Friday, September 13, 2019

Late at night while washing dishes I had an insight that the Grateful Dead’s peak years of cultural influence were not the ‘60s but the ‘80s.

When I got into the Dead I thought I was late to the party. The ‘60s had happened, the ‘70s too. Jerry fat and gray. I wasn’t around for the Acid Tests, the Be-In. The Fillmore, the Carousel, the Avalon. What could it have been like to go to a concert on a Tuesday night, get dosed by Bear and wind up naked in the park, not lost and despairing but with a dozen kindred souls, all laughing ecstatically, scrutinizing the straight world as it awoke to go to work and not giving a fuck except about the universe? This happened, I know. But not to me.

Shows seemed to occur on the fly yet were promoted—and so memorialized—by gloriously psychedelic posters. Cost a buck to get in, maybe five or maybe nothing. For years this band had played in parks, on the street, on campuses, all the while revolution in the air. I know—I saw the pictures in the books. How I wished I was there. All the clothes were cooler. The hair. Everything was happening and nothing was predictable. You could probably go right up there and sit on that stage if you wanted, by the tangle of cables and the speakers with the tie-dye grilles.

When their audience got bigger the Dead responded in kind: a sound system three stories tall, shows that lasted hours and hours, long weird Dark Stars. Egypt on a lark. I missed all that, too. Now the band seemed diminished, constrained; endlessly touring the hockey arenas of the United States, subject to regulations as to when to stop. Set lists, though still varied and unique, had acquired a creeping formality: some songs were openers, some closers; there were first-set songs and second-set songs and everybody knew the encores. The weirdest music all tidied up and filed away in the middle of the second set. There were tendencies for certain sequences. Tendencies for sequences of sequences. Ronald Reagan was president; nothing was happening and everything was predictable.

I got it on good authority that Jerry was a junkie and I thought, my God. The darkness of it. The coldness. In my naive head all filled with flowers it seemed like a betrayal.

But the music was still there. Jerry bent at the neck, playing furious triplets in dorian mode. The drummers never hitting anything at once. Or on the one. Phil. There was a careening, dangerous quality to the music—dangerous in the sense of something big that’s falling over—that could be quite compelling if you were so inclined. And quite not if not, which kind of proves the point. Turns out the formality provided a context, a foil. The deviations, the surprises, they meant more than mere chaos ever could.

In fact the Dead were never more powerful and influential. They reached many, many more people than they had before. If you were a kid in Pittsburgh, or St. Louis, or Santa Fe, you went to the Dead show when it came to town. Like it or not. There weren’t a lot of kicks to be had in this country in 1983. No Instagram and nothing on TV. If you wanted to do anything interesting you’d better see the Grateful Dead.

It only took a few influential stoners to go at first, then next time ‘round there’d be a horde: younger siblings, someone’s preppy girlfriend and all her friends, jocks who got drunk in the parking lot. And this cycle of influence was a machine: for years the band played up and down the East Coast every spring and fall, through the middle of the country every summer and on the West Coast all the other time. It would be difficult to not go to a Grateful Dead concert.

And everyone took acid. Didn’t matter if they liked the band or not. Many did, but for sure many didn’t. I remember the scene at the Springfield Civic Center in the spring of ‘86. I went with my Deadhead friend Bill like always but there were lots of others from our school. Being a devotee I hoped pridefully that they’d get it, that their minds would be blown by the music. Of course they didn’t give a fuck—except maybe one or two that did. There was always the one or two. But most of them were there because it was there, man. I recall watching a friend, a popular kid whose tastes ran toward the Hooters and Crowded House. He roamed past circles of dancing hippies, bemused, while his best friend sat nearby, cradling his LSD-exploded head between his knees. What the fuck were they doing there? Wrong question. How the fuck could they not be there?

The Dead in fact instilled in the American adolescent a reflex for taking psychedelic drugs and going to the coliseum, maybe telling off a cop or two, then finding their way home Gonzo-style to put the pieces back together. Wake up late for school and mumble at their moms. Kids began to do this at every show—not just the Dead. When Iron Maiden came to town, same thing. Clapton, same thing. The Police, Def Leppard, Bad Company. Didn’t fucking matter. No matter the music, no matter the culture it was intended to represent, when performers looked out from the stage they saw thousands of dosed-out teenagers whose perceptions and reactions could not be relied upon too well. The Acid Test continued.

This was the true influence of the Grateful Dead, and their legacy too.