Thoughts About This Dead 50th Anniversary Thing

Sat Jan 17 2015

Confession: I have no great, abiding affinity for the music of The Grateful Dead. The love I have for that band boils down to a deep respect. They started something in music that has had so profound an effect on my life and our world that I’ll never fully comprehend it. Many of the greatest experiences of my life simply wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the Dead. One of the best band names ever, too, by the way. Jerry Garcia: incredible musician and philosopher. Phil Lesh: unreal bass player. The other guys: great at what they were doing, for a very long time.

In recent years, though, not so much. I've seen fragments of the Dead several times over the years, resulting in a total of one utterly transcendent musical experience (Phil & Friends in 2002) and a lot of episodes of nostalgia for something I'm only tangentially connected to.

I missed the boat on the Dead, and I've always been okay with that. I recall that I had considered going to see them at Soldier Field in 1995, for what turned out to be Jerry's last show, but I was more into punk rock in those days and thus required to hate hippies, so even though I was shamefully delving into Phish already, I couldn't quite get up the enthusiasm to go see the Dead. From what I've gathered, I'm grateful to have avoided that show ending up as my lasting impression of Jerry. Sounds like it wasn't a flattering exit.

Ten and a half years ago, I spent a couple nights in a movie theater, witnessing the painful death of something I loved dearly: Phish. A lot of people refer to Coventry as 'bittersweet'; for me there was no sweetness. To think that we—the legion of fans, and the band—had poured so much into years and years of a relationship, and this was the best they could do for Our Last Night Together? I felt very disrespected, which was idiotic, considering that it was the demon of drug addiction that tore this thing down, and nobody has a right to judge someone as ill as Trey was on those two nights. Whatever the case, it was as unpleasant a weekend as I've spent.

It was through Phish that I gradually developed a much greater appreciation for the Dead. Phish fans recommended Dead shows to check out that might appeal to my Phish sensibilities. My boss for several years was a Deadhead and we'd listen to old shows in his basement office sometimes, mostly from '69. After resisting the comparisons for a long time, I became less uncomfortable with the fact that the Dead was Phish's primary antecedent. I keep working at it to this day, from time to time, but I already have a pretty absurd stable of bands I'm obsessed with, and only so many hours in a lifetime. I can't name a date of a Dead show I totally love. I can't name a jam. I've heard Dead jams that have blown my mind. But not like Phish. So far, that's the gist of the situation.

There was a period of my life—say, 2001-04 or so—when I embraced the hippie life, as much as I hate to say it. I resisted the term and the stereotype at the time and I still do, because certain aspects of the scene and lifestyle did and still do turn my stomach, and I was still very much into other scenes as well. It was the music that brought me there, and it's practically dead to me now. All of the bands from that period—I can't think of a single exception—are shadows of their former greatness, and nothing has arisen to take their place. Many of them were never very good even at their best, but some of them were astounding at their best, and that time period encompassed some of the best years of my life. I owe all of that to The Grateful Dead. I owe the circumstances of falling in love with my wife to The Grateful Dead. That's how deep it goes—to infinity, as far as I can tell. Why the hell else would I bother writing this?

In July, assuming they are all still alive and healthy enough to play, the four surviving members of the Dead are going to play at Soldier Field, with Trey filling in on lead guitar. I'm personally not bothered by the notion of Trey assuming the role of Jerry; I think he's clearly the only reasonable choice. I could understand a Deadhead being offended by it, but none of the Deadheads I know are even remotely upset by it, which is amazing. I've heard rumors of rumblings, but as far as I can tell, the response to the announcement has been one of massive love, excitement and gratitude. The event seems to have taken on preemptive legendary status, which is understandable. The music will be secondary to the notion of this vast community coming together one last time in celebration.

I'm not a part of that community, though. I've never been. Even in my hippie days the pervading attitudes and mannerisms and especially the codes of honor and behavior of the scene struck me as ridiculously rigid and xenophobic, with the added hypocritical edge of masquerading as unconditional love, and that hasn't changed. Over the years I've come to understand that this has always been the case with so-called countercultures, at least since the 60s. You're not supposed to trust anyone who's not a freak like you. I get the impulse, but I've found it to be bullshit, a fearful and unproductive way to interact with society, though of course it's the safe route. I've also come to understand that that community would never accept me anyway, because I've got my toes dipped in so many other scenes that I'm basically mocked by most of the people in the Phish scene, the hippie scene. I'm not a freak like them. It's hipper there to hate other things than it is to love them. It's safer to profess your disdain for something than your love of it, unless it's within the boundaries of codified hip shit. Just like in the world of music criticism, you gain credibility by ripping on things, not by gushing about them.

