WHY THE DEAD?
A band booed for thirty minute drum solos. A band accused for originating “jam bands.” A band called garbage for never making a great studio album. A band whose only top 50 hit was song no fan even liked. A band relegated to thrice-used Spotify playlists that faux-spiritual warriors use to will meaning upon the hours following their first cosmic flavored mushroom.
I am of course talking about the Grateful Dead.
I started listing to the Dead on the mornings my father, a Dead-head himself, would take me to work with him at the armory. It would be around 4:30 a.m. The windows were down letting in a breeze that carried with it beams of light, and all the while thumping from the scratchy factory speakers in the old green truck was output of a cassette of a show the Grateful Dead played in Jackson December 19, 1978.
I hated it the first time I listened to it. Jerry Garcia was decidedly off—one of his off days. Bob Weir’s guitar sounds like it has a pickup damaged, but my dad loved it, and on those rides to work, we listened to nothing but that and a local Republican talk show.
As any 67-Shaman will tell you, love for the Dead does not come from listening and bonding with any particular track. They have a huge discography and every time they play a song, even crowd pleasers like “Jackstraw” and “Shakedown,” there is an organic responsiveness to each audience they play it for. Loving the Grateful Dead starts from learning the songs as characters in the play that is their shows. Hearing “Playing with the Band” when it’s an upbeat beginning to a set is great, but seeing them play it as a transition from “Dark Star’s” bleak spiritual oneness gives the song a new depth.
The art of the Dead’s music is as much of character making as song craft. Each concert show is different because each time the songs are coming from a different place in a different setting with different songs introducing them and following them.
The tape my dad played was from his one trip into the microphone gardens. Every time they walked on stage, the Dead wanted a condenser monitoring the whole thing. Each time was a new experience with a new crowd. Even when they couldn’t bring it together in the end, it stands as piece of art in a very large gallery of their concerts. Someone like me born in 94, well after their myriad heydays, can still follow them through scratchy low-fi bars and fully Remastered festivals (I’m thinking Dick’s Picks). I don’t know of any other group that has that kind of continuity—that kind of lived-in history in our musical landscape.
Loving the Dead is loving humanity in all of its bumbles, wit, self-discovery, addiction, failure, fantasy, sexual-rawness, and ultimate survival. Perhaps though this pretension about the music misses the point.
Above all, it is pleasure that engenders all that is above. When a friend sends me a recording I haven’t heard of “St. Stephen,” right when I’m dealing with a rough breakup or a personal failure at work, it plugs me back into something much bigger in my life than that day. It plugs me back into memories, to friends, to other fans, to my father, to sweaty concerts dripping with beer and surprise when some hipster-indie-alternative-post-post-house band plays the holy riff to “Shakedown Street,” to hating myself for loving their arrangement of “The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down,” to singing till I’m red in the face as I play “Ripple” with the friends I find myself with when there’s no place to go.
It is not as simple as “Grateful Dead equals art.” The Greatful Dead are an AED that keeps shocking you alive whether you need it or want it or could go without it.
–Zachary Oren Smith