Two things have always held me back from embracing the Grateful Dead: their music and their fans.
Their fans aren’t in my face the way they used to be. But with the new documentary Long Strange Trip streaming on Amazon, the Dead are fresh in my mind.
I first encountered the Dead when my family moved from the hip hop streets of Queens, NY to the leafy green suburbs of New Jersey. The ‘burbs were lousy with tie dye, sandals, woven jewelry and hacky sacks. The Grateful Dead were the dominant culture.
The appeal escaped me. I liked the skulls and Robert Crumb cartoon imagery but didn’t understand why anyone would choose ponderous jam music over the dopamine rush of Mötley Crüe or The Sex Pistols (hey, that’s where my head was at in junior high).
Once I graduated college the number of dead fans in my life dropped precipitously. For decades, nothing compelled me to listen to The Dead’s music until I listened to hours of it to write this story.
Jesus, the music sucks. It sucks in a profound, destructive way. I don’t want to give my 13-year-old self too much credit—I’m not proud of the Mötley Crüe thing—but as for the Dead, good instincts, bro. Good call.
I went through their official releases chronologically. A pattern emerged. On one album, they’d tentatively coalesce around a promising idea. Then they’d drive that idea straight into a ditch on the next album.
On their first album, they’re a scruffy, amphetamine-fueled blues rock band. That three-chord mongrel rock pays off diminishing returns over their next two or three albums.
The critical consensus is that The Dead floundered until embracing Americana on Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, so it’s surprising how terrible both of those albums are. Workingman’s Dead is a thought experiment asking “what if the Eagles were somehow even more terrible”? The band is wobbly and uncertain—it’s like a collection of crusty first takes. They sound like slobs who desperately need some tough cigar-chomping producer to tighten them up.
On American Beauty, they at least play like the whole band showed up to rehearsals on time and stayed long enough to learn the songs all the way through. The songwriting levels up a little but the energy drops—there’s nothing as big as the scream at the peak of “St. Stephen”—the trade off doesn’t seem worth it.
But really, they’re too jittery and impatient for country or folk. When they end the Americana experiment with Blues for Allah, it’s a relief. They fare better with fusion jazz. With more rhythmic choices to spazz out on, the band finally tightens up their songwriting and playing. The song “Franklin Tower” has a catchy chorus (it’s the “roll away the dew” song); a rarity for The Dead. The album’s not all great—”King Solomon’s Marbles” (editor’s note: the original version of this article misstated the name of this terrible song. We regret the error. We also regret ever hearing that song. -a.b.) sounds like a bar band flailing at a King Crimson cover—but it’s the high water-mark of their studio life.
By the time they reach Shakedown Street, their playing has devolved into inept yacht rock. They’re too meek of a sound to be anything but easy listening but too loosely constructed to actually achieve easy listening.
I hate their guitar solos, which is weird because I love me a good guitar solo. Jerry Garcia seems to want to squeeze every dumb note of a scale into all of his melodies. His guitar lines don’t rest or stop. They’re not musical phrases; they’re musical run-on sentences.
And I know I’m not supposed to judge them by studio albums, so I asked Dead fans for recommendations on live albums; the consensus was that 1974 and 1977 were good. They sounded road tested, or as road tested as they ever got. I listened to half a dozen live shows from that era and liked their May 22, 1977 from Pembroke Pines, Florida concert (collected on the live album Dick’s Picks Volume 3) the best. They played with conviction and urgency. It almost sounded like a real band.
Overall, the vocals are the best thing about The Dead, particularly Jerry Garcia’s shaky Neil Young-ish welp. When he’s on solo lead vocals, Bob Weir sounds like a Northern California douchebag who manages a granola co-op and side hustles a fast-pitch softball league, but he harmonizes well.
Even in their finest hour, the band falters more than they stand tall. They can’t perform the most basic job of a pop music band: holding down a groove. They have the worst rhythm section in rock. Their meandering shithead bass player has awful instincts and no help from the band’s two off-time drummers. Neither drummer provides a steady pulse. They take turns falling off the beat and hitting sloppy drum rolls to catch up.
On the May 22, 1977 show they’re tight as hell except for the bass. It’s like a squandered opportunity. Any anonymous studio session hack would have done a better job.
But that aggravating inability to hold down a groove is part of what people like about The Grateful Dead. It’s like the longstanding and often painfully accurate joke about white people don’t and clapping on the wrong beat. There’s no right or wrong beat to clap on The Dead’s music. You get to clap on whatever beat you want. It’s free floating. Like lying on a tube in a gentle stream.
I see how it could feel liberating–the closest I’ve ever come to feeling their vibe was watching Lindsay on Freaks and Geeks slough off the burden of suburban high school sadness swaying to their music. It’s one of my favorite moments in TV history, actually. I get it. That soft, spinning dance represents the absence of stress and structure.
But that absence of structure causes stress for me. That loping rhythm is like facing nicotine withdrawal with a cheap lighter on a windy day. I’m jumping out of my skin with despair, wishing a spark would catch. As an editor, economy is at the heart of my craft. And I believe it’s at the heart of music as well. Thelonious Monk once said “what you don’t play can be more important than what you do.” Listening to The Dead, I wish they took that advice to heart.
I don’t think Grateful Dead fans understand why The Dead’s music is so polarizing. They consider all the notes floating through space to be inviting or relaxing. But it’s the opposite of what I like about music. Life is inherently chaotic and music makes it fleetingly appear to have order. Through rhythm, melody and emotional content, music forces the world to make sense. Hearing these rambling oafs scoff at their responsibility to order the world makes me uneasy.
But hey. At least they’re not as bad as Phish.