Confessions of a Deadhead

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Two days ago was the 20th anniversary of the passing of Jerry Garcia. It didn’t cross my mind until my friend Erik posted something about it (on Instagram, of all places). It made a lot of sense to hear it from this particular person – Erik was a younger cousin of Jeff Kudalis, my best friend from eighth grade, who died in a car accident in 1991 (almost four years after the last time I saw him). Jeff and I hung out a lot when I was deep into my Grateful Dead obsession, and Erik seems to have inherited a lot of his older cousin’s musical tastes (although I’m not entirely sure if Jeff was as into the Dead as I was…but I digress).

When Jerry died in 1995, I honestly didn’t give it much thought (or at least as much thought as it deserved), because I was deep in musical denial. Around the time I turned 16, I discovered a lot of music that was the antithesis of what I’d been into up to that point. Elvis Costello was in, Rush was out. I was loving and dissecting “King of America” while “A Farewell to Kings” gathered dust in a dark corner of my bedroom. This carried on into my adult life, well into my twenties and beyond.

It wasn’t until I was 34 when a promo copy of “The Power to Believe,” the latest album from King Crimson, fell into my hands during my part-time gig as a multimedia seller at the downtown Borders bookstore. I looked on this unrequested gift with mild bemusement. Even when I was a diehard prepubescent prog-rock geek, most of Crimson’s appeal eluded me. I remember being mildly fascinated with my brother’s copy of their 1981 “comeback” album, “Discipline” (mostly due to the appearance of Bill Bruford, the former Yes drummer and the man responsible for my desire to become a drummer myself), but I didn’t really dig into their catalog. This promo was an excuse for me to indulge in some sonic nostalgia. “Remember when I used to listen to this kind of stuff?” I asked myself. “Weird time signatures, geeked-out Berklee musical indulgences, lyrics designed to keep the ladies further away from you than a restraining order? I do. Hell, I’m a huge jazz fan now, this stuff is practically cut from the same cloth.” I took it home, listened to it and loved every note. Then I bought about six or seven more King Crimson CDs.

Then a weird thing happened. I started buying a lot of other stuff I gave up on many years ago. Rush reissues. Yes reissues. Hell, I even picked up a deluxe edition of ELP’s “Brain Salad Surgery” at a going-out-of-business sale at the Harvard Square Tower Records (if you’re attempting to reconnect with your prog rock roots without the use of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, you’re not trying hard enough). I finally realized, into my thirties, that music is music and I’m not out to impress anyone. I mean, I still listen to Elvis Costello, the Jam, Graham Parker, the Smiths, all that good stuff that took me to a different level back in 1985. But I learned that it can all coexist, and frankly, I don’t care who knows it.

Where was I? Oh, right. Jerry.

In the fall of 1981, I was entering the 7th grade, in a Catholic grammar school in Nashua, New Hampshire. One of my classmates was an affable guy named Dave Guertin. Like me, Dave listened to a lot of music, and like me, it was passed on to him by way of his older brother. One day, Dave rather casually asked me if I liked the Grateful Dead. I admitted to him that I really didn’t know much of their music. To be honest, of the few Dead songs I knew at the time, the one I knew the most was “Alabama Getaway,” the tepid single from “Go To Heaven,” their latest studio album at the time, and thus the one that got the most recent airplay on those unimaginatively programmed classic rock stations I listened to so much back then. I never really had much of a desire to discover the Dead. I wasn’t into hippie stuff. I liked the Who, Rush, Genesis (when they were still mildly interesting), Queen (before synthesizers effectively broke them); my Frank Zappa obsession was right around the corner. But Dave was a nice guy, so I gave it a shot. I’m pretty sure that my introduction to the Dead was a purchase of “Skeletons From the Closet,” a somewhat uneven compilation that sold relatively well, probably due to the fact that it was often used as a Grateful Dead primer for the uninitiated (like me!).

“Skeletons” isn’t the perfect introduction to the Dead, but it worked. It had the stuff everyone knew (“Truckin,’” “Casey Jones”), some oddly comforting folkie stuff (“Uncle John’s Band,” “Friend of the Devil”), guitar-heavy live tracks (“Turn On Your Lovelight,” “One More Saturday Night”), some downright strange psychedelic stuff (“Rosemary”) and some left-field kookiness (the mariachi-spiked “Mexicali Blues,” an odd inclusion, considering it’s technically a Bob Weir solo track). That did it. Soon, I was hanging out with Dave at his house, listening to his brother’s record collection. Dave was one of the few people I knew who had a swimming pool (a nice in-ground one), and I have distinct memories of playing Marco Polo while “Shakedown Street” wafted from the indoor speakers. I also attempted to infuse some of my own musical tastes to the proceedings – I remember playing my copy of Genesis’ “Selling England by the Pound” in the Guertin dining room while Dave and I played yet another round of the Dark Tower board game.

