How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Listen to The Grateful Dead

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Tim Sommer while listening to Shakedown Street. (Photo: Grateful Dead)

As you age, you go through a natural process of expanding your musical tastes and loosening the grip on long-held musical prejudices. For longer than I would care to confess, I’ve hated the Grateful Dead. What they superficially embodied made them an ultra-convenient whipping boy for someone wrapped up in a cultural point of view shaped by punk rock, drone music and minimalist art rock.

For longer than I would care to confess, I’ve hated the Grateful Dead.

But I hadn’t actually listened to the Grateful Dead.

I’d heard them, of course, but I had never intentionally sat through an entire song, much less a whole album. I only knew them as the chalk outline of a socio-cultural phenomenon, and I had only the most vague idea of the music, impressions gathered from scraps heard in college dorm hallways and on archaic FM stations.

Clearly, it was wrong to hate a band without actually having listened to them in any depth. So I figured I’d give the Dead a shot.

But where to start? The Dead’s catalog is comically huge. I mean, you can buy a 73-disc (!) set (Europe ’72: The Complete Recordings), and all I have to say about that is that it really ought to include a 74th disc, Hawkwind’s Space Ritual, just to provide contrast.

I asked for recommendations, but got such vastly different opinions that they effectively cancelled each other out. So I just dove in, and started following leads. I would find a composition or performance that intrigued me, and then I would listen to multiple versions of that same song. I repeated this process again and again, occasionally stopping to clear my palate by listening to Blue Öyster Cult, the Beach Boys and Goatwhore.

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Here’s what I found:

Like faith in the resurrection or the Buddhist belief in the transmigration of souls, being a fan of the Grateful Dead requires certain prior assumptions and an allegiance to ideas that transcend elements of logic and commonsense. In other words, to be a Grateful Dead fan, first and foremost you have to believe you are a Grateful Dead fan.

Loving the Grateful Dead is like ridin’ that train to Hogwarts—you must believe that the track exists in order to climb aboard.

Let’s go out to the back porch and call in Schrödinger’s Cat. I am not going to attempt an in-depth explanation of this famous paradox; for the purpose of this screed, let’s boil it down to this: The observation of the experiment itself affects the outcome. I also considered citing the Double-Slit Experiment, except that there are no umlauts in the Double Slit Experiment, which automatically makes it less interesting. On the other hand, The Double Slit Experiment is a rather smashing name for an indie rock girl duo, isn’t it?

Where were we?

Ah, the observation of the experiment itself affects the outcome.  

My voyage into the Land of Dead made me conclude that loving the Grateful Dead is like ridin’ that train to Hogwarts—you must believe that the track exists in order to climb aboard. The recordings—both studio and live—seemed woefully anti-climatic, and full of flaws that might deter a non-committed listener (dear god, did they ever do a vocal rehearsal, or a second take of a vocal?). This is what all the fuss was about? But with the Grateful Dead, the fan—not just the listener, but the fan—closes a loop that the band and their recordings leave very, very much open.

Nonetheless, there was enough evidence in the grooves to reveal what others could find engaging and exhilarating.

The Grateful Dead are a sleepy but persuasive trawl through a large pile of American musical memes.

As my father once told me, ‘No one who owns a mandolin should, under any circumstances, be permitted to listen to an Ornette Coleman record while on drugs.’

At their best, they chime, ring, sigh and have an urgent sadness and deep originality. At their best and worst, the Dead sound like Doc Watson swallowing eight Benadryl and trying to play Steely Dan songs while backed by (an off-night) Galactic, with a little of the garage band down the hall leaking through and throwing an occasional “Farmer John” in the mix. At all times, their performances balance precariously on a rickety lanai built out of the laziest, milk-water pale New Orleans rhythms, and often that lanai is so flimsy that it seems to be held up only by hope and wishes.

Throughout, the listener roots for the band to not fall nor fail. In this way, he or she becomes one with the band, and I think that’s a big part of the picture. The Dead’s stock and trade are dangerous changes in tempo, key and mood, and because it seems like these broken-legged spiders can’t possibly pull off such acrobatics, when one of these dramatic scene changes is successfully executed, there is a great release of tension.

I also appreciate that odd little hiccup in their timing that so accurately reproduces the spatial displacement caused by weed; it’s likely no other band has encoded that so effectively and so regularly into their sound.

So I stumbled from album to album and live take to live take, and found a few songs especially engaging (such as “Terrapin Station,” “Uncle John’s Band,” and “Franklin’s Tower”). But I still wondered how a novice, and one not the least bit interested in drinking the Kool-Aid, could “get” this phenomenon and empathize with the blissful self-hypnosis of the Dead Fan.

And then, eureka, I found it.

On a double CD called Grayfolded – Transitive Axis, the almost vituperatively innovative John Oswald took over a hundred different live performances of the song “Dark Star” and re-mixed, re-arranged, and re-imagined the tracks into a masterful and magical hour of starlight, tension, acid-dabbed sugar dust, metallic fairy jazz, and planetarium-dome ambient malfunctioning-laser ray death/hope. This strange and beautiful record allowed me, I think, to hear the Dead the way their fans hear them.

What’s next for me? Say, the hated Phish?

Oh lord, no. As my father once told me, “No one who owns a mandolin should, under any circumstances, be permitted to listen to an Ornette Coleman record while on drugs.”

Thanks to Dead acolytes Steve Hochman and Michael Rank for indispensable guidance on this peculiar journey. And if you’re going to use that Double Slit Experiment name, make sure to thank me.

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