Life sure loves to toss its little incongruities at you: today when a co-worker told me that his daughter told him that Jerry Garcia died, I was poking around in the Pat Buchanan for President Web Site (an actual work-related assignment -- I don't wanna talk about it.) When I pointed this out to my co-worker, he wondered if they could have possibly had anything in common whatsoever. Which, of course, they did: Hunter S. Thompson. Unless I'm totally mistaken, Thompson was at Ken Kesey's acid tests, for which the Grateful Dead were the house band, and only a couple of years later Pat Buchanan introduced Thompson to Richard M. Nixon, and they discussed football. (I'm positive about the latter, not so sure about the former, and wish my copies of The Electric Kool-Aide Acid Test and The Great Shark Huntweren't in boxes somewhere.) But those twisted connections are from another time and place, and I am, after all, nothing if not a professional, so we'll have to leave Thompson out of this. Besides, who'da thunk he'd outlive both Jerry Garcia and Richard Nixon?
I was never a Deadhead. But I never hated them, either, not even after I discovered the punk rock that changed my life. In fact, I saw The Dead three times in the early 80's (thanks, Larry, for the Pauley Pavilion Show in '81), in the dark years before "Touch of Grey" exploded their audience. I certainly admired their dedication to their fans, and had no problem when success found them. Still, I never believed that the neo-hippie "peace and love" bullshit that followed the band around was workable in the real world. I wish it was, but certainly not in a world where the band had recently threatened to pull the plug on touring forever if the chaos that haunted their '95 tour didn't cease.
The only Dead music I own -- like most non-Deadhead music fans, I suspect -- Workingman's Dead and American Beauty" -- and have always found them to be fine examples of American folk-rock, and better yet, at odds with the psychedelic trippy improvisational rep their live shows had. Of course, that kind of spirit is impossible to catch on tape, either video or audio, and yet because it seems possible, people spend their entire lives recording and trading Dead tapes, trying to re-capture that inexplicable perfect moment they had at a Dead concert where the music and the band and the audience all merged into estatic communal joy. A moment that even if drugs are involved completely transcends any high you can possibly imagine. (That the Dead condoned and actively encouraged the recording of their shows speaks volumes about their understanding of and commitment to their fans.)
Music itself is a drug, of course. That's why those of us who really love it, love it as much as we do. And that moment I was describing is not limited to Dead concerts -- in fact, for me, it didn't happen at any of the Dead concerts I saw. (Besides the Pauley Pavilion show, I saw them at the US Festival and on the first Dylan/Dead tour.) But just from the top of my head I know it did happen for me when I was seeing U2 or Bruce Springsteen or the Replacements or Wilco or the Miss Alans or any number of countless other times, especially when I was playing my drums.
But like no other band before or since, the Dead made explicit the music/drug connection. In essence, they were saying "no matter what you take, we can make it better." And the epitome of their message was their druggy icon -- Jerry "Captain Trips" Garcia, who wanted to take you for a ride on his long weaving guitar solos. By making this connection the central point of their existence -- music can take you to a different place -- fans cleaved to them harder than any fans in the history of rock and roll.
And why not? Even someone like me who always preferred the 3-minute powerchord popsongs of Pete Townshend and The Clash or the darker trips of the Velvet Underground ("Sister Ray" could kick "St. Stephen"'s ass) could give them their props: they were certainly to be respected, especially given that they survived the late 70s and early 80s with their principles (if not all their band members) intact. From my dispassionate viewpoint, Jerry obviously walked like he talked it, which is always good in a cultural icon. And if a bad diet, alcohol, drugs or whatever eventually got him, I guess its kind of the price, isn't it?
Hey, at least he went out on top, unlike that poor bastard Bob Stinson, who will be remembered at best as a footnote. Despite the fact he co-founded one of my most favorite bands ever, The Replacements, Stinson's death that really didn't affect me all that much either. It wasn't like I was expecting anything from him ever again anyways. Yet, 'mats fans are, in their own crazy way, not all that different from Deadheads -- we also lived for the transcendent musical moment. It was just a different type of music, and thus, a different type of moment, that's all.
