Is there any band whose musical output is so thoroughly overshadowed by the enthusiasm of their fan base? I suppose One Direction might be, given that I know about their vehement pre-teen following, yet I remain totally unaware of any of their song titles, much less what they sound like (I have my suspicions).
Fair or not, though, let’s put pre-teen enthusiasm in a different category for a moment, since that’s more of an office that groups/individuals occupy for a time, after which their music can be judged and reassessed (the Beatles, Justin Timberlake) or ignored (the Dave Clark Five, the rest of N*Sync). One thing is for certain, as Mark Richardson points out in his excellent primer on them, the Grateful Dead did not become “The Dead” through youthful sex appeal.
In a totally different way, though, it’s hard to reach the music behind the haze that surrounds the Dead. The words “Grateful Dead fan” evoke a fairly specific image (Skip to 2:06 if you want the actual point…):
(NB: That hippy, Dave ‘Gruber’ Allen, also plays the Deadhead guidance counselor Mr. Rosso on the show Freaks & Geeks, and he is likely as responsible for this stereotype as anyone)
Indeed, the Dead rank in the upper echelons of “ruined by fan fanaticism,” with the likes of Evangelicals ruining the Bible. When you get down to it, their interpretation is far from one that is taken from necessity.
In the past few days, I’ve been listening to some of the Grateful Dead’s studio albums–Workingmen’s Dead and American Beauty, specifically. It could be argued that when checking out a band known for their live performances and improvisational abilities, listening to their studio albums is like reading Playboy for the articles. In fact, I would make this argument, because Playboy not-so-secretly has had some amazing articles over the years, and while naked ladies will overshadow anything in juxtaposition, craftsmanship will eventually win out (or, if not “win out,” at least it will get its moment in the sun). Likewise, being Ken Kesey’s house band and the occasional set of half-hour songs will overshadow when you take a few albums to gracefully fuse country, bluegrass and rock and roll.
But these two albums, at least, are great. Given that a lot of the Dead’s “hits” like Casey Jones appear on these albums, maybe this isn’t news to anyone but me, but damn! Harmonies that rival CSNY, concise and sharp little songs with hardly any guitar solos at all! Are the lyrics awe-inspiring? Almost definitely not, but you can’t deny that the Dead are still, as the Guardian put it, Americana pioneers.
In spite of coming to them via their studio albums, I have a lingering respect for the Dead for fighting for live music, just as the studio began eclipsing it in the 60s and 70s.
It’d be hard to say that any band known for its Dancing Bear window stickers is a paragon of integrity and non-sell-outtitude, but the Dead’s music is pretty uncompromisingly following its own muse. Dean of American rock critics, Robert Christgau, noted as early as 1969 that the San Francisco psych scene had its boost from the Monterey Pop Festival and then mostly disappeared. As Christgau wrote in the NYT:
The only exceptions are Jefferson Airplane, biggest of the groups commercially, which persists and grows amid rumors of dissension, and the Grateful Dead, which has managed to evade success altogether.
Maybe against the backdrop of the Airplane–who as we know devolve into the pariah Starship– anyone would look good. Or maybe anything beloved of hippies that isn’t god-awful is impressive. I sort of love the idea of the slow burn though. In 1969, the Dead evaded success. Think about it. And yet they buried the Quicksilver Messenger Service. Maybe there’s a lesson there. I guess part of the lesson is that 1969’s winners and losers sure look different from now than they did in the moment, which is probably the most obvious thing ever written, but might still bear repeating.
German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer talks about how when we encounter a text (taken broadly here to include books, plays, paintings, pieces of music, etc), we are encountering it through our own historically-effected consciousness. To explain this concept poorly (through a needlessly loaded example): one doesn’t just read the Bible when one picks up the Bible. The conclusions that you draw from reading it and the manner in which you read it are informed by what you understand the Bible to be and what you have been told that it is. Your own history meets with the history of the Bible and, on that plane, understanding happens, as much as the horizon allows. Even if you think you’re a no-meta-traditions Protestant or an atheist, those attitudes are historically informed.
Music has so much immediacy that it’s easy to forget that you still encounter it with your historically-effected consciousness. However, when you’ve mocked and derided a band, like I have with the Dead, and then you come back to it after listening to the surrounding scene and the scenes that react against it (hello, punk!), and you add complexity to that historically-effected consciousness that was previously only informed by surly Gen-X comedians. And, even if you’ve heard “Ripples” before, you can hear it in a whole new metaphoric place, against a whole new horizon. And you have to humbly admit: it clicks.
I still hate the design on their album covers and any hagiography applied to Jerry Garcia . I still hate the idea of sitting around smoking pot with aging hippies relaying stories of following them around. I still think dancing bears are jejune. But I unabashedly enjoy this song: