BLOG - HOCKEY & HEAVY METAL
June 27, 2015
The Grateful Dead, fairly or not, came to be the poster child and standard-bearer for the whole hippie, Summer Of Love, tie-dyed, San Francisco, peace thing. And sure, for a minute there the band was smack in the middle of that, and certainly parts of their founding ethos were in synch with those ideals. Among other things, they gave away a lot of things they could have sold and lost a lot of money by making sure they had the best live sound they could have, regardless of cost or logistics.
Anyone who’s been around me for any length of time over the last 30 years or so is all too aware I have a thing for the Grateful Dead. They were a thing for about 30 years and I was around for the last 10 of them, and they were famous for long shows with varying set lists and lots of improvisation, so every night was different. Much of my favorite music is hard rock and heavy metal, so from time to time people have found it odd that the GD, the original “jam band”, were and are my favorite. But there is an overlap between the folks who like the heavy and those who like the GD, and I think one of the primary reasons is that there was always a darkness to the band and what they did, its presence was always there like a top-of-the-range subwoofer speaker, and it came from 3 things: lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, their repertoire, and heavy touring of that repertoire.
Let’s start with Jerry Garcia. At his best the guy burned as brightly as anyone, and on a hot night he lead the Grateful Dead to places that blew audiences away. He didn’t prowl the stage, exhort the crowd, throw shapes or wear anything other than street clothes, but he had a presence that filled a room like few others. And like many great artists, his talents were born from dark things. He watched his father drown in a river when he was a small boy, and afterwards his mother was so distraught he went to live with his grandmother, who owned and operated a bar on the San Francisco docks in the late 1940s. He spent a lot of time in that bar with drinking sailors babysitting him by telling him sea stories, and somewhere in the middle of this his older brother accidentally chopped off half of one of Jerry’s fingers when they were playing with an axe. By the time he was in his late teens he was getting into trouble and heading nowhere fast until he survived a car wreck where a close friend was killed, and that event prompted him to really get on with his life. So yeah, seriously dark undertones to the guy. This was one so-called “flower child” whose roots ran to very painful places, and those same things were probably linked to his substance abuse on a dangerous level for significant parts of his life.
Next, there were the songs. Yes, of course there were happy, loving ones like, “The Golden Road”, “China Cat Sunflower”, “I Will Take You Home” and “The Music Never Stopped”. But there were always dark and brooding themes throughout the Grateful Dead’s repertoire:
Jack Straw (prison break, robbery, murder, other implied but unspecified felonies)
He’s Gone (death)
Mexicali Blues (statutory rape, murder)
Black Peter (death)
New Speedway Boogie (violence, death)
Victim Or The Crime (drug addiction)
Loser (gambling addiction)
Wharf Rat (homelessness, alcoholism)
Gentlemen, Start Your Engines (alcoholism)
He Was A Friend Of Mine (death)
Cryptical Envelopment (death)
Bird Song (death)
Estimated Prophet (mental illness, narcissistic personality disorder)
Candyman (drug dealing, intent to murder)
Friend Of The Devil (admitted bigamist fleeing law enforcement for unspecified felony or felonies)
Brown-Eyed Women (poverty, bootlegging, death)
Cumberland Blues (poverty)
Cassidy (death and birth)
Casey Jones (drug addiction, implied death or deaths from train wreck)
Dupree’s Diamond Blues (armed robbery, murder, death penalty)
Plus, many of their regular cover songs hit a lot of those same themes:
Me & My Uncle (armed robbery, 3 murders, with a potential self-defense claim for one of them)
Death Don’t Have No Mercy (death)
I Know You Rider (slavery)
El Paso (murder, death)
Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad (Depression-era poverty)
Sing Me Back Home (prison, death penalty)
Stagger Lee (murder, vigilante revenge shooting)
Minglewood Blues (unspecified crimes)
Morning Dew (everyone on earth except 2 people dead from nuclear war)
Mama Tried (life in prison from implied conviction for 1st degree murder)
Viola Lee Blues (prison, unspecified convictions)
And these are just the ones I came up with off the top of my head, without looking at albums or set lists, so I bet I missed a bunch. But you get the point.
Third, and this might be the least obvious one: they may have started out as hippies, but once the Grateful Dead became a living, breathing, heavy-touring band it morphed those guys (and later, one gal) into tough, hardened cosmic sailors. It probably started by the end of the summer of love when they were chased from their legendary house on Ashbury Street in San Francisco after countless people turned up on their doorstep looking for whatever it was they thought the band would give them. The cops busting the house right around then probably didn't help, either. So from then on they mostly hid out in Marin County when home, but the never-ending train of often well-meaning fans, friends, freaks, hangers-on, dealers, or whoever else was trying to lay their trips on them was rolling. Fortunately for the band, their road crew simultaneously morphed into their gatekeepers and protectors. The Dead’s road crew were famously ill-tempered, and it worked: before too long it became a known thing that if you went to a Grateful Dead show you did not try to sneak or blag your way backstage, climb onstage, harass band members, or do anything else along those lines, because their road crew would make you pay dearly for your sins when they caught you.
Then there’s the weariness and wear from spending their lives traveling between shows and spending several hours per night playing not just loud music, but intense, brain-bending, frequently improvised loud music, sometimes in front of a PA that could deafen a crowd if ever turned up to full blast (google "Grateful Dead Wall Of Sound" for the most extreme example.) The best Dead shows scrambled the synapses of the crowd, and imagine the effect of actually being one of the people doing the scrambling. Music like that is going to harden you when you’re part of it every night, and add to it extra levels of craziness from Deadheads and law enforcement, plus the usual touring hazards of promoters, travel, fatigue, unhealthy offstage activities and general stir-craziness.
Don’t get me wrong. To steal a line from Weir and Barlow, it’s a rainbow full of sound. But there was a lot more darkness in that rainbow than was apparent at a glance, and I think it was the secret weapon that made the band great and not just good.
So, it’s “Fare Thee Well” time. Let’s get on with the shows.