Uncle Skullfucker’s Band: Daniel Chamberlin explains the discreet charm of the Grateful Dead

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Daniel Chamberlin explains the discreet charm of the Grateful Dead. Illustrations by D.C. Berman.

Originally published in the July 2004 issue of Arthur, which is currently available for purchase in our online store. Click here to check it out.

I’M NOT ALLOWED TO WEAR TIE-DYED CLOTHING. My girlfriend and those friends of mine who truly have my best interests at heart forbid it. For most people this is an obvious and easy style rule to adhere to. But during certain times of the year I am overwhelmed by the Grateful Dead. I listen to nothing but live recordings of Dead concerts while immersing myself in books detailing the minutiae of their 30-year career. I search through David Dodd’s “Annotated Grateful Dead Lyric Archive,” reading up on the roots of “Fennario,” a made-up world of timber forests and treacherous marshland mentioned in two of my favorite songs, “Dire Wolf” and “Peggy-O.” Judging from the number of Dead recordings in my collection one can draw an easy conclusion that I am a certifiable Deadhead.

This is a problem because alongside New Age or contemporary country, “Grateful Dead” is a genre of music with acknowledged questionable merits. This has something to do with the schizophrenic quality of said music: the May 14, 1974 “Dark Star” performed in Missoula, Montana sounds like “In A Silent Way” as interpreted by Sonic Youth but nearly every performance of “Lazy Lightnin’” sounds like coke-snorting yuppies getting funky in tie-dyed Izods. The Dead toured with both Love and Waylon Jennings in the ‘70s but were collaborating with Bruce Hornsby and Joan Osborne by the ‘90s. I hear their influence on classic Meat Puppets and latter-day Boredoms albums, but their official inheritors are cornball bands like The String Cheese Incident and Phish. They count among their fans legions of Hell’s Angels as well as Tipper and Al Gore. There are a lot of ways to listen to the Grateful Dead. As legendary concert promoter and longtime Dead booster Bill Graham once put it, “They’re not the best at what they do, they’re the only ones that do what they do.”

Mostly though, the Dead’s bad reputation is due to their fans. My latent Deadheadism causes my girlfriend to worry that at a certain point of saturation, she’ll come home from work to find me reeking of patchouli oil, clad in vibrant pajama bottoms and a tank top decorated with capering bears, my dilated pupils being the only reason I haven’t yet found something to juggle. “Fukengrüven, sister!” I’ll say as she comes through the door.

My most recent Grateful Dead binge kicked off when Islamic militants decapitated Nicholas Berg on the Internet. Oh yeah. No more NPR for me. Instead, a free-falling relapse into this December 26, 1969 Dead show at Southern Methodist University. Drummer Bill Kreutzmann is late getting to the venue, so Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir lay down this sublime acoustic set of murder ballads and old Christian folk songs that they refer to as “sacred numbers.” It’s the only known recording of their version of “Gathering Flowers for the Master’s Bouquet,” which is really something to be excited about for a closet Deadhead like me. The show provides a wonderful escape—the Dead always seem so detached from reality and that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

I was looking for a similar kind of escape in 1991 while en route to my first Grateful Dead show. I wanted to see if the Deadheads might offer a more organic, hedonistic alternative to the existentialist discomfort of my central Indiana high school experience.

My friend Jeremy’s ancient brown Cutlass Sierra didn’t have any air conditioning. He and I sat sweating on its stained tan upholstery as the soft fabric that lined its cabin ceiling sagged like the belly of an obese cat. There was a hole in this ceiling liner through which his passengers had squirreled little pieces of trash and souvenirs of high school pranks: cigarette butts, Taco Bell sauce packets, fully-expanded tampons.

Jeremy was my first friend with a car—he was a senior in high school, I was a sophomore—and he played chauffeur for many of the relatively mundane adventures that characterized my teenage years. Examples given: Skating clandestinely at the loading dock of a Wal-Mart. Watching obscure hardcore bands play at the Broad Ripple Community Center. Driving in circles around a Bob Evans restaurant until perplexed waitresses gathered at the windows to watch us. It was on one such trip to a hole-in-the-wall punk rock record store that Jeremy purchased the Meat Shits tape we were listening to that hot June afternoon as we sat in a sea of traffic outside the Deer Creek Amphitheater. This Meat Shits album had 666 individual songs. Their music and their photocopied album art were comprised of cut-and-pasted shards of pornographic imagery, guitar noise and obscene lyrics. Though secretly I was growing to love the Dead, I publicly declared their music to be drippy psychedelic glop. This Meat Shits album, this was where it was at.

