I love the Grateful Dead. There. I've said it. Go ahead and judge me, I don't care. I know just how un-hip that makes me. Young, tattooed women these days often respond to that admission with something approaching "Ewww!" I love tattooed women, too. It's okay if they don't love me back.
The thing is, few people have taken the time to understand that the Grateful Dead were not just hippies. They were dirty hippies, and there is a big difference. By that, I mean they attracted all forms of deep subversives in their 30-year span of performing really weird music. Mean and sometimes violent Hell's Angels frequented their scene. The most damaged of young souls flocked to Grateful Dead stages from all over the country. And it was all because the Dead were the ultimate misfits. They were smart but lacked any aspiration to become mainstream hitmakers. They benefited from loads of talent, yet often undermined that particular potential by taking ridiculous risks with their music. What they got in return was the reward of unprecedented (and still unmatched) devotion to their chosen cause.
When I hear the Grateful Dead play, say, a country standard like Marty Robbins' "El Paso," I'm not struck by their attempt to faithfully render the song. Instead, I experience it as a small part of the band's much, much larger weave of Americana, which spans from traditional gospel all the way to the most outside of outsider music. It is all about context, and the Dead were masters of that, if nothing else. The key to appreciating them is learning to ride the entire wave. Buy the ticket, take the ride to the end of the line. Ingest moderate amounts of substances if you must, though it's certainly not a pre-requisite or necessary to really "getting it." There is a much more zen force at work, the sort that reveals itself if you can summon the proper Buddha-like state of mind. It is a k?an easily solved by the discipline of opening your mind and really listening, and it pays big dividends.