Saturday, May 21, 2022

Northshore notes: Alive to the Dead

     I never know what Caren is writing about until I read it on Friday, and sometimes odd synchronicities present themselves. Next week, I'm planning a five day run featuring songs about lawyers, for reasons which will be made plain. And I too never much liked the Grateful Dead, or their unwashed legions of fans, though I was extraordinary fond of "Friend of the Devil." Enough prelude. Here is Caren Jeskey's Saturday report:

By Caren Jeskey

              Shall we go, you and I while we can
              Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?
                                 — Grateful Dead

In the Rogers Park neighborhood where I grew up, music-loving hippyish intellects abounded; there were many Jerry Garcia fans around during my formative years. Yet the Grateful Dead never made sense to me. I thought of them as a mediocre band with a boring cult following. When people identified as Deadheads, I’d quickly write them off as potential friends — what could we possibly talk about? Tie-dye? 
     When groups of my peers packed up to go camping at Alpine Valley to “follow the Dead” I never had FOMO. I’d rather be clubbing it up at Kaboom right here in the city.
     Dead & Company is coming to Cubs Park soon and there’s a lot of buzz about it. I decided to pop the song "Truckin’" onto Apple Music to see what all the fuss is about. I was surprised to discover that, not only was I familiar with many of the other songs, I knew quite a few well enough to sing along with at least the chorus. I felt uplifted by the simple, bright, plucky sounds of the band as Apple fed me more. 
     It seems I was subconsciously indoctrinated into the world of the Dead by many years of listening to WLS, The LOOP, and accidentally catching the Grateful Dead Hour on WXRT. I also lived with a bunch of people from Barrington for a year or two in the late 80s and our 6-CD multi disc player was always loaded up with their music. The Dead occupied one of those slots on many a Saturday night as we danced around and pregamed before going to Hamilton’s on Broadway. I didn’t pay much attention, but the songs have stuck in my craw.
     Thanks to my roommates and their crew, I finally got to know Ian Anderson, CCR, Van Morrison, the less well-known Americana of David and David, and a band that became one of my all time favorites, The Silos. My new friend group was apparently full of Deadheads and I even made out with one of them once— he had long blond hair and wore pastel colored tie-dyed shirts— outside of a dive bar on Sheffield.
     Before I had taken the time to listen this week, I rudely said to a self-proclaimed Deadhead (I promise I did know know about this identification when our friendship organically sprouted up) “They’re not good,” and I laughed when I noticed dancing bears embroidered into his clothing. He’s a very pleasant person so just smiled and commented “you’re right. The band isn’t that good.” Looks like I owe that person an apology.
     I learned that the band played songs differently each and every time, in their live shows. The audience was watching art in action; a canvas that was freshly painted based on how they were feeling at the time, I'm guessing often with the use of mood altering substances. “Fortunately we had a chance to play [Estimated Prophet and Terrapin Part I] three times onstage and it made a huge difference," Bob Weir once said. "Then we came back and we knew what the songs were about.”
     I found the song "Estimated Prophet" worth more than one listen, and Bob Weir’s voice compelling. I wanted to listen with over the ear headphones to catch the trippy nuances of sound and composition more clearly but I broke my pair. This has inspired me to replace them soon.
     While I’m writing this I’ve had the album Terrapin Station playing in the background, and I’m soothed by the cheerful sounds of Donna Jean Thatcher Godchaux-MacKay’s "Sunrise" and the sweet harmonies between her and Weir in "Passenger."
     MacKay wrote the 2007 song "Passenger," which is sadly apropos today. “I hear the sounds of war. And they say, we are not to blame Today, let the anger take aim. Piercing to the heart and to the soul.”
     This trip I’ve taken with the marching bears (which I did not place under my tongue, by the way) has helped me with humility. The Dead don’t suck. I need all of the reasons I can find to stay connected to others these days, not more reasons to establish an us and them delineation. The next time I see someone with one of Jerry’s bears subtly incorporated into the cuff of a shirt, instead of scoffing I’ll see if they know some kind of Zen secret I’d be better off embracing.

          “Such a long, long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.” 
                   —Grateful Dead, "Box of Rain"


  1. The Dead lost their concert mojo in 1979 when they fired Donna and Keith Godchaux and Garcia became a full-time junkie (until he died in 1995). Witnessing their shows until that time was a sublime experience, and indicated by the fact their most popular live show recordings are from the pre-1979 period. I'm among the few to admit their post 1979 shows (nearly 16 years worth) weren't up to snuff, and that most of the fans from this period were there for the scene (i.e. parking lot vending, come-latelies singing along off-key, each trying to out-Deadhead the next) and ignorant of how great experiencing the band once was.

