Is the Pandemic Turning Me into a Deadhead?
by John Dougan
I swear, I'm not a Deadhead.
That's just one of a number of excuses/rationalizations I use when my enjoyment of the Grateful Dead is revealed. The reaction from many friends and colleagues who learn of my fandom is a mixture of surprise, incredulity, and deep disappointment - as if with all the years I've spent listening to, writing about, and teaching popular music history, I should know better. Haters - and there are plenty of them - confidently proclaim, that the Dead, by any objective measure, is awful, the apotheosis of aimless noodling and quasi-sexist, bullshit hippie mythologizing. Why on earth would a Ramones-loving professor who teaches classes on punk rock like them?
The truth is, I only sort of know.
I'm sure there are plenty of Grateful Dead fans who do not fall under the very specific fan appellation "Deadhead." Such a designation requires more dedication and commitment than I was (or am) willing to maintain. I've never taken LSD, never crisscrossed the country following a Dead tour, never was a taper or a tape trader, never engaged online with Deadheads arguing over which one of Jerry Garcia's solos on "Althea" is the best. I don't reflexively purchase every release in the Dick's Picks live series or, more recently, the Dave's Picks series (but have bought a few), and I find Donna Jean Godchaux's backing vocals at times screechy and unpleasant. Because my fandom is not unconditional, nor have I lived a musical life thoroughly dominated by the Grateful Dead such assertions mark me among the most po-faced Deadheads as a heretical, ill-informed, and unworthy of serious consideration.
The global pandemic and subsequent lockdown - my daily activities more circumscribed due to my age placing me squarely in a high-risk category - provide me with extended periods of binge listening, a rare indulgence separate from my usual work and research responsibilities. Although I'm extremely lucky to be employed and can work from home at a time of severe economic distress, prolonged confinement and minimal contact with others is wearying. The early days were spent frantically re-inventing myself as an online professor, but daily life soon turned into a fuzzy miasma of monotony as the spread of COVID-19 worsened, a reality exacerbated by the ineptitude and outright lies proffered by the malignant narcissist who (thankfully) will soon be leaving the White House. Unexpectedly, the Dead offered a much-needed musical anodyne.
My long, strange trip with the Dead has ebbed and flowed for over 50 years since my seventh-grade art teacher, a hippie at heart who couldn't express it tonsorially or sartorially, played their first album while we painted. To my ears, any of the record's few outré psychedelic touches were overwhelmed by its blues-based garage rock riffing; although they do get a bit jammy and out there covering Furry Lewis's "Viola Lee Blues" for 10 minutes. The entire album clocks in at just under 36 minutes, roughly the average length of a live performance of "Dark Star." I really enjoyed it (still do) but it was hardly in the same league as the epiphanies I experienced when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show or the first time I heard the Ramones. Initial exposure to the Dead didn't turn me into an acolyte ready to turn on, tune in, drop out and hitchhike to San Francisco with flowers in my hair. Besides, the records would do. And while I think their studio output from 1967-1973 is mostly excellent, I can't say the same for their intermittently interesting albums from 1974-1979, and rarely do I bother with anything they recorded in the 1980's.
Descending down this particular rabbit hole was prompted by a confluence of related events. I'd read David Browne's exceptional So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead while listening to the first three releases in the 50th Anniversary deluxe reissue series (Grateful Dead, Anthem of the Sun, and Aoxomoxoa) and watching for a third (maybe fourth?) time Amir Bar-Lev's exhaustive four-hour documentary Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead. Another factor was far more mundane. I moved recently and now have a nearly two-hour round trip commute to the university where I work. The Dead provided the ideal soundtrack to the drive and gave me the perfect opportunity to stream Europe '72: The Complete Recordings, 22 shows which in physical form total 73 CD's. I was about halfway through when the campus shut down in March.
