Indie Rockers Celebrate Jerry Garcia (On Jerry Day)
Jerry Garcia was born 69 years ago today. In commemoration, we posted three archival Jerry Garcia Band videos earlier today. Here we revisit Jesse Jarnow’s August 2008 Relix Feature.
The Lorimer Street subway station in Brooklyn is 2,912 miles from the front stoop of 710 Ashbury, and is the hub between the trendy neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Park Slope. There, at nearly any hour, one can experience the latest in hipster fashion: the fabbest band t-shirts, sideways haircuts, half-ironic haberdashery, facial hair, novels du jour, vintage glasses, or any other indicator one might seek.
It is there, last year, at the end of the platform that a seemingly unlikely piece of graffiti appears. “Now It’s Your Turn To Get Ahead!” the ad for the vocational school reads in encouraging yellow letters, and that’s exactly what the artist does, tagging the Grateful Dead’s Steal Your Face skull over a smiling Asian woman in surgical scrubs.
“Uptown toodle-loo!” she now sang from one speech bubble, like a victim of the Joker. “Half a cup of rock and rye…” from another.
“WTF?” I text my friend with a picture when I get above ground. “hipster deadheads in wburg?”
Two months later, the graffiti since covered, a 20-something ambles by at the same station late one evening, singing drunk and proud. Taking my headphones off, I realize it’s “Box of Rain.” Because it’s the Grateful Dead, I sing along.
We talk until the train comes, and then a few stops. He’s just discovered the Dead, as it were, via Judd Apatow’s short-lived TV series Freaks & Geeks, in which—during the finale—protagonist Lindsay Weir has a revelatory moment listening to American Beauty’s opening cut and (SPOILER ALERT!) hops in a Microbus and heads off on Dead tour.
“It’s just so right,” the sloshed hipster kid keeps saying.
For those counting on a global paradigmatic shift when the Mayan calendar tails down in December 2012, one positive sign of the forthcoming singularity—or quite possibly, the apocalypse—is the warm and lovely redeification of Jerry Garcia in the mind of the young hipster. If the number of indie rock acts now crediting the Dead as a reference point is any indication, the Dead are in. Again.
With their deep ties to the American avant-garde via bassist Phil Lesh (who studied with electronic composer Luciano Berio), their radical and/or stoned approach to intellectual property (via free tape trading), their fiercely independent business operations, their direct connections to both the Beats (in Merry Prankster Neal Cassady) and contemporary techno-utopians (through lyricist and Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow), the Dead have always been cool. But they haven’t always been fashionable.
“I wouldn’t wear a tie-dyed t-shirt unless it was dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Jerry Garcia,” undisputed heavyweight signifier Kurt Cobain sneered in 1992 and wore a homemade “Kill the Grateful Dead” tee to a Rolling Stone photo shoot. “August 8th is a beautiful day, what’s goin’ on… is something bummin’ your scene?” punk-pop staples NOFX sang on “August 8th” in 1996, getting the date of Garcia’s death one day early.
It is an old division. “The Dead seemed more like a group of ex-folkies just dabbling in distortion (as their albums eventually bore out),” proto-punk critic Lester Bangs wrote in Creem in 1970. “It seems likely that The Velvet Underground were definitely eclipsing the Dead from the start when it came to a new experimental music,” he declared, delineating an early branching point in how rock would develop after the ‘60s.
Where both Lou Reed’s Velvets and the Dead took Bob Dylan as a primary influence, the Velvets loosened it into drone-punk and the Dead tightened it into dance music. (Both bands also initially called themselves ‘The Warlocks,’ perhaps demonstrating a subliminal genetic connection.) The Velvets spawned punk and, eventually, indie rock. The Dead, meanwhile, rode their wave into the ‘90s and out came the jambands. And when Kurt Cobain and Jerry Garcia died in 1994 and 1995—both, ultimately, victims of heroin addiction and the weight of being icons—their worlds seemed universes apart.
The revival, however, has arrived. Indie stalwarts have included Dead (and Dead-influenced) covers in their sets: Animal Collective (“We Bid You Goodnight”), Yo La Tengo (“Ripple”), Akron/Family (“I Know You Rider,” “Turn on Your Lovelight”), Of Montreal (“Shakedown Street”). Metric’s Emily Haines has sported a Garcia shirt onstage. Will Oldham—of whom Jeffrey Lewis sang, on “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror,” “if you look at indie rock culture, you really can’t ignore him”—covered “Brokedown Palace” on a 2004 tour EP. In 2005, Eminem associate Proof released the full-length Searching for Jerry Garcia, and even Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco named-checked ol’ Jer last year (“Just Might Be OK”). In June, writing about the influence of the Dead’s business practices in his New York Times column, Princeton economist Paul Krugman concluded, “We are all the Grateful Dead.”
