Grateful for the Dead

March 29, 2012

It’s not really cool to admit a life-long love of the Grateful Dead. It tends to file you (me, actually) under ‘rather daft, if not very short of taste’. It has been this way for many years. I remember – about the time Elvis Costello was first emerging – going into a record shop (yup – 12 inch, vinyl) and asking for whatever “the Dead” had just released. The fact that I had actually seen Costello a few nights earlier was the only thing that made me impervious to the record seller’s visible, visceral, disdain.  And it has gone on like this all my life.

I first saw the Grateful Dead when I was really too young to be up that late. I remember the thing vividly. It isn’t true that if you remember ’72 you weren’t there. I and a rather less enthusiastic friend went to a festival in a place near Manchester called Bickershaw. It poured with rain, as I remember it, for four days and I felt terribly wet and a bit miserable most of the time. However, two things stand out. First and foremost was this band of Californians we had stumbled north to see: the Grateful Dead. I remember this incredibly powerful, weaving music that seemed to flow between the players and out into the crowd of wet – very wet – fans, and DO something. It created an effect. It lifted us, it charmed us, it moved us.

The second memory was of standing at Reading railway station, being stared at. Only when we got to my friend’s house did I realise that people were staring at us because we were covered in mud. Head to foot, face and all. We looked like we had been mud sprayed (we probably had).

But it was the music that sticks, not the mud and I do, still, many a night listen to the Dead; and I will sit on a train and listen to the Dead; or I will be stuck writing something and listen to the Dead; and I will be happy … and you guessed it, and at the worst of times, just sometimes, I will again turn to them. I am, I know, that most ridiculous of middle aged things – A DEAD HEAD.

I used to be shy about it. It was like being part of some weird and rather unappealing club. But now, finally, I feel able to come out. My harmless love for this music is mine and mine alone… I don’t need to blush when people come to my house and look at my pretty large record collection and discover yards of ‘Dead’. I don’t feel I have to hide this stuff under the bed. It is music I love. The fact that I must have twenty — no, fifty —versions of JACK STRAW is not a reason to be coy but rather a symptom of fascination and love.

But why, most normal music fans will ask, why on earth would you have so many recordings of the same men singing the same song? What is it that is so endlessly fascinating?  They look at me – they are in my house by this point and probably (I hope) think I have something to offer the human advance – stunned, unsure whether to laugh or call a taxi.

I, by now embarrassed, will ask: “Have you actually heard any of this music?” The mini-me wants to shout: “Don’t think about looking down your nose at me, don’t begin to smirk that I have wasted a big chuck of my life and an even huger chunk of money on something pointless!” But I grin warmly, offer another glass of wine and happily suggest that we put something OTHER than the Grateful Dead on the hi-fi. That something other is broad, and delicious. Of course there’s Keith Jarrett, or Charlie Haden, or Dylan, or Radiohead, or Alabama 3 or countless others.

However, sometimes, just every so often, the person says: “No, no. I’d be interested to hear some of this Grateful Dead thing.”

Pulled out from the dark, dragged forth into sunlight, I blink. Fear, embarrassment, all threaten. Will my boys do their thing? Will they?

I fumble. What should it be? The original Bickershaw? (The concert has been released on CD, as has every second of that 22-night tour and yes, I did buy it.) The Winterland 77? Or more recent? And then what? What will help them to share, to understand?

Hopefully, three hours later, it has happened – my hapless guest will be begging me for more – but just as often, I will be up alone until near dawn. The guests will leave, I will stick whatever really needs washing up in the machine, K will go to bed and I will dig in.

What happens? What is this music?

First, it is memory. It reminds me of myself, me younger, and of many moments on the way. But it is also something else. It is real music. It has rock’n’roll in it but it also has jazz, country and blues very close to its core. It isn’t music that rests.

The Dead use odd – but elegant – time signatures. Their stuff isn’t simple but it is pleasing. Their harmonies are often oddball but they are always interesting. At the best of times, they hit something collectively that is entirely beyond the sum of their parts. At the other extreme, they are terrible.

When it happens, there is a kind of stride, a weave, an ease and a groove that just lifts the heart. Jerry Garcia (the one with the beard ) wasn’t actually their leader though he was clearly a musical genius. His sinuous playing, weaving around the stabbing, slightly dyslexic counter-rhythms of Bob Weir sometimes lifted the music to a place that is shape-shifting. Around this, chased, forced, provoked a bass player who really wanted to be a lead guitarist, or so it seemed. Listen to Phil Lesh on The Eleven, for example, and you are, I think, listening to a really significant musician at work. He is composing not quite on the hoof, but generating something extraordinary.

The Dead have always used rhythm in a particular way. The music is rarely metronomic. When most rock’m’roll is defined by a time signature, my heroes shift time. It goes faster, it goes slower, it hangs in the air while the vocalists sing across a tight drum pattern. The Grateful Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann always drove the group from his drum seat. I remember those early concerts in 72 (after Bickershaw, I went to the Lyceum Ballroom for a night and walked across Waterloo Bridge at about five in the morning – you can see why I say this music ties in with memory) and the drumming most particularly. Kreutzmann always held the downbeat but by what seemed the simplest flick of his wrists could change the band’s entire dynamic. Listen to him on Morning Dew from this period and hear how he moves from a metronomic rim shot to thundering, stabbing, tom-tom pattern and you are listening to a drummer MAKING rather than just supporting the music.

Maybe it is this that is so exciting. The fact is that each of the key musicians in the Dead were prepared to move outside their day job to get the music to really work. Years after Garcia died, the remnants formed a band called FURTHER. It was named after a principle that they used in their music and life, and this was that the adventure was always in those who were prepared to go further, to risk more.

In some, for some, this was an asinine philosophy. Garcia died desperately young (53) when his body gave out on his endless self-abuse. Lesh has a new liver which I guess is a result of his ‘further’ alcohol use and being a keyboard player in the Grateful Dead was more dangerous than being a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. And, possibly worse, I know of people who ended up burnt out – destroyed – convinced that the whole “Dead” thing — drugs, ‘further’, freedom — was life. It wasn’t and even a tiny bit of exposure took nerves of steel.

But for me? For me, it has always been something other. Not about massive indulgence, not about losing my consciousness but about feeling that the unexpected was worth exploring. That the plan was not always the best next step and that sometimes you have to just risk a step further…


Oh, and if you want a guide as to just what exactly to listen to to join this strange club of mine, email me and I’ll advise.