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The Grateful Dead Are History’s Most Misunderstood Punk Band

Aaron Lefkove's Grateful Dead/Misfits/Black Flag/Descendents tattoo

Aaron Lefkove’s Grateful Dead/Misfits/Black Flag/Descendents tattoo. Courtesy of the author.

If I have one claim to fame, it’s what I did on the night of July 9, 1995. The only recognition I’d ask for would be a T-shirt that says, “I went to the last Grateful Dead concert, and all I got was high from smoking weed out of a Milwaukee’s Best can and this lousy T-shirt.” The show itself wasn’t much to write home about, or at least that’s what the commenters on Archive.org say about it: selfimportantdeadhead, who gave the show two stars, says, “we all should have stopped buying tickets,” and basically blames Dead fans for Jerry Garcia’s death exactly a month to the day after the show at Soldier’s Field. Reviewer Let’s All Be Cheerful, contrary to the name, says, “[T]he set list is poop and the performance borderline embarrassing. Saying otherwise is akin to applauding for your child when he strikes out five times in Little League.” The same user then points out, “Which is perfectly okay,” because, “sometimes love trumps the truth.” I wouldn’t know, because I was acting like a punk-rock jerk during the entire show.

Good or bad, today I can at least utter the words that many attendees of famous and infamous Dead concerts can mutter: “I was there… man.” I was at the last Dead concert, and although today it’s something I casually mention with a hint of pride, in 1995, going to a Grateful Dead concert, for a kid who claimed to be punk, was like a scarlet letter on what little cred you had. But there I was — although I didn’t want to be — thanks to a birthday gift from my friend’s parents, both of whom had made pilgrimages to follow the band across the country since the 1970s, but could do so comfortably now, staying in hotels instead of camping in a field. Their son and I had been friends for years, but by the night of the show, I’d almost totally pulled away because, from what I gathered, punks and Grateful Dead fans couldn’t coexist; they were the oil and water of subcultures. It was something that, as a teen, I accepted without question.

Kurt Cobain's "Kill the Grateful Dead" shirt

Kurt Cobain’s “Kill the Grateful Dead” shirt

The Punk vs. Dead debate, however, would come to stand as one of the shining examples of how when I stopped thinking like a kid, I started realizing that not only were there bigger things to worry about, but the two worlds aren’t as far apart from each other as people have made them out to be. The Dead, in many ways, were punk long before people were giving themselves homemade Germs tattoos. They were the house band to the revolution; their greatest crime was really that they got old.

“I think punk kids have more problems with Deadheads than the Dead themselves,” Jesse Jarnow, author of the forthcoming book on the culture of the Dead’s fans, Heads (Da Capo, 2015), tells me. That’s something of a relief; I never really made it to true Deadhead status. I was, instead, a novice Grateful Dead fan who claimed to like their music, but most just owned a few T-shirts I purchased from the mall around the age of 13, and a “Greatest Hits” cassette tape from Target.

To the teenage version of me, the Dead and their community of fans — including a handful who went to my school: the good-looking stoner soccer players; the ex-cheerleader who was kicked off the squad after getting caught with a prescription bottle filled with weed; the guy with the hemp necklace that you could use to tie a small boat to a dock, who everybody knew sold her the weed — looked to an outsider like an easy enough community to break into. Because what were Deadheads? They were hippies, and hippies, I thought, were supposed to be friendly and welcoming to everybody. They basically had to be my friends, right?

That never happened. I’d nod at the handsome soccer captain as we walked down the halls, and he’d just stare at me, and inside I started to feel more unchecked rage than good vibes. My family life was crumbling before my eyes, I found myself unable to associate with classmates, and I started acting like some reject from the Holden Caulfield School of Angsty and Annoying Teenagers. So somewhat naturally, I drifted towards punk rock: I bleached and cut my hair, which I’d tried to grow out, traded the Dead for the Descendents, stopped hanging out with my old friend because all he cared about was hacky sack and talking about music like the Dead, or worse, Phish – the band christened as the Dead of my generation. None of his transition to hippiedom meshed well with my great ascension to punk rock, and leading up to my friend calling up to say his parents had purchased me a ticket to the fateful Dead concert, the gulf grew larger between us, created entirely by my snobbishness and shitty haircut.

Jarnow admits that the band’s sound might not be for everybody: “The Dead kinda sucked unless you were keyed in to their language,” he says. However, he does believe that beyond their obvious differences — “the music and the drugs” — punk and Deadhead cultures have plenty of things in common. He points out that both subcultures are, at their core, utopian and DIY, noting, “There’s also the shared notion between punk and Deadheads that their communities were outside the mainstream of American culture, standing in for alternative ideals bigger than themselves but acting as examples of how those ideals could operate.”

