Dead Again: One Last Time

As a kid, I cannot think of a single musical trend that I was ever ahead of.  While proto-hipsters were listening to The Clash and Talking Heads in the early 80s, I was jamming out to Huey Lewis. I’ve never been one of those guys who’s hip to the next big band or who combs through Pitchfork to explore new musical territory.  

Even at 43, I refuse to take responsibility for this.  I blame my family.  When you grow up in a house where the album collection is predominantly Mozart concertos and Sousa marches, your musical radar is bound to be a bit wonky.  Who buys Sousa on vinyl?  My dad, that’s who.  

My mom is the closest person I know who seems almost indifferent about music.  She likes some music for sure, but her tastes are totally random.  She recently asked for a copy of the Oak Ridge Boys song “Elvira,” which, if you’re keeping score, came out 34 years ago.  Her other favorites include Doris Day and The Mamas and the Papas, and she once claimed she didn’t know who Tina Turner was.

If I ever had the means to buy an album of my own, my parents were no help, so I had to rely on my older sister, Jennifer.  While peers of mine were getting turned onto Zeppelin and Floyd by their elder siblings, Jen had me shelling out good money for the Thompson Twins, Into the Gap.

Even into high school, I was missing most new music and focused on the past.  U2, INXS, Peter Gabriel and REM were all at their peak, but I was listening to In Search of the Lost Chord by the Moody Blues for the 300th time.  I was into most of the classic dinosaurs… with one notable exception-- The Dead.  

In those high school years, I hated the Dead.  A large contingent of my friends seemed to play nothing but crappy cassette tapes of The Dead all the time, so it was less a feeling of truly disliking the band and more a strong desire for my friends to not be so slavishly devoted to them.

And yet, over time-- and perhaps somewhat against my will-- I was indoctrinated.

The process was a blurry mixture of brainwashing, coercion, and a relentless audio assault on my defenses.

“Here comes that 18 minute version of Dark Star again.  God help me…”

I was in my own private David Koresh compound, where my friends were Janet Reno and they would not stop the bootlegs until I surrendered.

I could never distinguish one shitty tape from another and probably felt irritated that I was not allowed to treat my ears to another go round of “Waiting for the Sun” or “Obscured by Clouds.”

However, in subtle ways that I wasn’t aware of, the music was slowly becoming a familiar and comfortable soundtrack.  One day in a car with my friend Josh, he popped in yet another Dead cassette.  But in contrast to others I’d heard, it actually sounded clear and well mixed.

“Goin’ down the road, feelin’ bad… Don’t wanna be treated this ol’ way…”  

It was my Green Eggs and Ham moment  I had finally relented and tasted the dish that seemed so repulsive to me.  

“Goin’ where the water tastes like wine… Don’t wanna be treated this ol’ way!”

“Why yes, Sam I Am, I do like how the Grateful Dead jam!”

It was 1989.  The year of my graduation, when my class happened to pick “He’s Gone” as our senior song-- though rumor had it the democratic process was subverted by stoners.

“Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile…”

Arguably, The Dead had never been bigger.  They were playing stadiums.  They had a hit single. They had a video on MTV, for God’s sake!  After years of opportunity for me to get on the bandwagon, I climbed aboard when the band was at their biggest.

I’m thinking about the Dead, of course, because they just played their final concerts in Chicago this past weekend.  Even though I never morphed into an ardent tape-trading-grilled-cheese-selling-in-the-parking-lot kind of Dead Head, I wanted to see the final show on Sunday the 5th.  I invited over some friends and even a stranger whom I’d met through a local Facebook post about the shows.  The Dead are the kind of band that one can feel safe with this type of arrangement.  I wouldn’t have felt as comfortable inviting a random over for a Slipknot pay per view-- let’s put it that way.

Though marred by technical glitches, the evening was nonetheless enjoyable and made me reflect on what the band has accomplished.  50 years of devotion from fans.  Hundreds of shows.  Music that spanned country, calypso, Americana, jazz, folk, blues and prog rock oddities.  Part of the night was spent laughing about and debating various aspects of the show and the band’s repertoire.  Was Drums/Space a relevant musical excursion or the perfect time to take a leak? Did Mickey Hart just play an amplified bicycle horn?  Were Jerry Garcia’s warbly dirges redeemed by great lyrics?  Could a person both like and hate Terrapin Station at the same time?

A lot of jokes can be made at the Grateful Dead’s expense, and most of them would be true.  But it’s hard to argue that packing a stadium 3 nights in a row, 50 years into your run isn’t a pretty amazing feat.  Through their active recording and touring years, the Dead explored, pushed, and experimented.  Sometimes they stumbled and sometimes they soared.  They endured all kinds of musical fads, they survived the death of Jerry Garcia, and they grew from children of the counterculture to overseers of a multi million dollar juggernaut.  

A long strange trip indeed.  I’m glad-- even if I was a latecomer-- that I came along for some of the ride.