The Dead revival comes hot on the heels of the rise of freak-folk, the generally quiet and disputably named indie subgenre whose primary exponent is Devendra Banhart, a Natalie Portman-dating jet-set folksinger who looks not unlike an emaciated Charles Manson.
“The whole hippie aesthetic has definitely come back into style—beards and headbands,” says Brian Weitz of the sprouting hairstyles on the Brooklyn subway. Known as Geologist, Weitz is one-fourth of Animal Collective, a practically impenetrable electro-psychedelic band whose music buries beautiful Beach Boys-like harmonies amid chaotic self-sabotage, and who somehow incited a major-label bidding war. Steal Your Face logos have also been spotted on their gear.
“To me, there’s never been a band that really sounded like them,” says Weitz, who cites Animal Collective’s predilection for jamming between songs, rarely stopping, as coming from the Dead. “People are starting to realize how radical what they did was, musically and financially: their business structure, their live shows, everything. I think most kids of our generation grew up with the Dead being this institution and this very singular aesthetic, and never really stopped to think about it. I didn’t either, and I’ve been into the Dead since I was 14. I never stopped to think until I was an adult sort of how incredible was that it existed and got as big as it did and reached people the way that it did.”
Of Montreal leader Kevin Barnes, whose neurotic disco-psych is an archetype of modern indie rock, was recently turned onto the narcissistic crash of “Shakedown Street” and promptly covered it at this year’s Langerado Music Festival. “[It’s] sort of a scenster’s defense of his hood,” Barnes says. “It’s an unconventional subject to sing about. It’s a positive song but it has a little swagger to it.”
It was the Los Angeles-based Arthur magazine—early champions of Banhart and Joanna Newsom—that could be said to have launched the revival, however. “The May 14, 1974 ‘Dark Star’ performed in Missoula, Montana sounds like ‘In A Silent Way’ as interpreted by Sonic Youth but nearly every performance of ‘Lazy Lightnin’’ sounds like coke-snorting yuppies getting funky in tie-dyed Izods,” wrote Daniel Chamberlain in a 2004 Arthur article titled “Uncle Skullfucker’s Band.”
Another piece, titled “How to Dig the Grateful Dead,” ran in September 2005, featuring contributions from Geologist, Comets on Fire’s Ethan Miller, Brightback Morning Light’s Nathan Shineywater, and others. Two years later, glossy hipster bible The Fader published a double-covered May/June 2007 issue titled Jerry Garcia: American Beauty including commentary from Banhart, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, and The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. Through the nine full-page photos included, only two featured Garcia’s iconic beard (and nary a gray hair). Likewise, only two included any other members of the Dead.
If there is a common thread in the hipster reclamation of the Dead, it is an insistence on filtering them. This is a new way of appreciating Grateful Dead culture. In essay titled “Who is Dionysius and Why Does He Keep Following Me Everywhere?” Stanley Spector posited that “Deadhead life” meant “saying yes to all that life offers, from mediocre veggie burritos in the parking lot to sublime moments of communal, musical joy, even to bad trips or to [Bob] Weir’s closing a show with a ‘profane’ ‘Good Lovin’’ after the band had played a ‘sacred’ ‘Morning Dew.’”
This means little to the new breed of Dead listener who—like Geologist—may’ve only seen the band once, far past their peak. “I don’t listen to much beyond ‘74,” he admits. Don’t wanna hear any of Brent Mydland’s over-affected blues-growl? Delete! All straight on Weir’s “Looks Like Rain” freak outs? They don’t exist! Junkie guitarist? What junkie guitarist? The generation of jambands that perverted the Dead’s legacy into “grassroots marketing” and a demographic to be targeted with key chains and branded rolling papers? Merely an illusion!
Experimental guitarist and electronic musician Greg Davis perhaps best encapsulated the filtering from a musicological point of view. In 2005, the Burlington musician distributed a bootleg, DJ-style mix of Grateful Dead music fashioned from feedback jams, Lesh’s electronic experiments with Ned Lagin, Merry Prankster babble, collaged chunks of Anthem of the Sun, and a little bit of sunshine folk. Mydland does not appear.
Most frequently, it boils down to Garcia himself. “Like many, I fall most fully into the Jerry camp,” says Will Oldham, who records quietly violent Americana under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy. “I’m drawn most specifically to the way Jerry sings and plays, and his work with Robert Hunter and David Grisman, among many others. I learn from his phrasing, from his song choice, from his manner overall.”
