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A Grateful Dead Dime Story

I quite enjoyed Tony Fitzpatrick's current column in New City about the Grateful Dead, and wanted to add some thoughts to some of what he wrote - some critical, some not.

"My pal Steve Jesus was in town for the weekend's Grateful Dead end of days," Fitzpatrick writes. "He was happily sad at the prospect of a final Dead show. He was determined to experience the holy trinity of mind-altering Grateful Dead substances: X, acid and 'shrooms, in that order."

I think pot and not X is in that "holy trinity."

In either case, though, I'm continually bothered by the emphasis of commentators on drugs when it comes to the Dead.

This isn't a criticism of Fitzpatrick - in his case, he's telling the truth (presumably) about the experience of his friend. But as a general proposition, the Dead's music tends to get short-shrift by those still mesmerized by cultures independent of button-downed Corporate America. Fitzpatrick does not do this - he goes on to discuss the music, as we shall see. But drug use is not endemic to every Dead fan (not that there's anything wrong with it); most Dead fans I know rarely if ever use drugs, or partake in nothing more serious than pot and beer.

Also unmentioned by most MSM commentators: Drug use is far worse at, say, mainstream country concerts, if you count alcohol as a drug. It's a lot uglier, too.

*

"There were all manner of Deadheads in town over the weekend and at first I thought they would be of the sixty-plus-year-old vintage. To my surprise there were plenty of kids who were not even alive before Jerry Garcia died."

This should not have been a surprise. Dead concerts in the '90s were jammed with twentysomethings. Those fans are in their 40s now. And so-called Millennials who weren't alive before Jerry Garcia died are just as enthusiastic, having found the band through the world's archive of fan tapes as well as the voluminous concert recordings on YouTube (and tracing back the influences of current bands they love and finding, in some cases, the Dead). The appeal of the music - and the culture - is timeless.

Young people growing up in internet culture are far less bound than those before them by the old boundaries of genre and era. Mashing genres (and influences, sometimes through samples) together, in fact, is a hallmark of much modern music. The old tribes of, say, metal, disco, folk, country, still exist but to far less a degree. Just check out the Pitchfork lineup every year; we just saw a festival featuring Sleater-Kinney, Chance the Rapper, Wilco, Run The Jewels and Iceage.

I bet those acts shared plenty of audience members.

*

When I bartended at the Beachwood Inn, I watched people's jukebox picks closely - even more so than when I was just a customer. Something I noticed right away was that the twentysomethings played music across genres and eras, while older patrons tended to stick to a narrower playlist.

This revelation really hit me one night when a 21-year-old who came in regularly on my shift with a pal of mine asked me what my favorite Bob Dylan record was. She was really into Dylan. And why shouldn't she have been?

Another example: a twentysomething server at the Logan Bar, where I work sometimes during the day, has the best playlists in the place - and I've talked to her endlessly about them because they so often surprise and delight. How so? Songs from a variety of genres and eras bump up against each other for hours on end.

I'm not saying this isn't the case for older generations, but I'm quite convinced that it isn't the case in the main or to the bone for older generations like it is more and more with each passing generation - and I think the Internet has a lot to do with that.

*

FYI: The Dead's music itself is a microcosm of that, spanning and combining folk, country, jazz, rock and soul derived from decades past and contemporary and recombined into a vast catalogue of Goodness.

*

Back to Fitzgerald:

Steve Jesus told me, "There should be a massive open-air drug market at a Dead show. It's only proper," he sighed. "I blame Rahm."

Um, I think there was! Thanks, Rahm!

*

The question is, why were Chicago police so lenient? Did Rahm order police to back off, so not to incur the ostensibly bad publicity of massive arrests - particularly twinned with holiday weekend violence that would have inevitably led pundits to wonder about the deployment of police resources? That's my guess.

*

"I have to say that everyone I met surrounding the Dead Fare Thee Well tour was unfailingly nice, polite and friendly."

As I discussed on this Beachwood Radio Hour, core Dead fans tend to be kinder people than the population at-large, yuppies and celebrity hangers-on notwithstanding.

Later, Fitzpatrick writes that "Their fans tend to be a nice bunch determined to share some goodwill."

Tru dat.

*

"[T]here was something admirable about how the core four maintained a currency in our culture and never became a nostalgia act despite the fact they'd released no new music for more than twenty years as the Grateful Dead."

This is a fresh insight to me. Fitzpatrick is right - the Dead never were a nostalgia act. At least not in the way we typically think of one.

In a certain kind of way, the Dead are instant nostalgia due to the tapers' culture. On the other hand, the tapers' culture evolved in such a meaningful way in large part because the band famously never played the same song twice the same way (well, maybe a bit of an exaggeration) and constantly mixed up its set lists, often right there on stage. The band's vast catalogue - of both originals and covers - also kept their shows fresh.

The band was only a nostalgia act to those who probably weren't there in the first place; the aforementioned yuppies and celebrity hangers-on, or those who sold out a long time ago.

As much as Dead culture evolved a lengthy set of rituals and folkways, those things never hemmed in the band - or its fans.

*

"The Dead were never the carefree money-doesn't-matter hippies people mistook them for."

I'm not so sure about this. The Dead certainly did not manage their career to maximize profit. And the idea behind a "money doesn't matter" philosophy isn't about living our lives in tents in the forest. It's that money isn't the most important thing in life, and that greed is ugly, and the pursuit of money deadens souls and often ruins those things which are most important. It's not as if the Dead refused to live up to their creed by actually charging their fans admission prices. It's about not letting money warp our values.

"At a certain point they became big business with a lot of people depending on them for a living."

That's right. And they treated those people well, including generous benefits including health insurance. As they should have.

"Yet by the same token, they remained their own men who consistently did whatever they wanted and answered to no one."

Which gets back to my first point in this segment. (I'm not sure doing "whatever one wants" is a value to be admired as much as "stayed true to themselves and their artistic vision" without compromising to the corporate wankers who wanted to exploit their popularity.)

*

"The purists will kvetch, as purists always do, that Trey is NOT Jerry."

Why is everyone so down on purists?

Because usually when one is accused of being a purist one is advocating a course of action that someone else simply does not want to take because it means a sacrifice of some sort, usually in the pocketbook. And usually it's the sort of sacrifice that one would make in order to not hurt other people.

Now, when it comes to true purists, yes, a problem, because in the physical world we live in, it is essentially impossible to live purely, try as much as some might. But the pursuit of ideals - especially those involving the lessening of harm to others - is to be admired. It reminds me of those in Illinois, in particular, who use the term "goo-goos" derisively, to those who dare suggest political corruption is a bad thing. Why should advocating "good government" be criticized? Perhaps because too many benefit from the status quo.

*

But Trey, yes; in one way he was a logical choice, given Phish. In another way, you could have seen other choices for handling Jerry's absence. Fans have every right to that debate.

*

"But from all accounts I heard Trey Anastasio attacked the opportunity with his own chops and maybe made people rethink the songs they'd been karma-dancing to for years."

Huh. Every account I read said just the opposite: that Trey treaded too lightly, which didn't serve himself or the songs well.

*

"Well done, gents, well done."

Agreed.

-

Comments welcome.



Permalink

Posted on July 23, 2015


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PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Public Lands Matter.


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