I was called a hypocrite by a friend today, and while it was said in (semi) jest, the guy’s dead right. I’m actually pretty comfortable with it; I think we’re all hypocrites on some level, so why not embrace it? But beyond that it’s because I think the idea of having an opinion and sticking by it forever, or to hold it absolutely without exception, is limiting at best. Also, if you do something lame and I do the same thing, it’s lamer when you do it. That’s just basic math.
Anyway, all of this is about the Grateful Dead. Most of my classic rock tastes were shaped by the records my father left behind when he and my mom split up, and he wasn’t much of a Deadhead. There was an album or two in there, but I found myself drawn to different stuff. And when I was even younger than that, I assumed the Dead were heavy music – I mean, they’re the Dead, right?
When I finally did get around to hearing some Dead in a big way, I was not in a place to appreciate them; I was a punk kid with blue hair and half my head shaved. I hung out with skaters and we listened to Fishbone and The Exploited and The Ramones. And this was the mid 80s, so hippies were just sort of pathetic old people to us (now they’re pathetic young people. It’s weird how new generations take it up. It’s like going to a Renn Faire and deciding you’re just going to live like that). Later I found that hippie girls really dug me for some reason*, so I would hear more Dead than I liked – although by then it was the early 90s, so it was a lot of Phish, mostly.
Years went by. All of that alternative music stuff happened, and all of a sudden I was listening to mainstream music, which was weird. But still no Dead. A couple more years and I’m even listening to country (warning, kids: Gram Parsons (who I got into because of a girl, and seriously, everything drastic you get into should be because of a girl) and Johnny Cash are gateway drugs), but still not the Dead. I can sort of see where they’re coming from, musically, as I’ve taken to listening to things like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, but there’s still such a stigma to me, and it’s mostly about the lifestyle surrounding the band. I like to fuck these hippie girls, but I am not that excited about their scene.
You know when I said in the last paragraph that everything drastic that you get into should be because of a girl? Well, it was a girl who got me into the Dead. Tragically, she’s a fictional girl. It was Lindsey Weir of Freaks and Geeks.
I think if someone else told me that I’d laugh at them, and this is where a lot of my hypocrisy comes in. I get really irritated when people discover music through movies or TV. I think it’s because I feel like you’re not getting a pure reaction to the music, but rather the context in which you’re finding it, and really the enjoyment should be the other way around. You should be liking the movie more for its bitching soundtrack.
So in my defense I’ll say that I knew the American Beauty album before Freaks and Geeks. That, Workingman’s Dead and Europe 72 were the Dead albums my dad left behind, and I had listened to American Beauty while exquisitely stoned on more than one occasion at some party or whatever. I knew those songs, but had never approached them as songs before – they were part of a monolithic culture. To me it was like separating the hymns from church – they were one and the same. When Jane’s Addiction covered Ripple I found myself confused because for the first time I was listening to it as a song, not as an extension of the Grateful Dead brand, and I liked it.
So when Lindsey gets that copy of American Beauty and puts it on her record player in the last episode of the show, I knew the album. But it wasn’t until I had watched that episode for maybe the third or fourth time, well after the DVD set came out, that something weird happened. The first few times I saw the episode I was kind of disappointed in Lindsey – she seemed like she would be on the cutting edge of some of the underground music that would be happening in the 80s and yet here she was getting into this throwback stuff. But eventually, after seeing it so many times, I came to this scene clean. It’s weird, but my annoyance had been worn down by repetition, and suddenly I was seeing – and hearing – this scene with a new understanding.
In the end Lindsey would run off and tour with the Dead, but those first scenes where she plays the album (and then promptly plays it again) are truly the most pure and true and wonderful depictions of the magic of discovering music. Between my defenses being worn down and the wonderful skills of writer and director Paul Feig, I suddenly heard those songs as songs. And all of a sudden I realized that these are just really fucking good songs.
To this day the only Grateful Dead album I own is American Beauty, but when I say that I listen to it all the time I’m only being slightly hyperbolic. Jane’s Addiction’s cover of Ripple doesn’t even begin to match up to the original. I walk the streets of Los Angeles listening to Friend of the Devil on repeat again and again. There are some albums I put on to listen to in the background when I write; American Beauty keeps me from writing because I just sing along with it from start to finish.
All of this comes from the announcement that Tuesday will bring six Grateful Dead songs as downloadable content for Rock Band. I’m almost giddy with excitement, despite only two songs of the pack being from American Beauty. Deep down I sense that I’ve been waiting for an excuse to expand my enjoyment of this band. Here it is.
It’s weird getting old. But it’s cool getting to a point in my life where my taste in music is no longer hemmed in by subculture or scene restrictions.
*It’s because I look like Jerry Garcia, especially when my hair is long.