The Grateful Dead, Were They Ever Any Good?

Nope. The end.

Okay, seriously… music, like all art is subjective as fuck and I know this is going to get me into all kinds of trouble living as I do in NorCal where this silly band and wretched culture are so much an integral facet to the somewhat still dominant paradigm of hippiedom, but clearly I don’t care and must submit that The Grateful Dead are one of the most overrated bands ever… and I’m a former Deadhead!

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Even Jerry Agrees

The Dead Were Kinda Lame

It’s true, I saw about 19 shows (I think!) throughout the eighties with my friends, starting in high school and into college, until my last show in 1989 at the Oxford, Maine Speedway, when I believe not coincidentally I did not do any LSD and was therefore more aware that without it, I noticed and finally admitted to myself that the Dead’s music and more importantly, the “culture” was actually pretty terrible, especially compared to some of the other more contemporary stuff I was getting into at the time. It also may have had something to do with some dumb hippie peeing on me and my girlfriend’s tent in the middle of the night, or the fact that when I woke up in the morning and surveyed the utter destruction and mess that had been left in the parking lot, it dawned on me that maybe all this peace and love and being a part of the Dead “family” was actually a whole lot of very white people hypocritical nonsense.

The Songs

Sugar Magnolia, Blossum’s bloomin’… I mean…. really? Look, as far as ’60’s folky psychedelia goes the Dead’s mostly Robert Hunter penned lyrics aren’t the worst I’ve ever heard, but are they deserving of such adulation and reverence when they’re all essentially middling to ridiculous blues/folk attempts at fantasies/parables for god knows what?

Personally, maybe it’s that now that I’m older and possibly wiser, (but probably not) and have been exposed to so much more music than I was into back then, in retrospect the Dead’s music/lyrics just seems shallow in comparison to just about all of their peers of the western anglo-centric ’60’s rock milieu. I mean, I’d argue that the Kinks song “Fancy”, (just that one song!) is like a million times better than anything the Dead ever did, cause Ray Davies is a gazillion times better and more clever a songwriter than Robert Hunter. And then there’s Waterloo Sunset, Village Green Preservation Society and on and on.

The Music

... there’s a cloud of smoke and we come out and play our tunes ‘y’know ding, ding, ding...
— Jerry Garcia about the Dead at Monterey Pop

Sometimes the Dead would hit upon what seemed like transcendent moments, but the more I think about it the more I believe that for me, that had more to do with the acid than their playing, because whenever I hear them now I tend to agree with Jerry Garcia’s assessment of his band from Monterey Pop that since they appeared after The Who’s first performance in the US when they blew everyone away and smashed their equipment and then, “there’s a cloud of smoke and we come out and play our tunes ‘y’know ding, ding, ding…”:

https://youtu.be/EmyZjpt69CQ

and right before Jimi Hendrix’s (as The Jimi Hendrix Experience that is), when he famously lit his guitar on fire at the end of his outrageous, pyrotechnic performance.

Honestly, I can’t even remember one stand out song or performance as they’ve all kind of blended together for me into a hazy blur. I think I might even have a weird case of Grateful Dead specific PTSD in that whenever I rarely hear their music or people want to talk to me about them, I get a twitchy eye and want to crawl out of my skin, which of course says more about me than their fans I suppose.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t have fun at all of those shows. I had an absolute ball being out of my gourd on mostly awful, seedy, Mexican schwag weed, plenty of acid and once in Sataroga Springs, NY smoked opium with some ancient, ultra hippie dudes. Not exactly something to be proud of, but it is the truth. I even had a good time at that last show in Maine, because despite the aforementioned acid free revelations, the ’80’s incarnation of Little Feat opened and they were actually super fun, funky and rockin’, especially in comparison to the headliners.

