By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
The Thanksgiving week New Yorker featured this article by Nick Paumgarten on the Grateful Dead–“Deadhead: the Afterlife,” aptly under the Annals of Obsession–that would interest any of this blog’s readers who possess a fascination for this band or its cultural moment (either the original moment of supposed authenticity or the attenuated moment of revival, take your pick). Or those who don’t.
Any true aficionados or ersatz Deadheads, of course, should treat themselves. But the essay presents a plethora of details one need hardly be a fan to enjoy. In fact, in two long paragraphs preceding his in-depth discussion of the near-reverence the Dead has occasioned, Paumgarten delivers a wonderful riff that could stand on its own as an impressively succinct critique of the whole scene inspired by people like Garcia; it lends itself beautifully to being quoted out of context as a rather damning indictment of all participants in what was undoubtedly at times a crazy-ugly circus, from performers and audience members to the drugged-up hangers-on who never made it past the parking lot. Here it is and if the shoe, or sandal, fits…
“What’s to hate? Even the fanatic can admit to a few things….
Most objectionable, perhaps, were the Deadheads, that traveling gang of phony vagabonds. As unironic as the Dead may have been, Deadheads were more so….They dispensed bromides about peace and fellowship as they laid waste to parking lots and town squares. Many came by the stereotypes honestly: airheads and druggies, smelling of patchouli and pot, hairy, hypocritical, pious, ingenuous, and uncritical in the extreme. They danced their flappy Snoopy dance and foisted their hissy bootlegs on roommates and friends, clearing dance floors and common rooms. The obnoxious ones came in many varieties: The frat boys in their Teva sandals and tie-dyed T-shirts, rolling their shoulders to the easy lilt of ‘Franklin’s Tower.’ The so-called spinners, dervishes in prairie skirts and bare feet. The earnest acoustic strummers of ‘Uncle John’s Band,’ the school-bus collective known as the Rainbow Family, the gaunt junkies shuffling around their vans like the Sleestaks in ‘Land of the Lost’—they came for the party, more than for the band. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to go in to the show. They bought into the idea, which grew flimsier each year, that following a rock band from football stadium to football stadium, fairground to fairground, constituted adventure of the Kerouac kind.”
But, really, his acknowledgement of the downside of the Dead and their sideshow is probably what kept me reading what Paumgarten presents in terms that are nothing if not hagiographic. (See also his great listing here of his favorite concert recordings, which could match the vocabulary of appreciation of the wine connoisseur with the most subtle of palates.) Even those, like myself, who might love some of the music but be profoundly disturbed by sadly believable secondhand accounts of the larger scene and times, might find the piece of interest. If a hagiography of the Dead might not appeal, perhaps the idea of a kind of hagiography of hagiography will exert a strange pull, as it did for me.
The main focus in Paumgarten’s piece is actually not so much the band and its followers, or even the music, although he has perceptive commentary on each of these, but the way in which the music was recorded and preserved. As such, it is a kind of study not just in the fascination with the Dead but in fascination itself.
Why and how do we become fascinated with particular people, places, things, and events more than others? Once in thrall, what do we do with those moments of encounter that strike us as some of the most intense and genuine, of great meaning and importance.
How do we–and should we–preserve and remember those moments? The answer here–and maybe everywhere–seems to be simple. How, indeed. Through that same obsessive-compulsive eye for detail that explains just about everything we do that actually lasts.
Paumgarten’s article traces with care a partial answer to these questions–when it comes to this particular object of fascination. It’s a story not just of passive reception of moments of performance, or even of active-passive participation, such as it was, but of the active recording of those moments even as they unfolded, of the anticipation of a future, of the creation and overseeing of an archive, of a deliberate and sustained re-experiencing of those moments after the fact.
Paumgarten’s piece takes our eyes off what might have seemed to have been, without question, the main event, and, in the manner of the most interesting writing–of history or perhaps any kind–makes us question what the main event really was and is. He directs our attention to a subset of fans of the music, as set within yet also implicitly of interest outside of its original context, whose fascination runs so deep as to be strangely fascinating in its own right.
“There is a silent minority, though, of otherwise unobjectionable aesthetes who, as ‘Grateful Dead’ has become a historical record, rather than a living creative enterprise, have found themselves rekindling a fascination with the band’s recorded legacy. These are the tapeheads, the geeks, the throngs of workaday Phil Schaaps, who approach the band’s body of work with the intensity and the attention to detail that one might bring to birding, baseball, or the Talmud. They may be brain surgeons, lawyers, bartenders, or even punk-rock musicians. Really, it shouldn’t matter what they do, or what they smell like, or whether they can still take a toke without keeling over. It’s the music, and not the parking lot, that’s got them by the throat.”
Even further, Paumgarten’s portrait fuels meditations on the very activities that define us–as both creatures and creators of the past, whether through our collecting, connoisseurship, research, scholarship, or mere inhabiting or enduring of moments, whether of the original-feeling kind or those seemingly once, twice, or thrice removed but perhaps in fact just as originating–in their own story. In the words that touched me the most, he captures a side of the sensibility of some of these lovers of the music. Rather than inevitability placing the highest value on the most scientifically accurate reproduction of the sounds of the original event, some embrace the imperfections as part of the experience of re-experiencing it. This of course abandons the hubris of a certain kind of attempt at mastery masquerading as earnest fidelity; it humbly accepts the passage of time; it defers, making it clear a recording is not trying to be one and the same as the original. It also appeals to me, perhaps, because our record-keeping no longer privileges the past over the present as the main moment of generation and our sole entry into the fascinating kingdom of authenticity, but allows us to start to live again, fascinated all over again by each new moment, but with the help of the past, which is always a necessary prerequisite anyway, even when we don’t intend for it to be as much as some did in the case of the exquisitely well-preserved legacy of the Grateful Dead.