Garcia’s relentless thirst to communicate inspired Lee Ranaldo, guitarist for noise-rock luminaries Sonic Youth whose own astral jams frequently approach “Dark Star” territory. Ranaldo, who saw the band “many, many times” beginning at Watkins Glen in 1973, mentions Garcia’s collaborations with jazz musicians Ornette Coleman and Howard Wales. Garcia: A Sign-Post to a New Space, Charles Reich’s book-length interview with Garcia published by Rolling Stone in 1972, was “really influential,” he continues. “It outlined—from Garcia’s personal perspective—a lot of where he saw the Dead in their context. I thought that was really interesting that this guy from this group had all these ideas and theories. That was really stimulating.”
Though Sonic Youth and their fellow post-punks continued to reject the baby boomer narrative of the ‘60s—indeed, one of SY’s signature songs was the Manson-inspired “Death Valley ‘69”—that doesn’t mean the Dead weren’t a secret influence on several revered acts. “Their music touches on ground that most other groups don’t even know exists,” wrote future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, reviewing Live/Dead in Rolling Stone the same year as Lester Bangs’ Creem screed.
“They were an immense force in music in America in a lot of ways,” Ranaldo reminds, mentioning his heroes Television, whose guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd unspooled wiry jams from Verlaine’s high-strung punk. “I thought it reflected a certain kind of listening to stuff like the Dead and San Francisco music. Later, becoming friendly with Verlaine, that kind of was confirmed.”
Just as punk was an underground within the mainstream, a sub-secret Deadhead network existed in the ‘80s indie-punk world, which counted among its members artists on the influential SST label, including founder Greg Ginn of Black Flag, Curt and Cris Kirkwood of The Meat Puppets (who recorded “Franklin’s Tower” for their first album), and Ranaldo.
“They’re always kind underneath the radar in a lot of ways,” offers Dylan Carlson of veteran Seattle sludge-psychers Earth and lifelong Dead fan. (His band’s latest, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull, is a sly metaloid reference to “Samson and Delilah.”) “Maybe the perception is that they represent this whole thing—it’s so hippie we gotta hate it—especially in the underground rock world.”
In fact, a whole subgenre exists of anti-Dead songs. “I’d wanna kill Pigpen if he were alive,” sing A.D. Nation and Buz Rico on “Kill Jerry Garcia.” A small sampling of other titles include Eleventh Dream Day’s “Bomb the Mars Hotel,” Archie Brown and the Bucks’ “Bring Me the Head of Jerry Garcia,” and Anti-Heroes’ “Jerry Was a Piece of Shit.”
One who noticed similarities between the Dead world and punk was Ginn, who saw the Dead and various Garcia projects an estimated 200 times, and helped pioneer the hardcore scene with Black Flag with singer Henry Rollins. They were “different undergrounds that beneath the stereotypes had so much in common,” he says. “Of course, as undergrounds age, they become more rigid and the participants acquire more rules in an attempt to maintain the status quo.”
“Psychedelic rock was considered an anachronism by the end of the ‘70s and the Grateful Dead was about the only practitioner still standing,” Ginn continues. “That insistence on continuing to go against the grain was a big influence on me. There are always those with pre-conceived notions that are not correct.”
“I know all of the hippies at my high school worshipped them,” says Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes. “It took me a long time to even give them a listen, ‘cause they had such a stigma in my mind. I was definitely not expecting to sound like they do.”
“I think the Dead are weird because a lot of people who say they don’t like them haven’t actually heard them,” concurs Carlson, who—in addition to being the leader of Earth—was also Kurt Cobain’s best friend. Cobain’s loathing for the Dead, as it turns out, had less to do with the music than the Deadheads. “Unfortunately, Kurt was not one I was ever able to turn,” he sighs, though notes he was able to expose The Screaming Trees to “Mountains of the Moon.” “A lot of it had to do with his relationship to Chad [Channing], their drummer. They weren’t getting along, and Chad”—frequently described by Nirvana biographers as “elfin”—“is the embodiment of all things hippie.”
Just as the Dead were an immense force in American music, the Deadheads were an equally immense force in American subcultures. By the end of their career, the Dead themselves were an island in a protective ocean of Deadheads, who often literally—and quite symbolically—drowned the band’s music by singing along. “As time went on I just got over the fact that you can’t blame a band for their fans,” admitted Modest Mouse leader Isaac Brock in the Garcia Fader issue. Without the Deadheads migrating seasonally about the interstate system like North American mammals, defining the band’s story, it might be easier to appreciate the Grateful Dead’s music for what it was, and is.
The music they made in the 1960s is as removed from a 20-something today as the mysterious Depression-era folk and blues musicians were removed from Jerry Garcia. “I owe a lot of who I am and what I’ve been and what I’ve done to the beatniks from the Fifties and to the poetry and art and music I’ve come in contact with,” Garcia told Rolling Stone in 1991. “I feel like I’m part of a continuous line of a certain thing in American culture, of a root,” he mused. To new listeners who didn’t have an older brother or cousin to initiate them, the Dead are old and weird and pure.