How I learned, later in life, to appreciate — and eventually love — the Grateful Dead…
by: Jeff Schneekloth
Interspersed amid the author’s journey are his thoughts on a few of the Grateful Dead’s most celebrated compositions…
If I could travel back in time and have a chat with my eighteen-year-old self, I’d tell him to study harder in school. “I know it sounds cheesy,” I’d say. “College is easy. Just show up for class, I’m begging you. Yeah, internships are for nerds but it beats working in a grocery store twenty years later.” Then I’d tell him to quit drinking and doing drugs immediately. “I know it’s fun and it makes music sound better, but someday you’re gonna have a hell of time trying to quit. You’ll be sharing stories in church basements asking for God’s help. Neither of us want that.” Then I’d tell him to start listening to the Grateful Dead. “I know they sound like old hippies. But they’re not. Believe me — and this is you talking — they’re as great as the Wu-Tang Clan.”
It took me a long time to get on the bus and come around to the music of the Dead. I never much cared for the jam band scene. The music is too happy-go-lucky for me, like Weird Al Yankovic after a few bong hits. I’ve always favored rap and punk and indie rock. I also loved Bob Dylan. A Deadhead friend once compiled a tape for me of the Dead covering Dylan songs live. Deadheads are tireless solicitors for their cult, much like Jehovah’s Witnesses. I grudgingly accepted that they were good Dylan interpreters, but it just sounded like aimless guitar noodling under a gauzy haze. I had not yet seen the light. One evening, back in 2009, I randomly put on a Dead show from an online streaming archive. It was a performance from May 4th, 1972 in Paris, France. I didn’t know at the time that the Europe ’72 tour was a seminal moment of their storied career. Call it fate, or as Hunter Thompson wrote, “You don’t find the Grateful Dead, the Grateful Dead find you.” I liked the performance’s first few songs, then the next grouping even more. By the end of the show, I’d undergone a spiritual experience akin to the shock of the heathen who hears the voice of God, or rather Jerry Garcia.
“Terrapin Station” is an unusual Dead song, a long multi-part suite that describes a moment of two suitors vying for a maiden. She’s thrown her fan into the lion’s den and one suitor dives to retrieve it while the other just plays it cool. Which one is right? Doesn’t matter, because the focus of the song isn’t about dating. It’s about art, about the role of an artist to offer just enough of a peek into a world to let the audience fill in the rest. Think Mona Lisa’s wry smile or Hamlet’s troubled wit. The storyteller’s job is to “shed light, not to master.” “Terrapin” represents inspiration, the mythic high of an artist at work; Terrapin Station is where all artists live forever, where listeners and readers participate in the dialogue.
The Dead were all about live shows. They weren’t a traditional band who called on simply to record product in a studio, but more like a traveling circus of outcast artists who turned rock clubs and hockey arenas into cathedrals. They were also savvy enough to allow their fan base to record their shows with mobile equipment, buoyed by those intrepid fans who documented each night’s performance from the crowd. The exquisite quality of these recordings, along with the fluid nature of their setlists and nightly improvisations, have resulted in an achievement unlike any other in music. There exists a narrative in every single Dead show that unfolds in idiosyncratic ways. The first set is usually a warm up, with staple rockers and country covers; the second set stretches out with medleys, spaced out explorations, tribal drum solos, and a meditative capstone ballad. Deadheads have favorite shows or years: ’68 is hard psychedelic blues, ’70 is ragged country rock, ’72 is finely tuned roots rock, ’74 is spacey and groovy, ’77 is psychedelic disco, and so on. By the 80s, the Dead had settled in to a formula that replaced some of the distinctive peaks with a creeping weariness. But there is one guarantee at every show — Jerry Garcia will do something amazing. The Grateful Dead would reward your time, every time.
“Row Jimmy” is reggae tinged ballad, often discharged at a glacial pace, so slow that you can steadily feel it envelope you as it progresses. The lyrics are snapshots of backwoods hippies with grass on their shack floors and lacking a jukebox in the only rundown bar in town. The song is about faith in forward momentum, living your best life in your own way. There is no reward, any more than for a bird migrating halfway around the globe — “Row Jimmy, row / Seems a common way to go.” Jerry usually plays two slide solos between verses that vary in magisterial beauty from night to night. They act as meditative pauses for the listener, inviting introspection. It’s a form of therapy. I lean toward Nabokov’s view of Freudian analysis — “I do not want some senior gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella to impose his dreams.” I prefer the bearded hippie from San Francisco.
