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The Grateful Dead and the Trap of Nostalgia

06/29/2015 12:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016
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If everyone has their own Grateful Dead, mine are somewhere in the future.

For me the sound is always around the corner, just out of earshot.

That's right, I haven't really listened to the Grateful Dead as I will again soon, in Chicago, because the moment I listen is as much about where I will listen and what I am doing while I listen, so that the music lives, or doesn't, in the context of its playback or performance.

You see, I love the Dead, but I'm no Deadhead.

For me, born too late to be a Deadhead in the 60s or 70s, my high school discovery of the Dead in the late 1980s came at fraught moment. It was unfortunately timed just before the "Touch of Grey" absurdity of a band whose breakthrough on MTV was about as incongruous as if Shostakovich's 5th symphony suddenly had a video on heavy rotation.

It's not that the Dead weren't "pop" enough, and it wasn't that MTV had already completely surrendered whatever vaguely upsetting-to-parents sensibility that attracted me over the 80s to the network's most subversive-for-the-suburbs images (Devo's "Freedom of Choice" video earlier on; or "Yo! MTV Raps" from its 1988 debut).

Rather, it's that a band of music-playing skeletons morphing into the actual band -- in the infamous "Touch of Grey" video -- played in endless rotation for my adolescent self along a razor's edge between the evocative and the empty.

I understood that there was something there, but I also understood that "there" was always highly subjective, easy to lose and worth as much or as little as I wanted it to be.

I recognized the distinction between presence and absence without being able to name it, and so found myself diving into the back catalog of tapes and official releases.

When I fell asleep each night to Live Dead, struggling to listen to the individual parts of "Dark Star," memorizing the William Tell "rap" bridge between "St. Stephen" and "The Eleven," or waking up with a start in the middle of "Death Don't Have No Mercy," I could understand, again without knowing how to say what I felt, that the music was alive only because I wanted it to be, there in my bedroom.

The music was alive for me only because the characteristics of the suburban ocean I was looking to escape could be navigated in a mash-up lifeboat made as much from Franz Kafka and William S. Burroughs, as it would be from "Cosmic Charlie," my job running the Tilt-A-Whirl at the local amusement park, or my first long-delayed kiss at 18.

I recall these things here not for the sake of nostalgia, but to burn nostalgia away.

I get it. I know why friends who once liked the Grateful Dead are today ready to call it hippie childishness and over-branded escapism, just as I know why former sandle-wearing college students (yep, I was one) are spending lavishly on Chicago hotel rooms for the "Fare Thee Well" 50th Anniversary shows.

If you want to find misspent youth or failed rebellion in a rendition of "Jack Straw" or "Me and My Uncle," it's there. If you want to recapture some of your sweet lost acid trips in "Scarlet Begonias" or "The Other One," there's a good chance you won't be disappointed.

For me, both positions are airy mirages, snaking away into the emptiness of memory.

Put another way, what you bring to the Dead will produce what you get from it.

So, when I attend the last two nights of the Chicago shows (I'm lucky enough to live nearby), I want to bring with me only those things that will let me hear these songs as they will be played on July 4 and 5.

I will bring my past memories of listening to the Dead along only so I can remember what made them meaningful at that now-past time. I don't want to depend on the past for anything more than that. I want to banish nostalgia to a lost corner somewhere, to be left where all dangerous and saccharine packages belong.

There is no transcendence in the moment I burned my copied cassette tape of American Beauty into the scorch of summer afternoon tape heads. No universal meaning in the once-powerful connection I had between Workingman's Dead and Lord of the Flies (listening endlessly to the first while reading the second].

No, those are memories too neat to be meaningful, except as early set-pieces for the film of a life that I hope won't ever so easily subject itself to treatment as a film.

It's why I've never been a collector.

Yes, I had concert tapes, and today I listen as freely through past Dead as digital means allow. Yet, I've never over-scrutinized the archive, or fetishized a particular show, or song, or jam. To do so would be to move my enjoyment of any particular past musical moment from the time that it happened toward a boxed-in-the-past faux-transcendence that I work always to avoid. I don't believe in that particular Golden Road.

I don't want the Grateful Dead to mean anything beyond the moment in which I listen.

I don't want the music to do anything other than unroll itself into present time, to happen, while I am lucky enough to be there.

Yes, there are good reasons to be suspicious of this anniversary concert, its marketing, its ticket sales.

No, I don't want to hear "Shakedown Street."

Yes, I would like to hear "Bird Song."

In either case, I'll take it as it comes.

I won't hope for it to be 1977, or lament the fact that Jerry isn't there to sing "Sugaree."

What the Dead have given me, or not, hasn't quite happened yet.

Yet the music, you see, is just out of earshot, just around the corner.

For me (and perhaps only me) this is what I hope to discover, once again, in a new way, at Soldier Field.

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Davis Schneiderman is Associate Dean of the Faculty and Director of the Center for Chicago Programs at Lake Forest College. His most recent work is the appropriation novel [SIC] and, with The Muttering Sickness, Jeb Bush doing "Uptown Funk.".