The Grateful Dead’s America

In his personal study of The Grateful Dead, Eduardo Alonso explains the essence of the band’s weird take on the American Dream

In his personal study of The Grateful Dead, Eduardo Alonso explains the essence of the band’s weird take on the American Dream

Kaarlo Stauffer

Last year the epic compilation Day of the Dead, curated by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, saw the current world of indie rock pay tribute to the iconic songbook of the Grateful Dead. The 59-track collection, pressed on beautiful colored vinyl, solidified the Dead’s legacy for a whole new generation. From Lucius and Perfume Genius to ANHONI and Lee Ranaldo, a bunch of artists which covered the musical spectrum came out of the Grateful Dead closet to celebrate the band’s music. All of a sudden, being a deadhead is hip again – you can talk openly about your love for The Grateful Dead.

This is as surprising a phenomenon as H&M selling Ramones t-shirts to 15 year olds. There has never been a more polarizing band and the legions of haters await any opportunity to make fun of the Dead. At the peak of the Dead’s popularity in the early 1990s, the band were the biggest touring act in America – but being anti-The Dead could give you musical credibility. Kurt Cobain in a Kill the Grateful Dead t-shirt was still a strong statement after all. In the eyes of a teenage music fanatic, ‘Smells Like a Teen Spirit’ felt more exciting than a 30-minute Dark Star jam. Understandably so. Between obnoxious deadheads, obsessive tapers, the druggies, spacey drum solos and dubious fashion statements – short shorts and pink guitars – the Dead had a strong aura of un-coolness.

Between obnoxious deadheads, obsessive tapers, the druggies, spacey drum solos and dubious fashion statements -short shorts and pink guitars, the Dead had a strong aura of un-coolness

Who would love the Dead? The Grateful Dead never were very fashionable. They were the weirdos. The outsiders. A band for the outcasts. The band’s hardcore fans were freaks and geeks in tie-dyed t-shirts, who would cross America following the band, leaving a trace of patchouli and pot fumes. Self-indulgent, the Dead were so out of touch with any music trends, they didn’t have a top 10 single until 1987. Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia was 45 then.

With tributes like Day of The Dead, the Grateful Dead’s reputation is shifting. The newly released epic four-hour documentary on the Grateful Dead called Long Strange Trip sanctions the band’s narrative, a fascinating story. Still, it’s not easy to get into the Dead’s music. The band does not really have hit singles, most of their albums are mediocre and the best ones are not totally representative of their music. Plus, the number of official live recordings are in the hundreds. Where do you start to love the Dead?

Within the first five minutes of the documentary, biographer and former publicist Dennis McNally comments that “it’s a real challenge if you’re not already a deadhead to love the Grateful Dead because there’s so much distraction.” There’s been much attention on what surrounds the Dead – the drugs, the rabid fans, the musical legacy is easily overlooked. But if you ignore all the noise surrounding the Dead, “there’s a richness that fills your soul”, says McNally.

What makes the Dead’s career so fascinating is the band’s exploration of freedom while portraying the full range of human emotions, from the darkest corners of human behavior to compassion, joy and pure love for each other. There is darkness and a lot of light in the Dead’s music. In doing so, the Dead built a world of their own. Start with the music. They invented an anachronistic sound that touched every cornerstone of American music: free-form jazz, delta blues, folk, rockabilly and country, and even occasionally, crossing over to funk, disco and latin music.
Such a proposal opposed the straight world that still dominated America in the early 1960s. Through Dead’s music, a whole new level of emotional experiences was available to a young generation. For the band and the fans, weird was fun.

What makes the Dead’s career so fascinating is the band’s exploration of freedom while portraying the full range of human emotions, from the darkest corners of human behavior to compassion, joy and pure love for each other

The Dead represented a way out, an alternative reality that welcomed like-minded outcast and weirdos. A sense of belonging is the foundation of the deadhead community. “[Deadheads] had only one thing absolutely in common: Each had experienced some inner click of affinity, some overwhelming sense of ‘here I belong,’ when confronted by the Dead, its music and scene. It was the recognition of an essentially spiritual experience that bound them together”, wrote McNally. The freak flag flies high in Deadhead Nation.

