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Published: 2006/09/20
by John Zinkand

Featured Column:Grateful Morality

I was a rowdy youth. In between spending hours on the Atari 2600 and playing with my friends, I liked to start trouble. Looking back on my childhood, I realize now that I was a badly behaved and pretty spoiled kid. My parents gave into my wishes and wants more often than not. I never wondered where the next meal was coming from or had any real sense of danger or fear. I’m one of the few people I know whose parents are still together to this day. But I think this comfort level led to a good deal of boredom. I did many bad things as a young child like stealing matches and lighting fires in the woods, playing door bell ditch it (ringing the door bell of a house and then running away), or throwing snowballs at passing cars, to name only very few.

As I aged into my pre-teen years, this obnoxious behavior only ramped up. Soon I was sneaking out of my house at night to meet friends and girls, smoking cigarettes (which I could then buy myself at a grocery store with no questions asked), and even stealing beer from neighbors’ garages which we would drink in the woods late at night with the aforementioned friends and girls. I went so far as getting busted for shoplifting at one point. And as pre-puberty hit, I also enjoyed getting into fights with other kids at middle school. Basically, I was a well off rebel without a clue,’ to borrow a phrase from Mr. Petty.

At some point it was decided that I would be shipped off to boarding school for high school. At the time, I believed this was solely my choice, but looking back on it now I wonder if my parents didn’t help steer me in that direction to get me out of their hair. My sister attended a swimming camp at a local boarding school and liked the campus so much that she asked my parents if she could go to school there. They complied. She would tell me glory stories of fun and independence living away from the annoying rules and close watch of the parents. Soon I yearned to go to the same boarding school and pleaded with my parents to let me go. They conceded to my wishes, as usual, and I soon was shipped off to live my life as a juvenile delinquent at boarding school.

When I first arrived at boarding school, the same type of behavior ensued. The destruction of other people’s property, a general disregard for other’s feelings, and misdirected acts such as cheating on tests were still the norm. I was learning responsibility as the classes were very small and there was really no other choice than to do the work or be called out by the teacher. But I was still basically a bad egg without much desire to be good.

Gradually, this all changed. And I believe I owe the change in large part to the Grateful Dead. When I first started listening to their music, it was difficult for me to get into it. But eventually, with the help of some mind altering chemicals, I started to truly appreciate the music. Eventually I got into their music so much that I was trading Dead tapes and reading up on the band and their fans known as Deadheads. After a short self-education about the band, it was evident that the next logical step was seeing a Grateful Dead show. Every piece of literature I ever read explained how there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert and that to fully understand this band, they must be witnessed live. Soon my waking hours were spent trying to figure out a way to see the Grateful Dead, and on September 24th, 1988 at the tender age of 15, I finally achieved this goal.

I strongly believe that, through the combination of ingesting introspective psychedelics and being exposed to the family vibe at the shows, my immature and rowdy behavior began to change. I will not claim that the Dead instantly made me into a squeaky clean citizen who yearned only to do good and spread love and happiness across the land, but their influence definitely did more good than bad. Sure, if it wasn’t for their influence I probably wouldn’t have indulged in drug use at such a young age, but at least the drugs that we used were introspective and not a total waste like the crystal meth of today. One needs to ingest psychedelics only once to be humbled quite a bit. And this actually helped me to stop being such a self-centered, angry young man. Suddenly I realized that my tunnel vision of life only pertaining to my immediate wants and needs was flawed and skewed. Soon I had a deeper appreciation of the bigger picture, nature, and the need to accept other points of view (as well as a new appreciation of melting walls, moving trees, vibrant colors, and cool tracers and trails).

In addition to psychedelic chemicals, there was a strong family vibe at the Dead shows which I began attending on a regular basis. I respected and was in awe of the deadheads with their long hair, crazy clothes, and free thinking. I think I was shocked to find that, in general, they had such strong morals. The older heads definitely looked out for the younger heads like me back in those days. I remember seeing some heads really railing on some guy for stealing beers, and with the new enlightenment of psychedelics to drive the point home, I realized for the first time just how wrong stealing really was. Why would you want to hurt someone by taking what was rightfully theirs when you could help them enjoy life?

There was also a strong vibe of self respect and respect for others no matter how they looked or acted. I remember seeing heads that were way out of control on whatever trip they were on at the time being treated gently by other heads. Instead of being belittled, fellow Deadheads would try to help these individuals chill out through conversation or perhaps a song on acoustic guitar. Being an image conscious young person, I was shocked to see freaky looking heads chatting and exchanging ideas with people who I thought looked too “straight.” How could a long haired freak drenched in patchouli while wearing a tie-dye and a hippie skirt stoop so low as to talk to a guy wearing a tucked in oxford shirt and khakis? I learned the lesson that appearance doesn’t matter at all compared with the true character of a person. Deadheads come in all shapes, sizes, ages, modes of living, etc. Another humbling and eye opening experience.

I also learned that love, happiness, and harmony were much better trips than destruction, anger, and self centeredness. After my very first Dead show in New York City, we took the subway back to a friend’s house. Of course the train was crammed full of sweaty deadheads. But instead of an unpleasant situation, we made it into a fun one. A guy had an acoustic guitar and soon the whole car was singing along to tunes like Ripple and Scarlet Begonias. No one complained but instead there were only smiles and kindness as we made the best of what could have been an uncomfortable and less than enjoyable experience. Also, people at shows were always willing to share whatever they had whether it was food, a miracle ticket, a place to crash for the night, or even a drink of water for the exhausted looking guy next to them. The Deadhead community always had a culture of kindness and sharing that seemed foreign to me having grown up in the self indulgent pop culture of the 1980s.

I won’t say the changes to my personality happened overnight or that there weren’t any downsides to being exposed to the Dead and their fans at such a young age, but the good far outweighed the bad. And over time, the negative influences have been wiped away through more experience and learning. The drug use of the past is not needed anymore as the lessons have been learned. A mere appreciation of being kind to others has been replaced by the action of donating time and money to charities – not just giving a beer to the guy next to me in the lot. A basic understanding that there are personal boundaries we all need to push through has been replaced by the actual pushing through of such boundaries.

The Grateful Dead mean so much more to me than just their music. They helped me change and grow into the person I am today. Although it may sound funny to some, the Dead and their fans were an important part of my life and helped to give me a moral compass from which I have formed many of my life philosophies. Not to mention the appreciation for all art forms and kinds of music that they have instilled in me. I hope that these life lessons are still being passed down in the current scenes of the jambands du jour and that there are young people who are ready, willing, and able to learn them. While most people in the main stream might think of the Dead scene only as hedonistic bastion of freaks and druggies, they don’t truly understand the culture. A quote from a wise man by the name of Robert Hunter sums it up best. “Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”

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