The Grateful Dead Turn 30
Three decades. Thirty years. A generation plus. One hell of a long time to do anything, but long enough to become an institution -- especially an institution unlike any other. It's no exaggeration to call the Grateful Dead an institution -- a rock'n'roll institution, but one whose creative focus has melded idioms as diverse as traditional Appalachian folk songs, neoclassical electronic composition, Oriental music theory and Chicago blues into a uniquely American, distinctly quirky sound. There's a singular, ineffable essence at the core of Grateful Dead music, but it manifests itself in myriad forms, influenced by personnel changes, the pre-show dinner menu, band members' fluctuating interests, the significance of a particular date on the calendar, interaction with other musicians, the weather and more. It's all Dead, but the music does change -- from night to night, and from era to era. Despite their career longevity, the Dead don't deserve the "dinosaur" label often slapped on their few surviving contemporaries, such as the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. The Dead don't hibernate, awakening only every four or five years to oil rusty joints, creak through another album and plod through another year-and-a-half world tour. In fact, the Dead have taken just one extended vacation in their entire history -- their so-called "retirement," from October 1974 through May 1976. Other than that, they've been working steadily since LBJ was in the White House. The Dead also are unusually open to sharing their stage with other musicians, including many whose musical worlds at first glance seem far removed from their own. Perhaps it's the Dead's origin in the communal '60s San Francisco scene that also spawned the Jefferson Airplane, among others, which is behind that openness, along with the diversity of musical interests among the band members. Whatever the reasons, some of the Dead's best shows have included meetings with other musical minds. Recent years have seen the Dead joined onstage by jazz legends Ornette Coleman and David Murray; pop phenoms Branford Marsalis and Steve Miller; bluesman James Cotton; America's de facto poet laureate, Bob Dylan (who opened shows on the pre-Pittsburgh part of the Dead's summer tour); and cultural gumbo-meisters the Neville Brothers, who provided one of my more memorable Dead moments in the summer of 1987, when they unexpectedly joined in for most of the Dead's second set at the Civic Arena -- an impromptu, unbelievably energized get-together that those who witnessed it still talk about. The Dead don't just have musical influences -- they're more than willing to keep on studying, in real time and in public, and the lessons learned ripple through their work long after the circus has moved on. No matter how many times vacuous TV talking heads babble about how going to a Dead show is like stepping back to the Summer of Love, this is not some freeze-frame time-warp band. If it's a nostalgia trip you're after, go see the Beach Boys, who've become their own kind of institution by perpetually serving up pretty much the exact same stuff, note for note, night in and night out. Not the Dead -- and what that means for the average Deadhead is that any given night raises the possibility of witnessing something musically mind-blowing. There's also, of course, the possibility of seeing the band crash and burn. Some nights, it's a bit of both. But each Dead show aims to be as unique as each snowflake that falls to earth: It's easy to recognize it for what it is, but no two are exactly alike. Three decades on, neither the out-of-this-world performance nor the absolute-shit show is as likely to happen as it once was. The rigors of age, the polishing of musical and business skills, and the realities of playing in tightly scheduled arenas and stadiums have combined to diminish the chances of seeing the Dead do something truly outrageous -- or truly horrendous. The rough edges are smoother than ever, but that smoothness has come at a price: shorter sets, tighter arrangements, less freeform jamming. The Dead are unlikely to ever again be the sort of band they were in the early '70s, playing three sets a night totaling four and a half hours of music. Two sets totaling two and a half hours or so is more like it these days. Still, the core remains: founders Jerry Garcia on lead guitar, Bob Weir on rhythm guitar, Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzmann on drums. Fellow drummer Mickey Hart's tenure stretches back almost as far. Keyboard man Vince Welnick, a former member of the Tubes, is the "new" guy, occupying one of the scariest chairs in rock -- three of his four predecessors are deceased. He was chosen by audition late in the summer of 1990 after Brent Mydland's overdose death; Dead pal Bruce Hornsby also sat in for a while, helping to stabilize the situation, and still pops up occasionally. The losses of founding member Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan, the Dead's original front man, who drank himself to death in the early '70s, and Keith Godchaux, who died in a car wreck a few months after parting ways with the Dead in the late '70s, still loom in the memories of the band and their followers. For a band that's never really pulled off in the studio what it's capable of doing onstage, the Deadheads' long, exhaustive collective memory is both blessing and curse, augmented by countless, widely circulated live Dead recordings, which the band views rather benignly. The tapes provide a sense of continuity from lineup to lineup and tour to tour, making it possible to trace the effects of personnel changes and the development of material, and to relive brilliant moments that otherwise would be lost forever. But because so much of what has come before was so brilliant, there's always a temptation to assert that the Dead's best days are behind them. And with 30 years under their belts, that temptation grows ever stronger. There's been a recent stir in the Deadhead community, for example, because these musicians, known for eschewing even set lists, began using TelePrompTers to remind themselves of the lyrics they're supposed to be singing. Many welcomed the move, figuring it would cut down on the mumbles. Others found it a regrettable concession, a telling indication of aging's effects. Even with such techno-help, the Dead are still perfectly capable of muffing a verse here and there, and in a way, that's oddly comforting. In the Dead universe, change is a constant, but something always keeps whatever's going on "good ol' Grateful Dead." That may be a fundamental factor in the Dead's enduring appeal: a face may change, songs may creep into and fall out of the rotation, but they're still there, doing what they do, still open to surprise and inspiration