In the land of the night the ship of the sun
Is drawn by the grateful dead ...
'Egyptian Book of the Dead', circa 1550 BCE
My opinion of The Grateful Dead in High School was clear: I could not stand them.
It wasn't anything about their music that turned me off so, it was the people who said they liked it. It seemed that everyone I met who said they really liked the Grateful Dead was a stoner. As a group they struck me as people who just liked to get high and listen to music, and that seemed like a waste of time to me. When I'd ask them what was so good about it they had vague statements that seemed designed to imply that if you didn't get it you were somehow not smart enough. "If I have to explain it you wouldn't understand" was one of my least favorite. Occasionally I'd hear a song on the radio like Sugar Magnolia that was a good song, but the fans seemed to dismiss them as 'sellouts' anyway.
Fast forward to my first year in college. I am living in a "buildup", which is a fancy name for "we have too many freshmen and 5 of you are going to share the floor lounge and we can just pretend that it's a dorm room". I was coming on home from a party one evening and Reed (the guy with the great stereo and amazing record collection) has a record on which immediately has me transfixed. It's formless, but yet has form. It meanders, yet moves inexorably forward. It's rock, but combines the explorative qualities of jazz. As I listen I feel it speak right to a place that music had rarely done for me before. While good music speaks to the mind and great music speaks to the heart, this music hit me somplace deeper it was beyond intellectual or emotional, it was supremely human. I'm stunned.
Up to that point I had listened to a lot of music, but only two times before had an artist or band just floored me. The first was Pink Floyd, which I was introduced to by an Aunt in around 6th grade. I immediately connected with the sprawling scope and lofty aspiration of the music, and 'Wish You Were Here' and 'Dark Side of the Moon' were albums that I wore out. In high school I had a similar experience of being transfixed when I came across Brian Eno's 'Before and After Science' playing on the stage where I used to eat lunch. I remember sitting and staring at the speaker because I was so entranced by the sound. Now here again I found music that seemed to grab me at a very deep level.
"Reed, what is this?" I ask, pointing to the turntable.
Reed looks at me like I'm from Mars. "It's the Dead".
I pick up the sleeve laying on top of the speaker and find that we're listening to a song called Dark Star from an album called Live Dead.
Over the next few days I listened to more of Reed's records. Next I started to tape all the Dead albums that floated around the dorm. This inevitably led me to bootlegs hissy 17th generation copies of shows that were often compressed almost to nothing and nearly inaudible, but which still contained a taste of something otherworldly. Talking with fans of the Dead led me to end up sitting in dorm rooms after crew practice, getting to know the tie dyed legion of New England Dead Heads that populated most colleges at the time. A tight-knit group of psuedo-Hippies who went to shows, traded bootlegs, got high, and reveled in their Hippiness.
As a sometime student of writing and a fan of good poetry I discovered the endless wonder of savoring the band's lyrics. There was a point of view that was at once very pragmatic, but deeply idealistic. It went along well with my own point of view and as the number of quotes in this site attest I found that they were able to perfectly sum up many feelings and situations in life better than anyone else.
In October of 1983 the Dead played Portland, Maine. I cut Crew practice and rode up with some campus folks who had chartered a bus and experienced my first Dead show. So much has been written about the experience that I won't go into it in detail other than to say that I too had the feeling that I had found a home I had never known. I loved the camaraderie and spirit of the gathering. I loved the acceptance and openness of the people. I also loved the music and recall dancing the 'formless dead dance' all evening long.
For the rest of that week I walked gingerly around campus because I had managed to find a set of muscles that Crew workouts were not exercising: both sides of my neck were incredibly sore from the exertion of me moving my capacious melon from side to side for 4 hours.
Though I listened to other music during this time The Grateful Dead became my 'main band' for the next 10 years. I saw them only 6 times in all before they stopped touring as I could never make it enough of a priority to go out on the road and follow them exclusively, but when I caught up with them and could make it work I happily dipped into the scene for a fix of being with one of the most wonderful groups of people I'd ever met.