Therein lies the focus of my recent binging - live recordings. Over the course of 30 years and some 2,300+ shows - about 95% of them recorded and available in some manner - the live Dead experience is the firmament upon which Deadheads plant their freak flags (full disclosure, I've attended only two Dead shows, both at the Springfield, MA Civic Center, May 11, 1978 and [I think] October 24, 1979). Eyeball deep into these recordings spanning decades, I found myself embracing the things that provoke rage among what haters hear as obvious, irredeemable flaws: unfocused soloing and improvising, overcooked arrangements, a groove-less rhythm section, dodgy vocals, and the allusive, imagistic lyrics of non-performing fulltime wordsmith Robert Hunter. And while I don't always agree with such criticisms, I understand why they infuriate non-fans. So much so that I too enjoy jokes made at the band's expense ("What did Jerry Garcia say at the first Dead rehearsal after he got out of rehab? Man, this band sucks!"). I laughed out loud when the writer Adam Bulger who, just last year, wrote that the two things that have held him back from becoming a Grateful Dead fan was their music and their fans. Or when he criticized Jerry Garcia's guitar solos for "[squeezing] every dumb note of a scale into all of his melodies. They're not musical phrases, they're musical run-on sentences." But these elements of the Dead's musical weltanschauung are what instilled in me a kind of weird serenity. I didn't need tight editing, I needed run-on sentences. I needed something I could get lost in when daily life was a colorless unchanging same. I needed something shambolic, frayed at the edges, with little, if any idea where it was going or how (or when) it would get there. To that end, the Dead hit all the marks for they were, in the words of critic Greg Kot, "musical postmodernists in the extreme. . . They stirred up a thick soup of Americana (from blues and bluegrass to jazz, rock and folk) with avant-garde seasoning."
So, digging into 70 hours of Europe '72: The Complete Recordings was easy because the original 3-LP release was the one Dead album I was never without and loved above all others. Even after finding out years later that the vocals benefitted from post-production sweetening and re-recording, my ardor for it remains undiminished. For me, this was the Dead at their live best, touring Europe for the first time under difficult circumstances, breaking in new keyboardist Keith Godchaux, while dealing with the rapidly declining health of vocalist/keyboardist/founding member Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, the Dead's R&B heartbeat, who would die months later at age 27 after years of alcohol abuse. The band is incredibly tight and focused, and while they do stretch out a bit on "Truckin'" and an astonishing "Morning Dew," there's no half-hour "Dark Star" or equally lengthy jam. As important is how great these shows sound, having been beautifully recorded by Betty Cantor-Jackson and produced by current Dead archivist David Lemieux.
The longer I sequester at home and the more I listen to various live shows, I find the parameters used to rationalize my non-obsessive fandom expanding. My reluctance to uncritically accept all live recordings as different representations of the Dead's uniform greatness was a layer of protective covering, a way of separating myself as more rational than the glassy-eyed disciples whom critic Robert Christgau once opined have "marshmallow ears." I would unequivocally state that I was only interested in live shows from the Pigpen-era (1967-1973), but that wasn't true. Two of my favorite live recordings not called Europe '72 are from the Keith and Donna-era (1972-1979): One from the Vault, recorded at San Francisco's intimate Great American Music Hall in 1975, features breathtaking ensemble playing and some achingly plaintive singing by Jerry Garcia on "Sugaree" and "It Must Have Been the Roses." The other, the much-celebrated Barton Hall gig at Cornell University in 1977, a long-revered item among tape traders that, after its official release in 2017, lives up to its stellar reputation.
Still, I have my limits. The '80's are mostly hit-or-miss. I'm not a huge fan of then keyboardist Brent Mydland's coloring the sound with his arsenal of digital synths. And while the '90's start out OK (there's even a Reddit thread "90s Dead is Underrated as Fuck"), Garcia's addictions had reached critical mass and the last few years, from 1992 until his death in 1995, the band was running on fumes. At this point however, the Dead's association with the hippie era, despite the best efforts of a younger generation of Deadheads, was vestigial. The huge crowds attending shows now played in football stadiums were more unruly and violent. Clearly, this was not the summer of love.
