The Dead: Beyond Stereotypes

The Grateful Dead are on the road again this year, and that ain't news. It's no glitzy, grab-the-bucks, "hell freezes over" reunion tour, to be enshrined with a battery of MTV and VH-1 appearances, a quick turn on Letterman, and the cover of Interview. It's just 30 cities and 70 shows or so, load in, make the people happy, and load out: business as usual. When the Dead have made headlines this summer, it's been the tragic lightning strikes and gate-crashing fans which have been cast in the starring role, rather than the music. The fact that the Dead have kept up a fertile conversation in song for three decades - a unique synthesis of jazz improvisation, folk balladry, hi-tech avant-garde soundscapes, world beat rhythmatism, and ol' time rock and roll redemption - takes the back seat to the collapsing balconies, the overdoses. While the only accomplishment of comparable longevity in exploratory American music making is, say, the Duke Ellington Orchestra - which suffered more changes of principal players than the Dead have - that fact is barely noticed, even by the Dead themselves. After all, it's just Jerry Garcia up there under the lights again, spinning out another crystalline solo that lands nowhere you expect it to, singing in that broken angel's voice about trains, card games, and careless love. It's not even CyberJerry for Windows95, but the real mensch, with white hair, fingers that don't dance as swiftly as they used to, and a hoary countenance marked by every highway mile of the long strange trip. The fact is, I've been seeing the Dead myself for all of my adult life (I saw my first show in '73), and I don't look so young myself anymore. A few too many hours online, gulping coffee and hurdling ungrateful deadlines, have added unwanted cargo to my waistline. Seeing "the Boys" (as Deadheads affectionately refer to the band) in 1995 for me is like going back to the family house, though families don't live in houses for that long anymore. I look up on stage and see a bunch of guys who feel like intimate buddies, though I've only met the band once or twice in connection with my work. I look around me in the big room and see people I grew up with, some faces I've been seeing for 20 years - ex-kids who now bring their own sons and daughters to shows, to dance with them. I also see Deadheads who are young now, who must feel like they're hitching a ride on the caboose of a great American locomotive that's been steaming down the silver track forever, long before they were born. For them, the Dead must seem part of the natural world, like El Capitan or the Grand Canyon. Inevitable. Immortal. The Dead, however, and the extended family of Deadheads, are more like a fantastically intricate snowflake which has been sufficiently blessed and tenacious enough to drift and dance over a glowing radiator for three decades without melting. Garcia once quipped that the Dead, like old whores and architecture, simply stuck around long enough to become respectable. They did more than that. They managed to become the most financially successful touring rock and roll band in history without caving into industry homogenization or typecasting as a "'60s band," and without distilling the dissonant, unpredictable, psychedelic, occasionally terrifying edge out of their music. Though I admit that the band's repertoire has become more predictable as the years flicker past, at nearly every show there's still one moment of pure discovery, a jam that goes somewhere it's never been before (and never will be again), an emotional peak which seems to boil up out of some primordial storehouse, inexhaustible, inimitable. At those breakthrough moments, the teenage "newbies" in the audience, and the grizzled older folks who've been "on the bus" for light-years, turn to one another grinning, as goose pimples, shivers and tears pass through the collective body of the crowd. And through it all, that body dances, many-limbed, joyous, poised on the brink of a mystery. It's funny being a Deadhead - especially being a Deadhead author. When I tell some people that my first book was a dictionary for Heads, they scrutinize me with curiosity and skepticism. "You don't look like a Deadhead!" I've been told more times than I can count. I can only assume they expect a Deadhead to be uttering cosmic incomprehensibilities under a tangle of dreadlocks, doused in patchouli and decked in peace symbols, emitting a cloud of misdemeanors from his beard. I'm no stranger to that variety of Deadhead. One of the few predictably Deadheadish things about me is that I live in the Haight Ashbury, where the long strange trip first set out, so many roads ago. A neighborhood t-shirt reads, "Haight Ashbury: Land of the Free, Home of the Dead." Truth is, the Dead haven't lived here since 1969, and the Summer of Love was a local disaster. What was not a disaster was the two or three years before the Mafia turned the neighborhood into an amphetamine theme park, when the Haight was just a friendly, affordable, bohemian enclave where folks looked the other way when certain laws were broken, and the music in the Panhandle - the Dead, Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin - was free. The outlaw elan and collective spirit which distinguished the original Haight didn't freeze to death under the national blizzard of coke and Bushanomics - it hit the road on Dead tour, and along the way, established a training ground in generosity for the children of the Me Decade, a school for learning to trust the instructive flow in the events of daily life. For thirty years, the Dead scene has been a most miraculous beast: an anarchic society on wheels, self-regulating, an ongoing experiment in practicing "random kindness and senseless acts of beauty," as the bumpersticker says. Though tickets became harder to get, venues got bigger, and the DEA discovered it was easier to slam Little Ivy sophomores bartering "shrooms" into the state pen than face down crack dealers, one thing that there has never been a shortage of on the Dead scene is joy. Before there was cyberspace, the Dead community gave kids accustomed to suburban anomie a place where they could experience a link up with something larger than themselves. For some kids, the family of Deadheads offered more nurturance, tolerance and guidance than their own families. And now that there is cyberspace, many Heads have translated the open-minded bonhomie and care for the commonwealth they were schooled in at Dead shows into good Net citizenship; the kind of citizenship which doesn't require censorship to stand in for good sense and humane concern. I feel sad that the Dead's 30th anniversary of creative vigor and uncompromising commitment to the Wild Good is being celebrated with ominous news reports. But the Dead have always been committed enough to their own creative vision not to be distracted by excessive praise or blame. Garcia never claimed to be captain of anybody's trip but his own, for better and worse. In keeping their collective gaze set firmly on what was essential for their own growth as musicians - maintaining the acuity of listening in the band, remaining open to the next whim of the Muse, and technically proficient enough to do Her justice - the Dead have provided anyone involved in creative work with a model of sticking-to-it, and mining the deep groove, without regard to fashion, that is unsurpassed. The headlines and hype will fade away. The music, the transcendent memories, and the workable models of community will not, because they are woven in our bones. Happy Anniversary, Boys.^Z3 characters received.Do you want to edit the uploaded file (y/n/q/'?' for help)? y Type your message now. To send, hold the control key and type the letter x ^G Get Help ^O WriteOut ^R Upld File ^Y Prev Pg ^K Cut Text ^C Cur Pos ^X Exit ^J Justify ^W Where is ^V Next Pg ^U UnCut Text^T To Spell [ Reading file ][ Read 3 lines ] Y [Yes] C Cancel N No Do you want to send the message ? NoNo mail sent.Mail? qHeld 27 messages in folder (incoming)PeaceNet: (c)onf (m)ail (i)nternet (d)ata (u)sers (n)ews (e)xtras (bye): bye11 pages worth of free mail storage left; see (h)elp command.Elapsed Time: 3 MinutesGoodbye!------------------------------------------

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