Blair’s Golden Road Blog — Rainbows, Unicorns and Picky Dead Heads
by Blair Jackson
We live in a cynical age. Believe it or not, “rainbows and unicorns” is a term that is used pejoratively online to describe that segment of Grateful Dead fans (and those of the post-Garcia bands) who believe that the Dead were, in a sense, beyond criticism. These folks believe that what the Dead did musically, coupled with the experience of being at shows with other Dead Heads was (is) so profoundly positive that it seems somehow unfair to complain about it in any way. They would really prefer you not say a negative word, thank you.
I was that guy for many years. From the time I first saw the band in the spring of 1970, through about 1981, I really didn’t have anything bad to say. Were there songs I didn’t like and times I was a little bored? Absolutely! But I can’t recall ever coming away from a Dead show during that period feeling disappointed. I just loved everything about the band and the scene. Going to Dead shows was Magic Time for me. “Rainbows and unicorns” isn’t exactly an apt description of what my Grateful Dead worldview was — I was more “lightning and dragons” — but I felt a kinship with the utopian idealists who believed that the Dead environment could be a paradigm for a New Age, even with the hustlers and hucksters and burnouts and shady types who were always part of the scene.
And that never changed for me. I never took the Grateful Dead experience for granted. It always remained Magic Time for me — even when the shows became something less than consistently magical the last couple of years. What changed, though, is that sometime in the early ’80s I encountered — and soon became —“ANOTHER PICKY DEADHEAD” (as a bumper sticker of the time said).
Two things happened in the early ’80s that fostered the rise of the PDH: 1) More and more people went on tour, seeing multiple shows in different cities, along the way becoming more critical about song selection, repeated tunes and such; and 2) Tape collecting exploded, so suddenly fans were making more direct comparisons between, say, the 1980 Dead, and the 1977 or ’69 Dead. Hit four or five or six shows on an ’81 or ’82 tour, and chances are you’d get a few “Lost Sailor-Saints,” “Alabama Getaways” and either “Black Peter,” “Wharf Rat” or “Stella” in the late second set ballad slot. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, of course! The band still mixed up their sets more than any other band on the road (in fact no group was even close in those days), and the fact is, look at almost any earlier era of Dead music — when very few folks toured — and you’d find much more similarity in the song selection from night to night. In ’77, they played “Estimated” at 51 out of 60 shows. In ’71, they played “Casey Jones” and “Sugar Magnolia” almost every night. I didn’t hear anyone complaining about “Row Jimmy” turning up at 61 out of 72 shows in 1973. But by the mid-’80s a significant number of Dead Heads had become jaded.
In my own case, starting my Dead ’zine The Golden Road is what really pushed me down the path of PDH-dom. Before ’84, I had never cared about what the band was playing night to night on tour, much less attempted analyses of trends in the group’s repertoire. It never occurred to me. I went to shows, I had a great time, I went home a better person! Before 1982, though, I also wasn’t going to between 20 and 30 shows a year, so every concert seemed more special, I suppose. I will say, though, that I never compared whatever version of the Dead I was seeing with earlier incarnations I'd enjoyed. I definitely accepted that they were what they were in that present day, not some pale comparison with the Dead of '72 or '77. Because fundamentally, it still hit me the same way.
However, by the mid-'80s for me, it became a game of anticipation: “They opened with ‘Scarlet’ two nights ago, so we probably won’t hear that. We’re about due for another ‘Throwing Stones’ > ‘Not Fade Away’ closer, but I’d rather hear ‘Sugar Mag.’ I can’t believe Bob chose ‘Looks Like Rain’ instead of ‘Playing.’” It wasn’t pretty, people. I’m not proud of thinking those thoughts. (And admit it, some of you had those notions, too.) Still, very rare was the show that didn’t get me off, no matter what was played. If I had a moment’s thought of “Gee, ‘Throwing Stones’ again?” it never prevented me from enjoying a well-played version to the fullest. We all have our favorites, but if there’s passion in the effort, I can enjoy pretty much any song, and that continues to be true for me.
The last several years of going to shows definitely tested my generally positive outlook. There were a few “new” songs I thought were actually bad (no names here), and then there was the whole matter of Jerry’s decline, which had to have been apparent even to the extreme “rainbows and unicorns” types. There were shows that left me … disturbed. And yet, to the bitter end I was upbeat about the next tour and the renaissance I was sure was coming around the bend. I guess I couldn’t see the dark clouds through my own rainbow glasses.
Since Jerry’s death, I have moved back toward the “rainbows and unicorns” camp when it comes to the post-GD groups. In the process, I’ve been subjected to the slings of arrows of the new breed of PDH—hyper-critical Internet critics for whom nothing short of an appearance by Mr. Garcia himself could quell the relentless and at times disturbingly personal sniping at the surviving band members and their efforts. The level of vitriol in their commentary is shocking. The Internet is a take-no-prisoners war zone.
But I feel that Phil, Bob, Mickey and Bill have admirably dedicated themselves to thoroughly exploring the Grateful Dead’s incredible repertoire and taking the Dead approach to playing in many new and unexpected directions with an amazing variety of players. At the same time, they’ve made a conscious attempt to keep the Dead Head community spirit alive, for veterans like me and for the young ’uns coming up. And that’s why I’m no longer jaded. Just grateful.
