Deadheads and Haters

Every few years, one of Seattle’s free weeklies publishes a semi-ironic article explaining that the Grateful Dead are, in fact, not that bad. A few years ago, it was this review of Dick’s Picks in The Seattle Weekly; this week, Stranger music writer Jonathan Zwickel (one of the few music writers there who I can stand) admits that he, too, likes the Grateful Dead, and reveals the shocking secret there are other famous indie hipsters in Seattle who like the Dead as well.

See, there’s this code of religion in the indie rock world, at least in Seattle, although I imagine that similar rules apply everywhere. Punk is the best music and all of it must be appreciated for its energy and attitude and don’t-give-a-fuck youthfulness, no matter how derivative and boring it is. Not being able to play an instrument is cool because it makes no-talent writers feel like they, too, could be cool by playing in a rock and roll band.

Some classic 70s rock is ironically cool as well, but only if it’s guitar-heavy, second-tier, not-too-serious stuff. You know, the stuff you used to sit through while waiting for the good bands to come on when you listened to “classic rock” radio back in the 1980s. Listenable, not an immediate radio-changer like Journey or Bob Seger, but nothing particularly special.

Also: you have to pretend to like techno/DJ/electronic/whatever they call that videogame music these days, or you’re a dinosaur. You have to pretend to like hip-hop or you’re a racist. You have to pretend an ironic appreciation for disco or your a homophobe. You are allowed to have differing opinions about experimental stuff–noise, black metal, free jazz–as long as you pretend to like at least one of these artists or albums in one of these genres from time to time. Otherwise you’re shallow.

Anybody who’s hung out with “serious” music fans in the last 10 years knows exactly what I’m talking about.

The Grateful Dead are at the bottom of the list. They’re the opposite of punk: no cute lead singer, no thrashing, no tatts. Long meandering songs. Competent musicianship.

A few points to these writers:

  1. Most of us, music fans and musicians included, stopped caring about others’ taste in music some time after high school. OK, you might turn me on to something I’ve never heard before that I actually enjoy–that’s worthwhile. Or I might know that your parties will feature some music that I can’t stand (Gypsy Kings, Norah Jones). But the Grateful Dead are a known quantity. I get nothing out of knowing that you like, hate, or are indifferent to them. All you’re doing is playing the reverse-hipster card.
  2. Deadheads can be really annoying. But so can any type of hardcore fanatic. Sports fans, Christians, gay men who talk about nothing but gayosity.
  3. The first not-so-big secret about the Dead is that their albums were never a good representation of the band. You had to see them live. The second not-so-big secret about Dead shows is that the higher you are, the better they sound. I saw them three times on their 80s and 90s shed tours. The first time I was sober and was so bored I left early. The second time I was stupendously high and they rocked my world. The third time, I was fairly stoned and they were fairly good. Now you may think that’s not a talent, that every musician sounds better high. Wrong. Cheesy, poorly produced pop music sounds worse when you’re high. Some music sounds good sober, better drunk, but not so great high (Rolling Stones, Tom Waits). Some music is attractive when you’re sober, but opens up into something completely different when you’re high (Coltrane, Talking Heads, Pink Floyd). But the Dead are one of the few–perhaps the only–artist for whom one’s enjoyment is directly correlated to how high one is at the time experiencing them.

When people tell me they hate the Dead, I know they’ve never been really high and seen them live. When people tell me they love the Dead, I know they took psychedelic drugs at their shows.

Just like when the entire staff of The Stranger writes about how great Daft Punk was, I know (a.) they never lived through the epic arena rock shows of the 70s and early 80s and (b.) they were all on ecstasy or something better.

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