I had one of the best record collections in the neighborhood and I had not yet turned 13. Some of my uncle's friends, all ten years older, would come over to hang with me and listen to records they didn't own themselves--King Crimson, Curtis Mayfield, The Hollies--yet, I somehow managed to escape all things Grateful Dead until I was almost 30 years old.
None of us owned any Grateful Dead records and all we knew was what WNEW-FM would play. "Uncle John's Band?" Not bad. "Truckin'?" Not good. "Casey Jones?" Horrible. That was it. From 1974-1994, I turned down endless offers to see the band live, turned off by the scene, but mostly turned off by the Deadheads I met over the years with their goddamned cassettes and proclamations, "5/8/77, maaaannnn!"
I was into harmony. The Beatles, The Left Banke, Todd Rundgren, even the Andrews Sisters. I loved groups that could really sing. I suffered through a few of those aforementioned cassettes, while being held prisoner on a weekend in Vermont, and all of it sounded so hit and miss, both musically and vocally. What the hell was this? Don't they hear themselves?!
Then it happened.
At another one of those punishing weekends in Vermont, I heard something that simply knocked me out. It was energetic, truly ass-kicking. The guitar playing was fiery. The bass and drums were relentless, deep in a pocket. The harmonies, well, it wasn't The Hollies, but they were all right! What the hell is this? "Binghampton, 5/2/70 maaaaaan!"
"Cumberland Blues," Dick's Picks Volume 8, acoustic set, 5/2/70. This is when I realized Jerry Garcia could play his guitar just like a ringin' a bell. I wanted more. (The version up top from 1972, might even be better.)
I continued over the years, slowly. I tried to avoid the places and things I knew would upset me. Anything over 10 minutes, where "they really get it together at around 7:34." Covers of anything I loved--"Dancing In The Street," "El Paso," and that gotdang "Hey Jude" from the Fillmore in '69. (When I die, and if I am in the same place as Linda McCartney, she will get an apology.) I started with the first album.
That first album is unlike anything else by The Grateful Dead, or anyone else for the matter. A garage-y, psychedelic, folk and blues gem! First time I heard "The Golden Road" I thought it was some one hit wonder on the Nuggets box. Might as well have been The Association or The Buckinghams. I was hooked.
Over the next 20 years, I became a fan. I still had my doubts about certain, beloved live performances, but I no longer flinched when someone would ask me to "put on some Dead" at my shop. I finally understood, or at least I thought I did.
I am two acts into the new Amazon documentary "Long Strange Trip." That's only about 95 minutes of film, and I can finally say, I really do understand.
It is very easy to dismiss this band if your only exposure is to what you've pieced together in your mind from all of the negatives. The very thing I resisted all those years ago, is the very thing that has grabbed a hold of me now. It's a whole new ball game listening to the band members tell the story and not the Deadheads. Garcia is beyond lovable. The whole mission statement, if you let it, will move you, especially if you're a musician. It's all about "just seeing" and "why the hell not."
I've made a side career making fun of Bill Kreutzmann, but it was something he said in Act Two, that could have just as easily sent me packing for good twenty years ago, but instead, enlightened me today. He said he never worries about keeping time. "Keeping time is for a marching band." (20 years ago, I would have slapped him silly and I bet many drummers still want to.) But he continued. He plays to feel it, and sometimes, he feels it so much that the band feels it along with him and before you know it, no one remembers what song they began with, but is totally where they are at that moment. (Or something like that.) He says this, and a black and white clip of the band playing "The Eleven" begins. The clip is less than a minute, but I was transfixed. It was everything I loved, when I heard Led Zeppelin do it live, or King Crimson, or Miles Davis. I imagine, if what I saw in that clip was when they "got it together at 7:34," 0:01-7:33 would not be such a hardship. What a payday!
The thrill of building something and finally seeing something that resembles a finished product, only to deconstruct it and start over, say...ten times a night, might not sound like your ideal way of making music. And I would understand completely if your thing is a tight, 3 minute pop tune and you have now high-tailed it out of here. I am all about that tight, 3 minute pop tune. But I have learned to no longer resist what the Grateful Dead had to offer.
I can't be comfortable saying I love music and turning away from the Dead. The Dead love music. The Dead love the blues, country and western, soul, bluegrass, rock music, funk, swing, classical, pop, and of course, psychedelia. They do it all and you'll hear it all, if you give it chance. Stop resisting, at least long enough to watch the first two acts of "Long Strange Trip." Don't worry, you won't get any on you.