The lyricist and singer-songwriter Robert Hunter penned the majority of the lyrics for Jerry Garcia’s songs. He was a poet with an evolving sense of the cost of society’s march. In his songs he frequently evoked imagery of out of luck gamblers and societal outcasts, with deeper layers that that cast doubt on the idea of redemption. One could argue that Hunter’s work extends outwards from the Beat poets of the 40s and 50s, but he eschews dissidence and reactionary politics. Hunter’s approach was way more old school, akin to Homer reciting the story of Scylla and Charybdis. “Truckin,’” one of his most famous compositions, is a literal update of that myth: “Trouble ahead, trouble behind.” Hunter seemed to value poetry not for its aesthetics so much as for its application to life. In the 70s he embarked upon an ambitious translation of the Bohemia-Australian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke. I love Hunter’s quote about his late night sessions, when he could sense the presence of Rilke’s ghost in the room — “Where else would he be?”
“Wharf Rat” is a tale about a vagrant down by the docks. The wandering narrator discovers him and hears out his tale of hardship. The vagrant calls up a memory of an old girlfriend — “I’m sure she’s been true to me.” His optimism comes off like delusion. The narrator accepts this sad slice of life and gets back to his wanderings. He thinks about his own girl, echoing the vagrant — “I’m sure she’s been true to me.” Perhaps they suffer from the same delusions, brothers in the same cosmic joke? As always, there are no clear answers. I’d describe the music of “Wharf Rat” as epic spiritual rock, akin to Jane’s Addiction’s “Three Days.” Jane’s covered “Ripple” on a Dead tribute album in the 90s. Elvis Costello covered “Ship Of Fools” and has cited a ’72 Dead show as a key moment in his musical education. Ween wrote a tribute song called “So Long Jerry” that sounds like a late period Hunter/Garcia ballad. A legion of jam bands have taken up their improvisational spirit. But there’s nothing like the Dead, and the more you listen the more you sense inadequacies in other music.
Technically, it’s possible to play like Jerry Garcia, as the guitarist John Mayer has proven at sold out summer tours the last few years. Capturing the same spirit as Jerry is impossible, like predicting the future. It’s not a style but a force of nature, like time itself. You can’t beat time, as James Joyce’s The Ondt and the Gracehoperr says. Jerry’s playing leaps out of the speakers and dances, carrying messages that transcend language. Guitar students can be directed to his licks on “Viola Lee Blues” from May 2nd, 1970 for a host of techniques; for some guided meditation, put on “Dark Star” from February 2nd, 1974; to elevate up to the great disco ball in the sky, tune in to the solo from “Dancin’ In The Streets” from May 8, 1977; to weep for the future of humanity, listen to “Morning Dew” from May 26th, 1972. And so on. Enter almost any date from the late 60s to the early 90s in a search engine, and the first result is usually a Dead show. So by modern standards of Google search hierarchy, the Grateful Dead are the most important thing to happen to late 20th century humanity.
“China Doll” is about suicide. The narrator is the spirit, the soul, the consciousness. It speaks to a wounded vessel who is recuperating in a hospital. The details paint a grim picture of isolation, shame, and confusion in this strange place. The body is bandaged but the spirit is wounded too. It speaks defensively, but not without empathy. This is a partnership, it seems to be saying. You’ve got to hold up your side of the bargain. “Take up your china doll/It’s only fractured/Just a little nervous from the fall.” Life is precious.
Nothing is permanent, death has no mercy. That’s the key theme of the Grateful Dead. It’s a dark message delivered with life affirming joy. As I get older, I realize that the hardened beliefs of my youth have faded to general skepticism. I don’t feel any investment in politics, without allegiances or grudges against any side. Be kind, accept the things you can’t change — that’s the extent of my outlook. I wonder how much of this has been informed, subtly absorbed by the Dead. My younger self could lecture on government corruption, organized religion, corporate surveillance, etc. He had everything all figured out. “It’s gonna be alright,” I would tell him when he stops to take a breath. “Just listen to the Grateful Dead.”