Chapter Excerpt: How I Learned To Love The Dead
I hated the Dead right up to the moment that I loved the Dead. Years of indifference, if not outright disdain based on general principles, veered within the blink of an eye into a soulful passion that has endured for 30 years.
Feel free to skip ahead if you don’t share that passion. I’ll keep it brief, and we can hook up again in a few pages.
And since we’re all about candor here, I won’t pretend that my belated descent down this particular rabbit hole was strictly musical, a latent appreciation of the musicianship of the band and the depth of their lyrics. No, my instinctive scorn for all things Dead, drawn from my carefully-cultivated indie rock snobbery, was instantaneously reversed, the switch flipped to Ah, of course, now I get it, why did I not see this sooner?, largely on account of finally listening while just exactly the right amount of totally out of my gourd.
I do not mean to suggest that this mindset was pharmacologically induced. Heavens, no. I do not in any way condone the use of illicit chemicals (or, heck, licit chemicals) to abet one’s listening experience. But surely we have all been in the situation where hearing music (or experiencing any sort of art) while in an altered state of mind can completely change how we relate to the work; and it doesn’t matter if that state of mind is brought about through chemical, emotional, or spiritual means. Me, I have a weakness for Swedish Fish, the chewy, fish-shaped candy. When I was growing up, we used to meet my grandparents for brunch at Walker Brothers, a restaurant on Chicago’s north side known for their apple pancakes. (If you have not had a Walker Brothers apple pancake—basically a caramel-drenched hot apple pie somehow passing for a meal—you have not experienced a Midwestern breakfast.) My grandfather would often show up with a bag of Swedish Fish he’d picked up at the local candy store, and to this day they remain my drug of choice.
So, in case there are any children thumbing through this—or more specifically, in case my own children are thumbing through this, or, god forbid, my parents—let me be perfectly clear in stating that the mental state that ultimately converted me to a (tie) dyed-in-the-wool Dead fan was the sugar high resulting from way too many Swedish Fish. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Yet long after collegiate excursions into that Swedish Fish haze faded, the ability for, say, the segue from the loping intertwined riffs of “China Cat Sunflower” into the joyous release of “I Know You Rider” to render me a grinning, gravity-immune fool remains unparalleled, as do so many dazzling moments spread across the band’s exhaustively-documented live history. The inevitable onset of staid, sober adulthood has utterly failed to reduce the impact of these moments on my psyche. However much my initial cultivation as a Dead devotee was inextricably intertwined with carefree college evenings sprawled out on the lawn of the quad or on a beat-up dormitory couch with a thoroughly savaged bag of Cool Ranch Doritos staring me in the face, the transition into a musical supplement for the more banal moments of midlife existence has been surprisingly smooth. Whether I’m relaxing in my living room on a Sunday morning with the weekend Times and a jazzy late ’73 show playing quietly in the background, or enduring agonizing commute traffic on a rainy San Francisco evening with a more lysergic ’69 Fillmore West run spiriting me off to a more comforting place, the Dead remain my chemical of choice.
Yet my initial impression of the Dead was one of acute disappointment.
My junior high and high school explorations into classic rock’s giants naturally led me at some point to check out this Grateful Dead I’d been hearing about. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect; I’d obviously heard “Truckin’” on FM radio, and the “hits” my friend Andy used to play in our cabin back in summer camp, but for the most part the band were cloaked in a shroud of mystery. This was the dawn of the eighties, before “Touch of Grey” turned them into a touring juggernaut and an unlikely MTV mainstay, and the band was still suitably fringe, at least for adolescent suburbanites.
There was the name, of course, spooky and foreboding, still wielding an ability to shock average sensibilities that has long since faded. There was the intimidating, omnipresent iconography, the skulls slashed through with lightning bolts and crowned in roses, the dancing bears and twirling terrapins, cryptic ciphers seemingly designed to keep the uninitiated at arms’ length.
And more than anything, I knew the Grateful Dead were, like early Floyd, a DRUG BAND.
The only kids at school who liked the Dead were the burnouts, the stoners, the ones who bought faded military fatigues at the army-navy surplus shop downtown and snuck off campus during the lunch hour in VW Beetles adorned with Steal Your Face bumper stickers, returning (if at all) with bloodshot eyes and enigmatic grins—my old elementary school classmates whose parties my mother told me I could no longer attend because she’d heard some stories from the women in her mahjong circle.
Not that I was being invited to those parties. The last thing the stoner crowd wanted to do was bring down a good party with a bunch of straight-edge advanced placement-track over-achievers. And, of course, my own crowd was mandated by rigid clique structures to steer clear of the shaggy freaks who spent homeroom making bongs out of glass beakers stolen from the chemistry lab (while we spent weekends in each other’s basements sneaking shots from the bottles of Stoly and Tanqueray stocked behind our fathers’ wet bars).
