I Was Wrong About the Grateful Dead
by Kathryn Jezer-Morton
On August 9th, 1995, Jerry Garcia died, and I was on vacation with my new stepfamily in Provincetown, Cape Cod. It was the summer before eighth grade, probably the apex of my awkward period: oversize t-shirts, assorted yin-yang jewelry, a relentlessly troublesome T-zone.
The mourning Deadhead vibes were surely low-key in P-Town that August when compared to, say, San Francisco or Burlington, VT, but I nonetheless found the avalanche of dead-Jerry merch overwhelming. His lion’s mane silhouette was everywhere, along with the drugged-out anthropomorphic rainbow animals and threadbare lyrics about the long strange trip. I had only the vaguest notion of the music itself, but I was certain, thanks to my dad’s influence, that the Grateful Dead was strictly for intellectual lightweights, hippie poseurs and people who couldn’t be expected to know any better (best described, a few years later, by MC Paul Barman as “smirking jocks with hacky sacks/in Birkenstocks and khaki slacks”).
So I knew the Grateful Dead by their aesthetic halo, not their music, but for me that was all I needed to know they sucked. At 13 I had well-established opinions about music, most of which I’d adopted during the previous two years my dad and I had spent living together in a small cabin on a commune in Southern Vermont. You’d think that would be fertile ground for becoming a massive Deadhead myself, but not with a dad like mine. Not on a commune like this. My taste in music sprang forth, as fully formed as Athena from the forehead of Zeus, and its mandate stated that I would hate the Grateful Dead.
In the cabin I shared with my dad, I slept in a loft above the main room. Shared airspace meant a shared stereo system — my dad’s record player, my dad’s records. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had an excellent collection, mostly jazz from the ’40s through the ’60s. His desert island music at that time was probably side 1 of Count Basie’s April in Paris and side 2 of The Beatles’ Abbey Road.
We listened to a ton of Sinatra too, and Lambert Hendricks and Ross, all the great lady vocalists, Hank Williams, some milquetoasty lefty folk music like The Weavers, and a few original cast recordings from Broadway. My dad’s love for the music we listened to wasn’t casual. He knew all the words to everything, and he would sing along quietly while he was writing at his desk. To this day I have no idea how, neurologically, this was possible. I think one of the reasons he loved his music so much was that he spoke with a severe stutter, but he was perfectly fluent when he sang.
My dad was a very politically active member of the ’60s counterculture and he could not forgive what he perceived as the decadent apolitical stance of the Grateful Dead. Maybe he had a point about that — plenty of other people on the commune agreed with him. But not long after our trip to P-Town, we moved out of the cabin and into town with his girlfriend Arlene and her kids, and I was ready for my life in the ’90s to start. I had my own room with a door and a new 3-disc changer, and No Doubt was about to release Tragic Kingdom.
His influence was weakening. But if there’s any place that’ll ruin jam bands for you forever, it’s a Vermont high school circa 1998. The true believer kids condensed Phish song titles into vanity plates for their old Saab 900s. Formerly athletic and conventionally pretty young girls seemed to age prematurely into crystal-rubbing crones, so strong was their allegiance to the music. Many were the patchwork corduroy pants and single dreadlocks (on white people) tucked behind an ear, accented with a carved wooden bead.
The Phish-heads and Deadheads occupied a very broad swath of the upper social strata. They reliably counted among their ranks one or two hot guys on varsity soccer, a few of the more talented band kids, a handful of lacrosse bros, a posse of beautiful, perfect-skinned girls who all took ballet classes together and made each other hemp necklaces. It’s a strain for me to imagine that, to this day, the self-assured stoners don’t still run shit in Vermont high schools. Part of me hopes they do.
But back then, my high school buddies and I dug in deep against the current. I liked the jam band-lovers fine, but I knew that they possessed a fatal character flaw that made them fundamentally untrustworthy. When a group of jittery Gen-X dudes from town started a pirate radio station, my friend Ted and I both signed up to host our own shows. The first song I ever played on the radio was Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up.” It was a very John Cusack moment for me. I enthusiastically embraced third-wave ska. I self-consciously became a fan of Serge Gainsbourg and the Pizzicato Five. I worked hard to differentiate myself, just as my dad had among the sixties communards.
