It’s as thrilling as it is sad to me that once again the Dead-versus-Phish debate is raging in a moment when a person could actually go make up their own mind in the flesh rather than academically. Not since the ’90s has this been a viable conversation, and it’s all thanks to a hunky pop star named John Mayer.
As a Phishhead, I’m inappropriately entertained by the whole situation. I have no horse in the Dead race; having missed all opportunities to see Jerry, I came to grips with having missed out on The Dead decades ago. I’ve come at their music as a staunch outsider, but you do get tangentially subsumed by that counterculture whether you like it or not, because the cultural subset started with The Dead, and besides, I like The Dead, and I like Jerry, especially as a songwriter, and as a thinker, and as a leader.
I’m leaving these paragraphs open-ended because if you’re yelling at the screen, then I know you’re already immersed in the culture, and I don’t have to draw out the far-reaching implications of these statements. They imply very specific judgments even though I’m not actually making them. And that’s entertaining and beautiful to me. Look around at this little bus we’ve jumped on at some point and then helped to grow all these years. Kinda crazy, isn’t it? Would you have it any other way?
For various reasons, though, I like Phish better than The Dead. The basic reason, most likely, is that I got into this scene too late for The Dead but right on time for Phish, but that isn’t the whole reason, and it might be only a small part of it, as far as I know. You see, getting into Phish turned out to be a slow and hugely important process of loosening the fuck up. It’s an ongoing process. These dudes cannot sing. Their guitar player wrote all these complicated-ass songs that he can no longer play competently. And I’ve stuck with ‘em, by God, for the jams, and for the feelings. By now, out of love for the four dudes as well. For the incalculable joy they’ve brought to my life, I can’t see ever abandoning them.
Yes, they used to be able to play all those songs like motherfuckers, and that really helped draw me in, and yeah, it will always bug me a little, I bet, that they can’t any more. The Dead? That was not their bag, baby. You simply can’t give a shit about correctness and be a Deadhead, and that’s utterly beautiful but it’s not me. I can actually get there for a while, but I have to force myself to surrender. It’s been a long process but I can’t unlearn how to discern between proper and bum notes; sorry. I’m paying for these performances; how ‘bout practicing the damn songs?
Unintentionally, Trey has really helped me get into The Dead more by becoming a way sloppier guitar player. It’s okay that he’s biffing on half the notes he intends to play, I tell myself, because it’s not the *songs that matter. Every show is this mental battle, until we get to the improv, and then it’s so easy to let go and just be there. *This is what matters, I say. You may have even read these particular thoughts from me before.
Of course the songs do matter, at least somewhat, and that’s clearly what Dead & Co. have over Phish. Jerry and Robert (yes yes among other dudes) wrote songs many many years ago that have so much more broad appeal than Phish songs, and they did it without trying. Trey, on the other hand, used to be well aware and seemingly proud of the his band’s belligerent inaccessibility, but for many years now, he has been trying so hard to break through into the wider culture with his songs, which is of course why the songs are so bad. I think you can only force that sort of thing when you’ve already gotten there by accident. Once The Beatles discovered that they could do it, then they could do it at will. History has shown that Trey cannot do it. He can write great songs that are the most meaningful songs in. history to a small fraction of humans, but that’s it. To me that’s a badge of honor, but whatever.
Consequently, if you go see Dead & Co., your chances of hearing a patently godawful song are very slim, whereas with Phish, it’s a 99% guarantee that you’ll hear a few. Another thing in Dead & Co.’s favor: drums>space. There’s an institutional bit of psychedelic weirdness built into every show, guaranteed to at least echo an old head’s memories of past trips and send newbs walking out of there going whoooooa dude. A Phish show might not even get weird. Phish might not fuck with your head in the slightest on any given night. It might be mostly ballads that you can’t even sing along to and cheesy dadprog that you can barely dance to.
So definitely credit The Dead for quitting writing songs around the time they realized they were starting to suck at it, and credit Dead & Co. for at least staying true to the notion that we’re there to go on a weird journey. If treading the same ground over and over and over again and actually creating nothing new whatsoever while, oh, let’s say “paying homage” to the legacy of one the person mostly responsible for alla this, is your bag, then honey, go see Mayer and Bobby and Mickey.
