2020’s “Deadissance”: How, Why, And Does It Matter Anyway?
There’s a great scene at the end of the vastly-underrated movie The To Do List (2013) where Bill Hader’s “Willy McLean” says goodbye to the film’s heroine “Brandy Klark,” played by Aubrey Plaza. He’s her stoner boss at the local Boise pool and has just hit the jackpot by bedding her sister Amber (Rachel Bilson)
“I tasted a little cheddar and I realized, like what the fuck am I doing in Boise? So I’m gonna get out. I’m gonna see the world and I’m gonna better myself.”
“Well, I respect that. I actually think that’s very mature of you.”
“Yeah. I’m gonna follow the Dead. You know, Jerry’s health isn’t doing too well and I’m not getting any younger, so…totally making the right decision.”
The Dead aren’t mentioned once in the film, written and directed by Hader’s then-wife Maggie Carey. What makes the moment so great is that you’re led to believe Willy is going have some epiphany that he’s finally going to grow up. Amber, by the way, decides to spontaneously sleep with him after her Phish-loving boyfriend, Chip (Adam Pally) has flaked out on her one too many times. No, I don’t think the film is making some comment on the two bands even if the character is named “Chip.” But what’s great about Hader’s comment about going on tour is that we know that there weren’t too many shows left for Jerry Garcia in 1993, even if he only suspects it. That was the tour right after my graduation from the University of Rochester and the one that I tried to use to keep my own adulthood from closing in.
Jerry was actually relatively healthy in 1993, but that’s beside the point. Two years later would be the last summer tour ever and I’d see my 138th and final show in Deer Creek. August 9, was of course the 25th anniversary of his death and countless remembrances and recollections came with it. Variety ran a whole week of pieces leading up to the day itself. When did the Dead become so respectable? I never stopped listening and I know many other Heads fall into the same category. 2009 is as good a demarcation as any. As “The Dead” prepared for their first tour since 2004, the New York Times ran an article entitled Dissecting the Grateful Dead, Forever Live. Readers of the Times could now learn about the Betty Boards, Cornell ’77, Harpur College, and the Springfield Creamery Benefit at Veneta. There was even a nod to the Grateful Dead Tape Compendium, which I wrote a few reviews for.
Three years later, Nick Paumgarten wrote a New Yorker piece called Deadhead: The Afterlife which delved even further to the “subculture” that is so familiar to many of us. Paumgarten provided more background on the missing “Betty Boards,” which had yet to be returned to the Grateful Dead vault. He colorfully described getting hooked on the Dead at prep school and Jerry’s condition throughout the mid-1980s. He specifically explained his love for the 11/30/80 Atlanta show, which he had only heard an audience copy of the second set. A year later the band officially released the entire show as “Dave’s Picks, Volume 8.” However, there was still a void for Deadheads when it came to recapturing life on tour. “Furthur,” with Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, played their last show that year in Red Rocks with Branford Marsalis. By this time, those that had seen the actual Grateful Dead in concert pretty much made their peace with what they wanted from the surviving members. Personally, I thought the first incarnation of “The Dead” was the best. In 2003, Joan Osborne and Jimmy Herring allowed the band to be original enough that it didn’t feel like they were copying too much. Listen to the Jones Beach shows to decide for yourself.
I’ve written several articles for Glide Magazine praising the guitar and vocal work Warren Haynes, but playing with Bob and Phil always seemed to hamstring him. For me, the Symphonic Celebrations of 2013 and 2016 were the most effective vehicles for Warren to play these songs. For the mainstream population, though, the Grateful Dead didn’t really resurface until the “Fare The Well” shows in 2015. Steven Hyden did a nice job of recapping the shows for Grantland and has been trying to get the Dead some mainstream love as far back as 2009. However, I take issue with any reference to those being the “final shows” of the Dead. There are people that think the band truly ended as far back as Pigpen’s passing, but we can all agree that they left the stage for the last time in 1995.
Once it was announced that the shows would only be in Santa Clara and Chicago, I elected NOT to go. Had there been East Coast shows, as were originally attempted, I am sure I would have. But in retrospect it worked out for the best. With the exception of some of show on July 3 (yes, I know Bruce Hornsby cut off Trey during Scarlet Begonias) there was nothing I thought I had to be there for. Phish has always been too noodly for me, though I met them briefly when they played the University of Rochester’s Douglass Dining Center on 4/20/91. A cool tidbit that did NOT make it into my book Drunk On Sunday was that some of my fraternity brothers worked security and we were allowed in early. I had just finished a beer with my funnel, which had a picture of Jerry taped on it. As I looked through my glassy eyes at Phish standing before me, I thought that maybe someday someone would view this moment as I do every time I hear about someone meeting the Dead in the early days.
