Grateful Dead tie-dye

(Editor's note: These remarks are prompted by Jim Duffy's recent gigs with the Elliot Mouser Floating Blues Band. To read Part 1, click here.)

To clarify and advance some earlier comments, I have lately been learning and relearning a bunch of Grateful Dead tunes, and I'm revisiting my own opinion of that controversial band.

The Grateful Dead were a social phenomenon as much as they were anything else. Is it possible to consider them separate and apart from their audience and look at them just as a band alongside other bands? Is it possible to like some things they do without being an out-and-out Deadhead, and is it possible to not like some things they do without absolutely hating everything they do?

No other band, before or since, is so identified with its audience, because no audience has ever identified so strongly with a band. People who saw the Dead play 80 or 100 times refer to the band members by their first names, and that band is as near and dear to their hearts as their own friends. The very tone of Jerry Garcia's guitar transports these people back to happier times, when they were young and away from home.

And on the other hand are the people who are so turned off by the Deadheads, so turned off by the devotion, the single-mindedness of the audience, the often-silly iconography, the skulls, the bears, the tie-dye, that they can't bear to have anything to do with that band and end up holding it in contempt.

As for myself, I lived among Deadheads, I saw the Grateful Dead a few times, and I heard many hours of bootleg tapes, and as I said earlier, I'm neither a true believer or a hater, and I have played many of their tunes in front of people, so I may be in a position to consider them simply as a band.

For a moment, let's leave the audience out of it, if we can. How good were the Dead? For sheer magnitude, you have to count them among the great U.S. bands that emerged between 1965 and 1969 -- Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges. Even if you don't like the Grateful Dead, you have to give them that much. The Dead belong in that company.

What puts them over are Jerry Garcia's benevolent vibe and his cool, wired way of singing, and the handful of truly beautiful tunes that he wrote. "China Cat Sunflower," "Althea," "Eyes of the World," "Loser," "Jack Straw," "Scarlet Begonias," "Bird Song," to name a few -- these are strange, pure songs that have a lot of integrity, and Robert Hunter's lyrics seem to have been carved in wood. Only when I sat down and learned some of these tunes did I realize how good they are. Garcia's best tunes stand up next to the best tunes of any of those other heavyweight bands of that era.

That said, they are a very frustrating band. For me, the biggest problem is the drums. For a band with two drummers, they don't swing very hard. Kreutzmann and Hart are so busy, they're all over the place, and they just don't groove me. The Dead are good players, but they're slovenly and sloppy, and not in a good way. They sing out of tune when they know better. And Garcia's guitar often sounds as though he's running out of breath before he reaches the end of the note. They could play better than they do, but it seems they're just not interested. On the album version of "High Time," another beauty of a Garcia tune, they sing so out of tune, it's a shame. Come on, guys, sing the song!

The Dead's best moments were on stage, not in the recording studio, and in the dozens of album-length concert recordings that have been released, the versions run hot and cold. (By the way, I do like this video clip of the Grateful Dead in 1970, playing "New Speedway Boogie.")

Of course none of this musical judgment matters to the millions of people around the world who forgive the Grateful Dead's excesses the way they forgive their own friends' quirks. To judge the Dead on a strictly musical basis is perhaps in bad taste.

And so, whoops, we're back to the audience again. And maybe you can't separate the Grateful Dead from their audience for very long after all. Since Jerry Garcia's death in 1995, a whole generation has grown up in thrall to that loopy, bouncing, unruly, ungainly, often shapeless and occasionally beautiful sound.

All I'm saying is that it's rare to hear an opinion on the Grateful Dead that isn't pure love or pure hate, because the Dead were and continue to be such a social phenomenon. I feel I'm one of the agnostics who occupy that sparse middle ground. Maybe I just like Jerry Garcia, but that band of his really bugs me, except for maybe bassist Phil Lesh. When you get past the endless, meandering jamming, you find some very fine tunes, but you have to wade through an awful lot of jamming.

As I said before, the tunes are what matter the most, and if you consider the Dead just as a band that brought those songs into the world, you have to count them among the front rank, whether you like them or not, and there's nothing you or I or millions of Deadheads can do about it. They may not be the best band of that heavyweight class, but because of Garcia's best original tunes, they may not be the worst either.

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