The band’s vision was true to America’s supposed ideals. They became torch-bearers for the ideal of freedom, rejecting any authority figure, from record executives to police. Nobody was the boss in the Grateful Dead nation. The ideal freedom is embedded all over the Dead’s music, in their jams, in their jazzy improvisation, in their rejection of commercialization, in their pursuit of what it means being an American artist. It is not a stretch of the imagination to say the Grateful Dead are the most American of all America bands.

It is not a stretch of the imagination to say the Grateful Dead are the most American of all America bands.

Kaarlo Stauffer

A long strange trip starts

The band’s philosophy was a direct continuation of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac embraced spontaneous prose by advocating a sort of free, unstructured composition that abandoned control and rules of any kind. Kerouac wrote prose to the rhythm of jazz. Likewise, the Dead stretched the boundaries of the pop song through musical improvisation. Both the beatniks and the Dead desired to make life become art and art become life.

Kerouac was Jerry Garcia’s great hero. “He became so much a part of me that it’s hard to measure,” said Garcia. “I can’t separate who I am now from what I got from Kerouac. I don’t know if I would ever have had the courage or the vision to do something outside with my life, or even suspected the possibilities existed, if it weren’t for Kerouac opening those doors.”

The doors opened and the Dead raced through them onboard of writer Ken Kesey’s famous Further bus. Psychedelics played an important role. Thanks to their friendship to Beat legend Neal Cassady and Kesey, the Dead become interested in LSD and eventually became the house band of Kesey’s so-called Acid Tests, performing as Grateful Dead for the very first time on a 4th December 1965 party.

At the acid test, the Grateful Dead first explored the invisible but still somehow concrete connect between themselves and their audience. Throughout their entire career, the band’s live performances depended on the high degree of interplay and energy between the band and the crowd. A festive audience would re-energize the band. This chemistry, an almost lack of separation between fans and musicians, would enhance the experience of the Grateful Dead. Every show was different and unpredictable. Thus, the deadhead community grew through word-of-mouth, show after show.

The Old Weird America

All on board to another reality. When the effect of the psychedelics wore out, the Grateful Dead revisited traditional American myths, legends and stories, whilst inventing new ones. As the hippie era died out and the 1970s started, the Dead recorded their most celebrated albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. It was the band’s more prolific era. Until 1974, they wrote more songs than they could include on their albums. In one more example of the band’s profound dysfunction, most of their best songs never got the studio treatment: ‘Bertha’, ‘Wharf Rat’, ‘He’s Gone’, ‘Jack Straw’, ‘Brown-Eyed Women’. Through Robert Hunter’s lyrics, the songs depicted a hyper-Americana that re-examined American values.

In the most American fashion, they attempted to redefine what it means to be an American artist. In Long Strange Trip, former road manager Sam Cutler put it this way: “The Grateful Dead wanted to discover what it means to be an American. They wanted to define what America is.” This is a constant amongst American artists. To go on the road in search of their perceived America. “This is something only Americans do”, Cutler says. And this is exactly what the Grateful Dead did. To discover their own version of America. To reinvent America for the weirdos, the outcasts. It was their American Dream. “Sometimes the lights all shinin’ on me/ Other times I can barely see / Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been” sings Bob Weir in ‘Truckin’’, one of the band’s most popular songs.

In the most American fashion, they attempted to redefine what it means to be an American artist

The band followed the map Harry Smith had drawn in 1952. An experimental filmmaker, bohemian record collector and all around Renaissance man, Harry Smith compiled the Anthology of American Folk Music, unearthing a collection of 84 folk, blues and country music songs from the 1920s and early 1930s. The Anthology… introduced these recordings to a whole new generation of folk singers, from Bob Dylan to Dave Van Ronk, who wrote in 1991, “The Anthology was our bible”. Smith’s collection effectively become the blueprint of all Americana music to come in the second half of the twentieth century.

Issued at the height of McCarthyism and the consumerism of the 1950s, the Anthology… was an enticing alternative reality to the blandness of the mass culture that began to dominate American households thanks to the novelty of television. Against the incipient consumer society, the Anthology… was a mystery. Songs that picture a distant, but not so long gone America, the reverse side of the Great American Songbook.

