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Dirty Work: Hip to Be Dead

 
By: Jeff Daily
Follow Jeff Daily on: Twitter
November 13, 2012
 

My eyes won’t blink; my mind is reeling. I’m listening to music at much too high a volume on speakers too small and too shitty to be blasting anything this loud. I’m in the midst of a twenty-plus minute, full-band assault on "Dark Star" from 8-27-72 while reading freelance writer, and author of Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, Jesse Jarnow's article "How Jerry Got Hip (Again)" from Relix magazine August 2008, which he kindly emailed me for use as reference material for my “Dirty Work” column, and it’s damn good. As I finish it, some kind of gibberish Tourette’s comes over me (“Washateria…corn-dodger!” “Garfunkel!”) and I pound my fists on the desk – it turns out Mr. Jarnow wrote THIS exact article (meaning the article I’m writing this second, or at least the one I was intending to write) four years ago. So I'm fucked…beaten to the punch again…I’ll have to rethink my article’s direction…

********************

“25 years ago, the information streams for kid to discover new music were limited to radio, TV and magazines—most of which placed the Dead in this “musty, music for old people” lane. The thing is, you really have to research the Dead to realize they really embodied the DIY spirit. Supposed “punks” loved dissing the Dead at every turn but if they knew the Dead started their own record label, played non-traditional venues (especially in the early days), built their fan base organically (long before they had a “hit”) and helped facilitate major innovations in PA systems, they might sing a different tune. The music is what it is, it grabs you or it doesn’t. But to deny the non-musical contributions the Dead helped usher in for music is just plain ignorance.”- Jeff Conklin, via email with the author

It was Freaks and Geeks that inspired me to finally put down some thoughts I’ve been having about the Grateful Dead. It’s not a show I ever watched before early October ‘12, but it’s streaming on Netflix so my wife and I thought we better dive in and see what all the fuss is about. As TV goes, the show is as good as everyone says it is, but it was really the last episode of the “cancelled before its time” program that got to me.

Without venturing into spoiler territory, the show’s final episode involves the lead character Lindsey heading out on the road at the start of summer vacation to find herself a community, with her friend Kim and a couple of peers who happen to be Deadheads, providing company & transportation. Lindsey is supposed to be going off to an academic two weeks at the University of Michigan, but Lindsey doesn’t fit in with the eggheads, the freaks, or what have you. She finally hears something of personal freedom and expression in the music of the Dead. The journey is set to the tune of the Dead’s American Beauty album (specifically the songs “Box of Rain” and “Ripple”). Her search for a place to belong the way she wants to belong is one of the show’s main themes and music plays a huge role in most of the character’s searches for a true self in the midst of the truly unfortunate high school stage of life.

The final scene hits some wonderful notes as the melody of “Ripple” sings when Lindsey ditches one journey to begin another and the image of a VW driving away fades to black. If you’re not listening to the Grateful Dead, you’re missing out on a fantastic musical relationship.

For me, the fantastic musical relationship began when I was about fifteen seeing the VH1's Classic Albums: Anthem of the Sun/American Beauty episode. Soon after buying both of the LPs discussed in the documentary (two albums every serious music fan should own…in addition to Workingman’s Dead and at least one complete live Dead show), I began to take the real plunge and start navigating through the live bootlegs (while fleshing out the remaining holes in their official catalog, of course...) But something was wrong, it felt like I was the only one my age aware of this music in the late 90s/early 00s. Was I alone? Was I ahead of the coming flood of love for the Dead?

Enough daydreaming, for now at least…I’ve noticed, as I become more active and addicted to using Twitter (@teflonbeast), that it is a great place for the music snob (nerd, record collector, know-it-all, etc.) to read and participate in lively, short & sweet debates concerning beloved bands, new songs, controversies, and more. Jarnow and Jeff Conklin are two tweet-heads who mention Jerry Garcia and Co. an awful lot, so I wrote to them and asked them if they feel like the Grateful Dead are cooler and more influential now then say, the early '00s. These are the two people I could talk to about my finding the Dead EVERYWHERE in today’s current musical vocabulary. Monthly, musicians are being compared to and/or name-dropping the Dead, from rockin' lo-fi beardos (Woods) to indie-experimentalists (Animal Collective). The hipster quotient for the Grateful Dead is on the rise. What's going on here?

In rereading Jarnow’s article, he surmises the Dead revival as happening around 2004. He cites Daniel Chamberlin's Arthur article "Uncle Skullfucker's Band" of that year as the beginning. Then burgeoning hipster musicians like Geologist (of Animal Collective) and Akron/Family started talking Dead. Hell, even of Montreal jammed on a cover of "Shakedown Street" live! Cycles and waves, man...Go back and think about Television, Greg Ginn (Black Flag), Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), and the Meat Puppets. All these bands have spoken fondly of the Grateful Dead and also share that same spirit where the guitars are turned up just loud enough and the group mind becomes one communal instrument, conducting the frequencies to dimensions far from this one.

Conklin, Co-Content Director for East Village Radio and host of its long-running freeform program, “Just Music,” points out, “the rise in popularity of “krautrock” and “lost” psychedelia from the ‘60s and ‘70s that lives on through blogs and reissue labels provides another route to discovering the Dead.”

