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.