  2. Count me among the legions, though I generally bathed. First saw the Dead in 1972 at the long gone International Amphitheatre, attended last two shows at Soldier Field in 1995, and continued on with the various band incarnations that followed Jerry's death. Their live performances featured multiple types of improvisation derived from an array of musical traditions. Their concerts were always about so much more than the music. The communal experience was real.
    "Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest places if you look at it right." -Grateful Dead, Scarlet Begonias

  3. Much like the CUBS im not a fan of the Dead. I mean the music is good I'm just not taken with the brand. And the fans , generally not people I want to hang out with. Been to a few shows over the decades, first one back in '75. I guess I just dont get it. I'm too young to have been a hippie. Cant imagine why anyone would want to pretend to be one.

  4. Last September, when I went to Wrigley for the Dead & Company then, I realized that it had been 50 years almost to the month since my first Grateful Dead show.

    And Bob Weir and the Wolf Brothers are responsible for one of the most memorable, if rather freaky, experiences of recent years. During "When I Paint My Masterpiece" I experienced the perfect Jerry Garcia lead line coming over the top of the band, as though it had been beamed directly into my head.

    Things that make you go "hmmmm" - part 273?

  5. Deadhead here. The stereotype of the fans has always made me laugh. So many people have said to me you don't look like a Deadhead. To look at me you'd never even guess that I have a dancing bear tattoo and my daughter is named after a Dead song. We may groove alike but we don't all look alike. As to the appeal, that band cranked out some great music, such complex chords. Jerry was an amazing guitarist, his wandering style still ranks him amoung the top of the greats. May I recommend the album Reckoning, a live album that really demonstrates their range and skill.

    1. Well said! Might your daughter be Scarlett, Delilah, Cassidy, Althea, Stella...?

    2. Thanks! She's named after Cassidy.

  6. Sounds like an interesting eye-opening. Deadheads have a funny way of getting annoying in their own patchouli-scented way. But they’re generally kind and well-intentioned. Garcia was quoted saying “[The Grateful Dead] are like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
    I’m quite sure you don’t owe your friend an apology.

  7. In the summer of 1968, I spent six weeks hitching through Canada, New England, the Southwest, and finally ended up in California. I was so toasted that I barely remember the huge rock concert I was there for, at the Orange County Fairgrounds. The First (and Last) Newport Pop Festival--biggest one anywhere, up to that point in least a hundred thousand people. Hot sun, not enough shade or food or water, a lot of booze and dope and bare flesh, and a whole bunch of well-known bands...most of which I think I slept through. Yes, I was that fried.

    It wasn't the disaster it could have been...but the event was quite a mess:

    I woke up just in time to hear some up-and-coming hippie band from San Francisco. The Dead Somethings. Maybe just the Dead. I think that was what they were called. Some second-tier outfit, sandwiched between the headliners, of whch there were many (link below) . I wonder whatever became of those guys? They had a nice funky country-rock sound.

    You said dancing bears, Caren, and then marching apparently you weren't. One of The Tribe. I never was, either, despite being two decades your senior. In the Dead's heyday, called those things the Electric Teddy Bears. What did I know? They were always just another Bay Area bunch to me, even after the one and only time I saw them live (at Newport,), which was well before they were lionized in the 70s..

    It wasn't that I had no exposure to the cult...there were a ton of Deadhead regulars in the Wrigley bleachers, especially by the Eighties, and I knew most of them, if not all of them. You make a ton of friends when you go to 30-40-50 Cub games a year, and it takes over your life.

    The bleacher Deadheads would party away their afternoons at Wrigley, and then head for the Dead at night, whenever they were in Tinley Park, or Soldier Field...Poplar Creek...Alpine Valley. I never tried to score a ticket, and it's unlikely anyone would have sold me one...they were too precious, and I wasn't part of their parallel universe. Nor did it matter to me.In those years. Baseball was my mistress, and she finally helped end my first marriage.

    But if you ever see a raggedy tie-dyed bootleg T-shirt, with a bootleg bear, and the words CUB FAN, DEAD MAN (a parody of the Harry Caray Budweiser ad campaign of those same years), you're looking at either a geezerly Deadhead, a now-elderly 80s Bleacher Creature, or both. Many folks were one and the same.

    Those highly illegal shirts were peddled openly at Clark and Waveland, across from Bernie's, for years. And then one day, they went away. How I wish I'd bought one. My wife found me an "electric Cubby-bear" shirt a few years ago, but it was not the same. Nothing ever is. You snooze, you lose.