Jeremy was a Dead fan, though I don’t know that he would’ve called himself a Deadhead. His car’s bumper was covered with punk stickers—Ramones, Misfits, anti-war slogans—but a skeleton wearing a crown of roses was plastered on the back window. He thought the Dead were a good acid rock band, no more no less. We didn’t have tickets to the show; we were just going to wander amid the freaks in the parking lot scene outside.

From what I could tell from my public high school classmates, if you liked the Grateful Dead, you were most likely a drug addict. There were probably a few Deadheads who didn’t spend their free time tracking down pot dealers or dropping acid during gym class. But the quintessential Deadhead for me was a lanky, mullet-sporting fellow with the nickname “101.” The handle came from his claim that he was well-versed in “one hundred and one homemade ways to get high.” Over lunch he would regale me with tales of huffing gasoline in his garage, emerging hours later with .22-caliber rifle in hand. He would then take up position in his backyard in order to defend it from an onslaught of talking gophers. These hallucinations were often unfortunate squirrels or neighborhood cats. Backyard safely defended, 101 would head inside, get busy with some model airplane glue and settle in for reruns of “The Jeffersons.”

“But 101,” I’d ask, “what’s so great about watching TV after sniffing glue?”

“Because when you’re high,” he would reply, “the Jeffersons come out of the TV and watch their show with you, dude.”

Sometime during my junior year 101 stopped coming to school. The rumor, circulated by his friend Matt, was that he had stolen his parents’ credit cards and their car and high-tailed it to Florida. Nobody ever heard from him again.

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Matt was in my chemistry class and sat across the table from me with his lab partner, Donovan. Together they would amuse themselves during lectures by grabbing large beakers and holding them up to their mouths, inhaling make-believe bong hits. It was funny the first day or two, but by the second semester the joke seemed more like a junkie’s force-of-habit. It was Donovan who gave me my first taste of Grateful Dead music. He was a nice guy and when he wasn’t passed out on his desk he could be quite funny. He was also from Australia, and in the cultural melting pot of central Indiana his shade of vanilla qualified as exotic.

My conservative Christian upbringing translated into a sort of straight-laced teenage rebellion characterized by Morrissey’s paeans to celibacy and the militant asceticism preached by Ian MacKaye and Minor Threat. I wasn’t straight-edge, but I didn’t do drugs or have a girlfriend. I spent a lot of time listening to music about not-drinking and not-fucking instead. My horizons were starting to broaden a bit by my sophomore year though, and eventually a pot-smoking anarchist punk floated me a Throbbing Gristle tape.

In its myriad forms—sinister electronic ambience, perverted synth-pop, grating industrial noise—Throbbing Gristle’s music is characterized by deviant sexual behavior, outer limits drug use and radical challenges to notions of identity and morality. Listening to songs like “Slug Bait” and “United” on headphones was the most psychedelic experience I’d ever had. Given what I knew of the Grateful Dead—free-lovin’, acid-eatin’ hippie freaks who liked to think about weird shit—I figured I could turn Donovan on to some TG while he could turn me on to the GD. I swapped my copy of Throbbing Gristle’s Greatest Hits for his copy of the Grateful Dead’s one studio masterpiece, American Beauty, and went home for the weekend.

Maybe it was the fl uttering, disorienting monotone vocals of “Hamburger Lady,” a Throbbing Gristle song about a burn victim. Or perhaps it was head Gristle Genesis P-Orridge screaming insults over the sickly synthesizer drag of “Subhuman” that harshed Donovan’s mellow. He returned the cassette with a sad shake of his head. “No thanks dude. I don’t know how you listen to that stuff.” Donovan, a veteran of more than his fair share of Hoosier acid tests, had pegged Throbbing Gristle as the bad trip music that it is. He was not interested in trading any more tapes with me.

In contrast, I went home that weekend and fell in love with American Beauty. “Box of Rain” and “Ripple” joined Crass, the Smiths and Public Enemy on the soundtrack to my morning ride to school. I lived in the country surrounded by miles of cornfields so I was thrilled to hear country music— juicy, psychedelic country music—made by people who weren’t shit-kicking rednecks. In particular I was enamored with “Sugar Magnolia,” a song the Dead played live 576 times. It’s basically a shameless fantasy about some dude and his luscious hippie vixen girlfriend riding around an idyllic backcountry in a vintage Willys Jeep. The two stop to have “high times” and then proceed to “discover the wonders of nature / rolling in the rushes down by the riverside.” Throbbing Gristle was a great band to listen to while nursing grudges against bullying jocks, slow-witted teachers or curfew-enforcing parents. But The Grateful Dead were beyond all of that. They sounded like an escape to the way I wanted things to be.

