How Deadheads ruined the Grateful Dead Marc Weingarten reviews Dead publicist and family member Dennis McNally’s A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead:
At first, it felt like a rear guard action fighting for community in a socially fragmented era. But it curdled into the last refuge for musical conservatism and complacency, and it seemed to destroy the band’s work ethic. McNally glancingly makes reference to this dark side of the Deadhead phenomenon: “Like all fans … they could become tediously obsessed with the object of their joy,” he writes.
…What had begun as an inclusive rallying point for outcasts became a provincial closed society. Deadheads were supposed to represent enlightened musical inquiry, but instead, as McNally points out, they ignored adventurous opening acts and lifted lyrics out of context…
Thematic content hardly mattered to the loyalists any more; the band’s canon instead became a series of dramatic gestures, well-timed downshifts, and dance cues. Safe within the fuzzy bubble of Deadhead-land, the band coasted for years on end, but no matter how negligent or desultory the performance, they always had the Deadheads to fall back on. Of course the Dead loved the support they never had to work hard to earn it.
With nothing to strive for and no musical goals to attain, the band lapsed into a creative torpor for the last 15 or so years of its career, even resurrecting itself this summer for another go-round without Garcia. If McNally’s book teaches us anything, it’s that, for a band with a prodigious drug and alcohol habit, the Deadheads’ unquestioning faith was perhaps its most dangerous narcotic. Slate
Exactly! This nails two of the painful core aspects of my experience as a fan, at times fanatic, of the Grateful Dead how insufferable the fans were and unbearable the Dead show ‘scene’ became; and how inexorably the music turned from transcendent and ecstatic to plodding noodling, an imitation of its former genius and shows exactly how they were causally linked.
Ironic. Non-Deadheads could never understand the appeal at all (“Either you’re on the bus or off the bus…”). Uncritically, vacuously, reverent Deadheads, on the other hand, could never understand how I could bring myself to stop going to the shows or why, as a tape trader with thousands of hours of the Dead’s music (listening to the best of which still brings me a visceral pleasure comparable only to the most brilliant improvisational jazz performances or passages of Mozart), I would turn my nose up at anything after, oh, 1977 or 1978 or so. Many never conceptualized the Dead as having a decline or downfall or, if they did, placed it more than a decade later and attributed it to Garcia’s health problems and/or his heroin addiction. Most never saw the decay of the ‘scene’.
Not Buddhists I guess… blind to the core lesson about the impermanence of all things, and the source of suffering in that impermanence. Nothing to that point had brought that home to me as my relationship with the Dead’s music and the bitterness of my struggle to give up my attachment, then watch the Dead and the scene plod on painfully, embarrassingly, for two more decades. And they’re still not finished each of the surviving bandmembers’ bands, and their intermittent reunion attempts since Garcia’s death, are pitiful attempts to regain the glory and bask in the fans’ adulation without ever doing anything new musically.