It is going on ten years since the death of Jerry Garcia and going on forty years since the inception of the Grateful Dead. The New York Times takes the occasion of the release of Phil Lesh’s memoir, Searching for the Sound, for a very improbable reflection on the band’s legacy, clearly not written by someone who has revelled in their music. Seth Mnookin’s essay draws what might be a specious parallel between two aspects of the Dead he reads in Lesh’s book. First, while he admits that the initial two-thirds of the book are an exultant rendition of the Dead’s early years, when its soaring improvisational reach and mind-melding connection with its listeners was forged in an acid bath, Mnookin is quite taken with Lesh’s confessional about ‘the destructive effects of addiction’ in the band’s later years, particularly Garcia’s heroin addiction and Lesh’s own alcoholism. ‘During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, his alcoholism, Garcia’s budding heroin addiction, and mountains of freely available cocaine turned a once-cohesive unit into a group whose main form of communicating became playing music with, and sometimes at, one another onstage.’ Some kind of moralist, it seems, Mnookin is all to ready to attribute the stultification of the band’s exuberant group mind to the drug use. (If he is going to do that, at least abit of exposition about the contrast he sees between the hallucinogen high and the downs of alcohol and heroin, and some speculation about why the change from one to the other occurred, is in order.)
According to Mnookin’s reading of the book, Lesh’s second central idea in reshaping the Dead legacy seems to be to conceive of their music as repertory, “like a Shakespeare play or a Beethoven quartet.” Never mind how hubristic that sounds. What strikes me is how central a betrayal of the central tenets of the Dead experience it is. There was never anything very important about their songs; most Deadheads lived for the stretches of their music, chiefly in the second sets of their concerts, that came when they voyaged far away from the songs that served as launch points, deep into the space between, untethered and (no matter where they started from and ended up) never the same twice. The stultification of the Dead’s music set in precisely when they started seeing their body of work as repertory to be recreated from concert to concert, IMHO because they — particularly Garcia — became too clumsy and addled to do much else. Identifying the precise point is debatable but it was certainly apparent by the mid- or late-80’s; I myself was bored by what the Dead
were doing were no longer doing by the late ’70’s or early ’80’s.
Lesh seems to be saying that, if the Dead could no longer do it (because of the destructive effects of their drug use), at least the music lives on for itself. But even if Lesh ultimately felt betrayed by — and perhaps never gave up wanting to recreate — what became of the unique interplay of personalities that had made music together for years, the recent attempts to recreate the Dead’s magic with different personnel seem even more pitiful than the Dead’s trying to recreate their own early magic in their later years. I have attempted to listen to the post-Garcia ‘Other Ones’ and ‘The Dead’, and all I can do is cringe. The Dead today are an aging Grateful Dead cover band. The music, too, was gone, Phil, when the Dead’s magic went down the tubes. All the best, most transcendent things in life (and I classify the music of the Grateful Dead at their peak in that category) are transitory, and attempts to hang on to them after they pass little more than pitiful. It’s like Terry Schiavo — why not finally withdraw life support and end the persistent vegetative state?
You can read some more about my longterm relationship with the Dead here.