Blair’s Golden Road Blog - “I’d Love to Turn You On…”
by Blair Jackson
No, not that way. That’s a topic for another time, for sure. But this week I want to talk about the challenges, perils and triumphs of trying to turn friends on to the Grateful Dead.
In my own case, I had an older brother with hip musical tastes who brought home Aoxomoxoa some time in the summer of 1969. I gave it a few spins but wasn’t that impressed. I loved “St. Stephen” immediately and “China Cat” and “Mountains of the Moon” grew on me, but frankly the album didn’t compel me to listen to it much. Still, the word on the street in ’69 was: “You gotta see the Dead in concert, man!” When Live Dead came out that November, I was intrigued that it had so few songs spread over four sides. I was a huge fan of long guitar solos and assumed the paucity of songs meant there was probably a ton of jamming on it. And there was “St. Stephen” kicking off Side Two, so I plunked down my five bucks (double-album price) at the nearby E.J. Korvette’s store (where I bought most of my records) and took that baby home.
It was love at first spin. I practically wore out the first three sides of Live Dead the first few months I had it (it took me a while to get into Side Four, with “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and “Feedback”). I bought Anthem of the Sun shortly after that and was nuts about it, too. In March of ’70, I finally got to see the band at the newly refurbished Capitol Theatre in Port Chester — half an hour up the road from my suburban Westchester County, NY, hometown— and that was my first exposure to the warm and intoxicating unreleased songs from Workingman’s Dead. That night profoundly changed my life, and then Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty and my first Dead shows at the Fillmore East sealed the deal and set me on a course that has led me here, still championing the Dead, 42 years later.
The Dead hooked me so hard I naturally wanted to share my passion with my good friends. In those days, my neighborhood pals and I spent countless hours in my basement listening to records; it’s what we did for fun. Unfortunately, none of my immediate crowd liked the Dead. I played them everything I could think of to try to convert them, but for some reason it just didn’t stick. No doubt I was obnoxiously passionate about it, a musical zealot trying to win followers to his cause. After a while I was effectively banned from playing Grateful Dead records in my own basement when my buddies were around! That was OK—there were loads of other groups we all loved, and I also had no problem spending hours alone listening to the records I loved best, my head between the two speakers on my cheap stereo setup, my trippy homemade light box flashing color patterns on the white sheet I put up on one wall.
When I headed off to Northwestern U. in the fall of ’71, I found a few kindred spirits who were into San Francisco rock on my dorm floor in Elder Hall and we bonded immediately and enjoyed many spirited adventures together. But we also encountered considerable hostility from people who hated the Grateful Dead. We used to have little record wars, where I might be blasting Live Dead, “Skull & Roses” or Quicksilver’s Happy Trails, and my annoying (and annoyed) neighbors two doors down the hall would retaliate by cranking up Emerson Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull or Yes. It was acid rock vs. prog rock in a fight to the deaf, and it drove the pre-med freshmen who wanted to study for their organic chemistry tests crazy.
A couple of years later I moved to Berkeley to complete my undergraduate degree, and at last I felt like I’d found a place where I wouldn’t be ridiculed for liking the Dead. After all, the Bay Area was crawling with Dead Heads. But as I quickly learned, there are Dead haters everywhere, and by the late ’70s I’d heard all the anti-Dead arguments a million times—they can’t sing, their songs are weird, they’re boring (“What’s with the all that aimless noodling?) hippies are passé, yada yada. After a certain point I decided to stop proselytizing, figuring if this person or that was “meant” to get into the Dead, it would happen without my urging.
Even so, I had a number of experiences—particularly in the ’80s—urging non-Dead Head acquaintances to check out shows at cool places like the Greek in Berkeley or Kaiser in Oakland. Unfortunately, if they were sitting with me, I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about whether they were having a good time or bored stiff (I’d think, “Why is she just sitting there?”) or baffled. It was better when I didn’t have to actually be with them. I could deal with their often odd opinions — favorite song was “C.C. Rider”; went on a bathroom run and completely missed the “Terrapin”; left after “space” because it was a work night — much better a day or two later over the phone. “Yeah, whatever. I agree — the Dead aren’t for everyone,” I’d say.
Playing tapes for the uninitiated in a car (a captive environment!) was tricky because, well, a lot of the singing was bad, and there were clams and blown transitions and that “Uncle John’s Band” — a song they might know — didn’t sound nearly as good to them as the version they’d heard on Workingman’s Dead. And no one but a hardcore Head wants to hear an audience recording of a live show: “What’s wrong with the sound?” Even with a great-sounding tape it became a guessing game: They’ll probably like “Bertha” (everyone likes “Bertha”), but the “Black-Throated Wind” that comes next is kinda strange and that Pigpen “Good Lovin’” goes on for 17 minutes, and if you’re talking more than listening in the car, it’s a slog. Better to play something everyone can agree on — Graceland!
