Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In Defense Of: Grateful Dead

This In Defense Of was contributed by Ani Monteleone, a Brooklyn-based singer and  keyboardist who wants to tell you all about what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Williamsburg, 2014? Grateful Dead, 1969.
“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” arguably the most recognizable Grateful Dead quote of all time, was also the most oft-quoted line printed under my classmates’ senior photos in our high school yearbook. My suburban New Jersey school was full of Dave Matthews Brand '90s hippies, and I surely scoffed at their lame attempts at being profound by using a Grateful Dead line as their senior quote. (My quote was probably something extremely angsty-sounding by some obscure band like Bleed or Chokehold.)

That being said, up until that point I had never given much thought to the Grateful Dead either way. My parents, who were a little too young to have been hippies themselves, raised me on a steady diet of jazz and The Beatles. My friend Colleen gave me Bikini Kill’s Pussy Whipped on cassette tape for my fourteenth birthday, and it was punk and riot grrl from there on out. When I hit the tween years, I turned quickly to punk rock. For most of my teenage career, if it wasn’t on Kill Rock Stars, Sub Pop, Lookout!, Revelation, Jade Tree, Ebullition, or K Records, then it was get it the fuck away from me.

Least Likely to Listen to Grateful Dead.

I discovered the Grateful Dead in my parents’ attic when I was about 18 years old. We had moved from our tiny stone cottage in the Pennsylvania woods to a rambling old Victorian outside Princeton, New Jersey. Our new house had a huge, dusty old attic with Christmas lights perpetually wrapped around the exposed wood beams. My dad had his record player up there, and my friends and I would spend our spare time thumbing through his massive collection, making mixtapes, and drinking 40s. In the crates were four Grateful Dead records: Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, Wake of The Flood, and Terrapin Station. Being the pre-Spotify/Pandora/iTunes era that it was, here was how I digested music: I would find an artist I liked, hunt down their entire discography in record stores, and commit every song to memory. I’m going to sound like a crotchety old fart when I say this, but, though I love the accessibility of music these days, I find digging through crates of records and listening to them front to back to be a far superior way of getting into bands. There’s something magical that happens when a young person discovers older music on their own. If you watch this clip from the movie Ghost World of Enid listening to this old blues record on mute, and instead play the audio from Grateful Dead’s “Attics of My Life” you will have an exact image of how this experience was for me.

In the attics of my life, full of cloudy dreams unreal
Full of tastes no tongue can know, and lights no eyes can see
When there was no ear to hear, you sang to me

I have spent my life seeking all that's still unsung
Bent my ear to hear the tune, and closed my eyes to see
When there were no strings to play, you played to me

In the book of love's own dream, where all the print is blood
Where all the pages are my days, and all the lights grow old
When I had no wings to fly, you flew to me

In the secret space of dreams, where I dreaming lay amazed
When the secrets all are told, and the petals all unfold
When there was no dream of mine, you dreamed of me

Part of my teen rebellious nature was also to form my own opinions regardless of what others might think, and — whether or not it was cool or punk rock — I now loved the Grateful Dead. And if you think yourself too cool to like the Grateful Dead, you are missing out on beautiful, poetic shit like this.

Granted, I have always been a big fan of flowery, romantic, sentimental music, which is maybe not for everyone (but should be!). I also have a deep love of complicated harmonies being sung in rock music, which is not the most common thing to come across. Whenever I find a rock and roll band that also somehow manages to infuse their music with rich, velvety layers of vocal harmonies, I am always sold. But why is it okay to like other bands that do this but not the Grateful Dead? Cream, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young — only to name a few — all wrote songs like this, but it is not considered "uncool" to like any of those bands.

Full disclosure: I am not interested in the Grateful Dead’s later recordings, or their extensive live albums filled with hours of jamming, or the “Deadhead,” drug-taking, hacky-sacking image that comes to mind when one thinks of this band. These are the things that give them the stigma that I prefer to ignore. And maybe this makes me a Grateful Dead poseur, but I’m here to tell you that if you have ever been a fan of rock and roll, blues, bluegrass, or folk music, there is definitely at least ONE Grateful Dead song that you will love. Because if you cut away all that fan bullshit, what you have at the core is a few very beautifully written and recorded studio albums.

1970's Workingman’s Dead, for example, is probably the most accessible of their records for any old fan of rock and roll. It has a minimum of the plinkety-plunkety, hippy-dippy guitar-picking sound that flourishes on some of their albums, and instead focuses on solid bluesy songs about good old-fashioned heartbreak, hard work, and cocaine.

Don’t you just want to cruise down a dusty old highway in a pickup truck with the windows down, smoking a joint and singing this song?

American Beauty (written, recorded, and released later in 1970) is, in my opinion, the quintessential Grateful Dead album. It is a classic that I won't shy away from calling a perfect album. There is not one dud of a song on it; the entire thing is hits, beginning to end, and each song is a cultural invention of its own. You just cannot fuck with gorgeous, melancholy ballads like “Ripple” and “Brokedown Palace”. Even the cover art of wood grain with psychedelic lettering and a single rose is singularly iconic and classic. There will never be another album called American Beauty by a band called the Grateful Dead. Try to be original people, that shit is taken.

And, of course, there is the whole other thing about them basically being the godfathers of psychedelia, and the whole "without the Grateful Dead and other bands from that era like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix, etc., the current 'New Psychedelic' movement that we all love so much would not exist" thing. But, like, duh. That’s Music History 101, right? Still, worth mentioning (if you consider little things like a band's musical legacy more important than their slightly annoying fans, who you probably encounter, you know, never).

Anyway, taste is subjective. What a person does or doesn’t like is not only based on when and where they grew up, but also when and how they were exposed to certain kinds of music. I’m a hardcore music nerd, but there is plenty that I still don’t know (I only just discovered Misfits and The Replacements within the last couple years, having previously written them off, and I grew up on punk rock). So maybe you’re 35, and your favorite band is Led Zeppelin, but you never thought you liked the Grateful Dead. Now might be a good time to give them a shot.

— Ani Monteleone

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