I started listening to the Grateful Dead sometime in my seventeenth year and saw them live, well a recording anyway, for the first time soon after. I witnessed some amazing shows, had moments of transcendent bliss, and came to understand the pure unadulterated energy of live music when played from deep within the soul. There are a lot of people who don’t like the Grateful Dead. Lost is the community of respectful young Deadheads who understand that there is something more than a “freakshow” happening here. What they don’t understand, what they never once bother to consider, is that it is all about the music. The drugs are part of a culture that birthed the music and this band, but it in no way was meant to define them, or worse, limit them.
But it did. Towards the end, Jerry Garcia‘s heroin addiction had seemingly taken control of both his health and the music, and the Deadheads watched both decline sharply. There were moments of resurrection, fleeting pockets of optimism where it seemed something might re-ignite from the embers of what had once been fiery and bright, but it never took hold. Like a child who grows up to marry someone destructive and violent and finds themselves no longer welcome at family functions, the Dead could find no way to divorce themselves from the runaway train that became their following and redefined who they were to an already misguided public.
It took a mere handful of people, lead by masterful non-leader Jerry Garcia, working on a canvas thirty years long, four-hours-a-jam-every-night wide, to evolve the original sound. And what a sound it was: modest in instrumentation, no “star” vocalists among them, but offering up so richly eclectic a repertoire of American song, such a variable yet transcendent vision, that no group from the Era of Peace and Love has ever surpassed them. This little band was large, it contained multitudes.
So now when I venture back to the land of the Dead–and I often do–in the comfort of my room or through the tiny speakers of my headphones, it’s almost always to the age when I first discovered them before the tidal wave of "the Scene" crashed down upon me.
To their credit, they lasted 30 years. 30 years of improvisational musical exploration. Their sound changed in many ways. I’ve been told by the musically challenged that the Dead were not very good musicians. This is a statement that always astounds me. I am still left awe-inspired by the craftsmanship and pure talent that was the Grateful Dead. Like the greatest jazz musicians, the Dead pulled off something almost alien to most other musicians. But like so much great art, it is often misunderstood by the public at large and brushed off as being a fad or, as it is in this case, having more to do with the scene around it than with the art itself.
As for the Dead’s commercial popularity, the songs that are best known to non-heads are almost always the little ditties, the more hummable tunes, fun, but rarely reflective of the depths the Dead could obtain. But once in a while, those little ditties would explode with bursts of pure energy and joy. The following clip is of one of those ditties. And for those who never saw the Dead as a rock and roll band or who think of Jerry as the overweight, immobile figure he became in his final, most popular years, this rendition of the still timely song, U.S. BLUES, while admittedly rough around the edges, will give you a genuine taste of the deep joy and energy that drew me in and still has a very welcome and warm hold on me. It also shows, in no uncertain terms, that when Jerry was on, so was everyone around him.
Turn it up and enjoy.