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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.