My name is Jonathan Zwickel, and I love the Grateful Dead.
I'm not the only one. Alt-country chanteuse Jesse Sykes loves the Grateful Dead—she started seeing shows in the mid-'80s. Marty Marquis of Blitzen Trapper loves the Grateful Dead. Steven Severin, co-owner of Neumo's, loves the Grateful Dead—he's seen close to 50 shows all over the West Coast. Whalebones' lead singer Justin Deary never made it to a Dead show, but he hung out in a bunch of parking lots outside of Dead shows. Andrew Sullivan of gutter-punk quartet the Trashies loves Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. David Dederer, former guitarist of the Presidents of the United States of America, declares Jerry Garcia to be one of the top five instrumentalists of any instrument of any era. Colin Johnson, Nectar's booker, sees a connection between the rave culture he loves and the Dead culture he loves.
For 30 years people like us have lived in quiet shame of our Deadish leanings, concerned for our credibility, afraid to haul out our Skeletons from the Closet before anyone but our brethren. The woozy jam-band scene of the '90s only deepened the stigma. And so Deadheads have zero sense of humor about our tendencies—we're afraid we won't be taken seriously if they're made public.
"What's this interview for?" Jesse Sykes asks. "You gonna make fun of me?"
Sykes is skeptical, and rightfully so. She's an avowed Dead fan, and it takes my own admission of avowed fandom to assuage her concerns. But like shameless addicts, we let the commiseration flow once the floodgates are open.
"When it comes down to it, I just love their music," she says. "They were the quintessential American band, and really experimental, and constantly changing. I don't like where they ended up, but goddamnit, they were definitely a huge inspiration."
"I'm not ashamed of it by any means," says Steven Severin. "It was a big part of my life for a long time. I'm sure I learned a whole lot from those experiences and I had a great time doing it."
Severin had to endure heckling from his peers once word spread that he was interviewed for this story.
"I'm getting IMs, like, 'Boo, I heard you like the Dead,'" he says. "I'm like, you can't 'boo' me. It's huge. Every show sold out, generally, every city they all sell out. Giants Stadium—60, 70 thousand people, multiple nights. Nothing will ever compare to how fanatic people were about the Dead."
Every rock band aspires to cult status; the Dead were the first to achieve it. In their heyday—roughly from 1966 to the early '80s—Dead concerts embodied a vital subculture of artists, philosophers, rebels, and seekers. No theology, all ritual: music and travel and sex and drugs.
And a figurehead—Deadheads would travel thousands of miles through hostile territory for just three hours with Jerry. No sane, detached, nihilistic hipster would believe enough in anything to go that far.
By the mid-'80s, after a slew of lineup changes, financial debacles, and drug problems, the quintessential live Dead experience was on the wane. The music wasn't as good. The drugs were getting harder. Weirdly, this era, when the band was at its worst, the experience at its most diluted, is when their concerts began attracting a wider audience.
"It breaks my heart when people think of rich kids in the Saab turbo following the band around shitty coliseums in the '80s," Sykes says. "You have to forgive them for that. There are idiots that like Arcade Fire, too."
"There are many people turned off by the dreadlocks-and-patchwork thing," says Whalebones' Justin Deary. "But if you put on Workingman's Dead or American Beauty—one of the records that's easy to get into—they're like, 'This is awesome!'"
Severin had the same distaste for the hippie set but couldn't get enough of the music.
"I would go to shows wearing Black Flag shirts and listening to Suicidal Tendencies," he says. "I never fit in, but I fucking loved the music so much that I had to go again and again."
Some were taken by the pure sociological experiment of the concert experience.
"The music live was okay; it didn't hit me that hard," says Marty Marquis, singer and guitarist for Portland's Blitzen Trapper. "I got the impression they were old and tired and the fans let them get away with whatever they were capable of. The cultural thing was a lot more engaging than the music ever was, and those bigger horizons are what make them important."
And there's Jerry.
"I liken his tone to ball bearings on glass," says Dave Dederer, formerly of the Presidents. "It's unmistakable. There are very few players of any instrument who have such an immediately recognizable sound."
None of the Dead's musical progeny have come close. The jam-band scene was a misreading of the source material; true descendants are bands like Sonic Youth, Pavement, Meat Puppets, Devendra Banhart, Comets on Fire, Deerhunter.
It's 12 years this month since Jerry died and the Dead broke up. There's a Jerry Garcia Celebration happening at Nectar on Friday, August 3, to commemorate.
I doubt I'll go. The bands on the bill—they kinda email@example.com