I was not raised in a Deadhead household. Although my parents weren’t Deadheads, they were still good, enlightened people when it came to music and encouraged me to find my own way, my father accompanying to Allman Brothers Band and Santana concerts and even taking me to a mid-week late-night Gov’t Mule show at a very seedy club when I was in high school. I wasn’t really exposed directly to the Dead’s music until I was in seminary when I started playing music with a fellow student, a gentle mountain hippie who picked out “Ripple” and “Friend of the Devil” on his banjo. The first Grateful Dead album I bought was American Beauty, and I was immediately drawn to its country-folk simplicity. A friend loaned me Dick’s Picks Volume Sixteen, a show at the Fillmore in November of ’69. I didn’t understand it; the spacey jams were too much for me, and I couldn’t appreciate what was happening during “Dark Star” and “Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks).” So for a few years, my entrance into the Dead was stuck in their country-folk acoustic period of 1970.
Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me, and I got Wake of the Flood. And that led me to their studio albums of the seventies, which eventually led me into their live shows. I discovered the magic of 1977 and began collecting shows from the seventies. The more I listened, the more I learned how to listen, and eventually I spread my interest outward, learning to comprehend the hermeneutics of the protean jams of the late sixties as well as the pop redactions of the eighties. I studied their performances, and their musical aesthetic open up to me. I learned to listen not just to Jerry Garcia’s spidery lead guitar excursions, but also to the inquisitive commentary of Bob Weir’s rhythm guitar, Phil Lesh’s underpinning bass harmonies, and the nuanced differences in style and approach of their numerous keyboard players.
My little girl was born on my birthday, and one of the gifts my parents gave me for my birthday was the recently released Crimson, White & Indigo, the show from JFK Stadium in Philadelphia on July 7, 1989. This was some of the earliest music my baby heard in those first few weeks of her life. It’s not the best Dead show from 1989 (that would be either of the Hampton shows in October), but it’s a good start for a beginner, featuring a setlist of classics and deep cuts along with some spirited playing from keyboardist Brent Mydland. It was too early in her life for us to detect any kind of response to this music except that music seemed to calm her.
My obsession with the Grateful Dead has brought me to collect a rather large number of their live shows. I don’t have room on my iPod for all of them, so I tend to listen to the CDs in my car. So every day, when I take my little girl to daycare, she gets a small dose of the Dead. Some days she seems indifferent to it; other days, she seems enlivened and amused. This past week I have been listening through Winterland 1973: The Complete Recordings, and has found this to be an inspiring period. Strapped into her car seat, she has kicked her feet and vocalized along with “Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Bertha.” This morning, she caught the spirit during the second night’s rather special run of “Playing In the Band” > “Uncle John’s Band” > “Morning Dew” > “Uncle John’s Band” > Playing In the Band.” During the epicenter of that excursion, a rather thoughtful and melancholy passage of meditative exegesis on “Morning Dew,” she began singing along and shaking her toy Elmo’s head so that it rattled along with the beat.
This is the joy of the music of the Grateful Dead: allowing yourself to get caught up in a spontaneous and ecstatic spirit of reflection and bliss. Feeling the moment, allowing the interplay of the music to wash over you and speak to it as you will listen, this is what the music of the Dead means to me. If the only instrument you have handy is a stuffed Elmo doll, then shake it, sugaree! The Rhythm Devils would be pleased.
I’m not an uncritical Deadhead. Let’s face it, Brent was the only one of them who could sing. My little girl can’t sing or even talk yet, but when she tried this morning, she sounded every bit as good as Donna Jean Godchaux. And just because the band members fearlessly opened themselves up every night to the exploratory experience of improvisatory discovery doesn’t mean they always found something. Not every “Dark Star” is amazing; even during a good show, there are moments when it’s just boring. And I know that playing the Dead for her this early runs the risk that she’ll get tired of this mysterious music or decide that hating it would be an appropriate form of differentiation when she gets older.
But that’s a risk I’m willing to run. After all, that’s the risk I hear in the Dead’s music: the risk to be open, to explore, to try something new knowing that it might not always result in something everyone understands or appreciate. Sometimes, during a long period of “Space,” the lesson I learn is that fifteen minutes of tedious noodling is a worthy trade-off for three minutes of divinely beautiful music. In fact, that fifteen minutes of dull exploration is necessary in order to truly experience the inspiration in those three minutes. That’s the risk: steppin’ out on the faith that there is something beautiful to be found in journeying together, even if we can’t sing and we have no idea what we’re going to play next. It’s the playing that’s important. There are plenty of tedious moments as a parent, but they are so completely worth it for just a few seconds of giggling. And the more you live in those moments, the more you play together, the more beautiful even the tedious moments become.
Of course, that’s probably reading too much into it, right? At the end of it all, I just love music and I love the music of the Grateful Dead and I love sharing the music I love with the people I love. If my little girl grows up to be a Deadhead like me, I’ll be thrilled. But even if she takes after her mother, merely tolerating my geeky obsession, I’ll still be thrilled to raise a girl who loves to play for the sake of playing and can let herself get caught up in a moment of freedom, shaking her toys and warbling along in a moment of song, regardless of what anyone else thinks. I love having a little girl who plays, and it whatever it was I used to play for, it really feels like now we play for life.