On a recommendation from an long time friend, I watched Amazon’s six-part documentary on the Grateful Dead.
I expected a mix of nostalgia and irony. with a dash of new information and, maybe, some unseen video. I got that. I learned that Senator Al Franken is a Dead Head! But there was much more.
Music was important to those The Who called “My Generation.” As a child I listened to performances of the 1812 Overture because I liked hearing the canons–or the numerous substitutes–making big bangs. I grew up listening to Broadway show tunes because my parents grew up in the greater orbit of Manhattan, and for them, Broadway was a big deal. I didn’t know why my father had so many classical piano recordings until I learned, much much later, that his parents had wanted him to be another Artur Rubinstein. He fulfilled their dream: he played Carnegie Hall, and not only never touched a piano again, but didn’t even tell me that he could read music.
My attempts at learning an instrument ended in frustration. I couldn’t endure the awful sounds I made and had no faith that, through patience and practice, those sounds would become beautiful. But I kept listening to music, going from Broadway to Hollywood movie soundtracks and then, as I stumbled into adolescence, some of the stuff on “progressive rock” FM radio.
Philadelphia had two dueling FM stations that, for a few halcyon years, identified themselves with the hippies. Both had DJs who did long sets that, in these days before targeted advertising and music formatting, permitted odd combinations of movie soundtracks (stuff from Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was popular), electrified folk music (Dylan, of course, but also British revivalists Fairport Convention and Pentangle, whose ballads became coded references to a growing, international middle class rejection of post-World War two industrial lifestyle), British “invasion” American blues breakers (the Rolling Stones, early Who and Led Zepplin), British “progressive” bands (Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Emerson Lake & Palmer) and, holding it all together, The Beatles.
I had a friend who would read the magazine Stereo Review and buy whatever records the magazine’s pop music critics starred. Through him I discovered the Jefferson Airplane, the most popular example of the “San Francisco Sound,” and Frank Zappa, the cynical, R-and-B influenced “serious” musician whose infantile, frequently disgusting lyrics were just as “anti-establishment” to me, as the Broadway musical “Hair,” which succeeded at shocking the bourgeoisie with an infamous nude scene, while promoting the message that people of my generation were discovering a mystical new truth founded in superstition, “drugs” (that is, intoxicating substances other than tobacco and alcohol, though alcohol remains the greatest “deal with the devil” in the music and entertainment industries, with the sales of one fueling the consumption of the other) and sexual hedonism.
Music became not just a thing I could indulge that my parents didn’t especially like or understand. It was a font of wisdom. The sly social satire of Joni Mitchell, the oh-so-sensitive ballads of Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix’s macho riffs, the folk and “old timey” flavored harmonic choruses of Crosby Stills Nash & Young spoke emotionally, intellectually and socially: there were other “realities” to explore, other paths to follow than going to college, getting a job, making money and starting a family. The world of my parents seemed artificial, numbingly conformist, unhealthy (all that white bread and processed food), spiritually vacant and–most important of all–not fun. My parents’ marriage was rarely loving. My father walked out (but continued to work in the office built in the side of the house for several years) when I was an adolescent and, though he did contribute some financial support to my mother (and pay the college fees for my brother and me), they fought constantly on the phone and in pre-divorce litigation.
I didn’t indulge much in drugs. I didn’t like the woozy stupidity of alcohol and marijuana just wasn’t around, until I went to college. There I discovered a drug culture that pretended to be, not an answer, but a way to find answers. And the band that seemed to offer the most fascinating ways was the Grateful Dead.
As one of the Deadheads in the Long Strange Trip documentary observed, intoxicants can deliver epiphanies in which a truth or revelation is almost in your grasp, until it slips away. It goes without saying that while you’re intoxicated you’re taking risks and exposing your body to danger in ways that don’t seem dangerous. You laugh too much. You behave badly in public places. You say things that sound great coming out but are really, really stupid when you hear about them later. Tasks that are easy to do when sober are tediously annoying and can drive you to reckless frustration. You eat too much because some of the same sweet, gooey, crunchy stuff that your parents fed you, that you insisted was unhealthy, now tastes too good. You listen to familiar music at high volumes and experience it as food for the soul. If you’ve gobbled a psychedelic, you don’t eat but stare at the neighbor’s petunias and wonder why everyone else doesn’t realize that everything they need to know is RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEIR FACES!
I went to my first Grateful Dead concert at a northern New Jersey sports stadium during a summer vacation. I agreed with utmost certainty what the band had stated on the packaging of the Europe ’72 live recording: “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert!” It would be a few years later, after I became a music critic, that I would have the philosophical dexterity to realize that the statement was meaningless.
I went to another Dead concert at an arena near Cleveland, so zonked out that it took three songs for me to blame the unsettling feelings I had on the fact that Jerry Garcia had shaved his beard. I learned that, unlike any other performing rock band, the Grateful Dead were not about hit singles. They didn’t have any hits (except for Truckin’ or Ripple, which you only heard on FM radio) and didn’t seem to care. They didn’t tell the audience about a new album to buy. They didn’t “put on a show.” They didn’t wear costumes or have special staging effects. They didn’t seem to have a fixed set list. They incorporated a free-form, jazz-like improvisation into a performance of pseudo folk songs and Old Timey ballads that created an unusually free, enthusiastic, energetic atmosphere, no matter what intoxicant you had in your veins.
I joined the college’s Assembly Committee and write the Grateful Dead, asking them to perform on campus. I never got a reply, but a few years later, the band’s management contacted the college and the Jerry Garcia band serenaded the campus. I don’t remember much about that concert, other than that it was okay, but it wasn’t the full band.
