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Bringing Out Our Dead

May 19, 2012 by Somebody Else

Oh no, you might be thinking as you start to read this, here we go again, yet another piece of writing extolling the Grateful Dead, yet another fanatical Deadhead who is going to go on with ten zillion endless details about the band, about the dozens of their shows that he personally attended, filled with countless minutiae about the band members' personal lives, the group's continuous lineup changes over the years, which bootleg recordings are the best, etc.

Well, rest assured that you will not be subjected to any of that here. Other people have already done a fine job of writing all of those things in an entire galaxy of independently-run websites, so there is nothing that I can add -- or quite frankly would even want to add -- in that regard.

No, here you will instead discover the reflections of someone who is not a Deadhead -- for those of you not in the know, this means a deeply dedicated follower of the group -- but is at the same time somewhat more than an appreciative casual listener. For choice of a better term, I might classify myself as a low-key fan of the Grateful Dead, and leave it at that. If you yourself are a Deadhead, you might still find something in this article that will bring out a satisfied grin or two, and if you don't know much about the band, maybe I can inspire you to give them a second listen. Either way, please, do read on.

The Grateful Dead got started around the time I was born, so, in an odd way, when I think of their trajectory through time, to a certain extent, I think of my own. You might say that my lifetime corresponds to the Grateful Dead era, if we might call it such. When they came together in the mid 1960s, they were just another relatively anonymous gathering of oddball, long-haired hippie types living out in San Francisco. I hardly imagine that anyone back then could have possibly guessed that they would amount to anything more than a handful of unemployed, drug-using, partying bohemian deadbeats who happened to fool around a bit with musical instruments and sing, and who hung out with their parents when they needed a hot meal. If their little musical project hadn't worked out, they might have broken up and all gone on to get boring day jobs somewhere, and we would have never heard from them again. But from such inauspicious beginnings, they turned into a full-blown, completely unofficial American institution.

Once when I was travelling abroad, a foreigner asked me to give him an example of the most quintessentially American style of music. Without a moment's hesitation, I responded, the Grateful Dead.

It seems kind of funny to give that kind of answer, since for so much of its storied career, the band and their dedicated followers were reviled by so many conservative folks as a grave aberration that threatened the traditional social and cultural fabric of the nation, as a gang of strange and ridiculous weirdoes, as a mob of countercultural freaks and degenerates. And yet, with all of that being said, I can hardly think of any single American group out there who more fully and thoroughly represent the various conventional genres that have historically made up American popular music during the last hundred years. Paradoxically, perhaps, the Grateful Dead have fully earned their place as standard bearers for the common popular heritage of American music.

I didn't have that much awareness of the Grateful Dead growing up. My uncle had a copy of their album Blues for Allah, released in 1975. I don't know if he particularly cared for the music on the album, but I do know that he liked the cover a lot, which features a skeleton in a crimson robe playing a violin. My uncle is a graphic artist, so it's entirely possible that he bought the album just for its interesting artwork. From that album cover alone, I got the rather misleading impression that the Grateful Dead was kind of disturbed and dangerous, and most definitely for adults and not for tender little kids like me. Maybe when I grow up, I thought, I'll be able to appreciate something like that.

Then, when I was in high school in the mid 1980s, a friend of mine came by and said, hey, I've got some music by the Grateful Dead, let's check it out together. At that time, I was going through my psychedelic phase, and so I thought, yeah, let's listen to some trippy, far-out tunes, alright! I had the idea that the band represented the absolute epitome of mind-blowing music, at least from what a few friends had told me.

Blues for Allah by Grateful Dead Workingsman's Dead by Grateful Dead

My friend brought over his copy of Workingman's Dead, released in 1969, which had some of the band's better-known tunes up to that point. I assumed that I would get to hear even more of the frenetic, 1960s-era, British-invasion-influenced psychedelic noises I was craving. But that was not precisely the case. Instead, I discovered something much better. I found out that the Grateful Dead were very good indeed at making highly memorable mellow songs with an unmistakably American feel to them.

The first track that really got my attention was "Black Peter." Jerry Garcia's voice sadly, softly and tiredly intones over a rich mix of laid-back acoustic guitars, a slow yet interestingly complex bass part, an intermittent churchy-sounding organ, and some minimal wire-brush drums. Lyrically, the song is about getting ready to die, and comes across just about as grimly as anything a fundamentalist preacher could muster up in a clapboard church in rural Nebraska. I listened to "Black Peter" over and over and meditated upon its melancholy yet somehow inexplicably comforting message, and that's when I realized that the Grateful Dead had won my respect for good. To this day, when I hear "Black Peter," I always think, well, one day I'm going to die, and thank God for that. So, this song has really had a profound impact upon my personal outlook on my own mortality.

Another song that totally amazed me when I first heard it was "Easy Wind." The lead vocals here are done by Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, who comes across exactly like the rough-and-ready, down-and-dirty working man he claims to be in the lyrics. If you aren't listening carefully, the musicianship might come across as rather casual, maybe a bit lazy and directionless, and sort of sloppy. It may seem like the band is all over the place -- a swirling, pulsating mass of instruments, each one kind of doing its own thing, and the drum part sounds as if it's being played by an octopus, until you find out that the band actually employed two drummers for the track, which they did throughout much of their existence. But after listening closely to the tune a few times, I was able to appreciate the inspired genius and intricately coordinated mastery of it all, and yes, I had to admit that it was pretty darned freaking psychedelic in a surprisingly familiar and authentically bluesy way.