So when I arrived at Oberlin for college, my musical worldview may have become a little wider, but it was still a fortress. I didn’t altogether trust people who didn’t learn all the lyrics to the music they liked. (I still don’t, but I’m working on it.)
On my hall that first semester lived a pair of roommates whose self-assured coolness rendered me unable to categorize them based on my rigid previously understood people-categories. They were both from the South, both hilarious. Page pinned her hair up with those big clips hairdressers use when they’re sectioning off pieces of your hair, and it looked hot. Andrea watered the plants in their room using menstrual blood from her keeper. They hosted a weekly ladies-only topless tea in their room that I wished I wasn’t too modest to attend. One day, I noticed a message scrawled on the dorm-issued dry-erase board on their door. It read, “The Grateful Dead Is A Really Good Band!”
This possibility had never occurred to me, and the suggestion from Page and Andrea was strong. Did I possess any real data to support my belief that they were not a really good band? I didn’t.
Several years passed. My overall snobbery was eroded. Then I met a guy (spoiler alert: I’m married to him now) eight years older than me who had spent the summers of his high school and college years “on Dead tour,” as they say.
He wisely kept most of his Grateful Dead enthusiasm to himself for the first year or so of our relationship. Maybe it was thanks to the somewhat peripatetic nature of his life at that time, but he didn’t seem to own any of their recordings, and didn’t go in for any of the patches and stickers and T-shirts, so I hardly knew of his love for “the Boys” until we were basically engaged. After I graduated from college we moved in together in New Orleans and he’d sometimes play American Beauty, widely considered the Dead’s best (only good?) studio album, while we drove around getting our bearings in our new town.
In Nick Paumgarten’s wonderful long essay on the Dead’s archives, he writes, “At a certain point, later in the band’s career, the Dead became, especially on the East Coast, a token of entitlement squandered or lightly worn. Consider the preppy Deadhead, in his new Jetta, and his counterpart, the Jewish Deadhead, with his boxes of blank Maxells.” (My husband read this article aloud to me on a 13-hour drive we took to visit his family in far eastern Canada last Christmas.)
My husband fell loosely into the category of “preppy Deadhead,” although without the means; he usually hitched rides between shows. But he didn’t carry any of the trappings of Deadheaditude that I had so long reviled. As I picked up bits and pieces of the band’s lore from him, I found that their appeal has less to do with doing drugs and flopping around in a sea of B.O. and more about Jerry’s interest in early folk music, in the poetry contained in the lyrics of Robert Hunter, and of course the epic life-affirming jams that I had yet to hear.
But mansplanations alone can’t make a person a Deadhead, or anything else. I, devout musical disciple of my dad’s, knew that. I had to spend a lot — a lot — of time listening to live shows on Youtube while working at a series of desk-bound media jobs before I came to my own conclusions. These listening sessions began out of necessity: I needed long-playing music that helped rather than hindered my focus. My gateway jam was the Scarlet Begonias/Fire on the Mountain at the legendary Cornell University Mother’s Day 1977 show. After listening to as much of that show as I could find, I moved on to other shows from that springtime leg of the 1977 tour, and it spiraled out from there. There are multiyear periods that I don’t much like — the ’90s can be a little rough going — but I’ve found that for every horribly diffuse 45-minute version of “Dark Star,” there are twice as many swinging, bittersweet versions of “Sugaree.”
There are thousands and thousands of hours of Grateful Dead to listen to. You can spend years exploring their archive of live shows, burrowing ever deeper into your own little listening-world. You can make time stand still that way if you want to, but I’ve found that the Grateful Dead have accommodated my life’s changes pretty gracefully so far. I’m probably not the first person to remark that getting to know the Dead is kind of like breaking in a pair of, yes, Birkenstocks.
My love for the Dead took me by surprise last summer when I realized I’d been listening to them, exclusively, for hours a day, days on end. At my 30th birthday party last fall, my old friend Ted remarked to me that he had been going through a bit of an unexpected Dead phase himself. “Maybe there’s something about being in our thirties that’s making us interested in connoisseurship,” he said, noting that it’s hard to be a casual Dead listener, that it requires some commitment. Maybe. It’s satisfying to be so averse to something, and have one’s aversion seem to mean so much, and then to simply get over it. Maybe they’re just a really good band.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton is a writer and editor in Montreal.