How the Dead saved my life
On October 30th 1990, my life changed irreversibly, and for the better. This wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened and, indeed, compared with meeting my future wife, our wedding day and the births of our two children, going to see the Grateful Dead occupies a comparatively lowly place in the pecking order. However, it has proved very important to me in many ways. Here is how it happened and what difference it has made.
Fade back to 1990. Picture a modestly successful thirty-knocking-on-forty-something (a touch of grey, but it’s alright); happily married, two lovely kids, nice house, well-paid and enjoyable job. The only snag – and it’s a big one – is that the first three of these are in Scotland while the job’s in London.
It’s a long story not to be gone into here, but the significant point is that the said modestly successful one – it’s me, by the way – was based in London during the week and went home to Scotland at weekends. Being neither promiscuous nor particularly clubbable, and certainly not workaholic, most evenings were therefore spent home alone.
Doing what? In pre-satellite days there was precious little football on the box, so the onus lay heavily on the CD collection. This was of a decent size, admittedly, but consisted largely of CD-transferred songs of my youth – Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix featuring heavily, together with some of their pale imitators, but the Grateful Dead entirely absent. There was also a modest, but burgeoning, classical section.
For the truth is that, apart from the occasional offering from the era of punk, popular music had largely passed me by since I entered the workforce: I just didn’t get it. This inability to relate to virtually anything recorded after 1975 was becoming an increasing disadvantage. Great as some of them are, the fact is that there was only a finite number of Floyd and Hendrix albums to choose from, and with the best will in the world they constituted a pretty restricted diet.
This largely explained the classical section, but somehow I couldn’t assuage the secret guilt that attaches to the taking of pleasure in ‘nice tunes’. Not that there is anything wrong with ‘nice tunes’ per se, but with no real grasp of the technical mysteries of composition, I always had this nagging feeling that all I was listening to was the disciplined reproduction of notes that had been written down on a page and thereby metaphorically set in stone. I just didn’t get classical music either.
Then, some time during the summer of 1990 I spotted an advertisement somewhere. The Grateful Dead on tour in Europe, playing Wembley Arena in October. Oh, the Grateful Dead, were they still going? I decided to go along, largely out of curiosity really, just to see if they would play anything recognisable from ‘American Beauty’, the only album of theirs that I had ever owned. Nostalgia time. One last hurrah for the days of my youth.
The bus came by and I got on
October 30th arrived. Courtesy of an essential detour from office to flat to change out of pinstripes into something a little more in keeping with the spirit of the occasion (in my case an old, and by then distressingly tight, Pink Floyd t-shirt), not to mention the glacial majesty of the Metropolitan Line, I arrived at Wembley Arena just a few minutes before showtime according to the ticket. The combination of previous experience and general expectation left me quite relaxed about this – nobody starts on time, especially not the Grateful Dead, surely.
Suddenly, a huge roar from inside. Hang on, they can’t be starting already. I know that one, what’s it called again? Ah, ‘Jack Straw’; nice.
I dived through the nearest entrance and took in the scene. Above the stage an immense lighting rig throwing green and purple beams onto – hey, there’s a lot of them. There was the great Jerry himself, so that must be Bob centre-stage and Phil on bass; did I know about the two drummers? I hadn’t been aware of the two keyboard players. No matter.
‘Mm, don’t know that next one. Likewise, no matter. The music took over. There was nothing else I recognised, apart from Dylan’s ‘Queen Jane Approximately’, but that didn’t matter either. This was fun: no, it was better than fun, it was great.
But it wasn’t until about halfway through the second set that I finally got it. The formalities of the basic song (‘Terrapin Station’, I later discovered) had been left far behind, and most of the players seemed to be off doing their own thing around the last vestiges of the original chord structure. Then – don’t ask me how – it all suddenly gelled, everything fell into place and they were together, all driving off in the same, but a new, direction.