I became a music critic when I started free-lancing for a suburban newspaper whose full-time music writer only liked what we still call “classical.” The “pop/rock” column had been given to numerous freelancers, and the concert reviews were gleaned from a handful of freelancers, one of whom was roundly despised because he fancied himself a musician, and was blatantly jealous of performers who lacked his undiscovered talent.
I brought a naive idealism to the job. I believed that everything really was about the music and the relationship the performer had with his audience. This was Grateful Dead ideal that, as the documentary showed, became tragically ironic in the year before Garcia died).
Even if the band was not one I admired (say, Kiss), I would look at what the performance accomplished on record, and live with its fans, when the band had a concert. I’d do my best to be familiar with the band’s recorded work before I reviewed a show, sometimes spending more money to buy recordings than I would be paid for the review.
At first, my newspaper editor accused me of using too many adjectives. He said, “a review is only about two things: what happened, and was it worth the money.” I never talked about the money (the paper was sent free tickets). But I did talk about what happened. I became the only critic working for the newspaper who did not get angry letters from fans or promoters because my reviews were not about good or bad, but about the music and what it seemed to accomplish.
I was then told that I should do advance interviews of “acts” coming to town. My first was Tony Bennett, who, at the time, was at the nadir of his career. People were getting tired of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” He had no recent hit records and his ex-wife accused him of physically abusing her. Tony wanted to talk about his art, his manager told me. We talked about his art. We talked about “I Left My Heart.” He told me how hard it was to make a song he had sung a thousand times sound fresh every time he sang it. You have to focus, he said. You think you know it so well, and then your mind blanks out. You can’t have that happen.
When we were running out of things to talk about, I asked him about his ex-wife. He hung up immediately, and I had an interview.
I used the Pop/Rock feature to talk to my heroes, and some characters who were fun to talk to. “Root Boy Slim” who had a brief novelty hit with the song “Boogie ‘Til You Puke,” told me that he no longer forced himself to vomit on stage when he performed that song. “Those meals cost me money, man.”
I interviewed Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. I spoke with Warren Zevon after he had kicked alcoholism. And, when the Grateful Dead came to town, I interviewed Phil Lesh, the band’s bassist, about their recent Egyptian concert in front of the Sphinx. He told me it was all about an interest he and the band had in “psychic archaeology.” He also said that the band had changed since its formative years, and that he and other members of the band no longer indulged in the substances that had helped them play long, long concerts at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. Just playing the music “in the creative flash” was more than enough.
I saw the concert sober. I found some of the fans annoying and obnoxious (later, when I did a feature article on concert venue staff, I was told that the one band they all absolutely hated was the Grateful Dead, because their fans “would not listen to anything or anyone”). I heard portions during those improvisational jams when the music did not hold together and all you had was the infamous “noodling” that New Wave and Punk bands justifiably criticized as a self-indulgent waste of time.
But there were more than enough times when the music came together and everybody in the cavernous arena felt they were privileged to be in this one beautiful place.
Because music critics who don’t incite angry letters are rare in journalism, I became of service to larger newspapers that paid slightly more. With the change in status came an offer I could not refuse: a backstage pass to a Grateful Dead concert.
I found band members wandering around talking shop. None appeared to be under the influence (Garcia was adept at hiding his heroin usage). Each band member had a group of friends or associates who seemed part of an extended family. The experience was, in truth, rather dull.
I ran into Bob Weir in a backstage lounge. He watched a basketball game on a television set. Near him was a girl who was about five years old. She asked him what it was like to be a rock star. “You’re never home,” Weir said flatly.
During the show, Weir forgot the lines to Sugar Magnolia, a song he may have sung just as much as Tony Bennett did “I Left My Heart.”
I wondered then, if I was under the influence, would I just accept that as just one more splash from the Grateful Dead’s font of wisdom?
Or was it possible that, as wonderful as those epiphanic moments could be, there was more to life than reviving a San Francisco lifestyle that came and went, and that what was between epiphanies may have a lot more to do with being alive than gobbling intoxicants, psychic archaeology and, as Garcia emphasized so much in the Long Strange Trip documentary, “having fun.”
Fun is important when you’re a child. It’s vital to experience delight at every age. But you can’t dedicate your life to that, as Garcia and most of the band’s members seemed to do. So many of the important things in my life, such as raising my son, learning new skills, failing and experiencing loss–were not all fun.
Thought I taught novel-writing for many years, and suggested often to aspiring writers that the process should be fun and there’s no shame in making it fun, I also said that there are times when it definitely ISN’T fun and that what distinguishes a novelist from a wannabe is that the novelist finishes writing the book.
What happens after that, in the publishing world, is unknown, unpredictable and, despite those great moments when you hold the printed book in your hands, when you cash the check for the shamelessly small amount of money you’re paid, when a critic says something nice, an interviewer asks your secrets of success and a fan wants your autograph, unfulfilling. The feelings of alienation and inadequacy that may have inspired you to escape into your writing, don’t go away when you’re published. The need to create a thing of beauty, and a refuge, remains. It is not a font of wisdom, nor is it a path to salvation.
But, as gifts go, it’s major.
The Long Strange Trip documentary showed how Jerry Garcia’s seemingly harmless, well intentioned and careless pursuit of fun was actually a hedonistic escape from responsibility. Beyond a glimpse into the discomfiting circumstances that ended one of his marriages, the documentary did not go into the other divorces, numerous children and other relationships he left when he died. It did not mention how other band members coped with fame and squandered loving relationships, though Bill Kreutzman was quite open about his drug use.
When, as a music critic, I interviewed my heroes, I wanted my interviews to answer a question that most journalism must ask and answer: why should anyone want to read this?
You don’t have to ask that question of your life. It’s enough that you’re here, and given how perilous life can be, those moments when you can catch your breath, experience small pleasures, gently love someone and be at peace, are more important than any amount of fun.