"Dire Wolf" is yet another nice tune from that album, with its warm pair of acoustic guitars, ironically cheerful chorus of "please don't murder me," and Jerry Garcia's wonderful country-and-western flavored electric lap steel guitar, an instrument that he would also play to excellent effect on the timeless standard "Teach Your Children Well" for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young around that same time.

And of course, I can't write about Workingman's Dead without calling attention to one of the band's most iconic tunes, "Casey Jones," which presents us with the sort of funny but at the same time potentially horrific scenario of some judgment-impaired conductor who has decided to help himself to a good bit of white powder right before getting behind the controls of a huge diesel-powered locomotive hauling dozens of railway cars. A pretty humorous song, provided that you aren't riding as a passenger on that train, I suppose.

Certainly, there are a very large number of equally worthy songs from other Grateful Dead albums that I could draw your attention to, but I'll limit myself to the following.

The band has composed a handful of tunes that are pretty well known among the general public, which include the previously mentioned "Casey Jones," in addition to "Truckin'," "Touch of Grey," "Friend of the Devil," "Box of Rain," "Fire on the Mountain," and "Ripple." There's a good chance that you've heard several or all of these songs on the radio at one time or another.

Of course, the band's studio production is only one part of their creative output. I think it's fairly safe to say that for most Deadheads, the group's official vinyl and CD releases are vastly overshadowed by their thousands of live performances, all of which the band has allowed the public to record and distribute free of charge. Now that's what I call keeping the freewheeling spirit of the 1960s alive.

Grateful Dead playing live

I've actually seen an extensive personal collection of such live recordings by the group, and there is a rather curious story behind it. In the early 1990s, a year or two before Jerry Garcia's death, I had a job at a hotel as a desk clerk, and I had a week of vacation coming to me, so I decided to just go driving around without any real direction or purpose for several days to see what might happen. I somehow ended up in a small town and met this woman eating at the counter of a greasy spoon restaurant. She told me that her boyfriend was in jail for illegal drug possession, and that she was watching his place until he could get out, which was supposed to be in a few months. She invited me to share a drink at her house, and against my better judgment, I accepted.

She took me into her boyfriend's living room, where I was astounded to see shelf after shelf of cassette tapes, each of which was a recording that he had made at a Grateful Dead concert. I think that the guy had inherited a bunch of money from a relative or something, so he never had to hold a regular job, and, when he wasn't in jail, just spent all of his time travelling around with the Grateful Dead. I kind of envy the man for that, but I think he might have done better at choosing a girlfriend, since not long after that first drink, I discovered that she had other things on her mind besides a bit of pleasant conversation. Well, not wishing to unnecessarily complicate my life, I made a quick and simple exit.   

Anyway, you can find a virtually endless number of these live concert recordings uploaded to YouTube if you want to check them out. Each one is unique. It seems like the Grateful Dead were constantly evolving from one concert to the next, so that the same song might have a totally distinct feel to it only a month or two later. And of course, those concert recordings include some of the band's most notable free-form improvisational extended jams, many of which were allegedly performed under chemically influenced circumstances, if you know what I'm saying. So, if that's your kind of thing, the Grateful Dead has most certainly done the lion's share of it.

But even so, I would be rather reluctant to affirm that such jams are the most important part of their musical legacy, and that their biggest impact on modern music is that they provided the jam-band model for groups like Phish and Widespread Panic to follow. I feel that there is really much more to their contribution to popular music than just that. Rather, in my view, the Grateful Dead should most be remembered as a group that brought together so many traditional genres of uniquely American music -- rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, country, and improvisational jazz -- and melded them all together into one complete and thoroughly integrated musical experience.

Certainly, they were influenced by and incorporated some foreign musical influences, such as Jamaican reggae and British-styled psychedelia and space rock, but at their core, the band has always maintained an authentically American identity. And I don't mean that in the usual jingoistic, falsely patriotic sense of wanting to send soldiers off somewhere to fight and die, and, for the sake of some corporate manufactured pseudo-freedom, drop a bunch of bombs on poor villagers living in mud huts, but instead in the Walt Whitman sense, in the Ralph Waldo Emerson sense, in the Edgar Allen Poe sense. Come on, folks -- let's not let the Blue Meanies define our sense of nationhood.

Two years before he passed away in 1995, Jerry Garcia teamed up with David Grisman to record a rather simple and pleasantly soothing album of children's songs entitled Not for Kids Only. It is entirely made up of traditional tunes, mostly from the American South. I only wish that Garcia had made that kind of recording back in the 1970s, when I was still a kid and thought that the scary skeleton on Blues for Allah was what he and his band mates were all about. But better late than never, I suppose.

The Grateful Dead officially split up after Garcia passed away, but other modified versions of the band have continued on since then. It's really not for me to say whether or not any of those post-Garcia musical partnerships are any less authentic than the ones that he played in. I'll leave it up to the Deadhead purists and true believers to sort all of that out. But I will cautiously venture to say that the Grateful Dead was always a collectivist enterprise without any single official leader, so I can hardly imagine Jerry Garcia, who was by all accounts a benevolent and easy-going person, looking down upon his surviving former band mates from on high and criticizing anything that they do now as being less worthy than what they had done before.

Nonetheless, in my humble opinion, the Grateful Dead probably reached their creative peak in the late sixties and early seventies, and it is for this reason that most people tend to associate them with that particular cultural era. Undoubtedly, the music that they performed and recorded at that time forms a key part of our musical heritage as a nation. I should also point out that despite their formerly countercultural public image, they have not really been musical revolutionaries, but instead musical renovators and revivers, in other words, dedicated artists and performers who took the best of our existing popular music and brought it up to the next level. Finally, to clear up a popular misconception, I would say that the Grateful Dead is not just for Deadheads, but rather for all of us who love great American music.


"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...