There's room in the world for all kinds of people, and I'd feel like I'd wasted my life if I clung to a single way of life, but it is a big world and I don't begrudge anybody finding a home amongst other likeminded folk and choosing to nurture that community as it has nurtured them. That's a beautiful thing. I don't feel jilted by the hippies, I can assure you. Well, sometimes I do; sometimes I feel jilted by EVERYTHING, but these are tiny moments. Still, I think about going to these Dead shows, and I feel creeped out—not as in 'ew, hippies', but as in…well, I'm not exactly sure. Maybe I feel like I'd be disrespecting something sacred by pretending to be a part of it. Whatever it is, I don't need to pinpoint the root of it; I just have no reason to distrust my gut.

I'm reasonably confident that people who love the Dead and especially those who also love Trey will come away from these shows feeling supremely fulfilled, satisfied, elated. I'm pretty sure they'll love the music. I'm equally sure that my opinion of the music will be drastically lower. By my own standards, I've been very forgiving of Phish over the past few years, and that is much, much less forgiving than the majority of Phishheads. I'm not talking about in a cosmic sense; I love Phish and I'll probably keep going to see them until they quit, but the trajectory they're on right now is a fade-out. But hot damn, am I thankful that Coventry wasn't the end. They can do whatever the hell they want now that they've negated that bitterness.

I'll be damned if I'm going to go witness another fucking Coventry, though. STOP THROWING SHIT AT ME. I'm not suggesting that the guys in the Dead are on drugs, nor that this event will be a crash-and-burn. I'm just saying I've seen these guys over the past decade or so and it hasn't been pretty. The Grateful Dead at their worst were the worst thing I've ever heard, and the playing at some of the Dead-related shows I've seen has been awkward, listless, pointless, lifeless. I imagine given the magnitude of these circumstances, the guys will give it their all and probably turn in their best performances of the past who-knows-how-long. That at face value is still not very enticing to me.

To top it off, Trey's playing over the past few years has been inconsistent, to put it optimistically. If six years back with the band that will define his legacy (despite his best efforts to the contrary) doesn't yield a return to consistent excellence, how can a few months with these old dudes hope to? In fact, if he does rise to the occasion and blow minds at these shows, it will royally piss me off. You're telling me you're willing to put in the time and effort and passion for this one-off weekend of role-playing, but not with the band I love? Um, fuck you! Because you can't convince me that if Phish put in the necessary work, they couldn't be nearly as good as they once were; the occasional glimpses of greatness during the modern era tell me they could. And if Trey shines at these Dead shows, it'll basically remove all doubt.

It probably sounds like I'm rooting for this thing to fail, but I'm not, nor do I even think that it will. I think Trey will be in top form, because I do think he's a fucking slacker when it comes to Phish, and hard work combined with an unprecedented swell of goodwill from tens of thousands of souls on these three nights in July will almost unavoidably produce something monumental. It's got to. People need this, they need closure, and they are going to will it into being.

I think the need for closure is stupid. I hate the concept of it. It's an excuse for people to cling to negative memories and baggage when they could be moving on. The event can't possibly have the sort of resonance with me that it will with Deadheads. And the truth is I'd rather not jump on the bandwagon nor rain on the parade. I'd rather not take the chance of being the guy who thought it sucked. As much as I'm drawn to the idea of seeing Trey triumph in this setting, feeling that massive unity of human goodwill, I think it would be selfish of me to bask in it if I'm not fully committed to it, not to mention an irresponsible use of my time.

Sometimes it sucks being the guy for whom the music matters more than anything else. 'Why can't you just relax and have fun?' is the accusation I get. The truth is I can, and I do, a lot. I've done that with at every Phish show I've seen (with a single exception way back in 1996 when I was an idiot). Even the lackluster shows have been an absolute blast. Even Coventry, in the movie theater, to the absolute limit of my tolerance (i.e., I resisted utter disgust during three of those six sets). Acknowledging that something sucked doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it, but this seems impossible for a lot of people to understand.

Maybe you're thinking that this undermines my entire reason for skipping this Dead 50th Anniversary, but the fact is, most people get upset when someone tries to tell them that something they love sucks. I implore you all to try to abandon this tendency! I've lost almost all susceptibility to it myself, but I don't want to kill anyone's buzz, either. And God help me, I can't keep my damn mouth shut. It's not a question of having fun; I know I'd have a blast at these shows. But as crazy as it might sound, I prefer really good music over fun. So sue me.

I don't see this as some big cash-grab; the ticket prices are high but not outrageous. I also don't see it as solely some touching tribute situation. I'm more inclined to think that leaving a grand legacy alone is the most noble and loving thing you can do. But these cats from the Dead probably want this closure as much as the fans, and they want to see if they can recapture some magic one last time. I'm not in touch with that need and I have so many other things I'd prefer to spend money on. July 3-5 is going to be a life-altering experience beyond the wildest dreams of a lot of people. Prizing the music above all has led me to a lot of those experiences, but there's almost no chance that this could be one. In my heart I don't feel up to witnessing the death throes of another band, particularly considering Trey's track record in such situations. Whoops, maybe I still have some Coventry baggage; see how useless CLOSURE is?

I'm not saying I'm definitely not going, though…

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