I ♥ [heart] the Grateful Dead: a Valentine's Day confession

I remember sitting in a little movie house in Cambridge, Mass., watching The Grateful Dead Movie a couple of years after its release. At the time, I was convinced the band was performing an elaborate experiment to see just how long their fans would tolerate extended stretches of painful, boredom-inducing musical wankery, only calling an end to their endless, pointless jamming when a few tomatoes or other soft fruits were hurled at the stage. Of course, this wasn't their intent, but I really believed for a while that it was. I felt like it was a cosmic joke that I just did not get.


Eventually, I came to realize that the Grateful Dead were simply satisfying their indulgent spirits to an extreme previously unheard in popular music. Sure, jazz combos were pushing similar limits, but the Dead did it in plain view and within a rock context. It hurt them commercially in some ways and boosted their credibility to the high heavens in other, perhaps more meaningful, circles. They became gods of sorts. And that is why the bottom eventually fell out.


No one can sustain the pressures that kind of hyped adulation asserts. It invariably crushes whatever is underneath it, and in this case it was a series of the members of the Grateful Dead. First, their beloved, resident biker-dude and tough-guy blues growler, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan died at the tender age of 27 from alcohol abuse. Then, his replacement, Keith Godchaux, veered off a highway to his death not long after leaving the band to the inherent pressures. The jinxed keyboard chair claimed yet another as Brent Mydland overindulged his last. And finally, the reluctant captain of the ship, lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, succumbed to a lifetime of substance abuse at a premature age. (And the Dead's last keyboardist, Vince Welnick, also died later on -- of a self-inflicted knife wound to his neck a few years after Garcia was gone.) The rest of the guys soldier on in various forms, survivors of a harrowing lifestyle and lifetime of indulgence.


So, call them hippies if you must. They certainly lived and worked right in the midst of the flower-power, utopian hopes of the late 1960s and all that those times spawned through the mid-90s. But it might be time to re-consider their role in this often-dismissed blip on the radar of American youth and its attendant trappings. There was a hard core there, and the Grateful Dead were it.

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.

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