I’ve become a Dead fan, I guess

Before James and I got together, I only had a passing acquaintance with the Grateful Dead. I didn’t own any of their music, but I could sing along with a few songs. I remember the day Jerry died, mostly because I was bartending back then and had a regular who I knew would be devastated and probably come have a few drinks that night. He was, and he did. I think I bought him a round.

Fast forward a few years, and James and I moved in together. As he unpacked box after box of cassette tapes filled with homemade recordings of live shows from all over the country/all over the past few decades, I realized his love for the band was extensive. Like, more than I loved Duran Duran in junior high (and for completely different reasons).

We listen to music a lot in our house. So it makes sense that over the past decade and a half, I’ve heard a lot of Grateful Dead music. And over time, my relationship with the music has changed.

Initially tolerated with a few eye rolls (and questions like, “How long is this song? Twenty minutes?”), the music became ubiquitous–and then unnoticed. Then at some point in the last handful of years, after seeing what remains of the band half a dozen times (in The Dead or Dead and Company iterations), I finally got it.

Grateful Dead songs, specifically of the live variety, are aural comfort food. Much like theatre, no performance is exactly the same. But there’s still plenty to ground you to other experiences with the music. Plenty to give you that sense of familiarity and togetherness.

Sold-out, tie-dyed, pot-smoking house for the Dead show at Shoreline Amphitheatre, across the street from Google, June 3, 2017.

I’ve seen a lot of live music in my life. A lot. And I’ve never experienced the kind of crowd that has consistently appeared for Dead shows in the aughts and teens of the 21st century (I can’t imagine what the crowds were like in the ’60s and ’70s).

The shows we saw in California last decade, before we moved out here, featured a vibrant parking lot scene. People selling “pizza” made on hotplates powered by a battery resting under their rusted-out VW van. (The pizza being a tortilla topped with watery pizza sauce, a sprinkle of pre-shredded cheese and a few slices of pepperoni.) Thin bed sheets spread on the ground and covered with beaded necklaces, glass pipes and crystals for sale. Stinky, barefoot children running around barely supervised. The dress code for old and young veering past the obvious tie-dye and into crocheted tops and jeans with patches sewn on. All worn un-ironically.

Dancing bear ears on a headband. A somewhat subtle nod.

The parking lot scene has been killed for the most part, but the fashions are still pretty amazing. And the lack of self-consciousness is part of the charm. Where so many people try so hard to be “separate” while being in a crowd (“Yeah, I’m at this Backstreet Boys reunion, but only to make fun of it.”), Dead Heads are all in. They love the scene, they love the songs, and they fucking love you, dude.

The guy in the blue and white cap had the best time of his life. All night.

I’ve never seen anyone get in a fight at a Dead show. If you ever have to lose your wallet, phone or keys at a concert, do it at a Dead show because you’ll quickly find a free beer, borrowed phone or ride home from a perhaps chemically compromised but big-hearted stranger.

The guy sitting next to us printed up his own buttons (two styles) with the date of the show on them and gave us each one.

There’s a dedicated music-nerd army of people at every Dead show who livestream the audio or even provide a video feed. You can go on a couch tour and follow the Dead from show to show, and there are plenty of forums online that share set lists and bets on what they’ll play next. Before we went to see the band last Saturday, I reviewed the set lists from the first few shows of the tour and was disappointed they’d already played a couple of my favorites. Which is when I realized–I have favorite songs by this band.

A little hard to read, this guy’s shirt says, “Mayer is Dead to me.” John “Your Body is a Wonderland” Mayer is touring with The Dead on guitar. Nicknamed “Mayernnaise” by non-fans, he actually works pretty well in the mix. And I know enough about the band at this point to have seen that shirt and chuckled. Life is funny.

The saying is “familiarity breeds contempt,” but that’s not aways the case. There are many things we dismiss out of hand that, upon closer inspection, actually have something to offer. They grow on you slowly, like the frog in the pot of water that’s gradually being heated, and next thing you know you’re boiling to death to the sound of Terrapin Station. And you realize there are worse ways to go.

Half the guys on this stage may be in their 70s, but they can still get thousands of people on their feet and keep them that way the entire show. And if they tour again next summer, we’ll be there, on our feet, all night.

2 thoughts on “I’ve become a Dead fan, I guess

  1. Groovy. John Mayer had a hit called “Waiting On the World To Change” which is grievously ironic considering that the era of the ascendancy of the Warlocks occurred during a time when the “youth of amerika” were FORCING change through rock throwing and sit-ins and lively protests of all sorts. I have always wondered who little johnny thought was going to change the world. His kids? Old hippies?

    I mean, Bob Dylan is a Nobel Laureate. HE didn’t wait for the world to change.

    John Mayer is dead to me.

    Meanwhile, Miss Crystal (a deadhead name if ever one there was one) I sometimes in moments of fleeting melancholy mourn the passing of our old correspondence. But what of that?

    Stay groovy, lady.

    Bitches be crazy.

    yer old pal tj

    postscript: have you ever listened to the Jefferson Starship album “Blows Against the Empire?”
    Garcia was the un-credited producer and it really is a worthy experience. Paul Kanter and Grace Slick were the precursor couple to the later Cunningham/Nicks combo…

    We’re all in this together.

    1. Hey there, TJC. Nice to hear from you. Our old correspondence went the way of our respective blogging, methinks. This is only my fourth post of the year, and I believe you’ve posted even less than that.

      Not that there’s nothing to say. There’s too much to say. I don’t even know where to start these days.

      P.S. bitches be crazy

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