But neither was this summer. And, as we turn the corner from fall into winter with the pandemic surging, those of us living in coronavirus hotspots, wherein an appreciable number of inhabitants absurdly equate wearing masks and social distancing with oppression and tyranny, have no idea when we will return to normal or what normal will be like when we do. I don't however see my experience as representative of what writer Stephen Hyden who, along with Rob Mitchum, hosts the excellent Dead podcast 36 From the Vault, refers to as a "Mid-Life Dead Phase." For Hyden, returning to the Dead's massive output was a form of cultural liberation, "[getting] into the Dead seemed like a vacation from all of that fashion-obsessed stuff I loathed about the mainstream music industry." With my general anxiety compounded by age-related concerns for my health, life during lockdown has made listening to the Dead less about liberation from the mainstream and more about simple pleasure, momentary solace, and escape from a world on fire.
So, back down the rabbit hole I go, listening to one of the recent releases in the Dave's Picks series of live shows (Miami, Jai-Alai Fronton, June 23, 1974; I passed on the most recent two, Philadelphia Civic Center, April 20, 1984, and Hartford Civic Center, May 26, 1987), the 50th Anniversary deluxe reissues of 1970's Workingman's Dead and American Beauty (both containing excellent live shows from a February 1971 multi-night run at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York), and perhaps the most surprising of all, The Angel's Share, digital-only releases of outtakes from the Workingman's Dead and American Beauty sessions.
Taken as a whole, Workingman's Dead, American Beauty, and The Angel's Share offer a complete picture of the band's transition from in-studio experimentation to a more accessible and tuneful melange of folk, blues, and country. It was a decision motivated by economics. After recording Aoxomoxoa a year earlier and exploring the sonic possibilities of then state-of-the-art 16-track recording technology while tripping on STP and huffing nitrous oxide, the band was nearly broke and their label, Warner Bros., wanted something, anything, commercial. Taking a cue from the close harmony singing on Crosby, Stills and Nash's debut, the Dead decided to ditch the more estranging aspects of the avant-garde for a mostly unpretentious folksy charm, tight arrangements, excellent vocals (for them), and clear, character-driven narratives from Robert Hunter. With their rough-hewn accessibility, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, released a mere six months apart in 1970, despite alienating fans who saw the move away from experimentalism as craven and careerist, are aural gateway drugs for many Deadheads young and (very) old. There's a simple explanation for this. The Dead's proto-Americana lacks the smug self-aggrandizement that seems to be much of current Americana's thematic default setting. There's a relaxed elegance to songs like Workingman's "Uncle John's Band," "Dire Wolf" (with its wry "Don't murder me" chorus), and Pigpen's funky, bluesy "Easy Wind." The same is true of Beauty's "Brokedown Palace," "Attics of My Life," and especially "Box of Rain;" written about Phil Lesh's dying father, it features some of Robert Hunter's most emotionally affecting lyrics. I have students one-third my age whose love of the Dead starts with these albums and these songs. Their excitement in regarding me as a kindred spirit is tempered with disappointment when I tell them that my fandom has limits and that I have no interest whatsoever in Grateful Dead offshoots (with or without John Mayer), tribute bands, or jam bands in general. Sorry Phish fans.
This year marks 25 years since Jerry Garcia's heart quit on him and the Dead are, arguably, more popular than ever, perhaps more necessary than ever. When this pandemic has passed, or the curve has flattened or straightened, or a vaccine is available, I might stop binging the Dead. But for now, after nervously returning to campus with a world still on fire, I've got a two-hour drive and about 15 hours of Europe '72 shows to get through. May the weird serenity the Dead provide continue to make the rough paces smooth, at least for a little while longer.
Grateful Dead - Beat Club TV - Bremen, DE 1972-04-21 AUD from Davidaron on Vimeo.
Grateful Dead in the studio
LSD and the Dead family
Jerry Garcia speaks from the after-life
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