  8. Hello, Caren.

    I'm a long time reader of Neil's columns and blogs, as well as a follower of your postings from the beginning. I enjoy your approach to life as it's almost diametrically opposed to mine (although a good and loyal Cook County - and State and National - Democrat), I am certainly not the adventurous free-spirited type, and actually have quite a conservative appearance. However, I do dig the Dead and perhaps in some way they permit to live a free-spirited life through their music. Although I could go on at length regarding their music, I would like to mention that for all intents and purposes, the Grateful Dead essentially - in my humble opinion - are responsible for the genre now known as Americana. From 1970 -1972, the band and members realeased six albums, four studio, two live, that birthed the genre. The band albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, and solo albums, Ace by Bob Weir (which gave us Dead staples such as Playing in the Band, Cassidy, One More Saturday Night, Looks Like Rain and others) and Garcia by Jerry (Deal, Loser, Bird Song, Sugaree and The Wheel), along with two live albums, the Grateful Dead (aka Skull and Roses) and the sublime Europe 72 (when the band was at it's peak, although some would argue for 1977, which is my second favorite year of the Dead) crystallized all their influences into a unique, at times transcendant and powerful spriitual statement as to the power of music and it's ability - at it's best - to allow one to soar above the daily mundane. These albums must be experienced in their totality to truly appreciate and grasp the telepathic, focused power of the band and their lyricists, Robert Hunter and John Barlow, in their prime. Europe 72, which documents perhaps their most powerful tour, is legendary amongst Dead fans and although each of the shows that comprised this tour has been released in it's entirety , its the complilation album that is still the best (as an aside, the best cuts of this album come from the 5/26/72 show at the Lyceum Theatre in London and this set will be rereleased soon). Listen to the telepathic, non-verbal communication of the band as the weave through the ebb and flow of the legendary China Cat Sunflower / I Know You Rider medley to understand in a small sampling as to what makes the Dead legendary amongst it's base of true fans. To quote the late, great rock critic, Lester Bangs, "So perhaps the truest autobiograpy I could ever write, and I know this holds as well for many other people, would take place largely at record counters, jukeboxes, pushing forward in the driver's seat while AM radio walloped you on, alone under headphones with vast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in the brain through insomniac post-midnights, or just to sit at leisure stoned or not in the vast benign lap of America, slapping on sides and feeling good". This is what the Dead at their best convey to me in musical form and at soon-to-be 62 years of age for me,
    the beauty and power of their music remains true and pure in my heart and brain. Peace.


    Quote - Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs (released and edited by Greil Marcus after Lester's passing on April 30, 1982 at the age of 33). Lester was the best and most passionate rock critic / writer ever.

    1. Wow, thank you. I have some music to listen to. Curious to know what’s diametrically opposed to your approach if you care to share.

  9. Hello, Caren! My apologies doubled for not responding to your question in a more immediate fashion and for the miscommunication. I did not notice the obvious error in word selection when I wrote “opposed” instead of what I meant which was “opposite”. I need to proofread better! Why do I feel this way? Based on your writings it’s clear you’ve traveled far and wide, experiencing many places and cultures. For me, I chose a conservative, cautious and safe path - in terms of being wary and perhaps fearful of taking the chance to relocate - of remaining in the area in which I was raised. Heck, I live six miles or so from the family home. Although I traveled the country extensively for business purposes, with the exception of some of the border cities, I’ve never been beyond the 48 contiguous states. I’ve lived in my current residence for 27 years, and a number of my inner circle friends I’ve known since grade and high schools. I live vicariously through your adventures! So, this is what I meant. I’m definitely not opposed to anything you’ve written about, although I must say that I feel leaving the US (which I believe you’ve mentioned in passing) is not the way towards finding a more harmonious existence. Your expatriate friend in Mexico is quick to condemn the US, yet Mexico, a country or wonderful people inspiring arts and beautiful scenery is rife with governmental corruption, much of it fueled by drug cartels. I could certainly afford to leave at this point, but I won’t, as like Neil, I’ll stay and protest and fight if necessary for our democratic principles and freedoms. I owe it to the country and to relatives who fought in WWII to defend the freedoms of others. It’s the least I could in their memory. I tell this to a friend who seems determined to leave for Canada. I even referred him to Neil’s column on this subject. As an aside, after considering what I just wrote, I wonder if subliminally I did mean opposed, at least I regards to this particular thought. I don’t think so, at least it wasn’t a conscious decision. Maybe the old Freudian slip? I don’t think so, as I believe it was just lazy editing on my part. Anyway, my post was to convey the wonders of the Grateful Dead at their best and specifics as to their actual best recordings. I hope that you continue to enjoy the Grateful Dead and especially the albums that I mentioned. Jerry Garcia holds a special place in my heart and brain as he was truly one unique cat. I also hope that you’re feeling better and continue to provide the blog posting for Saturday! Take care. Jim

  10. Thanks Jim! How nice to hear your perspective. I will take time to listen to the songs you suggested. Happy Sunday-


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