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Grateful Mess

from The New Yorker

The Glorious Inconsistency of the Grateful Dead


Photograph by Michael Putland/Getty

A few of us here at The New Yorker recently recorded a podcast about the Grateful Dead, on the occasion of a series of five farewell performances (this weekend in Santa Clara, California, and next weekend in Chicago) by the band’s four surviving members. Afterwards, the segment’s producer, hoping to amplify a remark one of us had made about the Dead’s infamous inconsistency, asked if I could point him toward any performances that were “particularly terrible.” Could I ever. With relish! Any Deadhead worth his stash is a connoisseur not just of the good stuff but also of the bad—blown choruses, mangled leads, laryngitis, amnesia. Their improvisational approach to live performance had something to do with this. If you play by the seat of your pants, you are occasionally going to fall on your face. Toss in copious drug use, an aversion to rehearsal, and a genuine anarchic streak, and you have a band that may have stumbled as often as it soared. (If you’re one of the millions who believe that the Dead only ever stumbled, so be it. I’ll spare you the special pleading. If you believe that they only ever soared, well . . . de gustibus.)

We enthusiasts, apologists all, maintain that the uncertainty—the chance at musical transcendence amid a tendency toward something less—was what kept us coming back. This argument is a little like the East Coaster’s on behalf of his weather: the nice days are nicer when there are crappy ones in between. And you come to savor the misty mornings, the squalls, the blizzards, and the cold snaps that freeze the ponds. Transcendence, though, was always heavily contingent on the performance of Jerry Garcia, who, in addition to being the Dead’s (quoting myself here) “most accomplished songwriter, most soulful singer, most charismatic figure, most eloquent interviewee, most recognizable icon, most splendid thaumaturge,” was the one who provided the iridescent guitar leads that transported the band’s fans. When he had a bad night, you knew it. The others, when they were off, could sort of hide. The waning of Garcia’s health, technique, and enthusiasm was a kind of meta-performance. In some respects, listening through the band’s thirty-year touring career is a study in decline. By the end, you hardly ever saw the sun.

[ click to continue reading at The New Yorker ]

Posted on June 26, 2015 by Editor

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