“The first Prankster rule is that nothing lasts forever,” said Merry Prankster chieftain Ken Kesey in 1966, the same year the Grateful Dead, the in-house band for his expanded-consciousness soirees, made its Los Angeles debut at the Watts Acid Test (actually held in Compton). Forty-three years later, the Dead are on tour and return to Los Angeles. While there have always been many for whom the psychedelic polymusicians offer nothing, now even some true believers are yawning. In the strata of devotion that is the Land of the Dead, this is news.
After Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, his mates de-banded and re-banded over the years as the Other Ones and the Dead (but never Grateful). They’ve all maintained solo careers, notably RatDog, featuring rhythm guitarist/singer/songwriter Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh & Friends. There has also been intrafamily acrimony: a lawsuit over the ownership of Garcia’s guitars in contradiction of his will; disagreement over digital release of the group’s material that involved Microsoft and accusations of a corporate sellout; a legal battle over Garcia’s estate between his widow, Deborah Koons, and the guitarist’s ex-wife Mountain Girl. For a bunch of old hippies, much of their behavior has turned stomachs and turned off those who expected the Dead to rise above self-serving rock-star tantrums and represent the values of community. Naïve? This was a band that advocated, on prime-time television in 1967, an “uncluttered life” and “moving the whole human race ahead a step.”
The late Hunter S. Thompson once suggested — and not in jest — that if apolitical Deadheads voted, Democrats would win more elections. Many Americans were furious after eight years of Bush/Cheney, and Barack Obama was motivation for the surviving original members, Weir, Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, to put aside their disputes and perform benefits for the campaign. A post-inaugural tour was announced with latter-day Allman Brother Warren Haynes in the Garcia slot, lead guitar and vocals, and Jeff Chimenti of RatDog on keys. And yet..
“I’m not going,” says Barry Smolin, host of KPFK’s Deadcentric radio show, The Music Never Stops, for 14 years. “For me it’s not enough. Musically, without Jerry Garcia, there’s not as big a pull. He was the focal point of my Grateful Dead experience. Not that I didn’t love the whole band; the synergy and magic that happened when they were the Grateful Dead transformed my life. But it revolved around Jerry. As a performer, a songwriter, the way that he made music, his vibe, his brain.
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“Warren Haynes is the youngest guy in this incarnation but his playing is the most dated,” adds Smolin. “It’s like 1975. He’s a brilliant technician, but it’s all 1970s boogie blues and he doesn’t veer from that. He serves the Allman Brothers very well, but the Dead has a variety of influences. He doesn’t get the bluegrass thing, jazz, funk, or even disco. [Smolin laughs.] Jerry Garcia loved disco!”
For poet and fan John Feins, his uneasiness with a band he once loved is more personal. “Garcia died and what did the Dead do? They quit, which was stupid. Then they started infighting and suddenly you couldn’t get soundboard recordings, and then they fucked with Garcia’s will. To have subverted the Grateful Dead’s name for money was an act so utterly beyond the pale.”
There are those who won’t go on the record to discuss their dissatisfaction with the Dead. The truth is it’s been brewing for years. Their support of a political candidate they all believed in is commendable, but as for this tour, one longtime GD champion opines that, like all rich people, the band members are accustomed to their lifestyle and, when big paychecks are dangled, will put aside personal differences that have not completely evaporated. Like the Bank of America, the Grateful Dead became too big to fail. As for talk of uncluttered lives and human evolution, those words were spoken by Jerry Garcia, and he’s been dead — with a small “d” — for 14 years.
The Dead will perform at the Forum in Inglewood on Saturday, May 9.