We will probably look back on 2016 to 2017 as the years in which the cultic quarantine of the Grateful Dead finally ended for good, and for the good. The band’s legacy shed its love-hate binary and joined the grand buffet as just another long-running classic rock band that you are free to like a little or a lot, if you please, without giving your goddamned soul to it, or to loathing it.
The Dead’s reputation and cultural associations were so polarizing for so long,that it had kept many ordinary people from even liking songs like “Brokedown Palace.” Who in their right mind wouldn’t like “Brokedown Palace?” That’s how bad it had gotten.
For decades, the Dead’s bottomless catalogue of good songs in multiple streams – Bakersfield, electric ragtime, world fusion, psych-punk and, that rarest bird, a truly American take on prog-rock – had been a no-fly zone for all but the most thick-skinned of hipsters. Those selfsame hipsters could revere Dylan, Neil or the Band without smudge, but for reasons not entirely musical, the Dead were denied their obvious place in that hip tradition and were instead stamped as the apotheosis of stoned hippie indulgence and fatuous West-Coast cultism.
Were the Dead a monomaniacal cult of zealots feverishly cataloguing live shows and taking over cities with a druggy and privileged trustafarian hedonism, dancing in certain very specific ways to music that, for all of its purported out-on-a-limb extemporaneity, could sound pretty lethargic from a distance, especially in those fatigued years – the Eighties – when their live popularity peaked? Imagine, as Jerry Garcia had to, waking up with very serious health issues at 45 to find that you were functionally Elvis. Scorcese’s recent six-part documentary does a fine job of documenting this tragic dimension of Jerry’s story.
Certain sanguine hipsters (Elvis Costello comes to mind) were always unashamed and vocal in their affection for the Dead, but they were so rare in that sphere that I can hardly name another.
So what precipitated the change? Scorsese’s attention signaled that the culture at large was ready to drop its contempt for the Dead’s cultic singularity and to regard them as what they were: a great band in their way, a far-out narrative in a straight line of descent from the Beats, and a treasure chest of cool songs that share in the roots modernism of Dylan and Robbie Robertson.
For me, a more telling and much-less-publicized sea change arrived the year before: 2016’s Day of the Dead, a massive 59-track tribute record released as the 25th compilation benefiting the Red Hot Organization, an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS.
The Dead have hundreds of songs that can be easily extracted from their distinctive way of playing them. Theirs is an oeuvre ideal for looting and style play. What was shocking – and what would have been all-but-impossible in the decades before – was who was paying the tribute.
Day of the Dead was forged (locally, in fact) under the artistic direction of Brooklyn producer (and former New Paltz resident) Josh Kaufman and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner from the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio band the National, one of the few arena-grade bands that the Indie Decade produced. The tracks came, by and large, from their people: the hip people of the borough and its satellite scenes, from the War on Drugs and from Kurt Vile, from Jenny Lewis, Cass McCombs, the Walkmen, Real Estate. The record featured no fewer than three scintillating contributions from the who-knew Deadhead Will Oldham, also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy. His daring choice of the Garcia solo epic “Ruben and Cherise” is one of the record’s highest highs.
It is certainly cool that so many of the hip artists of the Aughts were enthused by the project and undeterred by jam contamination (which is real), but therein also lies the friction. The Dead already had a vital, commercially humming downstream legacy. It is all the bands you hate, from Phish to String Cheese Incident, who did huge numbers at the gate and operated squarely in the Dead’s tradition of unscripted improvisation and fancentric bootleg values. These Balkanized jam states inherited the Dead scene seamlessly after Jerry died, and the party only got bigger in the Nineties.
And in the post-Jerry years, Bob and Phil’s touring projects raided that scene for replacement players, such as keyboardist Rob Barraco from the Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra and bassist Oteil Burbage and guitarist Jimmy Herring from jam-scene stalwarts Aquarium Rescue Unit.
Day of the Dead was not completely free of association with the jam scene. Weir himself, of course, appears on the record, performing a savage and spot-on live rendition of the psych-rock masterpiece “St. Stephen” with Wilco, Tweedy as delightfully unsteady of voice as vintage Jerry and clearly loving it. Eighties era Dead celebrity keyboardist Bruce Hornsby delivers a stunning Modernist take on the late Garcia/Hunter heartbreaker “Black Muddy River,” and there are a few other artists represented with jam-world cred: My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, for example, and drummer Joe Russo.
The record and the current Dead reappraisal now under way expose an interesting and difficult dimension of the rescue and repair of reputations. It is a story in which the Grateful Dead are essentially airlifted – like the Chili Peppers off the tarmac at Woodstock ’99 – out of the sprawling mess they made with their own hands.
Do the Dead even make sense plucked from the culture they birthed? Who owns what? Can we agree to share the Grateful Dead? Can this reappreciation and revisionism broaden everyone’s purview and perhaps temper the cruel belittlement and critical vitriol reserved, seemingly, for jam rock alone?
Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.