The image is burned into my brain: those green and purple lights seemed to form a diaphanous tartan curtain between these, these – geniuses – and that knocking-on-forty-something in the audience with the brand new delighted idiotic grin on his face, taking his first step on the golden road (to unlimited devotion). I discovered some years later that this magic moment is felt by all who become deadheads and is commonly described as ‘the affinity click.’
How important was this moment in the great scheme of things? Put it this way: in my whole life, only once had I felt that sudden surge of knowing more intensely (and that was thanks to a pair of flashing brown eyes across a crowded room – these things do happen). In much the same way, I knew that after this my life would never be quite the same – and that I was going to love it.
The next day was indeed the first day of the rest of my life. Knowing this does nothing if not confer purpose to one’s actions. I bought more Dead albums as I let the dust settle on my old collection. I scoured shops for books about the group. I was hooked. I was a Deadhead, and I have been ever since.
Being obsessed has its disadvantages, of course, notably in producing irrational behaviour on the part of the obsessed. My wife would probably cite in evidence my penchant for tie-dyed t-shirts. Personally, I find them extremely comfortable and after all, I’ve got to wear something, but yes, there might be a couple that I would only contemplate wearing indoors. When alone. In the dark. With my eyes shut.
If you get confused, listen to the music play
Thankfully, the personal benefits of my thraldom far outweigh any anti-social drawbacks.
Musically, it means I need never be bored again.
The magic of the Grateful Dead lies in the fact that the experience is different every time; nothing is ever played the same as it was before or would be again. That’s why their studio albums don’t really work. Mostly, all they do is set out a song structure but leave it undeveloped and then move onto the next one. If all that was available in the Grateful Dead catalogue was studio albums I suspect that, towering as my special moment was, I would before too long have encountered the same frustrations as I was meeting before the event.
I don’t think I’d ever have got it if I hadn’t gone that evening to Wembley (and I was blessed enough to see them in Boston again the following year, so I know it wasn’t a fluke). The key element is the concert experience: you have to be there, or at least to feel that you are there, to hear the way they play with and around a basic idea, take it to pieces and put it together again and then magically bring new order out of the chaos of their own making.
However, having made the connection, I can get the same buzz from listening to concert recordings. Even though my direct experience is limited, I know what it’s like and these live recordings lay it all out again for me. Thankfully, my habit is supported by the still growing canon of live performances released on CD and, even more significantly, the best site on the internet: www.archive.org. From there, I have downloaded over 700 shows. So much Dead, so little time
But there’s something much more important.
Looking back uncomfortably at myself in the BD (‘before Dead’) era, I can see myself slipping quietly into an increasingly reactionary and irascible middle age. I’ve seen it happen to some of my friends and it depresses me.
On a superficial level, this may be manifested by the wearing of cardigans and listening to Classic FM. More importantly, though, being middle-aged – I mean in outlook, not according to the calendar – in effect means acquiescence to the norms and values that are imposed on us: the seeking of comfort in certainty and its corollary of hostility towards anything that threatens to undermine that certainty. The worst thing about that is not necessarily the values themselves (at least not all of them), but the fact that it means playing the same thing over and over again.
And if you do that, then the groove you’re in becomes a rut as it gets deeper, harder to escape from and so seemingly less worth the effort of trying. This ultimately generates the kind of ‘I-don’t-even-want-to-try-to-understand’ siege mentality that is fanned by the editorial pages of the Daily Mail. I knew I didn’t want to go there, but I could see that I was on the slippery slope.
How did the Dead get me out of this danger? They freed me from the stagnation that was threatening to spill over from my musical tastes into my attitude to life in general. They helped me understand that progress comes from questioning established norms, that out of the chaos that that interrogation may cause can come a new and better order, and that ‘different’ can be enlivening, not threatening. They got me out of my own dangerous groove, showed me a new one and made me more tolerant of those who choose a different one.
And they did all this while still giving me just about the most fun you can have between your own ears.