"They're mysterious," Jarnow explains. "What they do has never been fully assimilated into the mainstream of American culture, so it's still got a flavor of intellectual and societal outsiderness. It's not unusual to hear Sex Pistols-like music or see punk imagery crammed into, say, a car ad, but psychedelic culture is much harder to co-opt, because psychedelics are still illegal and, more important, still have an undeniable psychological power. You can't shorthand the Dead experience into a small space, it requires a level of commitment."

It’s not just happening with the “rock” bands now either. The Dead were many things; they were sonic experimentalists interested in exploring feedback drones as much as singing roots-influenced Americana songs. Case in point, the high brow avant-garde compositional techniques used on their album Anthem of the Sun. At about six minutes into “That’s it for the Other One” all hell breaks loose and the influence of Stockhausen and Cage roar up front and center. Noise, tape loops, and total chaos reigns, all on the first track of the band’s SECOND album.

“A lot of experimental and noise artists I know have a deep love for the Dead and I think their music reflects the Dead’s ‘try anything’ approach more faithfully than somebody who writes simple songs and extends the outro and ‘jams.’ Matthew Bower (Skullflower/Sunroof!), Greg Davis, and Tom Carter are examples that come to mind,” Conklin points out. And rightfully so because the extended improvisations of the Dead were about finding new tone worlds as much as providing rhythms for some twirling hippies on their acid trips. If anything, a lot of today’s bands have as much in common with the Allman Brothers as they do the Dead. Jamming and long blues based guitar soloing were but a small ingredient to the larger musical stew the Dead cooked up during their explorations in sound.

As with any popular music phenomena, the Grateful Dead have had their share of detractors. Kurt Cobain famously showed up at a Rolling Stone photoshoot wearing a t-shirt with the handwritten phrase “Kill the Grateful Dead” scrawled on it. And Freaks and Geeks isn’t some love letter to the band either. Ken (played by Seth Rogen) off-handedly remarks how the Grateful Dead’s music sucks, but at least the female fans are hot. Even Lester Bangs officially “hated” the band, calling their album Anthem of the Sun a “piece of shit” according to Jim DeRogatis in his biography of the famed music critic.

I myself encountered this misinformed dislike of the Dead when I joined my first garage band in high school. I stumbled into it, actually, because I didn’t want to be in a band in high school...I thought. An acquaintance of mine knew I played guitar and he had a band, but the bass player had just quit. The dude remained friends with all of us and even gave me use of his bass & amp since I didn’t have either. Unfortunately the group was into Weezer style power-pop and when I wanted to stretch out on a two chord vamp (in the mode of the Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain”) they looked at me like I was snacking on raw badger flesh.

We practiced once or twice a week after school and I always wanted the pre-planned, scripted guitar solos to lead to uncharted, wild sonic vistas - otherwise known as “jamming.” The band wasn’t having any of my “hippie bullshit” and it’s too bad because I think some of the guitar parts could have developed into some tasty grooves. The lead guitar player wasn’t a slouch and had enough effects pedals to really sculpt something interesting, but it never happened. Needless to say, my time as a Phil Lesh in training was short-lived. After two gigs, I told the band I wasn’t a good fit and bowed out.

Here I go, giving in to the rush of memories again...While I was a junior in high school in the Dallas/Ft. Worth ‘burbs I listened to KNON 89.5, a community radio station, every Friday night because there was a program called Lone Star Dead. The show’s host played live Dead tapes on the air and hearing those raw, expressive live shows opened my mind & ears to what “rock” bands could sound like. The show is still sending out the good vibrations all these years later...Lord knows we all could use some. Tune in!

One night I heard the first set of a summer solstice show from Alaska that I subsequently sought out on bootleg, but could never find. I searched the public library for books on Dead tapes. I thought it was from 1981, but turns out it is 6-21-80. For years I looked for a "lost" June '81 show. The band didn't play in June of that year, but back in 2000/2001, I didn't know that. Even now, I speak of that summer solstice performance in hushed, reverent tones. Seek it out! The Dead have a dedicated fan base and their collective curatorial efforts have made the Internet Archive a valuable resource for the generations who missed out on the original trip. Back when I was flipping through books, I didn’t have access to or know about the online Dead community.

The archive (or something like it) will still be there for the next generation that comes around and begins investigating the music of the Grateful Dead. As for me, I don’t have to worry about the cycles and waves anymore; I’m firmly ensconced in Deadhead territory and it looks like the hipsters have joined the club too. Everywhere I turn I hear about the power of the Dead’s music influencing younger and younger artists.

So, is the legacy of the Grateful Dead limited to name-dropping blog interviews or journalistic shorthand for “jamming?” No. The Dead possess an unnameable magic. In my email exchanges with Jesse Jarnow, he laid it out perfectly with this summation:

There's a contrarian tint to liking the Dead the same way there is whenever you adopt out-of-fashion signifiers -- when something gets so uncool that it's cool again…It's more reactionary than ironic. Nostalgia like that can be really dangerous, of course, but also a fun line to walk. But with the Dead, especially, if you trace any of those ideas a few steps, you almost immediately get to some remnant of their anarchic thinking. Even in their shittiest years, that level of deep-down cool was somehow always communicated, a lineage that is "hipster" in the righteous jazz-era sense of the word that obliterates any fleeting notions of popularity. All of which is to say, it doesn't matter how people find the Dead. Once they're there, they're there.

I couldn’t agree more. Why, as I make my final revisions to this “Dirty Work,” Neil Young just released a new song called “Twisted Road” that both name-drops the Dead and musically quotes the guitar riff from their classic, “Friend of the Devil.” It continues to be one very long and very strange trip.

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