Those videos of those specific shows, flawed as they might be visually, when paired with great audio, would be a delightful upgrade to what we currently have. My other hope would be that the extra footage (outtakes) that was filmed at Winterland for the original 'Grateful Dead Movie' could be joined together to make us a show, or even put out as a box set of DVDs, for that era of the Dead. I would pay for that as well. The 'bonus songs' included on that disc are transportive, and to think that more of that exists (does it Blair?) makes my head spin a bit.
Rhino, I do have money that I would love to trade you $ for DVDs of those wonderful shows (use Hal M's list as a start). Really, just make them available.
The Truth is realized in an instant, the Act is practiced step by step.
I, too, hope they find their way out of legal limbo. The quality may not be state of the art by todays standards, but to watch the band working their magic at their peak... The Durham, NC. 1978 show alone is worth its weight in gold. Or the '77 New Years run. Or the amazing shows (in both B&W and color) from 1977 and '78 at the Capital Theater in Passaic, NJ... All of these are multi-camera full show vids. Certainly much better quality than, say, the footage released from the Egypt shows. Any of these released with the CDs would be met with overwhelming joy (and open pockets, I daresay). I, for one, hope Rhino and the powers-that-be find both the desire and legal means to make these historic, epic videos available to an audience that would relish seeing them in the best quality possible. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.
Here's a link to video of Deep Elem from last night:
...is that they are in no way denigrated by the present; they exist independently and are what they are, with all the colorations and distortions and veils we put over them through the years. Listening to JK singing a beautiful version of "Comes a Time," as I did watching the Phil & Friends webcast from Terrapin Crossroads last night, in no way diminishes the many memories I have of seeing Jerry sing it, nor does it "compete" with great GD versions of it from '77 or '85 or whenever. Be here now!
(And I bet Jerry would've LOVED to have had some tasteful Larry Campbell fiddle, like he played last night, on one of his versions.)
Here's a good-sounding mp3 of last night's first-set ending "Foolish Heart" > "Comes a Time" > "Box of Rain":
Band is Phil and Grahame Lesh, Kadlicek, Russo, Chimenti and Larry Campbell. Larry's wifey, Teresa Williams, also sang on several songs. Good show.
We heard two Terrapins and one Morning Dew over all of the shows...
I would only add that there was a lot of complaining and even derision depending on when you first got on the Bus.
I recall when I saw my first shows in the Fall of 77 (Englishtown, like so many others, was my first), I was often told by "Heads" how much better things were with Pigpen. They said the Dead and the scene sucked compared to when they first started going to shows. Admittedly, I was similarly disrespectful to the new heads by the late 80s.
I just think everyone is somewhat parochial to what they consider their own era.
As far as today, initially I had convinced myself that I did not want to see anything Dead-related without Jerry. I have to say I am so happy that I relented and saw a Phil and Friends show a few years back. I then saw the "Dead" with Warren. But, I have loved every minute of Furthur. Once you accept the fact that Furthur is NOT the Grateful Dead, you can dance all night and appreciate that the music you love is still being enjoyed by so many. Thankfully, I am no longer held captive by my desire to hold on to my old memories.
Amen, Blair -- couldn't have said it better m'self. I distinctly remember after a show in '83 in New Haven (I'd boarded the bus in '81), saying to my crew -- I don't care what they play --it only matters how they play it. Then by spring '88 east coast tour they did Black Pete at 5 of the 6 shows that I went to (lucky me). I love the tune; don't get me wrong -- but 5 out of 6 ! What are the chances. I recall going to the 3 Worcester shows and saying to the crew in the car (as we excitedly anticpating this that or the other thing/tune, etc.) chiming in and saying again: "I don't care what they do, just as long as they do it w/ (in the words of Arlo Guthrie) WITH FEELING but adding . . . just not another Black Pete -- well, they ended up doing Black Pete back to back nites.
BTW -- still love the tune and sing right along w/ it whenever i hear it. "Now, let's go run and see . . ." how this long strange trip continues . . . I am!
> did CM turn us into spoiled brats?
Absolutely not. CM (and others) have merely facilitated my personal development as a brat.
> That same anticipation...
...was for moments of true magnificence, and nothing less. Like the line from Paul Grushkin's old Book of the Deadheads: Mammoth Epiphanies.
> shoot out of those last three St. Stephens
Hartford was probably the best played, but NYC got to hear "in and out of the garden he goes" at the Garden. The crowd response in that moment alone must have stretched the suspension cables, upon which MSG is hung, to their limit. The resulting boing must have been intense.
> a great Terrapin...
Worcester, MA, October 8, 1984. I scored 4th row on Jerry's side from the box office the morning of the show. The first set opened with Iko; the second with Terrapin. It was one of those nights. Magnificent, in so many ways.
...could live in my head for weeks. I don't think I ever viewed it as rare, but maybe it was. During many of the '79-'84 shows I saw, Terrapin was perhaps most often the monster set 2 peak. I wonder how often they played it after drums. Did I ever see one (besides Englishtown)?
...to Blair's evocative description of how one could look at the set lists to figure out what was likely to be coming up at shows in that early 80's period: I distinctly remember how we would reckon that there would only be one Terrapin, one or at most two Morning Dews on those east coast tours. Part of the fun was seeing where those pieces would be played (would it be Hampton? Philly? New Haven?, the Byrne?), especially if it was at one of the shows you were attending. Sure, this was an incentive to see the whole tour, but it wasn't a marketing tool from my perspective, because at that point I would always try to see as many shows as I could in any event...
I know these stats could be checked in Deadbase, etc., but that's the way we looked at it at the time.
It was a scene like no other and it deserves to be recalled on a regular basis: but without the occasional shadows, how could we guage how good the vast majority was?