“No, don’t change the station. I should probably find a Grateful Dead song I like.”
This statement came out of my son’s mouth the other day as I was driving him off at school in the morning. Generally, I’ll let my kids pick the music for the drive but sometimes, and not always as a punishment for being late, I’ll leave The Grateful Dead Channel on SiriusXM. My daughter won’t have any of it. My son has a bit more tolerance. So, on this day, I left it on. I can’t remember which song was playing, but it wasn’t the hook that set a new path for him as a Deadhead. He did tell me that at his school, there is one Deadhead and even the existence of that lone freak in 2022 surprised me.
My kids haven’t really asked me what it is about the band that turns me from just a music fan into a cult member, but I have still told them. So, for the lone art school teenage Deadhead with whom I share a passion, I REALLY want to hear what it is for you, but first me. Age before beauty.
I don’t think I could’ve properly answered this back when Garcia was still alive. I didn’t have the benefit of an external view, nor did I have the desire to examine it. Back then, it was about the music, definitely. And it was about the community but as that time predated a home internet connection, finding fellow freaks was harder. You needed to go to a show, or in my case, form a band and attract the people to you. The important thing about the connection to the community was its offer of edification of the scene and history. Today, there are dozens of books about the Grateful Dead out there and a vigintillion bytes of information on the internet. I’m not even talking about the immediate gratification of hearing almost any show provided by the Internet Archive. Things were harder for us Builtheads back then.
As a 50-year-old Deadhead today, having come and gone from membership, I have the answer and it’s simple. But enormous. Kids, the reason I devote time, energy, attention and money to a band that ceased to exist in 1995 is because of….the songs. Here’s how the rest of the conversation with my son went.
SON: <looking out window>
ME: When you take into consideration that the band had a 30-year career which included over 180 songs and many more covers that they made their own, what stands out is obviously the music. But what isn’t given enough global music recognition is the lyrics. The words that Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow wrote for the music could possibly be the more important of the two. The music was great, but the words were the true hook. When Deadheads quote thousands of verses and tattoo them on their bodies, it’s with good reason. The music lives on and is loved whether it’s being played by Dead and Company or a grizzled picker at an open mic in Tuscaloosa. It’s almost not important who plays it. The songs have a life of their own and form a cherished and important collection of American music. Deadheads connect with each other because, within all of us, it’s the understanding and appreciation that we recognize and long to share.
SON: <a single barely-imperceptible nod>
ME: Here, I’ll sing you Black Peter….
I’m sure this isn’t even my last post pointing the obvious out. These 180-odd songs are what ultimately keep us coming back for more. When all the original members are gone to dust, while it’ll be sad, they created something that was greater than any of them could have done individually. They created something that should outlive all of us reading this. These songs took to the air decades ago and continue to lift and drag on currents of culture. It’s a big reason I don’t care about the Grateful Dead Corporation milking the shit outta licensing and merchandising. If fashion helps to spread the awareness of the songs, that’s a fine trade-off. No one is forcing anyone to spend a dime. It’s all there for free with an internet connection.
All one’s sustenance is found in the songs. Anything, in addition, is garnish.
Generic hippie listening photo by form PxHere