Jarnow is right. Although punk might look and sound dystopian to an outsider, for every wannabe Johnny Rotten carving an anarchy symbol into their school desk, there’s a counterexample of the utopian, communal spirit that has been part of punk since the beginning — everything from Penny Rimbaud starting the band Crass and the record label of the same name out of an open-house community to the Food Not Bombs movement and the DIY attitude that has started countless bands, as well as labels like Dischord and K, and countless shows in basements, garages, VFW halls, and wherever else punk bands can play.

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7 comments
ManOfNill
ManOfNill

In 1987 I was into punk and the Dead. The Dead had stayed with me unlike punk. Punk was fun in the clubs, but Jerry Garica has soul and musical sound scape that can awe me even on cuts I've heard 100 times.Punk just never was the deep. It was music for the party and not much more. But I would love hear Tad, Fluid, Circle Jerks and others again in their hey day they could play for sure. (I do like the Superuckers, probably the only band in 2014 that is close to punk I go see.)

I had no clue punk and the Dead were suppose to be at odds. They are both independent music - not perhaps by the label but in terms they did what they wanted. And that how most music I like is done.

jms
jms

I'm sort of the opposite of the writer.  I come from Chicago also, and I went to some 50 Grateful Dead shows all over the country between 1988 and 1995, but only went to maybe two punk shows.  (Naked Raygun once in the mid 80s and Fugazi/Shellac in 2001)  I didn't think the punk kids were jerks at all.  Kids would be crowd surfing, and someone would go down to the floor, and there would be 10 hands reaching down to pull them up before they were hurt. That really impressed me to this day.  You don't always see that.

There's a lot of aspects of the Grateful Dead culture that you wouldn't know if you weren't immersed in it.  First, there were a lot of tourheads -- people who went to most or all of the shows.  So there was a core of regulars who you would see everywhere, and once you met them, you would meet the other regulars, and you would find yourself making friends that you would only see at Dead shows, because they lived somewhere else in the country.  So going to a Dead show was like a big reunion.  That was one of the biggest regrets of the band breaking up.  There were people I never saw again because we had never traded phone numbers.  We never needed to.  You would probably see them at the next dead show.

Second, on average, the shows were average.  Once you knew the songs, and knew what to listen for, you could see an entire show and maybe only one or two songs would really turn your ear.  Especially if you were following them on tour.  The Dead had a big repertoire and they would go 4-5 shows without repeating a song.  But if you saw 8 shows in a row you would pick up on the pattern, and in the words of a friend who saw every single show on the Europe 1990 tour, by the end of the tour you knew what songs they were going to perform before you even got there.  So you could burn yourself out on the shows.  But every once in a while they would amaze you and you can pretty much take any year and pick out one or two shows that are just fantastic from beginning to end.  Go back to 1969-1974 and it's a different story.  The vast majority of those shows are really fantastic.  So once you got into 1995 their best shows were mostly on the cassettes in your car.

Summer 1995 was cursed.  Jerry's health was rapidly declining and he was increasingly unable to play and sing.  He would get lost in the songs, and by the end of the tour they had a teleprompter on stage to help him with the lyrics.  The shows were marred over and over by appalling accidents and incidents.  Two fans fell from the upper deck at RFK and 3 fans were struck by lightning.  The third Deer Creek show was cancelled after a ticketless mob torn down the field fence.   The end of the tour couldn't come fast enough.

My take on the last show was that the first set was fine.  The first half of the second set was fine also.  Jerry was playing as well has he had been playing all tour.  Which is to say, everyone would sort of exhale at the end of every song and say to themselves, "Hey! Jerry did fine!"  In my opinion, the version of "So Many Roads" performed at Soldier Field was the finest the band ever performed.  They were slow and patient with the song, Jerry did fine with the lyrics, and he added a vocal improvisation section that he had never done before -- which was very remarkable for the Dead.  The Grateful Dead's songs were mostly composed, with fixed spots in the songs for solos and improvisation.  The final show version is still my favorite version of So Many Roads.

Then the band turned the stage over to the drummers mid-second set, as usual, but when they came back it was horribly obvious that something was very wrong.  You can speculate on what happened to Jerry or what he did backstage, but when he came back out after drums he was simply unable to perform.  The band started into Unbroken Chain, which they had been playing live this tour for the first time since the song was recorded back in 1974.  Unbroken Chain has easily the most chord changes of any Grateful Dead Song.  Jerry was completely lost from the moment the song started until it ended.  He was falling apart and looked miserable and lost.  The Grateful Dead ordinarily played 3-4 songs after the Drums/Space interlude, and Jerry was trying to signal the band to play another song, but Bob Weir stepped on him and started the band into "Sugar Magnolia" -- a set-closing song, making it clear.  The set is ending early because Jerry is in trouble.