So describing the Dead as a “drug band” was pretty nebulous for me. My visibility into drug culture had been largely limited to alarmist after-school specials, teenage sit-com stars taking that first toke and jumping headlong out of a second-story window in a Reefer Madness frenzy, and I had little context for how a band typically described as best enjoyed while stoned was supposed to sound. I assumed the music would be psychedelic, trippy, sonically adventurous, like those early spaced-out Floyd albums I’d been getting into; maybe a little like “Strawberry Fields Forever” or the Stones’ “2000 Light Years from Home,” stripped of the flowery artiness and ratcheted up to 10 on the freak-out scale; unearthly tonal euphoria rotating around the headphones and setting off technicolor starbursts behind your eyelids. One spin of the Dead and, hoo-boy, I’d be catapulted into aural utopia, casting aside society’s burdensome chains and occupying a higher plane of consciousness… something like that.
Which is why when I finally got up the courage to give them a shot it was a serious let-down.
The songs on that greatest hits compilation I checked out of the public library weren’t experimental; they weren’t boundary-pushing; they weren’t even mildly weird. There was a hint of country and folk, a little blues, mostly just some ordinary-sounding rock & roll. I expected my skull to be pierced with lightning bolts like on those confounding bumper stickers; instead, I found the music to commit the cardinal sin of being boring. Wholly unimpressed, high school me took a pass on the Dead...
Sidestepping the band’s pervasive cultural reach became a little trickier once I got to college. In high school, the suburban Deadheads and the friends I hung out with represented circles in a Venn diagram separated by a vast chasm. But in college, the resident Deadheads were commingled among the general population. They’d arrived on campus equipped with their boxes full of concert tapes, wrapped in those spiky hand-written setlist inserts full of enigmatic shorthand, Scarlet > Fire and NFA > GDTRFB. Acolytes were scattered throughout our living suites and lecture halls; you’d see them in their tie-dye and flip-flops, playing hacky sack outside the cafeteria on sunny afternoons. On weekends, the smell of weed wafted from dormitory windows, enveloped in the trebly wah-wah of Jerry Garcia’s noodling guitar leads.
College Deadheads compelled me to cast aside my earlier biases. That same dude from the preppy Northeastern boarding school who always had something brilliant to say in class and seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of any subject that came up in conversation would also disappear for days at a time, returning with a half-eaten baggie of ’shrooms and tales of the monumental “China Doll” he’d just caught at the Hartford Civic Center, and he’d still kick everyone’s ass on the mid-term.
Nonetheless, for a while I persisted in my instinctive rejection of the Grateful Dead. Several factors compelled me to spurn the band and its accoutrements.
First and foremost, my burgeoning discovery of college radio, my obsession with quickly gobbling up every note of the underground bands who had escaped my attention before college, was firmly at odds with jam-band culture. The DJ crowd tended to look down its collective nose at the latter-day collegiate hippies, and I fell in line, somewhat lemming-like, not wanting to jeopardize my nascent indie cred. The left-of-the-dial coolness of the post-punk bands, whether advancing pithy hardcore blasts or carefully finger-picked 12-string jangles, seemed 180 degrees removed from the meandering, aloof jams of the Dead, creakily milking the same grooves for some 20 years by this point. The Dead, however counter-culture they may have been in their pre-MTV years, were still a dinosaur act, much more closely aligned with the tired classic rock that college radio had rendered hopelessly irrelevant...
It was Eddie, another friend from my freshman dorm, who finally broke down my resistance to the band. On an unseasonably warm winter’s evening in New Jersey, we decided it was time to break out the Swedish Fish. (I can’t recall exactly why we decided to have this little party in the garden outside the university president’s residence, but at the time it seemed as logical a place as any.) And some indeterminate time later, I found myself back in the dorm, not entirely sure how I’d gotten there, with Eddie playing his tape of the Dead’s legendary 1975 performance at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall.
It was a hissy cassette, copied from a tape someone had copied from a tape that someone else had recorded off the radio, and it was a revelation. I arrived at that point where my consciousness managed to free itself from my body, instead locking onto the incessant groove of “Franklin’s Tower,” a simple tune that never varied from its unending three-chord rotation, through verses and choruses, nowhere a bridge to be found, just those three chords and traded solos and the harmonizing on the repeated “roll away the dew” refrain and how did these guys know on that particular Wednesday evening in 1975 to play this one song exactly the way it would need to be played to fully sink in when it finally permeated my skull a decade later?
It's funny. When the band officially released this show a few years later as One from the Vault—their first move in opening the floodgates of their legendary live recording archives—I was genuinely surprised to find that this performance of “Franklin’s Tower” lasted less than 7 minutes, relatively short compared to later versions. That night in the dorm I was convinced it lasted for hours. And not just in the usual way that time slows down when you’re in that particular state of mind. I think my subconsciousness appreciated the gravity of the moment, specifically told me to relax, take it easy, we’re going to focus, because we’re making up for lost time here and we’re going to get it right.
I want to say it’s like the Zen proverb (or was it a Donovan song?) about there being a mountain, then no mountain, and then a mountain. There was a version of me that found the Dead somewhere between dull and terrible; and within the span of this loping track, sometime between the first and the thirtieth “roll away the dew,” that person disappeared and was replaced with a version of me that was passionate about the Grateful Dead, and had always been passionate about the Grateful Dead.
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