Many people said they needed closure with “Fare Thee Well,” including those who hadn’t been to Dead shows long before Jerry died. I, of course, didn’t need to say goodbye since I never stopped listening. It’s a pretty big character trait of mine. You can see all sorts of examples of that in my book. But it was also at those Chicago shows that the idea of “Dead and Company” began to emerge. When I first saw the band at Citi Field in 2016, I wrote that the music needed John Mayer as much as he needed the music. I won’t rehash that piece or the argument I make, but you cannot deny that he has been acutely respectful and deferential to the legacy of the Grateful Dead. His Sirius/XM guest DJ spot on Jerry’s birthday was particularly fitting. I can’t imagine Jerry’s reaction to Mayer’s sexual escapades before finding the Dead’s music, however. Since that time, Dead and Company has admittedly had its ups and downs onstage. Yes, I think the slow tempos can be a problem and of course I know that Trey commented about it after he played with Bobby. If you need evidence of what I believe the best of what that band has to offer, check out this clip from the Folsom Field shows in 2017. I did not attend, but have felt since first hearing the Sirius simulcast that night that it was damn impressive.
Of course another huge impact of Dead and Company was the reintroduction of summer tour. The very same lot scene that had become so unruly in 1995 was something we all missed. It was now far more legitimate, although the dangerous elements were still there. You can’t have that many people partying with so many different things without those pitfalls. It was also at “Fare Thee Well” that we started to hear about the Martin Scorsese produced Dead documentary. With Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev clearly wanted to tell a specific story about the band. I reviewed it immediately after watching it. You can read it here. I won’t bore you with what I know is already a long article.
The 25th anniversary of Jerry’s passing also coincided with the COVID lockdown of the last 5 months. The result is that Deadheads (and those who maybe stopped listening) realized even more how much the music and the community of others that love it means to them. The band’s Friday “Shakedown Streams” on YouTube gave people a different type of interaction than they would have gotten from a Phil and Friends or Dead and Company show in 2020. Not only have they gotten to see Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, David Crosby, John Mayer, Oteil Burbridge and more in Zoom pre-stream sessions, but they’ve been able to see HD video of shows in the privacy of their own home. However, social media and the comments section of the streams have allowed people to connect in an entirely new way. I’ve loved seeing the Mystery Science Theater-style riffing on shows. We’ve all laughed at the band’s questionable fashion choices, although the panning of the crowds revealed that we all have outfits to answer for. I for one, was happy that the Buckeye Lake footage didn’t reveal me with my T shirt tucked into a pair of khaki shorts, complete with a belt. But in the spirit of sharing, I’ve posted it. For the record the funniest comments I saw were during the Foxboro 89 stream and were “lesbian librarian Phil Lesh” and “I need Ja Rule to make sense of all of this.” I hope no one found the former one homophobic, since I didn’t.
In true 2020 fashion, the Dead now have not one but two podcasts. The “official” one is hosted by Jesse Jarnow, who has done an excellent job of documenting (and broadening with his writing) the band’s legacy. Check out his article on the 2016 “Day of the Dead” tribute project. I spoke to Jesse briefly that summer at the Dark Star Orchestra show at Coney Island which I covered for Glide. I realized very quickly that besides being younger than me, he’d seen a lot less Dead shows. However, it’s that perspective that has allowed him to bring a different take to his writing. He’s done the liner notes for a number of official live releases for the band and they all do a great job of telling tangential stories about what went on outside of the shows themselves.
Jarnow’s “Day of the Dead” piece asked how long the “Dead revival” could last. 2016 was right before Dead and Company started their first summer tour. Steve Hyden got destroyed in the comments section in 2009 for trying to convince the A.V. Club crowd about the appeal of the Dead. I don’t know if he received similar heat for applauding the marriage of Mayer and the music. I know I many weren’t thrilled with my praise of the union. Hyden now hosts the second Dead podcast (along with Rob Mitchum) doing deep dives into all 36 installments of the “Dick’s Picks” releases, recently asked “Why Do So Many People Like The Grateful Dead Now?” What was so interesting about the piece was not that he had answers to that question. He doesn’t just as I don’t. However, it’s the close-minded qualities of the aforementioned that pushed him into an appreciation of the band long after Jerry died. Of course, he also gets to see the limitations and biases that come with being obsessed with the band’s recorded legacy of live shows. But what shines through in Hyden’s piece and the central question we are both asking, is the doors that great music can open for you. His description of discovering the music in his mid-30s reminded me of the story I tried to tell in my first book, Drunk On Sunday.
Friday, the Dead finished their summer Shakedown Stream series with “Sunshine Daydream,” at one point the most bootlegged video in band history. Like 5/8/77 Cornell, it seemed like it would never be released officially. The fact that it has and that so many people can enjoy it at the same time is really all that matters. 25 years ago, I wondered if I’d ever want to hear the Dead’s music again. Even though I never let go of it, its meaning has evolved and changed for all of us. So let’s collectively enjoy the ride and if you haven’t seen The To Do List, check it out immediately.