night after night -- and never taking themselves too seriously. It's comforting and risky at the same time, like life itself. Just as Grateful Dead music reveals new and different aspects as the years go by, Deadheads find new and different meanings in the lyrics and surprising, previously unheard shadings in the jams as their own experiences broaden with the passage of time. The surest evidence that the Dead are not merely retailing nostalgia is the makeup of their audience. Though some folks have been there pretty much since the beginning, what's unusual is a more or less constant influx of young fans -- whether their peers are listening to Top 40, disco, rap, grunge or industrial music. New Deadheads just keep on coming, supporting an idea advanced by band members in interviews over the years: there's just a type of person, in every generation, who finds what the Dead do appealing. It'd be tough to draw such a conclusion from the way Deadheads commonly are portrayed, though. In part, that arises from the Dead's roots as house band at Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, the legendary happenings where the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and his Merry Pranksters made LSD available before it was outlawed in California. The drug-culture connotation has stuck to the band ever since -- with some justification, given individual members' problems with substance abuse over the years, and the continuing tendency of some less intelligent Deadheads to do things at and around shows that look awfully good on reports sent to cops' superiors. The Dead have always maintained that they don't want to be anyone's cops (or gurus), staying officially neutral on whether anyone should ingest anything -- though they have said that on the whole, they view their psychedelic voyages as some of the most positive experiences of their lives. That's the sort of subtle distinction that gets lost in the race to attract viewers. Whenever the Dead roll into a town, the mainstream media descend; judging by the resulting coverage, they usually assign their youngest, least experienced staff members to interview the smelliest, dirtiest, weirdest parking-lot denizens they can find, preferably capturing the subject's rainbow-rust-and-sticker-splashed VW bus in the background while Jimmy Olsen delivers his "standup" in keeping with that time-warp-back-to-the-groovy-'60s notion. Consequently, what plops into Everyday America's living room is a barely one-dimensional picture of Deadheads, which falls far short of reality. So what's the reality? Try this: Among friends of mine who'll be at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh for the Dead are an osteopathic physician, a computer systems expert, a collegiate advisor, a trade association official, an environmental engineer, an oncology nurse, several sales people and a laboratory chemist (who's also, believe it or not, a Teamster). You'd never know it from the sort of formulaic, find-the-cliche coverage that follows the Dead from city to city just as surely as some VW buses do, but there are far more folks with "real jobs" and "normal lives," for whom Dead shows are the hobby of choice, than there are grubby tour rats living hand-to-mouth existences on the perpetual road. As Deadheads age, and their "normal lives" take on the additional complications and duties that anyone else's does -- spouses, children, increased job responsibilities -- they often find that they're making it to fewer shows. But others fill the seats, discovering anew what their older brothers and sisters, and often their parents, found out long ago. In that sense, Grateful Dead shows perform a rare function in our society: they're a multigenerational rite of passage, pop-culture touchstones that span gaps of age, gender, ethnicity and wealth. To ask whether that's true because the Dead have been at it for 30 years, or whether they've been at it for 30 years because that's true, is to pose a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum. But much of the Grateful Dead world is like that: on the best of nights, the line that divides performers and audience blurs, and everyone -- from Garcia to the guy in the top-row seat farthest from the stage -- feels as if they're part of creating the experience. It's a subjective process that defies conventional notions of causality, of stimulus and response; a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts gestalt that happens when it happens -- and it doesn't happen quite the same way with any other band, any other audience, any other phenomenon. Some Deadheads, myself included, feel that it hasn't been happening as much or as strongly in the past couple of years. Maybe I'm just getting old. Maybe I'm just not seeing enough shows anymore -- I've seen about 90 since 1983, but I've only made a few in the last couple of years. Maybe I'm just not hearing enough of the "good nights" on tape. But with this three-decade thing staring us all in the face, it does seem like it's time to acknowledge that the years are beginning to affect the band's performance -- and to savor past Dead experiences, and those that still remain to be had. The mainstream media are fond of latching onto the phrase "What a long strange trip it's been," taken from the song "Truckin'," as if it were the be-all and end-all summation of the Dead experience. While it's certainly "true," it's far from complete. At the very least, a couple of other truisms from the Dead world ought to be included: "There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert," a saying whose origins are cloudy but whose validity is indisputable; and a statement from the late, legendary promoter Bill Graham, whose untimely demise led to the end of the band's Bay-Area New Year's Eve extravaganzas, where he'd make midnight entrances in elaborate costumes: "They're not the best at what they do, they're the only ones that do what they do." Yes, it's been long. Yes, it's been strange. But as the Dead and their followers consider the implications of marking 30 years' passage, the fact that it all still comes down to six guys onstage who've managed to build a unique musical and cultural phenomenon organically -- without deliberately aiming to do so -- is a point to focus on, a triumph to celebrate, a promise to keep. Nobody knows how long the Dead's trip will last; based on what they've said themselves, it's a fair bet that they'll still be doing it come the turn of the millennium. But what the Dead have already done will continue to resonate through millions of lives long after the last Grateful Dead concert is played. So long as its basic message -- fun, freedom, openness, tolerance and belief in the value of stretching the limits of the possible -- continues to echo, Grateful Dead music will be alive.