Smilin’ Through The Blues: When Jerry’s On, The Whole World Shines

I started listening to the Grateful Dead sometime in the mid-seventies and saw them live for the first time in the fall of 1979. I saw some amazing shows, had moments of transcendent bliss, and came to understand the pure unadulterated energy of live music when played from deep within the soul. There are a lot of people who don’t like the Grateful Dead. There are a lot of people who hate the Grateful Dead. In talking to a number of those people over the years, I came to realize that most of them were so turned off by “the scene” surrounding the Dead, that considering the music was almost an afterthought. And the scene did become quite awful in later years. As the Dead’s popularity grew, so did their audience. Lost were the small venue shows. Lost was the community of respectful young Deadheads who understood that there was something more than a “freakshow” happening here. But when their song TOUCH OF GREY became a hit single, it chimed the beginning of the end for the Dead and the world they’d unintentionally created. Crowds of newcomers who thought the Dead scene was about drugs and partying infiltrated what had once felt like a familial atmosphere of daring explorers–both internally and externally–and turned it into an out-of-control mob scene. What they didn’t understand, what they never once bothered to consider, was that it was all about the music. The drugs were part of a culture that birthed the music and this band, but it in no way was meant to define them or, worse, limit them.

But it did. By then, Jerry Garcia‘s heroin addiction had seemingly taken control of both his health and the music, and we watched both decline sharply. There were moments of resurrection, fleeting pockets of optimism where it seemed something might re-ignite from the embers of what had once been fiery and bright, but it never took hold. The crowds became unwieldily. The Dead were banned from favorite venues that had inspired both their music and the crowd. Like a child who grows up to marry someone destructive and violent and finds themselves no longer welcome at family functions, the Dead could find no way to divorce themselves from the runaway train that became their following and redefined who they were to an already misguided public.

For the record, I followed the Dead around for many, many years. I danced in a skirt, had long hair, even got to hang with Jerry once. Most every Dead show I saw I saw sober. Yes, I had done a lot of drugs in my youth and even dabbled here and there while on tour and beyond, but I preferred my shows straight. The music got me high. That’s the truth. The music.

Lee Johnson, a classical music composer and someone who, until recently, was unfamiliar with the music of the Grateful Dead, chose to study their music and history in-depth for what would later become his Dead Symphony No. 6. He recently wrote these eloquent words about his newest musical discovery:

It took a mere handful of people, lead by masterful non-leader Jerry Garcia, working on a canvas thirty years long, four-hours-a-jam-every-night wide, to evolve the original sound. And what a sound it was: modest in instrumentation, no “star” vocalists among them, but offering up so richly eclectic a repertoire of American song, such a variable yet transcendent vision, that no group from the Era of Peace and Love has ever surpassed them. Like Whitman, this little band was large, it contained multitudes.

So now when I venture back to the land of the Dead–and I often do–in the comfort of my living room or through the tiny speakers of my headphones, it’s almost always to the era when I first discovered them, and sometimes into the age when I was seeing them, before the tidal wave of popular culture crashed down upon them.

To their credit, they lasted 30 years. 30 years of improvisational musical exploration. Their sound changed in many ways. Most of it great. I’ve been told by the musically challenged that the Dead were not very good musicians. This is a statement that always astounds me. You see, as a musician myself, I am still left awe-inspired by the craftsmanship and pure talent that was the Grateful Dead. Like the greatest jazz musicians, the Dead pulled off something almost alien to most other musicians. But like so much great art, it is often misunderstood by the public at large and brushed off as being a fad or, as it is in this case, having more to do with the scene around it than with the art itself.

As for the Dead’s commercial popularity, the songs that are best known to non-heads are almost always the little ditties, the more hummable tunes, fun, but rarely reflective of the depths the Dead could obtain. But once in a while, those little ditties would explode with bursts of pure energy and joy. The following clip is of one of those ditties. An encore from 1978 that in later years seemed to become somewhat of a “throwaway”. And for those who never saw the Dead as a rock and roll band or who think of Jerry as the overweight, immobile figure he became in his final, most popular years, this rendition of the still timely song, U.S. BLUES, while admittedly rough around the edges, will give you a genuine taste of the deep joy and energy that drew me in those many years ago and still has a very welcome and warm hold on me. It also shows, in no uncertain terms, that when Jerry was on, so was everyone around him.

Turn it up and enjoy.

Smilin’ Through The Blues: When Jerry’s On, The Whole World Shines

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