Monday, April 13, 2009

The Grappled Dead

The following was something I posted on Facebook after reading a Sunday NY Times article on the Grateful Dead, realizing it was Easter, and then realizing I saw my first (of only two) Dead shows on Easter, in 1987.
Ning suggested I post it here, so here....

Today is Easter.
I went to two Grateful Dead shows in my life.

The first was on Easter, 1987, in Irvine, CA. I was 14.
My parents, sister and I were visiting family in CA, from where we'd moved six years previous. My sister Alyssa was in the throes of Deadhead-dom and somehow convinced our dad to get us four tickets to the April 19 show, since we'd be staying in a Doubletree Hotel pretty closeby. For chaperons we had our brother Eric and our sister, Julie, neither of whom were terribly familiar with the band (though Julie would quickly get the bug and spend the next two or three years fully immersing herself in all things Dead). I was just beginning to familiarize myself with the Dead's music, through Alyssa's growing tape collection and vinyl releases. Initially, she and her hippie friend had tried to turn me on via the over-produced 1977 album, Terrapin Station. I didn't like it one bit. They may have well played me Steely Dan (which I also hated at the time). I was in a psychedelic/garage phase and this was horrible, smooooth, coked-out crap.
Attempt #2 was American Beauty. And sure, I understood the allure, but still wasn't ready to mellow out to acoustics and three part harmonies.
Then she played me Anthem of the Sun, their second album, with its continuous stream of psychedelic songs, bridged by feedback, noise collages and inspired playing.
Ah ha! I get it.
I soon purchased their debut album, which has more in common with The Monkees' "Headquarters" album than, say, Hendrix's "Are You Experienced" (all released in 1967). What I mean is that, whereas Hendrix seemed to have come out of the box fully assembled and psychedelic, The Grateful Dead's debut (like the aforementioned Monkees album) sound like a band still tied to their roots, raring to go, even though they've never recorded in a studio before. It's no frills, very energetic, and whatever faults are easily forgivable and cute, rather than pretentious and embarassing. It's whatever punk meant in 1967.
I'm sure I was the only 14 year old in the Andover, MA area listening to those Dead and Monkees albums back to back, comparing and contrasting and wishing that they were friends.

I'd drum along to St Stephen>The Eleven (from Live Dead) and to parts of Europe '72 on the headphones, and thus Bill Kreutzmann's style does make up a bit of my drummer makeup. I'd also proudly state that Jerry was WAY better than Eddie Van Halen on guitar, since my friends at the time loved the Halen.

By 1990, my flirtation with Dead-fandom was pretty much over. New music was inspiring me more and more. If I wanted an overweight guy in black singing and playing guitar, I had Robert Smith. If I wanted noodly, experimental jams with lovely melodies between, I had Sonic Youth. Plus, alterna-chicks were more my type than hippie chicks. And by nature, I'm a wall flower, not a dancer.
By college, I was surrounded by so many deadheads that I denied any knowledge about them. I owned exactly two Dead CDs (Anthem and American Beauty) but kept them concealed just 'cuz I wanted no part of any conversations.
I didn't think of them again until Jerry died. At first I cynically thought "of course.the guy was a wreck". But actually shed a few tears after hearing radio marathons and seeing so many front page stories at newsstands. I even spent a afternoon trying to figure out Dead songs on the guitar. But still, the old vinyl and the two CDs were languishing, unplayed.

A confluence of things brought the band back to my attention in the last year or so. First off, an old friend who I hadn't talked to much at all since we were best friends in high school, who has always been on the NYC artsy side of things and who makes synth+drum machine slow pop, said that all he'd been listening to in the last year was early Dead. We then began passing You Tube links back and forth for a few weeks before he vanished again.

I then started taking things out from the libraries and and loading parts of them on the iPod, quickly remembering what turned me off about the Dead and what I still liked. All in low doses.
This past summer, I moved to a new place and it was only after a couple months that my new house mate and I realized we both knew more about the dead than we'd normally admit to people.
This past winter, a combination of a broken rib, a painkiller prescription and time off from work, sent me poking around the site, at which one can stream most of the shows from 1966-95. I expanded my horizons, read interviews, fan comments, blah blah.

