...his nose pressed firmly against the microphone and the lyrics to Bertha no where to be found....he wa obviously nodding out on stage.......i didn't make it thru the first set.......the sound wa bigger......the lights were better......but it was the same old thing......with lots of covers .......and Jerry out of it......i realized it was all about "friends"....that was what had made the Grateful Dead experience so meeaningful to me.....sure.....the music....sometimes it just "crackled with energy".......lots of didn't matter what they played or how they played any subgroup there is a majority who don't know the difference.........and when you are trippin' balls....there are so many things to get off on......the music becomes more of a osundtrack to stumbling toward responsibilty....which some of us did.........others......still stumbling.......California....a prophert on the burning ya Duff

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