In Defense of the Grateful Dead

[Author's Note: I wrote this brief essay back in December for my application to Colby College. The Rachel Carson quote is the single link to the prompt, which is why I didn't quite dare to rectify her opposing verb tenses. I thought this might serve as a good first post, as I intend to write a great deal about the Grateful Dead and other music/art with somewhat selective appeal—for all that, this is an exposition, an appreciation, and a defense.]

There’s this very common joke: What did the Deadhead say when the drugs ran out? Punch line: This music sucks! I’ve always found this joke rather tiresome, and not only as a slur on music I love; like most jokes that operate on wild stereotyping, it clearly doesn’t reflect much knowledge of its subject. Plenty of Grateful Dead (1965-95, R.I.P.) concertgoers avoided the drug scene altogether—most fans were there for the music. And no one who gives the music a ready ear can call it anything but what it is—vibrant, bold, and heartfelt. In fact, the first adjective I associate with the Grateful Dead is beautiful.

Certainly, their songs have an obvious beauty, built as they were on warm harmonies, memorable progressions, rich instrumentation, and considerable sentiment. The Grateful Dead weren’t out to shatter traditional songwriting forms. Many compositions even have an antiquated feel, like they might have stepped out of a sepia photograph. From the shimmering ebullience of “Eyes of the World” to the exhausted pathos of “Brokedown Palace,” beauty abounds.

But there is another type of beauty—a wilder, more elusive species—that was the heart and soul a Grateful Dead concert. When Rachel Carson observed that “one way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, ‘What if I have never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” she might easily have been referring to the Grateful Dead. The magic of the concert experience was not chemicals—it was a shared understanding between performers and audience that they were opening their eyes to beauty, to something in a passing moment that could be grasped only once before it was gone. The loose structure of concerts allowed the band to explore the deepest crevices of each song, as well as the space between songs, and at every show this attention to the moment blossomed in something beautiful and unique. Take one night’s (9/21/72) segue between “Dark Star” and “Morning Dew”—after twenty minutes chasing tricky, undulating jazz, the band suddenly find themselves in a crystalline, sparkling bluegrass jam. The spontaneity of it is like sunrise. In thirty years, the band played 2,317 concerts, and no two are alike. The moment is there, and then it’s gone.

Fortunately, the Grateful Dead came along at just the right crossroads of technology—they were playing to an audience, not to a studio engineer, but since recording equipment was nearly always on hand, many of their concerts were preserved for future listeners. A quick comparison between the rough-hewn spark of these tapes and the relative sterility of their studio work further affirms the essentiality of live performance. The Grateful Dead were built on that oldest relationship between artist and audience—sharing one space at the same time—in a century where the two grew ever farther apart.

No comments: