Dawn of the Deadheads
by David Gans
The psychedelic era is ancient history, and LSD is so far out of fashion that it probably doesn't even need to be illegal any more. But still you see them: people with shamelessly dated tastes in footwear who shop in the wrong places and dress themselves in impolitely colorful tie-dyed t-shirts printed with images of grinning skeletons sporting garlands of roses or the bearded and bespectacled visage of Jerry Garcia. If these stringy-haired anachronisms were a little more populous, or maybe just better distributed, they might be as good a movie sight gag as the Hare Krishnas and flower-foisting Moonies who molest us in the airports of our choice.
A large subclass of the Last of the Hippies are Deadheads - people who make the Grateful Dead their household religion and more or less organize their lives around their devotions. Grace Slick was right when she said, ""You want to know where all the hippies went? Go to a Grateful Dead concert. That's where they are" - but it's also true that that's where the hippies come from these days. You might think Love Children are as rare as clean air and condors in the hostile, Hell-in-a-bucket environs of post-Me Generation America, but there are lots of people who have continued to live That Way and dress Like That since the days when saving the world with love seemed a viable aim in life to many. And furthermore, thousands who were unborn or still in diapers when the members of the Grateful Dead first started playing together nearly two decades ago are learning tribal arts and laws of diet and hygiene that have been lovingly preserved and handed down since the Summer of Love.
Seen through Eighties eyes, the hippies are an odd and anachronistic - but not entirely unenviable - lot. Sure, they sport unfashionably optimistic and/or fatalistic world-views, disdain anything remotely redolent of pop or mainstream culture, cuisine or currency, furnish their lives in Low-Rent rather than High-Tech (except, of course, for their stereos), and work at jobs rather than professions or careers so they can unplug from employment and/or residence any time they want to hit the road with the Grateful Dead. But while mainstream America has lowered its expectations and tightened its belt, a lot of hippies aren't sweating it: Their material expectations are already pretty close to the ground - and many of them don't wear belts. More importantly, the Deadheads have a community - a real and widespread network of people who take care of each other - and that's something precious few modern Americans can say.That community is documented - celebrated - in The Official Book of the Dead Heads, by Paul Grushkin, Cynthisa Bassett and Jonas Grushkin and published in 1983. It's a collection of prose, poetry, posters, letters, license plates, drawings, quotes from band members and critics and fans, photos of them and photos of us.
But the book only shows the most visible Deadheads, the ones who fly their freak flags proudly. There are plenty of us who fly it on the inside while participating more fully in mainstream society and economy. We do work at careers and professions, and we do participate in and contribute to conventional society - and reap the myriad benefits of cavorting in the higher playground of the Grateful Dead.
Although the most visible of the Dead's audience may appear at first glance to be little more than a blissed-out throng of hippies, there are plenty of Deadheads you wouldn't mind being seen riding in a car with and with whom you can have meaningful conversations on subjects ranging well beyond their plans for the New Year's shows or the quality of the pot they just got. Believe it or not, there are Deadheads who go in for grand opera; Hell, there's even a member of the Dead who's into opera! I know Deadheads who hold responsible positions in the legal, medical, electronics, education and other fields. I even know one or two who work for major record companies, but those are pretty rare - there were a couple of years back in the '60s when the Dead were promoted in the same breath with other rock acts, but for the last ten years or so it's been separate tables for the Dead and the Music Industry ("How I hate that phrase," fumes bassist Phil Lesh). Most people who work in the Music industry don't understand - and therefore don't like - the Dead.
There are Deadheads who play tennis, live in fine homes, don't smoke pot, and know what things like T-Bills and Capital Gains are all about. There are Deadheads who drive BMWs, eat sushi and wear alligator shirts; hell, there's even a member of the Dead who wears alligator shirts!
There.are Deadheads who make their livings from creative pursuits more closely linked to the Index of Leading Economic Indicators than to the Deadheads' own counter-economy of herbs, clothing, jewelry and religious supplies; these people see the Dead as an inspiration for their own work. There are some rock writers - myself included - who have Grateful Dead t-shirts in our closets between the obligatory tweed jackets and manage to deal with other musics objectively. There are actors, scientists, software designers, artists, dentists and veterinarians who function more or less normally most of the time. Hell, there's even a member of the Dead who functions more or less normally most of the time!
The Grateful Dead is everything to some people, and that's probably as unfortunate as any other kind of obsession. But for most Deadheads, a concert is something to help keep life from getting too dull or too serious -an escape valve and a bright spot on the calendar. There's more to it than just music, obviously, but everything about the Deadhead phenomenon stems from the music, and it eventually comes back to that: never mind the hit singles, the giant videos and smoke bombs, man - just play the music.
I think it was rock critic Greil Marcus who likened Grateful Dead concerts to the pace of life itself: brief periods of excitement separated by long stretches of boredom. That's fine with the band and fine with the fans, because aside from surface similarities a Grateful Dead gig has very little in common with a typical rock concert. There are guitars, keyboards, drums, amplifiers and speakers, of course, but this.is definitely a case of looks; like a duck, walks like a duck, barks like a dog: no tortured castrati front man in a leather union suit shrieking breathlessly about how "It sure is good to be back in [local reference] again! You guys are the best audience on the tour!"
What the Grateful Dead do is play music. They perform different songs from show to show (their active repertoire is more than a hundred songs strong) and they play each song differently from show to show. The stately pace of a Dead concert is more like baseball than the hyperactive, aggressive tempo of football or heavy metal. It's music that suggests rather than insists, leaves plenty to the beholder's imagination - asks rather than declares. "If there's any message in our songs;," says lyricist Robert Hunter, "it's 'Think for yourself.'"
