Being a Grateful Dead fan seems fun.
You’re part of a community that’s millions-strong, there’s no shortage of opinions to debate (you can argue about the best lineup, or whether “Tennessee Jed” sounded better on September 11, 1973, at William and Mary College Hall, or May 15, 1977, at St. Louis Arena), and you have an almost unlimited supply of music to listen to. You can start with the 13 studio albums, then make your way to the “contemporary live albums,” Dick’s Picks, and literally thousands of fan recordings. There are enough versions of “Dark Star” out there to last you an entire year. As a music completist — I own every Weezer album; yes, even Hurley — the Dead should be my dream band.
But I am not a Dead fan. I’m not a hater, either. I’m somewhere between Homer Simpson complaining, “I’ve been listening to this song for three days, and it’s only the end of the first verse,” and Lindsay Weir dancing in her bedroom after hearing “Box of Rain” for the first time. I remember my first time hearing the Dead, too. (I did not end up following them across the country.) It was in my sophomore year of high school. I was poor and desperate for music, and rather than spend five days torrenting Weird Al’s discography off some shady site (only to discover the files were actually Jerky Boys albums), I would borrow CDs from my local library. I would then burn them onto blank CD-Rs; before long, my collection was hundreds of albums deep. I’m to blame for the cratering music industry. My bad?
I got most of my suggestions from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, which ranked the Dead’s American Beauty as the 258th greatest album of all-time (it’s #261 in the updated list). I was aware of the Dead, and knew some of their radio-friendly songs and that my mom’s best friend is a Deadhead who attended hundreds of shows, but to bring it back to Lindsay Weir, I had never given them a proper listen. So, I put on the folk-leaning American Beauty and… thought it was fine. “Maybe I’m more of a psychedelic Dead fan,” I remember thinking. “I’ll try Europe ’72.” So I did, and… still fine. There are moments of pure beauty in there — the harmonies on “Sugar Magnolia,” the beautifully sad “Morning Dew” — and I got why people loved it so much. But it left me feeling emotionally hollow, like a painting in an art museum I didn’t understand.
But I wanted to understand, so I sat through all four hours of Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s upcoming documentary about the Grateful Dead for Amazon Video. (Martin Scorsese is listed as an executive producer.) Have you ever sat through a four-hour movie in a theater? I hadn’t — even the famously lengthy Gone with the Wind and Once Upon a Time in America are shorter — and I’m not sure I’d recommend it. But it’s the best (if most uncomfortable) way to watch Long Strange Trip, because it’s like seeing the Dead live: It’s long, boring, and drags at times, and there’s rarely a scene that isn’t accompanied with noodling, but mostly, you’re fascinated in ways that you can’t quite explain. You want to understand why people would give up their lives for a band that, as the documentary makes clear, didn’t set out to become famous. I’m not sure Long Strange Trip gets there — it comes back to certain talking heads too often, and spends too much time on Jerry Garcia’s death in the final hour — but ironically, it helped me understand why I’m not a Dead fan.
“I’ve always admired the spirit and creativity of the Grateful Dead. They are revolutionary artists who forever changed the world of touring and recording live music. They were a cultural force — a lifestyle, that continue to influence new generations of fans. This film will entertain and educate audiences about one of the most innovative and groundbreaking American bands of the 20th century.” That’s Martin Scorsese (who directed No Direction Home, a stunning documentary about the Dead’s occasional touring partner, Bob Dylan) explaining why he attached himself to Long Strange Trip. It’s a succinct description of the band, especially the word “lifestyle.” To paraphrase the Minutemen, the Grateful Dead could be your life. Even if you’ve never heard a Dead song, you know what a stereotypical Deadhead looks (and smells) like: tie-dye shirt, drives a rainbow-colored bus or van, covers himself/herself in bears, reeks of weed. They’re also genuinely friendly free spirits who experience the Dead the way some people do a cold beer after a long day. It’s a way to zone out from the real world, to be among friends and good vibes.
I hung out with a few Deadheads in high school and college, and as far as People Who Defined Themselves By The Bands They Listened To, I found them more enjoyable to be around than the jazz freaks or the suburban white boys in Wu-Tang Clan shirts. They usually hung out in a free-love pack outside, where they were closer to nature, and talked openly about seeing RatDog months in advance. I was always envious of their mellowness (a certain drug may have helped with that); it was as if they were living a Grateful Dead lyric: “If you get confused, just listen to the music play.” The secrets of the universe where whispered through Jerry Garcia’s mystical guitar solos. Meanwhile, I was inside in my bedroom or dorm room listening to the Velvet Underground.
On the surface, the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground seem like polar opposites: one embraced light, the other lived in the darkness; one’s from the West Coast, the other hails from the East Coast; Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed once called the scene in the Bay Area, which the Dead lived, “tedious, a lie, and untalented.” But the two bands have some things in common. Most notably, they both went by the Warlocks early in their existences. Beyond that, though, the VU and the Dead embraced live improvisations — songs would routinely stretch the half-hour point. The difference being, according to the VU’s Doug Yule, the Dead “started thinking about what they were doing too much… Jerry, he’ll play the same solo for a half hour, but if he’d done it for just two minutes… he plays the same notes over and over again.” “Lovelight” and “Sister Ray” are both double-digit jams, but the Dead would tinker, wheres the Velvet Underground would drone. I was instantly connected to that scary, mysterious drone, and Lou Reed’s vivid experience-based lyrics, as opposed to Garcia and Robert Hunter’s irony-free hippie poetry.
I kept waiting for a moment in Long Strange Trip to grab me, for a moment of clarity that helped me understand why Ben and Jerry’s made Cherry Garcia, but not Red Velvet Underground. It never happened, not because the documentary is bad (the never-before-seen footage is enlightening, and I could listen to the band’s roadies and tour managers talk about the infamous Wall of Sound for hours), but because I just don’t care enough about the Grateful Dead enough to listen to them for four hours. The band’s jazz-folk-blues-psychedelia-bluegrass songs, while complex in chord progressions, lack urgency; they build, eventually, but never to a satisfying climax. They sound sleepy, the perfect soundtrack to a sunny mid-afternoon nap on the hammock. I’d like to be so relaxed that I can find my bliss to “Playing in the Band,” but that’s not who I am — my musical solace comes from the aggressively dark feedback of “I Heard Her Call My Name.” In other words, I want to be the Grateful Dead, but I’m actually the Velvet Underground.
Long Strange Trip didn’t turn me into a Deadhead, but it helped me find clarity with a band that’s long fascinated me. I’ll never understand the Grateful Dead, but at least now, after hearing their music for four hours, I know why that is.
Long Strange Trip will air in six parts on Amazon Prime Video on May 26.