“When I think of the Grateful Dead, I think of a flag and I think of a rose and I think of a steak and I think of a gun,” said Richard Loren, a former Dead manager, in Carol Brightman’s Sweet Chaos: The Grateful Dead’s American Adventure. “I think of the West and I think of consciousness expansion. I think of irreverence and anarchy and I think of something pure.” I heard all of these things in American Beauty. But when I thought of the Grateful Dead I also thought of 16-year-old burnouts flunking chemistry class and gas-huffing drug addicts shooting cats. When punk friends made the switch to Deadhead, they sold me their Fall and Naked Raygun tapes for what I assumed was drug money, given their new logy disposition. I was heading with Jeremy to the parking lot scene at the Dead show looking to replace these associations with the ideal that Loren was talking about.

I looked everywhere for this enlightened hippie archetype: From the bedraggled column of burnouts marching alongside the traffic jam outside the amphitheater to the extensive marketplace of black-light artwork, grilled cheese sandwiches and juggling paraphernalia within the parking lot. Initially I took the offers of hits, ‘shrooms, X and weed to mean I was one of the group, that people trusted me. After an hour or two of this, Jeremy and I were thinking about returning next year and muttering “hits, hits, hits” with a hammer in hand. As the band started playing, Jeremy proclaimed loudly that he had a “pocket full of miracles”— Deadhead jargon for free tickets—and we were instantly surrounded by desititute hippies awaiting a handout. Then he dug into his pockets, and punchlined, “Whoops, I guess I left them in another pair of pants.” It was pure cruelty, and a fitting end to our day: if we weren’t going to join in with the Deadheads we could at least mask our disappointment with a laugh at their expense, and maybe incite a Deadhead riot—whatever that means.

Though OG Deadheads were forwarding similar complaints regarding the rampant drug use among newcomers to the scene, there were just as many first-generation hippies mesmerized by the massed tie-dye. The fact that they were sober didn’t make it any more acceptable. As my girlfriend remarked years later, while perusing a copy of Grateful Dead: The Illustrated Trip: “These people just don’t look very sharp.” She was looking at a photo of a group of dazed girls dressed in strange linen smocks, strung-out members of some Holly Hobby-worshipping cult. A few pages later a guy in breezy purple hemp pants juggles oranges with a slack-jawed grin. As nice as many of these folks were and as much fun as they seemed to be having, I just couldn’t ally myself with such a coalition of day-tripping frat boys, full-time acid casualties and wide-eyed naifs with rainbows painted on their faces. There seemed to be no common ground between the Deadheads and myself.

And back then, you had to have common ground with Deadheads in order to get in to the wondrous world of Grateful Dead tapes: complete historical documents of nearly every step the band took in its live evolution, some of them flawless professional jobs, others a delicate collage of audience recordings and soundboard patches. It’s a process that was started by Owsley “Bear” Stanley—also responsible for birthing the oft-reviled groovin’ Dead bear iconography as well as being the most bad-ass LSD-chemist of the ‘60s and ‘70s—the Dead’s early sound engineer.

With the exception of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, the Dead’s studio albums suck pale compared to the live recordings, so if you aren’t initiated into this circle of traders, you’re missing out on what the band is really about. Just talking about it makes you a Deadhead. It’s the one undeniably cool thing about the band: They openly encouraged their fans to record and trade live recordings of their shows, more than two decades before online file-sharing existed. But, since I could hardly stand the company of Deadheads, making the connection into the world of Dead tapes was difficult. The hippies I met at college were no more interested in swapping Nurse With Wound tapes than Donovan was down for further investigations into Throbbing Gristle.

This problem was solved when I found deadshow.com in 1999 and started listening to streaming concerts and eventually downloading them from sites like archive.org. Only by avoiding actual Deadheads was I able to become a Deadhead. The world of Dead shows online allows me to explore the Grateful Dead on my own terms. Most Deadheads only kill the buzz, their interpretation of the band being a far cry from the fantasy world they represent for me.

I actually tried to see the Dead once. I purchased a ticket to a show in June of 1995. Since it was in Chicago, a good four-hour drive from where I was living at the time in southern Indiana, I backed out the day before and sold the ticket. I couldn’t take that much time riding in a car full of enthusiastic Deadheads. It was the last show the Grateful Dead would ever play. Jerry Garcia died two months later on August 9, 1995.