Now we’re 17 years down the line from there even being a Grateful Dead in the world, but new people are still discovering them all the time. Hooray! How does that happen today? I find that I have no better idea these days of how to turn somebody on to the Dead than I did when I was a pushy teenage acolyte. Are Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty still a reliable gateway? For some, no doubt—so many of those songs are bona fide classics. Would a dynamite ’77 show flick the switch in someone? What if I made a mix-CD (or iPod playlist) of carefully selected tunes from different eras? Can I expect someone to listen to two or three CDs worth of material? (Probably not.) Is a flowing ’69 “Dark Star” more palatable to the non-fan than a dissonance-filled ’72 epic? Or should we wait to spring “Dark Star” on them later? It’s hard to go wrong with a zippy “Scarlet-Fire” or “China-Cat-Rider,” but can they make it through “Stella Blue”? Would taking someone to a Furthur or Phil & Friends or RatDog show provide a good entry point to the Dead universe? Is a consciousness-altering agent of some sort required?
What’s been your experience? What do you do when you want to introduce someone to the Grateful Dead? What has worked and what didn’t.
I have a black partner/roommate who is also a musician and piano player. She can play everything but concentrates on jazz. She mostly rolls her eyes when I start talking about the Dead, and her main prejudice is that it is about a bunch of WHITE people high on drugs. I think it is interesting that the crowd at Dead concerts were mostly white. However, in this day and age, there are so many interracial relationships that the youngsters are racially mixed and who can tell what race they are. But I continue to wonder why the Dead were never really embraced by the black community. I did read a comment by Miles Davis that he enjoyed opening for the Dead and particularly the different audience that he encountered. In general I still enjoy turning people onto the Dead and it almost always involves going to see a live Furthur concert. Then there are the joys of hearing a song in concert and then going back to the album to compare and be amazed at what you now hear that you hadn't heard on first listening. Prime example " King Solomon's Marbles" or the end of Terrapin Station which has been brought back by Furthur that I really dig. But you need a good sound system and maybe a little bud...
I look back on high school.
I was attempting to get my best friend into the Dead for years on end. I had found the answers to everything I was seeking in the music, and I thought "if I can get just one more person to wake up to this music..." Actually, the Dead were like the finger pointing at the moon for me, but that is another story. They showed me where to look, what to recognize.
At any rate, for a few years, I struggled to get this one friend into the music, and he just wouldn't budge. I brought him to 12.27.91 in Oakland, and the show failed to inspire me. I brought him to 12.19.93, and although I was moved, we managed to go to the car at setbreak so he could get his walkman and listen to New Order on his headphones while watching Candice's light show to the compelling Scarlet->Fire that evening.
This went on for quite a while. I ran into him in the halls of the old Coliseum on 12/12/94, but he still didn't get it.
And then one day, things changed. I had taught him about chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, and one morning, he decided of his own volition to chant. That day, he was at a fair with his girlfriend, and she left him, yet he felt happy rather than sad, and, as he explained to me, the only thing different that day was that he had tried chanting.
He went home that evening, and decided to listen to some Grateful Dead, beginning with the Scarlet->Fire from 12/17/92. He got it. He began a tape collection, and confided in me that if I'd given him the China Cat->Rider from Without a Net right from the start, I might have converted him outright. Other favorites: the Sugar Magnolia from 3/27/88 that unfolds like a flower in psychedelic bloom.
Another story; a friend who is a great drummer. He couldn't understand my obsession for many years with this one band. He found it a bit strange, as non-dead heads do. I'd play him some music and it wouldn't make much of an impression.
We were in a group together and we did a mini tour, and he rode in my car. He didn't really enjoy the GD I played on the way up the coast, but one night, after the tour ended, he borrowed the car and heard the 11/11/73 Dark Star on his own while driving around. He got it. He told me that he probably needed to hear it on his own, and his appreciation kicked in, in that he could really hear what was going on (all those fine details).
Hell, I recall the first time I got high, and my friend that day had asked me to get him into the Grateful Dead, so I played him the 3/29/90 Dark Star, creating pretty much an enemy for life. On the other hand, my tastes have become a bit more empathetic, to an extent. I don't try to convert friends to the grateful dead. I don't try to mystify the music. It's damn good music, when the band is on, and the function of the drummer(s) can be so different than in ordinary rock and roll that many people just don't know how to relate.
When my drummer joined my GD-related project, what convinced him to jump on board was hearing about Mickey Hart's roots as the youthful rudimentary drumming champion who beat his own father in competition.