As a guitarist, Garcia had his moments, but overall as a band known for their improvisations, they actually weren’t very good improvisers and just never had the chops of their contemporaries in the rock world neither improvisationally nor definitely not as far as memorable riffs or licks and certainly not even close compared to the jazz, blues and international music world. As just one example, Billy Gibbons of ZZTop is ten times the player Garcia ever was. Just a muthafucker with tone, blues feel and licks, licks, licks! For that matter I enjoy listening to ZZTop, even songs I’ve heard a million times more than any Dead song ever and just as much for what Billy leaves out as I do his tasty tone! Same goes for Albert King, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughn, etc., or say Robert Fripp who’s got chops and interestingness to his playing that puts him into another universe. Or Zappa, or Townshend, or Dave Davies. I mean.. any of those players are much more interesting and/or challenging and intuitively craftier musicians. For me anyway.

The Culture

I’ve been told that the west coast “scene” was very different and more laid back then the east coast, which stands to reason I guess, however I can’t imagine there weren’t just as many twirlers (those are the people who spin like maniac, whirling dervishes the whole time), and idiotic dashiki or tie dye wearing, clueless white dudes (I admit it, I wore a dashiki) who were “laid back”, and “cool”, but still engaged in the hippie form of misogyny with all the earth mamas and flower girls in their hippie dress uniforms and plenty of honey and peanut butter sandwiches and weird granola concoctions for sale in the parking lots out in California as there were on the east coast. I feel like once I started seeing Jerry Garcia dolls for sale in outside of shows, that should’ve been a huge red flag that I was participating in a cult. I guess I’m just super leery of people being that into one band or musician, or celebrity, or guru. It’s like religion or spirituality. I think I get why people do it intellectually, but practically speaking metaphysics of any kind pretty much gives me hives. The only thing intangible/metaphysical that seems real to me is love and all the permutations of it, partially because you don’t need any kind of dear leader to teach you about it. That’s what life is for!

As an aside, I also think the dominant vibe within hippie culture just feels like it places men first, but in a creepier way than conservatives do. I mean Donna aside, The Dead is just very male oriented, as is much of rock ‘n roll, but there’s something about the culture surrounding the Dead that seems to couch itself in being progressive and “groovy”, but in actuality it’s really no better than any other gathering of too many drunk, stoned ding dongs in any scene. Inevitably, knucklehead behavior sets in. And even though some folks, like this author Kaya Oakes have come back around to the Dead as an escape, (though I must note she’s also back in the fold of Catholicism, another cult, so…) the dark side of ‘60’s hippie culture seems very much alive to me and I can’t get past it, especially when Slaeter Kinney’s got a new record out and young women like Billie Eillish are making contemporary and highly creative, exciting music which makes the Dead’s music, culture and attitude seem absurd in comparison.

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Really?

Who Knew?

Subjectivity

It’s all subjective, I know, so in the end none of this matters a whit, but it’s still immensely cathartic to me to write about this kind of thing, in all honestly because I have so many hangups and feelings of not being cool enough, that I’m conflicted because a part of me wishes I could be free enough to noodle dance my way into oblivion along with the rest of the stuck in the ’60’s Dead fans, just as I wish I felt comfortable enough to say, go to a nude beach or get a massage, or Christ.. even go camping without feeling uncomfortably neurotic about it. But then I remember how insufferable hippie culture can be, like every time I go to Sebastopol, I can feel it in the air. The smugness of the kind of dim, shallow progressivism that motivated whomever it was that thought it would be “cool” to post that inane sign that greets visitors to town which says “Nuclear Free Zone”, as if like… anyone was ever concerned that hippie town had ballistic missile silos, or a potential Three Mile Island situation for crying’ out loud!

Berkeley does this too of course and it’s just as dumb.

Anyhow, I suppose this is all a gigantic waste of time because it literally doesn’t matter what the fuck I think about music, or much of anything. If anyone actually reads any of my posts I’d be shocked and anyway I’m just one former record store clerk who happens to love music, but I mean… I’m also an incredible dork AND a Rush fan, so what the fuck do I know?

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