The one tribe of Deadheads who beat the rule live in Humboldt County in far Northern California. Mostly in their 40s and 50s, they probably don’t identify themselves as Deadheads. It’s just that their rural lifestyle—whether they’re pot farmers, wood carvers, schoolteachers, retired bikers or the crackpot tinkers behind the World Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race [See Mr. Chamberlin’s detailed report on the latter, “A Slow, Strange and Grueling Thing”, in Arthur’s March, 2004 issue—Ed.]—seems to be lived in accordance with the sound of the Dead. It’s a revision of Manifest Destiny, a psychedelic Americana with Walt Whitman and Neal Cassady taking the place of Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett at its core. It’s about as patriotic as I get these days, but it feels really good when it happens.

For me, the Grateful Dead were pretty much over at the end of the ‘70s. The zeitgeist had passed to a new generation. All Deadhead-phobic Dead fans have rules for listening to the band—this appreciation of certain periods versus unquestioning acceptance of all Dead material seems to be part of what distinguishes them—and mine are pretty simple. Like other avant-garde guitar fans, I love a good “Dark Star”; like other hipster country music disciples I dig the Dead’s covers of George Jones’ Don Rollins’ “The Race Is On” [author’s correction, 9/13/04: Though “The Race Is On” is sometimes attributed to Jones, the song was actually written by Don Rollins. Thanks to Rollins’ niece for catching my mistake.] and Johnny Cash’s “Big River” as well as psych-country originals like “Loser” and “Jack Straw.” My favorite years are 1969 and 1974. I just can’t listen much past 1977. At this point, the Dead made a crucial decision. They went funky disco and dissed punk rock. The unintentionally saccharine results aside, this can be seen as an admirable decision. They’d spent their career covering blues and R&B standards and combining rustic folk with jazz-inspired improvisation. By exploring funk and disco they seemed to want to engage with African-American musical traditions rather than treat them as a static historical base. But the music was really terrible.

By the time the ‘60s generation had grown up and moved to the suburbs, electing Reagan to two terms as president, the Dead—in all their apolitical, hedonistic splendor—seemed to embody all the failings of that lionized era. Their success made them easy points of derision for young cynics like me. To make matters worse, their most conspicuous followers in the ‘90s—Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Hootie and the Blowfish—were the adult-contemporary and/or frat-party soundtrack antithesis of everything interesting in music.

I didn’t see the Grateful Dead in concert, but when I saw fellow ‘60s survivor Neil Young touring with Sonic Youth and Social Distortion in 1991, I understood that just because you get old doesn’t mean you have to lose touch. This happens all the time: think of Bob Dylan inviting Jack White onstage in Detroit a few months ago for the Dylan band’s cover of “Ball and Biscuit.” Besides the quote from Richard Loren about how the Dead sound like guns, roses, meat and freedom, it’s Dylan’s eulogy for Garcia that reminds me what I like about being a Deadhead. That even though the Deadheads I knew in my youth had more time for drugs than obnoxious contemporary counterculture, there was something for me to identify with in a band that tried to call their 1971 live album Skullfuck. On to Dylan on Garcia: “He is the very spirit personified of whatever is muddy river country at its core and screams up into the spheres. He really had no equal . . . There are a lot of spaces and advances between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly, and, say, Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without being a member of any school.”

Or in other words, “Thank You Jerry.”

13 thoughts on “Uncle Skullfucker’s Band: Daniel Chamberlin explains the discreet charm of the Grateful Dead

  1. Pingback: How to Get Into the Grateful Dead (originally pub’d in Arthur No. 18/Sept 2005) | ARTHUR MAGAZINE - WE FOUND THE OTHERS

  2. “Only by avoiding actual Deadheads was I able to become a Deadhead.” It was always like that even as it happened. Fabulous piece – thanks indeed!

  3. An amazing picture you have painted… Brings back my own memories when the “Dead” were introduced to me… I happened to be @ a Deer Creek Amphitheater show during which the parking lot crowd stormed the amphitheater fence surrounding the lawn! Actually ripping it apart as the band played on!… A surreal event to begin with, a “Dead” show, suddenly spiraled out of control even more… Hard to believe I survived the 90’s.

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  8. I am not sure if Robert Hunter could have said it any better! great article and all so damn true. To be perfectly frank, I think the band was always pretty ambilvalent towards the whole Deadhead enclave no matter the platitudes they felt they had to dish out. Ryan Adams, love him or hate him, once said, “I always thought the Grateful Dead were Punk as Fuck”

    PS. I love that December 69 show in which Billy is late showing up, a real hidden gem.

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  10. Pingback: How to Get Into the Grateful Dead (originally pub’d in Arthur No. 18/Sept 2005) | Arthur Magazine

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