Grateful Dead…is there room in the tent?
My fifteen year old son is a joy to behold with his black fingernails, purple or green or red or black hair, black tees and Hot Topic metal on his neck and arms. He listens to music several hours a day…Spotify, free version, if you must know. After an extended period of Weird Al mania, he has drifted to the Aquabats, Paramour and others I have a hard time listening to. For a while he was doing Saturday night karaoke at a local Mexican bar and rib joint, and I’ve seen him bring the drunks to their knees with the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right”. So last week when we went on a small road trip and he asked me to play some Grateful Dead…American Beauty to be precise…I was floored.
For a little over a dozen years from the late sixties until the summer of eighty, I was immersed in everything Dead, from listening to the records, seeing them play multiple nights in a row in various venues, playin’ their music at a weekly gathering and getting the chance to work with some of their management and promotion people when they left Warner Brothers and went indie with their own GD label and the Round Records offshoot, their deal with Untied Artists and finally with Arista…home of Clive Davis and his hit machine. It was as much lifestyle as it was theater, one that has sustained time, death, departure and still lives on today.
I loved that they came from the early roots sounds descended from jug bands and the Smith and Lomax anthologies and the threads to Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac…the blues and bluegrass beginnings and the love of acoustics and harmony…the discovery and introduction of George Jones and Merle Haggard to city kids…the love and the Haight. Before the Dead I was into the Youngbloods, Lovin’ Spoonful, Byrds, Springfield, Love and other groups we now think of as early Americana. My first time seeing the New Riders of The Purple Sage with Jerry Garcia on pedal steel open for the band, and then watching Pigpen carrying his bottle and harps as the rest of them took the stage and blew out the walls of the college gym, I was mesmerized. It was the orange juice, not Kool Aid.
By the mid-seventies when Blues for Allah was released, I must tell you that the front of the house was a happier place to be than backstage. My first look into the sadness of this band was watching Keith and Donna Jean Godchaux walk off something disagreeable, be it bad dope or spoiled food. They were fighting that night and it felt intrusive, so I took my leave. A year or so later while talking to Bobby Weir after a Kingfish show, my eyes tracked the dope dealers, pimps and painted ladies as they walked in and out of the dressing rooms. And a similar scene at a New Riders gig, now with Buddy Cage on steel and the Stone’s Sam Cutler as road manager, left me feeling like the scene had eclipsed me. My last Dead show was a magical one though, so damn good and perfect that I decided on the spot as the sun sank behind the Golden Gate bridge that I was done.
For the hell of it yesterday I went to the No Depression archives here, and searched for the Dead. Nothing. And then I punched in Jerry Garcia. Nothing. But after switching over to the Google search engine, I found it.
Letter’s to the editor, issue #52, July-August 2004. Allow me to turn this over to Kevin Hyde from Louisville, KY.
In response to David Cantwell’s Issue #51 review of Jim Lauderdales collaboration with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter called Headed For The Hills (a brilliant album…Lauderdale’s best if you ask me) Kevin took him to task for this quote: “Providing the words for the world’s most famous jam band must be something like writing captions for a famous photographer; the gig’s not unimportant, by any means, but it ain’t exactly the point of the thing, either.”
And then Kevin wrote what I feel:
“Hunter helped create some of the greatest country-rock/alt-country/Americana/ whatever songs ever written with gems like “He’s Gone”, “Jack Straw”, “Loser”, “Bertha” and “Brown-Eyed Women” just to name a few. Far too often the pop-culture phenomenon that grew up around the Grateful Dead and their concert tours completely overshadows the poetry and the artistry that came from that true American original. Shed no tears for the millionaire Hunter and his Dead mates, but it’s a damn shame that so many people — smart music folks like the writers and readers of this great magazine — won’t give those wonderful songs a chance because they are so blinded by all the hippie dippy-ness. Granted, it can be blinding.
I would imagine there are more than a few readers of No Depression who can trace their twangy roots back to the Grateful Dead. For me, songs like “Dire Wolf”, “Uncle John’s Band”, “Ripple” and “Friend Of The Devil” — all written by Robert Hunter — were the first country songs I ever liked. Who knows? If it wasn’t for the Dead, I may never have given the Meat Puppets a chance. Which perhaps may have made me ignore the Jayhawks. And therefore I may have never been led to Wilco and Son Volt thus never discovering Uncle Tupelo. That would mean I might never have gotten properly obsessed with Neil Young and Gram Parsons, the Burrito Brothers. No Hank! No Johnny!! No Merle!!! No bluegrass!!!!
When it comes to the twangier leanings in my musical palate, it all started with Robert Hunter and the Grateful Dead. Like Ryan Adams imparted from the stage in Austin a couple of years ago, the Dead certainly are punk as fuck. They’re also country as fuck. Put those two elements together and you usually find something many of us like very much. It’s always exciting when Jim Lauderdale offers us a new album. But when he collaborates with a lyricist with a background like Robert Hunter, it’s even more exciting and special.”
Let me hit you with that Ryan Adams quote here:
“I don’t care what anybody says. The Grateful Dead are punk as fuck.”
– Ryan Adams at the 2002 Austin City Limits Music Festival after he covered “Wharf Rat” (lyrics by Robert Hunter, music by Jerry Garcia)
All of which leads me to this, for all that No Depression was back in the day, and despite that the magazine reflected the tastes and sensibilities of Peter and Grant, when it came to the Dead I think they missed the boat. And I think many of the readers, maybe 15-20 years younger than folks like me who didn’t get to country through cow punk, just saw the Dead through what they had become and not what they were. I’m still pissed off at Garcia for dying, and prior to that choosing to cruise around in his BMW while smoking heroin. And although something might be said about community, the traveling circus that followed the band from city to city in the late eighties and nineties were simply a sad shadow of the need to belong to something, anything.
So me and my son listened to American Beauty, Workingman’s Dead, a little from Reckoning, Dead Set, Europe 72 and Without A Net. Every note, every word…still holds up and is as fresh as anything that I come across these days. I almost forgot how wonderful they were. The music speaks for itself.