No really, I’m not being facetious. I don’t want more people coming to Phish shows. There are already more people coming, curious people who heard about the (undeniably amazing) Baker’s Dozen or heard people chanting “Wilson” in a football stadium or read about Phish playing a song in tribute to a hockey team or whatever. They crowd onto that lawn and they just fucking stand there and talk, or they rent one of those little chairs and sit and drink $23 booze slushies. And all I can hope is that a show like Blossom, where Phish played maybe one or two songs that a random douchebag could possibly be familiar with, but spent most of the second set immersed in jams, sent those people to the exits before the encore, bored to death. And I hope that the encore freaked the rest of them out so badly that they’ll never come back. ‘Cause that’s my kinda Phish.
Yeah, they drifted into some very familiar territories in jams, but never for very long. They showed me things that I had never been shown before. And maybe you have to have these decades of obsession to even appreciate such a concept, but I don’t think so. I think if you surrender to the intention there and the group mind (yes that’s a real thing), you can tell the difference between the rehashing of glories you have little or no claim to, and new, fresh, in-the-now music that you have sole rights to be playing.
If you’re young, and you already know you’re a hitchhiker to this dying scene, I’d encourage you to see Dead & Co. at least once. I got my fix with various Phil Lesh-helmed projects years ago; I’m good. But you should see what the power of those songs and that legacy can do. If it’s even a whisper of what I came to recognize in earlier post-Jerry times, it’s essential to appreciating American humanness. Those people will welcome you, have no fear.
The band I saw at Blossom, the best part about it, was that in tiny little moments, it was clear to me that they taking the piss out of us. After a goofy ending to Back On The Train, Trey saying to someone, “Do you get it?” Because as fans we like to act like we’re in on all the jokes, when the reality is, we’re in on like 10%. In the second set, when people started to WOO during the epic Birds jam, Page started hammering his dumb Disney samples at those precise moments to hijack that hallowed brainless fan experience. When Trey biffed a verse of Chalk Dust, he growled like a caveman and then deadpanned “That was the alternate path, right there.” And we get it. There’s no wall between the stage and the crowd; we sink or swim together, and you know what, we all collectively fucked that verse up.
It’s not about disdain; it’s the push and pull of taking this whole ride too seriously and not seriously enough. As anyone can tell, Trey is 100% more uptight than Jerry ever was, and while that’s a tragic weakness where jamming is concerned, it’s also the main draw of Phish over The Dead. Trey is driven to make the show as great and powerful as possible at all times, and that makes the grade when you’re young and, um, supremely dextrous in mind and fingers. But ever since about 1996, we’ve been sloooowwwwlllly learning to loosen up together, which involves laughing at yourself. And fucking with your fans. Absolutely.
John Mayer doesn’t get to do that. He’s just up there trying to be unobtrusive to a piece of history. He has no choice but to display reverence for Jerry’s body of work. Which, as anyone who’s seen the Scorcese doc can tell you, is exactly what Jerry wouldn’t have wanted.
Maybe you sense, finally, the inescapable disdain that I have for Dead & Co. It may be grounded in almost nothing, although a healthy disdain for tribute bands of all kinds is nothing to be ashamed of. Still, I’m trying to fight it because I don’t actively subscribe to it. I want it to be good and righteous! In fact, I went so far as to hear some Dead & Bro. That’s right, I allowed myself to be subjected to a recording of the band on the way home from Blossom, after listening to little else but Grateful Dead for the thirteen or so hours we’d already traveled over the two days. And let me tell you, folks. I already knew Mayer was a damn good guitarist, but not in this way. It sounded a hell of a lot like The Dead. Every aspect of it, in fact. More like The Dead than Phil & Friends, more like The Dead than Dark Star Orchestra. It was slow, it was shambling, it was not terribly crisp, it was pretty much what I expected, except…not bad.
I wouldn’t have chosen to listen to the damn set, though, for the same reason a lot of old-guard Deadheads are dead-set against it: What if it isn’t bad? If you admit that this isn’t bad, what does that say about Jerry? More precisely, what does that say about you as Jerry’s biggest fan? The only one who truly hears Jerry, who understands Jerry?
You are welcome to laugh these last couple paragraphs off as the impressions of an untrained listener, an outsider to the sort of Dead life you’re a part of. Like I give a shit! The truth is that clinging to a dead man’s legacy as a badge of honor in order to spit in young people’s faces is pathetic. I’ll be doing the same thing some day when Trey dies and the dude from Greta Van Fleet takes his place. It doesn’t matter how much he’ll sound like Trey, how good he is, how fun it might be to go and dance to those songs. It will be fuckin’ wrong.
Because it’s not about the songs. But if for you, it is…you know what to do.