Nov 042010

Last night my 13-year-old son asked my wife and I if The Grateful Dead were any good. I quickly answered, “They’ve got some good songs, but generally they were really sloppy with lots of pointless improvisations and bad singing. We’ve got some friends who like them a lot.”

“I know you love ‘Bertha’!” said my wife, and that I do.

My wife, who’d been to 10 Dead and Dead-related shows in her college days, couldn’t give them a much better explanation. She objected, however, to my later characterization of them playing no more than 30 minutes of coherent music during a 3-hour set. “‘Drums and Space’ only took up 45 minutes of a set!”

“But what about songs like ‘St. Stephen,'” I replied, “which start out on fire for 20 seconds before veering off into a few minutes of Jerry’s mellow improvisations before returning to the main theme?”

“So they’re like Pink Floyd?” my son interjected, referring specifically to a short film of the Syd-led band playing “Interstellar Overdrive” at some famous Happening that was shown prior to the screening of that recent Doors’ documentary.

Obviously I’m not going to be of great help in setting up the Dead for a fair listen by my boy. I’ll play our son the half dozen songs I like a lot by The Dead as well as some of those long jams and terrible cover songs, but help me put into words what this musically attuned 13-year-old boy might expect. And please, don’t attempt to corrupt the kid. Thank you.


  15 Responses to “Please Explain: The Grateful Dead…to a 13-Year-Old Boy”

  1. This is a tough conversation to have actually as a parent. How do you deal with the issue of mood enhancers or do you just leave it at “music for hippies”?

  2. I don’t know alot about The Dead. It’s funny that this conversation has come up, though, because thanks to MIA Townsman MickAvory, I have every studio album and official live album.

    I have always had a fondness for American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead (doesn’t everyone?), but I don’t know alot of the others. I’ve always sort of liked “Touch of Grey” as a catchy little tune. I have that two-disc WB set (Strange Trip), but never really felt a kinship with the band.

    As I wade throught these records, I hope to find some gems. If I do, I’ll let you know.


  3. True, but on the other hand it may be an opportunity to tear down a stereotype. How many of us have attempted to better enjoy the music of the Dead with “mood enhancers” only to find them still less than desired? It may not be fair to users of mood enhancers and the Dead to lump them together the way some people might, for instance, snidely lump Phish phans and pharmaceuticals.

  4. Isn’t all improvisation pointless to a certain degree? The only “point” I see in it is the hope that it will yield an interesting idea or two, but I’m far less optimistic/patient in that regard as the years go on.

    Can’t you just tell your son that they were all over the map, with material and performances ranging from pretty good to abysmal? If you play “The Golden Road”, “Dire Wolf”, “Bertha” and “China Cat Sunflower” for him, you will have covered a lot of ground in 4 songs. These are all good songs and will give him a decent overview of their career. My Deadhead friends say that ’69-’72 is the prime era for live stuff, by the way.

    You don’t really need to point out the bad parts of the Dead to him do you? They will reveal themselves in time and besides, did you start him off with Mighty Like A Rose or did you focus on This Year’s Model when turning him onto Elvis Costello (as an aside, if I recall correctly, he and I share the same favorite Elvis song: The Beat).

  5. One more thing, make sure you play him stuff from the era when Jerry and Bob were still playing stock guitars (Strat’s sg’s etc) Once the custom guitars enter the picture, it’s all downhill from there.

  6. hrrundivbakshi

    Son, sit down for a second… I need to talk to you.

    Your mother tells me you’ve been asking questions about the Grateful Dead. Good. It’s always good to ask questions, and I’m glad you chose to ask one of us, rather than, say, your friends — who may have good intentions, but don’t have the life experience your mom and I do to put this kind of thing in perspective.