Still, The Dead were unique, and love them or hate them, they were an important band in the history of rock and roll. Not as important as you're going to hear in the next few days, but certainly not old irrelevant, hippies whose time had come and gone too many years ago -- which you're also gonna hear in the next few days. For of their considerable musical charms, they were far more important to rock and roll culturally and socially than they were musically. That's why this is for sure the most newsworthy rock death of the year, and certainly since, well, you know . . .
Their importance, to me, comes from the fan culture that sprung up around them, and passed from person to person, at first as almost secret knowledge, and eventually as a identifiable cultural phenomenom. By that time, the band didn't even understand it, they just did what they always did -- make a lot of music, and tried to make everybody was treated as well as possible. Pretty laudable ideals, and -- until this last tour at least -- they'd been pretty much met. Good for them.
One of the weird paradoxes of their fandom is that for a 60's-indentified band, they were one of the bands that adapted best to cyberspace. Not for any futuristic reasons, but for the simple fact that their ideals of community translated quite nicely to places like the Well or Usenet. That and the fact that both the Dead and cyberculture are centered in the Bay Area, where Jerry's death is making screaming headlines and extensive TV news coverage. And since I was online at the time I heard about it, I ditched Pat Buchanan's web page (which was just as well because I suddenly was fighting the urge to shout U!S!A!, U!S!A! U!S!A!) and headed -- like a lot of people -- towards rec.music.gdead to see the commentary. And when I got there, I could literally see the explosion his death caused.
Really: One second it's all talk about concerts and taping and trading and then WHAM! with a post entitled "Is it true?" a line has been drawn and instantly their universe has been changed forever. Suddenly, nothing else matters except for Jerry's death. I know what that's like -- it happened to me last year when my friend Kirk called with the news about Kurt's fast suicide, or several years ago, when I walked into a club only to find out that my once and future drinking buddy, Manny Diez of the Miss Alans, had been in a motorcycle wreck and wasn't expected to live. Shit, of course, happens, not necessarily directly to you, but to things or people you care about, and instantly, your life is jerked to a different track. Forever.
I'll betcha that's the way a lot of Deadheads will feel about today when they look back at it 6 weeks, months or years from now, and suddenly realize that the nature of their fandom, and with it, the nature of their lives irrevocably changed with the news of Jerry's death. There is no going back to the way things were. Just as when Kurt killed himself, or even when Manny had his motorcycle accident.
Manny lived, thank you very much. The motorcycle accident was jesus! back in 1988, but his life, the band's life, and the lives of those of us who hung around the band were never quite the same. Not necessarily worse, mind you: their music actually got tougher -- and to my ears -- better after his recovery, as if to say "we don't wanna fuck up this second chance." And they lasted another 6 « years, finally breaking up a few months ago. Which is something else I've gotta sort of deal with: besides my parents, The Miss Alans really were my last link with the life I had in Fresno before I moved here last year.
And with their breakup, that life is really over -- no more excuses to go back there just to see them play and get shitfaced drunk and dance myself into a sweaty, spinning circle, mouthing the words to songs I'd known for years and generally acting like an idiot.. Which was good, fun, cathartic, and necessary. I was a friend and a fan, and they were a very real part of my life for a very long time. And now that part of my life is over. Goodbye. For keeps. Forever. Despite the fact that I have nearly a decade's worth of good memories, it's kinda of weird to sit here and know that I'll never dance like that again. That it's o-v-e-r.
Like the Dead. This is something that some Deadheads will never come to terms with, but hey, like the man said, it was a long, strange trip. And from my vantage point, it looked like a pretty good one. So Deadheads, celebrate the fact that you got to take the trip in the first place. And my condolences to Jerry Garcia's blood relatives, extended family, and any fans his music has touched over the years. Peace.
This space is available for advertising. I am so ready to sell out to corporate America for some decent money. But not as much this week.
Previous | Next
Back to my Writing Home Page
This rant written on 09 August, 1995.