Against the incipient consumer society, the Anthology… was a mystery. Songs that picture a distant, but not so long gone America, the reverse side of the Great American Songbook

The Dead’s journey had many intersections with Harry Smith’s Anthology…, constantly passing through Smithville. The heart and soul of the Dead was in old time blues and folk music. Before their first gig together at Magoo’s Pizza in suburban Menlo Park, California, the band had hardly played rock and roll. The Warlocks, as they were still known at the time, had formed in early 1965 from the remnants of a Californian jug band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions.

For this reason, the Dead’s repertoire often revisited the pre-war era, the era where the Anthology… songs belonged. Two songs by jug band and country blues musician Noah Lewis (‘Viola Lee Blues’ and ‘New Minglewood Blues’) were the highlights of the Dead’s debut and would remain staples in their catalogue. Others like the traditional ballad ‘Peggy-O’ or ‘Sitting on Top of the World’ would often appear at shows.

Many Garcia/Hunter originals refer to that forgotten place. Their characters could easily travel the streets of Smithville. These songs are true to classic American songwriting and storytelling traditions. Songs that tell tall tales of merciless murders, gamblers, and lovers in pain. Like the Anthology…, the Dead sang to the lovable losers.

The Dead’s Americana brought folk heroes back to life. Heroes like Casey Jones, a railroader who died while trying to stop his train and save the lives of his passengers. But in the Dead’s America, Casey Jones could as well represent Neal Cassady as the driver of the Further bus: “Driving that train, high on cocaine / Casey Jones you better watch your speed / Trouble ahead, trouble behind”.

In one of their best songs, Garcia sings the story of August West, a bum, a panhandler dreaming of redemption after spending half of his life doing time for some other fuckers crime. He spent the other half stumbling around drunk on burgundy wine.

If Harry Smith’s Anthology… presented a good share of disaster songs, like the one that narrates the sinking of the Titanic, the Dead had their very own disaster sons. ‘New Speedway Boogie’ tells about the disastrous Altamont festivals and the death of Meredith Hunter, aged 18: “In the heat of the sun a man died of cold”. Or in other cases they would simply follow the tradition of disaster songs.

These story songs are framed in a unique American landscape. Other songs would also paint a unique Americana, expansive and epic like ‘Cinemascope Westerns’. John Huston could have filmed ‘Jack Straw’: “Leaving Texas / Fourth day of July / Sun so hot, clouds so low / The eagles filled the sky / Catch the Detroit Lightning / Out of Santa Fe / Great Northern out of Cheyenne / From sea to shining sea.”

This is the Grateful Dead’s America. Come and gather to hear the tales of these lovable losers, the outlaws, the down-and-outs, and a range of more or less disreputable characters. They are like you and me and this is why you belong to Deadhead Nation.

This is the Grateful Dead’s America. Come and gather to hear the tales of these lovable losers, the outlaws, the down-and-outs, and a range of more or less disreputable characters

Kaarlo Stauffer

Unfulfilled promise

In ‘Wharf Rat’, the old panhandler tells us he has a girlfriend who will be true to him to his dying day. The narrator of the song replies, full of hopeless sarcasm “I’m sure she’s been”. It is such a sad moment. It’s evidence the homeless goes nowhere and there’s no girl waiting for him.

The end of the Dead’s career is filled of the same hopelessness. Millions of people came together over Garcia, but he was personally falling apart. White-haired, overweight, addicted – playing his last shows at the age of 52, Garcia looked decades older. His isolation was heartbreaking.

After years of advocating freedom, the band lost their quixotic battle. Jerry Garcia’s death is now distant. He’s been gone for over two decades and his band is no longer distinguishable from the other Hall Of Fame rock and roll brands. Inevitably, like their sixties counterparts, the Grateful Dead had morphed into one big, touring machine. The noise around the band is louder than the music. The band got the American Dream and as in any true American Dream, there is unfulfilled promise.

Inevitably, like their sixties counterparts, the Grateful Dead had morphed into one big, touring machine. The noise around the band is louder than the music. The band got the American Dream and as in any true American Dream, there is unfulfilled promise

Every few months a massive box-set of live recordings comes out. Or a limited Record Store Day release priced at over 60 euros. John Mayer is playing in the latest reincarnation of the band. As former Black Crowes singer and devoted Deadhead Chris Robinson bluntly explains it: “The Grateful Dead have turned into this giant nipple that everyone sucks off of to get money”.

So yes, it’s cool to be a deadhead. Just ignore all the noise.

 

 

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