Since they had some extra time, they did do a two-song encore for their last show, which was highly unusual for the Dead.  By the time they came back out for the encore, Jerry had recovered enough to perform a credible Black Muddy River, and Phil Lesh closed out the band's career with Box Of Rain, one of his best songs.  

If you look on youtube you can find the pro-shot video of the last Dead show up to drums and space.  The band allowed the video to be leaked, but did not allow the end of the second show to be leaked.  It was really kind of sad and painful for anyone who was really familiar with what the Dead had been. But it was a historic show and if you were going to happen to attend a truly historic show the Soldier Field swan song was as good as any to have been at.


ChristineSoner
ChristineSoner

having been in the punk scene, it was indeed a way of life. it was a combination of the music and lifestyle. from Wiki: "It became a major cultural phenomenon in the United Kingdom. For the most part, punk took root in local scenes that tended to reject association with the mainstream. An associated punk subculture emerged, expressing youthful rebellion and characterized by distinctive styles of clothing and adornment (ranging from deliberately offensive T-shirts, leather jackets, spike bands and other studded or spiked jewelry to bondage and S&M clothes) and a variety of anti-authoritarian ideologies."

Joel Werner
Joel Werner

..."I wouldn’t know, because I was acting like a punk-rock jerk during the entire show."

Yes, in large part, the scene and what the people had become was a tremendous contributing factor to the demise of the Grateful Dead.  That stress and a poor diet killed Jerry Garcia and the scene before the drugs ever would have.


"punk and Deadhead cultures have plenty of things in common. He points out that both subcultures are, at their core, utopian and DIY, noting, “There’s also the shared notion between punk and Deadheads that their communities were outside the mainstream of American culture, standing in for alternative ideals bigger than themselves but acting as examples of how those ideals could operate.”"

Yes, both communities were outside the mainstream of American culture, but they were [and still are] at the complete opposite ends of the spectrum!


"The conclusion I’ve reached is that regardless of what anybody wants to say, the Grateful Dead were a punk band."

No!  Punk isn't an idea, it's a style of music.  The grateful Dead was also a type of music.  The hippies that [originally] followed were the culture and the scene.


This was a well written article, and despite my disagreements, I largely agree with the theme of it.  Punk rock and the music of The Grateful Dead can certainly coexist within a persons mind, but not necessarily their actions.  Both musics provide a different outlet, it all depends on what you need at that moment.

NickLandess
NickLandess

I appreciate the sentiments expressed here as I understand them - if I may summarize: as we mature, we realize that some of our personal prejudices and anxieties were just wasted reflections of some of the more superficial judgments our society presents to us.  I was much more on the Dead head path than yourself, and have gained an appreciation for much harder material in the years since - Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Type O Negative, Every Time I Die ...

But I wouldn't assert that Henry Rollins was proto-jam band.  The Grateful Dead weren't "punk" other than some shared roots in Rock and Roll.  The fact that you identify as "punk" and also happen to like the Dead doesn't mean that the Dead are punk - it means that labels are stupid, and limiting yourself by insisting that everything you like is somehow included in the labels you are comfortable with is, well, dumb.

Garcia and Weir admired many classical composers Stravinsky, Bartok- does that mean that those composers were jam-band (or whatever label is currently being used for the Dead)?  Of course not.

Jimmy
Jimmy

@Joel Werner I'm willing to bet that you have not listened to a whole lot of Punk Rock.  It was more based on community than the music itself.  There is no comparing the Meat Puppets to the Dead Boys to Patti Smith to The Ramones to Television to Misfits, etc.  The whole ethos of Punk at that time was that what you played didn't fit anywhere else, but still had an audience.  All acts that fell under that umbrella were labeled "Punk".


Anyhow..my point is that Punk was most definitely a movement, and not a style of music.  And, in those terms, the GD don't fall too far out of that spectrum.

Jimmy
Jimmy

@NickLandess I can't completely disagree about Henry Rollins although, i hear in interviews years ago that Ozzy's favorite artist to listen to was Barbara Streisand...maybe it was a joke...maybe not...be just because you are influenced by something does not mean you need to imitate it.  However, while Rollins may be debatable, I would defy anyone to listen to the first Meat Puppets record, which FWIW is their most "punk" album, and tell me that they were not influenced.  (Hint...it includes a cover a Franklin's Tower).


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