I recall Mickey declaring at an event some many years ago that he is the guy who made the guitarists great. At the time, I thought it was total arrogance, but if you listen to the brilliant "I Know You Rider" from 5/2/70, it is Mickey with the metronome strict mentoring drum in the back ground conveying this profound confidence into the environment.
Listening to 6/16/90 Estimated->Terrapin->Jam... from Shoreline Amphitheater, you can really hear how Grateful Dead music exists in its own universe. No other jam band has ever created a sound that compares. The drums pulse from within, rather than laying an obvious groove telling everyone where to play. In this sense, the Grateful Dead are masters of rhythm, creating their own musical vocabulary, their own language, their own way of doing things.
IN each case (even with my wife: post drumz 3/15/90), it's what they heard when I wasn't around that got them excited, saying "this is the kind of Grateful Dead that I like."
Sometimes it takes people awhile to really understand the Grateful Dead so that they will love them as much as current fans do. Most people love the classic music but others thing it is too old.
The Grateful Dead is a controlling band whose music has been popular for many years and everyday more people are coming to love all their music.
I rarely if ever try to turn the uninitiated on to the Dead.
It's too low-percentage of a proposition. Back in the day, I'd be more willing, but in today's musical climate, the boys really are avant garde music, the polar opposite of commerical sounds.
Me and another D-Head were friends with these aging punk rockers who I just knew wouldn't get into them. My friend nonetheless tried and the punkers reactions were predictable.
"Well, like, if we were really high, this might sound good, but ..."
Point proved and case closed.
The Dead ain't for everybody.
You either get them or you don't.
Wow, thanks for turning me on to some great 80s tapes I hadn't heard before. I am really digging Swing 12-12-80.
Took m'buddy, Zaff to his 1st show on 10-15-83 in Hartford (China/Rider, Playin> kooky jam>(hauntingly beautiful) China Doll D/S> STEPHEN!> Throwin Stones>Sat Nite// Brokedown (Beautifully soulfully sang & played by our man). Zaff went into the show thinkin he was going to just another "rock concert"; came out and says to me kinda in a hushed tone and secretly: "Eags, when's the next show -- wherever it is, let's just drive to it" . . . and he knew nothing, absolutely zilch about traveling deadheads/the scene etc. -- he just got it from the get-go. He's been on the bus ever since and we've gone to many a show together ever since. He knew St. Stephen ahead of time but not many other tunes and was a bit perplexed ;-) (understatement of the century) when the crowd nearly blew the roof off the joint at the first notes of it out of space.
What a first show -- BTW, the next show was the infomous lake plACID show -- we were 17 years old in high school and didn't make it -- aarrrrrggggggg ;-(
Oh well, we made plenty of others after that. Memories seared in the ole noodle forever!
Great topic and posts. Around 1985 the kids down the street swapped some records with me and Grateful Dead live album from 1971 was first thing I heard. I told them, ok hit me with some more. Next it was Dead Set. It started to take off there..those little easy to digest bits of Fire, Franklins and even Space LOL.
They saw they just about had me and next was compilation cassette (still have it) labeled ....Misc. Dead Hot. Mostly early and mid80s live stuff.
You know what grabbed me on that tape? "China Rider" 4-16-83, "Not Fade Away" 12-31-83 and "Eyes" 7-14-84. Then they gave me second set of 7-14-84 and 12-12-80 and 6-15-85.
Pretty soon after I bought Live Dead , American Beauty and Workingmans Dead.
It was on.
P.S. No joke ....check out "Eyes" 7-14-84....tell me that wasn't a brilliant move to give that to a newbie. BEAUTY. Todd Lovins you knew what you were doing!
My dad taught me 'its pigs band' while listening to a show from the 90's or whenever.....as youngster i only played not fade away, only the shows with NFA and only NFA but i always knew dark star was the best. today i start my archive shows with the 2nd set..sometimes..
I recently played the first 3 songs from 5/9/77 for a trippy techno fan for the 1st time and he really dug it..he loves the 7 walkers album.....but then i played a bomb filled furthur show 12/31/11 for a new rock? fan and he said it was alright... i turn to 77 for 1sttimers and NFA, standing on the moon.....
I also ordered the new NRPS along with the Big Brother.
I have been waiting for this ("Live at The Carousel Ballroom 1968") to come out for a couple of years now, ever since I read about it and its hoped-for release on Bear's website. I ordered a copy from Amazon yesterday, along with the new NRPS album. As far as I am aware, Janis' "The Pearl Sessions" will be released on April 17. Mere mortals like me have to wait for the official release whereas Blair seemingly doesn't. More power to him!