Long live the Dead

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.

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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?

Probably not.


Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.

There are 2 comments

  1. Andy Bindman

    Hey John, Don’t know if you remember me but I was one of the older guys walking around New Paltz High with a Dead tee-shirt back in the mid 70’s. I’m still a lifelong Deadhead with only Dead tee shirts now (to my wife’s dismay). I continuously feel vindicated by the attention and respect Jerry and the boys get by all angles of culture. I have always felt that there was more to the Dead, with its philosophy, musical creativity, bravery and artistic beauty than the run of the mill rock bands from the 60’s and 70’s. Good to see your name and the article. Thanks, Andy

  2. Rochelle K

    As a long time self proclaimed Deadhead, I found this article to be confusing and disturbing. I cannot for the life of me figure out what the author actually thinks about the Grateful Dead. But the tone of the article seems to suggest that there is a passionate discourse about the band’s place in history and whether or not people love or hate the band. Honestly… no one is talking about loving or hating the band with much passion, either now nor decades ago. You could like or dislike them — but you passionately dislike them? I don’t think so. This article fails to capture the very much still alive scene surrounding the Grateful Dead, Dead & Co, and countless spinoff bands. In fact, one could easily say that the band’s popularity is growing.

    Finally, here is a list of celebrities that have publicly declared that they have either been to concerts, or consider themselves true fans:

    The following celebrities have claimed to be Deadheads or have had media reported on them saying they are Deadheads:

    Trey Anastasio – saw his first Grateful Dead concert in 1980, and the band is a significant influence on his group Phish.[24]
    Will Arnett[25]
    Steve Bannon[26]
    John Belushi like many of the original SNL cast, Belushi went from fan to friend of the band; The Blues Brothers even opened for the Dead and Belushi joined the group in singing “U.S. Blues”.
    Tony Blair – played in “Mars Hotel”-inspired student band[27][28]
    Jimmy Buffett – recorded a version of “Scarlet Begonias” on the 2004 album “License to Chill”
    Joseph Campbell – proclaimed Deadheads as “the world’s newest tribe.”[27][29]
    Tucker Carlson[30]
    Pete Carroll[31][32]
    Owen Chamberlain – claimed the Rhythm Devils gave him “interesting ideas”[27]
    Bill Clinton[27][33]
    Andy Cohen[34]
    Ann Coulter[35]
    Elvis Costello a fan throughout the 70s (including seeing them on the Europe ’72 tour), Elvis later interviewed Jerry Garcia for Musician magazine, in which he effusively professed his admiration for the band. He also contributed “Ship of Fools” to the “Deadicated” tribute album.
    Walter Cronkite – Attended two Grateful Dead concerts[36] and was a personal friend of Mickey Hart.[37]
    Lila Downs – Mexican/American singer, who dropped out of university in the late 1980s and lived about two years on the road following Grateful Dead tours.[38]
    Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro and other members of Jane’s Addiction have spoken to their affection for the Dead in multiple interviews around the time of the “Deadicated” tribute album (to which they contributed a version of “Ripple” that incorporated parts of “Bird Song” and “The Other One”) Farrell has spoken of admiring how they constructed their sets, stringing songs together.
    Al Franken[39]
    Whoopi Goldberg is a fan of Grateful Dead music and personal friend of Mickey Hart.[40][41]
    Mike Gordon[42]
    Al Gore[25]
    Tipper Gore[25]
    Fred Goss – Actor, director, writer, and editor, who created the TV Show “Sons & Daughters” in 2006. The theme song to the show is the annotated “Althea”.
    Jerry Greenfield[43]
    Matt Groening[44]
    Keith Haring[27]
    Phil Jackson[27][39]
    Malcolm Jenkins – American football safety for the Philadelphia Eagles
    Steve Jobs[25]
    Christopher Kimball – TV cook, cover band Shady Grove[45]
    Stephen King[46]
    Patrick Leahy[27][47]
    Steve Liesman – Senior Economics Correspondent, CNBC, hosted 2015 pay-per-view of last shows from Chicago.
    Mike Lookinland – Actor who played Bobby Brady on The Brady Bunch[48]
    Frank Marino – Canadian rock guitarist has in interviews talked about his interest in classic San Francisco rock[49]
    George R.R. Martin – Writer of A Song of Ice and Fire[50]
    John Mayer – discovered the Grateful Dead’s music by accident while listening to Pandora Radio. Co-founded and is currently touring as Dead & Company with Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Chimenti
    Laraine Newman along with many others from the original SNL cast was a Dead fan, and has spoken about attending the closing of Winterland during a YouTube conversation with Tom Davis.
    Adam Nimoy, the son of Leonard Nimoy, admits during his documentary film For the Love of Spock that he spent the early 70s as a Deadhead.[51][52]
    Carl and Larry Page[53]
    Nancy Pelosi[54]
    Bob Pisani – CNBC stock market correspondent since 1990. [55]
    Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth has spoken of the Dead’s influence (the Dead’s “Feedback” jams of 1968 and 1969 being obvious precursors to Sonic Youth’s own feedback forays). He appears in the documentary “The Other One” singing the band’s praises.
    Harry Reid[56]
    Henry Rollins and Greg Ginn of Black Flag.
    In a BAM review of a Dead show in Irvine, California, on April 13, 1985, the author wrote: “So-called adventuresome people who dig Black Flag probably wouldn’t be caught alive at a Grateful Dead show”. Ginn subsequently wrote to BAM to explain that he and other members of Black Flag had attended the concert being reviewed, that he had attended many Dead shows and that the Grateful Dead was his favorite band. (Source: Winter 1986 issue of the Grateful Dead fanzine The Golden Road.)
    Adam Scott – actor and comedian[57]
    Chloë Sevigny[58]
    Steve Silberman[59]
    Mark Talbott – former professional squash player inducted into the United States Squash Hall of Fame in 2000.[60]
    Patrick Volkerding[61] – Founder and maintainer of the Slackware Linux distribution.
    Bill Walton[27][39][62] – known as “Grateful Red”, frequently included Dead references in interviews. Walton has been a fan of the Dead since 1967, when he was a teenager, and he subsequently attended over 800 of their concerts during their career.[63]
    William Weld – Former Governor of Massachusetts.[64][65]

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