History knows the Grateful Dead. They are most universally called the pioneers of the Psychedelic Hippie Rock Music movement. If you think back to most passing mentions you might have read about the Dead in print, or heard on the evening news, some variation of this quick summary is likely to be what you encountered as one news segment or another introduced a piece that had something to do with the band. This quick elevator pitch calling card was created more by our media than the band themselves. And the quick association stuck. Pretty much anyone, fan or foe, would rightly place this crown on the Dead’s head (ha! No pun intended). But while there is no denying the hypnotic draw of the band’s ability to turn time and space in on themselves through improvisational adventurism, the actual power of the band which draws listeners in like an irresistible force of gravity may be something else entirely. Their crowning achievement, and reason for going down in the history books of not only music, but of our culture, might actually stem from something far less easy to pitch into a 15 word sound bite.
There is another consistency to this band’s output which laces and weaves its fingers throughout much of what was created over its thirty year span. This particular element is something that appears to run at an even deeper level than the psychedelic fireworks which draw justifiable attention. Through it all, the Grateful Dead continually were expressing a heartfelt joyfulness which may best be described as simply uplifting and smile producing. It may sound corny, but the ties that truly bind one’s heart to this band’s music seem to come more from the musical passages that bring us floating and buoyant onto a sea of weightless, timeless pleasure.
Something purely effervescent, as in a sunshine skipping Eyes Of The World, or the blue skied cantering lilt of I Know You Rider forming out of China Cat Sunflower, made for some of the most enchanting musical experiences. It was in moments like these where the audience was just as likely to dissolve from individuals into a singular shared perception and expression of the music, as they were while in the grips of a star exploding Dark Star or Other One. This effervescence traverses the early psychedelic meltdowns, Americana acoustic folk, and tribal-disco beat dance parties which pepper the landscape of the Grateful Dead’s cannon.
It might be said that we went back to shows to fill up on this elixir as much as anything else; to draw again from the well that most silently bound us together. Away from the music, deadheads exchange subtle unspoken looks which act as a secret handshake, confirming allegiance to this hard to pin down soul lifting musical journeying. With a look, we know we “get it” and have “been there.” This is music’s deep seeded heartbeat of expression through the band, and us, which often eludes our description due to its sheer scope – like quantifying the oxygen around us or our place in the cosmos. It’s nearly so completely everywhere that we fail to recognize that it’s there at all, influencing and drawing us in.
While I have often aimed at discussing the thematic undercurrents which ran through and evolved in the Dead’s musical history, it has been a difficult challenge. I often question the validity of the dots I connect between songs (Viola Lee to Cumberland? New Potato Caboose to Bird Song?). And now more than ever, I believe it was the scale, or depth of this overarching soulful theme which caused me to struggle. The Dead’s own universal predilection for letting the music lift the collective audience (band included) into a heartwarming rapture reveals a nearly invisible network of connective tissue which binds all of their musical themes. Sure, there are more focused recognizable manifestations of undercurrents floating across the years of the band’s music. But, from a 10,000 foot view, a new clarity takes shape.
Intertwined, but somehow also existing side by side with this effervescent element, there is also the undeniable undercurrent of what Deadheads universally refer to as a “church like” experience within the Dead’s music. Those musical passages tinged with that quality often described on these pages as being wrapped in the most protective arms possible, rocked like a baby, or hauntingly drawn into a song’s story ‘round the campfire – this element did as much to cement the Dead with its audience as any other, latching into the same soul level resonance attained when the music set you soaring, smiling, beaming. In many ways, this church element works a similar uplifting magic upon the listener’s experience.
In 60 plus years, when people are looking way way back upon the life and times of the last half of the previous century, perhaps these deeper undercurrents will drive the conversations when people reflect on music’s ability to transcend time and communicate through the ages. The Grateful Dead left an indelible mark on the almost imperceptible mechanics of our ability to be moved, shaped, and transformed by music itself. By this may history truly know the Grateful Dead.
Not Sure Where To Begin?
my thoughts on Music & Being, which guide my writing.