    Let me start by saying music can’t be “bad.” Music is a beautiful thing, which — in the best circumstances — is a vehicle for the expression of love and other positive emotions. It allows us to express how we *feel*. Having said that, music can be written or performed for the *wrong reasons* — and when that happens, it can often be bad. Or, when people just aren’t talented at the skill of making music, sometimes you’ll hear it described as “bad music.” Again, none of these things make music “bad” in and of itself.

    Most important: sometimes we’re just not mature enough — yet — to really understand music. Though we really, really want to listen to it… all the time, it often seems!

    So, when you’re thinking of starting to listen to music — the Grateful Dead, for example — just ask yourself: is the music the Grateful Dead makes full of love? (Be careful — sometimes a band may not really mean the words they say!) Do they want to make music for good reasons? (Again: be careful! Sometimes the Grateful Dead’s music can be a bit “selfish,” with all those 20-minute drum solos and insipid stage banter and idiotic custom guitars.)

    And, dear son of mine, ask yourself honestly: am I mature enough to really understand the Grateful Dead? Maybe the fact that you’re confused enough to ask your mother and me about them should tell you something about that.

    I’m glad we had this talk, son. I’m always here to answer your questions — about music, or baseball, or movies, or anything.

    Just not about sex.

  7. Very wise advice, cdm, and yes, you two do share the same favorite EC song.

  8. You are more than ready for fatherhood, HVB! (Not that I’d ever interfere with your life.)

  9. I just spent a weekend upstate with my Deadheaded friends so this is all fresh to me. I guess the Dead are mostly about collaboration; bringing what you have to the group and the group improvising something out of that combination in the moment. A very Summer of Love idea (this is how I would get around the “are drugs needed for enjoyment” conversation).

    Jerry brought folk/bluegrass roots, Pigpen brought boogie/biker party music and Lesh adds a bit of avant-jazz to the stash. The audience adds their own vibe to it although their excesses understandably turn off more people then they attract. It doesn’t work a lot of the time but when it does it works like crazy. Check out the Lovelight -> Goin’ Down the Road from “Hundred Year Hall” for about 25 minutes of the good stuff.

    I’ll also add Terrapin Station as one better multi-part epics of the mid 70’s. The Dead are kind of an object lesson on the hippie era; are bursts of inspiration and a feeling of community worth the wreckage and indulgence of a society under no one’s direction and following no set rules?

  10. I wish I had your advice when I was 13. This is very helpful, and I hope our current 13-year-old readers are paying attention to this thread.

  11. shawnkilroy

    well first off i think you have to let him know about bootlegs right?
    They themselves even said they made crappy records. I also think you need to mention culture. As in: Sometimes a culture(deadhead) is so specific, that you can only understand it from within.

  12. BigSteve

    I’d tell him not to worry about subcultures or jamming. Hunter/Garcia wrote great songs rooted in Americana. The songs come through just fine on studio albums or live recordings. Contrary to their rep, the Dead could be concise. Some affinity for folk/blues/country/jugbands might help appreciate what they do.

  13. jeangray

    At about the same age as your son, I had a junior high english teacher spend a whole period explaining how Jerry Garcia was the greatest Rock guitarist. Being an aspiring guitarist at the time, it certainly put Garcia on my radar. He then asked the class for our faves, and I answered Rick Nielsen!

    I have since changed my answer.

    P.S. Pretty cool teacher, huh?

  14. machinery

    Sit your boy down and say:

    Son, if I ever, ever see or hear you playing a Grateful Dead CD in this house, you will be grounded til your senior year in high school.

  15. 2000 Man

    I think machinery has the right idea. I’d tell my kid that while the radio is a piss poor way to enjoy music these days, they’ll play you all the Grateful Dead you need to hear, and you don’t need to sift through thousands of hours of live recordings to hear Truckin’ once every decade to scratch that itch. I think I’d tell my kid the coolest thing The Dead ever made was their T shirts. Those looked like real Rock N Roll, but didn’t mess it up by making all that noise for four hours. I’d also say, always buy that shirt new, because you’ll never get the hippie stink out of a used one.

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