One can't really judge the Grateful Dead using the same criteria as one would most other bands. Still, that doesn't let them off the hook when they sucked. But hearing a Grateful Dead show is like a walk through the woods, as opposed to a walk through a mall or an office. Tomorrow, that branch won't be in the same place, and you might step on some shit. Tomorrow, that color copier will most definitely still be where it was when I left at 5pm yesterday. If it's not, or if I step on some shit under my desk, well, that's like Jimmy Buffet or Sting forgetting the words to their songs or taking 5 minutes to tune or decide what to do next.

As it stands now, I can say that I am anything but an unconditional fan of the Grateful Dead. In the Dead's career, this is what I DON'T like:
--guest sax players
--that anyone could take any friggin phrase from any song, slap it on a bumper sticker in some illegible font with roses and vines around it and it became some pearl of wisdom
--some deathly slow Jerry songs (Comes A Time, Row Jimmy)
--Bob Weir blues crap (Wang Dang Doodle, Little red Rooster...not anyone's strong suit in the band and if I walked into an open mic and saw them doing these I'd say "poor guys--hope they have dayjobs")
--Brent's songs (his playing and his energy are great, however)
-- when they discovered frigging MIDI. Yanni meets Enya sometimes...I like Garcia's guitar playing. I don't care what it's like when it sounds like a flute or trumpet
-- ditto the electronic drums.
--that they kept an unwiling, unwell, Garcia on the road
--I can't really listen to 1984-85 when the massive weight gain and the freebase pipe had competely changed Garcia's voice from thin, reedy, nasal to, well, like a bloated drug addict muppet.
--that Bob Weir and Micky Hart belong to the Bohemian Grove group, which is largely made up of horrible, horrible men like Rumsfeld, Kissenger, Bush's an elite men's society. I'm not joking. Thanks to Karen for telling me about this.
you can Google it.

this is what I DO like

--the speedy pop of 66-67
--the noise and chaos of 68-69
--the often overloooked fact that Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter wrote dozens of songs that stand among the best American popular songs of the century (Brokedown Palace, Black Peter, Ripple, Wharf Rat, Ship of Fools, Crazy Fingers, Loser, Bird Song, Cats Under the Stars...I even think Foolish Heart is a good song, despite the '1989-ness of it)
--the 71-74 era where they were tight AND experimental AND writing lots of new songs AND having fun
--I like much of Garcia's guitar playing. I recently read an essay which stated his guitar playing asked more questions than gave answers. I'll go one step further and call him the ultimate ADD guitar player, changing the subject, unable to repeat the same thing twice perfectly (or at least willingly)
-- and yeah, like the Times article talks about, 1977 was a good year.

What Times article? Christ, that's why I started writing this!!

Today, the New York Times' Arts section has an article on The Grateful Dead. In advance of the tour that the remaining members are doing (bleh!!), the Times is asking fans to vote on what was the best show in the Grateful Dead's 30 year live career. A show from Cornell University, 1977 seems to be THE SHOW according to the majority.

What kind of Dead fan am I? I've never listened to that whole show, though I'm aware of the reputation and I know that my sister had (has?) it.

So, yes..Easter, 22 frigging years later. Blogging about the Dead.
Oh, and the Easter '87 was a good one, in my 14-year old eyes.

Post Script (not on the Facebook version):

I read one comment on the Times article where someone said something like "best show? worst show? what is this, sports?"
And initially, you'd say "uggh! No it's not sports, of course it's not sports" .
Then you realize, well, if any rock band's shows could be compared to a game, perhaps it's the Grateful Dead.
Like, there are, for example, Red Sox games where you can't believe the team that's stinking up the field is the same one that looked unbeatable the night before.
Same with a GD show.
If the third basemen is injured, or if a member of the band is strung out, you're not operating as a unit and what was great is now embarrassing and you can't believe you're wasting your time.

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