This isn't the kind of band that'd be satisfied putting on a pat, prepared show with all its peaks and lulls in place; this isn't the kind of audience that would appreciate such an attitude. As San Francisco Chronicle writer Joel Selvin put it in a recent review, "This is one band that talks down to nobody."
The key element, the thing that sets the Dead apart from any other rock band, is improvisation. It's an all-American musical melting pot, drawing from an astonishing variety of sources and undertaking musical conversations in many voices at once. What each player says with his instrument is heard differently by each of the other band members, and the tone and content and dynamic contour are different every time they play. It's psychic white noise in which each of us - band and audience alike - discerns a pattern and visualizes vivid mental pictures of indescribable things and ideas and emotions.
"We do it because it's our basic drive, an inescapable part of what we do musically," said guitarist and guru-by-default Jerry Garcia in a 1981 interview.
"The whole thing with the Grateful Dead is a challenge to get something new happening, even when you don't feel like doing anything new or don't feel anything new lurking around the corner," says guitarist Bob Weir. "It's like pushing a boulder uphill all the time, until it gets rolling. It's a real-time experience; every time we do a song it's different, because the mood of the evening is different, the crowd is different, the way everybody in the band feels is different, and the sound in the hall is different. Those are the major ingredients in the moment."
The major ingredients of the Dead's musical jambalaya are almost too numerous to mention. The backgrounds, tastes, styles, skills, directions, personalities - just about every critical element you could imagine - of these players are as different from each other as Salvador Dali, Deion Sanders and Newt Gingrich. There are folk, rock, jazz, bluegrass, classical, Brazilian, blues, Indian, hillbilly, Middle Eastern - even marching-band - influences among the band members, making the Dead's improvisations a truly interdisciplinary musical experiment, or perhaps America's longest-running.musical argument.
Their albums show the Dead in a relatively static, distorted and ultimately unsatisfying way because recording isn't what this band does best. The band often doesn't really know the songs "until years after they're recorded," says Weir. "We should make a blanket policy of not recording anything we haven't played on stage."
Maybe this has something do to with it: "I'm a shitty studio musician," Phil Lesh confesses. "If I never had to play in a recording studio again, I'd be a happy man. That is the truth."
Keyboardist Brent Mydland, who joined the Dead in 1979 after having played in "normal" situations for several years, says, "I don't think we've ever run through a tune more then four or five times before we played it. Any other band I've been in, we've rehearsed over and over, grinding it into the ground." But the audience embraces that, too. A new song is joyously received, no matter how shakily it.'s presented at first; part of the fun of following the Dead over the course of a tour or a season or a year.is hearing the songs grow and sharing the players' delight when some nuance emerges in a part or arrangement, or when two guys lock into a new idea and play together for a while.
"Musically, you couldn't ask for a better gang of people to play with, in terms of the variety of influences, " Mydland adds. "The whole spectrum's there. "It's nice knowing that whatever you do, somebody can relate to it! Nobody tells him what to play in the Grateful Dead - "and I'm starting to get used to it," he laughs.
The best Grateful Dead music several years ago was a spiraling confluence of positive and adventurous musical intellects; these days it's often a case of each.member doing what he can or what he feels like within the agreed-upon framework of a song or jam."Music happens best for us when we rely on our intuitions more and our egos less," Weir explains. "It's sort of a tightrope: you're trying to forget yourself, and at the same time you're trying to maintain control."
"It's slow, it's anarchic, and sometimes it sputters and won't start," says Lesh. "But when everybody in the band is happening, I don't have to think about what I'm playing - there's no time to think about what I'm playing - and I can't put a finger in a wrong place."
"Yeah, it comes up triple bars, man," Garcia grins. "All the golden yummies."
"For a short time," Lesh teases.
"For seconds on end!"
In those moments, Lesh-says, "you're not a musician any more, you're not even a person - you're just there." But he.admits they don't come as often as they have in the past. "But you have to keep believing that there's a payoff somewhere. If it's not happening right now, there's always the future. It's been 18 years now, and it's still challenging enough. Sometimes it's challenging in a negative way - 'Okay, I'll show those bastards' - and sometimes it's, 'Wow, did we really play that?! Let's try and get there again!"'
"People say, 'Aren't you surprised you've been together so long?' And I keep saying it's like we're just getting started," says Garcia. "There's so much we haven't done.
"One of the things that's amazing about it is that everybody experiences it on their own terms," Garcia continues. "From the point of view of being a player, it's this thing that you can't make happen - but when it's happening, you can't stop it from happening. I've tried to analyze it on every level that I can gather together, and all the intellectual exercise in the world doesn't do a thing to explain it to any degree of satisfaction.
"The Grateful Dead has some kind of intuitive thing - I don't know what it is or how it works, but I recognize it phenomenologically. It's been reported to me hugely from.the audience, and we've compared notes about it among ourselves in the band. We've agreed that we'll continue to keep trying to do this thing - whatever it is - and that one best attitude toward it is a sort of stewardship."
"Only the concert itself has a beginning and an end," notes Official Deadhead Paul Grushkin. "The rest is a continuum. There's a special relationship between the Dead and their audience that his to do with participation and shared identity. And the fruits of the interaction are shared equally. When that undefinable magic makes its visitation, everyone knows and everyone shares. It's special because it's elusive; it's there when it is and it's gone when it's not."
"With the Grateful Dead," says Lesh of the eclectic, adventurous, maddeningly uneven and unfathomably rewarding thing that the name represents, "there's more possible than you could ever dream of." And across the country thousands of tie-dyed, saucer-eyed Deadheads - and their brethren in straight disguises - nod in telepathic agreement.
August 1983 - published in Headliner magazine