The Grateful Dead Are History’s Most Misunderstood Punk Band

Grateful_Dead_(1970)

Flash-forward to 2011: The Gospel of Anarchy, the debut novel by author Justin Taylor, takes a lot of punk philosophy and lends it to a fictional squat/cult called Fishgut. Today it’s one of the books I’d consider a truly quintessential punk novel, but at the time, as I got to know Taylor personally, there was something about his interest in the punk scene that bothered me for a split second: he was also a Dead fan. Even though I was 30 by then, something about that seemed off. But I shook my head, and put the juvenile “1. 2. 3. 4. Who’s punk? What’s the Score?” question to rest right away. This wasn’t high school, there were no punks vs. posers here; and besides, it was (and is) a great book, and Justin is a good guy and a great writer. What did I care if somebody likes the Dead and likes punk?

Since he was the last person to evoke those weird punk vs. Deadhead feelings, three years later, as I’m working on this piece, I email Taylor, who obviously knows a little bit about both worlds. I ask him what he thinks punks despise about the Dead (or their fans, according to Jarnow). He answers, “If you’re used to two-minute angry fast songs that are all chords, a song that takes 20 minutes to unfold and consists of lots of solos and instrumental interaction is going to seem insane. The Dead seem like hyper-emblematic of that mentality, for some obvious and fair reasons.” I remember having a similar thought as I stood in the middle of Solider Field on that muggy July night in 1995: this band is so fucking boring.

I was at another live show the night it was announced that Garcia had died of a heart attack in his room at a California rehab center. This one was noticeably smaller. There weren’t any burnouts in the parking lot selling bootleg “Steal Your Face” shirts, and the only hint of pot I could smell in the air came from a joint being smoked by the lead singer of a popular ska-punk band (this was 1995, mind you), standing in the alleyway behind the venue, preaching to a gaggle of enraptured young punks in their cut-off cargo shorts and screen-printed Flux of Pink Indians T-shirts.

“Jerry Garcia, man, punks need to understand he was a punk too,” the singer told his audience of a few kids who kept looking over their shoulders to see if other people cold see them hanging out with the guy who sung for the most popular band – at the time — in the Chicagoland area.

“Fuck you, hippie,” my friend yelled at the singer in question, launching a half-empty can of Coke at the guy whose band was about to headline the packed VHF hall where we stood. “Fuck the Grateful Dead,” he said to me, unaware of where I’d been exactly a month earlier. Afraid of what he’d say if I told him, I just nodded my head. “Yeah, fuck hippies,” I replied meekly.

I think of this particular sequence of events a lot these days, mostly because I’ve come to accept and appreciate the Dead once again in the last few years. I mainly listen to their live stuff, because, as any fan would tell you, that’s the gold; they just jam for however long they can stand for, and sometimes it’s great, and other times it’s garbage. The thing is, I’ll turn right around and listen to an ’80s hardcore band like SSD or something newer like Iceage or Destruction Unit, the type of stuff that I listened to when younger me told his friend that the Dead sucked, and laughed when that same friend showed me the patch he had sewed onto the back of his jean jacket that featured a crossed out Grateful Dead bear, with “Grateful When They’re All Dead” written above it. I’ve found some balance, and, ironically, it was punk and indie rock that led me back to the band that I had forsaken. The conclusion I’ve reached is that regardless of what anybody wants to say, the Grateful Dead were a punk band.