It’s been easy, avoiding the Dead—easy like Sunday morning. One hears about them, of course, their legendary mega-jams and tribal rave-ups and so on. And one was aware, at the time, of the ragged pageantry of the traveling Dead show: the dreadlocked mendicants, the bongos in the parking lot, and the wafting hippie conjurations of the dreaded Dead dance. Now and again a friend might even blurtingly confess to teenage Deadhead-ism, as if to some regrettable religious affiliation. But the music itself has always had a sort of negative cultural presence: minimal airplay, no sing-alongs, little risk of accidental exposure. If you want it—if—you have to go after it, into the Deadworld, its dim halls piled with bootleg live tapes and haunted by trails and spirals of dazedly remembered guitar-diddle.
I steered clear for decades. I had an aural impression of the Dead sound, of course—a thin, rootsy flutter, rather anemic in the vocals and strangely at odds (it seemed to me) with the band’s reputation for freak-out and mind-blow. It corresponded, as far as I could tell, to a mood of mellow and expressive grooviness—a mood that I am never in. So no Grateful Dead for me, no thank you. Until, that is, I was made aware—in my capacity as international reviewer and analyst of the Geist—of the recent release of All the Years Combine (Shout! Factory), a 14-disc DVD box set featuring Dead movies and archival Dead material, adding up to nearly 38 hours (38!) of live Dead. And I thought: Very well. Let’s see what this is all about. An immersion, an education, a crash course. Was it possible? Come on, little critic. Neutralize that finicky forebrain, encounter this thing somehow. I gave myself a week.
So it’s Monday, and I’m watching The Grateful Dead Movie. Chronologically as well as informationally, this looks like the place to start: The Dead and associated phenomena in 1974, filmed over five nights at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Jerry Garcia, Dead main man, inclines the hairy moon of his face benignly over the crowd, and the band cranks out its twinkling, dismantled boogie, its noninvasive rock and roll—“Truckin’,” “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad”—like Lynyrd Skynyrd performing in an antigravity chamber. The way they play off each other is gentle and rather special, no doubt about that. And offstage, there are some nice macho atmospherics: lean roadies swing barking through the scaffolding, and a visiting Hell’s Angel—when asked, in the interest of general vibes, to consider taking off his club colors—gets heavy. “If Bill Graham thinks I’m that violent,” he says, complacent with menace, “I oughta just knock him out and leave, y’know? Give him his satisfaction.” The next scene, however, yin to the yang, is an interview with a smiling, breast-feeding woman. The fans are everywhere, shirtless and twirling. “New people keep coming in,” says one happily. “Older people phase off, you know, advance onto different trips … It’s like a continuous trip.” The Grateful Dead Movie’s arduous journey to completion—it didn’t show up in theaters until 1977—was by some accounts such a bummer for Garcia that he started doing heroin.
On Tuesday, I become transfixed by Phil Lesh’s bass-playing—or rather, the enormous gaps in it—during a 1978 performance of “Not Fade Away” on the disc The Closing of Winterland. Bars and bars of the song go by, tonk-a-tonk-a-tonk, a-tonk-tonk, and Lesh’s instrument is mute. Then a trebly squink, then a Bootsy Collins eructation, then one fat Om-note, then silence again: the silence of his bass thinking. Most curious. I also enjoyed (on a bonus disc) a television interview with Ken Kesey in which the great author, pleasantly sozzled at 2 a.m., dilates with a touch of the old Neal Cassady mania upon the peculiar powers of his favorite band. Kesey has history—History, even—with the Dead: back in the day, they were the house band for his Acid Tests, his evangelizing LSD events, and a willing vector for his visions of a lysergically refreshed America. “They’re the only really working alchemists,” he tells the two ’70s groovers who are interviewing him. “The Dead have built a reputation of being able to stroke a thing just the way the wind strokes the clouds until finally it attracts the lightning out of the ground.” Then he congratulates himself, as every writer must: “Well put, Kesey.”
It’s on Wednesday that I feel, for the first time and with a perverse sense of relief, the great sadness of Jerry Garcia. The disc is called Dead Ahead, and it features an October 1980 show at Radio City Music Hall. Garcia is gray-faced, with gray in his beard, and the lilting, tilting almost-reggae of “Fire on the Mountain” (lyrics by the Dead laureate Robert Hunter) becomes—rather magnificently—not just a study in but an enactment of complete artistic burnout/befrazzlement. You’re playin’ cold music on the barroom floor / Drowned in your laughter and dead to the core … Garcia’s voice is plaintive and pure, his guitar-playing still almost obsessively pretty, but this must be the undertow, the downside, the shadow of the Dead. Improvisation has its hazards, in life as in art. And having cultivated over 15 years a unique state of exposure to the music, and to everything that goes with the music (“The existential reality,” he said once, “is note to note”), Garcia is paying the price: Almost ablaze still you don’t feel the heat / It takes all you got just to stay on the beat … Intolerably sad, yes, but it makes me feel better about the Dead and their people. I knew there had to be a low in there somewhere. Drug-tingles and swoopy dancing will only get you so far. To make the big-time connection, the one that lasts, you must confess to brokenness.
On Thursday, I get turned off. The disc is called View From the Vault III. It’s 1990, we’re at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in California, and the song is “Touch of Grey,” a mid-paced, potbellied rocker (and late hit for the Dead) that turns on an easy-breezy refrain of “It’s alright …” Bob Weir is wearing distressingly tiny shorts. Garcia, large and unhealthy-looking, nods and smiles through a drizzle of expiring neurons: Draw the curtains, I don’t care, ’cause / It’s alright … Bounce, bounce go the Hacky Sacks in the parking lot: some of them haven’t touched the ground for six months. Now the infamous “Drums” has begun, and Mickey Hart—from deep in his mad-professor laboratory of percussion—is gleefully forcing horrible electrified sounds out of a large metal loop. Zinnngg … zungggg … bit-dit-dit … Appalled, I recoil into crude binary thinking: I must have the first four Ramones albums now, all at once, as a matter of neurological necessity.
It’s now Friday, and, feeling somewhat burned by the late-era indulgences of Thursday, I’ve looped back shakily to 1974, to a disc of bonus material from The Grateful Dead Movie. The band is at Winterland, harmonizing with rugged sweetness, with telepathic lightness, through “I Know You Rider.” And for a second I seem to get it, the strange, demanding liberty of this sound, its perpetual and chemically sustained availability to the thing, whatever the thing might be. I am stirred. Have I glimpsed the rim of Dead satori, or has my head merely gone soft? Three men are singing this song, traditionally a woman’s blues ballad heaving with sex and regret, and it’s become one of the Dead’s mutability cantos: I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train / I wish I was a headlight on a northbound train / I’d shine my light through the cool Colorado rain … How moving these lines are. Pristine, disembodied, American. And open-ended, like the Dead.