Listening to the Grateful Dead, and to America

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50 years ago today, the Warlocks, later to become the Grateful Dead, play their first gig together at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor, 639 Santa Cruz Avenue, Menlo Park.

Much has been written about this band, and know up front I’m a Deadhead (how would I know about today if I wasn’t, right?). It’s fashionable to look askance or even down on the Dead and the entire hippie ethos as a bunch of woozy stoners, but that’s far off the mark. The Dead were serious and careful about their art, but they also had that spark-of-genius spontenaity that drove some of their best performances. This is a band that, while tight with one another, would come onstage in their early years without a set list. They’d start to play and follow the moment, and their musicianship (okay, they couldn’t sing all that well, but most rock bands wouldn’t have cut it at La Scala, either) would carry them along.

More importantly, if you actually listened, you realized you were listening to America. The Dead’s music melded blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, bluegrass, country, and rock ‘n’ roll into a sound that is unmistakeable. They also had the kind of optimistic, try-anything energy that, wrapped around around the music itself produced the stuff of legends, Walt Whitman with electric guitars.

Sometimes, they’d miss the mark. Every band has off nights. But when they were on, as they were far more often than not, they were incandescent, transcendent. Moreover, that feeling didn’t stay onstage; it poured over and through the audience.

I remember seeing them live in Maine in 1980, and just before they came onstage, some guys were pushing and shoving to get to the front, and two of them looked like they were about to come to blows. A young woman just in front of them turned and smiled and said, “hey, this is a Grateful Dead concert.” The two guys looked at each other and kinda went, “yeah, she’s right,” and that was the end of it.

As for looking down on hippies, well, despite all the stumbling and wrong turns, I’ll take that vision over a whole lot else I’ve come across these 60+ years. If we didn’t completely succeed, perhaps that’s because we were outnumbered by people who didn’t want to try to get past where they were. But the vision keeps popping up, sometimes when we need it most, as with the whole Occupy movement, that ragtag gaggle that got the world talking about economic inequality. It’s always too soon to give up hope, and that’s what it was about in the first place.

Thanks, Dead, for everything. The road goes ever on . . .

Later,

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