In my junior high school musical world, the Dead were an outlier – they weren’t really like anything else I was listening to. The closest comparison you could make would be Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and I only really listened to them because my older sisters did, and it was playing in the house when we all lived together (I should point out that Jerry  played pedal steel on CSNY’s “Teach Your Children,” making that my earliest connection to the Dead by far).  The Dead’s live recordings seemed to be a connection to some of the live music I was into at the time in that it entailed seemingly endless jamming. A lot of the music I was listening to back then was tightly structured, but that didn’t stop it from veering off into extended jams and the obligatory drum solo. It seemed like everyone I listened to back then recorded stopgap live albums after a certain number of studio albums, and they all  had to include drum solos. I think it was the law.

The Dead were also the first band I can recall that I discovered prior to my brother discovering them. It was sort of a ritual in our household that Gary would bring a record home, crank it up time and time again, and it would eventually find its way into my own (lesser) bedroom turntable. But the Dead was my discovery, damn it. When he brought home a copy of “Dead Set,” the 1981 live album, I felt a sense of triumph, and perhaps he felt a sense of defeat in being bested by his younger sibling. I don’t really know – we didn’t talk to each other much back then.

Dirty stinking hippies. What was it about this band that I loved so much? Well, besides the instrumental interplay, I really dug the fact that they had two drummers. Drummers often get the raw deal, and as a drummer (even back then), I like to see them get justice. The Dead started out with just one (Bill Kreutzmann), but soon recruited a second (Mickey Hart), and suddenly drums were encroaching on this band and no longer reduced to an afterthought. But the other guys were good, too: Bob Weir was a fierce, raw, vocalist and a steady rhythm guitarist – if you feel like Jerry’s de facto position as the band’s leader is unjust, check out the Netflix documentary on Weir, “The Other One.” While Weir was the feral rock guy, Jerry’s elastic leads and gentle vocals helped bring some balance. Two sides of the same coin. I loved that dynamic. And the revolving door of keyboard players: Pigpen, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, a bunch of other guys – wasn’t Bruce Hornsby in the band for a hot second? That era wasn’t really my cup of tea, but it’s a testament to the band’s durability that they can run through so many of those guys and still stay together and keep a strong fan base.

And then there’s Phil. Phil Lesh is a mighty musician, and probably the most musically erudite of the Dead’s roster – a multi-instrumentalist who studied classical music in college – Phil’s bass playing is highly reminiscent of the recently deceased Chris Squire. His bass playing doesn’t just provide the requisite “bottom end” – it creates its own separate melody lines, chunky notes that rise above the rhythm section and are instantly recognizable.

The Dead wrote music in a somewhat unique fashion – they eventually abandoned lyric writing in favor of farming it out to a couple of guys who were just plain better at it. For the most part, Robert Hunter wrote the words to Jerry’s music, and John Barlow did the same for Bob’s. It’s an oversimplification, and there are exceptions, but that’s basically it. In the rock music realm, lyrics are too often raised to the level of “poetry,” and it usually doesn’t apply, but here it’s justified. Hunter and Barlow were storytellers, and the Dead’s unique blend of folk, country, blues and psychedelia provided the perfect accompaniment to this – this time, without the condescending quotes – poetry. And while we’re on the subject of poetry – while their occasional collaborations were rickety at best, comparing the Dead to Bob Dylan is not really that far off the mark. They both have roots in folk and blues but have often transcended those simpler genres in favor of cables, amplifiers and effects pedals. I discovered Dylan’s music in the Summer of 1984 and never looked back, and I’m positive that the Grateful Dead laid the essential groundwork for me to make that discovery.

Like the bands I mentioned earlier, I rediscovered the Dead several years ago, thanks to a very well-executed catalog re-mastering, and with my renewed interest in vinyl, I’ve been able to dust off that 33-year old copy of “Skeletons in the Closet” (among other titles) and haven’t really annoyed my wife and son too much just yet.

Jerry, I realize that this is 20 years too late, but thanks for the music.

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